Even for an NFL champion, life comes at you fast. Eight months ago, the Philadelphia Eagles were on top of the football world, having captured the franchise’s first Super Bowl title with a thrilling win over the New England Patriots. But after blowing a 17-point, fourth-quarter lead to the visiting Carolina Panthers on Sunday, the Eagles have started 2018 with a mediocre 3-4 record, sinking them to just a 45 percent chance of making it back to the playoffs (according to FiveThirtyEight’s Elo prediction model). Few defending champs have experienced a bigger drop-off to start the following year, and the early-season malaise has Philly’s faithful wondering whether this is just a standard Super Bowl hangover — or something worse.
Going back to 1967 (the season after Super Bowl I), 52 teams have attempted to defend an NFL championship. Of those, just four — the 1987 New York Giants (1-6), 2006 Pittsburgh Steelers (2-5), 1999 Denver Broncos (2-5)1 and 1982 San Francisco 49ers (2-5) — started the season with a record worse than the Eagles’ 3-4 mark over their first seven games. And in terms of Elo, only 11 Super Bowl winners lost more points of rating through seven games than the Eagles have, relative to preseason:
|Biggest Elo Declines||Worst Starts|
Five of the teams on the lists above managed to recover enough to make the playoffs: the 1976 Steelers, 1985 49ers, 2001 Ravens, 2005 Patriots and 2010 Saints. (Pittsburgh even came within a game of returning to the Super Bowl.) But most of the defending champs who came out struggling could never quite recapture the magic of their championship runs — or, at least, they dug themselves too deep of a hole to climb out of. A 3-4 record might not sound too terrible, but since 1995 only 19 percent of teams that start 3-4 end up making the playoffs. (Yes, the Eagles are almost certainly more talented than a typical team that starts 3-4, but the odds aren’t great even after isolating teams that won at least 12 games the previous season.)
So, this hasn’t exactly been the start coach Doug Pederson was looking for. But what’s to blame? And how can Philadelphia buck the odds and get back to its winning ways?
It might be tempting to point the finger at a passing offense that went from fifth in adjusted net yards per attempt before Carson Wentz went down with a knee injury late last season to just 17th this year. And it’s true that backup Nick Foles was a shell of his Super Bowl self when starting the first two games of 2018, and that Wentz has had less time to throw deep and create big plays than he did while putting up MVP-caliber numbers a season ago. Certainly the Eagles’ offense has sputtered to a mere 22.0 points per game (22nd in the league) this year, after averaging 31.1 with Wentz in the 2017 regular season.2
But by and large, Wentz has continued to be effective in orchestrating the Eagles’ passing attack, ranking eighth in the league in adjusted net yards per attempt — only two slots lower than last year — despite working his way back from a serious injury. Wentz’s average pass has traveled 2.3 fewer yards through the air according to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group, contributing to a decline in touchdowns per attempt (admittedly a problem for a red-zone offense that has dropped from first to 17th in efficiency). And yet Wentz is still moving the chains at the same rate,3 completing a sky-high 70.8 percent of his throws and tossing only one interception in 195 attempts.
If Wentz’s performance has dropped off, it has only been a slight dip at most, perhaps one amplified by an abrupt change in clutch splits. In the final five minutes of one-score games in 2017, Wentz’s passer rating was 114.8 — 12.9 points higher than his rating for the season. This year, his passer rating in the same situations is 92.7 — down 15.4 points from his overall rating. But those plays make up only about 23 percent of Wentz’s passes, an unfair sample upon which to judge his entire body of work, even if it does have an outsize effect on the Eagles’ chances of winning from week to week.
More significantly, the team around Wentz has been trending in the wrong direction. The QB is having to rely on tight end Zach Ertz more than ever, with wideouts Nelson Agholor and Alshon Jeffery struggling to get open downfield. (Mike Wallace was supposed to replace Torrey Smith as a complementary receiving threat, but he landed on injured reserve after just two weeks.) Meanwhile, Philly’s running game has declined from fourth in yards per carry (and third in yards per game) to 21st in each category, with Eagles ball-carriers slipping from third in yards after first contact per run to 19th.
“I have no lack of confidence whatsoever in our run game,” Pederson insisted Monday. But after a contest in which Wendell Smallwood and Corey Clement combined for just 38 yards on 17 carries (a 2.2-yard average), perhaps his belief should be wavering. With Jay Ajayi on injured reserve, Philly is down to Smallwood (who ranks ninth in yards after contact per rush but hasn’t always been able to find a clear path to the second level4) and Clement (who ranks 35th in yards after first contact per run). The result has been a less dynamic running game — Philadelphia’s longest rush is just 21 yards, tied for the least-impressive long run of any team — and an inability to slam the door when leading, such as in Sunday’s loss.
