Ah, Week 1 is finally upon us.
We've all been anticipating this moment. The smell of the grass, the sound of the ball being kicked into the air signifying the start of a new season, and the sight of all of those empty seats.
*Insert record scratch here*
Wait, empty seats? What about all of the fans? What about the excitement they bring? What about the atmosphere they create? Well folks, hate to remind you of this yet again, but things are different this time around.
There will be no fans in the vast majority of NFL stadiums this weekend. To be exact, 14 of the 16 Week 1 contests will feature more cardboard cutouts of Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson or Queen Elizabeth II than actual fans.
The list of stadiums that will be empty includes FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland, where the Eagles open their 88th and by far most unique season of football. The only other one that could possibly compare would be 1943, when World War II forced the Eagles to join up with the Pittsburgh Steelers to become the "Steagles."
The second World War is something that is still discussed in history classes and depicted in various forms of media nearly 80 years later. The COVID-19 pandemic, the reason for all of the empty stadiums in 2020, will more than likely be talked about for just as long.
But when those lectures and movies and television shows talk about COVID-19, it will do so with the benefit of hindsight and a tremendous amount of information. As the Eagles prepare for Week 1, however, they enter a world of unknowns.
First on the list of unknowns: What is it like to play in a stadium with zero fans? The last time any of these players performed in front of virtually no one was Pop Warner. But even then, as tight end Zach Ertz pointed out this week, at least the players' family members showed, whether they actually wanted to be there or not.
The players have had the benefit of feeding off the fans' energy going back to high school, which for some, was more than a decade ago. In 2020, they will have to find their own source of energy.
"We just have to feed off our own energy," defensive tackle Fletcher Cox told reporters this week. "We got to bring our own energy. We got to support each other. We got to go out and have fun and run around."
To make up for the lack of real noise, stadiums are allowed to provide noise over the speakers. The Eagles practiced with faux crowd noise during their scrimmage at Lincoln Financial Field, which will also not have fans until further notice, back on August 30.
"I know one thing for me, if I'm hit and I'm throwing a deep ball, I'm not going to hear the crowd noise to know if it's complete or incomplete," quarterback Carson Wentz said. "I'm going to have to get up and see. The crowd noise is going to stay the same."
The amount of crowd noise matters none for cornerback Darius Slay, who will be making his Eagles debut Sunday. No, he will not hear the authentic roar of Eagles Everywhere any time soon, but that is because his mind will be solely focused locking down any receiver he is tasked with covering.
"When I'm between the lines, I get tunnel vision," Slay told reporters.
"The fans are very important," he added. "Man, I love the fans, but when I'm between the lines, I'm going to work."
But when the time comes to clock in for work, another unknown shall rear its ugly head. In this case, it'll be the entire Washington Football Team.
During the offseason, the Eagles were praised for having continuity during a very disruptive offseason where every other team in the NFC East were working under new coaching regimes. As Week 1 nears, however, it could actually work against the Eagles.
Because there were no preseason games, the Eagles do not 100 percent know how Head Coach Ron Rivera will deploy Washington's weapons. For the Eagles' offense, that meant digging through film of Jack Del Rio's past defenses in an attempt to get a feel for his scheme before he became Washington's Defensive Coordinator. Getting a feel for Del Rio's scheme may not make up for the sheer amount of talent Washington boasts along its defensive line, specifically No. 2 overall pick Chase Young.
"We got to be ready for anything," said center Jason Kelce, who enters this season with the possibility of playing with a new guard and tackle on his right side as tackle Lane Johnson is questionable with an ankle injury.
"You don't know exactly how good we're going to be — I think we're going to be a pretty good football team — but at the same time we've never gone against another defense. They've never gone against another offense," Ertz said.
The first offense the Eagles' defense will face comes from the mind of Offensive Coordinator Scott Turner, who is sure to feature speedy wide receiver Terry McLaurin. As a rookie, McLaurin's two very productive games last season are still the stuff of Eagles fans' nightmares.
Despite all of that, no stone was left unturned in the Eagles' preparation, according to Passing Game Coordinator/Quarterbacks Coach Press Taylor.
"You don't want to go chasing ghosts, but you want to be prepared on everything," Taylor said. "That's where I think it's extremely valuable to have a veteran quarterback and a veteran center, the two guys in the middle of our offense that are really identifying things and calling things out. Those two are in constant communication. They do a great job identifying and making sure as an offense we're all on the same page, and they've done a really good job of that this week, and we have a lot of confidence in them."
The Eagles have cleared a lot of hurdles on their way to Week 1. How many excuses are they making?
Regardless of the atmosphere or the lack of intel, football season is here. If there is a pigskin to play with and white lines painted on the field, there is only one objective: Win.
"At the end of the day, when you see that opponent, it's just something that kind of comes over you," defensive end Brandon Graham said. "It don't matter who's out there. You know you got a job to do."