From Underdogs to Targets: Eagles Arrive at Camp
PHILADELPHIA (973espn.com) - There is a new normal in Philadelphia.
Instead of arriving in South Philadelphia with the hope of outlasting their NFC East rivals and then making a playoff run, the Eagles return to the NovaCare Complex as the hunted.
Gone are the underdog masks, replaced with targets on the backs of the reigning and defending Super Bowl champions.
"Nothing is ever handed to us," coach Doug Pederson said back in the spring. "We have to go earn it. We faced adversity. The team was very resilient last year, but what are you willing to give up individually between now and camp to help this football team get back to that championship game again? Things aren't going to be handed to us. The target got a little bit bigger on our backs, and we embrace that."
Pederson coined the phrase "the new norm" during the hangover of the seemingly never-ending Super Bowl LII celebration and the quote is now prominently positioned for everyone to see in the rotunda that splits the locker and weight rooms of One NovaCare Way from the office portion of the building.
Establishing a new normal and turning a special season into something more than that means persevering through the constant changes the modern NFL environment puts in front of you.
Gone is the triggerman of the Philly Special, Trey Burton, as well as the longest-tenured member of the SB team in Brent Celek. Receiver Torrey Smith was dealt to Baltimore and ring collector LeGarrette Blount is off to the Motor City while the defense lost key contributors like Patrick Robinson, Mychal Kendricks Vinny Curry and Beau Allen.
Some of the more high-profile newcomers are veteran speedster Mike Wallace at receiver, rookie tight end Dallas Goedert, as well as proven defensive linemen Michael Bennett and Haloti Ngata.
Maybe the most exciting thing about this group, though, is the talent returning from injuries that weren't able to get in on the on-field fun in Minneapolis back in February, a group highlighted by superstar quarterback Carson Wentz and also includes potential future Hall of Famers Jason Peters and Darren Sproles as well as quarterback of the defense -- middle linebacker Jordan Hicks -- and the leader of the special teams, veteran safety Chris Maragos.
"I saw it in their faces after that game and the things they were saying after that game on the field. Obviously, how badly they wanted to win, but at the same time, how badly they want to get back and contribute to this game, you know, the next season," Pederson said of his missing stars. "So, I think that's gonna be something that is gonna keep our team sort of humble and grounded during this whole, the summer months now and obviously into training camp and that's all part of turning the page. Each team, each year is different. Making sure the guys stay focused and having those types of players on your team just helps, helps me keep the guys grounded."
If you want to boil the Eagles' success down to its purest form, you can point to three things: quarterback play as well as one of the league's top offensive and defensive lines.
The QB room remains the deepest in the NFL with the notable absence of John DeFilippo, the well-regarded former position coach who is now the offensive coordinator in Minnesota.
The O-Line remains intact with perhaps the best right tackle in football, Lane Johnson, an All-Pro center and future Philly mayor in Jason Kelce, and Pro Bowl right guard Brandon Brooks only being buttressed by the return of the most well-respected member of the roster, Peters.
On the other side of the line of scrimmage, Bennett and fellow newcomer Ngata are aging but far more accomplished than the players they are set to replace -- Curry and Allen.
"I don't want to get into a lot of speculation. You know, because listen, a lot of things have to fall in place," Pederson said when discussing his talent. "I mean, obviously, you could say that on paper, possibly [we are better]. But, you know, we haven't practiced yet. And I just don't want to speculate right now. ...Sproles is back, we'll see where he's at. Jason Peters is doing a little stuff. Maragos hasn't done a whole lot yet this spring. So, you know, there's a lot of things where it's just hard to say if we're gonna be that type of team again. You hope to. You want to."
If you're looking for potential issues, the back seven on defense is the place to start where the Eagles lack depth after releasing Kendricks and failing to come to terms to bring back veteran safety Corey Graham, at least to this point.
The top option at LB behind the injury-plagued Hicks and Nigel Bradham, who will be suspended Week 1 vs. Atlanta, is the unproven Corey Nelson, a free-agent pickup from Denver while practice-squad returnee Tre Sullivan is the leader in the clubhouse as the third safety behind Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod.
Another fly in the ointment could be the sheer number of players coming off surgery. Along with the aforementioned stalwarts who missed large chunks of last season, receiver Alshon Jeffery (shoulder surgery) and defensive end Brandon Graham (ankle) weren't able to work in the spring while defensive tackle Tim Jernigan underwent back surgery and is expected to miss time into the regular season.
No matter the context, however, the target remains fixed.
"I think you gotta just keep reminding them that, as I use the phrase, 'One man can make a difference but a team can make a miracle.' I just think you keep reiterating those points," Pederson explained. "And, you know, it is about team. You know, are you a reason we won or are you the reason we won? You know, so, we all need to be a part of -- we're all the reason. We're all in this together."
-John McMullen covers the Eagles and the NFL for 973espn.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JFMcMullen