On Wednesday, the Eagles wore full pads for the first time in weeks. The practice wasn’t particularly long – one hour, 24 minutes – but for the first week of January its intensity was beyond the norm.
“We haven’t had one like that since training camp,” Eagles center Jason Kelce said not long afterward. “On the verge of too intense, to tell you the truth.”
There weren’t any fights, per Kelce, but the hitting led to several fallen players and the increased potential for injury. Luckily for the Eagles, they didn’t suffer any setbacks. But the reward outweighed the risks, according to the players, who lobbied to practice in pads.
Specifically, it was the players’ leadership council – led by safety Malcolm Jenkins, Kelce, and others — who asked coach Doug Pederson to turn up the heat. And Pederson, true to his coaching philosophy, acquiesced.
“It’s not a punishment thing; it’s not coming directly from me,” Pederson said Tuesday. “It’s what the players want. I listen to my guys.”
His ability to gauge the pulse of the locker room, aside from one notable slip-up last December, has clearly factored into the Eagles’ success this season. A year ago, Pederson publicly questioned his players’ effort in the loss to the Bengals, but only after an Eagles sideline reporter badgered him into conceding.
He met with the council the following Wednesday, as they do every week during the season, and cleared the air, and all was seemingly forgotten. It was a pivotal juncture for the first-time head coach. Pederson could have lost the locker room. But the final four games, in which the Eagles either won or lost late, indicated the players were still with their coach.
A year later, the Eagles face a different challenge. They clinched the No. 1 playoff seed in the penultimate game, and rested most of their starters in the finale, but there was a feeling among the “older guys,” according to Kelce, that the Eagles needed to simulate the game as much as possible after a few weeks of walk-throughs.
“All that’s been great, in terms of getting our legs back,” Kelce said of the light practices. “But especially in terms of the timing for the offense, in terms of a lot of things, we need to hit things full speed every once in a while to get a feel.”
If the offense was focused on its timing, the defense wanted more physicality for run fits and the pass rush, per Jenkins. The veteran safety had a similar experience, in terms of the schedule, with the Saints in 2009. New Orleans rested its starters in the season finale after securing the No. 1 seed. But coach Sean Payton gave his players the bye week off, Jenkins said.
Jenkins, whose leadership is probably unmatched in the Eagles’ locker room, said his reasons for wanting more strenuous practices were merely subjective.
“The guys in this room aren’t afraid to work, and that’s one thing that we really held our hat on. is just grinding and enjoying the process, enjoying the small things that a lot of people don’t like to do, especially this time of year,” Jenkins said. “We understand the significance of the situation we’re in and we want to take advantage of all the time we have. Guys didn’t want to be off for the whole week. We wanted to get better. That’s kind of been our mentality all year.”
Typically, it’s the coaches who push for harder practices. In New England, Bill Belichick has long held practices during the first-round bye week. And he has traditionally had his players don the pads, as former Patriot Chris Long said Belichick did last year.
“Some guys, like myself, are going to be indifferent to it,” the Eagles defensive end said. “If someone was to ask me, ‘Should we be in pads or not?’ I don’t know. I’d ask the guy, ‘Do you feel like you get it done without it?’ Because a lot of guys will probably feel like they need the fits, they need to feel the pads thump.”
The pad thumping likely didn’t last long. The first 20 minutes of Wednesday’s indoor session were for stretching. Special-teams drills made up most of the next 30 minutes or so. But the final third of practice, while closed to reporters, consisted of two-minute and third-and-long drills for the team.
While the defense finished the season strong, especially on third down, the offense with Nick Foles at quarterback struggled to stay on the field.
“I thought we flew around and got better today,” Foles said after Wednesday’s practice.
“It was [expletive] physical,” tackle Lane Johnson said. “It wasn’t long, but it got pretty physical. It needed to be, I think. We’re not going to have any excuses if we lose. We’re going to put everything we can into this game.”
The Eagles have typically known how they would perform on Sunday based on the preceding week of practice. After the loss to the Seahawks, Kelce and a few others said they weren’t surprised by the result. The same assessment applied following the week of practice in Southern California and the subsequent win over the Rams.
The recent players’ request could be a direct response to how the team performed in the final three games. Of course, there were extenuating circumstances – Foles, resting players, weather conditions.
“I think they understand that there is a sense of physicality that we have to get back to. … I think there is a sense over the course of a few weeks when you’ve been in shells, pad level begins to rise, and intensity sometimes can be minimized,” Pederson said.
By Thursday, the Eagles were back inside in shells. And Friday they were off. Pederson had said there was a chance he would have one padded practice this week, but Jenkins said one was enough.
“It’s not like we’re asking for a lot of reps, a lot of tackling,” Jenkins said. “We just want to be able to practice the game.”