After winning consecutive games by a combined five points, Eagles coach Doug Pederson praised the team’s growth and maturity from last season. But the success is not simply the 2016 roster maturing. A major part of the Eagles’ 3-1 record is the newcomers acquired to upgrade or change last year’s team.
The evidence came in Sunday’s 26-24 win over the Los Angeles Chargers. On the opening drive, Chris Long had a strip sack that was recovered by Derek Barnett. Both players are new to the team. The Eagles responded with a touchdown pass to Alshon Jeffrey, the highest-profile offseason addition. The star of the game was running back LeGarrette Blount. The top defensive tackle was Tim Jernigan. Of the 30 players who played at least 20 percent of the offensive or defensive snaps on Sunday, 11 joined the team this offseason.
“Those are very helpful, beneficial, because they’re a big impact to what we’re doing and the success we’ve had this early part of the season,” Pederson said. “And the other thing, too, is these are veteran players who have been on, in Chris’s case, he’s have been on championship teams, they know how to work. They know how to practice. They know how to prepare. And that’s what you want. You want those types of guys in and around your football team.”
Although rookies Barnett and Rasul Douglas play key roles, most of the new contributing players are established veterans. Jeffery, Blount, Long, Jernigan, Torrey Smith, Patrick Robinson, and Chance Warmack were all starters elsewhere before coming to Philadelphia. Those seven players have an average age of 28 with 48 combined years of experience. Blount, Long, and Smith have Super Bowl rings. Robinson and Jernigan both reached the playoffs. And they all played notable roles in Sunday’s win. This doesn’t even include cornerback Ronald Darby or safety Corey Graham, veterans in their first seasons with the Eagles who both would have factored into the game plan if healthy. (Graham, 32, has 10 years of experience and a Super Bowl ring.)
The Eagles started 3-1 last year, too, so this first month is not because of the offseason additions. Long’s big play Sunday could have happened with Connor Barwin chasing Philip Rivers, and perhaps Jordan Matthews would have caught Jeffery’s touchdown, a healthy Ryan Mathews would have had Blount’s rushing performance, or Bennie Logan could have had a similar presence as Jernigan.
But what’s notable is how Howie Roseman decided to replace many of the departed players. At most positions where the Eagles moved on from a player because of money, health, or performance, they didn’t just turn to a younger player down the roster for a promotion. They sought a new player, and often a veteran player. That signals that the Eagles believed they could win games like Sunday. A team committed to a rebuilding year wouldn’t plug a 30-year-old Blount at running back or give reserve defensive end snaps to a 32-year-old Long. The Eagles wanted to remain competitive while maintaining flexibility, and all seven of those veterans signed deals without restrictive financial obligation beyond this season.
Not all of the newcomers played to their billing, either. Smith has only 10 catches for 134 yards in four games and dropped a pass on a potential big play Sunday. He tweeted after the game that he’s “[i]n the middle of the worst stretch of my career.” But the way Pederson responds to Smith’s struggles is different than if it was a less experienced player. Isaac Seumalo was demoted this season; Nelson Agholor was inactive after an egregious penalty last season. Although the situations are different, Pederson has more patience when dealing with veterans.
“I think with the veteran players it is different, you just keep firing the ball at them, keep shooting,” Pederson said. “That’s something we’ll continue to do. We’ll keep him in the mix, keep him coming. And he’s a guy that works extremely hard during the week, and he’ll get that fixed.”
The reason might be the demonstrated performance, which is what many of the new players have. Their presence is also reflected in the locker room. The Eagles have fostered a culture that returning players have already recognized.
There’s no one reason why a team that couldn’t win close games last year is better in those situations this season. But it cannot simply be attributed to maturity. A new mix of players must also be considered, too.
“We’ve got a good group of veteran leadership players that way, that have really bought into — whether it’s whatever I’m speaking about or selling,” Pederson said. “But they’re buying into each other. And that’s the key.”