Lightning Strikes Twice in Philadelphia
This off-season we’ve had a close-up picture of how the NFL and one of its franchises work to deal with a crisis. The NFL had to work through a global health pandemic threatening to derail its season. During this same period, the Washington Football Team was in a continuous crisis, having to change its racist name of 80 years and address sexual misconduct allegations pertaining to its senior employees.
Washington is mired in these problems, yet somehow it conspired to win its opening game against the Philadelphia Eagles, overcoming a 17-point deficit on Sunday. Today I want to focus on a crisis of a different sort: how the Philadelphia Eagles are adapting to a dreaded injury curse. Out Goes the Crisis Playbook In Political Risk, a book on how organizations anticipate risk and insecurity, Condoleezza Rice and Amy Zegart outlined the method for how companies can tackle risk and crises effectively. They take it seriously, approach it with humility and methodically, and they lead from the top. The devastating injuries consuming Philadelphia for the second season in a row require some fast application of the Political Risk principles, to find a path forward. The Eagles led the NFL with the most players on Injury Report last weekend with 13; seven of whom were starters. Several offensive lineman will miss the entire season. Last season, Philadelphia was blighted by injuries throughout the season. Star quarterback Carson Wentz left the field versus Seattle in the playoffs, ending their chances in the game. The narrative some in the media push is that he can’t stay healthy. Remember, it was Wentz who got injured and was replaced by Nick Foles for the Super Bowl run. Last Sunday, missing his linemen, including one of the NFL’s best in Brandon Brooks, Wentz was sacked eight times by a punishing Washington defense.
Fortunes change quickly in this league. After hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in 2018, Eagles fans have had to be content with two playoff runs since then. With the rise of Kansas City, many are starting to realize the Super Bowl might be a one-off.
A pre-season that was filled with promise and expectation turned dark around week one. There is still time for the injury ravaged team to turn things around. The question is, can they? And how? Just because you put together a great roster on either side of the ball, with a franchise quarterback and Super Bowl winning head coach, events can still turn against you. All the situational doomsday planning for the season focused on the assumption that COVID-19 would knock out a handful of players, and a team would be forced to rely heavily on the practice squad. In Philadelphia, injuries have jumped the gun on COVID-19. I’ve written previously of where football can look to rugby. “Comfortable in chaos” is a philosophy that is preached in the best run professional rugby clubs in Europe. No matter how unstructured your approach or the form the game takes, you have to prepare players to be situationally aware to confront anything on the field of play. It is about attacking intent and having clarity in defense. It also speaks to the level of flexibility, resilience and rigor built into coaching in, and, ultimately, how the professional side of the rugby club is run. This is a not a foreign concept to pro football franchises, but it bears repeating.
Now is the time for the Eagles to get comfortable in the chaos.
Organizational Stress Test Zach Ertz has been one of the best tight ends in the NFL over the past five seasons. His unstoppable Super Bowl pass catching performance comes to mind. On and off the field, Ertz is considered a great player, intelligent and an Eagle for life. Last week, he and general manager Howie Roseman had a heated discussion on the sideline at practice. Ertz says he wants to spend the rest of his career in Philadelphia but he doesn’t know if the feeling is mutual. His contract has two years left. With young tight end Dallas Goedert emerging, the Eagles might not want to give Ertz an expensive new deal if they have his heir apparent on a rookie contract. Goedert has two years left on his rookie deal. The timing is tough for the organization. Injuries shutting the team down is brutal enough. The optics of organizational bickering in public is another. Philadelphia’s set up is the envy of many NFL teams. It has a vastly experienced owner that understands football in Jeffrey Lurie. One of the shrewdest salary cap operators in Roseman, and an attacking minded head coach in Doug Pederson. Together, they have delivered unprecedented success and stability.
It wasn’t too long ago that the Eagles won the Super Bowl in February 2018. Philadelphia witnessed the sporting history moment its devout fans had craved. Eagles fans have known far worse moments than now. But they must be asking why their team is so susceptible to injuries and can they turn their season round? Trench Warfare
That question is also being mulled over at the Eagles facility this week. You can have a crisis playbook to manage risk, depth throughout your roster, but if a tide of injuries levels your team, soldiering on heroically might be your only option. This week the Eagles play Aaron Donald and a Rams defense that registered three sacks and seven hits on quarterback Dak Prescott in a win over the Dallas Cowboys. Next up is the 49ers, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens leading up to mid-October. Philadelphia's run in is equally difficult. They’ve no choice but to battle and hope the NFC East winner is another 9-7 team, which would give them a chance to be competitive in the division. No conventional playbook will offer a way forward.
In the short term, riding an offense that utilizes Ertz and Goedert as horses to get to the playoffs is a sound option. They should be more innovative and activate Carson Wentz’s back-up quarterback, Jalen Hurts. After a distinguished college career at Alabama and Oklahoma, Hurts offers something different. Namely, the keys to unlock the spread offense and a dangerous running game. Using him as an auxiliary to Wentz could prove productive. We’ve seen it work in New Orleans, with Taysom Hill’s complementary role to Drew Brees. If the Eagles decide to keep Hurts on the sideline it begs the question - why use a second pick on such a decorated college quarterback if you don’t use him?
I’ve talked about being comfortable in a crisis. General manager Howie Roseman and head coach Doug Pederson have been at their best when they are aggressive and bold. This is the same organization that turned to Nick Foles not so long ago. We all know how that ended: there is also opportunity in crisis.