How often does the first drive of a football game set a tone? And within that drive, is it possible that one play can define the mission a football team has taken through the years and, in this instance, chart the course for a path to the Super Bowl?
Maybe we saw that on Sunday in the NFC Championship Game against San Francisco. The 49ers won the coin toss and deferred and the Eagles received the opening kickoff, and Boston Scott had an outstanding 29-yard return to the 34-yard line. Two first downs later, the Eagles were in a fourth-and-3 situation at the 49ers' 35-yard line. What to do?
Certainly, Head Coach Nick Sirianni could have called on placekicker Jake Elliott to kick a 52- or 53-yard field goal, well within his range, and everyone would have understood coming away with three points on the opening drive. But Sirianni had gone for the first down 32 times in the 17-game regular season (fourth-most in the NFL) and converted 22 of them (second-most in the NFL). This is a coach who has the utmost trust in his players to execute the play called, so that's what he decided to do.
And the players executed it in a most spectacular fashion.
Quarterback Jalen Hurts lined up in the shotgun and the Eagles had two receivers to either side with Kenneth Gainwell in motion from left to right. Hurts took the snap, stayed in the pocket for one beat, two beats, and then rolled left. He looked down the field and saw Smith running from the inside left side of the formation against cornerback Jimmie Ward. Smith made an out cut 6 yards past the line of scrimmage and then turned up the field. He looked back at Hurts, having gotten a full step ahead of Ward, and gave Hurts a wave with his left hand.
"Throw to me!"
Hurts did just that, and Smith contorted his body beautifully – turning from the inside to a backpedal and eventually leaping and reaching up and grabbing the pass with his right hand over his outside shoulder. Smith came down with the football and the officials ruled it a completed pass and a gain of 29 yards to the 49ers' 6-yard line. Smith got up quickly, hurried back to the line of scrimmage, and signaled to the offense to run the next play quickly to not give the 49ers a chance to challenge the ruling of a completed pass.
Hurts assembled the offense at the line of scrimmage and got off the next snap without a huddle, and while his pass on first down to Gainwell was incomplete, the drive was alive. On the next play, second-and-goal from the 6, running back Miles Sanders raced into the end zone and the Eagles had their 10th opening-drive touchdown of the season and their 13th opening-drive score.
The play was revealing for several reasons that truly tell a story of the 2022 Philadelphia Eagles, and here is why ...
1. Sirianni trusted his players in that situation to convert the fourth down. Gutsy move, no doubt, but that's the way Sirianni has been coaching since he arrived here. He believes in his players. They, in turn, know that and they play with tremendous confidence, no matter the situation.
"We have confidence," Sirianni said after the game. "When you go for it on fourth down, you put yourself in those scenarios all week. We have so many meetings about that, of what we're going to do in these scenarios, calls we might call, what we would call if we've already called that and everything like that."
The Eagles were 3-for-3 on fourth down in Sunday's win. The second conversion came late in the first half to keep a touchdown drive alive that gave the Eagles a 14-7 lead, and the third conversion came on the final drive of the game. Trust and execution.
2. Think about the personnel on that play, and the transformation of the roster – and let's be honest here, the coaching staff – since the Eagles' Super Bowl journey from 2017. Hurts was drafted in 2020 under former Head Coach Doug Pederson to be the backup to Carson Wentz at the game's most important position. Instead of paying a veteran the standard rate of $9 million or so to back up the injury-plagued Wentz, the Eagles used a second-round draft pick to select Hurts and develop his enormous raw talent. We know how it turned out, right? Wentz struggled, Pederson turned to Hurts at the end of the 2020 season, and then the Eagles changed coaches. Heading into 2021, the Eagles had Sirianni as the head coach, Hurts as the starting quarterback, and Wentz a valuable piece of trade real estate.
Also consider what Smith has meant to this team. The Eagles won Super Bowl LII with Alshon Jeffery, Torrey Smith, and Nelson Agholor at wide receiver. Mack Hollins was the No. 4 wide receiver. Very quickly, that foursome dissipated. Smith was traded one month after the Super Bowl to Carolina. Hollins suffered a groin injury early in 2018 and was waived later in the season, having already given over his jersey No. 10 to DeSean Jackson, who could never recapture the dominance of his first Eagles career. Jeffery played three more seasons in Philadelphia, but injuries hampered his production and he was never the same as he was in that magical 2017 season. Agholor left via unrestricted free agency after two more seasons with Philadelphia.
Executive Vice President/General Manager Howie Roseman, prior to and during the 2021 NFL Draft, maneuvered for extra draft capital and, with that, flexibility, and it allowed to eventually trade up in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft to select Smith with the 10th overall pick. Smith, the Heisman Trophy winner from Alabama, has been a standout since then as the position has been made over with Smith, A.J. Brown (acquired in a trade during the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft), 2019 sixth-round draft pick Quez Watkins, and Zach Pascal, signed as an unrestricted free agent ahead of the 2022 regular season, making up the primary foursome.
3. In this instance, Smith displayed fantastic football intelligence, one of Sirianni's five core principles. Whether or not Smith made the catch is not the point – it was ruled a catch and so, he caught it – although it was an extraordinary piece of work. The point is that Smith immediately understood that the catch may have been a bit muddy and would have been subject to an officials' review unless the Eagles were able to get the next snap off quickly.
That's exactly what they did. And they scored two plays later.
"That's just me making a play. That's my job," Smith said after the game.
I tried to get Smith to brag about the catch. I really did. He's made so many of them in his two seasons here. The most I could get was this: "That's my job. I expect to catch every ball thrown my way."
4. The score was important for several reasons, then. It added some juice to the already-crazed Lincoln Financial Field crowd. The offense found some rhythm and had early success. Ten touchdowns and 13 first-drive scores indicate the coaching staff has an excellent feel when it puts together a 15-or-so play script. It also gave the defense a lead, and the Eagles' defense has been downright nasty this season playing with an advantage.
It was one drive, one play within one drive, but it said so much about the 2022 Philadelphia Eagles. The tone for the game was set. The big Hurts-to-Smith play meant many things on many levels.
And in the end, it was just a perfect way to start what turned out to be a blowout win on the way to the Eagles' second Super Bowl in six seasons.