Eagles' deep leadership group huge reason behind 6-1 start

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Eagles' deep leadership group huge reason behind 6-1 start

Before the season began, Eagles players chose five captains — two players on offense, two from the defense, and one for special teams. At the time, their choices seemed obvious: quarterback Carson Wentz, left tackle Jason Peters, defensive end Brandon Graham, safety Malcolm Jenkins and special teams ace Chris Maragos.

Looking back on it, any number of players would’ve been worthy of votes. Middle linebacker Jordan Hicks. Tight ends Brent Celek or Zach Ertz. Running back and punt returner Darren Sproles. Right tackle Lane Johnson, or center Jason Kelce. The list goes on.

When you stop and think about it, this Eagles' squad has tremendous leadership. From top to bottom, across the board, in every phase of the game, in every position room, there are veterans, free-agent newcomers and young players alike demonstrating supreme accountability.

The leadership on this team has been second to none — and it absolutely is a huge reason why the Eagles’ record is 6-1 right now.

“It’s valuable because you have a bunch of guys who challenge each other every day in practice,” Graham said Wednesday. “It’s not just one guy telling a whole bunch of guys. It’s one guy, two guys here kind of coming up with their own little thing on how they’re going to make practice a lot better and take them to the next level.”

Graham is in his eighth season with the Eagles. He’s been a part of some playoff teams, in 2010, ’11 and ’13. He’s also been through 4-12 and 7-9 seasons that brought about coaching changes. He’s been through highs and lows with the organization, but Graham does see some differences, specifically with regard to the mindset this group approaches their jobs.

“Looking back, I feel like there’s a lot more conversations going on other than negative things,” Graham said. “I’m not saying it was negative in the back, but I don’t hear too much when we’re going out to practice.

“People are like, ‘Oh man, I feel a little sore,’ but once practice starts going, I couldn’t tell that that guy was sore because of how he came to work. That makes our job easy because we don’t have to start over a lot of things, we can keep going. That’s what I like.”

In recent weeks, the Eagles have lost quite a few veteran leaders to season-ending injuries. Captains Peters and Maragos are both down for the year, as are Hicks — the quarterback of the defense — and Sproles. For a lot of other franchises, replacing the talent on the field would not be the only concern.

But as Jenkins explains, there’s less pressure than ever on some of the captains or most visible leaders in the locker room.

“I think the biggest thing now is you’ve got this micro-leadership, where even your younger players who might only be in their second or third year have a form of ownership on the team, and a form of leadership in some capacity,” Jenkins said.

Jenkins maintained the Eagles have always had strong leadership since he arrived as a free agent in 2014. However, there’s clearly less to worry about with so many self-motivated personalities together in the same room.

“You have your leaders that are at the top, but not everybody’s looking for them for answers,” Jenkins said. “Everybody’s invested. Everybody’s bought in. Different guys are stepping up at different times, so that leadership role has been spread.”

Second-year running back Wendell Smallwood is one of those young players that’s taken it upon himself to be accountable to his teammates. He recalled what it was like walking into a veteran Eagles' locker room a a rookie, and how it quickly changed his program.

“It was a lot of pressure on me, honestly,” Smallwood said. “Being around the guys and knowing all they put in, and not wanting to disappoint these guys who are putting in that hard work every day.

While the running backs room still have another seasoned-veteran in LeGarrette Blount to help ease the blow, Sproles’ injury was unquestionably a hit to the unit’s and team’s leadership. Yet, from the moment Smallwood arrived, Sproles — a 13-year NFL veteran — was also setting an example of how to be a professional.

It’s an example that clearly took for Smallwood. Looking at the rest of the Eagles' roster, it appears the example Jenkins has set for a young cornerback like Jalen Mills has taken as well. Or the example Peters set for Lane Johnson years ago. Or the example Maragos set for special teams units often built with kids who are just breaking into the league.

Micro-leadership, as Jenkins described it.

“We’ve been working together, and I think it’s just you don’t want to let the next man down,” Smallwood said. “You want to be able to be someone who they can count on it, and not guys looking back, like, ‘Can I trust him to do this? Can I trust him to do that?’

“It’s just confidence everyone has in the other player and the other guy to make their play and be able to focus on just doing your job. It’s been working well.”

