Do the Eagles want to push for the playoffs or patience?

PHILADELPHIA, PA – OCTOBER 14: Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts (1) exits the field after the game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Philadelphia Eagles on October 14, 2021 at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, PA. (Photo by John Jones/Icon Sportswire)

Dreams after New Orleans. Despair after New York. Sunday’s game against the Giants was a vivid illustration of the muddled thinking that is shaping the Eagles’ season – and that may define the road ahead too. The team is operating like a car with two steering wheels: One pointed down the scenic route of evaluation and development, the other veering toward the no-limit Autobahn of pushing for the playoffs. Sooner or later, they need to pick a destination and get motoring. Before they crash and burn.

Destination: Development

Losing against a division rival is always painful. However, the defeat in New York was particularly excruciating because it punctured the narrative about a shift in mentality for Philadelphia football that started emerging after Week 7. Until then, the Eagles had lost five games while running the ball just 37.39 percent of the time. They were playing developmental football – figuring out what they had while also working out the best way to invest those three tasty first-round draft picks for 2022.

Hurts was throwing the ball and giving everyone a chance to judge his vision and arm strength. The team was spreading the ball around to young receivers like Reagor and Watkins, while old heads like Ward and Ertz either sat by the roadside or got catapulted to Arizona on an ejector seat. And Kenneth Gainwell was heavily involved, while Jordan Howard was parked on the practice squad.

Performances and results were dismal. But this was a team in transition. The Eagles were rebuilding, retooling, and researching the true value of Jalen Hurts and his fresh-faced co-conspirators.

Then, things took an unexpected turn…

Bound for the playoffs

Suddenly, the Eagles started running the ball. Right now, they rush more often than any other NFL franchise this season overall. Between Week 8 and Week 10, they pounded the rock 68.31 percent of the time. As a direct result, they also started winning games. It was an unglamorous style of play that programmed the team’s GPS to lead them to a deeply glamorous location: Football in February.

Hurts’ arm and vision? Dumped in the trunk. Young receivers? Only 12 receptions combined for Watkins and Reagor in the four games from Week 8 to Week 11, as the Eagles focused on the safer options of Smith and Goedert. Gainwell? Inactive against the Saints in favor of three backs with more miles on the clock. It seemed the team had shifted gear – perhaps hoping a playoff berth might attract high-impact free agents to guzzle the gas in the Eagles’ full tank of available salary during the 2022 offseason.

Bump in the road

But all that cruising just makes the bruising in East Rutherford more painful. The Eagles u-turned on the recent winning philosophy, choosing to gently pootle along the slow road again instead. Hurts passed the ball 49.23 percent of the time, completing just 14 of 31 attempts with three interceptions. Reagor and Watkins were targeted seven and five times respectively, while Smith (four) and Goedert (three) fell away from pole position. And Gainwell led the team’s running backs for receptions, without being given a single carry in the ground game.

Road to nowhere

Eagles fans are now fighting the urge to turn a divisional ding into a complete write-off. But while the wheels haven’t completely come off yet, there are legitimate concerns over the lack of a clarity about what the franchise is aiming to achieve. If the team is performing like a car with two steering wheels, it opens up bigger questions about who is sitting in the driving seats – and if the team’s erratic road-hogging is a sign of clashing priorities between the coaching staff and the front office team.

Whatever the truth, the Eagles’ season will continue to stall and stutter at regular intervals unless they pick a lane and stick to it. Otherwise, they run the risk of missing both exits – and finishing the season with no idea of what they have and nothing to show for their engine-revving either. That route will get them nowhere fast. And may see Philadelphia stuck with a rust-bucket roster in 2022.

Photo by John Jones/Icon Sportswire