This has been an absolutely horrid year when it comes to injuries in the NFL. From last night’s heartbreaking Achilles rupture suffered by Richard Sherman, to the broken collar bone of Aaron Rodgers and season ending injuries to J.J. Watt, Eric Berry, Zach Miller, Deshaun Watson and Allen Robinson to name just a few, there has been no shortage of heartbreak along the way. As the dominos fall and the culture in each and every locker room is put to the test, only the strongest survive.
The Eagles aren’t exempt from injury setbacks. Darren Sproles, Jordan Hicks and Jason Peters have both sustained season ending injuries, while Ronald Darby and Fletcher Cox have both missed time along with others. As Sly Stallone once said, “It’s not how hard you can hit, it’s how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.” For the Birds, a focus on building sustenance in a league where its a rarity has been the driving force behind this new era.
Injuries are a part of any contact sport and the NFL is no exception…but this year has been brutal. In terms of dealing with injuries, the Eagles are still among the healthiest teams in the league and have been for the last three season’s. That’s no coincidence. While Chip Kelly may be vilified in the City of Brotherly Love, his affliction with “Sports science” is one thing that fans can be thankful for. Because of Kelly’s mindset, the Eagles now have one of the best medical teams in the NFL.
If a player goes down, the “next man up” has to be ready…and that’s a mindset that is shared among every Eagle inside the locker room. Rasul Douglas, Corey Clement, Joe Walker and even Halapoulivaati Vaitai have been thrust into the firing line on plenty of occasions this season and have still come out swinging, impressing along the way as they flash development. (QUOTE)
Having the talent to come in and perform at a moments notice doesn’t happen by chance. There are very few complete teams in the NFL, but the Eagles may be one of them. The arrival of Joe Douglas and Andy Weidl has helped to ignite Howie Roseman’s formula for success with a focus on building through both the trenches and the draft. Having veterans perform at a high level while the recently drafted can marinate has become a staple of this Eagles team and of course it was the plan all along when the team originally drafted Carson Wentz. One year later and shades of such a mindset can be seen across the board.
Whether it’s Derek Barnett playing behind Chris Long, Rasul Douglas stepping in at cornerback, Corey Clement learning all he can from last year’s leader in rushing touchdowns LeGarrette Blount, or even Jason Peters mentoring practice squad lineman Dillon Gordon during the offseason, the Eagles have placed a focus on development and building for the long-term. This was a rebuild that could have lasted 4-5 years, but it has instead been expedited with an infusion of youth who aren’t expected to contribute right away.
A perfect example is last week’s NFC Defensive player of the week, Jalen Mills…who became the first Eagles CB to win the award since Lito Shepard. A seventh round pick one year ago, Mills was thrown into a baptism of fire in the Eagles first game of the year and then consistently throughout. With as many up’s as there were down’s, Mills kept his head high and improved as the season went on. One year later, he leads the team (tied with Patrick Robinson) in interceptions and despite being targeted so intensely, is yet to really make a costly mistake. The Green Goblin has been coached hard under Cory Undlin and Jim Schwartz and his sophomore leap has been exciting to watch. Now the Eagles starting cornerback, Mills has earned his stripes since being drafted…every single one.
That brings me to my next point, the coaching. The Eagles have built a masterful coaching tree. Jim Schwartz headlines the Defensive side of things, while on offense that honor falls to Doug Pederson and Frank Reich. Building an offensive coaching group of former quarterbacks and then blocking QB coach John DeFilippo’s potential move elsewhere, the Eagles have done all they can to build the perfect environment for a franchise quarterback to blossom. Mike Groh’s impact on the wide receivers has just been magnificent this season and that can be reflected in the production of both Nelson Agholor and Alshon Jeffery. After a completely revamped training camp for the skill positions, it was clear to see that with new drills and a hard-nosed mindset, the Eagles wanted to go all-in on the future.
By retaining some of the best coaches in the league and infusing some familiar personnel, the Eagles have constructed a staff that many teams could only try to replicate. One built on culture, comprised of former players who have all had tremendous success elsewhere and bring with them a sense of toughness. With such a young and impressionable locker room, you of course need veterans to lead the way…and it circles right back to sweat equity.
Chris Long, Patrick Robinson, LeGarrette Blount and Alshon Jeffery have all led by example on and off the field this season. All signed prove-it contracts with the team during the offseason. It’s unclear how many will return, especially after the Jernigan extension, but the Eagles have ensured that their rookies learn from the mentality of those who have been there and done it. A huge part of building a culture is eliminating distractions…and having vets who set the tone is crucial in achieving that.
The Eagles took a big step this year. No more locker room distractions. In Pederson’s first year as Head Coach, the Nigel Bradham umbrella saga unfolded, Nelson Agholor was falsely accused of sexual assault, numerous players held out for contractual purposes and the team lost their franchise right tackle to injury. Can you name one controversial incident involving an Eagles player this year? I can’t.
It all comes full circle. While the Cowboys are playing hot potato with Ezekiel Elliott’s season, the Eagles have been able to build one of the most lethal backfields in the NFL despite the fact they’re missing Darren Sproles. Signing Jay Ajayi was huge for this offense and the way he was embraced speaks volumes.
Teams across the league have battled controversy all season. Maybe it’s over in New York with players being suspended for missing team activities, or maybe it’s losing a cornerstone talent elsewhere. But the Eagles have done all they can to become the most sustainable team in the league…and they’re certainly not far away from earning that title.
Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports