The Eagles were one of the best teams in football last year, finishing second in total DVOA, and going all the way to the Super Bowl. They lost to the Chiefs in the big game, but it was still enough for other teams to look towards poaching their coaching staff. Both coordinators - Shane Steichen on offense and Jonathan Gannon on defense - left for head coaching gigs afterwards.
On offense, the Eagles opted to keep things in-house, promoting quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson to the coordinator role while also adding former Colts offensive coordinator Marcus Brady as a senior offensive assistant. Johnson is a Texas native who played collegiately for the Utes of Utah before getting into coaching. Johnson’s prolific playing career even resulted in getting his face on the cover of the now-legendary NCAA Football video game.
If the name sounds familiar, Brian Johnson led Utah to 13-0 season and win over Alabama in 2005. Also featured on EA Sports CFB cover pic.twitter.com/UONBLf2Z4W— Joseph Duarte (@Joseph_Duarte) December 27, 2016
Johnson’s most notable stretch came as the quarterbacks coach at Mississippi State, where he worked with none other than Dak Prescott, who enjoyed significant success for the Bulldogs under Johnson’s tutelage, even receiving two first-place votes for the Heisman his junior year. Johnson got his first NFL coaching job as the quarterbacks coach on Nick Sirianni’s inaugural Eagles staff, and he’s been working to develop Jalen Hurts ever since.
Last year was a career year for Hurts. After the Eagles figured out the best way to utilize Hurts’ unique abilities during the 2021 season, they traded for star receiver A.J. Brown to open things up more in the passing game. Hurts finished the year with 3,701 passing yards, 22 touchdowns, just six interceptions, 760 rushing yards, and 13 rushing touchdowns. He also placed fourth in both QBR and EPA/play on the year.
That jump in productivity and efficiency made it easy to elevate Johnson to the coordinator role, but this is his first time calling plays. That’s a big adjustment for anyone to make. And so far for Johnson, there have been some growing pains.
Early in the year, it was clear that Johnson was trying to expand the passing attack. In the first month of the season, Johnson had cut down on the use of play-action and upped the rate of deep shots for Hurts. That was a change from what Steichen had run, as the offense a year ago ran play-action at the fourth-highest rate while ranking in the middle of the league in throws 20+ yards downfield. Steichen used play-action, mostly from the shotgun, to consistently stress defenses with a dominant Eagles run game while being more methodical with his decisions to go deep.
Johnson, whose offensive philosophies were forged in college under the spread option offenses that Dan Mullen and others ran, seemed to come in with an emphasis on replicating that approach somewhat. It didn’t quite work out, as Hurts had as many interceptions as touchdowns in the first three games while also taking eight sacks, with just two of them actually being attributed to the offensive line.
Since then, Johnson has settled back into some of the things Steichen saw more success with. Play-action has increased dramatically, and Johnson has been more selective with deep shots. Johnson has also returned to a more heavy use of 12 personnel after ratcheting up 11 personnel frequency in the first month.
The changes haven’t exactly produced better results. To be clear, the offense is still performing well this year: Philadelphia ranks fourth in EPA/play and seventh in offensive DVOA, and they’re in the top 10 in both yards and scoring.
But efficiency has been a challenge at times, as the Eagles have the sixth-most turnovers so far, with all but two of them coming from Hurts. Only Jimmy Garoppolo has thrown more interceptions than Hurts’ eight on the year, and he’s also lost three fumbles. Hurts has also had issues with the pass rush, ranking eighth in sacks taken. That’s coincided with Hurts holding the ball the fourth-longest of any passer, something defenses have taken advantage of this year.
As far as weapons go, Hurts has continued to have great chemistry with A.J. Brown, whose 83 targets are fifth among all receivers. Brown is just 61 receiving yards shy of breaking 1,000 on the year. The same can’t be said for DeVonta Smith or Dallas Goedert, who have mostly been afterthoughts in the passing game outside of designed targets to them. They recently added Julio Jones, and signed him to the roster from their practice squad this week, but 34-year old veteran is still being integrated into this offense.
Offseason acquisition D’Andre Swift has been having a great year in the run game, a focal point for this offense. Swift is averaging 4.9 yards per carry and currently ranks fourth in rushing yards. Serving as the workhorse back since Week 2, Swift has the Eagles ranked fifth in rushing DVOA. The biggest obstacle for Swift has been when the offense drifts away from running the ball, as Swift has struggled to get anything going in the passing game, where he’s averaging a paltry 4.8 yards per catch despite having the fourth-most receptions among running backs.
All in all, the Eagles offense has still been producing at a well-above-average level, but they’re not the dominant offense they were a year ago. Johnson has had some growing pains in calling the offense, and Hurts has taken a big step back in ball security. This offense is still capable of scoring in bunches, but they’ve struggled against the top defensive units they’ve faced this year.
The Cowboys represent the most formidable defense they’ve faced all year, which doesn’t bode all that well for the Eagles. Dan Quinn’s unit thrives at creating pressure and taking the ball away, the two biggest problem areas for Hurts this year. If the Eagles decide to come out with a more pass-happy approach in this one, it could be playing right into the Cowboys’ hands.