Public perception says that Philadelphia sports fans belong to a species that is best categorized under the scientific name, homo negativus. They are bitter, pessimistic creatures that view life through the bleakest possible lens. Their dour perspectives taint every type of being that has the misfortune to cross their path, from athletes to coaches to mythical holiday figureheads. From Mike Schmidt to Jason Babin to a long list of national television ding-dongs who traffic in low-hanging one-liners, the list of people who have propagated the stereotype is long and, in a few cases, illustrious.
But as someone who has spent the last 10-plus years embedded in the local sports scene, my experience has led me to believe that the psyche of the fan base is quite different from what the conventional wisdom suggests. What is often mistaken for an intense and brooding negativity is actually an unfortunate side effect of the bright, undying sense of hope that burns inside of everybody’s athletic soul. This town wants to win, yes, but, more than that, it wants to believe that it is a winner. Rather than pessimism, the nature of the beast is actually optimism in its purest form. And, like oxygen, when consumed at high quantities in its purest form, it is the sort of thing that can alter reality.
More often than not, the root of this town’s suffering is misplaced expectations. And the bitterness that many mistake for our natural condition is actually a reaction to the punch in the face that reality inevitably delivers. We are seeing this now with the Phillies, a team that entered the season four starters short of a rotation and a lineup that was an injury away from having two or three significant holes. Instead of recognizing that the Phillies were, on paper, an 86-to-89 win team that was equally as likely to win 82 to 84 games as a division title, a lot of people entered the season regarding the upper bound of the range of possible outcomes as the baseline. Playoff tickets were budgeted. Mantels were cleared. October weddings were moved to the winter. And, now, rather than acknowledge our role in this dramatic undershooting of expectations, we are instead left to scramble for someone to blame.
Here at the dawn of another new season, you can already see the seeds of disappointment being sewn. No doubt, the Eagles are a good team, far better positioned to contend for a title than the Phillies were at a similar juncture. But if you listen to the conversation wherever two or more Eagles fans are gathered, you would think that the only thing that stands between them and another Super Bowl is 20 weeks of football.
And that’s just not how the NFL works. So rather than paint ourselves into a corner where we are forced to engage in an Inquisition if the Eagles do as a lot of good NFL teams have done and fail to reach the Super Bowl, perhaps it would be helpful to look at things from the opposite viewpoint. Instead of, “Why will they?," let’s take a few moments to consider the question, “Why won’t they?”
A skeptic’s guide to the 2019 Eagles might start at the same place that serves as the foundation for a lot of predictions of grandeur. That is, this notion that the Eagles have surrounded Carson Wentz with the best set of playmakers of his young career. While it’s probably true, there’s also a chance we look back and realize that it had more to do with the rather low bar that had been set by his previous sets of weapons.
Take DeSean Jackson, for instance. While he remains one of the most electric playmakers in the NFL, his last couple of seasons offer plenty of reason for caution, particularly when projecting how things will stand come January. Last year, Jackson led the league with an average of 18.9 yards per catch. But from Week 7 on, he averaged just 13.65 yards per catch, which ranked 51st among players with at least 10 receptions. In fact, over the last two seasons, Jackson ranks 50th in the NFL in receiving yards after Week 7, with 53 catches for 654 yards and two touchdowns in 16 games. His 12.34 yard-per-reception average ranks 64th among wideouts with at least 382 yards receiving. It shouldn’t surprise anybody if we get to December and the big bold headlines are asking, “Where’s DeSean?”
In the backfield, the expectations for Miles Sanders have gotten to a point that he will be a disappointment if he is anything less than Brian Westbrook. While there’s no denying his talent, there’s also no denying his youth. Not only is he just 22 years old, he’s had just one season with more than 31 carries since high school. Furthermore, of the 26 running backs drafted in the second round over the 10 drafts before this year, the median rookie performance is 143 attempts and 581 yards.
But the defensive side of the ball is where the biggest questions loom. Ronald Darby has been hurt in each of his two seasons as an Eagle, and he is just now returning to team action. Derek Barnett took a big step forward with his return to 11-on-11 drills, but he has been out of commission for close to a year. Barnett, in particular, is a huge key for this year’s defense given the losses of Michael Bennett and Chris Long. The front seven has been the strength of this Eagles defense since Jim Schwartz took over. But from Week 7 on last season, opponents averaged 5.2 yards per carry against them. Only two teams were worse. With Jordan Hicks gone and Kamu Grugier-Hill injured, the Eagles have plenty of questions to answer up front.
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The biggest concern for this team might be the schedule. The first seven weeks include road games against three other NFC contenders in Atlanta, Green Bay, and Minnesota followed by a trip to Dallas. Home games against the Bears, Patriots and Seahawks cap off a brutal stretch of the schedule that is broken up only by a bye in Week 10. That’s nearly two full months with only two “gimmes” (the Bills and Jets).
Point is, there is plenty of reason to doubt these Eagles and protect oneself against the inevitable shortfall. Take it from this hardened skeptic, and keep your expectations realistic: 11-5, a berth in the NFC Championship, and no reason to worry about the Phillies until pitchers and catchers report.