Eagles coach Doug Pederson left his players with a message in the locker room late Monday night. The Eagles had just fallen to 5-6, and Pederson told them that the next five games would show who wants to be in Philadelphia next season.
"Teams in our situation right now, even though you are still maybe on the edge of getting to where you want to be at the end of the season, you can kind of go the other way," Pederson said. "It's not to put any added pressure on anybody, but . . . I don't want people to just start tanking it in the last month of the season."
The sentiment shows how Pederson's outlook has started to shift. He once boasted about how special he thought his team could be this season. One day after the Eagles' 27-13 loss to the Green Bay Packers, there were more references to the future.
He said he's seeing the team trending in the right direction despite losing six of eight games. He does not measure that sentiment by wins and losses, but by the effort of the players. Even though he's not saying as much, it's becoming clearer that Pederson realizes that the season will be difficult to salvage.
"We're in this business to win games," Pederson said. "But at the same time, I look at the process. I look at the plan. I use those words because those are words that we use around here because there is a plan and there is a process. . . . I see us three, four years down the road. I see us seven, eight years down the road having consistency that way and winning more of these games than not."
The references to "down the road" came after he mentioned playoff contenders such as the Oakland Raiders and Seattle Seahawks, who have built with young players developed through the pipeline. That required some lean years in Oakland and mediocre seasons in Seattle. There were probably days like Tuesday, when the cold reality set in that the team must improve to contend.
Perhaps this is the way Pederson should think. Any hope for the postseason would all but require the Eagles to finish the season 5-0, and that doesn't seem realistic given the way they are playing. If Pederson remained steadfast about the team's postseason chances, he would be accused of being delusional.
Not that he has totally escaped the delusional rap. It raised eyebrows when Pederson suggested that the Eagles are "heading in the right direction as a team." They started 3-0 and have lost six of eight games. And on top of that, they have appeared to regress. Their first four losses were all by seven points or fewer with chances to win the games late. In the last two games, the Eagles have been overmatched and lost by double digits.
Pederson's response was to "look at the effort," saying that "everybody's fighting until the end." That seemed to be an odd standard with which to measure a team. Effort should be an expectation - not an indication of the team's progress. But Pederson's point seemed to be that the Eagles have many young players who are just developing, and the way they're playing is a positive sign.
"If we just make a few more plays, just one or two more plays in some of these ball games, the outcomes are different and we're not talking about this right now," Pederson said. "Yes, I'll admit, we're playing with some young guys on offense. These young guys are getting valuable, valuable reps."
The most important part of the season has always been the development of rookie quarterback Carson Wentz. That trumps even the Eagles' record because their best chance of long-term success is with a franchise quarterback.
Because of injuries, suspensions, and a series of roster decisions, the Eagles also have had an extended look at several other younger players. Wentz is one of six rookies who have started for the team this season. The others are running back Wendell Smallwood, offensive tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai, offensive guard Isaac Seumalo, wide receiver Bryce Treggs, and cornerback Jalen Mills.
The Eagles have some difficult roster decisions regarding veterans coming this offseason, but they'll need some of their first- and second-year players to develop into core starters around Wentz. The next five games will offer a chance to see if that can happen. With the postseason appearing unlikely, the season's outlook is beginning to shift in the direction of evaluating for the future.
"You are constantly evaluating. I don't think it's just for next year," Pederson said. "I do think we're heading in the right direction. I feel that. The wins and losses, yeah, you've got to take a look at that. That's a big part of the direction that you are heading. But what I see on a daily basis in practice, too, with some of the youth that we have, with Carson, with a Wendell Smallwood, with a Jalen Mills, we've got pieces. We keep adding to and down the road, as I mentioned, these games go in our favor and that's what you want."