Saturday, October 24, 2020

What Has Happened in Philadelphia?

Coming off a miraculous 2017 title run, the 2018 Philadelphia Eagles have been mediocre at best. Last season, the Eagles won the Super Bowl, despite a rash of injuries, most notably to MVP candidate Carson Wentz. They were lauded for having a complete team with tremendous depth.

Philadelphia Eagles QB Carson Wentz

This season however, it seems like when the next man steps up, he soon steps down due to injury. Fans and pundits think the 2018 Eagles are a lost cause, and we should look forward to next season. I disagree. If the Eagles want to be an elite team, they have to accept the injuries that come with making deep playoff runs. That starts with Carson Wentz taking that next step, and going from a rising star to an elite quarterback.

We need to take a look at the Eagles injury situation in context. Here is a distribution of the number of injured players per week (IP/W) for every team in the last 10 years:

 

Before, their Week 12 matchup against the Giants, the 2018 Eagles had 11.82 injured players per week, which is well within one standard deviation of the mean. Practically speaking, the Eagles are not missing an abnormally large number of players week to week.

On the other hand, we should also consider the importance of the players who were injured. After all, the Eagles have been without impact players like Jay Ajayi, Rodney McLeod, and Derek Barnett for much of the season. We can weight the missing players by their previous year’s Approximate Value (AV). Though not a perfect metric, it does a decent job of comparing the importance of a player to their team, regardless of position. Here is what that distribution looks like:

The 2018 Eagles before Week 12 had 41.73 missing AV per week. That number is slightly outside of one standard distribution, but still nothing truly extraordinary. Every team has important players hurt. It is simply a reality of the game.

Now, another observation I have often heard is that the Eagles are experiencing more injuries under Doug Pederson than under Chip Kelly. Chip was known for his commitment to sports science and health, even going so far as to commission customized smoothies for each player. Fans contend that perhaps we are seeing more injuries with Doug, because of the change in staff.

Why are the Philadelphia Eagles injury prone?

First, it seems that Doug also shares a similar commitment to injury prevention, and health, because he retained Shaun Huls, Director of High Performance. Huls is the man many have comically dubbed Chip Kelly’s smoothie guy.

Second, let’s compare the injury levels of the Eagles across Chip’s tenure and Doug’s tenure. Here is a look at Chip’s tenure (2013–2015):

Now, here’s a look at Doug’s tenure (2016–2018):

Over these last six years, the Eagles are consistently outperforming the rest of the league in terms of injuries. This has not changed under Doug Pederson. This season seems to be more of a regression to the mean than an obvious outlier.

However, the Eagles are still underperforming. But, the Eagles injury situation is not insurmountable. That means there is hope, and it starts with Carson Wentz. He has to take over, and become the MVP candidate that he was last year. Here is a look at the most injured teams over the last 10 years:

Notice that there are some good teams on this list. Namely, the 2010, 2013, 2015 and 2017 Patriots, and the 2013 Broncos. The Patriots since the early 2000s have been buoyed by the consistently high-level of play by Tom Brady. And, the 2013 Broncos featured Peyton Manning, who threw for an NFL record 55 touchdowns that season.

Elite quarterbacks can raise the outlook of their team. That is why teams pay big money to franchise quarterbacks. That is also why teams pay big money to pass rushers, who make life a nightmare for other teams’ quarterbacks.

We know that Carson Wentz is not a pure passer on the level of Peyton Manning. However, he has an elite skill that that neither Brady nor Manning could hope to possess. It was his ability to move, evade, and extend plays.

Last year, in Week 3 against the Giants, he juked multiple defenders like a running back to convert a 3rd and 8 and set up a touchdown play:

In Week 7 against the Redskins, he somehow emerged from a scrum to convert a crucial third down:

In Week 12 against the Bears, we saw him save a broken screen play with a spin move that sent two defenders to the ground:

We all know Wentz is a great passer. But, what made the Eagles unstoppable last year on third and fourth down, was his elite athleticism. These types of plays are missing this year.

If Wentz wants to become the best quarterback in the NFL, and make the Eagles a perennial championship threat, he has to be that fearless combination of Brett Favre and Randall Cunningham we saw last year. It is possible that Wentz is still trying to regain his form after suffering a torn ACL back in December 2017. But, until he recaptures that magic from last year, the Eagles will likely continue to be in close games against teams they would have blown out last year.

Made using injury reports and player data from Pro Football Reference.

 

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