As the Philadelphia Eagles embark on another season, it’s hard not to think back to last year when the team won a franchise record 14 games and found itself back in the Super Bowl for the second time in five years. Though the Birds fell short of the ultimate goal, many feel they are poised to make similar runs over the course of the next few years thanks to confidence instilled by quarterback Jalen Hurts who catapulted from the unknown to a top-tier MVP candidate.
To help get ready for this season, we spoke with coaches, players, Eagles insiders and more. Our season preview begins with a one-on-one conversation with the illustrious voice of the Eagles Merrill Reese. Now entering into his 47th year in the broadcast booth, Reese has seen a little bit of everything during his tenure and he shares some of his fondest memories with us.
We also had longtime Eagles reporter Les Bowen head to training camp to find out the mindset of the players and head coach Nick Sirianni as they are challenged with exceeding last season’s remarkable success. What’s more, we spoke with the media that covers the team along with fans across South Jersey to get their predictions.
As the Eagles embark on another highly anticipated season, the team is focused and ready to build upon last year’s success.
By Les Bowen
You haven’t heard much Super Bowl talk from the Philadelphia Eagles as they prepare for their 2024 season. Not much about Super Bowl LVII, which they lost to Kansas City, 38-35, seven months ago, or about Super Bowl LVIII next February, even though oddsmakers give them an excellent chance of returning to the NFL’s championship game.
This year’s training camp had a different feel than in 2018, the last time the team tried to follow up a Super Bowl appearance. Back then, the catchphrase, captured in a graphic plastered to a hallway wall in the NovaCare Complex, was then-coach Doug Pederson’s declaration that appearing in and winning Super Bowls was going to become “the new normal.”
This did not prove to be the case; the Eagles didn’t return to the Super Bowl under Pederson, who was fired following a 4-11-1 season in 2020. The hallway graphic has long since disappeared.
This time around, there have been no bold proclamations. Of course, this time, the Eagles aren’t coming off a Super Bowl victory, but they are following up one of the best seasons in franchise history, an intoxicating 14-3 campaign in which Jalen Hurts established himself among the top handful of NFL quarterbacks. Some puffing out of chests could have been expected, especially from Hurts, who has a new five-year, $255 million contract, or from head coach Nick Sirianni, whose 23-11 record is the best-ever by an Eagles coach through his first two seasons.
Instead, both men have talked about the importance of realizing that nothing carries over, that last season’s accomplishments won’t mean anything this year.
“We need to continue to challenge one another,” Hurts said during one of the more grueling weeks of August preparation.
Back in the spring, when the offseason program began, Sirianni did show the team footage of the red-and-yellow confetti falling as the Chiefs celebrated their narrow victory, for his players to use as motivation. But then he moved on. Ever since, Sirianni has emphasized the day-to-day process that produces success, not the result. He tends to say something along these lines almost every time he meets with reporters.
“It makes the drive and the want-to to get back to the Super Bowl bigger. I’m hungrier to get back there; I got a taste of it,” left tackle Jordan Mailata said, when asked how making it to the Super Bowl informed his approach to this season.
Sometimes when a team goes deep into the playoffs, the next season seems to arrive too soon, without enough time having passed for physical and emotional healing. Mailata said that if that feeling existed, it dissipated during spring OTAs, in which Sirianni ran the league’s lightest schedule. Mailata said training camp felt no different from any other year.
That’s encouraging. Eagles camp in 2018 definitely felt different, with Carson Wentz striving to return from knee surgery and Wentz uncomfortable in the aftermath of backup Nick Foles’ historic Super Bowl performance. The personnel situation elsewhere was much less settled—injuries and free-agent defections made the offense much less potent.
In 2005, the only other time this century the Eagles have had to follow up a Super Bowl appearance, training camp was a total train wreck. The team’s most dominant player, Terrell Owens, was sent home after telling offensive coordinator Brad Childress not to speak to him unless spoken to, and publicly quarreling with the quarterback, because Owens wanted his contract reworked.
