The Eagles and Falcons: A Tale of Two Rebuilds

Sep 12, 2021; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; Philadelphia Eagles head coach Nick Sirianni on the field before the game against the Atlanta Falcons at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

While watching the Eagles dismantle the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday, I couldn’t help but think of a seemingly unrelated football maxim:

“Know when your journey is over.”

It’s a bit of wisdom you often hear to describe a runner who, in his quest for an extra yard or his zeal to reach the end zone, fights to stay on his feet or extend the ball away from his body, putting himself at risk of a turnover. The old cliché could just as easily apply to football organizations as they decide when their championship windows have closed and how they might begin the process of rebuilding their rosters.

Both the Falcons and Eagles positioned themselves as Super Bowl contenders just a few years ago. Representing the NFC in Super Bowl LI in February 2017 and facing the mighty Patriots, Atlanta found a way to squander a 28-3 lead and snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. The Falcons worked their way back into the playoffs the next year, but bowed out to Nick Foles and the Eagles in a down-to-the-wire divisional round showdown. The Birds, as we all know well, would proceed to book their own date with New England. Unlike Atlanta, the Eagles cashed in on their opportunity to seize the Lombardi Trophy from the Pats in Super Bowl LII.

Competitive gravity being what it is in the NFL, it did not take long for both Atlanta and Philadelphia to fall back down to earth. Both teams suffered from the brain drain that often occurs within successful organizations; while Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich departed for a head coaching opportunity in Indianapolis after the Birds’ Super Bowl triumph, the Falcons’ Kyle Shanahan flew off to San Francisco.

Atlanta’s decline was not all that surprising; the Matt Ryan-Julio Jones tandem, which dominated stat sheets for years, was rapidly aging, and the Falcons’ defense never seemed to emerge as the dominant force former head coach Dan Quinn was hired to create. A number of crushing losses last season, including an incomprehensible come-from-ahead defeat at the hands of the Cowboys to start the 2020 campaign, sealed Atlanta’s fate and signaled the need for a new start.

The Eagles, on the other hand, seemed positioned to contend for the foreseeable future. They had identified their franchise quarterback in Carson Wentz, who signed an extension keeping him committed to Philly until 2024. The Eagles played uneven football in the two seasons following their Super Bowl triumph, but through some inspired late-season rallying and courtesy of some fortunate circumstances, Philadelphia found a way to punch its ticket to the postseason in 2018 and 2019. The party ended abruptly in 2020, however.

The magic was gone. Wentz, who almost singlehandedly dragged the Eagles into the playoffs in 2019, looked like a shell of himself in 2020. The poor play of the quarterback was informed partly by the state of the Eagles’ offensive line; every starter with the exception of Jason Kelce missed extensive time. The instability in front of Wentz exposed and exacerbated some of his weaknesses. Poor footwork in the pocket, which would rapidly collapse around Wentz with increasing frequency, led to inaccurate throws. The lack of weapons in the wide receiver room didn’t help a quarterback who also hurt himself by holding onto the football too long and sometimes failing to see open teammates. Finally, Wentz seemed unable to move past the Eagles selecting signal caller Jalen Hurts in the second round of the 2019 draft. The presence of another talented quarterback on the roster, which frankly was necessary given Wentz’s significant injury history, created a mental obstacle the gunslinger from North Dakota could not navigate.

Howie Roseman and the Eagles front office were very likely not planning for the possibility they would need to offload Wentz within two years of his signing a contract extension. Indeed, the structure of the deal made moving on from their franchise quarterback quite prohibitive. When the Eagles eventually traded Wentz to the Colts for a third round selection in the 2021 draft and a conditional pick in 2022 that could fall in the first or the second round, Roseman and company swallowed a $33.8 million poison pill dead cap charge, the largest in NFL history.

However, once the reality of a rebuild became clear, the Eagles front office moved aggressively to accrue assets and speed up the process. Philadelphia holds two first round selections in the upcoming draft, with the possibility of a third if the conditions attached to the Colts’ pick break their way. With Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, and Deshaun Watson potentially available in the offseason, the Birds have the draft capital to make a play for any of the established star quarterbacks. They can also identify and select one of the prospects in the draft. Finally, in the best case scenario, they just might realize the next franchise quarterback is already in the fold.

Indeed, Jalen Hurts did everything possible to stake his claim as the long-term option behind center for the Eagles on Sunday. Hurts completed 77% of his passes, did not turn over the football, got multiple receivers involved—including prized rookie DeVonta Smith—and generally moved the offense down the field. Unlike his predecessor, Hurts did not let outside noise about his job security affect his job performance. While he may not have all of the physical tools an evaluator might seek in a potential passer, Hurts possesses in spades the leadership intangibles and mental edge one needs to survive in the harsh spotlight that shines on the quarterback position.

