PHILADELPHIA >> The Eagles check into training camp Wednesday with the swagger they created in a torrid four-game stretch last November and the grit that bested Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LII.
Coach Doug Pederson, in a departure from the championship theme being the new normal around team headquarters, admitted he knew the Eagles were frighteningly good when they averaged 38 points and allowed an average of 11.3 points on the way to blowouts of the San Francisco 49ers, Denver Broncos, Dallas Cowboys and Chicago Bears last year.
“I kept hearing comments in the community about, ‘Oh, it’s too easy for the Eagles, there’s no challenge,’” Pederson said of that statement stretch of football. “Every time they stepped out on the field, in their mind, they were going to win the game. That’s how they felt. Even late in the season — the Rams game, the Giants games and even after Carson (Wentz) went down in the Rams game — they still had that belief that they were better than their opponent last year. … It’s a snowball effect.”
The Eagles still think they’re better than the opposition. And it’s tough to argue with them.
Franchise quarterback Wentz is healthy enough to split snaps in training camp with Nick Foles, the Super Bowl MVP who threw for 373 yards and three touchdowns in outdueling Brady.
The entire offensive line is back, including veteran Jason Peters, who the Eagles still believe to be one of the best tackles in the game. The wide receiver corps added speed in Mike Wallace and Markus Wheaton. Mack Hollins is improved.
Tight end Zach Ertz has a red zone running mate in rookie Dallas Goedert (6-5, 256), who has 10-inch hands and arms almost long enough to touch the goal post while standing flat-footed.
Reliable big back LeGarrette Blount exited in free agency and will be missed. But Jay Ajayi, Darren Sproles and Corey Clement, who had 100 receiving yards in the Super Bowl, are back.
Foles, a chunk of those weapons and the line helped the Eagles drop 538 yards on the Patriots in a 41-33 victory in Minneapolis. And, lest we forget, 38 points and 456 yards on the Vikings in the NFC title game.
“It’s not just Doug who is confident,” Eagles center Jason Kelce said. “Everybody is more confident. We have a full year where really, for the most part, we lost three games. And one of them really was an end-of-the-year kind of thing. We all feel we have unbelievable players here, unbelievable coaches and a great front office that put this whole thing together.”
Pederson has been adamant about not exposing Wentz and that surgically repaired left knee to danger until it’s 100 percent. But Wentz showed enough progress over the offseason, including the mandatory minicamp, for Pederson to concede that the rehab was far enough along for — surprise, surprise — Wentz and Foles to split first-team snaps at camp.
More and more, the mere inference that Foles might start the season-opener against the Atlanta Falcons seems a longshot, barring a setback for Wentz.
Foles or Wentz is a decision that won’t negatively impact the offense. Foles took the run-pass option to new heights in the Super Bowl. Wentz set the franchise record with 33 touchdown passes, in just 13 games, last season.
“I think there’s subtle nuances that are going to be a little bit different,” Kelce said. “But I think that we’re fortunate that we’ve had a lot of time working with both of them already. I played with Nick before. This is my third year with Carson. For everybody up front we’ve had a lot of familiarity with them. That’s the good side of it. Everybody feels comfortable with either one of them. Now it’s just trying to make sure that Carson is getting reps, getting the feeling of being able to take hits, run and do all the things necessary to play the game. We want to make sure that when he’s in there he’s comfortable and ready to go.
“And obviously to have a guy like Nick right there who I think, you have a lot of teams in this league wishing he was their starting quarterback. I think we’re in a very, very fortunate situation.”
Defensively the Eagles have issues.
Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz has work to do after the Eagles surrendered 613 yards, including 505 through the air, in the Super Bowl.
On the injury front, Brandon Graham, their top pass rusher, is unlikely to participate in camp coming off ankle surgery. Tackle Tim Jernigan has told people he feels great after back surgery but hasn’t participated in any of the offseason work. Newly added defensive linemen Michael Bennett and Haloti Ngata didn’t work much beyond the mandatory minicamp.
Additionally, the linebacker situation almost certainly will have to be addressed. Jordan Hicks is coming off Achilles’ tendon surgery. Nigel Bradham has been suspended for the opener. The day the Eagles released Mychal Kendricks, they lost linebacker Paul Worrilow to a torn ACL. Kamu Grugier-Hill, Nathan Gerry and Corey Nelson have been special teams players.
Speaking of teams, Sproles could give the return game a lift. Kicker Jake Elliott is coming off a stellar season, his game-winning 61-yarder against the Giants last season making believers of his teammates. Punter Cameron Johnston almost made the team last year. Of course, there was one punt in SB LII, that by Donnie Jones of the Eagles. And that was surprising considering how much Pederson enjoys converting fourth downs.
The Eagles enter this camp with more unbridled confidence than at any time since 2004, when Terrell Owens and Jevon Kearse upgraded the offense and the defense.
Ertz bristled when asked if he and his teammates would have to dig a little deeper this season because the bulls eye is on their backs as champs.
“I’m fully invested in the season,” Ertz said. “I think my teammates feel the same way. We’re giving it everything we have. I don’t think there’s any more that we could give. If we weren’t giving 100 percent before, we were cheating ourselves, cheating our teammates. So, I don’t look at it where you have to give more. If you have to give more now, you weren’t giving everything in the past. That’s how I feel.”
That’s how his teammates feel, as well.
And it’s safe to say Pederson felt that way beginning late last November.