After a 7-9 season in 2016, Vegas gave Philadelphia a 40-1 chance of winning Super Bowl LII. Considering that most observers thought that they were most likely mediocre, those odds seemed generous.
How We Got Here – The 2017 Philadelphia Eagles Story
The narrative for the Eagles 2017 season was supposed to be the gradual improvement of second-year quarterback Carson Wentz. After mortgaging their future to move up in the draft to select the North Dakota State product, the team needed him to fulfill his promise.
Instead of taking baby steps, however, Wentz took a leap that turned Philadelphia into the surprise team of the season. Even after their quarterback went down, head coach Doug Pederson kept the Eagles focused and moving forward.
While the finish has yet to be written, the journey to get to this point has been filled with twists that would make Philly native M. Night Shyamalan proud. In fact, the story of perhaps the most special season in franchise history starts well before the team even started their off-season program.
Filling Holes In Free Agency
Eagles’ Executive Vice President of Football Operations, Howie Roseman, didn’t win the NFL’s Executive of the Year Award for nothing. Some of the most important steps that led to the Eagles’ Super Bowl appearance happened while the players were relaxing.
Perhaps most surprising, the team resigned guard Stefen Wisniewski and resisted the urge to trade center Jason Kelce. Wisniewski would eventually solidify the left side of the line, while Kelce would earn first-team All-Pro honors.
Working The Draft
After the Eagles gave up multiple draft picks to move up in the 2016 NFL Draft to select Wentz, some observers predicted gloom and doom. The team gave up too much for an unproven player, and even if the quarterback panned out, Philadelphia wouldn’t be able to surround him with any talent.
An injury to Vikings’ quarterback Teddy Bridgewater in training camp later that year ended up benefiting the Eagles. Thinking that they had a championship caliber defense, Minnesota traded a first round pick in 2017 to Philadelphia for quarterback Sam Bradford.
That pick ended up turning into edge rusher Derek Barnett, who would produce five sacks as part of the Eagles’ deep defensive line rotation. Before the draft, Roseman had already helped out the D-line by sending a fourth-round pick to Baltimore for defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan to start alongside Pro Bowler Fletcher Cox.
With the team still needing to shore up the back end of the defense, Roseman, and VP of Player Personnel Joe Douglas used their second and third picks on defensive backs Sidney Jones and Rasul Douglas. The fact that Jones tore his Achilles tendon during his pro day before the draft meant that he wouldn’t be able to provide the kind of immediate help that fans were hoping for.
Jones recovered enough to play in the team’s final game, although his value to the team this season was minimal. But, Douglas helped the Eagles keep their defense backfield afloat through some rough patches.
While the rest of the draft didn’t produce many returns this season, fourth-round wide receiver Mack Hollins turned into a key special teams contributor.
Promising Training Camp
The most telling part of the team’s ramp up to the season was the obvious improvement of Wentz. The young signal caller looked primed to improve in his second season.
The Eagles still seemed unsettled at running back and defensive back, but the rest of the team appeared to be, at the very least, solid. Dallas and New York were considered the favorites in the NFC East, but Philadelphia was seen as a team on the rise.
Hot Start To The Season
Going into the season, most prognosticators had the Eagles going 8-8 or 9-7. So, when the team celebrated their season-opening win over the Washington Redskins by dumping Gatorade on Pederson, it seemed cheesy, but not entirely out of place.
What was troubling was having Darby go down minutes into the season with a dislocated ankle. Philadelphia didn’t look bad in their Week 2 loss to Andy Reid‘s Kansas City team, but there were still no indications that this was a championship team.
Then the winning started in earnest. Elliott became a Philly folk hero when he beat the Giants with a 61-yard game winning kick in the team’s third game.
Despite losing Darren Sproles in Week 3 and special teams ace Chris Maragos in Week 6, the Eagles rode a four-game winning streak into their rematch with Washington. Even though they won again, they lost All-Pro left tackle Jason Peters to a season-ending knee injury.
