Washington will visit Monday night for what will be a fourth referendum game in the Eagles’ young season. The Birds beat Washington in the opener, played well at Kansas City, and won at Carolina last week. Now 5-1, the best record in the conference, the team seems less interested in the big picture than in the job at hand.
This is by design.
“I don’t think right now who the NFC’s best team is. I think it matters in January and February who the best team in the NFC is,” center Jason Kelce said, referring to the playoff months. “We’ve got to keep improving, regardless. Everybody else in the NFL will keep getting better. We have to keep improving if we’re going to keep beating good teams.”
That includes the next visitors, 3-1 since the opener.
“We have Washington on Monday. That’s a huge game,” Kelce continued. “Not only is it on Monday Night Football, against a divisional opponent, but Washington is a good team that fought us hard last time. We’re just worried about that one.”
Cornerback Jalen Mills agreed: “I think right now, our main goal is, we take it one week at a time.”
Tight end Brent Celek observed, “We’ve got a ton of games to go. Whether we’re the best or not, that doesn’t matter. Every year is different. What we’ve got going this year, we’ve got to keep that going.”
You’d expect these types of banalities from the Eagles a few days before they face Washington.
You might not expect these types of banalities from the Eagles just a few minutes after they beat Carolina, in prime time, to move to the top of the conference. But then, they aren’t just banalities. Not this time.
The Eagles still ache with disappointment from last season and are obsessed with not repeating the sins of their recent past. In 2016, a thrilling start to the Pederson-Wentz era devolved into a 1-7 free fall. It left the team more devastated than it first appeared.
There were plenty of explanations for the stumbles down the stretch. Right tackle Lane Johnson, the best player on the team, served a 10-game performance-enhancing-drugs suspension. Opposing teams targeted the Eagles’ poor cornerbacks, adjusted to rookie quarterback Carson Wentz, and learned coach Doug Pederson’s tendencies as a first-time play-caller.
None of those explanations makes last season hurt any less.
“Last year, we kind of got high on ourselves when we started out fast,” Mills said. “We learned from that.”
Some scars run deep. They’re the most useful kind.
It’s important to note that this is not a topic driven by the questioners, but, rather, by the questioned. Unprovoked, the players and their coaches continually point to the 2016 collapse to guard against a similar slide in 2017. They point to the collapse because their boss continually reminds them of it.
“I do focus on it. I have to,” Pederson said Thursday. “If you remember, we were 4-2 this time last year. We’ve got to be mindful of that. Those are the things that motivate us and keep us going. There can’t be a letdown. It’s my job not to [allow] that letdown. So, I continue to address it with them and keep them focused that way.”
And, so, they resist all temptations to gauge their progress, to measure themselves against their peers, to scan the horizon for landmarks on what they hope is a path to greatness.
That’s how the Packers did it in 1996 on their way to winning Super Bowl XXXI, when Pederson was Brett Favre’s backup.
“What I remember from that team is, it was always the next game,” Pederson said. “We were always focused on the next game. We would honestly throw wins and losses away. Winning that week. Being 1-0 that week.”
Pederson tells his players that when he does his job, the result is on them.
“I talk a lot with the team about ownership. We’re getting in that stretch of games — 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 — where teams begin to separate themselves. We can’t have any letdowns, setbacks. We’ve got to be full-steam ahead.”
That means acting like a team that’s 1-5, not 5-1.
“It’s about doing the little things now: rest, hydration, extra study, extra conditioning,” Pederson said. “Things you sometimes lose sight of in all the wins and success the team has had. It falls back on my shoulders to make sure the guys are doing those things this time of year.”
Clearly, his message has been received.