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Team turnaround, players say, starts on the practice field

This is not something new for defensive end Brandon Graham.

It isn't a position he desires, what with the Eagles 3-5-1 and on the road at Cleveland Sunday, the first of five straight games against teams with winning records. But it is where the Eagles find themselves in this bumpy ride through nine games of the 2020 season, and players like Graham – veteran leaders who have turned seasons around in the blink of an eye – understand what it takes to reverse fortunes for a football team that has high expectations for the year.

Everything starts at practice.

"I think it starts, definitely, with practice," Graham said on Wednesday, "because some of the stuff that is showing up out there (in games) – and we're just being real with ourselves – is happening in practice – jumping offsides, pre-snap penalties, false starts, people dropping balls, us not getting off the rock. It's all stuff that we need to hone in on as a team and I think we're doing a good job addressing that elephant in the room. You just kind of want to say, 'Aw, everything is going to be alright, it's gonna be alright.'

"But now we're at a point where we know that stuff is affecting us and we have to clean that up. What I love the most is how Doug (Pederson, head coach) brings his energy and doesn't let a lot of this stuff get to him too much, but just know that he's got to make a change and it starts with him and it trickles down to us and we've got to make sure we're policing that when we see stuff happening in practice."

That's the message Pederson has imparted to his team this week – that the Eagles have to be better at the little things in practice that lead to the big things in games. The Eagles are coming off a disappointing 27-17 loss at New York and now their lead in the NFC East over the Giants is slim. The Eagles have seven games to get it together in this regular season. Graham is one of the leaders, along with quarterback Carson Wentz and offensive tackle Lane Johnson, to address the daily goings on with the team.

The players are taking it to heart. They played poorly Sunday at MetLife Stadium when they had a chance to put a vise grip on the NFC East and reach the .500 mark. Didn't happen. The page has been turned. The focus is on Cleveland.

"All that matters to me is the locker room, this organization and how we're going to get better," Wentz said. "Honestly, right now we're just not clicking on all cylinders but I'm really confident that we're going to get it turned around."

Nothing is perfect, of course. The Eagles didn't put a blueprint together for this kind of season. They've battled injuries and inconsistency, and now they're getting some pieces back – left guard Isaac Seumalo is hopeful to get back as a starter this week and tight end Zach Ertz practiced on Wednesday with his 21-day practice window open. The next step is to eliminate the inconsistency, and on offense that means being more productive on first and second downs to set themselves up for manageable third downs. They are looking for more explosiveness in the passing game and more positive plays in the running game. On defense, the Eagles want more takeaways, more stops, better play inside the red zone.

That's coming, the players are saying. First things first, though, it's practice we're talking about.

"We've got our backs against the wall," Johnson said. "It's not where we wanted to be. People are tired of hearing us talk, the excuses, this and that. It really doesn't matter what I say or what anybody says. What matters is production on Sunday and how we play. Really, don't think about a whole lot. You have a job to do and that's what you're paid to do. When it comes down to it, do your job the best you can to your ability. What can I control? My practice, my effort, and helping the other guys around me."

In the 2018 season, one year after winning the Super Bowl, the Eagles came off a 48-7 drubbing at New Orleans and, at 4-6, were counted out of the postseason picture. But they rallied to win five of their last six games to reach the playoffs and then went to Chicago to defeat the Bears before a narrow loss in New Orleans to the Saints. Last year, the Eagles were humiliated in a December 1 loss at Miami before reeling off four consecutive wins to capture the NFC East.

Now, the Eagles are not where they want to be at 3-5-1. But they are in first place in the division, so they control their own fate. Turning it around in the right direction doesn't start on Sunday in Cleveland. It is already under way at the NovaCare Complex, where the message from Pederson is simple, and very true.

"I look at everything," he said. "I don't want to make just knee-jerk reactions moving forward. We know we have to coach better and play better and that's the bottom line."

And that bottom line could lead to a more positive bottom line with the playoffs – and a deep run when they get there – the goal for the Eagles in the big picture. In the very small picture, it's one step after another on the practice field and in the meeting rooms.

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