With injuries piling up, many wondered if having Halapoulivaati Vaitai protect Wentz’s blind side would be the tipping point. Instead, Philadelphia’s winning streak continued and the team headed into the bye week with an 8-1 record.
The Magnificent Wentz
The Eagles thought that Wentz might be special before they ever drafted him. During his rookie season, there were flashes of his potential, even as he tried to navigate the typical ups-and-downs that plague all young quarterbacks.
This season, Wentz didn’t take a step forward; he took a quantum leap. He set the team record for touchdown passes with 33. He threw just seven interceptions. Most importantly, he led the Eagles to 11-2 record in games that he started.
The Ajayi Decision
When Roseman approached Pederson to tell him that they had a chance to acquire Pro Bowl running back Jay Ajayi from the Miami Dolphins just before the trade deadline, the head coach thought that it was a joke.
After the team pulled the trigger on the deal, most observers tried to figure out what the catch was. Why would Miami suddenly part with their starting running back for just a fourth-round pick?
The answer for Eagles fans ultimately became, “Who cares?” Despite already being fifth in the NFL in rushing at the time of the trade, Philadelphia suddenly had an envious rotation in the backfield with Blount, Ajayi and undrafted rookie Corey Clement.
Ajayi’s presence as a home run threat added a new dimension that helped the team finish the season with the league’s third-best rushing attack.
The Injury Philadelphia Feared
As December hit, the Eagles were cruising towards the playoffs. They suffered their second loss of the season to the Seahawks, but there’s no shame in losing on the road in Seattle.
Then came the plot twist that every Eagles’ fan had feared. With Philadelphia battling the Rams at the L.A. Coliseum, Wentz dove for the end zone. He scored a touchdown, but in the process tore his ACL and LCL.
Foles stepped in against Los Angeles and steered the team to a win that gave them the NFC East title. He looked fine against the Giants the following week, but Santa was not kind to the team’s new starting quarterback.
Foles looked terrible as the Eagles faced Oakland on Christmas night. Philadelphia managed to scramble for a win that cemented home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs, but Philly fans felt uneasy.
The quarterback’s cameo appearance in the season-ending loss to Dallas did nothing to quell fears. His play was so bad that some openly wondered if the Eagles would be better off starting young Nate Sudfeld in the playoffs.
Philadelphia entered the playoffs in uncharted territory. Facing Atlanta, they were the first No. 1 seed since the current system was instituted to be an underdog in their first playoff game.
The team embraced their role. After Philadelphia held on with a last-second goal-line stand to defeat the Falcons 15-10, Long and right tackle Lane Johnson donned dog masks as they paraded around Lincoln Financial Field. Suddenly, the Wentz-less Eagles had a new identity.
Once again playing the underdog in the NFC Championship Game, Philadelphia rode an unlikely hero. Foles turned in a performance for the ages as the Eagles blew out the Minnesota Vikings 38-7. Wentz’s former backup went 26-33 for 352 yards and three touchdowns.
Leading the Eagles to an unlikely Super Bowl berth means that Foles will never have to buy a drink again in Philadelphia. Pull off a Super Bowl upset against Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, and the dynastic New England Patriots, and the quarterback will become a Philly hero of Rocky proportions.
Wentz’s unyielding faith has been well documented. A number of his teammates share that faith. Even true believers, though, would have trouble imaging that the Eagles could make it to the Super Bowl with all of the injuries that they’ve faced.
Pederson has proven himself to be adept at finding solutions to any problem. It’s almost as though he’s one of the better coaches in the NFL, despite what some thought of his hiring.
At this point, no matter what happens in Super Bowl LII, Philadelphia’s season will be considered a success. Once Wentz’s knee is back in one piece, the prospects of the Eagles going on a run of sustained success will go through the roof.
If that happens, we’ll all look back on the 2017 season as the beginning.