Eagles

Eagles somehow put together a winner overnight

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USA Today Images

Eagles somehow put together a winner overnight

Team chemistry is such an elusive thing and, once you finally find it, such a fragile thing.

What was the difference between the 2004 and 2005 Eagles? It wasn't talent. It was a solitary wide receiver who was intent on destroying the chemistry of a Super Bowl team because he wasn't happy with his contract.

No sport requires this level of teamwork, and no sport requires this level of unselfishness. With very few exceptions, you really need a special group of people for sustained success in the NFL, and that's why figuring out what kind of person you're getting in the draft or free agency has become just as important as figuring out what kind of player you're getting.

Which brings us to the 2017 Eagles, who by any measure are the best team in the NFL as we arrive at the midpoint of the season.

They're rolling along at 7-1 with a six-game winning streak, with those six wins coming by an average of 11½ points. You know all the facts and figures. The NFL's fourth-ranked offense and 10th-ranked defense, the hottest quarterback in the league, the stingiest run defense in the league in seven years.

Here's another number: 22.

That's how many new players are on the roster.

And that may be the most remarkable number of all.

GM Howie Roseman and vice president of player personnel Joe Douglas took a 7-9 team with a rookie coach and quarterback and instead of just hoping that another year together would turn them into a winner, they gutted the thing.

Some 42 percent of the 53-man roster that will face the Broncos on Sunday was not part of the 2016 Eagles. 

Think about all the key guys on last year's team the Eagles cut ties with.

The leading rusher and leading wide receiver. A former first-round pick. Both starting corners. Two defensive line starters who had played at a high level here. And so on.

And think about the new guys. How many key contributors on this team weren't even here last year?

Derek Barnett, Mack Hollins and Rasul Douglas came in the draft. Alshon Jeffery, LeGarrette Blount, Patrick Robinson, Corey Graham and Chris Long signed as free agents. Tim Jernigan, Ronald Darby and Dexter McDougle arrived via trades.

Corey Clement was an undrafted rookie. Jake Elliott was plucked off the Bengals' practice squad. Kenjon Barner was home in California out of work.

We've seen the Eagles make wholesale changes in the past and it didn't go so well. But this group is different. The Eagles managed to rebuild the roster and truly reshape the franchise while also creating a remarkable chemistry and maintaining the unselfish, team-first culture that Doug Pederson has been crafting.

To turn over nearly half the roster and emerge with a singular unit in which new guys and old guys are all working together for the common good is an incredibly difficult thing to do. But Howie and Joe pulled it off virtually overnight. And Doug certainly deserves a ton of credit for taking all these disparate parts he was given and helping mold them into a unified whole.

One thing most of these guys have in common is that they're winners.

Blount and Long won a Super Bowl last year. Torrey Smith and Graham won a Super Bowl with the Ravens. Tennessee went 25-14 when Barnett was there. West Virginia was 18-8 with Douglas on the field. Wisconsin was 40-9 with Clement. North Carolina went 19-8 in Mack Hollins' two years as a starter.

This was not an accident. Roseman and Douglas wanted a locker room full of players who not only are talented but also have tremendous character and understand the commitment it takes to win.

Put enough guys like that together and you have a pretty good chance to build that winning culture all coaches and front office executives talk about but very few know how to build.

It's happened here and it's happened faster than anybody anticipated. Even the people that put this all together.

The Eagles went out and found 53 seemingly random puzzle pieces, and halfway through the season, it sure looks like they all fit together perfectly.

Derrick Gunn's NFL Week 11 picks: 2 games that will impact Eagles

Derrick Gunn's NFL Week 11 picks: 2 games that will impact Eagles

Derrick Gunn makes his picks for Week 11 of the NFL season.

Eagles at Cowboys (Sunday 8:30 p.m. on NBC)
Now that their bye week is over, the Eagles are focused on wrapping up the NFC East. Dallas is licking its wounds after getting manhandled down in Atlanta. Ezekiel Elliott is serving his suspension. LB Sean Lee is out with a hamstring injury, and Pro Bowl LT Tyron Smith is ailing with a groin injury. It all sounds too easy for the Birds, but with Dak Prescott on the other side, they’re not about to overlook this one. And they still remember what happened in Dallas last season.

Without Elliott and Smith, trying to establish a ground game against the Eagles’ top-ranked run defense will be near impossible. Dallas is 0-2 in games Lee hasn't played in this season. Carson Wentz will spread the wealth through the air, and now that Jay Ajayi has had extended time to get familiar with the offense, the Birds' running attack should be even more diversified. If the Eagles' defense can make the Cowboys' offense one-dimensional, it's game over.

