PHILADELPHIA — What the Eagles are trying to do next season is not unheard of in the NFL, but it’s pretty damn close.
What they’re trying to do is win a Super Bowl the year after they lost a Super Bowl. Just three teams in the league’s history have managed to pull off that trick, and only one, the 2018 New England Patriots, has done it in the last half-century.
If, once he finishes signing free agents and drafting players and creating cap space, Howie Roseman has built a team that ends up celebrating a championship at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas on Feb. 11, 2024, it would rank as his greatest achievement as a player-personnel executive. He could even resign that night — go out on a high note, in Costanza-like fashion — and no one would begrudge him.
The tack that Roseman has taken so far has been, generally speaking, to run it back. Jason Kelce, Brandon Graham, Fletcher Cox, James Bradberry, Darius Slay, Boston Scott: All of them were here already. All of them could have retired or been traded or released. All of them are staying.
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It’s a tack that, by virtue of the Eagles’ salary-cap and contract situations, Roseman in many ways has forced himself to take, and it’s not necessarily a bad one. Kelce was still the best center in the NFL last season. Graham had a career-high 11 sacks. Cox rebounded from a so-so 2021. Slay and Bradberry were among the best cornerback duos in the league. Scott is a solid second or third running back.
Plus, at the positions that matter most in pro football, the Eagles would seem to remain in excellent shape. Jalen Hurts is their quarterback. Lane Johnson and Jordan Mailata are their offensive tackles. Haason Reddick and Josh Sweat are terrific pass-rushers. Slay and Bradberry … Ibid. See the above paragraph.
Every NFL season is its own self-contained entity, though, and it’s worth noting two factors whose outcomes aren’t easily predictable and that will play heavily into the Eagles’ fortunes in 2023.
One, some of those important veterans were already old by the standards of pro football and, of course, will only get older. Kelce is 35. Graham turns 35 on April 3. Johnson turns 33 in May. Cox is 32. Slay is 32. Bradberry turns 30 in August. At those ages, players can tend — not universally, but often — to decline in their performance and/or suffer more injuries. That decline can be swift, and those injuries can be severe.
Two, whether any of those players prove they’re past their prime or have to sit out games with strains and pulls, the Eagles are going to need several younger players to take on greater roles and responsibilities: Jordan Davis, Nakobe Dean, Cam Jurgens, Milton Williams, Kenny Gainwell. For any team, the keys to sustaining success are to draft well and develop that talent. That’s the task before the Eagles now, if they want to accomplish the improbable.
The question about Mariota
The Eagles’ decision to sign Marcus Mariota to be their backup quarterback is understandable, from a playing-style standpoint most of all. Mariota is more mobile than Gardner Minshew and, as such, a reasonable physical facsimile of Hurts. If the Eagles are without Hurts for a while, they won’t have to change their offense and play-calling as much, or maybe at all, to accommodate Mariota. They couldn’t run that offense and call all those plays, really, with Minshew.
But let’s not sugarcoat how badly things ended for Mariota with his previous team, the Atlanta Falcons. Mariota entered last season knowing that he would be the Falcons’ starter — and knowing that his job was not necessarily secure, that Atlanta had just used a third-round pick in last year’s draft on University of Cincinnati QB Desmond Ridder.
The Falcons went 5-8 before head coach Arthur Smith benched Mariota three days after Mariota’s wife had given birth to the couple’s first child. Smith called the decision “performance-based,” and if you look at Mariota’s performance last season, you can see the basis. He fumbled eight times, losing three of them. He ranked in the bottom half of the league in most passing categories. The Falcons threw fewer passes last season than any team other than the Bears, which on the one hand speaks to the relative strength of their running game but on the other speaks to their lack of trust in Mariota.
The day after Smith benched him, Mariota immediately left the team to have knee surgery — surgery that, according to Smith, he didn’t need to have until after the season ended. “It is nothing that has been an issue this season,” Smith told reporters, “but that’s his prerogative, so … Of course, you want all your guys to be here, but guys have to make decisions. It’s part of professional sports.”
The implication was that Mariota wouldn’t have left the Falcons to have the surgery and spend the rest of the season with his wife and daughter if he were still Atlanta’s starting quarterback.
“I thought Mariota quit on the Falcons,” an agent who has represented several quarterbacks told The Athletic in January, “and it was unfair to a rookie like Desmond Ridder, who was there for Mariota to that point in the season.”
There will be no ambiguity surrounding Mariota and his role with the Eagles. He’ll be Hurts’ backup, end of story, which means those questions and problems shouldn’t arise again. With that clarity, and for the reported $8 million that the Eagles are willing to pay Mariota to be their No. 2 QB, they had better not.
What a difference from last year
Assume for the sake of argument, and as everyone else assumes, that the Green Bay Packers will eventually trade Aaron Rodgers to the New York Jets. Once Rodgers leaves, is there any NFC quarterback a team would rather have today, tomorrow, or for the next few years than Hurts? And who would have thought such a thing a year ago?