The Eagles' 2016 season is over, concluding Sunday with a 27-13 victory over a watered-down version of the playoff-bound Dallas Cowboys, a victory that will be neither long remembered nor celebrated.
What was this season really about?
To Carson Wentz, who set an NFL rookie record with 379 completions (in 607 attempts, for 3,782 yards, 16 touchdowns, 14 interceptions, and a 79.3 passer rating), it was about laying groundwork.
"We're just building something special. We truly believe that in the locker room. The guys that will be here next year, I kept saying it to all the guys that I saw – it's time to go. It will be time to go when we all come back," Wentz said after throwing two touchdown passes against a Dallas defense missing several regulars. "So I'm excited for the future."
When they come back, if they want to compete in the suddenly elite NFC East, they will have to emerge with more difference-makers --- at wide receiver, running back and cornerback, certainly, and another pass rusher wouldn't hurt.
"There's going to be a lot of changes in the offseason," said right tackle Lane Johnson, who'd barely knocked off the cobwebs from a 10-game suspension when he had to pack his pads away for the final time. "I think we're a few playmakers away from being where we need to be."
The Eagles were 5-1 with Johnson in the lineup, 2-8 without him. Johnson said his takeaway from the season is that "guys battled. I feel like I put 'em in a bad predicament, as far as getting suspended and leaving the team out to dry. I felt like it could have been a really good year for us. We can talk about it all day long. That's how it is."
To middle linebacker Jordan Hicks, who turned the tide of Sunday's game with two second-quarter interceptions of former Eagles quarterback Mark Sanchez, 2016 was about "overcoming adversity, coming together. Realizing how close we are" to being a contender. "And understanding how close it is, to lose in this league – how close the margin is … Every play counts. Guys in this locker room are understanding that you really have to play every single play like it's the one that's going to make the difference in the game."
That has been a continual theme with the Eagles, the half-dozen or so plays they feel could have turned some of their losses to victories, in a 7-9 season. You can usually look at victories as well as losses in this light, but it's valid to say the 2016 Eagles faced a tough schedule and didn't get walloped much – nine games against teams that made the playoffs, four of them wins, if you include Sunday, which was a win with an asterisk. The Eagles lost six times by a touchdown or less, and really only looked uncompetitive once, Dec. 6 at Cincinnati, for reasons that may never be explained.
In a stretch starting Sept. 25 with the Steelers and ending Nov. 28 with the Packers, they played nine games, eight of them against teams that will appear in the postseason. The only nonplayoff team they faced in that span was Minnesota, which was 5-0 coming into the Oct. 23 Eagles victory.
If Ryan Mathews hadn't fumbled late in the Detroit game, and if Doug Pederson had been content to kick a few field goals instead of gambling at Dallas and at the Giants, it would have been the Eagles clinching a wild-card berth Sunday instead of the Lions. This would have been great for the fans, and would have sent the team into the offseason with a lot of positive hype toward next year.
But would the wild-card Eagles have been substantially closer to winning the Super Bowl than the 7-9 Eagles? They'd go into free agency and the draft with the exact same shortcomings.
Without Jordan Matthews (ankle) and Ryan Mathews (neck disk) Sunday, their offense was painful to watch for most of the first half. Corners Nolan Carroll and Leodis McKelvin struggled mightily when starter Dak Prescott and then backup Tony Romo were in the game, even without a couple of starting offensive linemen and possible NFL MVP running back Ezekiel Elliott. Romo threw a touchdown pass on his only drive of the season.
It took Sanchez, who compiled a 27.5 passer rating, to truly even the scales.
"We're heading in the right direction, as far as the culture of this team," defensive end Brandon Graham said. "I think for Doug, it was a great year."
Pederson, the rookie coach, said the team, after those close losses, "learned how to finish."
"You can really see, I think, the end of the year here, the last month, how well these guys have really come together and played, and there's no quit, and they love to compete," he said.
Pederson said he was "the same guy as when I started back in September, and maybe just a little thicker skin dealing with you guys."
Maybe the biggest thing the team established is that Wentz seems to be what he was drafted to be, a quarterback the organization can build around. He became the first Eagles QB since Donovan McNabb to start all 16 games. He can work on being more accurate and less inclined to throw late into coverage, but he did pretty well with a really limited group of weapons and an offensive line that never quite settled down during Johnson's absence.
"The last thing you want to be looking for is a quarterback," safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "That's a tough situation, because you're either talking about drafting somebody, and then you've got to wait for that maturation process, or you're talking about paying somebody … limiting what you can build around him. I think we're happy to have our quarterback now, and that whole situation is settled – nobody's looking at the quarterback situation, he's not looking behind him. Now we're just figuring out how we're going to build around him."
Jenkins spoke of "tough lessons learned" in a season that seemed to feature one established, veteran opposition quarterback after another, after another testing Jim Schwartz's defense.
"Being a great team is not an easy thing. Sometimes it takes that laying down the foundation first. We'll see what happens next year," Jenkins said.
Matthews, who was unable to play Sunday with that ankle injury he's had since Nov. 28, said the season was about laying the groundwork for the future, but "I'm not talking about the 5-year future, I'm talking about soon, like, next year, two years down the road."
BIRDSEED: The Eagles will draft either 14th or 15th in the first round, with the pick they got for Sam Bradford, pending a coin flip with the Colts. The Eagles' original pick, 12th overall, goes to Cleveland for Carson Wentz … Jordan Matthews said the lingering ankle injury that kept him out of the season finale "hopefully" won't need surgery. He said it mainly needs rest … His absence allowed Zach Ertz, with a huge 13-catch, 139-yard, two-touchdown day, to become the team's leading receiver for the season (78 catches, 816 yards vs. Matthews' 73 for 804.) … Terrell Watson, the running back who joined the practice squad less than two weeks ago and was added to the roster Friday, ran nine times for 28 yards and his first touchdown, in his first NFL action. He kept the TD ball and said he planned to present it to his grandparents, who raised him after he was left on their doorstep in a basket, by an estranged daughter. The grandparents were at the game … Nelson Agholor left on the Eagles' first drive with an ankle injury … Rookie Isaac Seumalo started at left guard for the first time … Stephen Tulloch took the place of Mychal Kendricks, who suffered a quad injury in Friday's practice.