For all that was made of their snakebitten history in the run-up to their first Super Bowl championship, the Philadelphia Eagles have been among the NFL’s steadiest ships in the 27 years since film producer Jeffrey Lurie bought the team for a then-record $185m.
At the time, the Eagles had won their division on only nine occasions in 61 years. Under Lurie’s ownership, they have reached the playoffs more often than any NFC team besides the Packers, the club which Lurie made the organizational paradigm when he handpicked a little-known Green Bay assistant coach named Andy Reid to lead them into the 21st century. Even if they only have one Lombardi trophy to show for it, the Eagles under Lurie transformed themselves into one of those select clubs that’s managed to mitigate if not defy the NFL’s built-in gravity and are never down for long.
That even keel has been down to Lurie’s ability to balance patience, measure and dispassion with satisfying a city where sports mean a little too much and every decision is debated and scrutinized year-round by a ravenous media and not one but two 24-hour sports talk radio stations. The Eagles have been a lot of things under their present ownership, but they’ve never been rash and they’ve never been rudderless.
No longer. Three years of inept management and failure to build on the momentum of their championship season came to a head on Thursday when the Eagles reportedly traded quarterback Carson Wentz to the Indianapolis Colts in exchange for a 2021 third-round draft pick and a conditional second-rounder in 2022.
This time last year, the idea of Philadelphia cutting bait on the franchise player they’d planned their next decade around would have been unthinkable. Yet here we are. The divorce is as costly as it as hasty: The Eagles take on a crippling $33.8m in dead cap hit, the largest in NFL history, leaving them with little money to re-sign anyone else or improve a roster that’s fallen into an alarming state of disrepair.
So much of Wentz’s downward trajectory since the Super Bowl season can be pinned to the lack of talent around him. With general manager Howie Roseman calling the shots, the Eagles have missed badly over the past three drafts (JJ Arcega-Whiteside over DK Metcalf! Jalen Reagor over Justin Jefferson!). The once-dominant offensive line charged with protecting Wentz, where Philadelphia fielded 13 different combination of players in their first 14 games this year, has become a turnstile. The Eagles have an old and expensive roster, have for a number of years, and Roseman thinks that targeting players who have been discounted because of injury histories is a sound strategy. (Spoiler alert: It’s not!)
On one hand, if Wentz rebounds with the Colts, where he reunites with former Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich, Philadelphia’s decision to sell low will go down as one of the great blunders in NFL history on sunk cost alone. After mortgaging a chunk of their future to trade up twice for Wentz in the 2016 draft, he followed a promising rookie year with a leap-forward 2017 campaign that took the NFL by storm. He led the Eagles to an NFL-best 11-2 record and was the prohibitive favorite to be named Most Valuable Player until he went down with a season-ending knee injury in a December game against the LA Rams. That wasn’t that long ago.
Even after Philadelphia went on to win the team’s first Super Bowl with backup quarterback Nick Foles, the Eagles stayed the course and never wavered from Wentz. Not in 2018, when he struggled to rediscover his MVP form and suffered a back injury that forced Foles into action again. Not in 2019, when the team regressed still further but he still managed to spirit Philadelphia to the playoffs.And it wasn’t mere lip service: the Eagles believed in him enough to consummate the union with a four-year, $128m contract extension in July 2019.
On the other, if Wentz truly is washed, it will be yet another cautionary tale of how brutal and cruel this sport remains no matter how much the NFL tries to sanitize it with rule changes and safety PSAs. There’s ample evidence to believe Wentz has been permanently egg-cracked since suffering a nasty helmet-to-helmet hit by Jadeveon Clowney in a wild-card playoff matchup with the Seattle Seahawks at the end of the 2019 campaign, only months after signing his extension. He looked jittery and indecisive from opening day of this past season, when he turned the ball over three times and took a career-high eight sacks as the Eagles blew a 17-point lead to Washington. Somehow, it went downhill from there. Wentz led the league in interceptions (15) and sacks (50) despite playing in only 12 games, while finishing 33rd in yards per attempt (6.0) and 34th in both passer rating (72.8) and completion percentage (57.4%).
Maybe the Eagles know something we don’t. But in a span of a year they have jettisoned their franchise player and their Super Bowl-winning head coach in favor of a rebuild with no clear path guided by an executive, Roseman, who has taken the wrong path at every fork in the 36 months since Super Bowl LII and left the team with no option but Thursday’s big gamble. The sunk cost and wholesale change in organizational direction after one bad season is worse than uncharacteristic, it’s laid bare an organizational dysfunction that only bigger changes can resolve.
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