Jenkins played for a championship team with the Saints as a rookie in 2009. Wide receiver Torrey Smith, who signed with the Eagles this past offseason, also won a Super Bowl with the Ravens in 2012. These are players who have witnessed firsthand the kind of leadership it takes to win football games in January and beyond.

“When I was in Baltimore, I was a baby,” Smith said. “We had Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Haloti Ngata, Terrell Suggs — I mean, it was crazy leadership there.

“But this locker room, and I said that as soon as I came here, this is a really good locker room, really balanced, a lot of guys who are here for the right reasons is what it seems. That’s definitely one of the strengths of this team.”

Although, even players who have spent their entire career with the same organization can see this has become a strength. Just ask Celek, the Eagles’ longest-tenured player with 11 seasons under his belt.

“I think we just have a lot of guys that like to compete and play hard for each other,” Celek said. “You need that having a good team.”

The Eagles’ front office has certainly done an outstanding job of bringing in the right kind of players and people over the past few years — the organization’s “culture,” as Chip Kelly used to say. When you have self-motivated people like Wentz breaking the huddle on the field and leading by example off of it, great leadership happens organically.

That being said, multiple players interviewed also pointed to coach Doug Pederson’s influence over this Eagles' roster as a reason for the tremendous leadership as well.

“I love the attitude of this team, and that’s a credit to Coach,” Graham said.

“I just think it’s the second year in a culture with Doug and what he’s been able to do,” Jenkins said. “Obviously, the maturation process is really taken place, and you have a team that’s stable and poised.”

From the coaching staff to the locker room, from Wentz to the 53rd player on the roster, there is an air of accountability with this Eagles team. It’s already taken them far seven weeks into the season. Injuries or not, this team exhibits the kind of steady mindset that could carry them a lot further.

Eagles use dominant second half to blow out Cowboys

Eagles use dominant second half to blow out Cowboys

ARLINGTON, Texas — There was no fiery halftime speech. There were no lineup changes. There weren’t even any major adjustments. The Eagles went into the locker room Sunday night at halftime flat and rusty. They came out unstoppable.
“It shows we're resilient,” Carson Wentz said. “We knew coming into the locker room at halftime that we left a lot out there. We knew that we're much better than that and we had to go execute. It shows that we have a lot of believe in each other and we can get the job done.”
The Eagles couldn't do much right in the first half and couldn't do much wrong in the second half.
"We were positive," guard Stefen Wisniewski said after the Eagles had finished off a 37-9 destruction of the Cowboys at AT&T Stadium (see Roob's observations). "No one is going to get our heads down.
"We know we’ve got a lot of talent on this offense. It’s one of the best offenses in the league. Even if someone slows us down for a little while, we’re not going to panic. We’re just going to keep believing in what we do, keep swinging, just keep believing it’s going to work and it did.” 
First half: They scored seven points.
Second half: They scored 30 points.
First half: They gained 115 yards.
Second half: They gained 268 yards.
First half: Their running backs gained 25 yards
Second half: Their running backs gained 202 yards.
A different team.
“We just decided to run the ball,” Lane Johnson said.
“The first series (of the game), we ran the ball and got a touchdown. Then we got away from it a little bit. We came out the second half and ran the ball right at ‘em, and they didn’t have an answer.”
The Eagles outscored the Cowboys, 30-0, in the second half, turning a two-point deficit into their eighth consecutive win. At 9-1, the Eagles have not only the best record in the NFL but a four-game lead in the NFC East with six games to go.
This was the first time in franchise history the Eagles have scored 30 second-half points after going into halftime trailing. It’s only the fifth time they’ve scored seven or fewer first-half points and 30 or more second-half points (see breakdown).
“We were kind of a little bit asleep in the first half,” Jay Ajayi said. “We woke up in the second half, got to our run game and just dominated after that.”
The Eagles finished the first half with five straight drives that netted five yards or less. They opened the second half with touchdown drives of 75, 90 and 85 yards.
In the first half, the Eagles didn’t have a running play longer than seven yards. In the second half? Ajayi had a 71-yarder, LeGarrette Blount had a 30-yarder and Corey Clement had an 11-yarder for a TD.
The Eagles’ backs averaged 3.1 yards per carry before halftime and 8.4 after halftime.
“We just had to stay relaxed," Clement said. "We knew the game plan that was worked up by coach (Doug) Pederson was going eventually pan out."
Wentz didn’t have a huge day, but he didn’t need one (see report card). In the second half, he was 7 for 9 for 88 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions and a couple two-point conversion passes.
“We were just off a little bit in the passing game (in the first half),” head coach Doug Pederson said. “You could see a little bit of the frustration with (Wentz). I just keep talking to him and saying, 'Hey we just have to keep with the game plan. Trust the game plan. Trust the guys. We'll get this thing fixed,' and (he) just did that.
“Just kept shooting. Kept dialing up throws. Wanted to get him on the edge a little bit, so we moved the pocket some. That also can help the quarterback get in a little bit of a rhythm but just stayed the course.”
How rare is it for the Cowboys to lead a game at halftime and then allow 30 or more second-half points? It's now happened four times in franchise history.
The last time the Cowboys were shut out for a second half while allowing 30 or more points? It was 1962.
“The biggest thing was just staying with the game plan,” Wentz said. “They made plays and we didn't later in that first half. We just had to stay with what we knew what we could do. Execute better and stay out of some of those 3rd-and-long situations."
Maybe it had something to do with the bye week. The Eagles sure opened the game like a team that hadn't played in two weeks.
"I hate using the term rusty, but we weren't playing up to our ability in the first half," Johnson said. "Came back in the second half and just dominated."

