The Philadelphia Eagles are having a miracle year, and luck has certainly played a big role. No one could have predicted Nick Foles’ resurgence, or Jake Elliott becoming a star kicker after the Birds signed him off the street, or Doug Pederson outfoxing Mike Zimmer in his second year as an NFL head coach (just nine years after he was coaching high school).
But much of the franchise’s success has been the result of intelligent and methodical building, year after year. I covered the Eagles for three years before I came to Niners Nation; here are some of the things I think they did right, and how these approaches might help the San Francisco 49ers, too.
1. Build around your front lines
This is one of those cliches that happen to be true, but as Howie (“Don’t call him GM”) Roseman puts it, “Actions speak louder than words.”
”Thirty-two teams will say they believe in lines, but sometimes you have to go overboard in that. It’s been our priority, certainly the last two years, to build along the lines. And some people may have thought it was excessive at times, but that’s gonna be how we roll going forward.”
Back when was a regular old general manager (2010-2014), Roseman did not actually practice this himself. The Eagles have had a good line for a long time, but it got progressively older, thinner and more injury-prone over the years. At the end of the 2014 season, the starting offensive line was the oldest in the NFL, and included Jason Peters (then 32), Todd Herremans (32) and the hilarious Evan Mathis (33).
There wasn’t much depth, either, just a bunch of retreads and stopgaps. No promising young developmental players (unless you squinted hard at Matt Tobin). The defensive line (built around the great Fletcher Cox) was stronger, but uneven.
When Roseman returned from his paid sabbatical in 2016, his attitude had completely changed. In the two years since then, he has added six offensive linemen and spent serious resources (including last year’s first round pick, Derek Barnett) upgrading an already good DL with five new players.
And it has paid off. Injuries to quarterback Carson Wentz, ace linebacker Jordan Hicks and even left tackle Jason Peters were much easier to overcome because the Birds can basically count on winning in the trenches on any given Sunday.
Depth matters, even without injuries, by keeping players fresh. Fans disappointed with Arik Armstead and thinking of ditching him should keep that in mind.
Seven different Eagles DL played over 40% of snaps in the games where they were active. Not one played over 70% of snaps. (Brandon Graham highest at 69.2% in his 15 games.)— Aaron Schatz (@FO_ASchatz) January 31, 2018
The depth and diversity of the Eagles at defensive end is one key factor in elevating the unit to elite status. Graham and Curry predominantly power rushers, Barnett/Long more speed/finesse. No DL played more than 70% of snaps. Should be fresh for playoffs.— John Breitenbach (@PFF_John) November 26, 2017
The 49ers are pretty much where Philadelphia was in 2016, with a strong DL that’s not quite living up to potential, an outstanding but older left tackle, a young promising right tackle, and not much else on the offensive line. John Lynch, you know what to do.
2. Quarterback is key
This hardly needs discussion. The Niners don’t need to coordinate a half-dozen personnel moves to get one, either, the way Roseman did to nab Carson Wentz. I’m not a Howie Roseman fan, but you can’t deny that was a masterpiece of horse-trading.
All San Francisco has to do is give Garoppolo all of the money. Just do it.
3. Extend promising young players early
Dithering costs a lot of money, as the Niners have already found out with Garoppolo. He would have been much cheaper before he won all of those games. Identify your young keepers early and extend them before they approach free agency, as Roseman has done.
This applies immediately to Jaquiski Tartt, but the young core of this team will offer more such options in the next few years: Akhello Witherspoon, DeForest Buckner, Adrian Colbert, Rueben Foster.
4. Don’t spend big on running backs
Eagles fans are still super salty over the trade of Pennsylvania boy LeSean McCoy for Kiko Alonso, and to be fair Chip Kelly destroyed his own rationale for it by signing DeMarco Murray for too much money immediately thereafter.
But the reality is that the Eagles have been just fine without Shady (or Murray), and probably wouldn’t have acquired Wentz without Kiko Alonso as one of the bargaining chips they used to trade up. Big extensions or free agent contracts for running backs just don’t make sense.
5. Create a buzz and get free agents
Teams get a buzz among players for a lot of reasons that boil down to “good players want to win.” They especially want to win Super Bowls. So if you have a great young quarterback, a strong coach, a good competitive position in your conference, the ability to draft well, and a core of good players, everyone will want to get on board.
Players at the expensive, high-skilled positions - aside from quarterback - turn over a lot. Salary cap considerations and, sometimes, diva like attitudes cause wide receivers, cornerbacks, running backs and the best linebackers to get released or become free agents. So once you get the buzz, as San Francisco is already doing, these players become easier to obtain.
6. Coaching humility is a good thing
If Doug Pederson has surprised as a young coach, one element of his success is clear. He’s humble enough to listen and learn from anyone he can, something his predecessor Chip Kelly could have used a little more of. That includes his assistant coaches, the analytic department that the Eagles have built up, his mentors Brett Favre (as a player) and Andy Reid (as a coach), and Chip Kelly himself.
As many have noted, Pederson has implemented a lot of Chip’s innovative ideas such as RPOs better than Kelly himself, in an offense that is more varied and less predictable. And Pederson has been classy enough to give Kelly credit, especially on the RPOs, which is notable with a fanbase still boiling with anger at their ex-coach. Peter King’s big profile of Pederson in Sports Illustrated made a big deal of Doug’s slogan “the Faceless Opponent.” That is literally chapter 23 of “The Tao of Chip Kelly.”
Kyle Shanahan, who has both Pederson’s youth and Kelly’s mystique as an offensive whiz, would be wise to emulate Doug in this case. No matter how smart or experienced you are, you always learn more by listening than by talking.
8. Home field advantage matters
After Carson Wentz went down, the Eagles gutted out some very tough wins to clinch homefield advantage throughout the playoffs. There is no doubt it was a factor in their victories.
And certainly, having that bye week in the Wild Card round helped rest and heal up their players. The Birds have had a very clean injury report throughout the playoffs, aside from their key players on IR (Wentz, Peters, and Hicks). Hopefully, this is the kind of strategy the Niners will have to consider in the near future.
In conclusion. Fly Eagles Fly! No team, and certainly no fan base, is more deserving of getting a ring this year. And having won, I won’t feel bad about them losing the NFC championship to San Francisco next year.