There will be a moment on Thursday night when a Super Bowl banner unfurls from the upper reaches of Lincoln Financial Field fans will be in a frenzy like they were during February's parade, throughout the postseason, and for decades upon decades waiting for this moment. Most of the principal characters from the Super Bowl will be present – Nick Foles, the Super Bowl MVP, is even starting – and it will be another reminder of just how special last season proved to be. They really did win the Super Bowl.
Except the players will be eager for the celebration to end.
There's been a conscious effort within the locker room to move on from the Super Bowl, a message that has been conveyed by coach Doug Pederson and reinforced by the team leaders. They even pushed for a Super Bowl sign to be taken down in the locker room — captain Malcolm Jenkins hated it — and Pederson obliged because part of trying to win another one is to stop fixating on the last one.
"The decision [was] just to move on, move past, move to 2018," Pederson said.
The Eagles are starting in the same place they do every season. They have many of the pieces from last year's Super Bowl title, but a few have gone and a few have come, and the team is different. The circumstances are different, too.
"The biggest thing is understanding that this team is going to be different than last year's team," Jenkins said. "You have new guys. The dynamics of it all is going to be different. We can't expect to have those same results by just walking on the field. … That's a difficult thing to do when you've got a Super Bowl sign in your locker room, but it's one of those things we've put a lot of focus on."
In his final team meeting after the Super Bowl and before the parade, Pederson told his players that this is the "new normal." That expression remains on the walls in the NovaCare Complex. When the team reported for the offseason program, they had T-shirts waiting for them that read, "Embrace the target." Jason Kelce left the locker room on Tuesday wearing the shirt. Pederson said during the spring he wants his players to "rip off the dog masks and no longer be the underdog, but now be the hunted."
They are favored on Thursday against the Falcons even though they're missing Carson Wentz, Alshon Jeffery, and Nigel Bradham. Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said it's a challenge to stay focused "with all the attention" from last season, but that the players have "stayed hungry" and understand teams are coming after them. The first test is Thursday – once the pomp of the night is complete.
"The fans that are in attendance are going to be crazy and they're going to be excited," Pederson said. "It's going to be great for the banner to be dropped. …It's going to be a great atmosphere. I think with this football team, though, they understand this is a different season, it's a new team, new year. We're sitting here 0-0 with a great opportunity against a great opponent – a playoff, Super Bowl caliber team coming in here. Quite honestly, that's their focus. They have moved on."
Pederson has spent the summer trying to ensure the Eagles avoid complacency. It hasn't just been in his messaging, but also in the way he's worked the team during practices. If Pederson seems more fiery this summer, it might be by design. There hasn't been a back-to-back Super Bowl champion since the 2004 season. The "Super Bowl hangover" can affect even if the most talented of teams and those that have the right mindset entering the next season.
"It's not putting last year behind you and people still basking in the sunlight – I don't think that happens," said NBC analyst Tony Dungy, who won the Super Bowl with the Indianapolis Colts in the 2006-07 season. (They went 13-3 the following year and lost in the divisional round.)
"But you're going to lose players. People are going to come after your backup players and…guys who make a big contribution. They're going to pay them a little more than you can pay them. …And then you've got the fact that you've had a shorter offseason, and everybody's studying your tape because they know you're the team to beat. And then comes the schedule. And we want Philadelphia on Sunday night. We want them two or three times. We want them on the road because they're a good draw and ESPN wants them on Monday night and you have a short week. And then everybody you play the following week, you're their big game. …Those are the factors, more than anything, that make it tough."
The Eagles have already seen the attrition that Dungy referred to, losing contributing players such as Trey Burton and Beau Allen in the free-agent market. They also needed to cut contributors who were getting too expensive and let other notable free agents leave. Howie Roseman replaced them with proven veterans who fit the team's win-now approach – Michael Bennett, Haloti Ngata, and Michael Bennett are examples – but it's never a given that the team can re-create what they had one year ago.
Although the Eagles were among the most talented teams in the NFL, they also developed a tough-minded, resilient personality that allowed them to overcome injuries. The underdog ethos was real, and it's now inapplicable. There is curiosity about how this team responds – even from the leaders. But Jenkins doesn't want to spend time comparing because "if you get caught up comparing last year to this year, you run into panicking or deceiving yourself." A team's personality is developed over time. Thursday will offer the first peek.
"You see what you really are," Jenkins said. "We're looking forward to seeing that personality show a little bit and see what this 2018 team is about."
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There was the parade when the Eagles returned home from the Super Bowl. Then there was the ring ceremony in June. Now, there's the first game. As much as the Eagles say they have turned the page, they keep going back to the cover of the book. A statue of Foles and Pederson before the "Philly Special" is now standing in the stadium complex. And it wouldn't be surprising if the highlights of that play are shown on Thursday.
"I don't want to take my mind there," said Foles, who wouldn't pay attention. "It's a new season."
Foles won't play like the Super Bowl MVP in every start, even if it's an inescapable title. If the Eagles line up for a fourth-and-goal from 1-yard line on Thursday, Foles and Pederson won't get any points from the Philly Special. There's a shadow that follows the Eagles from last year, and they've created a tough to act to follow.
When Andy Reid was asked if the Eagles job is different now that the fan base's dream of a Super Bowl has been fulfilled, he told a story of Charlie Manuel getting booed while the Phillies were losing in the first game back.
"That's a badge of honor in Philly!" Reid said.
Inside the locker room, many of the Eagles understand. That's part of why there was a push to take the Super Bowl sign off the wall. Chris Long said he only talks about the Super Bowl when a microphone is in his face. The Eagles released a promotional video on Wednesday titled, This is Only the Beginning. That is the approach the team is trying to take. They'll have pride in the banner that waves starting on Thursday. But they also know what the conversation will be if they don't hang another one next season.