All statistics via pro-football-reference.com, unless stated otherwise
Before the arrival of the 2017 NFL season, early predictions for all 32 teams poured in as usual. Many experts had the Philadelphia Eagles maintaining their 7-9 record from the year prior. The few analysts that believed the birds would win the NFC East saw no more than a mere 10-6 season with an early exit from the postseason. Thankfully for us Philly fans, the team was able to surpass all expectations by a mile and win their first Lombardi Trophy in franchise history.
Today I analyze the top five factors that skyrocketed the Eagles to such a shocking season that concluded with a Super Bowl victory. With the franchise having one of their best seasons in franchise history, there is most definitely more than five factors that launched the Eagles to success. However, this list reflects on the five biggest keys according to myself.
#5: Doug Pederson’s Aggressive Play Calling and Decision Making
It doesn’t take much backtracking to find evidence on how much the Eagles’ benefited from Coach Pederson’s gutsy play calling. Just rewind to three weeks prior to Super Bowl 52. Pederson and his Eagles’ are leading by a field goal with 38 seconds remaining in the first half, and has held the Patriots’ high octane offense to only 12 points thus far. On fourth and goal from the two yard line, Doug Pederson rolls the dice and decides to go for it on the biggest stage in sports. Not only does he decide to go for it, he calls a trick play that emulates New England’s own trick play from earlier in the half and executes it flawlessly. Doug Pederson also chose to go for it on fourth down later during the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl. At their own 44 yard line with one yard needed for a first, the Eagles are able to complete a pass to Zach Ertz for a conversion. Had the birds not converted, the Patriots would have nearly been in field goal range, giving New England a great chance to drain the clock along with Increasing their lead to four.
Risky decisions like these were nothing new for Pederson as the Eagles have been an aggressive team offensively all season. Philadelphia ranked second in fourth down attempts (26) among NFL teams and third in percentage of fourth downs converted with 65.4%. The fluidity of Doug Pederson’s play calling allowed for easier third down situations than usual. The game plan all season was to set up short yardage situations for third downs, and it paid off immensely for the team. The Eagles managed to convert on 96 third down situations, good for second most in the NFL. Pederson has shown great improvement from year one and has shut down any doubt people may have had on his ability to lead a team.
#4: The Major Overhaul of Offensive Weapons
During the 2016 season, the Eagles receivers were laughable. This core contained names such as Dorial Green-Beckham, Paul Turner, Bryce Treggs, Josh Huff, and Nelson Agholor. The Eagles’ lackluster running back committee consisted of Ryan Mathews, Darren Sproles, and Wendell Smallwood. Philadelphia’s offense was not able to produce in 2016. They gathered 5,398 yards of total offense, good for 24th best among teams. It was obvious to everyone what the Eagles’ needed to do in the offseason prior to 2017.
During the free agency period, the Eagles’ aggressively pursued the receivers on the free agency market. The Eagles were able to snag Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith on relatively short deals to strengthen the weak receiving corps from 2016, but it didn’t stop there. During the draft the Eagles drafted UNC receiver Mack Hollins, a tall receiver with speed to take the top off of opposing defenses. The additions of these three receivers along with spectacular development of Nelson Agholor, and a weakness quickly turned into a strength. The Eagles’ receiving core was able to snag 38 touchdowns through the air in 2017, best in the NFL. A huge improvement from a year ago. Carson Wentz had endless options to choose from. Whether it was through the middle to Zach Ertz or Trey Burton, deep down the sideline to Jeffrey or Smith, or a simple swing route to Clement or Ajayi, Wentz had no shortage of ammunition through the air.
On top of all the success through the air the Eagles’ enjoyed, the ground game was statistically the better unit. The birds were able to add veteran runner LeGarrette Blount through free agency, Corey Clement as an undrafted rookie free agent, and Jay Ajayi with a midseason trade. All three running backs were able to contribute to the Eagles’ 2115 rushing yards, good for third best in the league. Of course running behind three pro bowl offensive lineman helps as well.
#3: The Front Seven’s Game Changing Ability
The Eagles’ defensive front in 2017 was the biggest strength of the roster. Frightening would be the best adjective to describe the unit. In the offseason, Howie Roseman and the Eagles’ front office were able to acquire Timmy Jernigan via trade from the Ravens’ to solidify the middle along with Fletcher Cox. The birds then loaded up on edge defenders by signing veteran pass rusher Chris Long and drafting Tennessee’s career sack leader Derek Barnett. The Eagles’ front seven were the league’s number one rushing defense, holding opposing offenses to an average of 3.8 yards per carry.
