It was a very odd and very normal night Thursday at Lincoln Financial Field, in the best of both ways, as the Eagles lost their preseason opener to the Steelers, 24-16.
Normal, in that the Eagles, and the Steelers, actually had a preseason opener. Last year, of course, the pandemic and its subsequent restrictions wiped out the NFL’s entire slate of practice games. So even with the city having reinstituted an indoor mask mandate earlier in the week, even with a fair number of attendees clad in black and gold and twirling “Terrible Towels,” the sight of several thousand Eagles fans in the stadium’s upper and lower bowls, sitting and standing and cheering in the soupy heat, was pretty comforting, for the people in the stands and the people playing the game.
It’s not often that a kicker can speak for an entire football team, but the Eagles’ Jake Elliott — who made three field goals Thursday night, one from 50 yards and two from 47 — did when he said, “It’s just good to get out there and play a game again. I think the preseason is really valuable — obviously missed that last year.”
Given the makeup of this Eagles team and the circumstances surrounding it, this preseason will be particularly valuable. This regular season promises to be unlike any for the Eagles in some time. Over Jeffrey Lurie’s quarter-century-plus of ownership, and certainly over the last decade, the franchise has rarely entered Week 1 without the sense that it had spent the offseason reloading for a run at the NFC East title or, in the best-case scenario, the Super Bowl.
That all-in approach had been the team’s MO from the moment it drafted Carson Wentz in 2016: make big offseason signings and acquisitions, get Wentz weapons, go for it. It went about things that way for most of its recent history before then, too. Even when the Eagles have been disappointing or genuinely bad — last year, 2015, 2011-2012 — the falloff was because of injuries or Chip Kelly’s prickly personality or poor personnel decisions and evaluations. It wasn’t because they had a host of young players at important positions and were waiting to see how much those players had developed, how good they really were.
This season is different. This season has a new head coach in Nick Sirianni; a quarterback, Jalen Hurts, who has started just four games in the NFL; a group of inexperienced wide receivers in DeVonta Smith and Jalen Reagor and Quez Watkins and who knows who else; a powerful if still raw left tackle in Jordan Mailata; an intriguing pass-rusher in Josh Sweat; and several short-term signees: Ryan Kerrigan, Eric Wilson, Steven Nelson.
There are so few firmly established veteran starters that seeing the likes of Hurts and Watkins play in these games holds more intrigue, and their playing in these games would be more beneficial to them, in theory anyway.
“The biggest thing is repetition,” Hurts said. “It brings comfort and it brings confidence. Every time we get the opportunity to play ball, every time we get this opportunity to play, especially in a live atmosphere like this tonight, we want to take advantage of it and we want to learn from it and build off of it.”
In that context, it was surprising that Sirianni limited the first-team offense to just two series Thursday night, especially since each team’s preseason schedule is down to three games from the once-customary four. Yes, nowadays, a head coach is more likely to prioritize the health of his starters, to minimize the risk of losing them to injury, but one would think that most of these starters on this team could use the in-game reps.
“That first half I just thought was really crisp both offensively and defensively,” he said. “Again, there are going to be things to correct, but that’s what we’re striving for every day, just to have that sharpness on our offense and defense. It’s the same thing. We can’t get too down on the bad plays that happen, and we can’t get too high on the good things that happen. We just have to play the next play, the next game, over and over and over again.”
In this preseason, that preparation matters a little more than usual for the Eagles. It also will make these next two games, against the Patriots and the Jets, a little more interesting to watch. After the emptiness of last year, that’s not a bad thing.