If you believe the notion that quarterbacks and defenses win Super Bowls (and you should) the Eagles have a tremendous opportunity.
The QB? I don’t need to use more words here to describe how incredible Carson Wentz is. You already know that.
But the defense hasn’t received the hoopla it merits. Maybe that’s because it has no colorful nickname, a la Gang Green. There’s not a likely Hall of Famer on the squad. No one is featured on national ads hawking insurance or inferior pizza.
But as a group, they’ve steamrolled opponents all season. Consider some of these three stats:
1. Through 11 games, the Eagles have allowed a league low 716 rushing yards, while gaining 1,622 themselves on the ground.
2. Opposition running backs are averaging just 2.9 yards per carry. On Sunday, Chicago’s three RBs had 12 carries for minus-five yards.
3. The defense has created 22 turnovers (3rd in the NFL), allows opposing offenses to convert just 29 percent on third down (best in the NFL) and hasn’t allowed a rushing TD since Cam Newton scrambled in back on Oct. 12.
Oh, and by the way, they allowed one touchdown TOTAL in November. That came in garbage time against the Broncos on Nov. 5.
Going into the season, the secondary was regarded as this team’s weak spot. But safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod are having Pro Bowl years. Patrick Robinson has found new life at slot corner, and green-haired, finger-wagging Jalen Mills has become a topnotch cover man in his second season. And now, Ronald Darby is back.
The linebackers survived the loss of Jordan Hicks – their best player – because Nigel Bradham (the team’s leading tackler) never appears to make a dumb play and because Mychal Kendricks has removed himself from the doghouse to become the frenzied tackler we all expected him to be a few years back.
And the defensive line – well, that’s the key. Fletcher Cox and Tim Jernigan make for the best tandem of DTs in franchise history. DE Brandon Graham has a career-high seven sacks through 11 games. Rookie Derek Barnett improves every game.
As a group, they’re deep, smart, physical and consistent. And, yes, Super Bowl worthy.
Give credit to defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz for devising a brilliant system, but also knowing how to bend that system to get the most out of each player. Schwartz is also a master motivator who chided his players for a week after Dallas’s RBs got the best of them. They took it out on Chicago Sunday.
Also give credit to personnel gurus Howie Roseman and Joe Douglas, who hit blackjack on every move last off-season. They drafted Barnett, traded for Jernigan and Darby, signed veterans Robinson and Chris Long. That’s five-for-five by my count.
It’s still a long trail to Minneapolis in February. Injuries could still derail this train to euphoria. But the Eagles now have a QB who appears to have the stuff to get you there. And for the first time since, well, 2004, I’d argue they have the defense to do so as well.
A few bonus thoughts on the two teams in town that no one is talking about...
The Flyers calamity of a season is going unnoticed amid deserved excitement right now over both the Eagles and Sixers. But the orange-and-black have achieved the unthinkable for that franchise – they’ve become boring and irrelevant.
You can argue there’s a dearth of talent, and I wouldn’t push back too hard. GM Ron Hextall’slast-place roster is too small. Watching a team once known as the Bullies get pushed around the ice has to pain every long-time Flyers fan.
But the biggest sin to me is a lifeless coach who seems strategically inept and sets the expectation bar so low he could win a Caribbean limbo contest.
Dave Hakstol was hired off the North Dakota college campus by GM Ron Hextall with the expectation he would develop young talent. In three years, we’ve seen none of that.
And now, he’s managed to erode this once-proud franchise’s ethos that winning is everything. The Flyers lost their seventh straight last Friday, blowing a two-goal lead against the Islanders and losing in overtime. It was demoralizing. But afterward, Hakstol painted on a smiley face and said:
“I think it’s seven out of our last 10 that we’ve gotten at least a point. Five of those are OT or shootout losses. So again today it was a close hockey game all the way through.”
That’s an insult to every fan in Philadelphia.
And one more thing...
I’m not sure I buy into the rumor that Chase Utley may come back to the Phillies as a bench coach. And I may be the only person in town who doesn’t think it’s a good idea.
Utley is a deserved legend of the franchise, an all-time favorite, a player who will get Hall of Fame consideration. His hiring, for any role, would be immensely popular. Which, to a large part, is why I oppose it right now.
New manager Gabe Kapler comes in as an unknown, and someone who has already elicited skepticism because of his thin resume (one season of managing at Class-A), his quirky blog posts (coconut oil) and his odd personal habits (he licks ice cream and then spits it out to avoid the calories).
Inevitably, Kapler will have early down moments as his developing team struggles through losing streaks. And, if Utley is by his side in the dugout, it won’t take long for fans to decide that the wrong guy is in charge. Kapler deserves his fair shot. That becomes harder if fans and media are calling for Utley to replace him.
Someday, “The Man” will come home – whether it’s to work for the franchise or just get his number retired. But the Phils would be wise to give their new manager some breathing room.