Good morning, Eagles fans. I'm writing this in a Charlotte hotel room in the hours after the Eagles' 28-23 win over the Carolina Panthers and on a morning flight to return to Philly for Doug Pederson's day-after news conference. He'll speak as the head coach of a 5-1 team with the best record in the NFC. This is a Friday edition of Early Birds, the twice-weekly newsletter breaking down the Eagles. (Because of the schedule, it came three times this week.) It's free to sign up here to receive in your inbox every Monday and Friday. I want to know what you think, what we should add, and what you want to read, so send me feedback by email or on Twitter @ZBerm. Thank you for reading.
— Zach Berman
Who saw this coming? Who saw the Eagles starting the season 5-1?
If you did, you should have gone to Vegas. And even the most optimistic fans couldn't have expected the Eagles to start the season this way while playing games without Fletcher Cox, Lane Johnson, Rodney McLeod, Ronald Darby, Darren Sproles, and other key players.
"Probably not," tight end Zach Ertz said after the game. "Those guys are the focal points of our team, the rock of our team. But I think it speaks volumes to how far we've grown from last year."
It's easy to become believers in these Eagles. They have the best record in the NFC, and they won while undermanned on the road Thursday on a short week against a good team.
After the game, coach Doug Pederson told his players that he's never been around a team that has weathered so many injuries in the first month of the season. He believes it's a testament to the players in the locker room. Ertz added that Pederson's confidence in this group "definitely rubs off on us" and also credited the front office for assembling depth. I think the quarterback has the most to do with it; good quarterback play can cover up shortcomings, and Carson Wentz is playing winning football.
I thought the Eagles would start 3-3. They couldn't win on the road last year and couldn't win close games, and they did both against Carolina and the Los Angeles Chargers. But even if you tried arguing that they could win those games, I wouldn't have believed it with the injuries they've endured. Even Pederson initially admitted he's surprised by how well they've navigated through these injuries at the same positions before changing his answer, saying he's not surprised because of the resiliency of the team.
That's what safety Malcolm Jenkins focused on when I posed the question to him. He said he could have seen it based on how tough-minded this group has become and the strong leadership in the locker room.
"I couldn't tell you how we would do it, but I was sure we could do it," Jenkins said. "I think a lot of us anticipated us having success. The biggest thing for us handling that success."
That's a good challenge to have. Jenkins know that the team cannot rally around doubters – those won't exist after the 5-1 start. And October is still early in the year. The Eagles were 5-1 in 2014 and failed to make the postseason. But it's fair to start imaging those possibilities. The Eagles play their next three games at home and have a favorable schedule in these final 10 games. If they weren't taken seriously before, they better be this morning.
Zach Berman: How was it to finally get a sack and what clicked?
Derek Barnett: "It felt good. They're hard to come by. You don't get many chances. So it always feels good to get to the quarterback. That's any level. …Just being patient, not pressing too hard. Trusting my training, my coaches, techniques. And just giving him different rushes and stuff, not doing the same thing."
Zach Berman: On the unnecessary roughness penalty, did you hear the whistle?
Derek Barnett: "No. I pulled up, though. I disagreed with the call. But it is what it is. You've got to keep playing."
Zach Berman: This team is 5-1. As a rookie, what's it like being a part of it?
Derek Barnett: "It feels great being 5-1, but it's a long season for us and we still got to continue playing good football and not let up, not being complacent. …I think I get better every day, practice and every game. The more I'm on the field I feel I get better. I've got a good group of guys in the D-line room that push me every day."
In terms of how he played or the significance of the win? I thought last week was his best game yet, but I thought Thursday was his most significant win. The Steelers and Falcons games last year rank up there. This was on the road on a short week and he played without Lane Johnson. He was smart with the ball, made key plays, and did it against an good defense. That third-and-16 pass to Mack Hollins was special. He twice turned a short field into touchdowns. He didn't throw any interceptions. And he improved the Eagles to 5-1. I thought Wentz would be good this year, but I expected more mistakes. He's playing at such a high level and is the biggest reason why the Eagles are in the position they're in.
The Eagles say confidence, and that has something to do with it. There's far less pressure on him than the past two years. I think moving to the slot also plays a role in how he's playing. By trading Jordan Matthews, Agholor moved inside. That's creating more favorable matchups and he's able to use his run-after-catch ability. Also, there's a natural progression a player makes from Year 1 to Year 2, and Year 2 to Year 3. Agholor has always been a diligent worker; it was a matter of confidence and consistency. You're seeing it come together. He feels comfortable in his spot and confident in how he's playing.