The last time the Eagles experienced a playoff bye week, things were just a bit different.
In January 2005, the Eagles were embarking on their fifth successive playoff run. They had lost three times in a row in the NFC championship game, an ordeal that someone whose byline is on this column just might have referred to in print as the “Lords of the Ringless Trilogy.” Their most recent failure had made them the first team to ever lose back-to-back home NFC title games.
So there was a sort of bored impatience at work that does not fit this year’s dynamic.
But then, as now, key players were injured. The difference is that in 2005, as the team took the field for a few workouts before watching for its opponent on wild-card weekend, it was welcoming back defensive end Derrick Burgess, sidelined since suffering a sternum injury Dec. 5, and defensive tackle Hollis Thomas, who had dislocated an elbow a week later. And the marquee injured Eagle, Terrell Owens, recovering from surgery on a fractured ankle fracture, was vowing to be back for the Super Bowl.
All that, particularly the hopefulness of the Owens watch, lent an atmosphere of expectation to the bye week that is harder to muster this time, with Carson Wentz on crutches after ACL surgery and unable to play until September or so. But even if Wentz isn’t in a position to vow to return to these playoffs, at least he isn’t angry at his teammates for saying they think they can win without him, something that actually happened that bye week with Owens.
Then, as now, the bye week is important for two reasons: First, as defensive end Chris Long quickly pointed out when asked its significance, it is “one less chance to lose a football game.” And since losing at this time of year ends one’s season, that is a very big deal. But also important is rest for the weary and the injured, plus extra fine-tuning for everyone.
Unlike in 2005, most of these Eagles are experiencing a playoff bye week for the first time. Some admitted that after a 16-game season, it seems odd to practice with no particular opponent in mind.
“It’s definitely different,” linebacker Nigel Bradham said. “We’re ready to play” this weekend. But Bradham wasn’t complaining.
Definitely odd, said cornerback Jalen Mills, who is used to tailoring his preparation to the receivers and quarterbacks he’s about to face. Mills said he has started to look at film of the Saints, Panthers, and Falcons, though it’s hard to go in depth on three teams at once.
Mills added that practicing against the first-team offense, for the first time since training camp, has been helpful.
“It gives you an opportunity to just work on your game, get yourself a little bit stronger, just fine-tune on your fundamentals,” wide receiver Nelson Agholor said. “This is a crucial time, in your career and in your season. You’re trying to push for a run here.This is a time to really evaluate yourself. That’s the opponent. You get to self-assess your game.
“As the season goes on, your fundamentals may drop a little bit, because of fatigue or the body wearing down. You just get a great chance to watch yourself on tape, work on minor details.”
Long agreed the work is as important as the rest.
“You don’t just come in and run around for two days, you really work purposefully,” Long said. “We go out there and execute and we compete.”
“Both sides of the ball got better” Wednesday and Thursday, wide receiver Torrey Smith said. Smith said the rare chance to compete in practice against one of the best defenses in the league, instead of a scout team defense mimicking an opponent, was important.
Corner Ronald Darby said he enjoyed the chance to work on “communication things” with the rest of the secondary.
“Consistently getting off the rock, using my hands better,” rookie defensive end Derek Barnett said, when asked what he has worked on. “Containing rushes. … Pad leverage.”
The players will have the weekend off, before reconvening Monday, when they will know who will be coming to visit Jan. 13 in the divisional round.
Long said the Eagles’ schedule this week is similar to what he experienced last year with the Patriots.
“I don’t want to say it’s universal, but I’m sure a lot of teams do the thing where you get a couple days, you work a couple days, you get a couple
days,” he said.
Asked if the hardest part is not knowing the opponent yet, Long echoed Bradham, saying that in a way, it will be tough to watch the playoffs start without you.
“Come around Saturday and Sunday, especially feeling real fresh, guys will want to play football. You’ll see it on TV. You’ll be excited to play. It’s an exciting time,” Long said. “I don’t know if it’s the unknown of who it is, I think it’s just, ‘Let’s get it going.’ ”
Most of the players interviewed said they plan to watch this weekend, some more intently than others.
Asked if he would take notes as he watched, Darby said: “I’m going to be watching, but the note-taking will probably take place later Sunday, after we know who we’re going to play.”
“I’m not really a big football watcher,” said Agholor, who said he would watch film this weekend, just not live games. Agholor said news of the upcoming opponent will “get to us however it does … I focus on playing.”
Long said he might take a few notes on his phone. He said he would watch like a fan.
“We’ve earned the right to sit and watch games for a week, and play one less game,” Long said.
“No notes,” left guard Stefen Wisniewski said. “We’ll get plenty of that next week.”