The themes of this NFL season could be told in snapshots.
Injured superstars watch from the sidelines. Next-generation coaches refashion crummy teams to contenders. Smothering defenses set the tone. Backup quarterbacks get their chance. Protests and the push for social change dominate the headlines.
The Philadelphia Eagles check all those boxes. In a sense, they are the perfect Super Bowl team — and they have kept alive a surprising trend: They’re the third consecutive NFC champion who finished .500 or worse the year before, following Atlanta last year and Carolina in 2015.
Let’s unpack those themes for the Eagles, who on Sunday will play the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LII at U.S. Bank Stadium.
Injured superstars: Players get hurt every year, but an inordinate number of elite ones sustained major injuries this season that cost them most or the rest of their seasons. Among those were Houston’s J.J. Watt, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, Seattle’s Richard Sherman and Odell Beckham Jr. of the New York Giants. For the Eagles, the biggest loss was quarterback Carson Wentz, the leading candidate for the NFL’s most valuable player, whose knee injury in a Week 14 game against the Rams ended his season. Philadelphia already had lost nine-time Pro Bowl tackle Jason Peters and playmaking middle linebacker Jordan Hicks.
“It’s just tough knowing that could be you,” said Wentz, who is from neighboring North Dakota. “I had my sights set on this thing since I knew we weren’t making the playoffs last year. I had my sights set on playing in Minneapolis. It’s right down the road from home. Here we are. It just looks different for me.”
Next-generation coaches: The toughest question of the season was, who should be coach of the year? A collection of new or relatively new leaders emerged to not only lift their teams this season, but provide hope for years to come. From the Rams’ Sean McVay, to Jacksonville’s Doug Marrone, to Minnesota’s Mike Zimmer, to late-surging San Francisco’s Kyle Shanahan, to Philadelphia’s Doug Pederson, the future is blindingly bright for these coaches. In six of the eight divisions, teams that finished third or fourth the year before wound up making the playoffs this season. Not only did the Eagles go from worst (7-9) to first (13-3) in their division, they earned the NFC’s No. 1 seed.
Smothering defenses: All over the NFL, defenses swarmed, stifled and squelched opponents. Jacksonville was “Sacksonville.” Minnesota saw the rebirth of the Purple People Eaters. The Patriots started wobbly but were Plymouth Rock after the first month. The way they thrived under new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips played a big role in the Rams’ getting back to the playoffs. There were strong showings in Carolina and Arizona too. Defense was the backbone in Denver, and Pittsburgh led the league in sacks. But there would be nary a whisper of “Fly Eagles Fly” had Philadelphia not dropped the defensive hammer on opponents. The Eagles finished No. 1 against the run, and fourth overall.
Backup quarterbacks: The Super Bowl is in Minnesota, where fill-in quarterback Case Keenum turned in a season for the Vikings worthy of MVP consideration. But there were replacements all over the league, and none is more in the spotlight than Philadelphia’s Nick Foles. He played well against Atlanta in the divisional playoff round and had a phenomenal game against Minnesota in the NFC championship game. Now, he’s dueling the most accomplished quarterback in NFL history, the ageless Tom Brady.
A lightly experienced substitute quarterback against an established superstar?
“It’s a tough circumstance to be in, and it’s not been done very often. But you’re talking to someone who has done it, so it can be done,” said Jeff Hostetler, a career backup who wound up leading the Giants to a Super Bowl victory over a Buffalo team led by Hall of Famer Jim Kelly.
“I think [Foles is] doing the things that you need to do. He knows his strengths and his weaknesses. He’s making plays when he needs to make plays, and he’s putting his guys in position to do the same.”
Social change: Philadelphia defensive end Chris Long donated his entire $1-million salary to charity this season and this week was named the Byron “Whizzer” White Community MVP by the NFL Players Assn. He and safety Malcolm Jenkins are founding members of the Players Coalition, a group of socially conscious NFL players committed to fighting racism and inequality. They helped negotiate a landmark $89-million pledge by the NFL to assist community organizations.
“I think it’s a process of educating ownership and the people from the league office as to why we’ve been so passionate about these issues,” Jenkins said, “but also showing them how the NFL, with this huge platform, can play a real role in changing our society.”
Sunday, Jenkins and his teammates will be looking to bring another kind of change to Philadelphia. It costs $50,000 to make, is polished to a perfect mirror shine, and weighs seven pounds, about the same as an average baby.
A newborn Lombardi.