Opening games might not serve as great indicators of what is to come during a 16-game season, but players and coaches tend to remember them. They mark the end of many months of preparation, something that separates the NFL from other sports. They are the first step of a journey, but the journey is pretty sharply defined.
As Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz noted this past week, “You only get 16 of them. We’re not playing 162 [games]. We’re not playing 82, like in basketball.”
Schwartz had been asked about easing in starters who are coming off injury for the first game of the 2019 season, at home Sunday against Washington. He said there was a balance between being cautious and understanding that “every game is precious.”
“You never know what’s going to happen. Weather generally plays a role in the opener. That can be a wild card. So backups become important,” Schwartz said, recalling that it rained during last year’s opener, also at home, an 18-12 victory over Atlanta. “There is always that uncertainty of an opponent, that it’s the opening game, that you’re not 100% sure what you’re going to see on offense and defense and things like that.”
Eagles coach Doug Pederson, who is 3-0 on opening day, said in-game adjustments take on added importance, given that so much is unknown going in. The Eagles have won seven of their last eight Week 1 games, and 9 of 11.
Eagles safety Rodney McLeod is set to kick off his eighth season opener, his fourth with the Eagles. McLeod’s favorite so far is the one from 2017. The Eagles faced the Redskins, as they will Sunday afternoon, though that game was played at FedEx Field, not the Linc. Washington had won five successive encounters between the NFC East rivals. That day, the Eagles began a run of four successive wins over the Redskins that they are hoping to extend this week.
“The last time we played them in the opener, that was the year we won the Super Bowl,” McLeod said. “It just kind of set the tone for the season, honestly – a division opponent, the past [five] times they’d beat us. We were fed up. … Our mindset was where it needed to be, and I think it’s the same approach this year. We’ve got something to prove.”
The Eagles are hoping to prove they are the division’s best team again, after slipping to 9-7 and a wild-card playoff berth last season. They can’t really prove that in one afternoon against what might be the division’s weakest team, but this is the necessary first step.
It’s hard to come out of the gate with everything working perfectly, as the Packers and the Bears showed Thursday night in the game the NFL picked to kick off its 100th season. Green Bay won, 10-3, in what essentially was a clash of dominant defensive lines and punting.
Even that Super Bowl LII year, in which the Eagles went 13-3, there were opening-day glitches. The Redskins trailed only 19-17 going into the fourth quarter. The Eagles added a field goal, and then, with 1 minute, 29 seconds remaining, defensive tackle Fletcher Cox returned a fumble 20 yards for a touchdown, icing a 30-17 victory.
“It was a dogfight there for a while,” recalled right tackle Lane Johnson. Johnson’s longtime nemesis, Washington edge rusher Ryan Kerrigan, picked off a Carson Wentz pass and took it in for a touchdown, helping bring the Redskins back from a 13-0 deficit. “We ended up closing it out there in the fourth quarter.”
Brandon Graham hit the passing arm of Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins – just as Graham would do late in the fourth quarter 18 games later, in a higher-stakes contest – setting up Cox for the scoop and score.
Cox is one of the players Schwartz will have to monitor in this opener; he didn’t play in the preseason and practiced sparingly as he recovered from a foot injury suffered in last season’s playoff loss at New Orleans.
“I’m ready to let it go, man. The guys [defensive starters who did play] got maybe 30 snaps in the preseason, total. Not that much far behind those guys,” Cox said. “I think I’ve been around it long enough and played enough football in this league to know how to prepare myself. … It’s a really rough situation for me, something I know I’ve never been in, but I know I can handle it.”
Johnson said he didn’t remember a lot from the Super Bowl year opener, but he vividly recalled the start of the 2013 season, also Eagles at Redskins. It was the debut of Chip Kelly as coach, a razzle-dazzle 33-27 victory that seemed to promise so much excitement to come.
“We ran 53 plays in the first half. We won, but I was like, ‘I don’t know how the hell I’m supposed to play the whole ... season doing this,’ ” Johnson recalled. “We got up real big at halftime and kind of let them come back.”
So much of what we think we know going into season openers is projection, conjecture. Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins talked about that this past week.
“Opening games, you get to take all the hype or whatever … local media is ‘this is the year,’ we’re talking about the potential of the team, blah, blah, blah. All these things that don’t mean anything in real life but mean a lot on paper,” Jenkins said. “This is where those things manifest, and you get to see who you really are.
“That’s the fun part about Week 1. … It comes off of the paper and is now on the field. … You finally, actually, get to make it count.”
Jenkins’ most vivid opening game memory is from his rookie season of 2009. He was the New Orleans Saints’ first-round rookie, taken 14th overall, playing cornerback. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams sent Jenkins off the bench, straight into single coverage against Detroit’s Calvin “Megatron” Johnson.
“Calvin caught a ‘dig,’ went about 60 yards before somebody knocked him out of bounds at about the 2-yard-line,” Jenkins said.
Jenkins said Williams promptly yanked him and didn’t call upon the rookie again that day.
“We had this grading system. I only played that one snap, so my grade for the week was negative-100,” Jenkins said. “That was my welcome to the NFL.”
Eagles corner Rasul Douglas wasn’t a rookie, but he played just two defensive snaps in last season’s opener against Atlanta. His experience was nearly the opposite of Jenkins’ in 2009, though. On one of his two plays, Douglas intercepted Matt Ryan at the Eagles’ 4, the home team holding a 10-6 fourth-quarter lead.
“It’s just timing – perfect timing,” Douglas said.
Douglas, like Jenkins, said openers are when preparation finally turns to action.
“You do the physical side now. Mentally, you’ve already won or lost,” Douglas said. “Now’s the time for the physical side.”
Tight end Zach Ertz agreed that NFL openers are a long-awaited release.
“It’s exciting. We’ve been busting our butts for five months now. We’ve got a bad taste in our mouths from last year, in the playoffs against the Saints. … It feels like it’s been forever since we played at the Linc,” Ertz said. “I expect a playoff atmosphere.”
Ertz also expects something else, his favorite part of opening day.