Incentive manifests itself in many ways.
The most remarkable dynamic associated with the Eagles' leap to relevance is the team's commitment to execution. They are an incredibly selfless collection of players that have succeeded at a rate of 10 wins and 1 loss. It is an astounding and unpredictable turnaround from the 7-9 team from a year ago, but, thanks to upgrades and Band-Aids, completely valid. They are no fluke.
The sum of this team is greater than the parts, and this sort of alchemy only happens with universal buy-in. There is no formula for this chemistry. It takes talent and character, sure, but the key ingredients here might be insecurity and redemption.
The Birds boast an inordinate number of key players whose professional futures are unsecured, whether through contract expirations, salary cap complications, subpar play, or a combination thereof. They also have a handful of players who would rather forget 2016.
Eagles coach Doug Pederson was an NFL backup quarterback for 13 years. He's an expert when it comes to career insecurity, and how it can compel a greater commitment to winning. He acknowledged that it is helping his team win now.
"That's always a fine line there, when you have as many players playing on one-year deals. Of course, I've sat in those seats before as a player," Pederson said. "Everybody wants to play, obviously. [And] everybody wants to have the next contract or get the next contract."
Stars usually get their money. The rest of the players burnish their resumes when they play for teams that make deep playoff runs. Winners get rewarded.
"I try, as best I can, to communicate to them: 'Hey, listen, the better you play and the better we do as a team, then you'll get what's coming to you,' " Pederson said. "Maybe at the end of the season; or, if it's not here, it's rewarded somewhere else."
His communication has worked. The Eagles entered 2017 with the singular focus of cornered men, huddled in a bunker, desperate to prove themselves.
The best examples are probably defensive tackle Tim Jernigan and linebacker Nigel Bradham. Both entered the season on expiring deals and faced free agency after 2017. The Eagles extended Jernigan through 2021. Bradham said they have not engaged in talks with him. Bradham is 28, in his seventh season and is the fulcrum of the No. 1 rushing defense in football. He isn't worried.
"When you win," he said, "everybody eats off that."
It's a hungry team.
The trio of starting receivers needed strong 2017s to ensure their 2018s. Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith are playing on show-me deals. Jeffery signed for one season. Smith costs nothing to cut. Meanwhile, Nelson Agholor's play in his first two seasons cast him as Chip Kelly's biggest mistake; a third poor season might have been his last.
Featured running back LeGarrett Blount in 2016 rushed for 1,161 yards, led the league with 18 touchdowns and won a Super Bowl with the Patriots. However, as a 30-year old who faded at the end of the season, he had to sign a 1-year, $1.25 million deal. Meanwhile, Corey Clement, who eventually became Blount's backup, is an undrafted rookie; those have the least security of all.
The beginning of center Jason Kelce's 2016 season had people thinking he might be nearing the end, but he made his second Pro Bowl by the end of the season. Still, another poor start for Kelce might have led the Birds to reconsider his future in Philadelphia, since they could cut him after 2017 and save $6 million, with only a $1.2 million cap hit. Similarly, tight end Brent Celek, 32, is unimpeachable of character but perhaps unaffordable of salary. He could save the Birds $4 million if he doesn't return in 2018, so the 2017 season might be his last of his distinguished Eagles career. Running back Darren Sproles, 34, will be a free agent after the season.
Patrick Robinson, 30, signed a 1-year deal for $775,000 with no signing bonus. He could have been cut out of training camp, and he might have been; however, after failing to win a starting spot as an outside corner, Robinson was moved to the slot. He has excelled, and by doing so he likely extended his NFL career by several years. Jalen Mills was a seventh-round pick who started just two games last season. Had he not won and kept a starting job this season, he might have gone the way of most seventh-round picks who don't make an impact in their first two seasons.
There is a collection of players whose futures are virtually secured because of salary-cap implications but their 2016 seasons brought them to 2017 eager to redeem themselves. Right tackle Lane Johnson served a 10-game suspension for testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs for a second time in three years. Safety Rodney McLeod shied away from contact in two games. Linebacker Mychal Kendricks was involved in just 27 percent of the defensive snaps last year. All three would rather 2016 had gone differently; all three had incentive to make 2017 something special. The manifestation: All three are playing brilliantly.