The 2016 Eagles were just a few plays away from being a playoff team.
At least that’s what they keep telling themselves.
It has been the mantra throughout much of the year as losses piled up and playoff hopes evaporated. It remained after Sunday’s 27-13 win over the Cowboys at the Linc. The win was just their seventh of the season, pulling them into a tie with last year’s version of the Birds.
Sunday’s game didn’t matter for either team. There was nothing on the line. Eventually, the Eagles pulled away from the Mark Sanchez-led Cowboys and put a faux feather in their cap. Momentum into next season and all that.
But throughout the 2016 season, the Eagles found ways to lose close games until 10 days ago when they beat the Giants in a game that was played after their missed-playoff fate had already been sealed.
The Eagles finished the season with a 1-6 record in games decided by seven points or fewer, a stat that has prompted some contrived optimism throughout the locker room.
After all, what if things would’ve just gone their way?
“We're very close. We're very close,” head coach Doug Pederson said Sunday night. “And when you talk to coaches around the league, they see it. They see it on the outside. Even though the win-loss and everything is not in our favor, I think we lost six games this year by a touchdown or less, and we've just got to learn to finish those games. We've got to learn to make more plays and finish those games, but I think we're extremely close, extremely close to being a team that can compete each year for not only the NFC East but for the postseason.”
Maybe Pederson is right. Maybe they were close this year. Or maybe bad football teams just find a way to lose games.
The 2017 Eagles will not look like the 2016 version. Turnover is an annual event in the NFL and it will be no different in Philadelphia in the coming months. Some players will go, others will arrive. And with little cap room with which to work, and with seeming limitations in evaluating talent in the draft, fans better hope the Eagles’ optimism proves right.
They better hope the 2016 Eagles really were close. If not, 2017 might be a long year.
“I think we can win with the players we’ve got,” said linebacker Jordan Hicks, who was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise forgettable season (see story). “I think it’s just a matter of execution. Obviously the front office will do what they have to do, but for us, the players, the focus is execution and getting better individually.”
There were some glaring holes on this team and it would behoove the front office to fill them. Wide receivers and cornerbacks ought to top the list.
If Carson Wentz becomes the franchise quarterback the organization hopes he will be, then perhaps they’re not too far off.
“Well, ultimately we wanted to be playing still in January,” Wentz said. “We wanted to be playing. But obviously looking back now, now that it’s over, it will take some time to reflect that’s for sure both mentally and physically. But we are just building something special. We truly believe that in that locker room. The guys that will be here next year, I kept saying it to all the guys that I saw, it’s time to go. It will be time to go when we all come back. So I am excited for the future.”
It’s all too easy to look back at where the 2016 season went wrong. The Lane Johnson suspension is a pretty good place to start. After all, the Eagles were 2-8 with him out of the lineup and 5-1 with him. But to simplify it that much wouldn’t be fair.
Then there are those several plays in close games Pederson talked about. The Ryan Mathews fumble in Detroit, the blown lead in Dallas, the overthrow in New York. Pederson pointed to all of those games after the season wrapped up Sunday.
“There's two or three games that just kind of pop up that if the outcome is different, our season is different, but that's the way this thing goes,” Pederson said.
The Eagles were a little better down the stretch. They broke a five-game losing streak to win their last two in meaningless games. The Eagles gave themselves a little confidence boost over the last two games; they finally won a close game and took care of business in the other.
But when the playoffs kick off this month, the Eagles will be spread across the country in front of their TVs watching. They’ll probably be telling themselves the same thing, whether it’s true or not: We were close.
“We feel good about where we are as a team,” Malcolm Jenkins said. “We don’t feel like we are trending downwards. It feels like we’re building something and kind of looking ahead. We’ll go back and evaluate the film throughout the whole season and see where as individuals we can improve and as a team what we need to do better. But I think everybody is obviously disappointed with the outcome of the season, but pretty encouraged when we talk about the future.”