Brent Celek has been down this NFL road before. He has had to navigate a few on the opposite side, as well. In fact, the tight end has nearly seen it all in his 11 seasons.
And in Celek’s estimation, the Eagles’ second straight 3-1 start — despite the near-universal claim in the locker room and from Doug Pederson that this year’s team is different from last year’s — translates to nothing more than three wins and one loss at the quarter-pole of the season.
“We can sit here and say everything’s different,” Celek said last week, “but at the end of the day, we as players have to go out on the field and execute. Because if we sit here and say, ‘Oh, it’s different,’ and then we go out there and think something’s just going to happen, it’s not.
“We got to go prove it. That’s what this league’s about.”
The NFC East-leading Eagles have 12 individual tests remaining, but Sunday’s game against the Cardinals feels like a potential harbinger, or at least a gauge of the 2017 squad against the 2016 one, which lost 9 of 11 after a 3-0 start.
“Our 3-0 start last year, even though we won those games, it covered up a lot of mistakes that we made in those games, offensively, defensively, and in the kicking game,” Pederson said Friday. “I think this year the guys are playing probably a little more confident. They’re learning how to finish. The execution is better.”
Last year’s team was seemingly 2 1/2 minutes from starting 4-0, but Ryan Mathews fumbled in Detroit, and six of the Eagles’ next nine losses came by one score or less. It took until the penultimate game of the season – a 24-19 win over the New York Giants — for them to win a one-score contest.
“I try to forget a lot about it,” quarterback Carson Wentz said of the Eagles’ 2-9 midseason stretch. “I just remember learning how hard it is to win in this league, on the road.”
Pederson, along with Wentz, and other players, said that it’s too early to say that the Eagles have undergone a sea change. But two of their three wins have been by a margin of three points or fewer, and two have come on the road. Only one of the Eagles’ seven victories last year came away from Lincoln Financial Field.
While the 27-24 win over the Giants two weeks ago showed great resolve, the Eagles cleared both close-game and road obstacles at the Chargers last Sunday. Even though both opponents are winless, national outlets vaulted the Eagles up arbitrary league-wide rankings, and the team had to answer a fresh batch of questions about its legitimacy.
“After you start having a little bit of success, [the media] want to talk about, ‘Why? And what you guys have the potential to do,’ and that stuff doesn’t matter,” safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “Three wins? Our goals are so far beyond that.”
While veterans such as Jenkins, Celek, and center Jason Kelce agreed with the notion that this year’s team is different – and in many tangible ways it is – each cautioned about having expectations based upon Year 2 improvements. But younger players such as Wentz – and even a young coach like Pederson – have embraced the narrative.
“Without a doubt. We’re just in a different place. We’re a different team,” Wentz said. “At the same time, we still got to work, we still got to prepare every week. But I think just showing that we can win on the road, that we can win close ballgames … I just know the character and make-up of this team.”
Intangibles like character and confidence can have an effect, but of more substance are upgrades in personnel and experience. Wentz is no longer a rookie. Right tackle Lane Johnson isn’t about to serve a 10-game suspension. Wide receivers Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith, despite slow starts, are better than Nelson Agholor and Dorial Green-Beckham on the outside.
“But those things don’t equate to wins,” Jenkins said. “Obviously, we’re a confident team. We got a lot of faith in the guys that we have on the field. But at the end of the day, potential is on paper, and wins happen on Sundays.”
Wentz’s numbers are worse than they were through four games last season – a 60.5 percent completion percentage, 7.2-yards per pass attempt, and 6-2 touchdown-interception rate vs. 67.4, 7.5, and 7-1 – but the progress he has made in a year has to be considered objectively clear.
“He’s understanding not only the concepts,” Pederson said, “but game plan and situational football and putting our team in good situations there.”
The Eagles’ offensive numbers through four games are relatively equal to last year in points (103 vs. 115), average yards per play (5.6 vs. 5.6), and time of possession (35:29 vs. 34:59). But there has been a significant improvement in third-down conversions (50.8 percent vs. 33.3) and in the red zone (61.5 pct. vs. 55.5).
They’re also gaining more than a half-yard more on the ground (4.7 per rush vs. 4.1).
While many core players returned, the Eagles’ leading receiver (Jordan Matthews) and rusher (Ryan Mathews) through four games last season are no longer on the team. Tight end Zach Ertz (26 catches for 326 yards) and running back LeGarrette Blount (42 carries for 249 yards) pace the offense in those respective categories.
Defensively, the Eagles haven’t been as stout. They have allowed 92 points as opposed to 51 through four games and 6.2 yards per play vs. 5.0, and they have 10 sacks vs. 14. Injuries to defensive tackle Fletcher Cox and cornerback Ronald Darby, in particular, have seemingly tested coordinator Jim Schwartz’s unit.
But every team has its challenges. As Jenkins stated, it’s up to the coaches and the leaders in the locker room to convey the message of now rather than later. Defensive end Brandon Graham said the new selection of five captains, of which he is one, has streamlined the message Jenkins spoke of.
“We don’t waste a bunch of time talking about a bunch of [bull],” Graham said. “We just go out there and we work. … Yeah, you have days where you got to get picked up by some teammates, but overall, I don’t hear too many people [complaining].”
Three wins in four starts will do that. What happens when the Eagles encounter misfortune – and they will – will say more about this team than any platitudes.
“You don’t want to get too excited too early,” Celek said. “How you handle adversity is huge. It’s one of the biggest things in this league.”