For the first three months of the season, the Eagles played as if there were rocks in their cleats.
Apparently, they were weighed down by excess matter. It just took time, whether by attrition or injury, for the Eagles to shed some of the players who prevented them from performing as a cohesive unit, according to safety Malcolm Jenkins.
“Those things just kind of shake themselves out,” Jenkins said without naming names. “It’s like having a pebble in your shoe. Eventually, you feel it and you take it out."
Players and coaches had spoken openly about how rookies and practice-squad call-ups had injected energy into a moribund squad that was on the edge of implosion following the Dec. 1 loss to the Dolphins. And reporters connected the dots and surmised that it wasn’t just the youngsters, but also some of the cast-off veterans, who played a part in the Eagles’ run to the postseason.
But it wasn’t until Monday, when players cleaned out their locker stalls at the NovaCare Complex following the season-ending loss to the Seahawks, that veterans like Jenkins gave voice to the premise.
“You can’t keep going with it,” Jenkins continued. “Those things take time to develop and I think as the season went on our roster just shook itself out to the point where we had the guys we needed to move forward, whether that was practice-squad guys or whatever.
“The team just kind of got closer as we fine-tuned the roster.”
Jenkins was referencing some of the “new faces” Eagles management had brought in during the offseason or early in-season, and it wasn’t difficult to discern that cornerback Orlando Scandrick was one of those players. But there were many others who were discarded, and many more who weren’t part of the season-ending four-game winning streak because of injuries.
Even if individuals weren’t identified, the 53-man roster that was initially assembled and tinkered with from March to December wasn’t a winning one. That it took injuries and seemingly less talent for the Eagles to play their consistent best is an indictment of the front office.
Doug Pederson and his coaching staff can’t be let off the hook either, unless it was general manager Howie Roseman who forbade receiver Greg Ward from supplanting Mack Hollins or Boston Scott from beating out several lesser running backs, among other questionable roster decisions.
But bringing in players who don’t fit in culturally falls mostly on the evaluators. Sometimes there’s a trial-and-error process. By November, the Eagles had released six free-agent additions, sometimes only days after playing a significant number of snaps.
There were various reasons guard Stefen Wisniewski, linebackers L.J. Fort and Zach Brown, defensive tackle Akeem Spence, safety Andrew Sendejo, and Scandrick were let go, most of them having nothing to do with culture. But if any one of them had played well, or been an invaluable presence in the locker room, they would have stayed.
“I think the closer we got to our team from last year, the tighter the team got,” Jenkins said. “So you had a couple pieces that didn’t really fit. I think, obviously, the injuries, the outside noise about a team that’s underperforming, the expectations that we had as a team coming into the year – all of those things tested this locker room.”
But external forces, no matter how loud the drumbeat of criticism might have been, won’t test the culture of a locker room like internal ones. And the Eagles had significant issues, the most public in October when an ESPN reporter quoted an anonymous team source denigrating quarterback Carson Wentz and the offense.
The Eagles didn’t merely pass off the report as a media construct.
“Somebody said something,” Jenkins said. “But at the end of the day, we addressed it, and it never happened again.”
Alshon Jeffery had been labeled as the source by a WIP-94.1 personality who is also an Eagles sideline reporter, but the wide receiver had previously denied any involvement. Nevertheless, several players still believed him to be behind the quotes.
The receiver, meanwhile, had been producing at a level far below his norm. Various injuries had an effect, but Wentz and Jeffery continued to lack a chemistry that each has had with other receivers/quarterbacks.
They had their best day in Miami despite the upset. But the following week, with the season increasingly on the line, their struggles returned against the New York Giants. Jeffery was targeted twice and caught neither before suffering a season-ending foot injury just before the half.
At the time, the Eagles trailed 17-3, and their offense was ineffective. But something clicked after the break, especially for Wentz. He still had regulars like tight ends Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert and running back Miles Sanders, but former practice-squad skills-position players like Ward, Scott, and tight end Josh Perkins helped spark a dramatic comeback.
And the momentum carried over into the next three games, and even Sunday.
“I feel like no matter what was going on, the first 12 weeks, that Giants game, in the second half, once we got on a roll, guys really started to have fun together,” Ertz said. “There were no egos involved and we just kind of got back to the basics as a football team.”
Wentz stopped worrying about having to give certain receivers theirs, which in turn reduced moments when he forced throws or tried to do too much. He could just run the offense as designed and take what a defense gives. (Unfortunately for the quarterback, he lasted all of eight plays before a concussion forced him from an eventual 17-9 loss to Seattle.)
But the exuberance and hunger of the replacements factored into the turnaround, as well. Tackle Jason Peters said their contributions would be what he remembered most about the season. Ertz said the practice-squad posse allowed veterans “to take a deep breath.”
The Eagles’ personnel department deserves some credit for having them in the building in the first place. There were also some solid additions in both the free-agency and trade markets and promising talent from the draft.
The 2019 season wasn’t a failure despite high expectations. But many known commodities were either brought back or acquired with the thinking that the Eagles could catch lightning from the same bottle that produced the 2017 Super Bowl win.
Some paid off, some didn’t. But many of the complementary additions were busts. Jenkins spoke of the pieces that were eventually rejected, but there were clearly larger parts that remained on the roster and that might need to be removed this offseason.
The Eagles will return most from their core, but some will leave. Finding replacements who fit team culture is important at every spot, but more so at the top. If it weren’t for leaders like Jenkins, Ertz, Peters and more, the Eagles might have succumbed to a boulder of negativity.
“A lot of things that we had to deal with were internal, external,” Jenkins said, “but when you create a culture, a situation, where you got quality guys in the locker room, those personalities and the team ends up taking precedence.”