PHILADELPHIA — Every team’s primary goal is winning its division. This ensures postseason participation and at least one home playoff game.
The Eagles are the only team in the NFC East that didn’t fire its head coach, which gave them an inherent advantage entering the 2020 offseason. That advantage grew when the coronavirus pandemic locked down the country.
In a normal April, the Cowboys, Giants, and Washington would have begun OTAs a week ago. The Eagles would have begun next week. But OTAs are forbidden, and no coaches — neither new coaches nor returning coaches — may even contact players until next Monday.
That’s when a slate of “virtual” training sessions and meetings begin via electronic devices. No team may begin in-person workouts until local regulations restricting social distancing and gatherings are lifted for all teams. Since some experts expect shelter-in-place rules to continue through May, the NFL restrictions imply that the offseason will be run almost entirely through iPads.
Only mass rapid testing for COVID-19 would afford any model of resumption of offseason work, and mass rapid testing seems weeks away at best. This could mean teams don’t reconvene until training camp begins in mid-July — if, of course, it begins even then. The later the reconvening, the better for the Eagles.
Forgive any morbidity or disrespect this discussion might imply, but the NFL is a business. Businesses exploit advantages, and this type of advantage could pave the way to a top-three playoff seed for the Eagles, who, compared with their divisional rivals, are a model of stability and success: three straight playoff appearances with a 4-2 postseason record and a Super Bowl title.
These Eagles this year return a veteran starting quarterback, two young running backs, all four top receivers, both tight ends, and four starting offensive linemen, and the fifth, Andre Dillard, started three games at left tackle last season. The defensive line added tackle Javon Hargrave but otherwise returns intact. The linebackers were a hodgepodge last season anyway, and while the secondary has new cornerback Darius Slay, he generally sticks to one receiver.
Jalen Mills’ conversion from corner to safety might be bumpy, and the departure of Malcolm Jenkins might hurt, the Birds effectively could plug-and-play 26 of 29 players who regularly played last season: a quarterback, two running backs, two tight ends, four receivers, five offensive linemen, five defensive linemen, two of three linebackers, three of four cornerbacks, and one of two safeties.
The staff didn’t remain static. The front office fired the offensive coordinator, but head coach Doug Pederson just assumed more responsibility. The Birds saw overrated defensive backs coach Cory Undlin leave for Detroit’s coordinator job, and the carousel at receivers coach and defensive line coach continued, but the primary contributors at those two positions don’t get coached much, regardless.
The Eagles won the division last season despite massive injury problems, so a repeat in 2020 was expected even without social distancing. Quarantines should make it a fait accompli.
“It’s huge for them,” one 20-year NFC executive said Monday. “It’s almost unfair.”
Considering it will be the Cowboys who suffer most from this inequity, expect little sympathy from the rest of the league.
To the dismay of many Eagles fans Jerry Jones finally fired Jason Garrett, but Jones quickly erased that disappointment when he hired former Aaron Rodgers saboteur Mike McCarthy, who’d been out of work since the Packers fired him during the 2018 season.
McCarthy retained 31-year-old wunderkind Kellen Moore, Jones’ latest coach-crush, and McCarthy said Moore would continue to call plays. McCarthy even plans to retain the terminology that helped Moore’s offense lead the NFL with 431.5 yards per game and finish sixth in scoring, at 27.1 points. However, while McCarthy will be fluent, that fluency won’t compensate for unbuilt relationships between a roster full of headstrong players and an array of new coaches.
Consider this: Former Packers player-development director Rob Davis, a retired NFL long-snapper, is, somehow, McCarthy’s assistant head coach. Davis has never coached anything, anywhere. McCarthy also hired Mike Nolan, who is now 61, is with his ninth NFL team as defensive coordinator, and who tries to implement something from every stop he’s made.
Nolan serves a complex menu of defenses — 3-4, 4-3, and hybrids — whose foundation stresses size in the middle. This profile suits new line coach Jim Tomasula, but it doesn’t mirror recent Cowboys roster-building strategies.
Nolan and McCarthy also hired 35-year-old Maurice Linguist to manage their reconfigured defensive backfield. Linguist might well be cunning, but he has no NFL coaching experience.
Yes, the Cowboys return Dak Prescott, receiver Amari Cooper, and running back Ezekiel Elliott, the most accomplished quarterback, receiver, and running back in the division; as well as Pro Bowl linemen Zack Martin and Tyron Smith. But not even all that talent will be enough to overcome a poor defense and massive turnover in the coaching suite.
It’s as if the whole of the division’s brain trust has spent the last few seasons conspiring to help the Eagles win.
First, Giants general manager Dave Gettleman hired Pat Shurmur, twice a failed Eagles assistant, in 2018. Nine wins and two seasons later Gettleman fired Shurmur and hired Joe Judge, a 38-year-old Philadelphia native and Lansdale Catholic product with no experience as a head coach — or as an offensive or defensive coordinator — at any level.
Inexperience notwithstanding, Judge might have a chance to succeed if he’d had a normal offseason. He did, after all, spend the last eight years with Bill Belichick in New England. But there will be no period of acclimation for Judge, a fiery, first-time head coach working in the country’s toughest media market.
A bonus for the Eagles: Gettleman hired Garrett as offensive coordinator. Garrett hasn’t called plays in eight years.
What do you get when you combine the worst owner in sports (Dan Snyder) with a defensive coach (Ron Rivera) whose first move is to bring in an unremarkable young quarterback (Kyle Allen) and his former quarterbacks coach at Carolina (Scott Turner) to be a first-time offensive coordinator, when you already have an insecure, second-year, first-round pick (Dwayne Haskins) at quarterback?
You get another wasted season.
Granted, Washington was going to be a disaster whether or not coronavirus stunted the offseason. Lockdown just supplies a convenient excuse.
©2020 The Philadelphia Inquirer