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Spadaro: How do the Eagles build for sustained success?

Eagles Insider Dave Spadaro
Eagles Insider Dave Spadaro

Consider this the start. The 2022 Eagles season, dominating from the very start through one half of Super Bowl LVII only to end in a disappointing manner, represents the next step in this era of Nick Sirianni as the head coach. The '22 Eagles took a giant leap from Sirianni's first season, a 2021 playoff team that turned its year around midway through and never looked back until the playoff loss to Tampa Bay.

If you aren't moving forward in the NFL ...

The question for the Eagles, as they size up the busy offseason that is already underway, is this: How do you go to the next step? A glance back at the 2001 Eagles, the first of four straight trips to the NFC Championship Game, is helpful because the similarities are so interesting.

That Eagles team was led by a young quarterback in his third season, Donovan McNabb. That Eagles team saw the investment it made in the offensive line – using first-round draft picks on left tackle Tra Thomas and guard Jermane Mayberry, signing right tackle Jon Runyan in free agency – pay off as the offense built around McNabb and his multidimensional skills and a spread-it-around offensive approach.

The defense had a strong front seven with end Hugh Douglas and tackle Corey Simon leading in the trenches and Jeremiah Trotter the force at middle linebacker. An outstanding secondary featured cornerbacks Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor, along with safety Brian Dawkins and the coaching staff – Andy Reid as the head coach, Jim Johnson as the defensive coordinator, with Rod Dowhower as the offensive coordinator.

Strong team. Won 11 games that season and earned the No. 3 seed in the NFC playoffs a year after reaching the postseason for the first time under Reid (the Eagles beat Tampa Bay that season before losing at the New York Giants in the Divisional Round). The outstanding campaign ended in St. Louis as the Rams overcame a 17-13 halftime deficit to beat the Eagles, 29-24. McNabb stayed on the sidelines after the loss watching the Rams celebrate, preparing for his next chance in a big moment.

The Eagles, as we know, reached the next three NFC Championship Games, winning in the 2004 season to advance to Super Bowl XXXIX, and that kind of sustainability is what the Eagles now seek – with Super Bowl wins at the end of the season, of course. Looking to the immediate future, the Eagles have the NFL Combine, NFL free agency, and the NFL Draft to conquer, and they have coaching changes and roster challenges as well. What the Eagles did in the 2002 offseason serves now as a reminder as a sort of a blueprint for how the Eagles might approach the next few months.

1. Coaching changes

Sirianni is busy replacing Offensive Coordinator Shane Steichen, who is now the head coach in Indianapolis, and Defensive Coordinator Jonathan Gannon, who is now Arizona’s head coach. The 2002 Eagles replaced Offensive Coordinator Rod Dowhower, who retired after the 2001 season, with Quarterbacks Coach Brad Childress and McNabb was able to continue in the flow of the same offense.

It's still unclear which direction the Eagles will take to replace Steichen and Gannon, as they are considering both internal and external candidates. They have lined up many strong options and, as Sirianni said last week at the end-of-season press conference, would ideally like to wrap up the hirings prior to next week's NFL Combine.

2. Attending to the current roster

One of the most urgent issues on Roseman's plate is the current roster, a superb collection of talent that fit so well in the 2022 season. There are going to be a lot of changes to this roster, as is the case with every team in the NFL. The Eagles have a large number of potential unrestricted free agents and some hard decisions will have to be made.

The 2002 Eagles were in a similar situation, having to decide on some players about to hit free agency. Among them were linebackers Trotter and Mike Caldwell, both of whom signed elsewhere (Trotter with Washington, Caldwell with Chicago).

There are difficult decisions teams must make every season. The 2002 Eagles replaced Trotter and Caldwell, as they replaced starting safety Damon Moore, who suffered a serious knee injury in the playoffs, and reached the NFC Championship Game again.

3. NFL free agency

Two veteran defenders joined the Eagles in the 2002 free agency period – linebacker Shawn Barber and safety Blaine Bishop. Barber was terrific for the Eagles in that season, starting all 16 games and having, truly, the finest season of his career. Bishop was a stopgap addition who started 12 games in the final season of his outstanding NFL career. He was a tough guy, albeit one who was past his best seasons.

There are lessons to be learned here, and while the Eagles didn't find long-term replacements in either player, both helped the Eagles go 12-4, earn the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs, and reach the NFC Championship Game (no comment on that tough defeat).

4. NFL Draft

This is where the Eagles knocked it out of the park, and as the team looks ahead to April with two first-round draft picks and three in the first two rounds, it knows it has a chance to do the same.

In 2002, the Eagles addressed the defensive backfield with their first three picks – cornerback Lito Sheppard, safety Michael Lewis, and cornerback Sheldon Brown. With the fourth pick, in Round 3, the team selected running back Brian Westbrook. Those four players weren't immediate starters – the Eagles had enough veteran talent at those positions for 2002 – but they were huge pieces of the Eagles team that reached the NFC Championship Game in 2003 and the Super Bowl in the 2004 season.

With the 10th overall draft pick as well as No. 30 in the first round – the team has four other selections as well – the Eagles have some draft capital and Roseman knows how to use it as well as anybody in the NFL. Draft weekend – really, the days and even weeks leading up to it as well – will be exciting and hugely important to the Eagles for 2023 and years to come.

5. The quarterback position

As good as McNabb was through three seasons – 54 touchdown passes, 32 interceptions, 8 rushing touchdowns, 11 wins in both his second and third seasons – the performance through three seasons from Jalen Hurts sets a new standard. That's how good Hurts has been – 44 touchdown passes, 26 rushing touchdowns, 22 wins combined in seasons two and three and just 19 interceptions in three seasons. Obviously, it's vital that the Eagles continue to keep the pieces around Hurts as strong as possible and many of those pieces – at wide receiver, at tight end, along the offensive line, in the backfield – are going to be in place regardless of what happens with the roster.

The coaching transition is important and, of course, how the Eagles address the offensive side of the roster matters. Same with the defense as the Eagles strive to be a team that takes the football away to give the offense as many opportune scoring chances as possible.

6. Always adding to the roster

The 2002 Eagles made a couple of key additions after free agency and the NFL Draft, signing veteran linebacker Levon Kirkland in July of that year and adding slot receiver Antonio Freeman in August. Kirkland added some beef inside on defense and Freeman chipped in with 46 receptions, 600 yards, and four touchdowns in an offense that distributed the football evenly. Philadelphia ranked fourth in the NFL that season in points scored, 25.9 per game, and the defense ranked second, permitting just 15.1 points per game. The Eagles ranked fourth in the NFL in yards per game allowed.

Roseman, as we've seen, always has his eyes open to add to the roster. He did it so brilliantly in 2022 and will hope for some more opportunities to do so in 2023.

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