Nothing deflates the excitement of approaching NFL playoffs than, especially one fresh off breaking a franchise record and well on his way to MVP candidacy.
Deflation, however, has been more a rarity than a common occurrence for the Philadelphia Eagles in 2017, and that remains true amid the tragic departure of Carson Wentz, whose torn ACL will keep the Birds without their leader for a secured trip to the postseason.
Why? Because as much as Wentz’s injury should hurt the Eagles fan base, the NFC East’s new champions have plenty of reasons for hope. The value of a franchise quarterback cannot be overstated, but neither can, in 2017, the things that still have Philadelphia in prime position to capture the conference:
Doug Pederson was adamant in his announcement of Wentz’s injury that the Eagles are not down on themselves. If he preached one thing, in fact, it was that Philadelphia’s 2017 season has been defined by adversity. Citing the skepticism that arose when the team previously lost left tackle Jason Peters and running back Darren Sproles to season-ending injuries, Pederson reminded a heartbroken city that “you can’t lose faith” because there’s “still a lot to play for,” all while tasking himself with “rallying the troops” for a playoff run.
He’s absolutely right, on a couple of levels. To deny that the Eagles still have plenty to play for is to overlook the weekly unpredictability of the NFC, not to mention the path to the conference’s No. 1 seed — a path that, even without Wentz, hasn’t been clearer for the Birds since 2004, when they went all the way to the Super Bowl. And as far as adversity goes, there aren’t many teams that have lost as much as the Eagles and still, you know, won as much as they have. Peters, Sproles, middle linebacker Jordan Hicks, special teams captain Chris Maragos and kicker Caleb Sturgis have all been maimed by injuries, and yet the “next man up” mentality has come to life all over the depth chart.
None of that means, of course, that replacing a starting quarterback, let alone one with Wentz’s poise and big-play ability, is as simple as talking about or even believing that Foles can be the latest to fill the shoes of a fallen leader. But if there’s one thing the Eagles have proven through the peaks and valleys of their NFC East ascension, it’s that they aren’t easily deterred. Outside of a sheepish start in Seattle in Week 14, they’ve been imposing their will on teams in a plethora of different ways — on the ground, through the defense — and without many of the pieces they figured to have at their disposal before the season.
The ground game
Speaking of the rushing attack, it figures to be a focal point of the Eagles offense now that Wentz is sidelined for the rest of the year. That’s not to say the aerial attack should be completely phased out. Pederson loves to throw the ball, and the receiving corps has steadily improved, featuring reliability in Zach Ertz and Alshon Jeffery, big-play threats in Nelson Agholor and surprise production in Trey Burton. But Foles was at his best as a starter when, years ago, Chip Kelly had Philadelphia operating on a run-first scheme that enabled the QB to get the ball out quickly. And with the current stable of backs, Foles might have an even better supporting cast than when he made the Pro Bowl in 2013.
In a roundabout way, the Eagles front office actually prepared the team not only for the cold slog of winter playoffs but for these very circumstances, adding a bruising back to an already bruising backfield when Jay Ajayi arrived via trade in October. The ex-Miami Dolphins star found his groove despite a still-limited role on Sunday against the Rams, and a full workload moving forward could be downright dangerous for opposing defenses. Undrafted rookie Corey Clement has been a touchdown machine on third downs, too, and then there’s LeGarrette Blount, whose touches should probably be redirected to Ajayi but who at least gives Foles a big-bodied short-yardage option come postseason time.
Foles is obviously no threat like Wentz on the ground, but it’s not like losing No. 11 completely erases the fact that the Eagles have run the ball better than all but maybe the Jacksonville Jaguars this season. They are averaging 143 rushing yards per game behind a line that’s rotated left guards and called upon Halapoulivaati Vaitai to replace Peters, and with Ajayi still just heating up, there’s no reason to think a tweaked game plan with more emphasis on the run won’t help carry the Eagles into a first-round bye.
Even after getting gashed by Todd Gurley and the Rams on Sunday, the Eagles have surrendered the fourth fewest total yards this season — without Hicks and, for more than half of the year, without cornerback Ronald Darby. And yet that’s not even the most promising thing about Jim Schwartz’s defensive unit. No, what really sticks out is Philadelphia’s penchant for forcing turnovers. It was the Eagles exploded out of the gate, and it’s one of the reasons the team blanked Jared Goff late in Sunday’s affair to bring Philly a division crown. Through 13 games, in fact, only two other teams, the Jags and the Baltimore Ravens, have had more takeaways than the Eagles.
It’s possible to make lots of big plays and yet also surrender them, of course. That’s what Schwartz’s defense did a lot of in 2016, when the Eagles missed the playoffs at 7-9. And it’s a cause of concern for the Birds after what Gurley and Cooper Kupp did in Los Angeles, exposing poor angles off the edge and some weak tackling in the secondary. But just as the Eagles have been defined by resiliency in 2017, their defense has been defined by forcing crucial changes of possession, and whenever you can enter Week 15 of the season having forced eight fumbles, intercepted 16 passes and generated a handful of touchdowns on those same turnovers, you can also have some hope for the postseason.
Schwartz had better get his unit tightened up on fundamentals — namely tackling — if he wants the unit to help carry Foles moving forward. But there’s enough talent and enough energy in his group to get after teams that, unlike the Rams, don’t boast the NFL‘s highest-scoring offense. We saw what can happen when the Eagles actually get pressure in the pocket (see: Los Angeles’ final three drives on Sunday), and if they come anywhere close to carrying their turnover differential into the playoffs, they’re bound to be playing deep into January.
Nick Foles‘ experience
The one thing lost in all the talk about how the rest of the Eagles are going to respond to Wentz’s absence is that Foles, the man literally tasked with replacing him, is experienced. Game reps don’t mean much if they don’t inspire confidence, obviously, and Foles showed us during his stint with the Rams that his 2013 all-star showing with Kelly wasn’t nearly as indicative of Hall of Fame talent as it initially seemed. And yet it’s hard to look around the NFL and find a more stable backup quarterback situation than in Philadelphia, where a season-ending injury to someone like Wentz would normally cast doubt on any and all remaining games.
Foles was the quarterback when the Eagles last won the NFC East, and he was the quarterback when the Eagles last appeared in the playoffs. He’s weathered the storm of being a No. 1 in Philly to the tune of 24 starts as an Eagle, and he also served on Andy Reid’s Kansas City Chiefs playoff team. That doesn’t mean he’ll light up the world when he takes over for Wentz. But it sure means he’s been there, done that, to a degree. Really, after losing your MVP candidate and starting quarterback in Week 14 of the season, is there anything else you could ask for at the backup spot?
Foles gives the Eagles a fighting chance. There was a time, during his final season as a former Eagles starter, in 2014, when he defined that physically, coming back from a blindside late hit in a game against the Washington Redskins to lead Philadelphia to victory. Never spectacular from that point forward, he at least proved gritty. And that’s all the Eagles need from their No. 2, their “next man up” at QB, in this scenario — a fight. If everything else works out, from the ground game to the opportunistic defense, that should do just fine.