TAMPA, Fla. — Along the right wall of the locker room, four cubbies from the entrance, Jalen Hurts sat on a folding chair, his eyes red.
Philadelphia Eagles offensive coordinator Brian Johnson sat on a folding chair to his quarterback’s left, comforting the fourth-year pro after his season ended three games earlier than last year’s — and amid a nose dive of six losses in the team’s last seven games.
In the wake of a 32-9 trouncing by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Eagles were, in some respects, shellshocked by their wild-card playoff exit on Monday.
In other respects, they seemed numb to their present, resigned to their future and acutely aware that they are no longer living in their past. This team is no longer living in its Super Bowl era. It's no longer the 10-1 darling atop the 2023 NFL standings. This Philadelphia team no longer even has the answers to win.
When trying to put a finger on what went wrong, they might as well have been using their quarterback’s dislocated one.
“It seemed like the f***ing well ran dry a little bit,” five-time Pro Bowl right tackle Lane Johnson said. “We had six weeks trying to offer you all explanations how we’re gonna fix it, and we didn’t do s***.
“Sometimes you go out there and f*** around and find out. And we found out … [so] there's gonna be lots of adjustments. There's gonna be lots of changes. I don't know what the future holds. We'll see.
“But, I guess, stay tuned.”
The Eagles' locker room, it seems, is staying tuned to find out: Will head coach Nick Sirianni return after he proved unable to right their sinking ship?
Will their coordinators return after the offense struggled to find consistent rhythm in Brian Johnson’s first year and defensive play-calling was stripped from first-year coordinator Sean Desai in mid-December?
Some players, in the wake of the wild-card blowout, wondered if they themselves would be invited back. They accepted culpability for being part of the problem and not finding the solution. Ultimately, new coordinator or not, ideal playbook or not, they knew they failed to fight through as they did throughout the 2022 season and much of 2023.
And because of that, fair or not, speculation swirls about Sirianni’s future. An Eagles power structure that has long favored general manager Howie Roseman only complicates dynamics, with the memory of Doug Pederson’s firing three years after a Super Bowl win and one year removed from playoff contention still fresh in many players’ minds.
“At the end of the day, it’s what Howie and them believe moving forward on who is going to lead us in the right way,” 14th-year defensive end Brandon Graham told Yahoo Sports. “So I mean, I don’t see Nick losing it. I just think that they would fix some things that they didn’t like.
“Everybody’s gonna get evaluated.”
Eagles need deep autopsy after severe late-season drop-off
As Eagles players left the field for the final time this season and headed down the stadium tunnel, a fitting scene awaited.
Roseman, decked in a suit and sneakers, stood outside the entrance to the Raymond James Stadium visitors locker room. On this day, as players said he does after every game, the general manager greeted his players one by one. He mixed occasional words of encouragement with dutiful embraces and fist bumps.
Hurts was among the first to roll through, jogging briskly after his 25-of-35, 250-yard, one-touchdown night. He exchanged a hand slap and an embrace with the general manager who made him (briefly) the highest-paid quarterback in NFL history last spring. Then Hurts continued into the locker room, Roseman awaiting roster members who followed.
Eagles QB Jalen Hurts jogs to locker room, where GM Howie Roseman awaits with a hug. Roseman dispensing dozens of hugs and fist bumps to his players as their season ends—far short of last year’s Super Bowl appearance.@YahooSports pic.twitter.com/0vDN1ikb7Z
— Jori Epstein (@JoriEpstein) January 16, 2024
The scene felt like a foreshadowing of the one-by-one evaluation Roseman will soon conduct as he autopsies how his talented roster squandered its opportunity.
As he embraced Hurts, the gears might as well have been turning: Hurts. Quarterback. Still a strength mismatch for offenses but less consistent in passing game than last season. Turned the ball over far more. Battled knee injury, dislocated finger on throwing hand. Questioned whether offense’s ineptitude down stretch stemmed from lack of identity.
And so on.
