The man holding court on the Xcel Energy Center floor on Monday night, as the architect of the Philadelphia Eagles’ rise to the top of the NFC, had been hip-checked from his role at the center of the Eagles’ football operation only three years earlier.
Talk to Howie Roseman, then, about the idea that the Eagles’ jump might have happened quicker than he expected, and you’re not likely to find him sympathetic to the idea that an unlikely turnaround must be a methodical one.
“If I would have mapped it out, I would have mapped it out faster last year,” the Eagles’ executive vice president of football operations said Monday. “I think you just kind of put your head down, everyone goes to work and you try to build a good team. Sometimes, it just clicks.”
The Eagles are in the Super Bowl for the first time in 13 years largely because of the moves made by Roseman, who regained full control of Philadelphia’s roster only a year after he’d lost it in a power struggle with former coach Chip Kelly. As Kelly demanded control of the Eagles’ roster, Roseman was relieved of his duties as general manager in January of 2015 and given a new title but transferred out of the Eagles’ football office, tasked with managing the team’s salary cap and overseeing contract negotiations.
When the Eagles fired Kelly at the end of the 2015 season, owner Jeffery Lurie put Roseman back in control of the roster, and the 42-year-old got to work on a bold series of moves to overhaul the organization and ultimately propel it back to the Super Bowl.
Philadelphia hired Doug Pederson as its head coach in January of 2016, then shipped five picks to the Cleveland Browns that April for the No. 2 overall pick. That September, Roseman shipped starting quarterback Sam Bradford to the Vikings for two draft picks, clearing $11 million in cap space with the move and creating an opening for former North Dakota State quarterback Carson Wentz to start as a rookie.
The 2017 offseason was the final step in the transformation of the Eagles’ roster. Roseman used the cap space from the Bradford trade to sign wide receiver Alshon Jeffery (one of 15 free agents Philadelphia signed), and spent the Vikings’ first-round pick on impressive young pass rusher Derek Barnett. The Eagles traded for two more starters (cornerback Ronald Darby and defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan). After the 2018 fourth-rounder they received from the Vikings in the Bradford trade gave them three picks in that round this spring, they sent one to Miami for running back Jay Ajayi this fall.
Seven of the Eagles’ starters were acquired in trades or free agency, as well as key contributors such as defensive end Chris Long and cornerback Patrick Robinson. Those two players are among the 20 on Philadelphia’s roster who were either first- or second-round picks.
“Jeffrey [Lurie] wants us to be aggressive and take risks,” Roseman said. “He believes that if you don’t take risks, you have no chance of being great — you’re going to be in the middle. When you have an owner that says, ‘Hey, don’t be afraid to fail; go after what we believe in,’ it’s easier to take those risks.”
Bold by nature
Little about the Eagles’ operation, from Roseman’s moves to Pederson’s play-calling and the confidence with which players such as Long and safety Malcolm Jenkins speak about off-field issues, could be called bland.
Philadelphia’s front office draws from a mix of scouting and analytics opinions, looking for high draft picks that might not have caught on with their original teams.
“Those guys, being drafted that high, they obviously have traits in their body that you can bring out with the right coaching system,” Roseman said.
Three of the Eagles’ offensive linemen, and five of their defensive linemen, went in the first two rounds; Philadelphia led the NFL in pass rushing pressure, according to Pro Football Focus, and used a sturdy line to build the league’s third-ranked rushing attack.
“Your actions have to speak louder than your words when you do that,” Roseman said. “Thirty-two teams will say they believe in the lines, but you have to go overboard in that. Some people may have thought it was excessive at times, but that’s going to be how we roll going forward.”
Pederson opted to go for it on fourth down 26 times this season, more than any team in the league other than Green Bay; Philadelphia’s 17 conversions were the most in one season since Jacksonville had 19 in 2007.
“It’s a combination of [Pederson]’s philosophy for the team and for our offense,” offensive coordinator Frank Reich said. “The second part of that is having confidence in the schemes and the players that we have. And the third part of it — which I would not underestimate at all — is when you really look at some of the analytics behind it. It makes sense.”
Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins co-founded the Players Coalition group that took concerns about social justice causes to NFL owners after national anthem protests this fall, and Long was given the NFL Players Association’s Byron “Whizzer” White Award on Thursday, after donating his 2017 season salary to improve educational opportunities for kids in Charlottesville, Va., St. Louis, Philadelphia and New England.
“Those guys are tremendous workers,” Roseman said. “There’s enough hours in the day for them to get their lift in, for them to study tape, for them to go to practice and at the same time, be interested in other things. It’s a tribute to them that they have these outside interests and they want to change the world.”
Bradford trade changed franchise
Of all Roseman’s decisions, the one he made to trade Bradford to the Vikings — eight days before the start of the 2016 season — might have been the Eagles’ biggest catalyst.
By that point, he said, the Eagles realized Wentz was ready to play; the move meant they would immediately begin their time with him as their starter. After he struggled following an impressive start to his rookie season, Wentz put himself in the MVP race by throwing 33 touchdowns in 13 games this season before tearing his ACL on Dec. 10.
Jeffery, who signed a one-year deal with the Eagles after receiving interest from the Vikings and other teams, caught 57 passes for 789 yards and a team-high nine touchdowns this season; the Eagles gave him a four-year, $52 million extension in December. And Barnett had 5½ sacks in a rotational role as a rookie.
“We had a chance to not only get the resources in terms of draft picks back, but get the money back we were going to pay Sam,” Roseman said. “That allowed us to sign Alshon. We were able to get a first and a fourth and $11 million, really when you look at it, that allowed us to improve our team around Carson.”
After putting up career-high numbers in 2016, Bradford played only six quarters in 2017 before returning for the playoffs as Case Keenum’s backup. He stood on the sidelines for the NFC Championship Game, watching his old team beat his current one 38-7, as the mastermind of the Eagles’ turnaround raised the Halas Trophy.
Vikings GM Rick Spielman said Thursday he will be at U.S. Bank Stadium for the Super Bowl, and “then I’ll move on.” He might end the night by watching his good friend lift the Lombardi Trophy.
“You’re taking responsibility for a lot of people on the field and off the field when you make those kind of franchise-changing decisions,” Roseman said. “They can go one of two ways. You don’t take that lightly, but at the same time someone has to pull the trigger. And you’ve got to follow all your instincts and your gut and your research and then just kind of live with it.”