Must-win is perhaps the least interesting term in sports, and not merely because it inspired Doug Pederson, already a relatively uninteresting speaker, to deliver this especially uninteresting answer Wednesday to a question that was specifically not about whether the Eagles’ season-opening game Sunday against the Redskins was a must-win: “I think they’re all must-wins, quite honestly. I think the opener is a very important game. It kind of can set the tempo for the rest of the season, and it’s the first part of the year. … Every one’s big. Every game is big. We do treat it one week at a time, obviously.”
Must … wake … up …
What Sunday represents, actually, is something more fascinating than a semantic debate over whether the Eagles’ season will have broken apart into shards and bits after just one week if they lose to the Redskins. There are certain NFL games that, in time, come to reveal more about a particular team at a particular moment than the average game might.
Think back. The Eagles’ 2000 season opener, in Irving, Texas, a memorable 41-14 victory over the Cowboys, proved more than just a fountainous source of folk stories about the restorative powers of pickle juice. It was a harbinger of how the balance of power in the NFC East would soon shift. It was the first game of Andy Reid’s second season as the Eagles’ head coach and Donovan McNabb’s second season as their starting quarterback, and while people at the time hoped that the Eagles were improving under Reid and that McNabb could be a franchise QB, that game’s result marked the beginning, symbolically at least, of the turnaround.
Think back to two key games of the Chip Kelly era. His debut as head coach, that wild 33-27 win at FedEx Field on Sept. 9, 2013, turned out to be a microcosm of his entire tenure: the fresh, breakneck-fast offense in the first half, the sagging defense in the second half, a wondrous beginning, a concerning end. In the immediate aftermath, though, all everyone knew was that things would be different, very different, for the Eagles for a while. Then, Week 2 of the 2015 season: a 20-10 loss to the Cowboys that dropped the Eagles to 0-2, a performance so awful that it left little doubt that a) the rest of the league had pretty much figured out Kelly and b) the sweeping personnel changes he had made weren’t going to save the season.
These games, really, were great disclosures. They told us where the Eagles were and, more important, where they were heading. Maybe those are the sorts of evaluations that can be made only in hindsight, but Sunday’s game has similar circumstances and conditions. We are still learning, after his 7-9 rookie season, what kind of head coach Pederson is and can be. We are still learning, after Carson Wentz threw 607 passes in an offense with limited skill-position weapons, what kind of quarterback he can be. We will begin to learn how quickly Alshon Jeffery, Torrey Smith, LeGarrette Blount and other newcomers will assimilate into the offense. We’ll begin to learn how much better Jim Schwartz’s defense is, assuming, of course, that it is better. There are mysteries, many of them, to be solved.
“The first game of the season is kind of a statement game, that we’re ready to play,” tight end Brent Celek said. “It’s very important for us to play well. … We know what type of football team we have. We just have to go out and show it. I think we have a real good football team, but I’m not sitting here anointing us by any means. We’ve got a long ways to go, and I don’t think you know what kind of football team you have until you face some adversity.”
By that standard, the Eagles could hardly have asked for a better Week 1 opponent and site. They have lost their last five games against the Redskins and four of their last five games at FedEx Field. From Robert Griffin III to Kirk Cousins, from a late Mark Sanchez interception in 2014 to the hazing that Ryan Kerrigan inflicted upon Halapoulivaati Vaitai last year, the place has been a house of horrors for the Eagles. More, the first four weeks of the Eagles’ schedule are rough: three road games (against the Redskins, the Chiefs, and the Chargers), two opponents who made the playoffs last season (the Chiefs and the Giants), and a cross-country trip to Los Angeles.
No, the Eagles don’t have to win Sunday. Given their recent history against the Redskins and the uncertainties around this team, it would be surprising if they did. But if they did, it would change the outlook both for that four-week jungle they have to negotiate and for the rest of the season. It would give them a one-game lead in the division, a little house money to play with as they prepare for Reid and the Chiefs, and it would give everyone an indication that maybe, just maybe, they really are as good as they tell us.
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