Compared to those years, this training camp looked pretty boring, which is what you look for in a training camp, if you have a good team.
There is reason, though, for fans to be wary: Everyone thinks the Eagles’ talent still ranks at or near the top of the NFC heap, as this season gets underway. Yet, the last NFC team to return to the Super Bowl the year after losing it was the 1974 Minnesota Vikings. (They lost again.) Overall, only three teams in 57 years have won the Super Bowl after losing it the year before, and only five teams have gotten back to the title game the year after a Super Bowl loss.
Overall, the last team to win a Super Bowl the year after losing it was the Patriots, who rebounded in 2018, the season after they lost to Foles and the Eagles. Before that, you have to go back to Miami winning Super Bowl VII.
This trend is, of course, something the analytically-inclined Eagles have studied. Sirianni told reporters that the biggest reason teams don’t get back is a large dropoff in offensive production, the year after a Super Bowl—for winners and losers. In general, injury luck tends to run out, which is definitely something to beware for Eagles fans; their team had all 22 starters healthy for the Super Bowl. That is extraordinary.
Or, just plain old regular luck runs out. Cincinnati, which lost Super Bowl LVI to the Rams, actually had a better follow-up season (12-4 vs. 10-7), and might have been the Eagles’ Super Bowl opponent last February except for a penalty on an out-of-bounds hit that set up Kansas City to run down the clock before kicking a game-winning field goal.
But there is no way, in mid-August, to project crippling injuries or terrible turns of fate. What we know is that the Eagles have one of the league’s most challenging schedules, a year after sailing through one of its easiest slates, but as this was being typed, nothing ominous had happened. The Eagles lost some players to free agency, but general manager Howie Roseman seems to have done a more than adequate job of plugging holes. Their offensive and defensive lines are ranked at or near the top of the league.
And they have Hurts, who sets a standard of leadership and hard work that is the stuff of champions. In August, his fellow players ranked him No. 3 among the NFL’s top 100 performers.
“It’s an honor to be recognized by my peers,” Hurts said when asked about the voting, in the same tone he might have used to tell us his dental checkup revealed no cavities.
“He’s, like, straightforward,” running back Kenneth Gainwell said. “He’s all about his business. He does everything he has to do the right way.” Gainwell offered that when the offense messes up a play, Hurts always makes sure it then gets repped correctly.
Hurts is the focal point, but the fact is, this team has extraordinary veteran leadership, exemplified by four all-time franchise greats who have played together for a decade—center Jason Kelce, right tackle Lane Johnson, defensive end Brandon Graham and defensive tackle Fletcher Cox. It’s hard to think of another such confluence, in a team history that stretches back to 1933.
“When your leaders on your team really are motivated to connect with other guys and also help them develop, not only by showing them, but (by being) willing to open the door and talk them through it … when they really have that ability to and want to help the young guys, that’s a big deal,” Sirianni said early in training camp. “I think you see that with Jason and Fletch and BG and Lane … They’re really committed to that.
“It’s special. It’s a special group of guys, and that’s what we want. We want guys to connect. When you’re truly in it to have the relationships, and you’re truly in it to get better as a team, understanding that the best teams win, not the best groups of individuals, that makes for a special team, and that’s why we have special leaders on this team.”
Last season, Sirianni enjoyed not only great leadership in the locker room, but also a smooth-functioning coaches’ room. His offensive and defensive coordinators, Shane Steichen and Jonathan Gannon, were the guys Sirianni chose when he was hired to replace Pederson following the 2020 season. Now, Steichen is the head coach in Indianapolis, and Gannon is the head coach in Arizona.
Sirianni has an offensive background, and he had a Steichen replacement ready on his staff, in former quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson. Given that, through Hurts’ high school coaching father, Johnson has known Hurts pretty much all of Hurts’ life, the offensive change ought not to be drastic. The most obvious hurdle to surmount is that Steichen called plays, and did so quite effectively last season. But Johnson was there by his side, as, of course, was Sirianni.
