There’s No Quick Cure for the Eagles’ Super Bowl Hangover, But There Is Hope

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There’s No Quick Cure for the Eagles’ Super Bowl Hangover, But There Is Hope
PHILADELPHIA, PA - OCTOBER 21: Carson Wentz #11 of the Philadelphia Eagles reacts after a turnover on downs in the final moments of the game against the Carolina Panthers at Lincoln Financial Field on October 21, 2018 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Fun science fact: an actual hangover, the kind you get after a weekend-long binge at the Beer, Bourbon, Bacon and Baked Beans festival, is caused by a wide variety of factors.

Dehydration is the most well-known cause, but there’s also irritation of the stomach lining, a decrease in blood sugar, immune system reactions, the mysterious effects of congeners (like the tannin in wine) and the simple fact that you stayed up late, slept poorly and ingested lots of hard-to-digest goodies.

A Super Bowl hangover, like the real thing, is also caused by a wide variety of complex factors.

The Eagles are now 3-4, and it’s easy to point to reasons why they look nothing like the team that won Super Bowl LII. There have been injuries. Coach defections. A depletion of the bench. A little bit of bad luck. All the usual things every successful team faces.

It’s a lot harder to find cures for the Eagles’ Super Bowl hangover, because, like a real hangover, there is no one foolproof remedy. But if the Eagles can treat some of the symptoms, it can get them back on track to win the weak NFC East and peak when it matters in January.

    

Find another playmaker

The losses of Jay Ajayi, Mike Wallace and Mack Hollins to injuries, coupled with the free-agent departures of Torrey Smith and LeGarrette Blount, have hamstrung the Eagles offensively.

Receivers Kamar Aiken, Jordan Matthews, Shelton Gibson and DeAndre Carter have combined for just 15 catches for 229 yards and one touchdown through seven games—just over two catches for 32 yards per game for the third, fourth and fifth wideouts combined.

Wendell Smallwood and Corey Clement have played well at running back but lack Ajayi’s explosiveness, and there is no one on the bench to replace Blount’s occasional haymakers to defenses’ midsections.

With no big-play ability in the backfield and an offense built around multi-tight end sets to compensate for the lack of receiver depth, the Eagles rank 30th in the NFL with just 10.2 yards per reception, and the Eagles’ longest run of the year netted just 21 yards. They’re short on mismatch weapons and players opponents must scheme to stop.

Randy Moss isn’t going to show up in Philly looking for work, and a Le’Veon Bell trade is more of a comment-thread pipe dream than a reality. But there are some candidates to fill the playmaker role in the Eagles offense:

Shelton Gibson has flashed big-play abilities, but after a suspect rookie season last year, the Eagles have been slow to give him a bigger role.

Shelton Gibson has flashed big-play abilities, but after a suspect rookie season last year, the Eagles have been slow to give him a bigger role.Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Shelton Gibson: The former West Virginia big-play machine had a great offseason and caught a 48-yard pass against the Vikings but is limited to just a handful of offensive snaps per game.

A knee injury has slowed Gibson, and there may still be trust issues with his hands or knowledge of the offense after his disastrous rookie year. Whatever the problem is, he remains the Eagles’ best candidate as a deep threat.

Darren Sproles: A lingering hamstring injury has kept the veteran all-purpose back on the fringe of activation for weeks. Sproles could be just the extra matchup weapon the Eagles need. Then again, he’s a tiny 35-year-old, so counting on his long-term health may be overly optimistic.

Braxton Miller: The former Ohio State quarterback is on the Eagles practice squad after two unproductive seasons with the Texans. Miller is quick and athletic, but he is much like Matthews, and both of them are weak-tea Nelson Agholor. The Eagles need either a home run threat or a backfield dynamo, not another shifty-pesky slot guy.

Mack Hollins: He’s been on injured reserve with a groin injury since the start of the season, with no specific timetable for a return. Hollins is more of a fourth receiver and special teamer than an offensive savior, but he would be an upgrade over the Aiken-Matthews-Carter bunch.

Le’Veon Bell: Sure, go nuts with trade speculation. But eating those fried eggs won’t cure your hangover. They may leave you feeling worse.

    

Free Nelson Agholor

Agholor has averaged just 8.5 yards per reception this season and has scored just one touchdown. He averaged 12.4 yards per catch last season and scored eight touchdowns.

With the return of Carson Wentz and Alshon Jeffery, Nelson Agholor has been cast in the role of a traditional slot receiver again, to the detriment of Philly's offense.

With the return of Carson Wentz and Alshon Jeffery, Nelson Agholor has been cast in the role of a traditional slot receiver again, to the detriment of Philly’s offense.Winslow Townson/Associated Press/Associated Press

Primarily a slot receiver, Agholor relies on both the scheme and the space created by other receivers to get open. That means Agholor is suffering from both the coaching brain drain of losing offensive assistants Frank Reich and John DeFilippo to the Colts and Vikings, respectively, and the absence of a true deep threat. As a result, Agholor catches a lot of passes in close quarters for minimal gains.

Doug Pederson was creative about getting Agholor involved early in the season, using variations on the Philly Special and the shovel passes and sweeps he used in last year’s playoffs to get Agholor the ball in open space. The presence of Ajayi and Sproles made Agholor a more dangerous misdirection threat at the start of the year, but tellingly, the absence of Carson Wentz and Alshon Jeffery forced Pederson to do more with his slot receiver. Once Wentz and Jeffery returned, Agholor became a guy who goes in motion and catches flat passes.

