Chemistry. In its simplest form, the word simply describes the strength of relationship between two or more individuals. When it comes to the NFL however, chemistry is thrown around loosely when describing the closeness of a team and bond between a quarterback and his receivers. For the Philadelphia Eagles, it may be one of the most important words in the vocabulary of Head Coach Doug Pederson as the team look ahead to the 2017 season.
It was only twelve months ago that the Eagles had just embarked on their new journey, but hadn’t quite left their old direction behind. A new Head Coach, new coordinators, and a shiny new franchise quarterback painted a bright future for the City of Brotherly Love, but the present was murky at best. Sam Bradford reluctantly made his way back to workouts after voicing his displeasure at the team’s decision to sign him to a new contract, only to then trade up twice in the first round to secure his eventual replacement.
This in itself caused a headache. Sam Bradford was still taking reps with the first team…and rightly so. The Eagles were preparing for Bradford to be the starting quarterback, while Wentz waited in the wings. Amidst the quarterback controversy, Fletcher Cox insisted on holding out until a shattering new contract was laid out in front of him, while veteran Darren Sproles was also signed to an extension after he missed OTA’s for a different reason. When you mix this with a switch to a 4-3 Defense and the implementation of Pederson’s offensive scheme, it meant that the first offseason under the tutelage of a new Head Coach was rocky at best.
The truth is, continuity starts somewhere. The very nature of the word implies that you simply can’t just attain it out of thin air. It’s something that wasn’t lost on the Eagles, and after battling to a 7-9 record through a mix of extreme highs and worrying lows, the pieces of the puzzle are finally in place…and they run far beyond simply “having chemistry”.
“The first year was all about putting schedules and getting training camp and the OTAs and getting all that stuff sorted and you kind of miss that bond with the players.” Said the Eagles head coach to the media once Mandatory Minicamp had concluded. This offseason has been really good for me from that standpoint. I’ve been able to build the relationships that I talk about all the time with the players and get to know these guys and see how they interact with one another and get to know your roster that way and that’s been the fun part for me this spring going into the second year. And then just, you know, [Eagles offensive coordinator] Frank [Reich], too, just Frank, having a better understanding of what I’ve brought offensively and schematically. We’re excited, we work well together and [we] look forward to camp.”
How the guys are interacting with each other just so happens to directly correlate to the actions of the past offseason. It wasn’t that long ago that this team was called out for seemingly throwing in the towel in the final games under Chip Kelly’s rein…and there was a lot of work to be done. It’s early days yet, but OTA’s and Minicamp have provided a look at the new culture Pederson worked so hard to implement upon his arrival. After a year of cultural experience under Pederson, the theme of competition is embedded deep into the DNA of the team…and there is more than enough to go around this year.
From the cornerback conundrum to the strive for a bounce-back at wide receiver, there isn’t a position on the roster without some kind of battle worth keeping an eye on. Prove-it deals assigned to players such as Alshon Jeffery, Patrick Robinson and Chance Warmack have added a new spice of fuel to a fire that was otherwise wavering on waiting patiently on a new and much thicker piece of wood, giving the Eagles room to breathe…and even those at the very bottom of the depth chart a chance to make their mark.
But then there’s the connection between year one and year two strengthens. Ever since Chip Kelly began to dismember the Eagles roster one-by-one, the theme of continuity had been lost in place of instability and inconsistency. But now, the Eagles head into year two with the same coaching staff, same schemes, and more importantly the same quarterback as they started last season with.
Things took a while to click for the Birds last year. Wentz was given the starting role and thrust into the front lines just moments before the regular season kicked off against Cleveland, and all his work in the weeks prior had been with second and third string teammates…a large factor in how Trey Burton was able to explode onto the scene so smoothly in the absence of an injured Zach Ertz. But as the Eagles enter their second season together, not only is Wentz bringing out his teammates to North Dakota to workout, but the relationships between them have strengthened. The trust has grown, and the bonds have been built upon a foundation laid by Doug Pederson.
“You know, it showed up at the end of the season last year, when I talk about resiliency and playing together and never giving up and still fighting.“Pederson later continued in the press conference. “You know, they came — of course we know not everybody was here the entire spring but the guys that were here began to really kind of feed off of the last couple of games of last year. And that was encouraging to see and see them kind of nurture that throughout the entire offseason, come together as a family. They talk about being brothers, and that’s what I saw with this group and that’s the exciting part for me in the second year.”
One of the most important aspects of that foundation runs deep along the trenches. The Eagles will enter the season with Kelce, Brooks, Johnson, Peters, and potentially either Allen Barbre or Isaac Seumalo returning as starters. The same names he played with in week one during his rookie year, will be keeping him upright in year two. With Lane Johnson keen to make up for lost time after his suspension, and Jason Peters aiming to retire as an Eagle, the sustenance felt by Carson Wentz cannot be overlooked…and it’s something that the QB himself acknowledged in the heart of the offseason.
Doug Pederson is also fully aware of just how important the trust in the big guys up front really is.
“Yeah, you know, just talking a little bit yesterday about that, it’s huge. It’s huge for your quarterback. It’s huge for just the overall execution of your offense keeping those guys intact. You saw what we did when we had Lane last year – 5-1 when we had a full complement of guys. Barring any injury, obviously it’s a huge asset to have your five guys that have been working a long time together out there and playing together.”
And finally, perhaps the most overlooked aspect of this entire process has been the relationship between Wentz and his receivers. Many wonder why Zach Ertz often takes 12 games to heat up, or why the Eagles quarterback at the time only ever seemed to throw in one of two directions, chemistry. It takes time for a tight end to get in sync with his quarterback, and with limited preseason reps and training camp experience, the Offense was very much operating on the fly.
The same rings true for Nelson Agholor. During his rookie season, chemistry with Sam Bradford was scarce due to a lack of offseason reps and trust. There were plenty of times where Agholor would burn down the sideline and create vast amounts of separation, only to be overlooked or overthrown…and while there were of course some mental hurdles of his own, the same could be seen during the rookie season of Carson Wentz.
In year two of this process worth trusting however, things are different. A new wide receivers coach has seemingly flicked the switch and changed how the group train entirely. The Jim Schwartz Defense has a flurry of new toys along with a support lever int he front seven that should help a very young cornerback group. The Offense has spent a full season together and now get their first chance to spend an entire offseason, safe in the knowledge that Carson Wentz IS their quarterback.
Talent has never been the question with the Eagles in recent years. After all, Sam Bradford was the most accurate quarterback in the league last year, Jordan Matthews has been the most productive slot receiver since entering the league, Zach Ertz has broken records, and Jordan Hicks is simply an interception machine. The problem was that the cogs lacked the oil to keep them turning through the dog days. But with the staples of the franchise in place, a trusting head coach, and a new vision that has propelled every single player into a tenaciously competitive attitude, the future is truly bright…and when you combine talent with stability, you have a team who could shock even the most notorious of franchises.
Mandatory Credit: James Lang-USA TODAY Sports