Barring late-breaking injury news, the biggest change among the offensive starters will be at right guard. Cam Jurgens, drafted in 2022 to replace Jason Kelce should Kelce finally retire someday, is expected to step in for Isaac Seumalo, who signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Top rusher Miles Sanders left for Carolina, but the Eagles field a deep stable there, including returnee Gainwell and Philly native D’Andre Swift, formerly of the Lions.
Defense is a different story. Sirianni brought in Sean Desai, a former Bears defensive coordinator who spent last season working for the Seahawks. Desai is keeping Gannon’s basic scheme, with tweaks. Fans hope he is better able to adapt than Gannon, whose unit was helpless in the second half of the Super Bowl, allowing the Chiefs to erase a 10-point halftime deficit and score every time they got the ball.
Desai, unlike Johnson, must smooth out significant personnel changes. The two top linebackers, T.J. Edwards and Kyzir White, left in free agency, as did the two starting safeties, C.J. Gardner-Johnson and Marcus Epps. Perhaps the biggest loss was starting defensive tackle Javon Hargrave, who managed 11 sacks last season. Hargrave signed in San Francisco, a top NFC rival.
But the Eagles had 2022 top draft pick Jordan Davis waiting to step in for Hargrave, and they hedged their bet by drafting Davis’s former Georgia Bulldogs partner, defensive tackle Jalen Carter, ninth overall in this year’s first round. Later in the first, 30th overall, they added Georgia edge rusher Nolan Smith.
The Eagles added a third-round safety in Sydney Brown, who will compete for a starting berth with last year’s promising rookie, Reed Blankenship, and a group that includes 2020 draftee K’Von Wallace, former Steeler Terrell Edmunds, and ex-Saint Justin Evans. As this was being written, Blankenship was the only member of the group who seemed to have a solid grip on a starting role.
Linebacker was probably the position that featured the most intrigue as training camp developed. Clearly, 2022 Georgia rookie Nakobe Dean is expected to lead the group, though he played just 34 defensive snaps last season. Well into camp, the Eagles cut 2020 third-round draftee Davion Taylor, and added a couple of veteran free agents—Myles Jack, who’d been cut by Pittsburgh, and Zach Cunningham, released by the Titans. They joined a previous vet signee, ex-Bear Nicholas Morrow, and Christian Elliss, who was a hard-hitting special teamer as an undrafted rookie last season.
The Eagles don’t like to pay big money to linebackers, and they don’t invest top draft capital there. But when you’re, say, in the second half of the Super Bowl, and you’re getting gashed for 6.26 yards a carry (19 Kansas City second-half carries, 119 yards), and you’d like to get your excellent offensive unit back on the field—at time like that, good linebackers can come in handy.
Right now, Desai and his linebackers are a long way from needing to figure out how to stop the run in the second half of the Super Bowl. To even get to that point, the Eagles will need to defy the history of Super Bowl runners-up.
Sirianni can’t do anything about the tougher schedule, or the likelihood of tougher injury luck. But he can relentlessly work to overcome any sort of complacency. That was a huge theme of the Eagles’ preparation. In one practice, Sirianni was seen giving an earful to Hurts, his diligent, uber-focused leader. Observers interpreted this not as any sort of rift between the men, but as Sirianni sending a message to the team: Everyone is accountable, there are no exceptions.
Hurts, the son of a demanding coach, was predictably unbothered by the semi-public correction.
“I can’t get on another guy for acting a certain type of way toward something, and I’m not practicing what I’m preaching,” Hurts said. “We’re all here to learn and continue to grow.”
That actually might be a sustainable “new normal.”
Expecting Big Things
Those who cover the Eagles share their outlook for the season.
“I’m looking for continued growth from the whole team but especially quarterback Jalen Hurts. This time a year ago most fans weren’t at all sure Hurts was a front-line starter in the NFL. They were still lamenting the fact the Eagles didn’t pursue Russell Wilson or DeShaun Watson. Hurts put all that talk to rest by leading the Eagles to the Super Bowl. He exceeded everyone’s expectations. So what happens this year? Will Hurts continue to improve, will he plateau or will he regress? Eagles fans remember what happened with Carson Wentz and how his trajectory went from MVP to outcast with such stunning swiftness. Will Hurts indeed prove to be the real thing?
