Team chemistry: fake science, or a building block for the Eagles' success?
The question is whether the Eagles have a great locker room because they're 8-1, or if they're 8-1 because they have a great locker room.
Of all the lazy sportswriter clichés, "team chemistry" ranks near the top of the list.
We have heard a lot this season about what a great locker room the Eagles have, sitting at 8-1 as they prepare to visit Dallas this weekend, what an unselfish group of guys they are, and so on.
But show me a team winning at an 8-1 clip, past the halfway point of its season, in any sport, and I'll show you a team with great chemistry and unselfish players. It's hard to find a successful team where players are selfish and dislike one another. But which is the chicken and which is the egg? Is culture/chemistry a key ingredient necessary for winning, or just a byproduct of winning, something that evolves as players start to see they have a chance to wear a championship ring?
"I think it develops [as you win]," Eagles coach Doug Pederson said. "But I saw it last year, even when we went on, I think, that five-game skid there during the middle part of the season. This time of the year we lost those games, and it was still a selfless locker room and a locker room that was not divided, not pointing fingers. They came to work every day.
"You're seeing the same work ethic today that I saw last year at this time. So it's just a tribute to the guys and to the messaging of the team and them buying into it and believing it and knowing that they're a good football team."
Asking about chemistry/culture this week in the Eagles' locker room elicited some thoughtful, noncliched responses. The upshot seemed to be, it's complicated, and also more than just an empty cliché.
First stop was the locker stall of Mychal Kendricks, a talented linebacker who seemed to lose confidence and focus during the latter stages of the Chip Kelly era, something that carried over through 2016, and nearly got him traded. Today, Kendricks is playing as well as he ever has — maybe better — as an important cog in a linebacking corps that has lost its leader, Jordan Hicks, for the rest of the season with an Achilles' tear.
"I've been a part of both. You can tell the difference — not only can you see the difference, with the record … when you're in it, you can actually tell the difference between a winning and a losing type of team, and it has to do with camaraderie and the chemistry of the guys, for sure," Kendricks said. "The attitude that we approach every day with is the difference: Are you trying to survive, or are you trying to kill? And I mean that in the sense of confidence, not 'kill,' literally. Are you trying to just make it through the day or are you trying to get better?"
The Eagles' chemistry starts with Pederson, but it revolves around Carson Wentz, according to Kendricks and other players. Pederson was hired for this kind of stuff — we've reached the point in the story where we trot out Jeffrey Lurie's "emotional intelligence" quote in the wake of the Kelly firing. Pederson knows how to promote bonding.
Safety Malcolm Jenkins recalled Pederson taking the team to play paintball on the last day of OTAs this year, something Jenkins said "hasn't been done since I've been here, I don't think."
Jenkins said a good coach creates an environment where guys play for each other — not just because they've always been told that's how it should be, but because they want to do it that way.
"It translates onto the field, especially when you face adversity, which every team will … whether it's your injuries, or a tough game, it's going to be your teammates and how tight you are, how willing you are to fight for the guy next to you that's going to pull you through," he said.
But you can play paintball until everybody on the team looks like a Jackson Pollock canvas, and you aren't necessarily going to be 8-1. That's where talent, and a leader like Wentz, become big parts of developing an unselfish culture.
"I think it's a little bit of both," said defensive end Chris Long, when asked the chicken-egg question. Long won the Super Bowl last season with the Patriots, but also played on Rams teams that went 3-29 over his first two NFL seasons. "The most important thing about this locker room is that we have good football players. After that, at the end of the day, nobody's going to give us a medal for being good people. I've been on teams that had good people [that] weren't good football players. We've got both.
"It might start — obviously with the coach and the people the front office has brought in — but Carson is such the opposite of a 'me' guy. The opposite of, in a negative way, a dominating personality. He just comes to work, sets an example, speaks up when it's time to speak up, and I think people really respect him. When you have a guy that's the leader of your team like that, nobody's going to make it about themselves, because the best guy on the team's not."
Wentz's leadership isn't the only unifying element of his presence. Wentz delivers the goods, with a league-high 23 touchdown passes through nine games, and a 104.1 passer rating that ranks third in the NFL. Everyone knows a team with a second-year QB such as this has a chance to win a championship. That tends to sort out priorities. Eyes on the prize.
Plus, the offense's consistent, reliable production allows the defense to play differently, Kendricks said.
"You're not out there trying not to mess up, because a field goal could be the difference in the game, you're actually playing more free, and in turn, you're getting the turnovers, you're getting the sacks. Because you're pulling the trigger, with unselfishness and confidence in your scheme," Kendricks said. "Confidence trickles down" from the QB.
As the winning culture develops, it allows management the leeway to bring in someone like talented running back Jay Ajayi, who was available at the trade deadline because Dolphins coach Adam Gase thought Ajayi was part of the problem for a struggling Miami team, not part of the solution.
Pederson was grilled extensively about Ajayi's reputation when he spoke to reporters for the first time after the trade.
"I trust the guys on this team to handle players," he said, before adding: "Everybody has a past."
And there Ajayi was Thursday, telling reporters: "Obviously, this is a team that's winning and doing great. I didn't want to do anything to disrupt that, so it's just about coming in, doing my role, showing the guys who I am as a person, my personality, and just being a great teammate to all my teammates."