TAMPA, Florida – On the road again. It's been some time, since early February in Minneapolis, if you remember. That wasn't really a road game, of course. The last time the Eagles played on the road in the regular season was at the Giants late in December so, yeah, it's been awhile (preseason doesn't count). It is an efficient operation – through airport security before 12:15 p.m., wheels up at 12:45, at the team hotel in Tampa at 4 p.m.
And then it gets a little crazy. A large, really large, contingent of Eagles fans welcomed the team at the hotel, with the obligatory (and much appreciated) shouts of "E-A-G-L-E-S, EAGLES!" echoing through the hotel. Loud. Extremely loud. And relentless. And fun.
"That was cool," cornerback Jalen Mills said as he moved toward the elevators. "You think it's gonna be like that tomorrow?"
"I do," I said. "There's a fan group down here called the Tampadelphia Eagles. And a lot of people also came from Philly."
"Will it be like when we played the Chargers last year?" Mills asked. "That was awesome. You think 50/50 tomorrow?"
"Big time," I said. "You will hear the fans. They're going to drown out the Tampa Bay fans."
"I can't wait," said Mills, who then boarded the elevator and disappeared.
Players spend much of their night-before-the-game time free and relaxed in the early evenings. A handful of them – quarterback Nick Foles, safety Malcolm Jenkins, along with head coach Doug Pederson and the coordinators – take part in the television broadcast's production meeting that lasts about two hours. Each man is in the room with the FOX broadcast team of Kenny Albert, Ronde Barber, and Tiki Barber for 20 minutes or so to give the voices for the game a sense of what the team is thinking.
Then the players are free for a few hours. Some go out and have dinner with friends. Some sit in the hotel and visit with family. Some stay in their rooms and watch college football and eat in the team dining room and then get some sleep. Everyone, and I mean everyone, hydrates. The kickoff temperatures will be in the range of 90 degrees with humidity reaching more than 70 percent.
After the production meeting ended, I spent a few moments with Ronde and Tiki, talking about their unique relationship with Eagles fans – Ronde broke Eagles' fans hearts in the 2002 NFC Championship Game with an interception and 92-yard touchdown return of a Donovan McNabb pass to clinch a 27-10 win in the final game at Veterans Stadium. That play was voted by Bucs fans as the greatest in team history.
It was the worst for the Eagles. Ever. In the history of Philadelphia sports, from this perspective.
"They can finally get off my back," Ronde said, laughing. "They got a W in the Super Bowl. For years, it's been like people would come up to me and go, 'Oh hey, it's good to meet you. I hate you.' I understand what it is. Philadelphia is one of the most passionate sports cities in the country. The Eagles mean so much to them. It's a play-to-play thing with them. As a guy in the world of sports, I appreciate that. I love Philly fans. I loved making them mad when I played against them, but their passion and their love for their sports teams is awesome to me."
Ronde has nothing but good things to say about the Eagles and the way the team has been constructed.
"When I look at this team and see how they've built it, I have nothing but appreciation for it," he said. "When you can win on defense and you have an innovative playcaller on offense, you should win. I give a lot of respect to Doug (Pederson) and a lot of respect to Howie (Roseman) for this team. I think that's what's good for this sport, seeing a plan come to fruition and going out and executing the vision."
For Tiki Barber, the former great Giants running back who will be on the sidelines for this game, the way the Eagles have handled the quarterback situation has been most impressive. Foles is the starter until Carson Wentz is cleared to return. And then Wentz takes over. Everybody understands that.
It's not the way it works in every locker room. The Eagles have a great thing going here.
"Nick is a hero in the city," Tiki said. "It may be the most unique quarterback dynamic I've ever seen. You could compare it to Phil Simms and Jeff Hostetler with the Giants back in the 1990s. It was Phil's team, but there was still a competition. Phil tells the story that he had to go compete for the job the next year (after Super Bowl XXV). This is not the case here. Nick handles it very well because of his faith and how he's grounded. You can't help but root for him.
"There's a lot of confidence here. That comes with success, but it's backed up by the entire City of Philadelphia. Even if you don't like football, you were behind that in Philadelphia. That's powerful. That's meaningful. You heard it when they walked in. We couldn't do our meeting. It was too loud. It was pretty crazy and they were energetic."
Ronde thinks the storylines are quite clear for Sunday: Foles and his Tampa Bay counterpart, Ryan Fitzpatrick, are backup quarterbacks. That's a natural story. And he also thinks that the Eagles' defense, which he called the best in the league, will be challenged by "one of the best receiving corps in the NFL, top to bottom. As good as this Eagles defense is, I think they've got a serious challenge," Ronde said.
On the road again … it seems a whole lot more welcoming when thousands of Eagles fans invade a stadium. And it helps that the Eagles know they have a battle on their hands in a matchup of two 1-0 teams.
"You've got the Super Bowl Champions here playing great football against a team that is playing urgent football knowing it has to win now for their coach and their organization," Ronde said. "I think this is the biggest challenge there is. It's going to be a great football game."