Pick: Eagles 27, Cowboys 17

Detroit at Chicago (Sunday 1 p.m. on FOX)
The Bears’ defense is actually decent, ranked ninth overall, but the offense is abysmal. In their last two outings, the Bears hung tough, losing by eight to New Orleans and by seven to Green Bay. Chicago just doesn't have enough offensive firepower to hang with Matthew Stafford and the Lions.

Pick: Lions

Jacksonville at Cleveland (Sunday 1 p.m. on CBS)
This is a matchup of feast or famine, and the Jags' defense (first in sacks with 35) should be doing a lot of feasting. The Jags are tied for first in the AFC South and should win their fourth in a row.

Pick: Jaguars

Baltimore at Green Bay (Sunday 1 p.m. on CBS)
Aaron Rodgers’ replacement Brett Hundley has improved each week, but this time he's facing a Ravens defense that leads the league in interceptions with 13. It is likely the Packers will be without their top two rushers. Joe Flacco has been a disappointment this year (eight touchdowns and 10 interceptions) but he will pile up yards against a generous Packers' pass defense. Ravens win a close one.

Pick: Ravens

Tampa Bay at Miami (Sunday 1 p.m. on FOX)
The 3-6 Bucs vs. 4-5 Fins. No one expected both of these teams to have losing records at this stage of the season. Tampa’s list of offensive weapons on paper is impressive but has not lived up to expectations. The Dolphins are a mess, losing the last three and giving up 40 or more points in two of their last three. Somebody has to win this battle of Florida. Bucs get a slight nod.

Pick: Bucs

Los Angeles Rams at Minnesota (Sunday 1 p.m. on FOX)
This clash of division leaders is worth watching as both are 7-2 and behind the Eagles in the NFC. The Rams are the best scoring offense (32.9 points per game) and are facing the Vikings’ No. 5 scoring defense (18.3 ppg). Jared Goff has come into his own and Case Keenum has been solid. It comes down to which defense can get the most stops. The Vikings’ D is really good and playing at home. Advantage Minnesota.

Pick: Vikings

Washington at New Orleans (Sunday 1 p.m. on FOX)
The 'Skins keep losing frontline bodies while the Saints, at 7-2, just keep winning. Drew Brees has completed a minimum of 71 percent of his passes the last four games and the Saints' D isn’t bad, ranked eighth overall. The Redskins will not win in the Bayou.

Pick: Saints

Kansas City at New York Giants (Sunday 1 p.m. on CBS)
Andy Reid's crew is lucky the rest of the AFC West is struggling. The Chiefs have had a bye week to fix the problems they had against Dallas. Meanwhile, the Giants have become a laughingstock. Players are getting suspended, and others are grumbling. The Giants will do a lot of sulking after Kansas City is through with them.

Pick: Chiefs

Arizona at Houston (Sunday 1 p.m. on FOX)
Both teams are without their starting QBs. The Cardinals still don't know who will start this one, Blaine Gabbert or Drew Stanton. Tom Savage has been ineffective for Houston the last two games (46 completion percentage, two touchdowns and two interceptions). All of the Cardinals’ losses have been against teams with winning records. This will be ‘Zona’s first loss to a team under .500.

Pick: Texans

Buffalo at Los Angeles Chargers (Sunday 4:05 p.m. on FOX)
What has happened to the Bills? The defense can't stop anybody. The Bills are losers of two straight and now QB Tyrod Taylor is benched. Philip Rivers is in the concussion protocol. If it’s a battle of backup QBs, I’ll take the Chargers’ Kellen Clemens over the Bills’ rookie Nathan Peterman.

Pick: Chargers

Cincinnati at Denver (Sunday 4:25 p.m. on CBS)
The only thing these two 3-6 teams have left to play for is pride. The Broncos have lost five straight and the last three to the Chiefs, Eagles and Patriots. The Bengals are minus-9 in turnover differential but Andy Dalton, who hasn't thrown a pick in his last three games, will lead Cincy to victory.

Pick: Bengals

New England at Oakland (Sunday 4:25 p.m. on CBS)
Like them or not, the Patriots just keep finding ways to win. Their defense is ranked dead last, yet once again, they control the AFC East. Old Man Brady still has many tricks up his sleeve and will dissect the Raiders’ defense.

