Phil Sheridan: Eagles are a tougher team this season

Eagles coach Andy Reid says he sees trust building among his players this season.
Eagles coach Andy Reid says he sees trust building among his players this season. (SHARON GEKOSKI-KIMMEL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 19, 2012

It is too early to know whether the 2012 Eagles are capable of stringing together consistent performances and building momentum toward a deep playoff run.

It is not too early to recognize that this is a more together, more tough-minded team than last year's version. Whether they go 13-3 or 2-14, these Eagles are already easier to like and to root for than their 2011 counterparts. The team that battled and persevered and refused to back down against the Baltimore Ravens Sunday was reminiscent of the best teams of the Andy Reid era.

And that's worth saying, because it really was one of the big issues coming into the season. Reid brought back most of the players and coaches who failed to cohere into a capital-T Team last year, gambling that the right stuff could be coaxed from them. The early signs are promising.

It is hard for Reid to acknowledge the change, because that means acknowledging many of these same players were simply not as invested a year ago. And it does Reid no good to dredge up that kind of history.

He came close Monday, saying the Eagles proved themselves to be tougher than the Ravens expected them to be. There was a reason the Ravens might have expected a softer, less tenacious team: That's what the Eagles were in 2011.

Let's be clear what we mean by "soft." It takes plenty of toughness and courage just to strap on the gear and take the field in an NFL game. But players do choose whether to commit themselves, mind and body, in any given situation. Last year, you had the feeling that many Eagles had made the calculation that the rewards weren't likely to be worth the risks.

That could take the form of DeSean Jackson, who has admitted he was disgruntled about his contract, holding back rather than putting his body on the line. It could take the form of Nnamdi Asomugha bailing out rather than taking on Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch, or half the defense jogging after running backs who had gotten by them.

We saw plenty of that in 2011. It was something new and very disturbing in a Reid-coached team, and it was one reason some people – including me – believed it was time for a change at head coach. Going 8-8 was not good. Tolerating a group of me-first mercenaries was much worse.

Toughness was an underrated ingredient in Reid's early teams. He always liked to throw the ball, which is a finesse and timing operation, but his offensive linemen and especially his defenses were physical and unyielding. Quitting on a play was unthinkable with Brian Dawkins and Jon Runyan in the huddle.

So it was intriguing to see whether Reid could restore that culture without a radical makeover of the roster. Two weeks in, it looks like he did.

Asomugha made a touchdown-saving tackle in Cleveland in the opener, running down Browns wide receiver Travis Benjamin from behind. On Sunday, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie sprinted to head off Baltimore's Ray Rice, forcing him to cut back into the grasp of linebacker Mychal Kendricks.

For two games, the Eagles defense has been sound, tough and physical. The addition of Kendricks and especially middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans is part of that, but there's a lot more at work.

"I think they trust each other," Reid said. "That's the important thing. Not every game is going to be smooth sailing. That's not how it works. These other teams have got good football players, so there are going to be plays that are made and then you've got to come back. How you come back is what you want to see. For two weeks here, they've come back the way that you want to handle yourself. After a positive play has happened against them, they've come back and haven't lost any trust with one another."

And then there is Jackson. How would he respond after getting his contract extension in the offseason? Would he be the feisty game-changer of 2009 and '10, or would he be the tentative product of contract woes and concussion shots?

Jackson answered that question decisively Sunday, holding on for a 49-yard gain despite a brutal hit from safety Ed Reed. Jackson also quietly worked the tough areas underneath the defense for six other catches. Meanwhile, Jeremy Maclin not only played with a sore hip, he reinjured it while blocking for tight end Brent Celek.

Celek set the tone early, jumping up from a bone-displacing hit by Bernard Pollard and defiantly signaling for a first down.

Again, all of these players are unquestionably tough. They were tough last year, too. The difference is they are all in with this team. It is unmistakable when you watch them play. They believe in each other, which goes a long way toward convincing fans to believe in them.


Contact Phil Sheridan at 215-854-2844, psheridan@phillynews.com, or @Sheridanscribe on Twitter. Read his blog, "Philabuster," at www.philly.com/philabuster. Read his columns at www.philly.com/philsheridan

 

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