It's Christmastime in Philadelphia. Our long regional nightmare of watching the Phillies while speculating about the 76ers and Flyers now segues to our most satisfying activity as a sports-obsessed populace: speculating about the Eagles while watching them practice. Quarterbacks, rookies, and select veterans will report to the NovaCare Center on Monday morning for the start of training camp (generic veterans apparently require a few more days of rest), and over seven weeks and through four preseason games, those who root for or cover the Eagles will seek out the new, the different, the encouraging, the discouraging as the regular-season opener, at FedEx Field against the Redskins on Sept. 10, approaches.
There's plenty that's new this year. Howie Roseman, the Eagles' football-ops chief, made sure of that. Under him, the Eagles always seem to win the offseason, if not the Lombardi Trophy, and he had another busy one: Alshon Jeffery, Torrey Smith, Chance Warmack, LeGarrette Blount, Tim Jernigan, Chris Long, Nick Foles. Lots to monitor there, not to mention the draft picks who will be competing for spots in the starting lineup or on the roster, Carson Wentz and the improvements he presumably has made, and Doug Pederson and the pressure he may or may not be under to win more than the seven games he won last season as a rookie head coach.
Even with all those (relatively) fresh topics, though, there are certain stories and elements that have long been staples of training-camp coverage and interest, and they will crop up again this year. They crop up every year. There's only so much that's truly interesting and newsworthy about the day-to-day grind of football practice under the scorching summer sun, and these narratives and developments serve as mile-markers and time-passers along the road to Week 1.
The Longshot Skill-Position Player Who Impresses Everybody
In 1986, it was Junior Tautalatasi. In 1989, it was Billy Hess. In 1990, it was Judd Garrett. In 1991, it was James Joseph. In 1993, it was Vaughn Hebron. In 2003, it was Greg Lewis. In 2006, it was Hank Baskett. Last year, it was Paul Turner. Sometimes they make the team. Sometimes they don't. Sometimes they become decent NFL players. Sometimes they don't. But what binds them all is their rags-to-riches, Rocky-Balboa-style backstories — and the belief among the most sentimental of Eagles fans and followers that if things such as salary caps and roster allocation and draft status didn't matter, if this running back or wide receiver or tight end just got a chance to show what he could do, then the Eagles would really have something.
(This year, by the way, that guy is Marcus Johnson, an undrafted wide receiver.)
The Days of Wine, Roses, West Chester, and Lehigh
When an NFL franchise spends millions of dollars to build its own practice facility, it's probably going to hold training camp at said practice facility. Such is the way of things. But the NFL-wide trend away from off-site training camps does allow media members to remember trudging up and down the hill at West Chester or bunking in the dorms at Lehigh's Taylor House. And it gives fans plenty of opportunity to lament the loss of the good ol' days, when 20,000 people showed up to watch Terrell Owens run routes and catch passes.
The Quarterback Stats That Don't Matter
Now that Twitter provides an outlet for second-by-second reportage of any event, it has become common for media members to document every pass that every quarterback on a particular team throws during a particular drill or scrimmage or situation. (e.g. "Foles went 3 for 5 during that hurry-up session, with 1 TD.")
Watching practice to notice how a quarterback is handling the offense is one thing, but keeping track of these figures and posting them in real time seems to confer an importance on them that they just don't have. They're easy to supply, and there's apparently a demand for them, but that doesn't necessarily make them relevant. No one needed Tim Tebow's red-zone-drill numbers to know that his greatest skill as a passer was his ability to put the ball where only his receiver could bat it away.
(For whatever reason, this mode of coverage seems exclusive to football. I mean, did anyone track Maikel Franco's batting-practice batting average in Clearwater last spring?)
The Personnel Groupings
Was that Darren Sproles or Donnel Pumphrey in the slot? Was that Rasul Douglas lining up across from him in a nickel package? Derek Barnett at left defensive end and Vinny Curry on the inside … interesting. Might be nothing. Might be a sign of a creative alignment that Pederson or defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz will use at a big moment in a big December game.
The Day They Start Hitting
Pederson will have the Eagles live-tackle during two practices before their preseason opener, Aug. 10 in Green Bay against the Packers. Those practices will be when training camp starts to look like real football, and that tackling might lead to …
The Intrasquad Brawl
… which always makes for an exciting day. It gives writers terrific color and quotes for their stories. It gives camerapeople and photographers the chance for some juicy action shots. And it lets reporters ask players the one question that, without fail, is asked at least once during every single NFL training camp: Are you ready to start hitting people who aren't on your own team?
Of course, that question eventually begets …
The "How Long Will the Starters Play?" Question
… which will be asked before each of the four preseason games. And come the last week of August, when Pederson is likely to say, Yeah, the starters will be sitting this one out, everyone can finally exhale and know that the regular season is almost here.