Eagles avoid the ghosts of 1994, 1996, and 2014…for now

That Philly Eagles have given us a number of truly memorable seasons over the years, far more good ones than bad ones. Since Jeff Lurie took over the ownership in 1994, The Birds’ 253 wins are the seventh-most in the NFLand among the NFC teams only those Green Bay packers“292 wins is better.

They’re one of the league’s marquee teams and have been for almost a quarter of a century.

In the first half of that year, Nick Sirianni’s Eagles took the league by storm, going for an 8-0 record before Monday night’s stumble against the Washington Commanders ended any dreams of an unbeaten season. After that disheartening, sloppy loss, everyone wondered if the Commanders were exposing the Eagles as a team nowhere near as good as their record, or if the Birds really were of the kind they could and would hit back in Indianapolis on Sunday.

In the first 45 minutes, the former seemed to be true.

The Eagles had three points and the absence of tight end Dallas Goedert seemed to cripple the offense. Jalen Hurts’ accuracy and legs were fine, but key penalties and turnovers gave the Colts a number of advantages, and Hurts’ decision-making seemed to be deteriorating. But the Birds rallied behind their franchise QB’s legs and scored 14 points in the final frame for a 17-16 win, their first in 12 years when they trailed 10 or more points in the 4th quarter.

We all remember the last.

It was a victory of inner strength, heart and will delivered by Hurt’s legs and an offensive line that chewed up the Indy defense in the final 15 minutes. But for a while, the Eagles resembled three teams from their recent past that suffered heartbreaking late-season meltdowns.

  • In 1994, Rich Kotite’s final season as head coach, the team blew a 7-2 start, losing their last seven games and finishing 7-9. The NFL Network called it the second worst collapse in league history, and it’s hard to argue that it shouldn’t be No. 1. At the beginning of the season they defeated the reigning world champion 49ers in San Francisco 40-8 and looked like a real one super bowl Candidate. After that hot start, Kotite, who was in the last year of his contract, pushed Lurie into a new one in his first season as owner. Lurie said no. Knowing they will all be fired at the end of the season, Kotite’s Eagles plummeted and burned, beginning with a disastrous home loss to the Cleveland Browns which fans of the era still remember as the game that ended linebacker Byron Evans’ career and ended with Randall Cunningham being benched for Bubby Brister in the season’s loss.
  • Two years later, in 1996, Kotie’s successor, Ray Rhodes, started his second season with a 7-2 win. That seventh win was a legendary Dallas win over the Cowboys, in which James Willis intercepted a pass from Troy Aikman in the end zone with less than a minute to play and crossed Troy Vincent for a 103-yard TD return. It almost seemed like this win deflated the team’s collective balloon, as the Birds lost four of their next five before winning their final two games to secure a wildcard berth 10-6. But a 14-0 wildcard loss to the Niners in San Francisco essentially ended Rhodes’ winning streak in Philly, thanks in no small part to the fact that he was saddled with QBs Ty Detmer and Rodney Peete. What looked like a Super Bowl team quickly became another playoff loss.
  • In 2014, Chip Kelly looked like the NFL’s next great genius. Nick Foles spent the first half of the season setting every possible passing record, throwing just two interceptions, before injuring himself after eight games. Still, backup Mark Sanchez led the team to a scintillating Thanksgiving night victory over the Dallas Cowboys to lead their record to 9-3. You looked like a juggernaut. But a three-game losing streak ensued, and although they won their last game 10-6, it wasn’t enough to get them into the postseason. The Chip Kelly era was coming to an end.

I’ll admit, watching the Eagles fight at three quarters yesterday made me wonder if I was watching the fourth bullet point on this list. But the Eagles had something in their corner that the other three teams didn’t have.

A real, real, viable franchise QB.

In 1994, Cunningham wasn’t nearly as good as Hurts is now, and he wasn’t as good as he was when he started his career. Bubby Brister certainly wasn’t the answer. Neither does Ty Detmer. Or Rodney Peete. Or Mark Sanchez.

With 15 minutes to go, 10 points down, Hurts led the team on a long goal drive that culminated in a beautiful touchdown throw for Watkins. On the final drive, the Eagles relied on his legs to do the damage, converting a key 4 and 2 near the goal line and then scoring with a QB tie after a damaging sack (or a run-play-for -loss, most likely) on the 3rd down from the 7th

The comeback said a lot about this team and their quarterback. Unlike the earlier Eagles squads mentioned above, the 2022 Birds didn’t suffer a crushing breakdown. At least not yesterday. They persevered and avoided their first losing streak in two games of the season. As a result, the Eagles have a two-game cushion (thanks to their tie-breaker over Minnesota) for both the top seed in the NFC and NFC East thanks to losses from the Vikings and Giants.

It was a huge win for their Super Bowl chances, but it didn’t come without answering some important questions.

  1. Has the league figured out Sirianni’s RPO-dominant offense?
  2. Can they revise offense to score without Dallas Goedert?
  3. And perhaps the most important question – do they believe in Jalen Hurts as a passerby?

There were times on Sunday when it didn’t seem like the coaching staff wanted Hurts to throw the ball to get them out of their mess and didn’t trust him to use his arm to bring them back.

On the first play of the final drive, Hurts fell back to pass but was immediately pressured and an incomplete shot. On the 2nd down, he completed an 8-yard pass to AJ Brown. In 3rd and 2nd he threw Miles Sanders deep infield who was hit for a huge pass interference call before the ball arrived.

With a 1st and 10 on the 28th and 3:38 in the game, the Eagles didn’t attempt another pass the entire game. One could argue that the team tried to burn the clock to prevent the Colts from getting the ball back, but with a deficit of 16-10 and still 28 yards to get into the end zone, the Birds didn’t run . With more than 20 seconds on the game clock, no huddle will run if you’re trying to burn time.

The decision not to let Hurts attempt a single pass the rest of the way was compounded by the mind-bending decision to pass Boston Scott three times in a row at the Indianapolis 17 with 2:42 left. In fact, the 3rd down run came just nine seconds before the 2 minute warning when they would have shut down the game clock all the way to announce a no rush 3rd down play. For some reason, Sirianni and co. went for it necessary Scott is supposed to stay on the field to run.

It was all very strange.

At the end of the day, Hurts got the job done with his legs. To be fair, Hurts hasn’t been as comfortable in the bag over the past two weeks as the defense appear to be shifting tactics against them. But it seemed clear that the coaching staff wanted to play as safely as possible on that final drive deep in Colts territory and didn’t want to risk Hurts throwing an interception.

It worked in this game. The Eagles avoided a humiliating loss and the stressful hand-wringing and talk of a late-season collapse that would undoubtedly have resulted. Time will tell if what we saw at the end of the Colts game was a real loss of confidence in Hurts’ passing or just a dumb day by the coaching staff.

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