The Second Season
There are two seasons in the NFL. The regular season and the postseason. Only 12 select teams reach the second season by surviving the most popular four-month war of attrition in American culture. Although several successful franchises take it for granted, it’s a difficult challenge to overcome the obstacles of an NFL season. In Philadelphia, our rich history has laid them out well. Even recently, after being the last man standing in 2017, we continue to get a bird’s-eye view of the injuries, chemistry, contracts, leadership, and coaching dynamics that can cause breaks in team congruency that can lead you to be in a precarious spot in the standings.
In a league of parity, the difference between winning and losing is small. It can be an inch on the field, a bounce off the upright, or a ball-bouncing off the outstretched fingertips of a receiver. Ultimately, the details are irrelevant. You either win or you lose. The door to the second season closes abruptly. There is no password or secret handshake to get you through that door. As much as New Orleans would like to believe otherwise, there is not a negotiation. You either survive or go home. Entry must be earned.
For the second straight season, Eagles fans have been looking forward to the second season. Fast-forward through the first 16 games and get prepared for the games that really matter. As a young child, I remember questioning why we can’t just skip Thanksgiving and get right to Christmas. Then I learned to be careful what I wished for.
The Philadelphia Eagles enter the bye week preparing for the second half of the season. The first half has been filled with significant injuries, locker room drama, and all the factors that can contribute to the door closing. Last season, the Eagles found themselves in a similar situation. In Week 14, they dropped to 6-7 by losing to the Dallas Cowboys. Although it didn’t feel like a gift, Christmas came early. The second season for the Philadelphia Eagles started in December not January. Without margin for error, the Eagles were in playoff mode for the last 3 weeks of the season.
The Second Season is Now
The Eagles will need that playoff mentality much earlier this season. Early losses to Atlanta and Detroit have the Eagles sitting at 5-4 facing their two biggest challenges in the following two weeks. The New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks are playoff-caliber teams and will serve as a huge litmus test for our Birds. The Eagles do not have to win both games, but it’s critical that they do not lose them. Dropping to 5-6 this season may cause the door to close since the Lions and Falcons losses are against conference opponents. The most likely scenarios lead us to the same place. The Eagles will have to win their remaining five games on the schedule.
The Eagles last five games are against very favorable opponents. Four of the five opponents (Giants, Dolphins, and Redskins) have a combined record of 4-22. The remaining game is a divisional showdown with the Dallas Cowboys. A Week 16 game most likely with the NFC East crown on the line in a playoff atmosphere. This is the ideal scenario for the Philadelphia Eagles being able to play in front of what is sure to be an electrifying crowd for the right to move on to the postseason. However, regardless of the opponent, the Eagles will have to treat each game prior like a playoff game to ensure they stay within reach of the NFC East crown. The Dolphins, Giants, and Redskins games should serve as confidence builders leading up to the highly anticipated matchup in Week 16.
It all lines up for the Eagles to control their own destiny in a role they are very comfortable in. Let’s look at some reasons expectations for the season have not changed despite their 5-4 record.
Reasons for Confidence
Doug Pederson’s leadership permeates throughout the locker room. The Eagles head coach delegates locker room policing to his core leaders and his approach gets tested more and more each year. A leadership void early in the season seems to have served as a mixture of fuel and glue for a team who defines itself by its ability to stick together. The “All we got, all we need” war cry that brought them a Super Bowl in 2017 appears to have resurfaced over back to back pivotal games against the Bears and the Bills.
They are who they are. The injury to DeSean Jackson derailed the Eagles plans of being one of the leagues most explosive offenses. Entering the second half of the season, the Eagles have finally let go of those dreams and accepted their identity. The offense has been very successful leaning on Jordan Howard and using Zach Ertz as the primary option in the passing game. The commitment to the running game has raised confidence in the offensive line, which is one of the team’s biggest strengths. The signing of Jordan Matthews signaled to the team that a replacement for Jackson’s vertical clout is not coming. The Eagles believe in the current formula, one that had them one drop away from upsetting the Saints and advancing to the NFC Championship. Despite Jeffrey’s slow start, I would be more comfortable taking my chances in that position this season.
The secondary has improved with Darby and Mills’ return. The Eagles were hopeful the draft investments they made the past few years in the secondary would pay off, but neither Jones nor Douglas has solidified a starting role. The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t. Both Darby & Mills have flaws that have drawn the ire of the fans in the past. Darby will bust deep zone assignments, and teams will take advantage of Mills’ aggression with double moves. However, you can see the impact of their leadership immediately, and Mills brings a physicality to the cornerback position that was lacking. Their veteran presence allows some younger corners like Rasul Douglas play comfortably in a role he has been successful at in the past. The secondary is not the strength of the defense, but the trio of Mills, Darby, and Maddox can definitely hold their own.
The Eagles best players are in a position to excel down the stretch.
Fletcher Cox is dominant again. After a slow start to the season, Cox is back to playing at an elite level and the Eagles pass rushers are benefitting. The emergence of Graham and Barnett can be directly contributed to the impact Cox is having in the trenches.
Carson Wentz will only improve. The incorporation of a successful screen game, a powerful running game, the addition of a trusted receiver in Jordan Matthews will balance the Eagles attack and keep defenses honest. The Eagles understand the passing games go through Zach Ertz, and it has to be a focus to get their biggest offensive weapon him going early in games. Ertz set the single-season record for receptions in 2018, and the Eagles are a much better team with Ertz involved.
Ertz is right. …Eagles are 15-5 in last 20 games when he’s caught at least 70% of targets (excluding Wk17 in 2017 when starters barely played).
The discussion of “too much Ertz” shouldn’t focus on targets. It should look at catch percentage. They should feed him when it works
— Zach Berman (@ZBerm) November 3, 2019
The bye week has never been a fan favorite in Philadelphia. This Sunday is eerily still. The brisk wind whips through the parking lot at Lincoln Financial Field undeterred. It’s quiet, cold, and empty. The truth is it’s exactly what this Eagles team needed. A separation from the season and an opportunity to move forward. The door is open and the opportunity is in front of them. This team knows exactly what it takes. They believe that the person next to them in that locker room is good enough to get them through that door. For some franchises, the second season doesn’t start until the regular season is over. It’s always a little harder in Philadelphia. It’s not by choice, but it’s all we know. The second season is now. That’s exactly how the players and fans want it. #FlyEaglesFly
Photo: Matt Rouke /AP