“I expect the offense to be explosive, dynamic, pick any word you choose. As good as they were last year, I think they will be equally good this year. Scoring points won’t be an issue. They will probably have five new starters on defense and they are counting on a lot of young guys—Jordan Davis, Nakobe Dean, rookies Jalen Carter and Nolan Smith—to step right in and play well. It might take a while for the defense to get its footing but I think the offense will be good enough to keep the wins coming. It’s a challenge coming back from a Super Bowl loss—only eight of the 56 losers made it back the next year—but this team is talented enough to do it.”
— RAY DIDINGER, NFL Hall of Fame Writer
“This club is talented. We need the young guys to step up, but as far as talent top to bottom, this is probably the best team in the NFL.
“This is a balanced team and I understand it’s hard to get back to the Super Bowl, but they have all the talent to be a great team once again. And everybody’s talking about how the Eagles have a hard schedule. Well, please believe all those teams have marked the Philadelphia Eagles on their calendar. All 17 opponents have circled the game and it’s going to be their Super Bowl. But the Eagles want to get back to where they were and they want to keep that same mindset of one game at a time, one series at a time, one play at a time. And the next you thing you know, it will be one season at a time and they’ll be back [in the big game]. So, yeah, I drank the Kool-Aid, but with this roster and coaches, that Kool-Aid tastes pretty good.”
— BARRETT BROOKS, NBC Sports Philadelphia host
“There have been relatively few teams in sports—but certainly in the NFL—that make it to the championship round, lose, and then make it back the next year. I’ve never seen a team that seems as passionate and driven from coaches to players to management. I am expecting an Eagles explosion this season with Eagles fans holding on with both hands for an incredible ride.
“I think they take zero steps back. … This team has talent, grit, a great coach and quarterback, and they will win more games than expected given what happened last season and the increased difficulty of the schedule.”
— MICHAEL BARKANN, NBC Sports Philadelphia host
“Can Jalen Hurts continue to play at the level he did last year? He has the contract of a top player in the league, was the MVP runner-up and has arguably the best supporting cast in the NFL. He and that offense are so fun to watch and I want more of it especially to see how they play against this year’s slate of opponents.
“I don’t think [there will be] a step back in the sense that there is regression or players and coaches performing worse. If they have more losses this year, it’s because of schedule and/or injuries. It’s the most challenging schedule based on last year’s standings and last year they took advantage of their easy slate as good teams should. Thirteen wins would be incredible to see again. And while the Eagles lost some players at times due to injuries, none ended seasons and everyone played in the Super Bowl. Will luck play a part?”
— DIANNA RUSSINI, The Athletic NFL Insider
“I’m most looking forward to see what the new defensive coordinator does with a remade defense with half a dozen new starters. Here’s hoping that he’s a lot more aggressive than the last defense coordinator, although I don’t expect that will be the case.
“I am also eager to see how the best offensive line in the NFL holds up for another season. Maybe Jason Kelce is immortal, I certainly hope so. There’s going to be a new right guard, and that will present some challenges to the continuity. And how will Lane Johnson come back after his surgery?
“I don’t expect them to win 14 games in the regular season, that’s very difficult. But I do think they will be the best team in their division, and probably in the conference. Getting back to the Super Bowl is no easy task, but I would bet on them before any other team in the NFC.”
— GLEN MACNOW, 94 WIP host
“Jalen Hurts took such a big step last season I’m looking forward to see if he can grow more this season. It’s important to back up his Super Bowl season and improve. But, the biggest question is can the Eagles be better in 2023? Yes, however I think it will be difficult to equal the 14 wins of last season. With a tougher schedule this year I think Eagles will not get to that number, but be a better team and still win the NFC East. Injuries could be a big factor whether or not they return to the Super Bowl.”
