PHILADELPHIA — I’ll admit it — there are moments when I wonder whether anybody can truthfully project how the upcoming Eagles season will unfold. Maybe you have a better feel for what it’s like to play football in an empty stadium in the midst of a pandemic and an election campaign that has already made its presence felt on other fields of play. Me? I need to see it unfold.
In addition to this existential uncertainty comes a series of football-related questions that are impossible to predict. Can the offensive line hold up? Can all of these young speed demons establish themselves as legitimate NFL players? Who will replace Malcolm Jenkins? Can anybody?
The general manager himself has acknowledged the difficulty of setting any sort of concrete expectations.
“The stuff for us that’s the unknown is how the team comes together, how the team deals with adversity because we will have adversity at some point in the season,” Howie Roseman said after the Eagles’ final roster cuts. “I think those are the things that you learn when we start getting into games. This has been a unique training camp.”
But, then, the more I think about this unprecedented season, the more I think that the Eagles will enter it with an advantage that few other teams can match. Forget about the improved pass rush, and the addition of Darius Slay, and the promise of Miles Sanders. The list of reasons to believe in the 2020 Eagles starts with the quarterback and the head coach.
Only four teams in the NFL have a quarterback and head coach who have been together longer than Doug Pederson and Carson Wentz (Saints, Steelers, Texans, Falcons). Each of the other teams in the division are led by first-year coaches who spent the first several months of their tenure building their programs via Zoom. Neither Mike McCarthy nor Ron Rivera are novices, and Joe Judge has surrounded himself with a wealth of experience in New York. But none of them will enter the season with the sort of organizational chemistry that the Eagles enjoy. And however you feel about Pederson’s coaching acumen, or Roseman’s drafting, or Wentz’s standing among the game’s elite passers, the three of them have been living and breathing together since that predraft dinner in Fargo in 2016. If familiarity matters in any season, it is this one.
“I’ve thought about that with the new staffs just in our division here and in our conference,” Pederson said earlier this summer when asked about the challenges facing first-year head coaches in the current environment. “It has to be extremely tough not to be around (each other). They spent a little bit of time, probably maybe a few weeks way back in February and March, maybe together, but it would be hard. And then not having your players in the offseason trying to teach a new offense, defense, special teams, I’m sure is probably difficult in its own right. We’ve been blessed. I’ve been blessed going into my fifth year here in Philadelphia and maintaining the staff that I have and adding some great additions to the staff this year. And our players are excited because they are not having to learn a necessarily new offense or defense or special teams. So I’m not necessarily thinking it’s going to be a leg up, but at the same time, it does give us confidence going into camp that we all are on the same page.”
Fast forward to Monday, and Pederson was in full regular-season mode, downplaying the significance that the offseason upheaval will have on the field of play. But it is difficult to imagine that the circumstances do not benefit the Eagles to some degree.
This is particularly true if you distance your emotions from the disappointment of the last couple of seasons and consider what Wentz and Pederson have accomplished together.
Wentz needs to keep himself out of harm’s way without sacrificing the improvisation skills that made him an MVP candidate in 2017. There are plenty of reasons to wonder about his ability to do so, from the losses of Brandon Brooks and Andre Dillard on the offensive line to the Eagles’ curious decision to spend a second-round pick on a quarterback. The hope is that he is Matthew Stafford, who missed 19 of 32 games due to injury in his first two seasons and then went on to start 136 consecutive games. The fear is that he will be Andrew Luck or Cam Newton.
Wentz’s talent should not be in question, nor should his potential. When he takes his first snap at FedEx Field on Sunday for the Eagles’ season opener against the Redskins, he will be just 20 days older than Brees was when the future Hall of Famer played his first game in a Saints uniform. Wentz has a better career record than Brees and Peyton Manning did at the same juncture. The list of quarterbacks who threw for at least 14,000 yards and 90 touchdowns with a quarterback rating of at least 90 in their first 56 career regular-season games is a short one. Dan Marino. Kurt Warner. Carson Wentz.
He has accomplished all of this despite a rash of injuries on the offensive line and a revolving cast of unremarkable skill position players. And that points directly to Pederson. The synergy between the two, and the benefit of that familiarity, is why the Eagles have been at their best during the stretch runs of each of the last three seasons. Last year, during the Eagles’ 4-1 close to the season, Wentz completed 66% of his passes for 1,509 yards, 10 touchdowns and one interception. Over 16 games, that would amount to 4,820 yards, 32 touchdowns and three interceptions.
“I think what makes a team special is the team chemistry and the team coming together to become one,” Roseman said, “and that doesn’t happen overnight.”
It remains to be seen how that chemistry expresses itself on the field. The one prediction I feel comfortable making: it will matter.
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