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Lawlor: The NFL Is The Survival Of The Fittest


The Eagles had last Sunday off. A lot of people, myself included, tuned in to the Dallas-Atlanta game. I wanted to see the Cowboys in action because they are the Eagles' next opponent, but also because I wanted to see how they would handle missing some key players.

Left tackle Tyron Smith missed the game due to a groin injury. Kicker Dan Bailey has been sidelined for several games. Star running back Ezekiel Elliott missed his first contest due to suspension. Making matters worse, linebacker Sean Lee got hurt a handful of plays into the game and never returned. Playing in Atlanta wasn't going to be easy with a full team, but missing all those key players made the game a huge challenge.

Dallas lost 27-7 and was completely dominated. The Cowboys' only touchdown came after an interception gave them the ball just outside the red zone. Dallas gained just 233 yards of offense and quarterback Dak Prescott was sacked eight times.

It was a bad loss as well as a reminder that football is a game of attrition.

Football is a tough, physical sport. Players are going to get hurt, whether it's in the offseason, the preseason, or the regular season. Teams must be prepared for injuries. Head coach Doug Pederson talks about the "next man up" all the time. That's not just a phrase for the media. It is a mentality for his team.

Pederson puts action behind those words. He gives his young players a chance to show what they can do. It gives them a feeling of confidence and helps to keep all the backups motivated.

Lane Johnson was suspended for 10 games last year. Most people thought the Eagles would slide guard Allen Barbre to his spot. Pederson decided to put rookie Halapoulivaati Vaitai into the starting lineup. That initially looked like a mistake when Vaitai struggled in his first start, but he got better each week.

That move served the Eagles well last year and is really helping this season. When Jason Peters got hurt a few weeks ago, the Eagles put Vaitai at left tackle. Starting games last year gave him experience and helped him be confident enough to play well this year.

Corey Clement is another great example. He is an undrafted rookie who I didn't anticipate getting much playing time this year. Heck, I wondered if he would even make the roster. With injuries to Wendell Smallwood and Darren Sproles, Clement got his opportunity.

The Eagles have let Clement run the ball in the final minutes of close games. Think of the trust that shows in the player. Most coaches are control freaks who want veteran players they totally trust. Pederson was willing to give Clement a chance to show what he could do.

Clement has come through in a big way. He made a sensational touchdown catch against the Redskins. He just scored three touchdowns in the win over the Broncos and their top-ranked defense. Clement can run, catch, and block. He just had the two best games of his young career and you know his confidence is sky-high right now.

The Eagles lost kicker Caleb Sturgis early in the year and replaced him with some rookie named Jake Elliott. Not many people knew who Elliott was. Many fans were frustrated that the Eagles didn't go sign a veteran kicker, but the scouts had a good grade on Elliott and Dave Fipp thought he was a player who could be developed.

Needless to say, Elliott has been sensational. His game-winning 61-yard kick against the Giants is already part of team history. Elliott has the strongest leg of any Eagles kicker I've ever seen. It feels like the team is in scoring position when it crosses midfield.

Pederson's "next man up" message has worked really well for the Eagles. He gets credit for putting action behind those words and getting the most out of his players. You certainly have to give the players credit for getting the job done on the field.

Credit also has to go to the scouting staff. You didn't have to be a scouting genius to see the talent of Carson Wentz or Derek Barnett, the team's last couple of first-round picks. Finding talent like Vaitai, Clement, and Elliott is harder. The Eagles have stocked the bottom of the roster well. Those guys aren't just collecting paychecks. They are talented players who have helped this team get off to an 8-1 start.

The assistant coaches have done a phenomenal job in getting the young guys ready to play. Offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland has worked hard with Vaitai to develop his game. If you put on tape from his debut and compare it to what he did against Denver, you would be shocked at how much he's improved. Running backs coach Duce Staley has pulled the best out of Clement. Fipp has worked wonders with Elliott.

Dallas has been one of the healthier teams in the league this year so it was interesting to see the Cowboys fall apart on Sunday. Left tackle Chaz Green got destroyed, over and over. Adrian Clayborn beat him for five sacks. Green got benched and his replacement, Byron Bell, gave up sacks as well. The defense fell apart without Lee. The backup kicker missed a field goal. They did run the ball OK, but the poor pass blocking kept the Cowboys from sustaining drives.

The Eagles have dealt with injuries all year long. Ronald Darby got hurt in the opener and that set the tone for the season. While Darren Sproles, Jason Peters, Caleb Sturgis, and Jordan Hicks are gone for the season, the team has also dealt with minor injuries. Fletcher Cox, Zach Ertz, Tim Jernigan, and Mychal Kendricks have all missed games or significant parts of a game.

These injuries have affected the team, but the Eagles have been able to overcome them and just keep winning. That says a lot about Pederson, his staff, the players, and the whole organization. Everyone has a hand in this success.

Next man up.

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