Carson Wentz and Doug Pederson have made the Eagles the NFL's best team
PHILADELPHIA - Even as the victories piled up for the Philadelphia Eagles, there were reasons to have a few slivers of doubt. Or, at the very least, to wonder if they could maintain this level of play, a level that makes them the NFL's best and most complete team.
Wonder no longer. The Eagles are very, very good. In an NFL season with a dearth of dominant teams, they might be closest thing that there is to one. They are the league's No. 1 team and second-year quarterback Carson Wentz is the MVP by a whisker over his, shall we say, slightly more accomplished New England Patriots counterpart, Tom Brady.
"We worked hard to be in this position and we earned it," wide receiver Torrey Smith said in the home locker room at Lincoln Financial Field after the Eagles upped their league-best record to 8-1 with Sunday's 51-23 demolishing of the Denver Broncos. "And it's just that: We're 8-1 right now. We still have a long way to go, a lot of work to put in and a lot of games to play. But we're in a good spot right now."
Indeed they are. But Smith also was a voice of experience and reason.
"We haven't arrived," he said. "I've been around this league long enough to know that things change quick. It's possible we could lose seven games in a row and you miss the playoffs. So for us, we'll take it one game at a time. We know how hard we work and we know what we're capable of talent-wise."
The Eagles showed their balance Sunday. Wentz threw four touchdown passes. The running game produced 197 rushing yards. The defense harassed Broncos quarterback Brock Osweiler into three sacks and two interceptions.
"I don't think any of us anticipated coming in and the score to be what it was," Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "We knew that we could have some success and that offensively, we weren't going to shy away from their [defensive] front. We were going to try to attack them. . . . That complementary football really makes it hard on teams that don't have the same balance that we do."
Few saw this coming. The Eagles were 7-9 last season under Wentz and rookie head coach Doug Pederson. Finishing above .500 this season would have qualified as progress. The season began with Pederson facing not only criticism but also speculation that his defensive coordinator, Jim Schwartz, could be after his job. Pederson and Schwartz dismissed such talk, and Jenkins credits Pederson for forging a partnership with his players.
"I think he's doing a great job of demanding and allowing for players to have ownership of what we're doing," Jenkins said. "It's not necessarily what he's making us do. We all feel like this is our thing. We have input. He listens to the players. We're listening to him. And we're building this together. We're building the kind of atmosphere that we always talk about. But he actually allows that to grow. For a young coach in this league, that's usually the thing that comes last is to have this much faith and trust in the players and the leadership. But I think it's given us an opportunity to really build a culture."
It is not an approach that most coaches favor, Jenkins said.
"Only certain coaches get that," he said. "A lot of coaches come in and try to establish their way, their culture, what they want. A lot of times, you don't have the buy-in from your entire team, though. If you allow players to have that input and that ownership, everybody feels like this is our baby and everybody's fully invested. . . . That's just an environment that really allows everybody from your starters to your practice-squad guys to feel like their role is important."
It helps, of course, that Wentz has developed into an honest-to-goodness superstar. The Eagles traded up for the No. 2 overall choice in last year's draft to get him, then made him an immediate starter by trading away Sam Bradford just before last season. Last year brought its ups and downs for both Pederson and Wentz.
But now Wentz has 23 touchdown passes, five interceptions and a passer rating of 104.1. He is an improvisational master when plays break down. His teammates seem to like and respect him. The MVP conversation should begin and end, at least for now, with Wentz and Brady.
"I saw it as soon as I came here," said Smith, a key new arrival in the offseason along with fellow wideout Alshon Jeffery and running back LeGarrette Blount. "You could see it. And he's just taking more control of everything and he's more confident in the offense, even making [play-call] changes. He's doing a great job. He's playing lights-out ball and he's playing like a veteran."
Smith contends he's not surprised by Wentz's rapid development.
"Absolutely not," he said. "He works his tail off. You obviously know the talent he has. He's playing big-time ball. It's no surprise to me [with] the way he works, the way he practices, the way he plays. He's not scared. He's never afraid of anything. He'll stand there. He'll take hits. He'll scramble. He'll make plays with his feet. He's a big-time player."
Schwartz has done a good job with the defense, mixing in new players to overcome some injuries and demanding that they be up to speed without simplifying his schemes.
All season, there have been reasons not to fully buy in on the Eagles as the NFC Super Bowl favorite or as the league's top team: Wentz has no playoff experience. Pederson is prone to make a head-scratching sideline decision every now and then. There is not a true No. 1 receiver. Left tackle Jason Peters suffered a season-ending knee injury.
But here they are, heading into their bye week as the league's no-doubt-about-it powerhouse.
"When we come back, our mentality is to turn it up even more than we already have," Jenkins said. "It's not about how you start. It's about how you finish. Real ball is played in November and December. We look at our schedule moving forward and we've got some really good teams and some games that obviously are very important for the long haul. . . . We come back [after the bye] against Dallas on the road in the division. We don't have much time to look too far ahead because we're back at it."
Story by Mark Maske. Maske covers the NFL for The Washington Post.