The game was meaningless and the sample small, but Ronald Darby's second outing against the Patriots in the last six months was much better than the first.
The Eagles cornerback dropped into coverage 16 times, was targeted three times, and didn't allow a completion in last week's preseason game in New England. Darby broke up two of quarterback Tom Brady's passes and could have intercepted both.
In February, the stakes were far greater, but Darby's struggles in Super Bowl LII were predictable, given his inconsistency in an injury-plagued first season in Philadelphia. Brady completed 8 of 12 of passes for 129 yards and two touchdowns when throwing at the corner.
Darby wasn't the only Eagles defensive back victimized by Brady. He joined a long list of cornerbacks to get roasted by the Hall of Fame-bound quarterback. But Darby, like the Eagles defense in general, delivered when it counted most, and a victory was secured.
Who knows what his offseason would have been like had the last five minutes of the game gone differently? Darby would have been under the microscope, and instead of being the subject of trade rumors, perhaps the Eagles would have pulled the trigger on a move.
But the 24-year-old corner was never dealt, and his performance in training camp and the preseason has shown why.
"He's had, if not the best, one of the best, offseasons of any of our players, going back to the first day of phase one, and then phase two, phase three [of spring workouts], minicamp, training camp," defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said Monday. "He's been very consistent. Came to us late last year, was sort of thrown into the fire, then got hurt and missed a lot of time. It was a difficult situation."
Darby came via an August trade that sent receiver Jordan Matthews and a third-round draft pick to the Buffalo Bills. A month later, Darby dislocated his ankle in the season opener and missed the next eight games.
When he returned, he gave the Eagles a boost. Darby intercepted a pass, broke up two others, and made eight tackles in a road win over the Cowboys. But he soon regressed and had a particularly rough December game against the New York Giants. Fans on social media let him know it, and Darby lashed out in response.
He apologized and played much better the following week – nailing down the Raiders with a late pick – and in the first two playoff games. But the Super Bowl was a reminder that he had missed half the season and almost the entire offseason.
It didn't take long for Darby's name to surface in trade reports before the start of free agency. Sometimes, all it takes is for one enterprising writer to look at a team's positional depth – the Eagles had youngsters Jalen Mills, Sidney Jones, and Rasul Douglas returning – to make that leap. But whether the possibility was realistic or not, Darby couldn't avoid it.
"You get tagged about it like 5,000 times [on social media], so you're going to hear it," Darby said. "But I didn't care."
He'd been through it before.
Darby missed just one game in 2015 and was named Pro Football Focus' defensive rookie of the year. He had two interceptions and broke up 21 passes – the second-most in Bills history at the time. But, in his sophomore season, he had no picks and only 12 breakups, while facing about 25 percent fewer targets.
He became expendable after Buffalo drafted Tre'Davious White, and the Eagles made the trade knowing that Darby's athleticism would at least give them a baseline from which to work. The former track star has elite speed – he ran a 4.38 40-yard dash at the combine – and agility that is the envy of his colleagues.
"He's sudden," Mills said. "When you see him coming out of his break, he puts his foot in the ground, and he's gone. He's quick. It doesn't matter what the receiver or the quarterback is doing."
The Eagles first-team offense was without quarterback Carson Wentz for most of camp, and top receiver Alshon Jeffery was sidelined throughout, but Darby rarely allowed pass completions beyond 10 yards.
The 6-foot-4 Mack Hollins was his primary responsibility, but the 5-11, 193-pound Darby saw his share of the Eagles' two fastest receivers – Mike Wallace and Nelson Agholor – and often kept them in check.
"He's fast, but he also has good size, because if it's a fight in a phone booth, he's strong enough to hold his own," Agholor said."
Darby doesn't lack confidence – "I can do everything" – which is how Schwartz prefers his cornerbacks. But does he factor into the Eagles' long-term plans? Is the promise of this season the result of playing in the final year of his rookie contract?
"I came in last year wanting to prove myself," Darby said, "but I couldn't do it because I got hurt so early in the season."
It will be difficult for the Eagles to let him walk if he turns the number of balls he's projected to get his hands on into interceptions. He dropped several gimmes last season – including in the final seconds of the Super Bowl – and probably should have pulled in both last week.
"I think the last step he needs to do," Schwartz said, "is he needs to turn those … into interceptions."
Darby said his goal is to have more than the three interceptions he had last season.