The 2016 Philadelphia Eagles jumped out to a hot start, riding a dominant defense and better-than-expected play from their young quarterback to a 3-0 record. Fletcher Cox and company allowed only 27 points across the first three games of the year, as the Eagles forced six turnovers on their way to defeating the Browns, Bears, and Steelers in quick succession. Philly also got efficient running from the duo of Ryan Mathews and Darren Sproles, while Carson Wentz , completing 67 of 102 passes for 769 yards, five touchdowns and zero interceptions.
The Eagles looked like they just might be the best team in the NFC East, with a fearsome defense that would lead the way and an offense that ranked in the top-five in nearly every efficiency statistic. But then they took their bye and the wheels began to fall off. They lost back-to-back games coming out of the off week, Lane Johnson got suspended, and Wentz completely fell off a cliff as the Eagles slumped to a 4-9 finish following their 3-0 start.
|Comp %||YPA||TD %||INT %||Rating||W-L|
It wasn't all that simple, of course, but zooming out, that's essentially what happened. The Eagles shot out of the gates hot, and couldn't maintain once the competition got tougher. (Again, two of those first three wins came against the Browns and Bears -- otherwise known as two of the three worst teams in football.) It's tough to say the start was a fluke, per se, but the record and the competition hid some blemishes that undermined the team later in the year. The Eagles didn't have good enough weapons for Wentz to throw to, there wasn't enough in the way of secondary pass-rushing behind Cox and Brandon Graham, and the running backs didn't consistently keep the offense ahead of schedule.
After making a series of changes this offseason to ensure their pass offense was more Wentz-friendly, adding Chris Long and first-round pick Derek Barnett to supplement the pass rush, and signing LeGarrette Blount to bring a power element to the run game, the Eagles are again off to a hot start, and again appear to be the class of the NFC East through the early part of the season. This time they're 4-1 through five weeks, with wins over Washington, the Giants, the Chargers, and the Cardinals, and with their only loss coming against the undefeated Chiefs, who look like the best team in the NFL.
Heading into their Thursday night showdown with the 4-1 Carolina Panthers, it seems an opportune time to ask the question: Are the Eagles "for real" this time around?
Offense rolling during hot start
The evidence is a bit of a mixed bag. On the one hand, the effort to cater the offense to Wentz and put him in better position to succeed has worked well, and he looks to be an improved player piloting an improved offense.
Let's go back to that chart from above, tacking Wentz's 2017 numbers onto the bottom.
|Comp %||YPA||TD %||INT %||Rating||W-L|
Wentz has in some ways been even better than he was during last year's start, pushing the ball down the field slightly more often and creating touchdowns on more of his throws. He has slashed his post-Week 3 interception rate in half as well, an especially encouraging sign given how often he hemorrhaged turnovers over the latter part of last season.
After a rough start, Blount has been on fire over the last three contests, carrying the ball 42 times for 277 yards (6.6 per carry). Zach Ertz has emerged as the clear-cut top option for Wentz in the passing game, while Alshon Jeffery, Torrey Smith, and yes, even Nelson Agholor have proven to be markedly better than last year's crop of pass-catchers (which included Agholor).
As a result, the Eagles are averaging 27.4 points per game against a group of teams collectively giving up an average of 22.4 per game in games against non-Philadelphia opponents. They entered Week 5 ranked No. 9 in offensive efficiency, per Football Outsiders' DVOA, and after they hung 34 points on the Cardinals and saw four of the teams ahead of them struggle for scores this week, it's reasonable to expect them to jump into the top five when the new rankings come out on Wednesday.
An opponent-based mirage?
On the other hand ... the Eagles have not exactly beaten anybody, and with this exception of this week's trouncing of the Cardinals, their wins have not been especially impressive.
Philadelphia's four victories have come at the hands of opponents with a combined record of 5-11 in games played against non-Eagles opponents, and their seven-point loss to the Chiefs was on track to be a 14-point loss until Nelson Agholor scored a touchdown with eight seconds left in the game.
A controversial fumble call at the tail end of the Washington game turned a late five-point lead into a 13-point opening-week triumph. Their wins against the otherwise-abominable Giants and Chargers came by a combined four points, and the win over the Giants required two Jake Elliott field goals in the final minute -- the second of them a 61-yarder as time expired.
And the Philly defense holding the Cardinals to only seven points on Sunday also sounds wildly impressive right up until you remember that the Cardinals combined to score 51 points against the atrocious defenses of the Colts, Cowboys, and 49ers in their prior three games; for comparison's sake, we will note that the Rams lit up the same trio of defenses for 122 points. Holding down the David Johnson-less Cardinals is something pretty much everybody has done.
The Eagles' outside corners have been especially vulnerable, the team's full-season pace of 38 sacks is not ideal, and injuries to Sproles (done for the year with a torn ACL and broken arm), Ronald Darby (working his way back from a dislocated ankle), Cox (out the last two games with a hamstring injury), Wendell Smallwood (knee), and now Lane Johnson (concussion) are concerning moving forward.
If it seems like a cop-out to say we won't really know whether the Eagles are legit until they play some better competition, well, that's because it probably is.
If they can't stack wins over these next few weeks, however, there's a real chance they could hit a spat of trouble after their bye week once again. After taking the week off in Week 10, the Eagles play five of their seven remaining games against the Cowboys (twice), Seahawks, Rams, and Raiders. That's not exactly a friendly schedule.
If the Eagles can do to the Panthers what they did to the Cardinals, though, that might be as surefire a sign as we'll get that they're a force to be reckoned with.