From the outside looking in, it’s easy to minimize the importance of NFL OTAs (organized team activities).
They look like the football equivalent of dance rehearsals, with players practicing the samba and the foxtrot and the Viennese waltz for a recital that still is more than three months away.
Attendance is voluntary. Players can’t wear pads. Contact allegedly is verboten. And they seldom go at anything resembling September game speed.
That said, Doug Pederson will tell you that the seeds for the Eagles’ first NFL championship in 57 years were sown last spring during these NovaCare dance rehearsals.
He’ll tell you that the dramatic improvement his offense made last season on third down and in the red zone was helped immensely by the extra emphasis the Eagles devoted to those areas last spring.
“I think it was extremely important,’’ the Eagles coach said. “We designed a lot of our practices to hit those specific areas. We’re continuing to do the same thing this spring. It definitely helped us going into [training] camp and then the season.’’
It’s hard to argue with the results.
Two years ago, in Pederson’s first season as head coach, the Eagles finished 24th in red-zone offense (49.1 percent touchdown rate) and 20th in third-down conversions (37.9 percent). Not coincidentally, they finished 7-9.
Last year, the Eagles were ranked first in red-zone offense, converting 65.5 percent of their trips inside the 20 into touchdowns. They also had the league’s eighth-best third-down success rate (41.7 percent), and actually were first entering their last two regular-season games.
In the playoffs, the Eagles were a lot more unstoppable on third down. They converted an astounding 60.5 percent of their third downs in the postseason, tying the 2014 New England Patriots for the best third-down conversion rate by a Super Bowl winner in league history.
Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles, who replaced Carson Wentz as the starting quarterback after Wentz tore an ACL in Week 14, completed 26 of 32 third-down passes in the playoffs and finished with an unheard-of third-down passer rating of 158.1. This after Wentz had led the league in third-down passing during the regular season.
“We emphasized it a lot,’’ Wentz said of the Eagles’ third-down and red-zone success last season. “We worked on it a ton in OTAs last spring. We spent extra time in the film room just analyzing what we did.
“Something we really emphasized last year was putting the right guys in the right spot. Bringing in a guy like Alshon [Jeffery], who is really good in those situations. Getting [tight end] Zach Ertz involved more in the right positions. Putting Nelson Agholor in the slot, where he made such a huge difference. Just getting guys in the right spots was a huge part of our success, especially in the red zone.’’
Wentz led the league in third-down passing with a 123.6 rating. An NFL-high 14 of his 33 touchdown passes came on third down. An NFL-high 50 percent of his third-down attempts (62 of 124) produced first downs.
Wentz had 23 red-zone TD passes. Only Tom Brady had more (26). In the Eagles’ 19 regular-season and postseason games, neither Wentz nor Foles threw an interception or was sacked in the red zone.
Ertz had eight red-zone touchdown catches, and Jeffery had seven. Both numbers were career highs. The only players in the league with more were the Seahawks’ Jimmy Graham (10) and the Dolphins’ Jarvis Landry (nine).
Wentz feels that Ertz is becoming almost uncoverable in the red zone.
“With him, especially with where we’re at with our relationship on the field and the chemistry we’ve developed, our timing is just really dialed in,’’ Wentz said.
“Anytime you’re dialed in with somebody, it’s hard enough [to stop them]. But when you’ve got a guy with his size [6-foot-5, 250 pounds] and his ability to go up and get a ball, and the way he plays with leverage, and the fact that he runs routes as well as anybody in the league, I just think that makes for a tough matchup.’’
Ertz became Foles’ third-down go-to guy in the playoffs. He had a team-high 10 third-down catches in the playoffs, nine of which produced first downs. His pivotal 11-yard touchdown catch with 2 minutes and 21 seconds left against the Patriots came on a third-and-7 play. He also had a huge fourth-and-1 reception earlier in the drive.
“I want to be that guy where, on third down or in the red zone, they know they can throw me the ball,’’ Ertz said.
Wentz already knows that.
“He trusts me that I’m going to get the job done regardless of whoever is covering me or regardless of whatever leverage someone has on me,’’ Ertz said.
“Carson and I, we’ve talked about and have watched enough film together where we have an ability to react depending on what the defense gives us. We’re going to have answers for everything they throw at us.
“I think we both understand the timing aspect of football. That’s probably the thing I’ve learned the most about what’s important between a quarterback and a receiver. You’re only able to accomplish that timing if you’re with somebody over and over and over.’’