As the Eagles awaited kickoff of their Sunday night matchup against the 49ers, there was a slate of 11 NFL games before theirs, and if, during the day, they dropped in to see what condition their division was in, they would have seen some ugly and encouraging sights.
For instance, they would have seen Odell Beckham Jr. zooming 50 yards on an end-around touchdown to seal the Browns' wild victory over the Cowboys. The data firm Next Gen Stats clocked Beckham at 20.64 mph on his run, and funny enough, a few plays later Dallas' Amari Cooper seemed to be moving at 2.064 mph as he moseyed across the middle and cut short a slant route, leading to a Dak Prescott interception.
Or the Eagles would have seen Lamar Jackson produce three touchdowns, by throwing for two and running for one, in a 14-point Ravens romp over the Washington Football Team. Or they would have caught a few minutes of the Giants' loss to the Rams, which marked the second straight game that the Giants failed to score a touchdown and which left the aggregate record this season of the four teams in the NFC East at 2-12-1.
Then the Eagles beat the 49ers, 25-20, and if you take that entire 11-hour span in total, you have to feel pretty good if you’re Doug Pederson and his team. Granted, your team is 1-2-1, and most of your best players have pulled this or strained that or hyperextended the other thing, and no one on your defense was capable of covering or tackling 49ers tight end George Kittle, and Carson Wentz is still trying to make every play on offense all by himself … because he pretty much has to. But at least you have to be comforted in knowing that you are in first place, and your division is so galactically awful that a 6-9-1 record might actually be good enough to win it.
That’s how the Eagles should approach this season now. That’s how everyone who follows them should approach it. It has been bad, and it’s not going to get much better, but it doesn’t have to get much better for the Eagles to extract something worthwhile from it. Think about it this way: This is already a quasi-rebuilding season for them anyway. Look at Sunday night. Alex Singleton returned an interception for a touchdown. Jordan Mailata started at left tackle. Jack Driscoll played a significant amount of time at right tackle. Genard Avery and Josh Sweat picked up sacks. Jalen Hurts was taking snaps in the Wildcat formation in the fourth quarter, just before Wentz was throwing deep to … (checks Eagles roster) … Travis Fulgham to give the Eagles a late lead.
“You never think of those scenarios,” Pederson said. “But listen ... we are where we are.”
A lot of those names were in the lineup because of injuries to starters, of course. But the Eagles, because of the manner in which they had gone about constructing their roster, forced themselves into need-to-know situations with several of these players. Take Mailata. They took a chance on him in the seventh round of the 2018 draft, and after two years of coaching and grooming him, at some point they had to find out if the former footballer from Bankstown, Australia, could be a bona fide NFL left tackle. Save for one false-start penalty Sunday, he acquitted himself quite well.
It’s going to be that kind of season, for experimenting and finding things out. It just is. There is a pandemic. Players are testing positive for COVID. There was no preseason. There’s no telling how the next 13 weeks will play out, who will be left standing.
“You look around the league and the amount of injuries that have kind of piled up here in the first month of the season,” Pederson said, "and I think every team is kind of going through a little bit of adversity from the injury front just a little bit.
“And now you throw in COVID, right? You throw in a guy getting just the sniffles, and we’ve got to keep him out of the building because you just don’t know. There’s the unknown surrounding our game right now. This is why, again, I can’t lose sleep. I’ve just got to prepare the next guy, keep talking to the team about our protocols that are in place, the testing, the masks, all of that. And you go practice, and you hope that you get those guys back and they’re ready to play.”
The only certainties at the moment are these: The NFC East is lousy, and the Eagles are the least lousy of the bunch. In this strangest of NFL seasons, that’s more than encouraging. That feels like a miracle.