TAMPA, Fla. — Jason Kelce exited the field alone, head bowed, clutching a helmet he may never wear again.
It was a far too melancholy sight for an image-bearer who identifies so closely with his team’s city, a 13th-year center who best represented his franchise’s success while earning his sixth All-Pro selection, a 36-year-old who once seemed like he’d experience one more run at another Super Bowl.
How did it end this way? How did a season that began with such a seismic ascension end with such a cataclysmic collapse? How did the Eagles, who boisterously exited Kansas City having beaten the Chiefs during a 10-1 start, endure the embarrassment of a wild-card elimination after which fans hollered expletives and chucked a bucket at them as they left the field?
Kelce turned the hallway’s corner. There was general manager Howie Roseman at the locker room door. They shook hands. Hugged. Kelce dressed at his locker, turned toward the mass of waiting reporters and politely shook his head.
“No, guys,” Kelce said calmly. “Not today. Sorry.”
Eagles’ Jason Kelce retiring after 13 seasons
The locker room was devoid of any wholesale explanation for the conglomeration of problems that confounded them. Some players were too despondent to speak. Some numbly offered small considerations. Some seemed relieved the season’s miseries were finally over. But everyone voiced a similar sentiment, a disbelief in the sudden direction a once-promising season turned.
“Things didn’t end the way we wanted,” Jalen Hurts said. “It’s simply not our turn.”
The latter sounded fatalistic from the quarterback, as if Hurts felt such failure was inevitable. By the end of the regular season, it certainly appeared so. A once-potent offense that matched gashing runs from Hurts and D’Andre Swift with explosive passes to A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith shriveled in a consistent series of dysfunctions.
First-year offensive coordinator Brian Johnson attempted to equip Hurts with control over a system that allowed him to work through a list of pre-snap checks at the line, and although there were several moments in 2023 in which Hurts thrived, the former MVP candidate regressed late in the season as communication errors and frequent struggles to handle the blitz persisted.
An offense that appeared to have no true identity in Nick Sirianni’s third year as the team’s head coach often appeared disjointed. The Eagles opened the game against the Buccaneers with two Swift runs that gained a total of 11 yards. He only carried the ball twice more in the first half, and the Buccaneers built a seven-point lead with the Eagles instead forcing the ball successfully (and unsuccessfully) to Smith.
The strategy began with two curious third-and-short scenarios in which Hurts threw incomplete passes downfield. On the first one, a third-and-2, it appeared Smith and tight end Dallas Goedert got in each other’s way while running the same route. Smith later said Hurts made two pre-snap checks before the play, and Smith and Goedert “saw something completely different” from what Hurts intended.
“It was two different signals,” Smith said. “We (saw) one and didn’t see the other.”
Bucs finish off reeling Eagles in wild-card game
That such communicative errors continued even into the playoffs offered insight into how frequently hiccups turned into heart attacks for the Eagles. There was at the very least a consistent dissonance between the system the coaching staff and players had in mind and what played out on the field. On one pre-snap check against the Chiefs, Hurts delivered a game-changing deep throw to Smith. Against the Seattle Seahawks, Brown acknowledged a game-ending interception was due to their freelancing on the play.
“It’s very frustrating,” Smith said. “Especially when you have the talent, you have the right mindset, you have the right things going. Like I say, it’s just small details you’re missing.”
The consecutive punts to begin the game against the Bucs placed the Eagles again in a situation in which they had to play from behind. The Buccaneers seized a 16-9 halftime lead, which swelled after the Eagles offense failed to score in the second half. Sirianni and Johnson, who had to build a game plan without the injured Brown, forcefully funneled the ball to Smith, whose 55-yard catch in the second quarter preceded the team’s only touchdown.
The Eagles appeared over-reliant on Smith winning his matchups in coverage. They began the second half with three possessions in which they lost 10 yards on 11 plays, with Hurts being penalized in the end zone for intentional grounding, a damning safety while attempting to evade defenders while only under a four-man rush. Two plays later, Baker Mayfield delivered the back-breaker, an open completion to Trey Palmer, who ran through cornerback James Bradberry for a 56-yard touchdown that all but put the game away, 25-9, with 1:19 left in the third quarter.
