For most of the past 4 weeks, from Jake Elliott’s 61 yard field goal to sink the Giants until now, I have been pretty much speechless (in the best way possible) when trying to put my thoughts and feelings about this team and this season into thought and word. So here we go, now I’ll give it my best try:
- As a Carson Wentz believer from Day 1, I recognized his clear, raw talent last year. I had butterflies before the Cleveland game and throughout the first month of the season. I continued to see his emerging star even as things broke down around him through the remainder of 2016. He ended the season strong, then during the offseason we heard about how rising quarterbacks typically take a big step forward from year 1 to year 2.
Well, Carson has taken about eight steps forward. I mean, the kid looks totally different. I thought he looked good last year considering what was around him, but now I go back and watch his game tape from 2016, and it’s not even close. He has taken his natural intelligence and physical gifts, and capitalized on them to now have a complete mastery of the offense, an ability to see the entire field, and improved mechanics to navigate the pocket and move/scramble when necessary.
We’ve heard many people in the media, across the NFL, and his own teammates talk about how he’s going to be a superstar someday. Well guess what, he is one now. That someday has already arrived. He is a legitimate Top-5 QB in 2017 and an MVP candidate in just his second season. His rapid ascension, while not shocking, is amazing to behold and so unbelievably exciting to be a part of.
- When I became an Eagles fan as a kid in the early 2000s, the Eagles defense was ferocious. I mean, ferocious. Brian Dawkins, Jeremiah Trotter, Jevon Kearse, Michael Lewis, Troy Vincent, Lito Sheppard, and Sheldon Brown led the way year-to-year. I had such a comfort watching those teams because I knew that even if the offense struggled from periodically, that defense, led by the legendary Jim Johnson, would make everything okay. We’re back to that.
Jim Schwartz is easily the best defensive coordinator we’ve had since Johnson, and what he is getting out of these guys now in year two is amazing. The nastiness and depth on the defensive line has simply beaten opponents into submission. Ask Kirk Cousins, Carson Palmer, and Cam Newton. The linebackers, traditionally a weak spot on Eagles teams past, are thriving. Jordan Hicks, the resurgent Mychal Kendricks, and Nigel Bradham are playing fast, sound, and have been tackling machines. The secondary play has exceeded all expectations, and it doesn’t even have Ronald Darby and Sidney Jones in the lineup. The idea that we haven’t even seen the best of this Eagles defense yet should scare the daylights out of the other 31 NFL teams.
- Zach Ertz hit a low point in his career last year, no question. It was the third straight year we expected his “breakout” season and it just wasn’t happening. Then there was the dreadful Cincinnati game, where he sidestepped Bengals’ linebacker Vontaze Burfict and almost allowed Burfict to behead a scrambling Carson Wentz.
He heard the criticism from fans, and it bothered him. Then, he was questioned by some of his teammates in his own locker room, and it devastated him. Ertz has a ton of heart, and maybe that was the harsh wake-up call that was needed. In just the 10 games since that day, he has 65 receptions, 759 yards, 6 TDs, and has played with an edge that we hadn’t seen out of him before. He and Wentz have arguably the best QB-TE chemistry in the league today, right up with Tom Brady- Rob Gronkowski and Alex Smith-Travis Kelce.
The breakout is happening right before our eyes, and the Wentz-Ertz tandem has plenty of years left to come.
- I refused to call for Doug Pederson’s head after just his rookie season as a coach, and so far he’s making me look good. I recognized that Andy Reid had gone 5-11 as rookie coach in 1999 before flipping the script to 11-5 in 2000. It takes time. I don’t always agree with every play call, but this team is ready to play every single week. He does an excellent job keeping this team grounded and focused through anything and everything. He also deserves an enormous amount of credit for the growth we’ve seen in Wentz, the quarterback he has tied his success in Philadelphia to.
This isn’t to say that he is the next Bill Belichick or Vince Lombardi. But he is in the running for coach of the year in his second season and not many people saw that coming.
