"The mindset going in," Head Coach Doug Pederson is saying Monday as he speaks from Studio B in the NovaCare Complex responding to my question from Studio A in the NovaCare Complex, "is full steam ahead. "We get our rookies here in for a couple of days before the rest of the team comes in … get 'em on the grass (practice field). See what they know. See what they retained (from the virtual offseason program) and, as a staff, we're refreshed with the time off. We're ready to go. We're eager and looking forward to Training Camp."
Aren't we all? It's Eagles football, and it's real and, yes, it's very different – physical distancing and great hand hygiene and constant education are the keys, more on that later today and this week – and it will be challenging not only in Philadelphia but for every one of the 32 NFL teams. With that, as Pederson said, the league operates moving forward in a new landscape. Rookies and first-year players are in the Complex now for a handful of learning days. The veterans are in on Tuesday for more of the same.
"It's not going to change how we coach, especially once we get out on that grass and those types of things," Pederson said. "My message with the staff already has been, 'Let's embrace it. It is what it is. We've got to coach, or at least teach, with masks on, let's keep them on. Let's protect one another.' I know if we're healthy, and we remain healthy, good things are going to happen for the Philadelphia Eagles.
"It works by everybody doing their part and that's from me, it's got to be a daily, constant message to the team and to the staff members. Every person has to do their part. You're not just protecting yourself, you're protecting your neighbor, or you're protecting your teammate or you're going home and you're protecting your family. That's how we do it. That's how we stay safe. Are they're going to be setbacks? Nobody can predict the future. I'm sure. We're seeing it already in other sports, but the way we get through it and the way we have success is each person taking ownership and doing the right thing."
So, we wade slowly into uncharted territory with the young players here now, followed by the veterans. The Eagles have the benefit of a returning coaching staff that has had its offensive playcaller (Pederson), defensive coordinator (Jim Schwartz), and special teams coordinator (Dave Fipp) together for four full seasons, heading into a fifth. The projected starting lineups mostly have veterans who know the schemes, so that transition should be smooth. But there are questions, of course. On offense, the Eagles need DeSean Jackson and Alshon Jeffery to be healthy and ready to go for Week 1 at Washington. The Eagles would surely benefit from learning if No. 1 draft pick Jalen Reagor can produce early in his career. The offensive line has new starters at left tackle (Andre Dillard) and right guard (Jason Peters, who manned left tackle in such a dominating manner for the Eagles since 2009).
It is there, along the line of scrimmage, where Pederson was emphatically positive with me on Monday.
On Peters, Pederson said: "What you're seeing with Jason right now is kind of the ultimate sacrifice. He's been that left tackle for so many years and now he's sacrificing for the good of the team and he's saying, 'I can play that position. I'm going to embrace it and I can play it.' That's what drew us to him, having these conversations in the offseason. A veteran guy who knows what we're doing, he's sandwiched right between (center Jason) Kelce and (right tackle) Lane Johnson. What a great scenario for him. And it's just going to be a matter now of getting out on the practice field, working the drills with Stout (Offensive Line Coach/Run Game Coordinator Jeff Stoutland), understanding the technique, understanding blocking schemes and protections from right there. He's so athletic, that there really won't be any issues with him."
On Dillard, Pederson said, "He's gotten bigger, he's gotten faster, he's gotten stronger from what I've seen kind of bumping into him the last couple of days and seeing where he is. I'm excited and encouraged by what he did last year for us."
When the Phase 1 (learning only) and Phase 2 (strength and conditioning and one-hour walkthrough) portions of camp are over, the players will have another gulpful of days to get on the field for non-padded practices. Then comes a series of 14 padded practices and the need for creativity. How do Pederson and the coaches put young players and new players into game-like situations at the NovaCare Complex? How creative can the coaching staff be to make sure everyone is on the same page communicating? And while the Eagles are intently focused on establishing a 53-man roster, there is also a 16-man practice squad to put together, an emergency list to consider and somehow keeping track of players around the league who the scouting and personnel department won't have a chance to see in preseason games.
So, yeah, there's a lot of work to do. But Pederson has a very clear vision of what the Eagles must accomplish prior to the trip to play at Washington on September 13. It's not all that far away.
"The vision is we have to prepare our starters for that opening day. But the vision is that we're taking this roster and creating competition, creating an environment where these guys can succeed," Pederson said. "It's just us. We're in our own little world now. No more joint practices, no more preseason games. We're in our own little world where we can enhance our culture, build our culture, and really put our guys in position to be successful so that when we travel down to Washington that opening day, we're ready to go. Guys are fresh, they're excited for the season and we're looking forward to it."