So, here’s the Super Bowl hangover equivalent of two aspirin and a tall glass of water: Bring back the Agholor sweeps, counters, fakes and trickery. It could diversify the offense just enough to make up for losses elsewhere.

    

Fix fourth down

The Eagles defense has allowed five of eight fourth-down conversions this season after allowing just four of 18 last year. Defensive 4th-and-long miscues in the fourth quarter and overtime cost the Eagles victories against the Titans and Panthers.

The Eagles’ fourth-down defensive failures have been as different as snowflakes this year. On Sunday, Jalen Mills slipped and fell in coverage of Torrey Smith, and Cam Newton made a great play under pressure to convert a fourth-quarter 4th-and-10. In the overtime loss to the Titans, Corey Graham made an inexcusable error on 4th-and-15, Sidney Jones incurred a ticky-tack penalty and Jordan Hicks got run over by a lineman while chasing Dion Lewis on 4th-and-2. So, there’s no one player, play call or problem to point to as an easy fix.

Coordinator Jim Schwartz has already made some adjustments, replacing Graham (who was filling in for injured safety Rodney McLeod) with Avonte Maddox and scrapping the “seven guys 15 yards off the ball” package the Titans picked apart.

But the Eagles also rank 26th in the NFL in stopping 3rd-and-long situations, according to Football Outsiders, so their problem getting off the field can’t be brushed off as just a play here and a play there.

Solving the fourth-down problem goes hand-in-hand with solving the Eagles’ most glaring problem: a secondary that gives up too many big plays.

    

Adjust the risk-reward

Even casual Eagles observers know cornerbacks Mills and Ronald Darby are getting burned like fajita skillets this season. Opponents have also noticed: Darby was the most targeted cornerback in the NFL entering Week 7, according to Football Outsiders, while Mills ranked third.

Both Mills and Darby are boom-or-bust cornerbacks, vulnerable to pump fakes and double moves. Opposing quarterbacks are just letting ‘er rip down the field, knowing someone will eventually make a huge mistake that results in a big play.

Schwartz likes aggressive cornerbacks, and last year the risk-reward ratio in the secondary resulted in 19 interceptions as opponents played catchup against the Eagles offense. The margin for error is smaller this year, so Schwartz needs to do something before Darby and (particularly) Mills burst into flames.

Telling the cornerbacks not to gamble won’t work, because that’s not who they are. Simplistic remedies (“give them more deep safety help!”) are also of limited value, because the Eagles are thin at safety. But there are some viable solutions:

Jalen Mills and Ronald Darby have been among the primary reasons the Eagles pass defense ranks 24th in the NFL this season.

Jalen Mills and Ronald Darby have been among the primary reasons the Eagles pass defense ranks 24th in the NFL this season.Jeff Haynes/Associated Press

Promote Sidney Jones: The 2017 second-round pick has been relatively effective in the slot this season. Mills has some capability as a slot corner. Flipping their roles when Jones returns from the hamstring that sidelined him Sunday could ease some of the pain caused by deep double moves.

Resurrect Rasul Douglas: Douglas was a regular and spot starter last year, but he now plays mostly on special teams. Douglas is more of a tall matchup defender than an every-down starter, but the Eagles can’t afford to wait for ideal solutions.

Douglas could also add some speed as a package safety, but he’s a suspect tackler, and the Eagles can’t afford to solve one problem by causing another one 25 yards down the field.

Trade for Patrick Peterson: Again with the trades! A Peterson trade is more feasible and would be more likely to immediately improve the Eagles than a move on offense. But there will be a line around the block for the seven-time Pro Bowler’s services if the Cardinals decide to grant his trade request.

Fix other issues: Instead of trying to change Mills and Darby, Schwartz and the Eagles can work on a defense that looks sluggish in pursuit, allows too many yards after the catch and ranked 27th in allowing open-field rushing yards entering Week 7, per Football Outsiders.

If the Eagles can stop players like Christian McCaffrey and Dion Lewis from picking up chunk yardage on screens and sweeps, they can force more 3rd- (and 4th-) and-longs, which will result in more sacks and turnovers, so long as the Eagles stop doing dumb stuff like letting a receiver run 35 yards up the field on 4th-and-10.

    

Keep moving ahead

The only real cure for a hangover is rest and time, but you can get yourself ready to face the day by treating all the symptoms sensibly: water for the dehydration, ibuprofen for the pain, antacids for the stomach, some protein for replenishment, a hot shower and so forth.

The Eagles need rest and time as well: They’re shorthanded and waiting for reinforcements on both sides of the ball. But they also need to treat the symptoms by getting young players more involved and finding better roles for veterans like Agholor, Darby and Mills, who were big parts of last year’s Super Bowl equation.

The one thing the Eagles can’t afford to do is wallow in their misery or fall for our-swagger-is-gone or not-hungry-anymore talk-radio cliches. If they power through this hangover, they’ll still be in position to win a very weak NFC East.

But first they must board a plane for London to face the Jaguars.

Ever take a long flight while coping with a hangover? It’s torture. But there’s too much at stake for the Eagles to let it get to them.

          

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.

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