By GORDON GLANTZ
GORDONVILLE — Back in the preseason, before the reality sets in that every other team in the NFL has undrafted rookie skill-position players looking like unearthed gems and veteran free agents who look like magic panaceas to all previous ills, veteran Eagles’ tight end Brent Celek was interviewed on the sideline. He was asked about the prospects of the 2017 version of the team, in the second year of the Doug Pederson/Carson Wentz era, moving out of the shadows of 7-9 mediocrity.
A grizzled veteran of trench warfare, Celek refused to buy into any “sky is the limit” cheerleading.
Instead, to paraphrase, he explained that every season – heck, every game in season – has adversity built into it.
While Celek – who has played under three coaches now – allowed that some exciting talent was in place, and previous holes were seemingly patched by de facto GM Howie Roseman and sidekick Joe Douglas, it would impossible to predict the way it would translate into the won-loss column until the team faced adversity and how it then dealt with it.
What could not have been known in the humid air of that August night was just how much adversity, and how much success, it would translate into.
The Eagles have since lost four Pro Bowl-level players: first all-purpose yardage magnet Darren Sproles and special teams demon Chris Maragos, and then Hall of Fame-bound left tackle Jason Peters and middle linebacker Jordan Hicks.
They lost their projected No. 1 corner, Ronald Darby, to injury after trading away reliable receiver Jordan Matthews.
They lost their kicker, Caleb Sturgis, only to land a rookie, Jake Elliott, who won them a game on a 61-yard boot at the buzzer and continues to kick at a high level.
They overcame national naysayers, doubting the team and its coach. They overcame local media attempts to make it sound like defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz was plotting a coup.
They overcame beginning the year with two road games, not to mention three of the first four, and also playing on the road on a short week in Carolina, where they were undaunted by lopsided officiating.
They have found ways to win the same kind of close games they found a way to lose last year.
And they overcame the adversity of having to wait until the second week in November – and nine games into the season – before catching their breath and enjoying a bye week.
While the Eagles’ still have concerns – such as not being able to afford another substantial injury at offensive line or linebacker – they have gone beyond Celek’s wildest dreams.
Not only do they sit atop the NFC East standings, but, at 8-1, they have the best record in the entire NFL. And talk of maybe just squeaking into the playoffs at, maybe, 9-7, has turned into realistic expectations of getting a first-round bye, home-field advantage and – whisper – a trip to the Super Bowl.
The bad news is that the Eagles now hit another tough stretch of schedule.
The good news is that, at least in the division, they have earned themselves a bit of breathing room.
Before any champagne is uncorked, please remember the Eagles of 1994, who started 7-2 and finished 7-9. Remember the Eagles of 2014, who beat up the Cowboys, 33-10, in Dallas on Thanksgiving Day to take a two-game lead in the division, only to miss the playoffs altogether.
Yet, this team seems different in many ways.
It has more locker-room leaders – Celek and safety Malcolm Jenkins, not to mention Sproles and Peters – than it is does locker-room lawyers.
While the jury has not rendered a final verdict on Pederson, he seems a bit more grounded – and committed to the long haul – than Rich Kotite and Chip Kelly.
And quarterback Carson Wentz, who is currently on a collision course with a boatload of postseason accolades, is not Mark Sanchez or Bubby Brister.
Aside from being the complete athletic package, and possessing the leadership skillset that makes him the quarterback of the future, Wentz would trade any prize ticketed for his trophy case for a ring on his finger and a lifetime key to the city.
Still, just as Celek cautioned back in the preseason, the Holy Grail for the Eagle Nation – most of which is too young to recall much about the 1960 championship season, let alone those of 1948 and 1949 – it will not happen without dealing with more adversity.
We won’t waste space here going gray over the litany of things that can go wrong. We all know what those things are. We have lived through them.
Instead, let’s look what needs to go right during the final seven games for the Eagles to be positioned to get to the Super Bowl in Minneapolis, and to not be content with taking selfies on media day, but actually win it all.
Let’s call it the Lucky Seven:
1. Stay Healthy
This is football, and football is a violent game. Injuries happen, and they will continue to happen. Just because the Eagles have been hit hard doesn’t mean they will be spared. Nonetheless, while they have a more than capable No. 2 quarterback in Nick Foles, Wentz has to stay upright. Also, they can overcome injuries as many spots. Last week, for example, Pro Bowl-bound tight end Zach Ertz was scratched but Trey Burton and Celek picked up the slack. Sproles went down, and undrafted rookie Corey Clement has filled the void while recently acquired Jay Ajayi adds another option. Rookie Mack Hollins can step in for an injured receiver.
