Despite their stunning Week 1 win over the Atlanta Falcons, the Philadelphia Eagles have gotten themselves into a tricky position to kick off the 2021 NFL season.
They’re 1-2, and they’re coming off back-to-back ugly performances.
First, they struggled to move the ball against the San Francisco 49ers at home and squandered multiple game-winning opportunities. Second, they showed up to Monday Night Football against the Dallas Cowboys completely lifeless and were massacred 41-21.
The Week 3 loss to Dallas is particularly embarrassing. It was first-year head coach Nick Sirianni’s first taste of the Philadelphia/Dallas rivalry, and he received a fat failing grade for his performance.
One specific issue is plaguing the Eagles
A lot is going wrong for the Eagles at the moment. Second-year quarterback Jalen Hurts is playing like a glorified backup. Top-10 pick DeVonta Smith is struggling to create separation. The offensive line isn’t healthy. The defense doesn’t look improved from last season. The list goes on and on.
However, one fundamental aspect of the Eagles’ offense sticks out above the rest.
They don’t run the football.
For a team that’s in the process of evaluating its young quarterback, one would think the play-calling would be oriented around the ground game to make life easier. Instead, the Eagles’ new-look coaching staff is going in a completely different direction. They only ran 19 designed running plays against the 49ers in Week 2 and followed up with a whopping three in Week 3.
Yes, you read that correctly. The Eagles handed the ball off to a running back three times against Dallas. It’s a borderline unbelievable statistic.
The Eagles’ higher-ups don’t want to fix this issue
While the Eagles’ lack of an established running game has already hurt them this season, it should be a relatively easy fix on paper: just run the football more.
Former Nittany Lion Miles Sanders has proven capable of carrying an RB1-type workload in the past, and rookie Kenneth Gainwell has NFL-caliber speed. Even Boston Scott, the Eagles’ third-string RB, is capable of carrying the offense for stretches. He played a huge part for the team during its division-winning 2019 season.
However, the main problem is that deep down, the Eagles don’t want to fix this issue. They don’t want to run the football.
According to a bombshell The Athletic story that dropped this past offseason, Jeffrey Lurie (owner) and Howie Roseman (general manager) would berate former head coach Doug Pederson for running the ball too much — even after wins.
Days earlier, the team overcame a 10-0 second-quarter deficit to beat Aaron Rodgers and the Packers 34-27 and even its record at 2-2. The offensive key to the win was a steady dose of the running game that took advantage of Green Bay’s defensive game plan.
Apparently, that wasn’t good enough. Lurie, who has long advocated the use of analytics, wanted to know why Pederson hadn’t called more passing plays. The interrogation was the same after another win that season — this time in Buffalo on a day with 23 mph winds.
Pederson executed his game plan perfectly against the Green Bay Packers and Buffalo Bills in 2019. They were two of the Eagles’ more impressive wins on the season. Yet Lurie criticized the since-fired head coach for over-running the football.
That tells you all you need to know about how the team’s higher-ups view the ground game.
What next for Jalen Hurts and Nick Sirianni?
For what it’s worth, Monday night’s loss to the Cowboys feels like an exception. It’s unlikely that Lurie and Roseman are so against the run game that they want their RBs only receiving three carries per night.
With that said, the overarching takeaway here is that the Eagles decided a very long time ago that they want to be a pass-first football team. One that can rival the Kansas City Chiefs and Tampa Bay Buccaneers of the world. One of the biggest reasons they hired Sirianni — who had never called plays before — is likely due to his lack of experience and confidence. He’s the perfect guy to force these unrealistic expectations on.
Jalen Hurts and the Eagles’ offense have unquestionably struggled due to these bizarre schematic demands. However, it’s worth highlighting that Hurts isn’t playing well either. He left a ton of throws on the field against Dallas and continues to be erratic with the football.
What does that mean for his future in Philly? Well, as long as Lurie and Roseman are calling the shots, one can only assume they will continue to pursue quarterbacks who can effectively pass the ball 40-plus times per game. If Hurts isn’t able to do that, the Eagles will replace him sooner than later.
In the meantime, this pass-first philosophy will only make life harder on Hurts and the Eagles. They don’t have the talent to play such a style, and their recent slew of injuries only further reduces their NFC East odds. It could be a long season for the boys in midnight green.
All stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference.