FOXBORO, Mass. — By the time Philadelphia Eagles coach Nick Sirianni boarded a flight home following a season-opening win, he had already scribbled notes about how the team’s Week 1 performance could improve next season. Sirianni did not send his starters onto the field in the preseason, even for a series, as he did in past summers.
“Second thought, if I had to do it over again right now, I would say, ‘Yeah, I would have played the starters one or two drives in the preseason,’” Sirianni said. “But I’m not worrying about that right now.”
The preseason playing time was not necessarily the cause of the Eagles’ lackluster offensive performance in a 25-20 victory over the New England Patriots, and there’s never a dispirited feeling after escaping Gillette Stadium with a win. But the Eagles did not pick up where they left off as an offensive juggernaut in 2022, so it’s reasonable to wonder why. It seems a more convenient after-the-fact excuse to think that if Jalen Hurts took a few snaps against the Baltimore Ravens in August, it would have readied him for the third-and-longs the Eagles encountered Sunday. Yet it was enough to make Sirianni think twice.
“I couldn’t care less about that,” Hurts said. “We won the game. It’s over now.”
— Philadelphia Eagles (@Eagles) September 11, 2023
Over, with much to remedy.
“Always good when you have a lot to clean up when you win,” he said.
And little time to do it. The Eagles play in four days against the Minnesota Vikings.
Hurts and new offensive coordinator Brian Johnson were already seen chatting for a few minutes in a corridor attached to the visitor’s locker room Sunday evening. They had a flight home to start reviewing the film of an afternoon when Philadelphia was limited to 251 total yards — 153 fewer than its season average in 2022, and the second-fewest of the Sirianni era — and the offense only reached the end zone once. The Eagles were 4-for-13 on third downs, including a dismal stretch in the second quarter when they had four consecutive three-and-outs. Their longest play was only 23 yards (in part because a 48-yard completion to A.J. Brown was overturned).
“That’s a really good defense,” Sirianni said. “They are really well-coached. There’s a couple … little throws on the sideline where I saw (DeVonta Smith) get out of those and spin out of those and they made really good tackles. … Now was it our cleanest performance offensively? No. We have a lot of mistakes to clean up and we have got a short time to do so. But shoot, I thought that we just didn’t finish some drives.”
Hurts finished 22-for-33 passing for 170 yards with one touchdown, 37 rushing yards and a fumble late in the fourth quarter when Philadelphia could have iced its lead. It was not the type of performance the Eagles come to expect from their franchise player. If not for kicker Jake Elliott’s perfect 4-for-4 afternoon — including two field goals from beyond 50 yards — and a defense that forced two turnovers and scored on one, the Eagles could have left with the same record as Super Bowl contenders upset this weekend like the Kansas City Chiefs and Cincinnati Bengals. (For the record, the Chiefs played their starters during the preseason.)
— Philadelphia Eagles (@Eagles) September 10, 2023
“I think we obviously have things that we need to work on and have to be better in those situations when the ball is in my hands, and I take full accountability for that,” Hurts said, referring to his fumble. “But, good thing about it is we get the opportunity to play on Thursday.”
Hurts was sacked three times and pressured on 7.9 percent of his dropbacks, per TruMedia. One of the sacks was from a cornerback, and the Patriots’ pressure package left the Eagles on the wrong side of a math equation on a few occasions.
“Not up to our standard,” center Jason Kelce said of the offensive line’s performance. “I’ll look back at the tape. I have a hard time believing anyone played badly individually. I think it was more just not being on the same page. Miscommunication here. Mental error there. I think that we will look back at this tape and realize we didn’t do a great job and we have a lot of corrections to make.”
There’s always curiosity about how a team will look in Week 1. One of the notable features of the offense on Sunday was the heavy reliance on Kenneth Gainwell, especially early in the game. Gainwell had eight touches on the opening drive alone. Hurts said the weather contributed to the early running, although the Eagles’ committee backfield did not appear to be much of a committee. D’Andre Swift only had two touches — something Sirianni was quick to note after the game.
“I don’t ever want to come out of a game where D’Andre Swift has only two touches,” Sirianni said.
Add tight end Dallas Goedert to the group of players who need to touch the ball more. Goedert was targeted just once and did not have a catch. There were times when he appeared to be open and Hurts did not look his way. Sirianni also said New England made sure to take away easy completions. (Brown and Smith were both targeted 10 times, and Smith caught a touchdown and rocked the ball like a baby one day after he became a father.) There were comparisons to the Eagles’ Week 1 game last season when Smith was held without a catch and then followed it with 15 receptions over the next two weeks. One game is a small sample size. Then again, for an offense that too often found itself in third-and-long, it could be beneficial to look toward someone who caught 79.7 percent of his targets last season.
— Philadelphia Eagles (@Eagles) September 10, 2023
The third-down offense was problematic, in large part because of the amount of third-and-longs faced. Take those three-and-outs in the first half. Their distance to go on those four attempts was 10, 9, 10 and 14 yards. The Eagles also appeared to harness their aggression on third downs, although Sirianni disagreed that called runs on third downs are unaggressive. They might be unconventional, but he argued they were aggressive calls when Philadelphia went to them Sunday.
Sirianni was aggressive in the fourth quarter when he kept his offense on the field on a fourth-and-2 at the Patriots’ 44-yard line with two minutes to go and the Eagles nursing a five-point lead. A conversion would have clinched the game, so going for it was understandable. But the Eagles ran a timing route with Hurts under pressure that was broken up and gave New England a potential go-ahead possession. Sirianni expected his father to ask him about that decision on his drive home Sunday night. He had conviction in keeping his offense on the field, but he acknowledged the Eagles could have chosen a better play.
Sirianni was quick to defend Johnson, who is a first-time NFL play caller this season. Sirianni pointed to strong communication — the Eagles had operation problems elsewhere, but not offense — and thought Johnson “called a great game” and “made some adjustments in the second half to throw it a little bit more.”
Sirianni made sure to emphasize that he was happy on Sunday night. Expectations for the Eagles — and the offense, in particular — are understandably lofty. But they still left New England with a win.
Could it have looked better had the starters played in the preseason? The answer might come at this time next year. Which is about the next time Hurts plans to think about it.
“Would have, could have, should have,” Hurts said. “We won. And winning is the only thing that matters.”
(Photo: Fred Kfoury III / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)