Pick: Patriots

Atlanta at Seattle (8:30 p.m. Monday on ESPN)
The Falcons were impressive against Dallas, but that was in their dome. This one will be outdoors in the cold with possible rain, and the 'Hawks' 12th man will be out in full force. Seattle can't run the ball but Russell Wilson can carry this team on his back. The Seahawks desperately need a win to stay close to the Rams. They’ll get the W.

Pick: Seahawks

Eagles-Cowboys rivalry nothing new for Jay Ajayi

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Eagles-Cowboys rivalry nothing new for Jay Ajayi

Things are kind of coming full circle for Jay Ajayi. 

After spending the Eagles' bye week trying to figure out where to live in Philly and bringing up his stuff from Florida, Ajayi gets to head back home to North Texas this week for his first Eagles-Cowboys game. 

He doesn't need anyone to explain the rivalry to him. 

"In Texas, it was like a split household," said Ajayi, who was born in London before moving to Maryland and eventually to Frisco, Texas, for high school. "My dad, he was on the Cowboys' side. My mom, she loved Donovan McNabb. That was like her favorite player, so she was always rooting for the Eagles. Obviously, when I went to the Dolphins, we all became Dolphins fans. Now it's an Eagles household all the way. It's exciting to be on my mom's team. She's excited and all that."

Ajayi said he already has about 20 tickets for his friends and family members but will have even more people in attendance for the game at AT&T Stadium. His coaches from Liberty High School have been texting him this week, telling him how excited they are for him to be back in Texas. 

Sunday won't be Ajayi's first game in AT&T Stadium. He actually played there as a senior in 2010, when his high school team lost to Bastrop, 38-24, in a Class 4A Division II playoff game. 

This Sunday, Ajayi will play just his second game with the Eagles after getting traded on Halloween. In the first game, he carried the ball eight times for 77 yards and a touchdown. His role will continue to increase as he gets more and more familiar with the offense.

"I feel like I have a really good grasp of our playbook," Ajayi said on Thursday.  

Ajayi was happy to play against Denver before the bye because if he hadn't, he would have really been "itching" to play by this point. Luckily, Ajayi was able to learn enough to at least have a limited role against the Broncos. 

And the bye week came at an optimal time. In between moving his stuff from Florida, Ajayi was able to hit the playbook hard.  

"Well, it's definitely, from the classroom standpoint, slowed down, a little more teaching," head coach Doug Pederson said. "And he can go back and even watch the Denver game and take personally himself, to have some takeaways from that game. Again, this is a veteran player who has played and understands football.

"We'll just continue to grow his package and grow the amount of plays and everything that he's doing with our offense and continue to keep him coming. But that's definitely a nice way to get him kind of caught up."

Ajayi has been a pretty fast learner since joining the Eagles, which hasn't been much of a surprise. 

Frank Reich told a story earlier this week: On Ajayi's first day with the Eagles, he had a meeting with running backs coach Duce Staley. The meeting, that Reich called a "crash course," lasted several hours. And after it was over, Staley walked out of the room and told the rest of the coaching staff, "We're good. We're good. This guy's going to be fine mentally." 

Reich said when he looks at the game plan for the Dallas game, there isn't a play the Eagles run that he wouldn't feel comfortable giving to Ajayi to learn. 

"He picked up on it really quick," Carson Wentz said earlier this week. "I've seen it a little bit just talking to him in meetings and we'll see as we get going out there in practice and everything. But, like I said, right away you could tell he was a sharp kid. He came in and started picking up on things, so he'll be a big part of our offense going forward."

During the bye week, Staley remembered his meeting with Ajayi at the 2015 combine. At the time, Ajayi was a prospect from Boise State who would eventually go in the fifth round to Miami. 

That day in Indianapolis, as recalled by Ajayi, Staley wanted to know about his favorite run play and his favorite pass play from the Boise State playbook. Staley wanted Ajayi to tell him everything about the plays, not just the running back's responsibilities. 

During the first week Ajayi was with the Eagles, he said he spent some long nights with Staley, as the two went over the Eagles' offense. 

"I pride myself on knowing the playbook," Ajayi said. "Being able to show him that [at the combine] left a mark on him and it's crazy how things come full circle again. Being here and having to learn all that stuff in that quick time, showing him I can grasp it and the plays." 

So there was Ajayi, the kid who was raised in Texas, by a mother who was an Eagles fan, learning the Eagles' playbook from her favorite player's teammate. That same teammate became the guy who was impressed by her son at the combine and who now gets to coach him two years later. As they head back to Texas. 

Everything really is coming full circle.