The Eagles may have gotten stronger on the field after Friday’s Jordan Matthews-for-Ronald Darby trade, but they weakened themselves in the locker room.
Will it have a negative effect on team chemistry? Time will tell. In many cases, no matter how popular or inspirational a player may be, his departure has little residual impact on the team dynamic.
NFL rosters are too large. Football is too cut-throat, and typically on-the-field performances often overshadow off-the-field intangibles for there to be adverse consequences once a beloved player leaves. Even at quarterback.
But Matthews wasn’t your typical teammate. The wide receiver was as well-liked as any player because he could relate to many different personalities. He was as respected as any player because he worked harder than most and played through injuries.
And, oh yeah, he also happened to be the quarterback’s best friend on the team.
“It’s tough,” Carson Wentz said on Saturday. “It’s one of those things where there’s the personal side to things and the football side to things. The football side of things, you just got to trust what they’re doing upstairs. Ultimately, they’re the ones that make those decisions. And what they think is best for the team, I’m going to be in support of 100 percent.
“They haven’t let me down or haven’t let this team down yet.”
Wentz said that Howie Roseman told him of the trade after it was completed but before it was announced. The second-year quarterback shouldn’t have been consulted before the move, but the Eagles’ de facto general manager likely took his well-being into account.
Roseman did this offseason – at least on the field — when he surrounded Wentz with several new receiving and running pieces. He did so at the expense of the secondary, and eventually the inadequacy of the cornerbacks came home to roost.
Seeming to have depth at receiver, and particularly the slot, the Eagles packaged Matthews with a 2018 third-round draft pick to the Bills for Darby, a two-year starter who has two years left on his contract.
The jury is still out on whether the 23-year-old cornerback will perform more as he did as a rookie (good) or last season (not so good). But he should instantly become the No. 1 corner, which may say as much about Jalen Mills and Patrick Robinson as it does Darby.
Matthews’ production had waned in 2016. Coach Doug Pederson had initially tried him on the outside that spring, but his inability to get separation against man coverage resulted in a return to the slot. He was a zone beater in the middle of the field, however, and his route running often him made him Wentz’s safety valve.
“We were so close off the field that on the field that helped,” Wentz said.
Nelson Agholor, who has seemingly improved this offseason, is expected to take most of Matthews’ snaps inside. He was primarily in the slot during Saturday’s practice. Rookie Mack Hollins, who made an impression by scoring the Eagles’ only touchdown in their preseason opener, should also get opportunities.
But the versatility of tight ends Zach Ertz and Trey Burton and running backs Darren Sproles and Donnel Pumphrey should also give Pederson alternatives if Agholor reverts to his old self.
“The good news,” Ertz said, “is that on paper we got a lot of guys that can fill the spot.”
The Eagles should have enough leaders to fill Matthews’ void, although the receivers room doesn’t have a replacement quite as stirring. Alshon Jeffery is quiet. Torrey Smith has those qualities, but he is new and more reserved than Matthews. Agholor may have the additional pressure of stepping into those leadership shoes.
But it’s not just the receivers who will be affected. Safety Malcolm Jenkins, who routinely faced off against Matthews in 1-on-1 drills and sought the receiver out for post-practice work, said that he would have “to find a new Jordan Matthews … and I know he’s been kind of that guy for a bunch of different guy’s lives.”
NFL rosters are ever-changing. But only 25 of the 90 players on the Eagles’ roster were here before the 2016 offseason.
“That amount of transition,” Jenkins said, “it definitely puts a little bit of pressure on your leaders and guys in the locker room to set the culture.”
Asked if Matthews’ exit would have any resonance in the locker room, Pederson said that he would he lean on his experience as a former player. But the rest of his response seemed to be lacking in emotional intelligence.
“We can sit and have poor attitudes and all that, but at the same time we’re happy for both parties, and we’re moving forward,” Pederson said. “That’s business as usual.”
While it may have been business as usual for the coach – and Saturday’s grueling practice two days after playing in Green Bay suggested as much – several players said the trade was still reverberating at the NovaCare Complex.
“And then have a 2-hour, 40-minute practice, full pads, live [tackling],” Jenkins said. “Yeah, the mood is a little bit down today.”
Matthews was part of Wentz’s core group of friends on the team. The six of them – Ertz, Burton, linebacker Jordan Hicks and safety Chris Maragos were the others – attended church on Sundays together and socialized away from football.
On Friday, the group went out to dinner at Bar Amis in the Navy Yard and then drove Matthews to the airport.
“It was emotional,” Ertz said.
There is a lot about football that is easy to quantify. Locker room harmony is not one, although some believe it has as much importance as yards and touchdowns.
“Replacing a guy like that in the locker room,” Wentz said, “is definitely not going to be easy.”
Will it ultimately matter in the win-loss column?