PHILADELPHIA -- A result of pride stung, or a testament to the character of the football team?
The answer will be revealed over the final three weeks of the Philadelphia Eagles' season and is critical to the long-term outlook of head coach Doug Pederson and this core group of players.
Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins called Sunday's 27-22 loss to the Washington Redskins "the least disappointing" of the season. That’s because the team showed plenty of fight across the board but was simply out-manned at the end.
It was tougher to make the same claim after a lifeless loss to the Cincinnati Bengals the Sunday prior. Pederson added fuel to the idea that the team did not give full effort in that game by admitting that "not everybody" played hard. Heavy waves of criticism crashed onto the fortress walls in the ensuing days.
The Eagles responded with one of their most spirited practices of the year Wednesday. Players were taking each other to the ground -- something that hadn't been seen since training camp - and the energy levels were noticeably up. That translated onto the field against Washington.
"Anytime your effort or your heart or whatever you want to call it gets called out, men with pride are going to respond. And I thought everybody did," Jenkins said.
"That's the max effort, max effort. This team responded," Pederson added. "This team did an outstanding job today. We fought all the way to the end. At one point, I thought we were actually going to fight after that. This is a resilient group. I'm just honored to be leading those guys."
The most noticeable change was in tight end Zach Ertz. He came under the heaviest fire last week after opting not to block linebacker Vontaze Burfict on a Carson Wentz scramble. Wentz went to Ertz on the first play of the game against Washington, and the 6-foot-5, 250-pounder out of Stanford rumbled for a 13-yard gain. He played with a noticeable edge and finished with 10 catches for 112 yards.
"I don’t know if teammates felt I let them down, but I wanted to prove to them that I wasn't going to let them down ever again," he said afterwards. "Obviously there was a lot of outside noise. I knew that, everyone knew that. I prayed a lot about it. I was just kind of focused on being the best teammate that I could today: being physical, being physical after the catch, being physical in the run game, and hopefully I did that for them."
The last three weeks of the season -- the Eagles play at the Baltimore Ravens and home against the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys to finish the string -- will show whether this was just a temporary reaction to circumstance, or a sign of what this team is made of.
Last season, it was the former. Following troubling losses to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Detroit Lions, the Eagles -- inspired by a personal challenge from owner Jeffrey Lurie -- went into New England and shocked the Patriots the following week. They proceeded to drop their next two, and Chip Kelly was promptly fired. The issues were deep-rooted, and the organization knew that it was time to reboot after three seasons.
This is Year 1 of Pederson, so it's a different dynamic. No team wants to get into the pattern of constantly making changes at the top. Typically, the only thing that follows is instability.
What the Eagles' brass would undoubtedly like to see, though, are positive signs -- indicators that what's ailing the team is more about lack of personnel and seasoning and less about leadership and character. Sunday's game against Washington was encouraging in that respect. Now let's see if it lasts.