It is always one of the most difficult days of the year: The day after a season ends and the players report to the NovaCare Complex to clean out their lockers and meet with the coaches and plan for the future. The abrupt ending is always jarring and sometimes signifies an uncertain march to the following year.
This time around, it was different.
It was different from the moment Sunday's game ended at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. The Eagles stepped up in class and were taught a valuable lesson by the defending Super Bowl Champion Bucs, the role model for what the Eagles strive to be. Philadelphia learned a lot about what it had and what it needs moving forward, so as disappointing as it was to lose to Tampa Bay, the Eagles flew home on Sunday night and awakened on Monday morning understanding what they have in front of them.
"We're hungry for it and we're excited to put that work in to learn from this year and build on it," quarterback Jalen Hurts said on Monday, summing up an organizational belief about where the Eagles are going.
And where they are going is up, up, up – but understanding that it won't come easily. It won't happen because the Eagles want it to happen. There are a lot of lessons to be learned and there are many takeaways to consider, the main one this: A team that started 2021 with an organizational shakeup to the core – ending the tenure of Doug Pederson as head coach, deeming the roster to be in a "transitional" phase, the hiring of Nick Sirianni as the new head coach, and then trading starting quarterback Carson Wentz, once seen as the franchise's foundation – ended with the Eagles in the postseason, a young nucleus leading the way.
There is a lot to build on here, starting with an offensive line that is as good as any in the league, continuing through some outstanding talent at the skill positions, extending through the defensive front seven, and including a secondary that limited big plays and made many of their own throughout the second-half surge in the regular season.
Most important, the Eagles established Sirianni's core principles in the process and the Eagles understand the kind of players they need to bring in as they begin an offseason from a position of defined power – plenty of room to maneuver within the 2022 NFL salary cap and admirable NFL Draft capital that starts with picks 15, 16, and 19 in the first round. Sirianni established himself in the locker room, on gamedays, throughout the NFL in his rookie season as a man who shoots his players straight, who has their best interests in mind, who is able to adjust, and adapt a game plan and a philosophy. He is a fiery, intense head coach who brought together a locker room that had been roughed up by the 4-11-1 performance from 2020 and the tumultuous fallout as the 2021 offseason begin.
Where do the Eagles need to improve? The truth is, everywhere. You don't go into Tampa Bay and fall behind 31-0 in a playoff game without understanding the big picture. The Eagles are going to address every position on the roster in the offseason to come, some more heavily and perhaps more urgently than others, but the team knows that the job isn't complete until the Eagles are perennial Super Bowl contenders. They took a vital step in 2021. They went from an also-ran in 2020 to a 2-5 team that many considered out of the postseason conversation, only to dig in and turn the season into something valuable.
Standards are established. A blueprint for success is recognized by everyone, and perhaps rookie guard Landon Dickerson, one of the gems of an instant-impact 2021 Eagles Rookie Class, put it best on Monday when he talked about the areas of his game he would like to improve in the months to come. It would have been easy for Dickerson to take a deep sigh and table the question given everything he's been through in the last 12 months – a serious knee injury in his final season at Alabama, the frustration of the pre-NFL Draft process where he couldn't show his true nature to teams, being taken by the Eagles in the second round, and suddenly joining the starting lineup early in the season after an injury to Pro Bowl guard Brandon Brooks. Only months after major knee surgery, Dickerson started 13 games and played 77 percent of the snaps and showed that he has star power written all over him, that he will be part of one of the NFL's best offensive line groups for years to come.
Instead, Dickerson challenged himself.
"There's a whole list of things that come to mind," Dickerson said. "Whether it's footwork, change of direction, flexibility, explosiveness, speed, power, strength, vision, reading defenses, there's a lot of things I'd like to improve on."
Perfect. There is nobody with the Eagles who is "satisfied" with 2021 and the performance. There is recognition of progress and of building the first blocks in the Sirianni Era foundation, but the Eagles know how far they have to go to get where they want to be. That's the exact mindset an organization needs to have in the NFL because, as we know, if you aren't moving forward in this league, you're moving backward. And the Eagles are definitely moving forward – still feeling the sting of Sunday's loss, but understanding that sometimes tough lessons are the best lessons.