- There is one thing that has remained true in the NFL and stood the test of time: the teams that go all the way and have consistent playoff success have great, homegrown teams. A big reason why the Eagles struggled to have sustained success from 2010-2016 was largely due to hit-and-miss drafting. There were some mind-boggling picks, some disappointing picks, and some downright brutal picks in that time. Furthermore, it pained me personally to watch homegrown teams like the 2010 Packers, 2011 Giants, and 2013 Seahawks both draft so well and (not surprisingly) perform so well.
Fast-forward to now. Look at the some of the Eagles’ key contributors: Carson Wentz, Lane Johnson, Zach Ertz, Nelson Agholor (!), Jason Kelce, Brandon Graham, Fletcher Cox, Jordan Hicks, and even young corners like Rasul Douglas and Jalen Mills have been more than holding their own.
You’re always going to have to plug holes with free agents and trades, and all teams do. But the best ones receive major contributions from their homegrown players, and finally, the Eagles are too.
- A little bit more on Nelson Agholor. Stories like his are the best Philadelphia sports stories and endear a player to the fan base like no other. Here was a kid in 2015, picked 20th overall in the draft, and was immediately tasked to replace Jeremy Maclin’s production in Chip Kelly’s offense. He simply was not ready. He didn’t get open and he didn’t catch the ball. You won’t have much success as an NFL wide receiver if you can’t do those two things. The pick looked like a disaster, and when a team keeps missing on first-round picks, 7-9 records happen and coaches get fired. It happened here.
Then last year, it somehow got worse. Agholor didn’t seem to improve at all, and then had two catastrophic mental mistakes in Seattle that hurt the Eagles in a major way in that game. It left him a broken player. He opened up and ripped himself apart in an uncomfortable post-game interview, basically forcing Pederson to give him a mental health week.
So, that should be it, right? Bust. Done. But Agholor reached deep inside himself and found what made him a top NFL draft pick. He clearly had ability – one look at his college tape will show that. But for the first time in his NFL career, he truly realized the work it was going to take to become something in this league. He added significant muscle to his frame, became even quicker and faster, and worked tirelessly with Wentz to grow more comfortable and confident with his quarterback.
Then, the Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith signings happened, immediately releasing pressure of Agholor’s shoulders. He had a tremendous camp, to the point the Eagles felt comfortable trading Jordan Matthews, and then Agholor actually carried over his success into the regular season. Two years later, he is justifying the first round pick spent on him. His story and how far he has come in the last 10 months is amazing. Any kid who gets knocked down like he did, picks up the rubble and comes back better than ever has my utmost respect. But more importantly than me, his play is legitimately elevating this team and has been a key contributor to this 5-1 start.
- I’ve thought about this, and I feel comfortable now saying that this is the most fun I have had watching the Eagles since 2004. Yes, that magical 2004 season that ended 3 points short of the Lombardi Trophy.
I am back to enjoying this team the way I did when I was a kid, when I just had faith that my team would pull through no matter what and get the job done. Yes, Michael Vick’s 2010 redemption tour was thrilling, but the Eagles had obvious holes on defense and by season’s end the NFL figured out how to stop Vick to an extent. Sure, Chip Kelly’s debut season was great in 2013, where we went 10-6 behind Nick Foles’ terrific play and got to host a playoff game. We also started 5-1 in 2014, but unlike this year, that 5-1 record happened in spite of a turnover-ridden offense and a disastrous offensive line.
This is different. Carson is different. Everything just feels so real about this team. However, I won’t declare anything here and I can’t quite say the “S” word until we win a playoff game. But I do recognize what is happening here. Eagle fans deserve to enjoy every moment of this. A great team is forming right before our eyes and it just gets better every single week, every single day.
The Eagles are lifting the spirits of an entire city right now. This is how it’s supposed to be. Philadelphia lives and dies on the wings of our Eagles, and right now, the living doesn’t get much better.