PHILADELPHIA — When the Philadelphia Eagles‘ locker room opened following their Super Bowl LII win against the New England Patriots, defensive tackle Fletcher Cox was pouring champagne over the Lombardi trophy as a cigar dangled from his mouth.
Cox reached out to take the trophy from a staffer, but his turn would have to wait.
“Excuse me. Fletch, get me a cigar,” said Eagles general manager Howie Roseman, appearing out of nowhere wearing a suit and a fresh championship hat. He grabbed that Lombardi trophy — the first to belong to the Eagles organization — and lifted it high above his head, then handed it back to Cox to continue his victory lap, a fresh cigar and a barrel full of clout in tow.
That 2017 Eagles roster was a masterstroke.
Roseman, working alongside current New York Jets general manager Joe Douglas, was just about flawless in his personnel maneuvering. He added receivers Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith on the first day of free agency, and a few days later, he inked eventual Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles to a two-year deal — a move that received little fanfare at the time. He signed defensive end Chris Long, running back LeGarrette Blount and cornerback Patrick Robinson. Traded for defensive tackle Tim Jernigan and cornerback Ronald Darby. Picked up undrafted free-agent running back Corey Clement. And then, at the trade deadline, added running back Jay Ajayi. All of those moves worked out. All of those players made significant contributions to a championship season.
And the 2019 roster was supposed to be even better than that team.
Eagles coach Doug Pederson said he has never had a group this deep, while tight end Zach Ertz added it was the most talented team he ever been a part of, but this season has been a disappointment.
The once Super-Bowl hopeful Eagles enter Monday’s game against the New York Giants (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN) sitting at 5-7, and are coming off the worst loss of the Pederson era — a 37-31 defeat at the hands of the Miami Dolphins. They still have a shot at securing the NFC East crown, but only because the Dallas Cowboys (6-7) have been equally inept.
There are plenty of areas to point to when dissecting what has gone wrong for Philadelphia, including coaching, player regression and quarterback Carson Wentz‘s less-than-spectacular play. Perhaps most glaring, though, is the drastic turn in fortune on the personnel side.
The two big free-agent signings this offseason, defensive tackle Malik Jackson and receiver DeSean Jackson, both were injured Week 1. Free-agent pickups L.J. Fort, Andrew Sendejo, Zach Brown, Orlando Scandrick, Johnathan Cyprien and Jordan Matthews are no longer on the team. (Scandrick bad-mouthed Roseman, Malcolm Jenkins and the organization on his way out the door.) Running back Jordan Howard has been a bright spot when healthy, but he hasn’t played in a month because of a shoulder stinger. Defensive end Vinny Curry (two sacks, eight QB hits) has been OK in a rotational role.
Victor Cruz predicts a well-rested Eli Manning will lead the Giants past the Eagles on Monday Night Football.
Overall, the group could not be more night and day from the 2017 additions.
The DeSean Jackson injury revealed a couple flaws. One, that the fate of the offense was strapped far too tightly to a 32-year-old speed receiver. When he went down, the deep-threat element evaporated, leaving Wentz to play a game-manger style that runs counter to his skill set, while working with a group of underperforming wideouts who have proven tough to sync up with.
Deeper than that, it showed how reliant the Eagles have become on importing (or in Jackson’s case, reacquiring) receiver help due to an inability to draft and develop their own in recent seasons. Of the six receivers drafted since 2014 — Matthews, Josh Huff, Nelson Agholor, Shelton Gibson, Mack Hollins and rookie JJ Arcega-Whiteside — only Agholor and Arcega-Whiteside remain. They have a combined 464 receiving yards this season and Agholor’s deal is done after this season. When you miss in the draft, your success becomes tethered to players acquired through free agency and trades. Hit and you’re good, but miss and you’re underwater like the Eagles are here in Week 14.
The same problems apply at the cornerback position. With Sidney Jones and Rasul Douglas unable to lock down significant roles, outsiders are brought in to fill the void — sometimes to a team’s detriment, as was the case with Scandrick when injuries hampered the secondary. The more you’re forced to look to the outside, the more you’re at risk of negatively affecting team chemistry.
The more veterans you acquire, the older your team gets. The older your team gets, the more prone you are to injury. The Eagles entered as the third-oldest team in the NFL (average age of 27.1). Eight of the Eagles’ original starters were 30-plus, and four more were 29 years old. Also, unsurprisingly, the Eagles have been hit hard by the injury bug.
Roseman’s hand in free agency has cooled considerably since his red-hot run in 2017. That has affected the direction the Eagles have gone in the two seasons since. But it’s blind spots in the draft that have created the greater issue, because it has made the Eagles more reliant on imported help and, therefore, more open to volatile swings based on Roseman’s hit rate.
While the Eagles maintain a slim lifeline to the playoffs, the work that’s ahead for Roseman & Co. on the personnel side will need to be a masterstroke in 2020.