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The oddest opener: Eagles travel to face a nameless Washington team in an empty stadium

Football thrives on emotion. Eagles players say they'll have to bring their own.

The last time the Eagles visited FedEx Field, Dec. 15, 2019, there was a huge flag and a military flyover. That won't be the case Sunday.
The last time the Eagles visited FedEx Field, Dec. 15, 2019, there was a huge flag and a military flyover. That won't be the case Sunday.Read moreMark Tenally / AP

Jalen Mills' mother won’t be at FedEx Field in Landover, Md., on Sunday, when the Eagles visit Washington for the season opener. But Mills figures the vibe will remind him of her.

“It’ll go back to those little league games when I was 9, 10 years old, and all the people there were the team moms [who brought the players water],” Mills said Friday.

Mills had been asked what he thought it would be like to play an NFL game with no fans, thanks to COVID-19.

Tight end Zach Ertz said even youth football wasn’t like this.

"I don’t think anyone has ever had this situation; typically, even when you were in pee-wee football, you had your family. Whether they wanted to be there or not, they were there supporting you. It’s going to be weird.

"The team that’s able to kind of create their own energy, bring their own juice, is going to be the team that probably has more success, because [normally] it’s so easy to feed off the crowd. … There’s no one else to bring it. We’ve got to bring it ourselves. And I think as Philadelphia Eagles, that’s something that we’ve never really struggled with.”

FedEx was not at all silent the last time the Eagles visited, Dec. 15, 2019, with the visitors surging toward a playoff berth and the home team limping toward the finish line of a 3-13 season. Much was made of the fact that Eagles fans were at least as numerous as Washington fans and much more boisterous, in a 37-27 Eagles victory, the Birds' sixth in a row in the NFC East series.

“As far as energy and feeding off of the crowd, we’re going to have to lean on our teammates … special teams out there, we got to be standing up on our feet, looking for somebody to make a play,” said Mills, a former cornerback who will be making his first start at safety, in his fifth NFL season. “Same thing with offense and defense. We’re going to have to feed off each other.”

Eagles coach Doug Pederson noted that there will be piped-in noise, to try to create some semblance of home-field advantage. Pederson gave his team a taste of that experience in its Lincoln Financial Field scrimmage two Sundays back. The home opener is next Sunday, against the Los Angeles Rams, also to be played without fans.

“It’s going to be kind of eerie when you step out into a stadium right at kickoff, because the crowd, the energy, the electricity in the stadium is something that we all feed off of. This is part of our game. This is part of our sport,” Pederson said.

“It’s the emotion of playing football, playing a gladiator-type sport where there’s a lot of collisions, and guys get excited for that. They get energized for that. It’s something that I’ve talked to our team quite a bit about from the standpoint of self-motivation going into games like this, or group motivations.”

Apparently, the Washington team doesn’t plan on using cardboard cutouts to simulate spectators. When Washington reporters were allowed in to watch a scrimmage recently, they noted that workers were still trying to rid the structure of all traces of the team’s former nickname; this effort seemed unlikely to succeed by opening day.

Given the lack of spring work and preseason games, it’s fair to wonder about the quality of play, and the possibility of more injuries than usual, though those were not big factors when the league officially kicked off its season Thursday night in Kansas City, the Chiefs defeating the Texans, 34-20.

“The quality of play, I guess we’ll find out,” said Eagles center Jason Kelce. “This is my first season going into an NFL season without playing any preseason games, so I don’t really know what’s going to happen. I feel like we’ve gotten a lot of work in, and feel pretty good about things, but obviously, we’ll find all that out Sunday.”

Kelce noted that the NFL issued limits on how loud the piped-in noise could be.

“It should be pretty much at that set limit. I think we have a pretty good understanding for what that’s going to be,” he said.

There will be some sort of group-action racial justice protest before kickoff, several players confirmed, but they did not say what that would entail. At least no one will boo if players from both teams lock arms in a “moment of unity,” something that caused quite a stir in Kansas City.

New Eagles cornerback Darius Slay said he likes “getting into it with the crowd” in such situations, but “when I’m between the lines, I go to work.” Slay said he has been doing extra conditioning after practice, to try to make up for the lack of a preseason.

Asked about the artificial noise at the Linc scrimmage, Slay said: “I don’t know how loud theirs will be ... but ours was pretty decent, [and we] could still hear each other talk, so that’s a good thing. I can tell my guys if there’s a deep ball. If I’m on the sideline, I can yell it.”

Quarterback Carson Wentz brought up something unique to his position: “If I’m hit and throwing a deep ball, I’m not going to hear the crowd noise to know if it was complete or incomplete; I’m going to have to get up to see.”

Epidemiologists are unsure the NFL should be playing -- teams mingling unmasked, players breathing, bleeding, and sweating all over one another. But Wentz spoke of fans and players hungering for “a little sense of normalcy … for us to just be players again and go out and play. I think we’re all excited about that, both players and fans.”

Defensive end Brandon Graham said he doesn’t need a crowd, just an opponent, to get fired up. Graham mentioned a practical motivation – the road-favorite Eagles, winners of eight of their last nine season openers, all four under Pederson, will have a miserable Week 2 dealing with fans and the media if they lose to lightly regarded Washington.

“That’s my motivation,” he said. “I ain’t trying to hear nobody’s mouth, so we better go out there and give it everything, and bring the juice.”