The “Philadelphia Eagles” will play their third exhibition game Thursday night, and the team name is air-quoted because the players put on the field against the Baltimore Ravens hardly resemble what the organization hopes will represent the actual 2019 Eagles.
This is more like seeing a rock band during a lull in the group’s lineup in which most of the founding members are pursuing solo projects, going through rehab, fighting with the record company, or just bloody tired of each other. The backups play the songs, but not nearly as well, and the audience can be forgiven for not paying much attention until the real reunion tour.
So far, depending on one’s lineup predictions, 16 of the 22 Eagles starters have not taken part in one of the two previous exhibition games. Even though the third game is traditionally when regulars are allowed to wade briefly across the shallow end of the pool, there is no indication Doug Pederson will stray from his better-safe-than-sorry philosophy this year.
Not all the starters, or potential starters, have been missing for protective reasons. Some are recovering from injury and pointing directly toward a return for the Sept. 8 opener against Washington. Some are injured and aren’t going to be back by then. But most are just getting their work in practice, where the contact is controlled and the day’s effort is judged sometime later in the film room.
Here are the players who have not taken a snap in the preseason games so far: DeSean Jackson, Carson Wentz, Nelson Agholor, Alshon Jeffery, Ronald Darby, Rodney McLeod, Corey Clement, Jalen Mills, Cre’Von LeBlanc, Darren Sproles, Nigel Bradham, Kamu Grugier-Hill, Jason Kelce, Lane Johnson, Jason Peters, Isaac Seumalo, Brandon Brooks, Zach Ertz, Fletcher Cox, Tim Jernigan, and Derek Barnett.
(Second-year offensive linemen Jordan Mailata, 131 of 135 snaps, and Matt Pryor, 126 of 135 snaps, are the exhibition leaders in the clubhouse. If all goes well this year, Mailata and Pryor, neither of whom took an offensive snap as a rookie, will not see the field in the regular season.)
That list of the missing during the preseason is a fairly sizable chunk of the players counted upon to contribute against the Redskins in 17 days. Again, some of them are not medically cleared yet, but that doesn’t really add to the confidence level that they will be ready to roll by then.
“We’re not there yet,” Pederson said Tuesday, when he last addressed the media.
He had been asked about the quarterback rotation for the Ravens game, but the answer applies to everything the Eagles have done to prepare for the regular season.
That first game against Washington will eventually arrive, and the stand-ins will pack up their guitars and amps and join the practice squad, or, as Buddy Ryan liked to say, “get on with their life’s work.” The regulars will reclaim the stage, perhaps even on the beat, and the wisdom of slipping quietly into the real games will be praised or not depending on how the music sounds.
There’s no need to overstate the value of exhibition games. They are shoddy rehearsals at best. But there’s also no point in overstating what a team can derive from practicing against itself. Even controlled scrimmages like the Eagles held against the Ravens on Monday and Tuesday are pale imitations of the actual games.
Right now, there are 32 head coaches in the NFL raving every day about the great work put in during practice, and the important strides being taken, and the growth among the offensive and defensive units. And half of their teams will stink on ice this season.
Everyone agrees that four exhibitions are too many, but owners will not slice the number until the games excised are replaced in kind by regular-season games.
That might be the negotiation during which the Players Association finally stands on its hind legs – the potential revenue windfall for the league would be enormous – but an agreement is a long way off, and football fans (and coaches) are stuck with the current system for the near future.
“I think that’s where we’re going,” Pederson said of the trend toward controlled scrimmages between teams and away from the past emphasis on exhibition games. “I think that’s the way the league is heading.”
Maybe, but in the meantime there are games like the one that will be contested on Thursday between teams there only because the schedule dictates it. I still believe that playing football is a good preparation for playing football, and the Eagles are missing some opportunities with the way they are handling this exhibition season.
Time will bear that out, of course. Most of the potential injuries they are preventing wouldn’t have happened anyway, and the chance to get fully in tune before the curtain rises on the regular season is a sound check that shouldn’t be dismissed lightly.