On the flight home from Los Angeles, the Eagles celebrated their NFC East-clinching win over the Rams. Players danced and posted pictures and videos on social media. Eagles employees reveled in the team’s first division title in four years. Some coaches joined the party, but as the trip back to Philadelphia extended into its final hours, the cabin became subdued.
“Win the division, and you would have thought someone died on the plane ride home,” one Eagles staffer said later.
The Eagles’ brain trust gathered and braced for the inevitable — that Carson Wentz had torn the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee and would be done for the season. Doug Pederson and his assistants had little time to mourn. They had to prepare for life with Nick Foles and the obvious impact that would have on their postseason chances.
But Pederson acknowledged this week that the team needed time to accept the loss of its most valuable player.
“It does take a little while when you lose your starting quarterback, obviously,” he said Thursday.
Pederson didn’t say how that expressed itself, but the Eagles narrowly defeated the two-win New York Giants, squeezed past the floundering Raiders, and couldn’t score a point against the Cowboys, albeit with mostly their backups, in the meaningless season finale.
Foles struggled in the last two games, but he did more than enough to beat the Giants despite the defense’s deficiencies. The Eagles had secured the NFC No. 1 seed in the playoffs, but they had seemingly finished the stretch with a hangover.
Players such as Malcolm Jenkins disagreed with the notion. The Eagles have been more than just one player, which is why Pederson was asked, reasonably, last week what it would take for him to pull Foles for backup Nate Sudfeld in Saturday’s playoff game against the Falcons.
“It’s hard to say right now until I’m in that situation,” the coach said. “Listen, it’s a one-game season. It’s hard to be in desperation mode, but if you are in that mode, who knows? I do know this: It’s not about one guy; it’s about 11 on offense, defense, and special teams.”
If it’s about the team over the individual, then Pederson would owe it to his players to hook Foles if he became a detriment to winning. It would be disingenuous to ignore the elephant no longer on the field, something players such as Pro Bowl guard Brandon Brooks have acknowledged.
“Until he was injured, I don’t think people realized how special Carson was playing,” Brooks said last week. “He was playing at an unmatched level.”
Even leaders such as Jenkins who have held the ship together in an all-is-well, remain-calm way, understood what was lost in the east end zone at the Coliseum. Asked last month for his favorite play by Wentz this season, the safety joked, “Any play that he slid.”
But Jenkins decried the perception that the Eagles were in a post-Wentz injury haze for the final three games.
“We won two games after Carson went out,” Jenkins said Thursday. “One was in the division on the road and another was at home against the Raiders. One, we needed our offense to play well so that we could win, and they did. The other we needed our defense to play well, and we did.
“If you look back over the whole year, that was our formula. If we weren’t blowing people out. There were some games our offense was on fire; some games, our defense was. We did whatever it took to win and think it was on par. We’re going into the playoffs thinking it’s the same old formula.”
Jenkins, of course, has a point. But without Wentz, it’s difficult to see the offense carrying the defense against Atlanta. The Eagles have several advantages. They’re stronger along the lines, they have more depth, they’ll be playing at Lincoln Financial Field, and perhaps more significant, they’ll be rested both physically and mentally.
There’s no discernible way to gauge the Eagles’ collective psyche. But the end of the regular season coupled with the extra week off could have allowed the players to reset the table and leave any lingering angst over Wentz’s injury in the past. Pederson said he believes the players have moved on.
“I am very confident in that, just by the way the guys have handled their business the last two weeks, the way we practiced last week and the way we prepared this week,” Pederson said. “Does that guarantee anything? No. We’ve still got to go out and play.”
And they’ll still have Foles under center. There’s been a harmony of chatter percolating from the NovaCare Complex insisting that he’s been relaxed and confident, despite Foles’ previous two performances suggesting otherwise. But would a quarterback’s demeanor ever need to be addressed under normal circumstances?
Sudfeld hardly looked capable, in the final three quarters of the season finale, of winning a playoff game. It’s his only NFL experience. In four months, he’s gone from waived by the Redskins to the Eagles’ practice squad to the 53-man roster to a chinstrap from playing in the postseason.
“He handles his business the right way, and he understands his role,” Pederson said. “Obviously, now that he is a play away, his sense of urgency definitely increases.”
There is little precedent for quarterbacks getting benched in the playoffs, even backups thrust into the starting spot because of injury. Connor Cook, who had taken over for Derek Carr late last season, completed only four passes and tossed an interception as the Raiders trailed the Texans, 20-7, at halftime in their first-round playoff. But the hook never came in an eventual loss.
Nick Saban boldly switched his quarterback in Monday’s college football championship game – and Alabama won — but having a blue-chip freshman waiting on the sideline made his decision much easier than one that could potentially confront Pederson.
The Eagles coach has navigated his team past other notable injuries this season, having lost Jason Peters, Jordan Hicks and Darren Sproles, to name some of the most prominent.
“Even though we’re sick to our stomachs that these guys are not with us out there on the field, the train is still moving, and the sooner we get over that and get on to the next order of business, the better we’re going to become,” Pederson said. “But that’s a process. That doesn’t happen overnight. … It takes a little time.”
Pederson has kept his injured players around the team, and the same has held for Wentz.
“I still want Carson to be a part of the process,” Pederson said. “He’s a big reason why we’re 13-3 and where we are today.”
He’s not the only reason. Will the Eagles play that way?