The Philadelphia Eagles were one Alshon Jeffery catch away from perhaps extending their Super Bowl defense another week. But an untimely bounce off Jeffery’s hands finally ended a magical run for the Eagles in their NFC Divisional Playoff game against the New Orleans Saints.
A potential game-winning drive saw a ball bounce right into the hands of Marcus Lattimore right inside the red zone. Just like that, the magic of Nick Foles was erased in a 20-14 defeat that also served as his first loss in the postseason since the Chip Kelly era in 2013. The glass slipper that won the Eagles their first Super Bowl and helped fuel a dramatic recovery from a 6-7 start this season finally broke in two.
Foles finished with a 7-1 record the past two years in do-or-die games replacing Carson Wentz as the Eagles' starter. It will be a run forever enshrined in Philadelphia history. But will Foles be back to make more memories in 2019?
His future tops the list of three offseason storylines that will consume a franchise back to chasing a championship they once had.
3 Biggest Offseason Questions Facing the Eagles
1. Will Nick Foles return?
Plenty of people waxed poetic about Foles’ time with the Eagles Sunday. Even his opponent, the NFL’s all-time leader in passing yards, was impressed by what he’s seen.
“Nick Foles has done a phenomenal job for them,” Drew Brees said after the game. “We knew it was going to be different than last time [When Eagles starter Carson Wentz stubbed his toe in an embarrassing 48-7 loss against the Saints earlier this year.]”
Foles finishes his two-year tenure as Eagles' backup with a 10-3 record, Super Bowl MVP, a 4-1 postseason mark and a resurrected career. A man who was on the verge of retiring after the 2015 season will likely become the most sought-after veteran in free agency four years later. The Jaguars, Redskins, potentially even the Giants, will be interested suitors.
“I appreciate everything he’s done,” said head coach Doug Pederson after the game. “For him to come in and step in the way he has. I told him I loved him and we’ll probably visit in the next couple of days.”
Will that visit come with an offer to become the Eagles' starter full-time? That appears a longshot at best. Remember, an inconsistent Wentz spent much of this year recovering from an ACL tear suffered in December 2017 against the Rams. At the time, the Eagles had a 10-2 record and their 2016 first-round draft pick was in the conversation for NFL MVP.
It’s too much of an investment to give up on, especially with the revelation Wentz’s struggles this season may have been partially due to, yes, another injury. That fractured vertebra paved the way for Foles, round two, but also explained some stiffness and weird decision-making that plagued Wentz throughout 2018.
So with Wentz entrenched as the starter, would Foles really spur the open market and stay a backup? He’s tried the whole starting gig before, elsewhere and was benched about halfway through the season with the Rams. The contract would need to be drastically restructured if he stays; there’s actually a team option for 2019 on Foles but it would cost them $20 million. You can’t pay that much for a No. 2 at this position even with Wentz’s injury history and Foles’ acumen for being the best in big games.
But the Eagles would certainly make him the highest-paid backup in the business. It’s not inconceivable, especially with Foles’ humility and unique connection to this town and this team he finds a way to make it work.
“That’s a tough question,” Foles said to Philly.com about his future Sunday. “It’s a really unique situation, something that — honestly, I need time to step back. I love the city, I love playing there. But no matter what happens, it’s been a joy. Playing in the city... the city means so much to me and my family and it always will.”
2. Who will be the starting running back?
The Eagles had a horrific rash of injuries this season; at one point, they were missing their top five cornerbacks. But no position was more affected than a rushing attack that never really got off the ground in 2018.
Jay Ajayi tore his ACL in early October and was out for the year by Week 5. Future Hall of Famer Darren Sproles had a hamstring injury in Week 1 and missed almost three months. Change-of-pace back Corey Clement never rushed for more than 56 yards in any game; a knee injury knocked him out of his misery in mid-December.
That left the Eagles with just undrafted rookie free agent Josh Adams and Wendell Smallwood for much of the year. While Adams developed somewhat, he fumbled in key situations down the stretch and worked himself out of the rotation once Sproles returned. And Smallwood, while a pleasant surprise, is nowhere near the type of bruising, lead back the Eagles need to balance out their offense.
The end result was a drop to 28th in the NFL in rushing offense during the regular season. It’s a performance that simply can’t be repeated in 2019. The NFC East is ruled by talented young running backs Saquon Barkley (Giants) and Ezekiel Elliott (Cowboys) plus a future Hall of Famer in Adrian Peterson (Redskins).
At least Clement could return in 2019 and fill Sproles’ change-of-pace role should the 35-year-old choose to retire. Either way, the Eagles will be in the hunt for a lead back with either a trade, free agency, or the draft. The problem is it’s a weak year for the position; there’s no running backs currently inside CBS Sports’ top 30 draft-eligible players.
But a look at the remaining backs in the hunt for the Super Bowl offer hope. Alvin Kamara of the Saints was a third-round draft pick; rookie Sony Michel of the Patriots was picked 31st. Executive Vice President of Football Operations Howie Roseman has really hit on selecting young talent in recent years.
As for veterans? There was talk midseason the team might also make a run at the Steelers’ Le’Veon Bell. But would a team so focused on locker room chemistry invite a cancer inside?
3. Sorting out a slew of injuries
The NFC Divisional loss also saw the Eagles lose a Pro Bowler. Guard Brandon Brooks tore his Achilles in a gruesome injury that leaves him uncertain to be ready for the 2019 season opener. It’s just the latest in a long list of setbacks that dogged the defending Super Bowl champions.
Will another Pro Bowl offensive lineman, Jason Peters, choose to retire after fighting off his own list of ailments? A back injury kept him out of half the Saints game. And how will 2017 first-round pick Derek Barnett fit into the Eagles’ plans? A promising rookie season turned into a sophomore slump before a season-ending shoulder injury.
That trio stands out along with Wentz as the Eagles look to rest and heal up. They ended the year with a whopping 12 players on injured reserve and countless others playing hurt. Considering the constant turnover it’s impressive the Eagles came as close as they did to defending their Super Bowl title.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
(Top photo by Hunter Martin, courtesy of www.philadelphiaeagles.com)