The Eagles enter the final week of the 2021 season a playoff team.
It’s still pretty incredible when you think about it. After last year’s 4-11-1 season, the departure of the supposed franchise quarterback amidst tremendous controversy, a new coaching staff and a multitude of distractions, the Eagles will enter this Saturday night’s game against the Dallas Cowboys with the option of resting their starters.
Unlike last season, it won’t be in an effort to tank, but to rest up for the postseason.
They did it by embracing an identity foreign to previous iterations of this football team, an offense predicated on a dominant running game, with an untested, up-and-down quarterback who has exceeded expectations. Jeff Lurie doesn’t want to be a run-first team, but a lack of veteran receivers and a quarterback whose arm is still a work in progress has dictated the change, to beautiful results.
Perhaps the most impressive thing of all is that they’ve done it while mired in salary cap hell.
Around 35% of the Eagles' cap space in 2021 was locked up in dead money (players not on the team who still count toward the cap). The previous highs for teams making the playoffs, according to @Jason_OTC's recollection, were DAL and CAR in 2014, who both had around 20%.— Jimmy Kempski (@JimmyKempski) January 3, 2022
When general manager Howie Roseman traded Carson Wentz to the Indianapolis Colts last spring, they took on a dead money cap hit of $33.8 million. Trading Zach Ertz to the Cardinals early in the season resulted in another $7 million, with DeSean Jackson, Alshon Jeffery and Malik Jackson totaling about $15 million.
It’s unprecedented that a team would be able to make the playoffs while having so much of their salary cap space taken by players who are no longer here.
The Eagles could not have pulled this off without a solid season from Jalen Hurts, who became just the seventh QB in NFL history to throw for over 3,000 yards and rush for over 750. He accounts for a little over $1.3 million of cap space. And to Roseman’s credit, his 2021 draft picks have paid immediate dividends, too.
First round pick DaVonta Smith is 38 yards away from breaking DeSean Jackson’s rookie receiving record, and is 125 yards away from a 1,000 yard season. He probably won’t play much in Week 18, so he may come up short, but his impact on the offense has been huge. Second rounder Landon Dickerson is the starting left guard on perhaps the best offensive line in the league, a huge addition. Third round pick Milton Williams has been solid all season at tackle and defensive end, and fifth round selection Kenny Gainwell has had some key moments and contributions along the way, too.
A few 2021 picks have panned out as well. Jalen Reagor appears to be a bust as a former first round selection, but Hurts has worked out better than expected as a second rounder. Third round pick Davion Taylor seemed to be improving before his season-ending injury, fourth round pick Jack Driscoll is injury-prone but solid when healthy, and sixth-rounder Quez Watkins has emerged as the team’s No. 2 wideout, although he’s more suited to be a No. 3/deep threat. Undrafted linebacker T.J. Edwards transformed the defense when he was placed into the starting lineup.
The development of draft picks and younger, inexpensive players is the main reason why the Eagles are going to the playoffs, despite their cap troubles. It’s also the reason the city’s baseball team has fallen short the last few years.
The Phillies have consistently possessed a payroll in the top-5 of Major League Baseball, usually around $200 million, yet have not seen the postseason in 10 years, the second-longest drought in the sport.
Unlike the Eagles, they are not wasting big money on players who are no longer there.
NL MVP Bryce Harper and Cy Young runner-up Zack Wheeler are their two most expensive players, and their third-most expensive, J.T. Realmuto, is widely regarded as one of the three best catchers in baseball. Other free agent signings like Andrew McCutchen, Didi Gregorius and Archie Bradley have been hit-or-miss, but largely speaking, the Phils have gotten some of the best value out of big-money free agent signings of any team in the sport.
But that hasn’t been enough to move the Phils past Mount .500. The reason? Unlike the Eagles, the Phillies have been dreadful at developing young talent into useful and productive big league players.
Third baseman Alec Bohm was supposed to be an anchor in the middle of the lineup in 2021, but he struggled mightily and, with the time fighting for a playoff spot, spent the last two months of the season in the minors. Their top pitching prospect, Spencer Howard, was traded to the Texas Rangers at the deadline last year because he was so unproductive. Other top prospects like Nick Williams, Aaron Altherr and Scott Kingery have fallen flat, the bullpen has been a tire fire year-in and year-out because the franchise has been unable to produce home grown pitchers capable of adding stability, and the lack of starting pitching depth in the minors is in its worst state in decades.
Unlike the Eagles, the Phils have not been able to supplement their expensive stars with moderately-priced youngsters, forcing them into a repeating loop of mediocrity unless the player development system turns around or ownership decides to go over the luxury tax.
Roseman has taken a lot of criticism for recent draft bunglings, and they are deserved. The JJ Arcega-Whiteside and Reagor picks were huge mistakes, but he deserves credit for the production the team has received from their rookies and second-year players. With three first round picks at their disposal this off-season and an apparently solid coaching staff working behind the scenes, there is reason to be optimistic that the front office won’t bungle those picks this April.
The Eagles have their flaws, but all those picks and emerging from their salary cap mess this off-season will allow them to be active in free agency, supplementing a deeper core of talent than originally thought.
Meanwhile, the Phillies continue to churn through different coaches and decision makers throughout their minor league system, in the hopes of finding some combination that will start producing the kind of young, homegrown talent that has helped the Eagles pull off a minor miracle this year.