— HOWARD ESKIN, 94 WIP host
From the Fans
Some Eagles diehards share their thoughts for the season
“I'm looking forward to seeing how Jalen Hurts comes back. Anybody that knows him knows when he gets knocked down he comes back stronger and I can’t wait to see him take it all the way. And not only did the team maintain the excellence, I think they added some critical pieces in the draft that are going to be spectacular.”
— Jason Braatz
“I think they will be in contention for the Super Bowl; however only making it to the playoffs.”
— Sherrie Pancoast
“We will be one of the very few teams in NFL history to go back to the Super Bowl the following year; yet this time, we are going to win it!”
— Kimberly Zuccarello
“It’s Super Bowl or bust! This is the best roster the team has ever put together. A great mix of youth and veteran talent on both sides of the ball.”
— Robert Burnham
“I’m looking forward to a great season with our veterans only getting better and strengthening the team, and the rookies learning and growing. I see a lot of potential in some of the newer guys. We had some amazing plays last year; so let’s play some football!”
— Linda Pawling
A Voice That Spans Generations
As the legendary Merrill Reese enters his 47th season as the play-by-play broadcaster for the Philadelphia Eagles, he is just as enthusiastic as the day he took the job.
By Matt Cosentino
For millions of football fans in the Delaware Valley, there’s only ever been one “voice of the Philadelphia Eagles,” and even those old enough to remember other radio play-by-play announcers have a special affinity for Merrill Reese. Kids still imitate his calls as they practice in the backyard and imagine scoring the game-winning touchdown for the Birds. Adults rely on his passionate recounting of the action whenever they’re stuck in the car on a Sunday afternoon, or might even turn down the television volume and listen to the WIP broadcast while they’re enjoying the game in their living room.
Reese was once a diehard Eagles supporter just like them, who first dreamed of playing for the team he idolized before realizing his destiny was not to end up on the gridiron, but high above the field in the broadcast booth. This will be his 47th season as the team’s play-by-play man, a number that means little to him but ranks as the longest current tenure with one team in the entire National Football League.
He spoke to South Jersey Magazine about his legendary career, how some of his trademark calls evolved and his hopes to witness another Super Bowl win for the Birds to go with their championship from the 2017 season.
Do you still get the same excitement heading into a new season as you did when you first started?
You’re entering your 47th season, which means you’re the longest-tenured play-by-play man in the NFL. Is that a source of pride for you?
Do you think 50 years will be any different if you get to that milestone?
The Eagles have certainly had some ups and downs during your tenure, but when they’re in the position they’re in now, does that just add to your excitement?
The Eagles do have two new coordinators this year and a very difficult schedule. Does that dampen your optimism at all?
Right, and like you said, injuries can always play a big part.
I’d like to go back a little bit to your early days as a sports fan. I understand that radio was an important part of your childhood, so did you know as a kid that this is what you wanted to do?
Did you start to cut your teeth as a broadcaster as a student at Temple?
You loved and had experience in all of the major sports. How did you come to focus on football and the Eagles?
You mentioned being nervous on your first day. Is it true that you still get nervous today before games?
I was going to ask you about Mike Quick. You were with Stan Walters for many years, but now I think Mike is the partner you’ve been with the longest.
The title of your autobiography is It’s Gooooood! How did that become your signature call?
How about the way you tick off the yardage when a big play is happening?
Do you like the fact that fans often imitate your calls? Just like Harry Kalas, most Philadelphia fans have a Merrill Reese impression.
I know you said earlier that the numbers don’t mean much to you, but for many Eagles fans, you’ve been the voice of the team for their entire lives. Is that special to you to know that so many people have grown up listening to you?
You almost got to call a second Super Bowl win last year, and hopefully you won’t have to wait long for another.
Is it too difficult of a question to ask you about your favorite players over the years?
Going from your Eagles family to your own family, I believe your son Nolan works in the movie industry, right?
And you have a daughter too?
I’ve also heard you talk about your wife, Cindy, many times, who has been your support system for so long.
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Published and copyrighted in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 20, Issue 5 (August 2023)