Midseason change is dizzying; Eagles and Jay Ajayi try to stay grounded
What it's like when your universe changes in a day.
When the Eagles got several days off last month after their victory at Carolina, kicker Jake Elliott was excited to get away for a little trip.
Maui? Or maybe someplace closer, but also relaxing and beautiful, like, say, Bermuda?
Elliott was excited to go to Cincinnati during the break, he said, because since being picked up off the Bengals' practice squad when Caleb Sturgis tore a hip flexor in the Eagles' season opener, Elliott hadn't been back to his apartment there, hadn't had many of his clothes with him, hadn't seen his mail.
"Get that lease settled," Elliott said. "I had to return the mattress I'd bought, move some furniture back to some family that lived not far away."
It wasn't that long a break, though. Elliott acknowledged Thursday that nearly two months after arriving here, he's still sleeping in an extra bedroom in Northern Liberties, belonging to "my sister's fiance's friend."
When most of us change jobs, especially if a move is involved, we get some time to sort things out. Find a place to live in a new city. Pack up the dishes. Deal with utilities.
That is not how the NFL works, as Pro Bowl running back Jay Ajayi discovered this week, when the Miami Dolphins dealt Ajayi to the Eagles hours before the 4 p.m. Tuesday trade deadline.
Tuesday evening, Ajayi got on a flight to Philly. Wednesday, he practiced for the first time with his new team, and held a news conference. It's possible he'll see action Sunday against the visiting Denver Broncos, if he has absorbed enough of the Eagles' playbook by then to handle at least a limited package. Most of the team has been working in the playbook since last spring, but hey, no pressure.
"A whirlwind of emotions, for sure," Ajayi said. He said that he hasn't had time to sort much out, that he has to "put my head down and get to work."
The Eagles have their bye week after this game, so presumably he'll be able to get more acquainted with the playbook and also get out of a hotel, maybe retrieve a few belongings.
Kenjon Barner, one of the running backs who figures to be affected by Ajayi's arrival, has made the abrupt switch twice. Barner went from the Panthers to the Eagles at the end of training camp in 2014, then after playing here in 2015 and 2016, Barner signed with the Los Angeles Chargers, who cut him just before this season. Three weeks later, in the wake of Darren Sproles' season-ending injury, Barner became an Eagle again.
"The hardest part about it is the move, becoming adjusted. Your life – the first week is kind of a whirlwind. There is so much going on around you, it's unexpected. You've got to pick everything up, go, hurry up, find a place, get set up," Barner said. "But once you get [inside the facility] it's all about football."
Teams employ support staff to help players get settled, but the player still bears the bulk of the responsibility.
"The team will [pick up the hotel bill] for a short period of time, and anything after that you have to come out of your pocket to do it," Barner said.
Barner said catching up with the playbook is actually easier.
"Once you get within these walls, there's people here to help you. It's literally all football, and you've been learning football all your life," he said. "It doesn't get hard, as long as you put the time in."
Offensive coordinator Frank Reich made the same point, when asked about integrating Ajayi into the attack.
"Players are pretty smart. Players have been playing football their whole lives, and systems are similar in some ways," said Reich, a former NFL quarterback. "So what you do as a player, you have a way of narrowing it down so it makes sense to you, and as coaches, we have a way of putting it to them so it makes sense to them."
Much is made in pro sports of teams being like families. Getting traded during the season must be kind of like abruptly moving to a new foster home., in a new city with a new school.
Barner said a new player's adjustment has a lot to do with the rest of the team.
"Not every place is the same as here. We've got a great room. Regardless of who it is, nobody in that room is selfish, nobody in that room is about themselves," he said. "For Jay, it won't be any different for him. We're going to bring him in, treat him like he's been here the entire time, just like the guys did when I came back. There wasn't like a 'Damn, he's back!' or 'Why is he here?' Everybody welcomed me back with open arms and helped me get in the right place."
Quarterback Carson Wentz, asked about getting Ajayi up to speed, said: "That's on coaches, that's on us as players, that's on everybody to help him get caught up. We'll just see how quickly that happens. We have our own things to prepare for, as well. I do know, with the bye week next week, that'll be huge for him to get caught up."
Wentz said the process of integrating a new weapon "sometimes takes time, it takes communication. It might be watching film and showing him some looks, different things. But I just think, with Duce [Staley] as his running back coach, Duce does such a great job, with all the running backs, I think he'll get him up to speed really quick, and we'll just have to communicate through that."
Wentz texted Ajayi right after the trade, something Ajayi said "was really warming for me."
Barner lives in Southern California and was lucky to get a trip back there for Eagles-Chargers, his first game with the Birds.
"From the hotel where we were staying, I lived 10 minutes away. As soon as we got there I ran home, grabbed a bag, went back to the hotel. Clothes, everything that I needed. I still don't have everything I need, but I'm a lot better off than when I first came here," he said.
Next week, Barner said, he'll be "getting stuff together that I need for the second half of the season."
Ajayi said that he never thought that he'd be traded, and that it was "a new challenge, new adversity, but I feel like I'm built for it. I've had a lot of ups and downs in my career. I'm excited to have this as an up."
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