ONCE AGAIN, HOW Y’ALL FEELING BUCS FANS?! 😱
— NFL (@NFL) January 16, 2024
An Eagles defense that far too often was disastrous under de facto defensive coordinator Matt Patricia proved itself again incapable of adequately containing its opponent. The Buccaneers outgained the Eagles 426-276 in total offensive yards while logging six plays of 20 yards or more. Mayfield completed 22 of 36 passes for 337 yards and three touchdowns while often targeting linebackers in coverage, finding pass catchers in wide-open zones over the middle of the field, or connecting with receivers who broke through tackles for long gains after receptions.
Patricia again began the game with a range of defensive schemes. The Bucs converted first downs on both passes and runs against Philadelphia’s base 3-4, running back Rachaad White ran through a third-and-3 tackle on a swing pass against an Eagles pass-oriented nickel, and, on Tampa Bay’s second drive, Mayfield hit David Moore in stride for a 44-yard touchdown against Philly’s six-defensive back dime package with three defenders missing Moore on dismal tackle attempts.
Too smooth! David Moore takes it in for a 44-yard TD 🙌
— NFL (@NFL) January 16, 2024
Sirianni’s midseason decision to demote coordinator Sean Desai exacerbated the team’s defensive issues. The Eagles surrendered more yards and points in five games under Patricia (375.8, 24.7 per game) than they did in the first 13 under Desai (353.9, 22.8). Sirianni acknowledged his decision did not yield the results he intended, but he declined to answer when asked if he’d make staff changes at either coordinator position in the offseason.
“I think there were just several things we put on tape and offenses kind of copied it and it was sort of rinse and repeat sometimes,” linebacker Nicholas Morrow said. “I think that’s one thing. It’s just hard to change the defensive philosophy in the middle of the season. Totally different defense from a play-calling standpoint. And it wasn’t from a lack of effort. I think everybody tried to make it work. It just didn’t.”
Neither did Philadelphia’s efforts for a late comeback. On a fateful fourth-and-5 in the fourth quarter, Smith couldn’t haul in a Hurts pass in the end zone while facing tight coverage from cornerback Carlton Davis III. Smith said he went to Sirianni before the play and “told him to give me the ball.”
“We had the answer to everything,” Smith insisted. “We just didn’t execute consistently.”
“It was almost like we couldn’t get out of the rut we were in,” Sirianni said. “And that’s all of us. We all have to look ourselves in the mirror and accept that and just find answers, find solutions. But obviously, when we start 10-1 and you get into what happened for us, obviously the expectations were high. Expectations were even higher when we started off 10-1. We fell into a skid. Obviously the play calling. I’ll look at the scheme. I’ll look at practices. I’ll look at everything that we’re doing because I think that the past two years, we got hot a little bit at the end, and this year wasn’t that case.”
The future of the franchise’s leadership is now uncertain. Owner Jeffrey Lurie and Roseman must now decide if the problems that persisted throughout the back end of Philadelphia’s season can be rectified in a fourth year under Sirianni.
Firing Sirianni would be a striking decision. His teams have reached the playoffs in each of his three seasons while fielding a 34-17 record. But such a sudden departure would not be unprecedented. Only two other coaches in the Super Bowl era have been fired in the season after losing the big game. The late Al Davis fired Bill Callahan after a drama-filled 2003 Raiders team finished 4-12. Then, in 2015, John Elway fired John Fox after a 12-4 Denver Broncos team went one-and-done with a loss to the Indianapolis Colts in the divisional round.
Both cases contained the polarity of the potential fallouts that would befall the Eagles. The Raiders have reached the playoffs just twice under 10 other head coaches in the 20 seasons after Callahan’s ouster, and the Broncos won Super Bowl 50 in their first year under Gary Kubiak. Sirianni failed to, at the very least, delay such a decision with an Eagles win on Monday night. When asked if he was concerned about his job security after the game, Sirianni said, “I’m not thinking about that,” and instead spoke of his feelings for the players whose season ended.
“We didn’t finish anywhere we wanted to finish,” Sirianni said.
“We don’t know what holds for next year,” Bradberry said. “We don’t know who’s going to be here. Who’s not going to be here. Because, of course, we didn’t live up to expectations. We had a lot of expectations going into this year. When you don’t live up to those, of course people want to make changes.”
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(Photo: Kevin Sabitus / Getty Images)