The Eagles offense was painful to watch in 2020. The skill players and offensive linemen suffered injuries and didn’t play that well when they were healthy. Some were just past their prime and others couldn’t stay on the field long enough to establish consistency. Arguably no quarterback in the NFL was harassed as much as Carson Wentz and he was often throwing to undrafted or late-round receiver talent. On top of the personnel issues, the offensive scheme was so bad it seemed designed to play into the offense’s weaknesses.
The offensive line routinely lost to the strong defensive fronts they faced. Five of their first six games came against top-10 defenses and they got absolutely crushed. It was a brutal start. Yet the Eagles and Wentz decided that holding the ball in the pocket and trying to throw deep was the answer. With mediocre wide receivers, this strategy made no sense.
As a result, Philadelphia suffered 65 sacks on the season, a full 15 sacks more than any other NFL team. The Eagles stubbornly threw deep all season, with the NFL’s 4th-highest average depth of target and the 3rd fewest yards after the catch. Wentz actually made some incredible throws in 2020, but this was overshadowed by his frequent mistakes and misfires under siege. The Eagles’ insistence on deep passing made particularly little sense given how effectively they ran the ball.
This scatter plot shows each NFL team’s yards per carry (x-axis) compared to its net yards per pass attempt (y-axis). In other words, a team’s yards per play gained on run plays versus pass plays. Teams on the right ran well and teams at the top passed well. The Eagles were one of only three teams above 5.0 yards per carry, and had significantly lower yards per pass play than the other two teams (Baltimore and Tennessee). In fact, the Eagles were the first NFL team in 8 years to average more yards on run plays than pass plays over the course of a season. Yet they insisted on sticking to what they did poorly:
NFL Teams with 5.0+ YPC
|Team||Run Rate||NFL Rank|
Not surprisingly, given that they implemented a deep passing offense without getting protection, the Eagles finished with the 3rd most turnovers in the NFL (29). Turnovers compounded their offensive struggles by forcing them into more obvious passing situations when they inevitably got behind. Turnovers always have an outsized impact on NFL results, particularly for teams that aren’t strong enough offensively to overcome mistakes. The Eagles fit that mold in 2020:
Eagles W/L by Turnover Margin, 2020
|Turnover Differential||W/L Record|
So when Hurts replaced Wentz in Week 13 against the Packers, it was the right move for the offense. Hurts brought mobility. You can’t just sit behind one of the league’s worst offense lines and try to throw deep on every play. Hurts ran some effective zone reads and got moving to create more time for his receivers to get downfield. But they still were not a great offense with Hurts.
This chart shows the Eagles’ offensive Adjusted Rating in games with Hurts (green line) versus Wentz (black line). Outside of the Rams game, Wentz was clearly worse than Hurts. But they still only posted a positive Adjusted Rating twice: once against the Saints with Hurts and once against the Rams with Wentz. Although Hurts put up some gaudy fantasy statistics in his four starts, the offense still struggled for consistency. However, the team played better overall when Hurts took over. He provided a bit of a psychological spark by doing the things that Wentz couldn’t do; namely, escape pressure.
True dual-threat quarterbacks rely less on weapons and offensive line play than pocket passers. Whereas pocket passers need a clean pocket and receivers who can run crisp routes and catch timing passes, running quarterbacks can escape pressure better and create more time for defensive breakdowns in the secondary. Michael Vick played just as well with Peerless Price, Dez White, and Warrick Dunn as he did with DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, and LeSean McCoy. Lamar Jackson won the MVP with Marquise Brown and Mark Andrews as his best weapons. But pocket passers vary much more based on situation. Kurt Warner looked like the best quarterback of all time with Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt, and Marshall Faulk but really came down to earth when the Greatest Show on Turf was over. Rich Gannon was mediocre until he was paired up with Jerry Rice, Tim Brown, and Charlie Garner in a great offensive scheme.
Wentz is a fine quarterback when he gets time and has weapons. But Hurts’ style of play makes him less reliant on circumstances. If the Eagles continue to rebuild the offensive line and skill players, Hurts should perform better in the transition than Wentz did in 2020. They will need to limit their turnovers and sacks and lean more on the ground game to create balance.
The Eagles mercifully fired Doug Pederson, who was responsible for the inexcusable offensive scheme failure. Perhaps under Sirianni they will lean more on the ground game, particularly with Hurts at the helm, and implement a more diverse and conservative passing offense that doesn’t rely inordinately on pass blocking. This would cut down on turnovers and play more to the Eagles’ offensive strengths. Hurts has shown he has a live arm and can run the zone read effectively, so I would anticipate a small step forward from the Eagles offense in 2021 even if they do not significantly improve their weapons.
The 14th-ranked Eagles defense suffered some injuries as well but their defensive front was often good enough to mask the flaws in the secondary. They stopped the run fairly effectively, particularly up the middle, but had far too many lapses in coverage that opposing quarterbacks seized on. As a result, teams could beat Philadelphia on big plays even if they weren’t particularly good at establishing the run.