On the other sideline stood Matt Ryan, whose contract is almost as unmovable as the former Penn Charter standout under a heavy rush. The Falcons faced a decision on Ryan heading into 2021; while he maintains considerable value as a proven passer, Ryan’s presence on a roster in transition seems a waste of his talent. In order to trade their franchise quarterback in the offseason, the Falcons would have assumed a dead cap charge in excess of $44 million; instead, Atlanta restructured Ryan’s deal in a way that makes him similarly painful to move this offseason. Moving on from a player of Ryan’s caliber is always a difficult choice, especially when a front office is now exposed to the painful financial sting of the other side of the double edged sword forged when significant long term contracts are created.

The Eagles had clear eyes regarding the physical durability of Wentz, which fortuitously placed them in a better position when Wentz demanded a trade. With a viable in-house replacement available, the Eagles were able to take field in 2021 knowing the offense was in reliable hands with Hurts. Who stands behind Matt Ryan in Atlanta? With the game essentially over by the two-minute warning, the Falcons handed the offensive keys to Josh Rosen, a former top-ten selection who has become a bit of a journeyman in his short professional career.

But it isn’t just the quarterback who is piloting the offense in Atlanta or Philadelphia. Both organizations hired new head coaches in the offseason, which reveals another key difference in the approach of the clubs. Whereas Atlanta opted for a conventional “hot hand” candidate in former Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith, the Eagles once again went a bit off the board in their selection of former Colts offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni to replace the Super Bowl-pedigreed Doug Pederson.

Sirianni was not the subject of any other franchise’s head coaching search; indeed, the Eagles were the only team with a vacancy to offer Sirianni an interview. Sirianni did not call plays in Indianapolis, and he did not have the time or the personnel to cultivate a reputation to match the one a premier coordinator like Eric Bieniemy has enjoyed in Kansas City. Nevertheless, Sirianni seems a good match for the job in Philadelphia. His background as a wide receivers coach should be a boon to a unit that has struggled to develop in recent years, and Sirianni’s youth should serve him well with a roster in a bit of flux, interspersed as it is with unproven players and established veterans. There will be growing pains, but the coach and the players can grow together.

On Sunday, Sirianni coached to the strengths of his players. Hurts was not asked to throw a series of deep passes; instead, plays were designed with multiple options at hand for the young signal caller, which consistently placed the Atlanta defense in a difficult position. A mobile quarterback paired with a stable offensive line can make any head coach look like a genius. But Sirianni deserves credit for his flexibility as a play caller. He did not try to force what worked well in Indianapolis on a different roster in a different set of circumstances.

Meanwhile, Arthur Smith looked like a coach trying to relive his former glory in Tennessee. The run game certainly worked well for Atlanta, especially early, but the Falcons head coach seemed to struggle to find passing plays that would mesh with the personnel at his disposal. The electric Calvin Ridley was invisible, while promising rookie Kyle Pitts was an afterthought for much of the afternoon. Ryan, who piloted an offense that moved the ball very well and scored with relative ease for years, could not find the end zone and finished his day with a paltry 164 passing yards.

Smith does not enjoy the benefit of Derrick Henry’s services, and Atlanta’s offensive line struggled to slow down the Eagles’ pass rush when the Falcons were forced to become one dimensional in the latter stages of the contest. Falcons rookie left guard Jalen Mayfield, a tackle by training who was moved to the interior of the line, particularly struggled to contain Eagles pass rusher Javon Hargrave, who had two 4th quarter sacks and forced an intentional grounding as well.

Ultimately, one game does not define a coaching tenure. Arthur Smith is in for a rough year with a transitional roster in an unforgiving division that features the Saints and Bucs. Meanwhile, Nick Sirianni currently enjoys some stability at key positions that will allow him to grow in his new role, toiling in an NFC East that presents fewer obstacles than its peers.

The Eagles will face more formidable challenges this year, starting with a 49ers squad that will arrive in Philadelphia with personnel that are a better match for their coach’s scheme and vision. They will have the benefit of knowing how the Eagles attacked the Falcons in the opener, and we will learn more about Sirianni and his staff’s ability to adapt to more talented and better prepared opponents.

Yet, we did learn one important lesson about Sirianni and the Eagles organization: they knew when their Super Bowl journey ended, and they seem primed to begin a new adventure.

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