Before the first game of the season, Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins stood in the middle of a huddle and delivered a cheer that has been a popular rallying cry in those pregame and postgame gatherings: “We all we got!” The Eagles won that afternoon and players carried Doug Pederson off the field on their shoulders. It was easier then to formulate the us-against-them, nobody-believes-in-us message that teams often cite.
It will be more difficult now. The Eagles have made a lot of believers with their 5-1 start, from the most optimistic loyalists to the most weathered skeptics. Even when they advanced to 4-1, they had a short week and were underdogs. The Eagles now have extra time to enjoy the success and will likely be favored in every game for the next month. With the players taking a long weekend before returning to work Tuesday, Pederson is trying to guard against the pitfalls of success.
“It’s tough,” Pederson said. “They’re going to read and they’re going to listen to all the media outlets on TV and stuff and just hear how people are talking about them and saying how good and how great they are. But [we have] to keep it real, too. That comes from me.”
So Pederson wants to keep his locker room grounded. He’s nitpicking their shortcomings. He said they’re still allowing too many big plays on defense. They were first in the NFL in third-down success, and their percentage declined Thursday. They settled for field goals when touchdowns were possible.
That’s what football coaches do. They’ll find the clouds in the sky. But most coaches would take the plight of keeping a 5-1 team motivated than keeping a 1-5 team motivated.
“Yeah, we’re winning these games, but there is a lot to fix, a lot to correct as well,” Pederson said. “It’s never perfect. Bottom line [is] we do want to win the game, but at the same time I’ve got to keep them focused and grounded.”
Pederson’s not the only one thinking this way. Jenkins, one of the captains, has been hammering that point from the beginning of the season and mentioned it last week, too.
Before the opener, Jenkins warned against buying the hype if the Eagles experienced early success. The reputation of how Philadelphia can be a tough place for an athlete to play often neglects how rewarding it can be during good times.
“We know how this city is. We know how our fan base is,” Jenkins said in September. “If we get this thing rolling and we start looking good on paper, we’ll be hearing praises. And a lot of times, your potential of what you can be and the enthusiasm can overshadow the task at hand, getting better, and having to grind every week and understanding what it takes to win. So the leadership will make sure we temper expectations.”
It was as if Jenkins saw this coming. Asked after the game if he would have believed the Eagles could experience this early success despite their rash of injuries, he insisted he did. He didn’t know how it would happen, but he knew the makeup of this group. He trusted the leadership in the locker room.
“I think that’s up to the leaders to the team to combat all the praise and hoopla that will come with it,” Jenkins said Thursday night. “I’ve been on teams that have handled success well and teams that have handled success poorly. I don’t intend to let that slip.”
Minutes after Thursday’s win, Pederson brought up last season. The Eagles were 3-0 entering a bye week, and Pederson offered a similar message about handling success. Resist the back-patting, he warned. Run from complacency.
It didn’t go well last year. The Eagles lost nine of their next 11 games. There were mitigating circumstances. It was a different roster with a rookie quarterback and head coach. They couldn’t overcome absences as effectively as this year’s group. There was probably an inevitable regression to the mean. But Pederson nonetheless said the Eagles must learn from that experience.
“We’ve got to learn to get rest, to heal up,” he said. “We have put ourselves in a really good position in the first six games of the year, but the season’s not over.”
Pederson said players must better handle their time away. Unless players are required to be at the facility for rehab, they are excused until Tuesday. He said he trusts them and they need the time away. But he also knows that gives them a chance to wallow in praise. A national audience saw them win on Thursday, and Eagles fans are as energized as they have been since a 2014 Thanksgiving victory. That team, by the way, also started 5-1. It didn’t make the playoffs.
“I think a lot of us have anticipated us having success,” Jenkins said. “The biggest thing for us is handling that success and being able to stay goal-oriented, being able to focus on the day … and not listen to all the things that people are projecting onto this.”