They allowed 4.2 yards per carry, good for 11th best in the NFL, but surrendered 6.6 net yards per pass play, 20th in the NFL. Blown coverages accounted for a lot of their deficiencies defending the pass, as they allowed 12 40+ yard passing plays on the season, tied for most in the NFL. This number sounds modest but is much worse in context. They faced a schedule of opposing quarterbacks who were not adept deep passers and who were often playing with a lead, diminishing their need to pass deep. They faced only 2 top-12 quarterbacks in terms of passer rating (Rodgers and Wilson). They undoubtedly would have allowed many more big pass plays had they faced quarterbacks who were better at throwing deep.
NFL Teams Allowing 12 40+yard Pass Plays in 2020
|Team||40+ Yard Passes Allowed||Opponent Average ADOT Rank||Opponent Mean ADOT Rank|
Unsurprisingly, the Eagles played relatively well against teams that relied on running for success because they matched up well against those teams’ strengths.
*Omitted Week 8 against Ben DiNucci and meaningless Week 17 game where Philadelphia essentially gave up against Washington
This chart tracks Philadelphia’s offensive Adjusted Rating ranking each opponent by their season-long rushing total. Some of their best games came against really good rushing opponents like BAL (+0.45), CLE (+1.16) and NO (+0.86). By contrast, they played near or below average against many of their opponents that didn’t run well to begin with, including PIT (-1.27), the worst rushing team in the league.
In the outlier poor game against the Rams (-2.66), Sean McVay revealed the other way to beat the Eagles’ strong defensive middle. The Rams implemented sweeps and outside runs using creative motion and play action to keep the offense running laterally instead of up the middle. In that game the Rams ran it 6 times with receivers and another 3 with Jared Goff (not including kneel-downs). They also threw quick, short passes to neutralize the pressure and take advantage of coverage mis-matches.
On one hand, the Eagles defense was clearly not the team’s problem. They kept Philadelphia in games and provided the offense with a lot of chances that the offense failed to capitalize on. But on the other hand, the Eagles faced an easy schedule of opposing passing quarterbacks, which was particularly helpful given their weakness in the secondary. If they don’t work hard to improve their coverage, they will struggle in 2021 against teams who are more proficient at passing downfield.
Putting it All Together
- Overall, the Eagles are fairly rated heading into the offseason. They are in a full on rebuild and everyone knows it. They may be feisty on defense once again but will need significant offensive improvement to be competitive. I think the betting public is appropriately skeptical of the Eagles.
- If the new coaching staff sees what I saw in 2020, they almost certainly will change up the offense significantly in 2021. Four and a half games was not enough for me to make a judgement on Hurts, but he at least showed potential for versatility and growth. Keep an eye on this offense in the early part of the year to learn its new identity.
- The defense may also change with new coaching and new players. But until proven otherwise, assume that they will play the run stronger than the pass, and expect the Eagles to outperform against teams that rely on running for success. This applies more strongly against traditional up-the-gut teams that do not implement a lot of motion and creative runs.
Fantasy and Player Prop Takeaways
- Hurts has high fantasy upside but comes with a lot of risk. Everyone will be looking for the next second-year breakout (like Lamar Jackson and Kyler Murray in the last two years), which could drive up his draft value. But Jackson had elite scheming and is an absolute freak running the ball and Murray had Hopkins to throw to. With this offense, odds are against Hurts making that leap. And if he struggles, he could even be benched by season’s end.
- Miles Sanders performed at a high level when healthy in 2020 behind a bad offensive line. Running quarterbacks have traditionally enhanced the productivity of running backs and Hurts could elevate Sanders. Sanders also caught 3 passes per game with Hurts at QB at the end of the season. He could be a worthwhile post-hype sleeper or bounce-back candidate if they show any offensive line improvement.
- Unless the defense looks different with new coaching, avoid running backs against Philadelphia but confidently start wide receivers and tight ends in DFS. For rushing yard props, go Under when uncreative rushing offenses go against the Eagles.
Application: SharpClarke Bet of the Year
In Week 13, the Eagles went to Lambeau to face Green Bay as 8.5-point underdogs. They had just lost tough games to Cleveland and Seattle in back-to-back weeks and were losing faith in Wentz. Their defense was overrated because they had played so many bad quarterbacks, but Aaron Rodgers was among the best in the league at taking advantage of defensive coverage breakdowns. Meanwhile, the Packers’ corners completely outmatched the Eagles’ receivers. This was a mismatch on both sides of the ball and I took Green Bay -8.5 because the spread did not capture the difference in quality between the two teams. I kept my unit count low in case the Eagles got a backdoor cover, but the Packers ended up winning 30-16 in a game where Wentz was benched.