While the numbers may not tell the whole story, the Eagles’ pass rush was the difference maker in a handful of games throughout the 2017 campaign, including Super Bowl 52. The defensive line as a whole had a special ability to redirect the line of scrimmage backwards on every down, shortening the amount of movement and flexibility opposing quarterbacks had. Strip sacks were the difference in plenty of games this season. Week one against the Redskins is a prime example of this. With 1:32 left on the clock in the fourth, Brandon Graham is able to strips Kirk Cousins before he is able to release the ball, securing an Eagles victory. Another example is during a week 14 showdown versus the Rams, Chris Long is able to pop the ball free from Jared Goff’s hands to put the Eagles in scoring position to win the game. And the most recent example coming from three weeks ago during Super Bowl 52 as Brandon Graham is able to snag the ball from Tom Brady, denying any chance of a game winning drive. The Eagles’ 2017 season surely wouldn’t be what it was without the defensive front’s ability to cause havoc in the backfield and take over games in the fourth quarter.
#2: The Development of Carson Wentz
Carson Wentz was able to burst on to the scene during his rookie campaign, having thrown for 769 yards, five touchdowns and zero interceptions within his first three starts in 2016. After his terrific start, the success came to an abrupt end as he struggled the rest of his rookie campaign due to mechanical issues and lack of playmakers on the outside. Coming into the 2017 season, most expected improvement with Carson Wentz and his play, but no one could have predicted him to play at the high level he did.
Carson Wentz had himself a stellar 2017 campaign. In his first four games, he started off slow with six touchdowns to two interceptions. His next five games, he elevated his play to an MVP level, tossing 17 touchdowns to only three interceptions. Before an ACL tear cut Carson’s 2017 campaign short, he was the NFL leader in passing touchdowns and led the Eagles to the number one scoring offense and a 13-2 record. Along with his astonishing stat line, Carson Wentz was a walking highlight reel. His pocket presence was unmatched, sticking in the pocket and making throws that took everyone’s breath away all while being nailed by 300 pound defensive lineman. People started comparing his escape abilities to some of the NFL’s most elite company. Carson Wentz had his best performance during week seven against their division rival, the Washington Redskins. Wentz put on a clinic in every aspect that night, piling up 268 passing yards and four touchdowns. He also was able to rack up 63 yards on the ground, and of course no one can forget Carson’s Houdini-esque escape on third and eight to keep the drive alive.
As good as the Eagles’ offensive weapons were in 2017, Carson Wentz was able to elevate the talent around him. He showed massive improvement from his rookie year and proved that he can be in the elite company of quarterbacks for years to come.
#1: Depth of the Eagles’ Roster
The Eagles’ starting 22 is arguably one of the best in the NFL. If all 32 teams were healthy, the Eagles would be able to compete at a high level no problem. However, we don’t live in a perfect world without injuries. They happen constantly, and this couldn’t be more true for the Eagles’ 2017 team.
The birds lost countless starters. Their hall of fame left tackle Jason Peters, pro bowl multipurpose running back Darren Sproles, coverage specialist inside linebacker Jordan Hicks, special teams ace Chris Maragos, number one cornerback Ronald Darby, and their star quarterback Carson Wentz. Most teams would crumble when losing their star quarterback for the season. Just look back at the 2016 Raiders. Derek Carr was on his way to his first MVP award in his young career before going down with a season ending leg injury in week 16. The Raiders were not able to recover from this, as they finished the regular season with a loss and then a quick exit from the playoffs.
The history of the NFL shows how unfavorable it is to win a championship with a backup quarterback, and rightfully so. Losing one of your most talented players at sport’s hardest and most important position is not easy to come back from, however the Eagles were able to. By sticking to their “next man up” mentality, the Eagles’ were able to fill in the void of any injured player. Huge props must be given to Howie Roseman for building such a masterpiece of a roster, and to the coaching staff for correctly teaching their system and placing players where they’ll best perform.
There were many factors as to why the Eagles were the league’s best team in 2017, however none trumps the depth of the roster. Without such a deep roster, the birds would not have been able to reach the amount of success they were able to achieve. No matter the injury or situation, the Eagles rode straight through the adversity to their first Super Bowl victory, and hopefully not their last.
All photos via Flickr