Speaking of that defeat, it exposed another, even larger area of concern for the defending champs: defense. Last season, Philly ranked fourth in defensive expected points added (EPA) per game; this year, its ranking has slipped to 15th, with declines coming in near-equal measure against the pass and the run. Injuries have piled up, including ailments to 2017 starters Timmy Jernigan and Rodney McLeod. And while Fletcher Cox and the front seven have still managed to apply plenty of pressure,5 the secondary has done a poor job in coverage — according to Football Outsiders’ charting data, Jalen Mills is allowing a staggering 11.7 yards per pass attempt (and is the fourth-most-targeted cornerback in the NFL) — plus the team ranks 21st in yards per rush allowed.
Coordinator Jim Schwartz hasn’t altered his defense’s identity much: The Eagles don’t blitz often, relying on the line to generate pressure and counting on sound coverage and pursuit to limit opposing gains. But so far, that plan hasn’t worked as well as it did during the Eagles’ championship push.
Philadelphia’s saving grace, though, might be its division. According to Elo, only the AFC East and AFC South are easier prey for their top-rated team than the NFC East, in terms of the quality of the next-best team in the division. (Philly remains the highest-rated team in the NFC East, by a whopping 91-point Elo margin over Washington.) Although our playoff odds give a slight edge in the division to the Redskins (41 percent to 39 percent, with Dallas checking in at 19 percent), things could be much worse for the Eagles if their competition were tougher.
The banged-up Eagles have just one obstacle between them and a much-needed bye week: a showdown with the equally tailspinning Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday in London. Despite the teams’ disappointing starts, this is one of the best games of Week 8, both in terms of matchup quality (i.e., the harmonic mean of the teams’ Elo ratings in each game) and how likely it is to swing either team’s odds of making the playoffs:
|Playoff %||Playoff %|
|Team A||Current||Avg. Chg*||Team B||Current||Avg. Chg*||Total Change||Game Quality|
For Philadelphia, a win over Jacksonville could help stabilize its championship defense, boosting its playoff chances up to 53 percent. But a loss would knock those odds down to 30 percent, making a bad situation much worse.
Defending champs rarely find their season hanging in the balance in Week 8. But if Philly doesn’t correct some of its problems against the Jaguars, the Eagles could quickly find themselves staring at one of the biggest post-Super Bowl letdowns in NFL history.
FiveThirtyEight vs. the readers
In addition to our updating NFL prediction interactive (which uses FiveThirtyEight’s Elo ratings to forecast the rest of the season), you can pick against the algorithm in our prediction game. The prize? Bragging rights and a place on our giant leaderboard.
Here are the games in which Elo made its best — and worst — predictions against the field of prognosticators last week:
|OUR PREDICTION (ELO)||READERS’ PREDICTION|
|PICK||WIN PROB.||PICK||WIN PROB.||Result||READERS’ NET PTS|
|ARI||61%||DEN||52%||DEN 45, ARI 10||+12.1||
|BAL||57||NO||53||NO 24, BAL 23||+8.4||
|BUF||52||IND||59||IND 37, BUF 5||+8.0||
|JAX||72||JAX||66||HOU 20, JAX 7||+6.6||
|PHI||69||PHI||64||CAR 21, PHI 17||+5.3||
|MIN||56||MIN||64||MIN 37, NYJ 17||+4.5||
|LAC||62||LAC||69||LAC 20, TEN 19||+3.1||
|LAR||71||LAR||81||LAR 39, SF 10||+2.9||
|MIA||56||MIA||52||DET 32, MIA 21||+2.4||
|NE||60||NE||64||NE 38, CHI 31||+0.7||
|WSH||53||WSH||53||WSH 20, DAL 17||-1.6||
|KC||76||KC||74||KC 45, CIN 10||-2.8||
|ATL||80||ATL||77||ATL 23, NYG 20||-3.2||
|TB||77||TB||61||TB 26, CLE 23||-12.7||
Week 7 contained a special milestone for FiveThirtyEight prediction contestants: It was the first week of the season in which the average reader actually beat Elo’s picks! The readers picked up an average of 33.7 points against the model last week, with their only major slip-up being too little confidence in the Buccaneers against the Browns. (Elo looked particularly dumb when it picked Arizona to beat Denver, only to watch in horror as the visiting Broncos thrashed the Cards 45-10.) On the season, though, Elo still leads by an average of 199.6 points — so more weeks like this will be needed to chase down the computer.
Particular congratulations are in order to Jesse Goddard, who led all (identified) users in Week 7 with 220.0 points, and to Scott Duhaime, who pulled into the season-long lead with 533.3 points. Thanks to everyone who has been playing — and if you haven’t, be sure to get in on the action! You can make picks now and still try your luck against Elo, even if you haven’t played yet.
Check out our latest NFL predictions.