PHILADELPHIA — What was organic last season seems forced this time around.
In the wake of the Eagles’ collapse against the Carolina Panthers on Sunday, coach Doug Pederson said his message to his players in the locker room was that the “pressure’s off of us.”
“Nobody on the outside world is giving us a chance to do much of anything,” he said. “Pressure’s off, so we can go play, have fun, relax.”
The Eagles famously rode the “underdog” theme all the way to a Super Bowl championship in 2017, complete with dog masks the players broke out following each upset win in the postseason — an image the Panthers used to troll Philly following Sunday’s meltdown.
— Carolina Panthers (@Panthers) October 21, 2018
During his epic parade-day speech on the Art Museum steps, center Jason Kelce rattled off a long list of players and execs who had been counted out, capped by a rendition of the chant, “No one likes us. We don’t care.”
It was an easy, natural identity for the Eagles to embrace, considering they were in fact underdogs in every playoff game they played.
It’s more difficult now that they’re the Super Bowl champs. This isn’t a team that is being discounted — not even after it blew a 17-0 lead to Carolina to fall to 3-4. The NFC East is still up for grabs. Most believe the middling division will come down to the wire and the Eagles will be right in the mix for the crown.
Pederson went on to offer some context around his messaging.
“Number one, I think no one has really given us a chance anyway,” Pederson said. “Whether we’re putting pressure on ourselves to perform, to play, whatever it is, live up to a certain expectation, I think that’s the point where I think that no one has given us that type of — maybe with the amount of injuries or whatever it is — given us much credit going into games.
“And I think sometimes we force issues. We try to press just a little bit instead of just — we don’t have to go searching for plays. When the plays come, let’s just make the plays that come to us, and right now, we’re not doing that. So I think that’s the pressure that’s off of us, and we just have to get back to playing and executing better.”
It’s a sharp pivot from the “embrace the target” mantra that he has been pushing since the offseason. Pederson stressed that this group is not going to sneak up on anyone and, as defending champs, will get the opponent’s best shot every week. It’s hard to sell that the Eagles are being dismissed now — injuries and slow start aside — when they’ve been favored in every game they’ve played to this point.
What stands out when you get past the fact that the message doesn’t fit are some of the phrases Pederson used in his explanation: “we try to press,” “we don’t have to go searching for plays,” “we force issues.”
“Sometimes I think players and coaches just put added pressure when they don’t have to, and that’s something that we’ve got to — it starts with me there, just to make sure we’re doing everything, even during the week, getting ourselves in position to win games,” he said.
What seems clear is that Pederson believes his team is trying to do too much and needs to find a way to relieve some of the pressure that is keeping them from performing freely.
It actually seemed like the joy and swagger the Eagles played with last season had returned last week against the New York Giants, and it spilled over for three quarters Sunday. The celebratory touchdowns were back. During one TV timeout, the Eagles’ kickoff unit formed a dance circle, with each player getting a chance to jump in the middle and show off his moves. The fun-loving, dominating squad was back … until everything evaporated in the fourth quarter.
The Eagles play the Jacksonville Jaguars in London on Sunday, followed by games against the Dallas Cowboys and New Orleans Saints. Five division games remain, as does a trip to Los Angeles to play the loaded Rams.
As quarterback Carson Wentz said, the Eagles are “at make-or-break time, almost.”
They are entering their most critical stretch of the season. The pressure isn’t off the Eagles, as much as they might like it to be. If anything, it’s about to ratchet up.