However, they are down to their final options on the offensive line, especially tackle. Hal Vatai – aka “Big V” – isn’t Peters, but he is not Joe Conwell or Antone Davis, either. If Vatai or Lane Johnson goes down, the next up is Isaac Seumalo, who was already benched after being handed the left guard job now manned by Stefen Wisniewski. On the other side of the ball, the injury to Hicks has allowed more snaps for Mychal Kendricks, who previously came off the field when Schwartz went to two linebackers. After requesting a trade in the offseason, Kendricks is having a career year while fellow linebacker Nigel Bradham is playing out of his mind. Lose one or the other, it suddenly means more snaps for Joe Walker, a seventh-round pick in 2016 who is essentially a rookie because he missed last season with a knee injury. Darby also needs to get back into the mix at close to 100 percent, because better teams and better passing games will soon exploit rookie Rasul Douglas. And the safety tandem of Jenkins and Rodney McLeod is essential. Not much behind them.
2. Lasso the Cowboys
The Eagles still have two games with the second-place Dallas Cowboys, including the first game back from the break, in Dallas, on a Sunday night (Nov. 19). A win there would put Dallas well behind the pace, while a loss would keep them within striking distance.
3. Lay It On The Line
The football graveyard is littered with defensive fronts that spent the first halves of a season being compared to the Purple People Easters, Fearsome Foursome and Gang Green, only to fizzle and fade away down the stretch. The Eagles have had such exceptional play from their defensive front that the same comparisons are occurring now. It is premature to go there, in terms of a place in history, but the immediate concern is to maintain that dominance against the run and continue with a pass rush that is top-flight at forcing early throws and does well enough at getting home with sacks.
On paper, there seems to be enough depth to avoid hitting a wall. Pro Bowl tackle Fletcher Cox has benefitted from Timmy Jernigan as much as Jernigan has flourished next to him. Beau Allen is the consummate third tackle and Destiny Vaeao is getting more snaps. Outside, the presence of first-round pick of Derek Barnett, who gets better each week, has seemingly made Vinnie Curry better, while Brandon Graham in Steady Eddie on the other side. Meanwhile, veteran Chris Long has proven to be a welcome addition. Steven Means, a nice player in his own right, can’t even get on the field.
4. Maintain Focus
“One game at a time” is what is taught on the first day of Coachspeak 101. However, for reasons never really pinpointed, it often sticks with certain teams. Pederson keeps saying it, and the Eagles keep living it. However, as the season goes on and the glare of the national spotlight grows more intense, this has to be maintained. After Dallas, win or lose, the Eagles come home to face a young Chicago team – not much unlike the Eagles of a year ago – that won’t be a pushover. It is the ultimate trap game, with three straight road games to follow. The first two road games are against likely playoff teams, Seattle (Monday night) and the Los Angeles Rams, before getting a bit of a theoretical breather in the Meadowlands against the hapless New York Giants. Those road games are followed by a Christmas Day home game against the Oakland Raiders, who may be playing for their playoff lives.
Without the senseless drill of going game by game, let’s say the Eagles need to go through this tough stretch at no worse than 3-3 – although 4-2 would look a lot better – in order for the final meeting against the Cowboys to feature Nate Sudfeld handing the ball off to Kenjon Barner and throwing passes to Shelton Gibson while the starters and key subs rest, hopefully for two weeks, for the playoffs. Not going to happen without continuing to buy into the one-game-at-a-time approach.
5. Keep Adding to the Supporting Cast
There have been some pleasant surprises, from Elliott being next to automatic on field goals (not quite the same on point-after kicks) to Clement to slot corner Patrick Robinson to Chris Long to Wisniewski to Douglas. That would mean Vatai holding his own, the continued maturation of Agholor as a slot receiver and a strong second half from emerging first-round pick Derek Barnett in the defensive end rotation. Extra defensive backs like Jaylen Watkins and Corey Graham and Douglas, if he goes to the bench in favor of a healthy Darby, would help the cause with some key plays and key times. And it wouldn’t hurt the cause to see Ajayi break loose for 100-plus yards in some of these tough road games, or to see Barner turn a game around with a punt return to the house (and then hand the ball to Sproles on the sideline). While Alshon Jeffery and Wentz seem to be clicking, it would be nice to see Torrey Smith regain his quarterback’s confidence.
6. X out the X
That would be the X on their backs. This relates to Points 4 and 5. While the players need to act like they have been here before and not give fuel to anyone’s fire, the coaches have to not become overly predictable. A downside of being the best team in the league nine games in is that it gives future opponents plenty of tendencies to study. It is a fine line to walk, between not doing what brought you to the precipice of a bye week and home-field advantage and still keeping a trick or two tucked up your sleeve.
Believe in the odds (a rent-a-city like Tampa Bay won a Super Bowl, for crying out loud). Believe in Wentz as the messiah. Believe in Pederson. Believe in magic – the breaks and bounces never seem to go our way finally going our way (61-yard field goal, for example). The team seems to believe it, and they may not get the pending sense of doom many of us feel, but it wouldn’t hurt to go with the flow. And, most of all, believe that inevitable adversity can be overcome.
This column/analysis first appeared at PhillyPhanatics.com