Sirianni, too, anticipates confronting similar evaluations as the Eagles try to deconstruct their plummet. This wasn’t simply a dip from preseason expectations, as the Super Bowl hangover hits more teams than not. This was a dip from an early and midseason productive stretch — a dip that seemed in many ways compounded by the franchise’s mid-December demotion of Desai and promotion of in-house colleague Matt Patricia to defensive play-calling.
“I thought it was an overreaction after a couple of losses, and it has not improved at all,” color analyst Troy Aikman said on the “Monday Night Football” broadcast.
Play-by-play analyst Joe Buck doubled down as missed tackles and shoddy angles allowed the Buccaneers a 44-yard touchdown with 36 yards after the catch and a 56-yard score courtesy of 50 yards after the catch.
“I don’t know what Sirianni’s hot about, but he has to be sickened by the way his secondary [and linebackers] tackled here tonight,” Buck said. “It’s hard to keep saying the same thing, but I keep seeing the same thing.”
Sirianni blamed himself for the “big slide” and said he’d look at “everything” from play-calling to scheme and practices.
Was the franchise’s coordinator switch too openly panicked a blow for players to overcome? Some opponents questioned whether the Eagles’ defensive-line-heavy investment was beginning to wear on the team’s back seven, but Patricia’s promotion only further confused and thus slowed defenders.
Were offensive turnovers a sign of a too-predictable offense, with the league figuring out what powered Philly to an NFC title last year? Even in the 10-1 clip, Philadelphia was a team weekly living on the edge, with one-score win after one-score win. At some point, that became unsustainable.
“Looking at it now, you can say it snowballed,” cornerback James Bradberry said. “We didn’t live up to expectations. And we had a lot of expectations going into this year.
“If you don’t live up to those, of course people will want to make changes.”
Hurts coy when asked about Sirianni’s return
Hurts, curiously, played dumb when asked about Sirianni’s future.
Does he want his head coach back?
“I didn’t know he was going anywhere,” Hurts said.
He claimed twice more not to know that Sirianni faced speculation. Then, when asked about his confidence in Sirianni to fix his Eagles, Hurts did not sell out for head coach alone.
“I have a ton of confidence in everyone in this building,” Hurts said. “Just a matter of us going out there and playing clean football, and that’s been something we have not done.”
Could the ambiguity simply be par for the course from an often philosophical and message-oriented quarterback? Sure. But contrast Hurts’ response to Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott’s Sunday defense of head coach Mike McCarthy.
“He’s been amazing,” Prescott said of McCarthy after the Cowboys’ untimely playoff exit. “I’ve had the season that I’ve had because of him. This team has had the success that they’ve had because of him. I understand it’s about winning the Super Bowl. That's the standard of this league and damn sure the standard of this place.
“So I get [the questions], but add me to the list in that case.”
Patriots players last week similarly defended then-head coach Bill Belichick, sharing detailed stories of how he taught them hacks to the game while simultaneously making them laugh in ways they didn’t expect. They said that coming off a 4-13 season. The Eagles finished 11-6.
Across the Philadelphia locker room, players distributed responsibility but chalked up their expectations about 2024 leadership more to the whim of Roseman and team owner Jeffrey Lurie than to a certainty about Sirianni’s return. Again: It wasn’t long ago that many of them saw Pederson’s exit.
“The biggest way to change chatter and discussion is to win,” Johnson told Yahoo Sports. “So we tried to do that. We didn’t.
“It’s a weird business.”
On the ESPN broadcast, Aikman called the Eagles “a defeated team … [with] no life to this group, really, throughout the entire ball game.”
Such an indictment could cost a coach his job if owner and general manager feel similarly.
Displeasure canvassed Lurie’s face as he headed off the field slightly before the blowout officially wrapped.
— Jori Epstein (@JoriEpstein) January 16, 2024
Sirianni expressed confidence in himself and his team, reminding reporters that “we’re in these seats at the top of our profession because we worked our ass off to get here.”
“Obviously we were in a big slide, and any time that’s the case, I always look at myself first,” Sirianni said. “[But] as the head coach, I’m just trying to be there for our guys and our staff right now, through a tough time. Obviously we didn't finish anywhere near where we wanted to finish. So again, my heart feels for these guys. We’re all taking it hard, and that’s where my mind is right now.
“I’m not worried about me.”