Malcolm Jenkins won three state titles at Piscataway (N.J.) Township High, played in two national championship games at Ohio State, and won the Super Bowl with the Saints as a rookie. LeGarrette Blount won two of the last three Super Bowls with the Patriots.
The most concrete lesson either learned along the way:
The only game that matters is the next game, until the last game. This season, the last game will be played in Minneapolis.
The Eagles moved to 4-1 when they gutted the Cardinals on Sunday, 34-7, but the lead dogs aren’t satisfied with that carnage. They’re ready to hunt again, in Carolina, on Thursday night.
“What we don’t know about ourselves is how we handle success. Which, I think, is more dangerous,” Jenkins said in the locker room Sunday evening.
He brought up the topic unprovoked. He believes it is a serious concern that requires immediate attention.
“I’ve been around teams that know how to handle that,” Jenkins said. “With the leaders we’ve added this year, I know we’ll focus on the small things.”
Blount is one of those new leaders. He stood across the room, 40 feet from Jenkins. The two of them basically created an echo chamber.
“You have to make sure you’re prepared. Make sure you stay locked in. Pay attention,” Blount said. “You only have a few days to prepare. Get to looking at film ASAP. Gather all the information you can with such a limited time to prepare.”
The short week is a blessing. For instance, defensive end Brandon Graham was excused from his weekly radio show Monday night, a raucous lovefest broadcast from a South Philly pub. Not that Graham is susceptible to a letdown — actually, he is one of the more driven players — but you’re less likely to get a swelled head if you’re sequestered by your work. Circumstance has created a cone of silence.
“It definitely helps from the standpoint of we really don’t have time to dwell on your past success,” coach Doug Pederson said. “We’re practicing this afternoon and tomorrow and we’re traveling on Wednesday.”
“It’s easy to start listening to the fans and the media about how good you are, but at the end of the day, it’s a race to improve every week,” Jenkins said. “No team stays the same. If you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse.”
Jenkins might have been talking about last season’s Eagles, whose 3-0 start preceded a 2-9 slide. The team lost right tackle Lane Johnson to a PED suspension for 10 of those 11 games, but his absence was not the only issue during the collapse. The defense crumbled. The left side of the offensive line sputtered. Quarterback Carson Wentz and his receivers regressed.
This season, the Eagles were 2-1 after three games, but they showed no signs of regression. The defense remains ferocious, despite injuries to cornerstones Fletcher Cox and Ronald Darby. The offensive line is, by any measure, among the top five in the league. Wentz played the best game of his career Sunday.
Still, the Eagles weren’t perfect.
On the first drive, with nose tackle Xavier Williams wrapped around his leg, Wentz tried to throw a pass to Zach Ertz and avoid a sack. The pass sailed into no-man’s land, where any of three defensive backs might have intercepted it and thereby ended the Eagles’ first touchdown drive.
The in-game rotation at left guard seems to have run its course. Stefan Wisniewski is clearly playing better than Chance Warmack, whose snaps will decrease, Pederson said.
Cornerback Jalen Mills was cleanly beaten on the Cardinals’ touchdown, but he had no help; coordinator Jim Schwartz called a six-man blitz on third and 9 from the 13. Bad coverage, bad call.
Those problems might sound petty. They are. The Eagles have four wins in five games. Their only loss came in Kansas City to the best team in the NFL, and they played well there, too. There’s not much to criticize.
But good teams become great teams when they eliminate the minor mistakes. Complacent teams are content to live with minor mistakes.
“I address it. For sure,” Pederson said. “We’ve got guys on this roster who have played in the Super Bowl, that have played in playoff games. They know what it takes to stay grounded, to stay focused.”
Besides Jenkins, receiver Torrey Smith, defensive end Chris Long and safety Corey Graham, like Blount, are newcomers with Super Bowl rings. Pederson has a ring, too, as a backup quarterback for the Packers. Each of them knows how hard it is to play the brand of efficient football the Eagles have played the first five weeks, and how tempting it is to lie back and enjoy the moment.
“In our case, we seem to be kind of in a groove. It is tough. It is tough. These players are probably more out in the community; they’re doing more appearances,” Pederson said. “Those are the things we have to guard against as we go: Complacency. It’s my job to keep them grounded. Keep them focused. Come to work every day prepared. I think that’s what you’re seeing.”
Jenkins promised that it’s what you’ll continue to see.
“Even if we’ve got to make it up, we’ll find something each week to get better at; something to nit-pick,” Jenkins said. “Stay hungry. Stay on edge. That’s the only way you continue to get better over the 16-game season.”
It’s the only way a 16-game season becomes a 17-game season.
Then, anything’s possible.