As the Eagles roster is preparing for one of the most important Training Camps in recent franchise history, there’s finally a sense of excitement in the air once again when discussing the future of the team. An electric buzz surging through the streets of Philadelphia, and a feeling of hope inside the hearts of fans. There are plenty of reasons as to why die-hard fans are feeling goosebumps when they mention the potential embedded deep into the heart of the roster, but while an influx of talent and two incredibly strong offseason’s are largely responsible, there’s one much more important factor to consider; culture.
It wasn’t so long ago that the Eagles were stood on the edge of a Knife. A tumultuous Chip Kelly tenure ended with such pressure and instability that it began to crack the locker room from the inside out. When Doug Pederson was appointed as the team’s new Head Coach, one thing was made inherently clear by the team’s owner, Jeffery Lurie. This change was a cultural one. A change that would seek to rebuild those emotional bridges between player and coach that had been burned to their core in the previous regime. A change where accountability would be of the upmost priority, and where the long-term vision is always in mind.
Pederson’s first few months in Philadelphia were anything but easy. After signing Sam Bradford to a contract extension, the team made a bold decision to trade up and draft the future of the franchise. A decision that excited fans, but certainly rocked the boat in those few weeks that followed the Draft. Although Sam Bradford elected to miss OTA’s due understandably being discontent, that was to be the least of Pederson’s worries.
The team’s breakout star on Defense was also holding out from the period as a statement. Fletcher Cox metaphorically slammed his foot to the floor, demanding that he received the payday he deserved after a stunning 2015 campaign. Darren Sproles (while for different reasons) also held out, making what is an important period for any Head Coach, let alone a rookie one, even tougher.
It was life after spring where things became difficult however. Franchise right tackle Lane Johnson had been hit with a four-game suspension for his second PED substance violation, meaning that the Birds were going to be without arguably their most important cog on the offensive line…the question was, when?
On the field, it became clear by Training Camp that the Eagles recently revamped wide receiver corps simply did not have the “high reward” that the “low risk” deals had hoped to achieve. Chris Givens and Reuben Randle were among those who spent just a matter of weeks with the team before being sent away once again. Light on talent, light on depth…the Eagles wide receiver corps was in a sticky spot. Something that was only taking more hits off the field.
Shortly after OTA’s finished, Nelson Agholor would receive an allegation of sexual abuse, before Nigel Bradham had his own troubles with the law; first getting into an altercation about an umbrella, and then being stopped in an airport later in the season for possession of a firearm.
A physical Training Camp was taken up a notch under Pederson, as he attempted to re-instill methods of practice last seen under Andy Reid. The 10/10/10 format returned and live tackling was bought back into the fray. An element that resulted in an injury for Jordan Matthews, while Malcolm Jenkins, Marcus Smith, Marcus Johnson, Wendell Smallwood, and Nolan Carroll all missed time due to injuries sustained during the period. Heading into preseason, where Wentz would then pick up an injury against the Bucs, it felt as if every step forward that the team needed to take was met with an additional hurdle to overcome. Every question answered resulted in two more being asked.
Then, the team shockingly traded Sam Bradford to Minnesota, who were so starved at quarterback after losing Teddy Bridgewater, that they were willing to hand a first round pick to the Eagles, who recouped one of the assets given up for Wentz. With just eight days left before the start of the season, the Eagles named Wentz as the starter, not Chase Daniel. While many of the reps for the starters were often taken with Bradford and Daniel, the Eagles thrust Wentz onto center stage where he did not disappoint.
The Eagles bolted out of the gate to a 3-0 start. But even that wasn’t without controversy. Wideout Josh Huff was pulled over for a similar offence, putting Pederson in a tricky spot. The rookie Head Coach asserted his authority and parted ways with Josh Huff, who ended up in Tampa Bay…but he simply had to set a tone. While the hot start (we’ll get to that shortly) was impressive, it felt as if a new Teacher was still trying to gain the focus of his pupils. Sure, there were some at the front working hard…but the guys at the back making paper planes were getting in the way of those wanting to take the next step.
As the team bounced through a season of stunning highs and disappointing lows, one thing was clear. Slowly but surely, as the storm grew in ferocity, the team began to feel more and more confidence in their Head Coach. Losses were met with a sense of belief and unified vision, while wins were treated with a strong sense of pride. For the players, the culture Pederson was injecting was a welcome addition, giving them a strong connection to their new coach. It was something Trey Burton told me in an interview not too long ago.
“One of my favorite things about Doug is one of his biggest mottos, “let your personality show.” You don’t hear coaches say that very often. They don’t want crazy things to happen. Doug used to say that all the time and every time he would say that, to me personally it gave me peace. It would calm me down and let me be who I am, instead of being like a robot and trying to impress a coach who likes a tighter ship.”
Nelson Agholor and Brandon Brooks were to players who had mental hurdles of their own to overcome…hurdles that when made known to the team and the public, allowed Pederson to take appropriate action to provide every support option possible. That emotional connection that Lurie spoke so importantly of at the start of the season began to shine through…further adding direction and a sense of family to a locker room that craved it.
Finding character and strength in their losses, the Eagles ended the year on a high. It’s easy to say that culture had an impact, but it’s a word of such power than one offseason can’t give an accurate reading of the impact it’s had…but two may just give you a slight insight.
The front office, now supported by Joe Douglas, continued their vision of building from the ball out, developing through the draft, and signing “low-risk, high-reward free agents”…but what really stood out among it all was the difference in how players reacted from the final snap of 2016, until now.
There have been no legal altercations. No strange holdouts (except Marcus “The Martyr” Smith), no distractions. While the Dallas Cowboys are seemingly embarking on their own saga of “Law and Order”, the Giants are distracted with fake autographs, and the Washington front office can’t get out of their own way, the Eagles have kept their heads low, their minds focused, and their work-rate high.
A new sense of competition at every position has been cemented this offseason, with OTA’s acting as a proving ground for those who want it most. Players who don’t buy into the culture, or have their heads elsewhere, are rapidly cut ways with. Dorial Green-Beckham found that out first hand not too long ago.
Mike Groh has been able to bring an added level of intensity to the refreshed group of wide receivers, with Nelson Agholor looking like a completely new player during the early stages of the offseason. From top to bottom, Offense to Defense, cornerback to quarterback, the Eagles are set to build a roster of players who want it most. Not the most talented, not the most productive, but guys who can grow, learn, and are willing to work.
It may not sound like much, but an offseason that has acted as one large deep breath for the Eagles has come like a wave of fresh air. The last few years have been so filled with drama and distractions, that building a playoff competitor often took a backseat because stabilizing the roster was far more important. But here we are, with an Eagles team that’s going under the radar…not drawing headlines, not going out and getting in trouble, but are instead going out to Fargo and getting in some work with their quarterback.
There’s a long way to go until we can begin to even think about the playoffs and beyond, but the Flowers of Pederson’s labor are beginning to blossom…and as a result, so are the Philadelphia Eagles.
Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports