Eagles' offense still drawing criticism, but at 10-1 is it fair?

PHILADELPHIA -- By halftime of Sunday's game against the Buffalo Bills, Eagles offensive coordinator Brian Johnson was trending on X, with some 7,000 posts containing his name.

Few of them were flattering.

The Eagles trailed 17-7. The offense was stagnant, managing 99 total yards while going 0-for-4 on third down. Boos rained down from the stands as both teams headed for their locker rooms.

The second half turned into a party. Quarterback Jalen Hurts and the offense erupted for four touchdowns, including a well-designed and well-timed quarterback draw in overtime that Hurts took 12 yards for a TD to end the game and lift the Eagles to a league-best 10-1 record.

That's been the theme of the season: a lot of angst in-game followed by a close Philly win and then a week's worth of conversation about why things feel so much more stressful than last year.

As the newcomer to the equation -- Johnson was promoted from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator after Shane Steichen took the head coaching job for the Indianapolis Colts in February -- Johnson often takes the brunt of the criticism.

"I don't really pay attention to all the outside stuff. But that's just the nature of the job. Very simple, call the plays that work," Johnson said. "When they don't work, that's ultimately my responsibility, right? And I accept that with open arms. And for me, I'm never going to waiver. I'll always remain confident and steady with our approach."

While some of the criticism of Johnson is valid -- there have been some questionable calls, and the Eagles have struggled out of the gates of late -- the offensive numbers are similar to last season's during the team's run to the Super Bowl, even with Philadelphia facing a more challenging schedule in 2023.

Hurts, meanwhile, is the current favorite for MVP entering Sunday's heavyweight bout against the San Francisco 49ers (4:25 p.m. ET, Fox). Hurts' rapid development under Johnson has not gone unnoticed league-wide: according to ESPN's Adam Schefter, Johnson is expected to be one of the top head coaching candidates this offseason along with Detroit Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson.

"Jalen has played really good football because Jalen is a really good football player, and he's continued to develop, but also because Brian Johnson has helped him," Eagles coach Nick Sirianni said.

"The criticism on Brian Johnson, I think that's silly. ... I think he's doing a phenomenal job."

THE 2022 AND 2023 offensive stats are strikingly similar through 11 games in several key areas, including points per game (27.55 last season vs. 28.18 this season), yards per play (5.8 vs. 5.4) and third-down conversion rate (47.2% vs. 47.3%). And with a 10-1 record, the win-loss results are the same as well.

There are a couple areas that have dipped statistically, notably red zone efficiency (down from 72.5% to 62.8%) and interceptions per attempt (from 0.9% to 2.8%).

Hurts already has 10 interceptions compared to six all of last season and is tied for the third-most turnovers among quarterbacks with 14. But his production has taken off of late. He has nine passing touchdowns to two interceptions over the last four games and has added five more scores on the ground. His relationship with Johnson goes back to when Hurts was 4 years old when Johnson was coached by Hurts' father on the high school level, but there was an adjustment period as Johnson settled into the role of playcaller.

"Yeah, it's a lot to do with that," Hurts said, on his uptick in play being related to getting comfortable with Johnson. "You have to have a feel [for one another], and that's a real thing."

Philadelphia now ranks fifth in red zone efficiency after hovering in the bottom half of the league earlier in the year. The Eagles went 10-for-10 inside the 20-yard line over their last three games while playing formidable opponents in the Dallas Cowboys, Kansas City Chiefs and Bills.

However, the Eagles have made a habit of falling behind. They have trailed at halftime in each of their past four games and have found a way to come back and win all of them, which ties an NFL record. They are 19th in first-half points over their last three games (9.3) and have been reliant on their league-best second-half offense (17.3 ppg over their last three outings) to bail them out.

"We haven't started the way we wanted to start [in the last couple games]," Sirianni said. "We always want to start fast. Traditionally the last couple years, we have been a team that has started fast. So, I'm not hitting a panic button by any means.

"When a play doesn't work, we put it on ourselves as coaches. It's not just about the playcall, it's about the design of the play and our detail of which we go about teaching it and instructing it."

OFTEN LOST IN the hyper-focus on Johnson's performance is the fact that this is Sirianni's offense. Sirianni, the former Colts offensive coordinator, was hired in Philadelphia in part because of his offensive chops. He started off as the Eagles' playcaller when he came aboard in 2021 before passing those duties off to Steichen midway through his first season so he could better manage the entire operation on game day. But it's his system, and he remains heavily involved in game-plan development.

And, it turns out, he's part of the playcalling equation. Following a questionable run call on 3rd-and-11 in the fourth quarter against the Washington Commanders in Week 4, Sirianni revealed that Johnson wanted to pass in that situation, but Sirianni overruled him and dialed up a run. Sirianni declined to say how often that occurs in a given game or season but indicated it was a similar set up when Steichen was the offensive coordinator.

"What I don't think people understand is we go through this process together. As we come in here, the offense has not changed very much as far as the schemes that we're running from Shane to Brian," Sirianni said.

Added Johnson: "That's how it's been here the last three years, so obviously Nick is the head coach, and if he wants us to run something, our job is to play to his vision and how we attack defenses."

Johnson, a former quarterback at Utah, started as a quarterbacks coach for his alma mater in 2010 and worked his way through the college ranks with stops at Mississippi State, Houston and Florida, where he served as both offensive coordinator and QB coach -- where he helped elevate the play of guys like Dak Prescott and Kyle Trask. He was able to gain some playcalling experience along the way but hadn't called plays on the NFL level until this year.

It remains a work in progress. But the Eagles rank third in points per game (28.2) and ninth in total offense (364.3 ypg). Those are some solid results, however, stress-inducing the games have been for fans and family alike.

"Even talking to my mom after the game: 'You're going to give me a heart attack after these wild crazy finishes,'" Johnson joked Tuesday.

Asked what makes Johnson stand out as a playcaller and coach, Sirianni called Johnson "steady" and said he exudes a "calming confidence" -- traits that come in handy with all the late-game chaos this season.

"When you play this game and when you coach this game, criticism is a part of the deal. It's not going anywhere. For me, I never take it personally," Johnson said. "I always want us to perform at an elite level on a consistent basis week in and week out.

"For me the biggest part is do the people that are in this building have the confidence and trust that we can go out there and execute and play to our best each and every week and try to go out there and win football games."