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On A Short Week, In Search Of Swagger

If the Eagles had any time to self-examine after a second consecutive loss, they surely would do it right now. They would look in the collective mirror and analyze tendencies and cut up the tape and watch every play of every situation through five games. They would examine, analyze, and make corrections.

If they had time. But they don’t have any time this week.

They are only hours away from kicking off against the New York Giants on Thursday night in an NFC East-opening game that means a lot. At 2-3, we’re all past last season, right? We’re not comparing the Super Bowl season to now, because there is no comparison. That team won close games, started fast and finished strong, scored touchdowns in the red zone, and had minimal self-inflicting penalties and giveaways during the course of the game. This team kills itself with penalties, has scored just seven points in the first quarter of five games combined, and has largely failed to close out any game with conviction (two goal-line stands have saved both wins). Oh, and the Eagles are among the lowest-ranked teams in the red zone offensively, so the resemblance to a Super Bowl team is about as inaccurate as it can be right now.

I asked head coach Doug Pederson on Monday morning what he’s learned about this team after five games. His answer was telling.

“We’re learning a lot,” Pederson said. “One, I think the biggest thing I’m learning with this football team, obviously there’s no quit. There’s always a drive, there’s always a willingness to finish games, and that’s really important because that’s going to pay off for us eventually down the road. I think the second thing is that this year’s team is not last year’s team from the standpoint of we’re struggling to score on offense and we’re giving up the big play on defense and just a few things like that. It’s not the same. We knew that going in. We knew that we would probably be a little different offensively, be a little different defensively, new personnel. But that doesn’t take away the fact that we can’t turn the ball over and we can’t create penalties offensively and defensively. We’ve got to eliminate or reduce those.

“And then there’s got to be a little more of a sense of urgency when we step on the field. It can’t just be talk. It has to be action as well. We’ve still got a lot of season left. We’re basically 0-0 now in the division.”

The Eagles need to win the NFC East to reach the playoffs. That’s how it looks now in the jumbled NFC, unless the Eagles reel off a long winning streak and give themselves some options. That’s a big-picture view and right now there is no time for the big picture. The Eagles are looking at the Giants and the Giants only. Here is the task list for Thursday night:

  1. Get this team as healthy as possible. It’s not going to be easy. The Eagles have some hurting players. The Sunday-to-Thursday turnaround is a tremendous challenge. The practices this week are largely walk-throughs and a lot of classroom time. The Eagles are familiar with the Giants and they know how head coach Pat Shurmur thinks and they sure as heck better know that, while the Giants are 1-4, they are playing good football and that, lately, the offense is coming alive. No team in the league has a more formidable group of playmakers on offense than the Giants. Thursday night is going to be a very tough game to win.
  2. Pederson has to figure out a way to score points in the first quarter. The Eagles have scored just one touchdown in five first quarters. That came against Indianapolis in Carson Wentz’s first start when the Eagles went with their up-tempo, no-huddle offense. Touchdown. Bingo. And since then no tempo. So maybe Pederson considers that early at MetLife Stadium on Thursday.
  3. However it happens, the penalties – 48 of them have been called and 43 accepted in five games – have to be curtailed. The Eagles have the fourth-most accepted penalties among all teams.
  4. Philadelphia is at a shocking minus-4 in the turnover department. You aren’t going far with a negative turnover ratio. And the red zone has been a dead zone for the offense, the latest example a 1-for-4 performance against Minnesota. Touchdowns are needed. Field goals are at least three points. Turnovers kill.
  5. The defense, while the points against total is not bad and has kept the Eagles in games, must reduce the big plays allowed and also get off the field late in games. Last year’s defense would have forced a three-and-out series from the Vikings even after the takeaway put the offense at the Minnesota 30-yard line on the possession before. This year’s team needs to overcome adversity better than it’s done through five games.
  6. More than anything, the Eagles need to get their swagger back.

“That’s all it is. Confidence,” Pederson said. “It’s knowing that you’re going to win. It’s knowing that you have confidence in your teammates, the guy that’s playing next to you, you’ve got a lot of confidence in that and you can just go out on the football field and play and play fast. When you lose a couple of games, you tend to sort of crawl back into a shell just a little bit. That’s the wrong mentality. Our mentality that we’re going to continue to grow, full steam ahead, continue to grow as a team, collectively as a group and try to get that swagger back.”

There’s one way to do it, and that’s to beat the Giants on Thursday night and start the NFC East schedule off the right way. The clock is ticking. Kickoff is only hours away.

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