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How the Eagles win even when they don’t play their best game

The Eagles have NFL’s largest margin for error, and prove it every week

NFL: Buffalo Bills at Philadelphia Eagles Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

In order to best describe the 2023 Philadelphia Eagles, one has to reference the greatest sports anime of all time: Hajime No Ippo. The anime centers around a young boxer named Ippo Makunouchi who trains to become a top boxer, and along the way gets ... well... obliterated.

Like I mean opponents hammer him.

However, they never put him away. He keeps getting back up, keeps fighting. He gets knocked down, gets right back up and finds the opening. Then boom, he comes in with a flurry and his special Dempsey Roll and leaves battered, but victorious.

The Philadelphia Eagles in 2023 are like a great prizefighter. They might not be perfect through the first 11 rounds, but when they find that opening, they can smother opponents. They have the best record in the league at 10-1, but none of those wins have seemingly been comfortable. We have a statement here at SB Nation called “win your clunkers”, and it feels like the Eagles seemingly win every clunker ... because every game is a clunker. The offense has gone through lulls of inefficient play and predictable playcalling that would make any college offensive coordinator grimace. If it gets to third and long, the Eagles are running a draw with QB Jalen Hurts. It’s written in stone, signed, sealed and delivered. On Sunday against the Bills the offense was clearly limited by Hurts’ knee injury and the missing presence of right tackle Lane Johnson.

Yet they won in overtime, and are 10-1. So it’s all gravy, right?

Well, I think there are multiple things that can be true in this case: the Eagles haven’t played their best game offensively yet. With Shane Steichen gone in Indianapolis, it could be presumed that he took some, not all, of the schematic juice away from the Eagles’ offense, especially in the passing game. With Jalen Hurts being such a good deep ball passer, it’s easy to just say “throw it deep, AJ Brown and Devonta Smith down there somewhere.” Yet, last year Hurts was so good over the middle of the field, and that hasn’t been the same through 12 weeks this season. Last year, on passes over the middle of the field, Hurts’ On-Target Rate was a blistering 86.5%. This year, it’s dropped to 78.9% and he’s bailing on pockets in hopes of avoiding those areas this year. Not having tight end Dallas Goedert also hurts in that area, but the answers the Eagles used to have in that part of the field simply aren’t there right now, and it’s made the offense feel more like a chore.

Speaking of finding answers, we gotta talk about the third down stuff. According to Sports Information Solutions, on all third downs of seven or more yards, Jalen Hurts leads the NFL in carries (also filtering out which Jalen Hurts would still) lead the NFL in carries. They have to find more efficient answers for the offense that don’t involve using Hurts as a battering ram on third down, because despite how much he can lift, Hurts isn’t immortal, and is already nursing a knee injury. The offense just feels much different and much more of a slog this year, which makes it feel so weird that this team is 10-1.

However, the other side of the coin, and the part that brings us back to Ippo, is this: The Eagles are 10-1 not because they’re lucky, but because they win and create their own margins to succeed in. You have to put the Eagles away for good when you get the chance, because any sliver of a shot you give them, they have both the talent and the game management to close any gap.

One of the reasons I believe the Eagles run so many QB Draws on third and long is because they only need to get nine yards on three plays. The Brotherly Shove is the most efficient play in the league; per SIS they’ve run it 29 times with an 82.8% 1st Down Rate. For comparison, only one team with double digit attempts sits above 70%. They’re able to win within the margins and maximize every down that they have, and that’s what makes them so successful. Per, the Eagles have the second highest “go for it” rate in the NFL, and one of only three teams above 60% in that metric. The Eagles know that they can grind out yards when they absolutely need to, and instead of calling that lucky, I think that just makes them a really good football team.

The natural comparison for a team with a blistering record despite playing in, and winning, close games is the 2022 Minnesota Vikings, but when comparing both teams side by side, it’s clear that this version of the Eagles are a much better team than that Vikings group.

Are the 2023 Eagles the 2022 Vikings?

Team Offensive Success Rate (rank) Defensive Success Rate (rank) DVOA (rank) Variance
Team Offensive Success Rate (rank) Defensive Success Rate (rank) DVOA (rank) Variance
2023 Eagles 46.7% (6th) 42.7% (13th) 15.7% (8th) 0.078 (6th)
2022 Vikings 45.9% (9th) 45% (24th) -15.2% (28th) 0.093 (13th)

The most important metric here is the Variance, which is measured at FTN Fantasy as “Statistical variance of the team’s weekly DVOA performance. Teams are ranked from most consistent (No. 1, lowest variance) to least consistent (No. 32, highest variance).” This years’ Eagles team is one of the most consistent performers in the NFL, while last years’ Vikings were a bit louder when it comes to wacky plays that happen. If you want to call it luck, go ahead, but what the Eagles are doing is creating more chances at bat, giving their dudes (which they have a lot more of compared to other teams) more chances to figure it out and win the game, and that involves less luck than people let on.

In a city that celebrates Rocky and the concept of never being out a fight, the Philadelphia Eagles truly reflect that notion: they’re never out of it because of their talent and their aggressiveness in winning on the margins, and that makes them the best football team in the league.