Football players listen to what their coaches say, usually, but they always pay more attention to what those coaches do. In the aftermath of the loss to the Vikings - from which the Eagles emerged battered but really no worse off than before - it's worth wondering whether they exited the old Hump Dome in Minneapolis feeling as if Sunday's message was a little mixed.
On one hand, Chip Kelly was aggressive enough early in the third quarter to attempt a fourth-down conversion deep in his own territory. On the other, the Eagles chose to cede good field position to the Vikings on nearly every kickoff because Minnesota returner Cordarrelle Patterson scared them to death.
On one hand, the offense was run wide-open with a ton of passes and a lot of deep shots down the field. On the other, the defense shed starters in the secondary like discarded coats in the faint hope that the backups somehow could play better against the withering attack of journeyman Matt Cassel.
Some of what happened - not all of it - was the product of how the game unfolded, but the Eagles had fought back to within five points of the lead at the end of the third quarter. By that time, however, they still were playing scared (the ensuing kickoff set up the Vikings at their 46-yard line, and that set up another touchdown) and they were playing stupid, as if confused by what was happening around them.
There were roughness penalties, taunting penalties, guys yelling at one another and coaches on the sideline, and coaches messing up the sequence for going for a two-point conversion.
It wasn't pretty, but, fortunately for the Eagles, it was only one game. The outcome - thanks to those fabulous Dallas Cowboys - neither hurt them nor helped them, but there is less runway to work with now. Against the Bears on Sunday night, the Eagles will be in a situation in which they can't be eliminated from the postseason. That's a positive, but for that situation to mean anything they have to recover not just physically but mentally from the Minnesota loss.
"This game is a tough game to play," Kelly said Monday. "You never really understand the outcomes, and you wrestle with it and try to justify how did this happen and how did that happen, but we're on a weekly schedule and have to get ready for the Bears now and can't let the loss to the Vikings affect us for two weeks. "I expect them to bounce back. I've seen them bounce back before, so that's what I'm anticipating happening."
They only need to look at how well things went during the five-game winning streak to get their confidence back, but it also would help to know whether the coaching staff believes in the team or not. Watching the Vikings game, it seems that Kelly certainly believes in his offense - although eight carries for LeSean McCoy is a head-scratcher - but that the staff thinks the defense and special teams need to play with training wheels attached.
Maybe that's the way to think. Going into the season, it was feared that the Eagles might be losing some 48-30 games along the way. Aside from the Vikings loss, there were two other shootouts this season: the 33-30 loss to San Diego and the 52-20 loss to Denver (the Eagles did gain 450 yards in that one). Then a miracle happened and the defense allowed an average of 16.5 points over the next nine games. They went soft on coverage, hoped for pressure from the line, and tried to prevent big plays - and it worked.
Until Matt Cassel, that is. In his previous 65 NFL starts, Cassel had a quarterback rating better than 100 just 20 times. He needs time and needs to step through his throws as if trying to deliver his shoulder pads to the receiver. Against the Eagles, he got it and had a great game. And there's no question that safety Patrick Chung was beaten badly on Minnesota's first touchdown, but it doesn't calm a team's jitters to see the sideline reacting badly just minutes into the game.
The message was, "Five straight wins or not, we're not convinced about you guys," just as the message to the special teams was, "We're not going to trust your coverage skills." Admittedly, this decision came a week after Detroit broke off two returns (in a blizzard) and in deference to the rookie Patterson, who has 105-yard and 109-yard returns for touchdowns this season.
But you have to decide whether you want to be a tactical, analytical team or a team that goes for it on fourth down on your own 24. Define the personality you want the team to have and be consistent about it. Sometimes, and this might be one of those teams, players respond more to being told: "The heck with it, fellas. Let's play with what we've got and make them beat us."
Patterson is dangerous, and perhaps he would have broken one against the less-than-overpowering offerings of Alex Henery, but it's a better message for the team to try covering him. (The two games in which Patterson broke the long touchdowns account for 30 percent of his kickoff return yardage this season. He averaged 188 yards in those two games, and 75 yards in the 11 others in which he had a return. One of those big days came against the Packers, who are second-to-last in the league in return yards allowed.)
Anyway, what does it mean? It means that the hour grows late and it's time for the Eagles to pick a lane and drive. The players listen to what they are being told, but they watch what happens, too. What happened Sunday wasn't so good.