PHILADELPHIA -- At the team hotel the night before last Thursday's game against the New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles coach Doug Pederson brought his players together in a meeting room, turned down the lights and popped on a highlight reel.
He showed old Eagles-Giants footage to put the rivalry fresh in their minds, from Brian Dawkins crushing anything in blue to Brian Westbrook’s last-minute punt return touchdown in 2003 that served as a springboard for Philly’s 12-4 season and pushed the Giants toward a sharp descent.
It also contained much more recent memories from the Eagles’ Super Bowl run of a year ago. Watching themselves dominate on the field and seeing the joy and ease with which they played the game got some players’ attention.
“He just wanted to remind us of who we were,” said running back Wendell Smallwood during a recent appearance on 97.5 The Fanatic in Philadelphia. “He showed us the highlights and we all thought to ourselves, ‘Man, where are those guys at? We miss those guys.’ I was like, ‘Man, we’ve got to get that back.’"
Those guys reappeared last Thursday in the Meadowlands. The Eagles returned to their swag-having, high-flying form, jumping all over the Giants from the opening series en route to a 24-6 halftime lead. Another positive sign emerged in the locker room during the break, according to Smallwood. Receiver Nelson Agholor cranked up some music and a little party broke out, just like it had in Minneapolis back in February during halftime of Super Bowl LII against the New England Patriots.
“We just know we’re going to win the game. I felt that feeling [Thursday] night,” said Smallwood, who saw enough to announce with confidence, “We’re back.”
Whether that proves to be accurate or an overreaction to a 34-13 win over a bad Giants team remains to be seen. Sunday’s home game against the Carolina Panthers will help tell that story. What can be said is that there was a sense inside the visitors' locker room afterward that the Eagles had recaptured something.
In the first five weeks, the season had been mostly an ugly slog. Lingering injuries mingled with new ones and several positions were hit hard, including wide receiver and running back. The offense made a transition from Nick Foles to Carson Wentz in Week 3, and did not get Alshon Jeffery back from offseason rotator cuff surgery until a week after that. Still not in gear, the offense sputtered, failing to post 24 points in a single game in the first five weeks after doing so a league-high 12 times in 2017.
There was a lack of discipline and crispness in the team's play, signs that seemed to be pointing to a Super Bowl hangover.
"It is a challenge, quite honestly," Pederson said of maintaining high levels of intensity and play following a long, emotional run. “That's the thing you guard against; you guard against so-called burnout or the energy level is down. You also have to guard against what success looks like to everybody and how that can pull on people and distract people. Players, coaches, I'm included. And then we played almost a month and a week longer than all the other teams, so our injury level was different and healing times and there's all kinds of things that can sort of push things back into the regular season just a little bit, and that's kind of where we are right now as a team.
“We're starting to get guys healthy, but then there's always a setback. Someone gets dinged up, he misses a game, and then we're trying to fight to get guys healthy again and trying to manage the roster that way each and every week. So it's a challenge. But our guys have really embraced it.”
Ron Rivera, the visiting coach this week, cited “a tremendous amount of pressure and expectations” as the biggest factors teams coming off a Super Bowl run have to contend with. Following a 15-1 season and long playoff run in 2015, which ended in a loss to the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl, Rivera’s Panthers were hit hard by injury and circumstance the next year and stumbled to a 6-10 record before bouncing back and making the playoffs last season.
Playing in Philadelphia, “I can imagine what [the expectations] are for Doug and this team. That’s probably the biggest thing,” said Rivera, who served as an assistant in Philly under Andy Reid for five seasons. “You’re going to get everybody’s best shot, and that’s kind of the way it is. And I think they’ve handled it very well.”
Pederson drove that last point home right out of the chute, telling his players this offseason to “embrace the target,” cautioning that opponents would be coming hard after the crown week to week. Defensive end Brandon Graham found those words rang true after a Week 4 loss to the Tennessee Titans as he heard a Titans player boasting, “We beat the Super Bowl champs!” as he left the field.
“I know that’s on everybody’s mind, so we’ve got to make sure that we embrace it,” said Graham, “and make sure that we don’t take nothing for granted.”
One of the sources of comfort during a turbulent start to the year is that Pederson maintained a steady hand. He continues to empower the players, relying on the team leaders to police the locker room and ensure accountability, and he delegates to his assistants rather than overreaching into areas in which he is not an expert.
"I think he’s got a really good eye for what needs to be done and when it needs to be done. The other thing Doug does, and this is a credit to him, he stays in his lane,” said linebackers coach Ken Flajole. "Certainly, if we’re terrible on defense he’s going to come over -- and that’s his right as a head coach -- to say, 'Hey, listen, how are we going to get this thing squared away?' But outside of that, he lets people work.”
The Eagles are 3-3, they're banged up and they face a difficult first-place schedule with little give. Each game takes on a life of its own. But it appears Pederson has helped get his team through the early fog and in the proper state of mind for the grind ahead.
“I think we just take the same approach we did when we were 7-9. You show up every day, you compete, you work harder than everybody. We feel like we work harder than everybody in this league when it comes to practice and our preparation," safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "The process doesn’t change. We understand this year is a whole new season. We have new guys; we’re going to face different challenges. Every team is going to give you your best shot. There’s going to be a lot that we have to face, probably more so than last year. And how we decide to deal with that is up to us and yet to be seen. We’re just going to focus on what we can control.”