One year can make a big difference.
The 1999 Eagles went 5-11 with a rookie head coach in Andy Reid and a rookie quarterback in Donovan McNabb leading the way. The Eagles went 11-5 the next season, made the playoffs, and even won a postseason game. The 1999 team was tough and competitive, with several close losses. The 2000 team found a way to win those games and played much better football.
There was definitely more talent on the 2000 team, but one of the key reasons for the improvement was the year of experience that team had.
We don't know whether or not the 2017 Eagles will make the playoffs and win a playoff game for the first time since 2008, but we can expect there to be a jump in the level of play. Doug Pederson is no longer a rookie coach. Carson Wentz is no longer a rookie quarterback. Young players are ready to improve. Even veterans can be better now that they are in their second season in the new schemes.
It has been said time after time again by coaches that the biggest improvement for most players happens from their rookie year to their second season. Wentz should benefit from that more than anyone. Quarterback might be the most difficult position in all of pro sports. Starting there as a rookie can be overwhelming. Wentz had his ups and downs last year. If he is able to learn from his mistakes and build on what he did well, the future will be very bright for Wentz and the Eagles.
Think about how different his situation is this spring. Wentz was the No. 3 quarterback last year. He was trying to learn the offense. Heck, he was trying to lean the names of his teammates. He was new to the City of Philadelphia and adjusting to life outside of college. Wentz is now a grizzled veteran and the starting quarterback. He knows the offense, his teammates, and it feels like he's been a resident of Philly since the days of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine.
Wentz doesn't have to think about the basics right now. They should be second nature to him. He can focus on the details and that's what helps push a player to the next level. The more natural something is, the more efficiently you can do it and with better results. A new driver gets in a car and has to think about putting the key in the ignition, getting the car into gear, and all the little things like that. An experienced driver jumps in the car and does all of that without even thinking about it. That allows you to focus on more important things, like whether you should listen to some Beethoven or Black Sabbath.
Wentz knows what he is doing this year. He has to go about perfecting that and taking his game to the next level. He's not the only 2016 rookie who could be improving in a big way. I think Jalen Mills could be in a similar situation. Playing cornerback isn't easy with everything that modern offenses throw at you. Mills saw a lot of playing time last year. He won his share of battles, but got burned more than he would like as well. Now, he knows the scheme better and also understands the speed of the NFL game as well as pro passing concepts.
Mills is working with the first-team defense and can solidify a starting role if he plays well this summer. Cornerback is a position where hesitation will kill you. This time around Mills will know what to look for and how to handle situations better. He isn't going to be any more talented or athletic, but he can do a better job now that he's processing information faster. That will allow him to react quicker and that's a big deal at a position where fractions of a second can be the different in a pass breakup and a touchdown.
Isaac Seumalo didn't have a full offseason last year because of NCAA rules, so he should be much better this time around. He's got a chance to be the starting left guard. He'll benefit from knowing the offense better, but also having improved chemistry with tackle Jason Peters and center Jason Kelce.
Other second-year players Wendell Smallwood, Halapoulivaati Vaitai, Destiny Vaeao, and Kamu Grugier-Hill are projected to be role players this year, but even they can take a step forward.
There are some "young veterans" who can make a jump this year. Because the Eagles had new schemes last year, that meant everyone had some learning to do. Established veterans can handle scheme change pretty well. Guys like Peters, Malcolm Jenkins, and Darren Sproles looked like they knew the schemes inside-out. That wasn't the case for everyone so some younger guys will benefit from last year's experience.
We aren't too far into the OTAs, but Nelson Agholor is playing much better. There has never been a question of physical talent with Agholor. His issues have been more about confidence and the mental side of things. He is playing faster and better now that he is more comfortable in the scheme. Even proven veterans could improve this year. Brandon Brooks and Rodney McLeod were free agent signees last year. Both started most of the season and played pretty well. The Eagles would love to see them raise their game a notch and play at a Pro Bowl level. The offensive line and the secondary are two areas where chemistry is critical. Each player knows the scheme much better this time around, but they also know their teammates and have a better feel for things.
Football is the ultimate team sport so improvement isn't just about individuals. Multiple players have commented this week on the faster tempo at practice. Players are thinking less and playing more naturally. That is a big part of a team making a jump from Year 1 to Year 2.
One of the other benefits to the players being in their second season in the schemes is that they can now help teach rookies and other newcomers more effectively. Mills can tell Rasul Douglas what defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz wants from a cornerback. Smallwood can tell Donnel Pumphrey what Pederson is looking for at running back. Fletcher Cox can help Tim Jernigan figure out the defense right away.
Day two of OTAs is in officially in the books. Step onto the practice field with these Eagles players...
The Eagles improved by adding good players this offseason. But if history is any indicator, the team will also get better because the players are now in their second year in the scheme. This spring and summer will be less about learning and more about improving. That will help the Eagles in their bid to do what the 2000 team did: get back to the postseason and have some success.
Tommy Lawlor, goeagles99 on the Discussion Boards, is an amateur football scout and devoted Eagles fan. He is the Editor of IgglesBlitz.com.