The biggest story of many stories in the leadup to Thursday's Atlanta-Philadelphia NFL opener is the Eagles' quarterback situation.
Head coach Doug Pederson has not publicly stated his intentions, other than to acknowledge that Carson Wentz has not yet been cleared by the medical team for contact. Amid unconfirmed reports that Nick Foles will start the game, the Eagles are really just focusing on one thing, and that's collectively playing a whole lot better on offense than they did in the preseason.
They'll have to do so knowing there are substantial challenges. Wide receiver Alshon Jeffery is "day to day," according to Pederson, following offseason surgery on a rotator cuff injury he played with in 2017. He's practicing, but can he get back into game shape for Thursday? Left tackle Jason Peters and running back Darren Sproles, stars forever, will see their first game action since the '17 campaign. Running back Jay Ajayi said on Sunday that he did not practice, but will return on Monday from a foot injury that he's had to overcome and that it might take him some time to get right back into rhythm in the Eagles' backfield.
And then there's the quarterback: If it's Foles, he's got to play much better than he did in a mistake-filled preseason. If it's Wentz, he has to shake off the rust of no game action since December 10.
Beyond that, the Eagles will integrate newcomers like wide receiver Mike Wallace and tight end Dallas Goedert into the scheme and hope to move the football and score points against an extremely fast and very good Atlanta defense.
Welcome to the regular season.
"We just have to play our ball," Sproles said. "Stop the mistakes. We're going to be fine. I believe that."
Last year, after the offense struggled heading into the postseason, the Eagles used the bye week to put the pads on and hone in on up-tempo, physical practices. The focus is very much the same as then. The Eagles are bearing down in practice working on eliminating the mistakes made in the sloppy preseason. Much of the preseason slips were attributed to Foles, who had his struggles in preseason games against New England and Cleveland. Center Jason Kelce wants everyone to know that those around Foles, particularly the offensive line, shared in the blame.
"I think that was the culmination of a lot of things," Kelce said. "I think, first of all, Nick Foles functions better when his offensive line functions better. When we give Nick Foles time to feel comfortable, sit back there, and make throws, he plays better. Quite frankly I don't think, as an offensive line, we've done a great job of making him feel comfortable in the preseason games.
"I think that as long as we're able to do that this week (should Foles start), as long as we're able to make him feel confident and be able to go through his progressions and go through his reads, Nick has proven that he can go back there and be a good quarterback."
There are plenty of weapons here, starting with the line of scrimmage. Kelce anchors the offensive line, which gets Peters back at left tackle and features the NFL's best right side with guard Brandon Brooks and tackle Lane Johnson. They'll go against a quick, powerful, and aggressive Atlanta front. The Eagles want to establish the running game, spread the football around, create some good matchups, and stay out of the third-and-long game.
Sproles is an X-factor here. He may not get a lot of touches, but he is someone the Falcons will have to account for, no matter where he lines up in the formation. Asked about his role and whether he's expecting to move around the offense, Sproles offered only a sly smile and a brief answer: "We'll have to see on Thursday."
Meanwhile, the Ajayi injury is one to consider here. He reported to Training Camp in the best shape of his life and then suffered a setback with a lower-body injury that, he said on Sunday, has set him back. How many touches can he provide on a night that is expected to be hot and humid in South Philadelphia? The good news is that the running game is buffeted by Corey Clement, Sproles, and Wendell Smallwood, and all of them have big-game NFL experience.
The tight end position, with Pro Bowl veteran Zach Ertz and rookie Dallas Goedert, figures to be used extensively in this game. Ertz, for his part, has no doubt that the diligence and attention to detail with how the Eagles are preparing will pay off on Thursday.
"We did a competitive period today, ones against the ones, offense versus defense, so when you're able to go against a defense like our defense it's going to be a very good test for our offense and that's what we do," Ertz said. "That's what makes us different from any other team in my opinion. We practice extremely hard, so that's the big thing that we have going for us.
"We did that throughout the year, first 10 weeks of the year we did it last year. It's something we've been doing Wednesday, Thursday, ones against the ones, competitive periods. I think it's really good for our football team."
In the end, no matter who the quarterback is, the success of the Eagles' offense will come down to the full cast of players starting up front.
"We have to do our jobs," Johnson said. "Atlanta's got good edge pass rushers, twitchy guys, powerful inside. They're good. They use their linebackers well. They're just really solid. They don't do a lot to try to fool you. They just make you execute, make you beat them."
Early on for an offense still trying to get all of its pieces together, the Eagles could have some tough moments. They might not pick up where they left off from last year's offensive powerhouse in the postseason wins over Minnesota and New England. Style points aren't the issue here. Wins early in the season are, so the Eagles are going to have to cobble together the W's even as the offense might take some time to re-establish its identity.