Kamu Grugier-Hill proves everyone wrong as … Eagles' kicker

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Kamu Grugier-Hill proves everyone wrong as … Eagles' kicker

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Kamu Grugier-Hill's career as an NFL kicker got off to a rather inauspicious start. 

After Jake Elliott left the game with a concussion, the linebacker began to warm up his right leg on the Eagles' sideline in the first half of the 37-9 win over the Cowboys (see breakdown)

His first kick sailed wide right, missing the net and soaring into the stands. 

"Oh yeah," fellow linebacker Najee Goode said with a smile. "He definitely hit somebody. He hit a fan and the fan stood up."

Before that practice kick, punter Donnie Jones offered to move the net closer to Grugier-Hill, but the emergency kicker declined. 

That was a mistake. 

"I was like, 'Oh this is going to be a little rough,'" Grugier-Hill said about that miss. "After that, I kind of got a hold of it."

After that first bad attempt, Grugier-Hill settled down and actually had a decent showing as a kicker (see Roob's observations). He practiced some in the dark during a Jerry Jones ceremony at halftime. 

He didn't attempt any field goals or extra points, but he did kick off after four touchdowns and even got a touchback on one of them. 

Grugier-Hill, 23, practiced kicking just one time this season. Chris Maragos had been the Eagles' emergency kicker until he went down for the season with a knee injury. Fipp made Grugier-Hill practice it once. 

Despite practice time, Grugier-Hill was confident in his kicking abilities. He played soccer through sophomore year in high school and said he was an All-Conference and second-team All-State punter in high school in Hawaii. 

"I knew he could kick," cornerback Jalen Mills said. "We call him the Flying Hawaiian. He can do it all."

The Eagles were able to joke about Grugier-Hill's kicking prowess in the winning locker room, but for a while, they were in a precarious situation. 

Coming out after halftime, they were trailing 9-7 and had to play the rest of what looked like a close game without a kicker. 

Goode said it was obviously a blow, but noted the Eagles' offense was able to help out because they can put up points (see report card)

It did change the game because the Eagles didn't try any field goals after Elliott left the game and they went for two on all four of their second-half touchdowns. They converted on three of four. 

"I don't even know if everybody on offense knew right away," Carson Wentz said. "I was in the know, but I don't even think everyone knew. It is what it is. We executed I thought pretty well on those two-point plays. That's why you have a lot of those plays dialed up. You don't think too much about it." 

While the Eagles didn't announce when Elliott suffered his concussion, it's likely it happened on the opening kickoff. Return man Ryan Switzer took the kickoff 61 yards, but Elliott was there to greet him on the sideline to help prevent a touchdown. It looked like Elliott took a shot to the head. 

He continued to play, but after missing a 34-yard attempt was taken inside to get checked out. 

After Elliott went inside, Grugier-Hill began to practice kicking. It was an unusual situation for him, but he claimed he wasn't nervous. 

"Everyone expected me to do bad anyways," he said, "so I [didn't] have anything to lose."