Maybe the most stunning part of the Eagles’ season was the suddenness of their decline and elimination. One moment, they’re stomping all over the Dallas star to take over first place in NFC East and Eagles fans were dreaming about a home playoff game or two. The next moment, their season is over and, adding insult to injury, now those fans have to watch the hated Cowboys in the home playoff games that should have been theirs.
Another example of how fickle the NFL schedule and season is and why you should never take anything for granted: Just five weeks ago, the Eagles had nine victories and the Carolina Panthers had three, and now the Eagles are out of the playoffs and the Panthers are in.
So, what went wrong? Anyone who even remotely follows the Eagles knows that two things, more than any others, did them in at the end – turnovers, especially from the quarterback position, and a sad-sack secondary that gave up more big plays than any other defensive backfield in the league, the so-called “X’’ plays of 20 yards or more. The Eagles allowed an NFL-worst 11 passes of 50 yards or more, and they had never given up more than five 50-plus passes in their history.
There were other factors, of course, including some bone-headed coaching moves, but those were the two things that hurt the most and the two things that will define the Eagles’ offseason, which officially starts when free agency begins at 4 p.m. on March 10. And Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie assured everyone that the Eagles will be ready when the curtain opens.
“I’m sure by March we’ll know exactly what we’re planning to do,’’ Lurie said.
The problems in the secondary should be relatively easy to fix, assuming general manager Howie Roseman and coach Chip Kelly make the right decisions. First of all, throw a lot of money – and the Eagles should have plenty left in their salary cap – at the best available cornerback and/or safety in free agency and then make the secondary the primary focus in the NFL draft.
Even if the Eagles don’t land a superstar pass defender, at least they can upgrade and not be terrible again. If they don’t upgrade and replace at least half of their defensive backfield, well, it won’t be pretty next year when the Eagles face big-play receivers like Dallas’ Dez Bryant, the New York Giants’ Odell Beckham and the Redskins’ DeSean Jackson twice in the division, as well as Arizona’s Larry Fitzgerald, Buffalo’s Sammy Watkins, Atlanta’s Julio Jones, Detroit’s Calvin Johnson, Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans, Carolina’s Kelvin Benjamin and New England’s Julian Edelman in non-divisional games.
The quarterback position is a little trickier, because the Eagles really don’t have any options other than Nick Foles. The Eagles will have the 20th overall selection in the 2015 draft and there’s no way they could move up to snare a potential superstar like Oregon’s Marcus Mariota, no matter how much Eagles fans dream about him being reunited with Chip Kelly. And Kelly and the Eagles are not in a position where they can draft a prospect in a later round and groom him. Even though they finished with the same record as last year, this season was a step backward for the Eagles because of the way they stumbled to the finish line. They need to win now, or as close to it as possible and the Eagles will not find their 2015 starting quarterback in the 2015 draft.
There might be a couple of talented QBs available via trade, such as Chicago’s Jay Cutler or Washington’s Robert Griffin III, but the Eagles would have to give up too much for them and there’s no guarantee those QBs would fit in with Kelly’s carefully-cultivated team culture. And the free agent cupboard is pretty bare – there are no free agent QBs who would be an upgrade over Foles. So, unless something drastic happens, the Eagles starting quarterback to open the 2015 season will be the same one who opened the 2014 season – the Eagles just hope Foles can stick around until the end of 2015.
There are other areas on the team that need upgrades or at least more depth. First of all, the Eagles need to re-sign wide receiver Jeremy Maclin, but they also need more speed on the other side. Jordan Matthews had a solid rookie season as the slot receiver, but Riley Cooper wasn’t nearly as productive as he was the previous season and he doesn’t have the speed the Eagles need.
The Eagles also need to punch up their pass rush, and it remains to be seen whether they’ll re-sign outside linebacker Brandon Graham, who had a pretty good season. And, depending on how well veteran DeMeco Ryans comes back from a torn Achilles’, they could also use help at inside linebacker.
But none of that will matter unless the Eagles rebuild their secondary and get better play from their quarterback. Everyone knows what needs to be done; now it’s just a matter of doing it.