Four teams in the NFL had great regular seasons in 2016, at least as defined by Howie Roseman, the Eagles' executive vice president of football operations, during his wrap-up press conference two weeks ago.
To give yourself the best chance of winning a championship, 10-6 just doesn't cut it. When you can get up into the 12-win-and-above range, now we're talking. Get a first-round bye, get home-field advantage for at least the divisional round. Achieve that and, while nothing is ever assured, the odds are with you.
"I think when you go back and look at 2008, when we were in the [NFC] championship game, and 2009 and 2010, 10-6 isn't good enough to get home-field advantage, to compete for a championship," Roseman said. "It's a huge edge to have that bye. So, we have to build the team with that in mind. I think some of the things we've done over the past few years have been to get to 10-6, and that's not good enough."
His logic is sound but would count for a lot more if they just handed the trophy to the team with the best record every season. That isn't how it works, and the current playoffs are a good example.
Of those four teams with great records this season, teams that won at least 12 games, three of them - Oakland, Kansas City, and Dallas - will be at home watching the conference championship games. Only New England, the Death Star of the NFL, is still alive and playing for the title.
Among the other three survivors, Atlanta did have a first-round bye and home-field advantage in the divisional round, but Green Bay and Pittsburgh had to play in the wild-card round and then win on the road. So, in the four games played last weekend, the teams that earned byes and home-field advantage were 2-2. That doesn't sound like an edge. It sounds like a coin flip.
"When I look back at some of the mistakes I made, they were about just trying to get into the playoffs and believing that once you get into the playoffs, maybe you have a chance every year because it's a shorter field, and you can just get hot," Roseman said.
Well, it obviously can happen that way, and usually does for some teams every year. This season, the Steelers were sitting at 4-5 (including a 31-point loss to the Eagles) when they righted themselves and won seven straight to the end of the regular season, a streak that has now grown to nine games. The Packers were 4-6 when they beat the Eagles to begin a roll that has reached eight straight wins. Even the Falcons were muddling along at 6-4 (having also lost to the Eagles) when they managed to win five of their last six.
There's something to be said for teams that can grow beyond their records during the course of a season and into the playoffs. What it usually says is that the coaches of those teams are good at learning what they have and how to best use it. It is like a video game in which they master getting from one level to the next and figure out the cheats. It is that and a dozen other factors. Injured teams get healthy. The healthy teams they are chasing get injured. The schedule smoothes out, and a team gets some confidence and momentum. Then, the playoffs. Go ahead and predict those. A season can be decided on some back judge's interpretation of the pass-interference rule.
So, yes, given the choice, getting a week off is better than playing, and being at home is better than being on the road, and winning 12 or 13 games makes you feel a little better about yourself than slipping in the wild-card door with a 10-6 record. But nothing is good about sitting out the playoffs nursing a plan for the future that might never arrive.
Unlike head coach Doug Pederson, who said the Eagles are close to being contenders, Roseman is pushing a slow build, and he didn't sound so optimistic about 2017. The problem is that while he carefully adds pieces around the offensive core of Carson Wentz and the defensive core of Fletcher Cox, other pieces will fall away. For every hole he slowly fills, another will appear. A total of 25 players on the 2016 roster will become free agents in 2017 or 2018. Some will be re-signed, some won't. Another dozen or so will cease to be either useful or economically feasible over that time.
Instead of painting the bridge and then starting over again at the other end, why not accept the imperfection of a touch-up here and a touch-up there and get into the conversation as often as possible?
Roseman's example of 2008 is actually a good one from that point of view. The Eagles finished 9-6-1 (having been 5-5-1 at one point), barely made the playoffs, then beat Minnesota on the road in the wild-card round and the No. 1-seeded Giants on the road in the divisional round. In the conference championship game, they held a fourth-quarter lead on the Cardinals before the defense allowed a 14-play touchdown drive that cost the Eagles the game with three minutes left and a shot at the Super Bowl against the Steelers. Would they have won the big trophy? Don't know, but they were 9-6-1 and one defensive stop away from finding out.
Aiming high is fine. Everyone's goal is to be the Patriots every year. Good luck with that. This time around, and most times around, it is almost as good to be something a little more attainable. This season, it is the Packers and the Steelers, teams that didn't look like very much in September and October. Turns out that looking good in January is more important.