The question led to a greater indictment than imagined.
The day after the Eagles lost their wild-card playoff game, Malcolm Jenkins was asked how close the Eagles are to winning another Super Bowl. He took a deep breath and considered, as if he’d been working on this one for a while.
“That team we put out there yesterday was very different from the team we started the season with," he told me.
How so? Long pause.
"We played with a lot of grit the last four weeks,” he finally replied as he folded clothes and lay them in a duffel bag. “We had a lot of talent the first few weeks. If we could combine that grit with that talent, we’ll be right there.”
So here we are again: The Eagles have a crisis of heart. Since late in 2016, after Eagles coach Doug Pederson criticized the effort of two players at Cincinnati, Pederson has largely let his players police themselves. When the locker-room cops demand promptness, professionalism, and guts, the Eagles soar. When the cops let things slide, the team goes 9-7.
During the 2018 season, Jason Kelce reported “gross errors” at practices that produced sloppy play on game day. This season, after a blowout loss at Dallas, Lane Johnson said discipline was again lax at 1 NovaCare Way, with players coming late to meetings and practices.
Those admissions, coupled with Jenkins’ observations as he cleaned out his locker a week ago, paint a picture of a team still deeply hung over from its Super Bowl success — exactly what Orlando Scandrick reported after the Eagles cut him in the middle of the season. Jenkins scoffed at Scandrick then, but Scandrick and Jenkins seem to agree all’s not well in Lurie Land.
The Eagles this season lost winnable games to Atlanta, Detroit, New England, and Miami. They were trounced near midseason at Minnesota and Dallas. They twice lost at home to Seattle, both times by a score of 17-9, once in the regular season, then again in the wild-card playoff game.
A rash of season-ending injuries played a part, and plenty of players played hurt, but Jenkins remained convinced that the Eagles were healthy enough early in the season to avoid their 5-7 start. They needed four consecutive wins to secure the NFC East and a playoff slot.
The fact that they stayed close to the Seahawks in their playoff game while using a group of anonymous practice-squadders was a testament to the team’s fortitude — but also a sign that the first-stringers were cruising.
As usual, it turns out.
I asked Jenkins if the locker room had a problem with overconfidence, and stressed to him: “Understand: This is a leading question.”
He paused. He folded. He replied:
“We sometimes rely on our talent. And we coast.”
Is that a result of winning Super Bowl LII two years ago? Not necessarily, Jenkins replied.
“Even in 2017, the Super Bowl year, we committed a lot of penalties, made a lot of mistakes,” Jenkins said.
Indeed, the Eagles ranked seventh in the NFL with 116 penalties in 2017 and were second in the league with 22 offensive holding calls. They seemed to lose focus in the red zone the next season as their touchdown rate dropped from 64.1%, second-best in the NFL, to 59.0%, 17th-best.
In 2019, the biggest problem was fumbles. They lost 15 of them, second-most in the NFL and the most of any team that didn’t replace its starting quarterback. Only Giants rookie Daniel Jones lost the ball more than Carson Wentz, who lost seven of his career-high 16 fumbles.
Why didn’t the problems matter as much in 2017?
“We were just so talented, we just beat everybody,” Jenkins said.
They’re not as talented anymore. Jenkins declined to specify which Eagles he was referring to.
So let’s see whom he might be talking about.
Jenkins mentioned penalties as an matter of discipline. Left tackle Jason Peters led the Eagles with nine penalties this season, including five false starts, despite missing three games. Peters had a false start last week, too.
Third-year defensive end Derek Barnett committed eight penalties, including three unnecessary-roughness penalties. Barnett also was flagged for roughing the passer last week, which helped the Seahawks score their only touchdown, just before halftime.
Jenkins mentioned “grit” as a determining factor. The players who were replaced at the greatest rate were receivers. That includes Alshon Jeffery and Nelson Agholor, both of whom suffered nebulous injuries before they were lost for the season.
Jenkins, 32, has played 99 percent of the defensive snaps since his arrival in 2014. He has little time for players who nurse injuries. The delinquent receiving corps also included veteran Mack Hollins and rookie J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, who combined for 20 catches in their 28 games.
Ronald Darby also missed four games, including the losses to the Vikings and Cowboys, with a hamstring injury, before finishing the season on injured reserve with a hip flexor injury. The team’s No. 1 cornerback, Darby has missed significant time each of his three seasons as an Eagle.
Maybe it’s none of these players. Maybe it’s all of them, and more.
No matter who it is, according to Jenkins, the Eagles’ return to the Super Bowl isn’t as far away as you might think.
It depends less on talent than on toughness.