A ban­ner night ended as it should for Birds

The Phoenix - - SPORTS - By Jack McCaf­fery jm­c­caf­fery@21st-cen­tu­ry­media.com @Jack­McCaf­fery on Twit­ter

PHILADEL­PHIA » Five min­utes, 10 min­utes, 15 min­utes af­ter the sched­uled start to the 2018 NFL sea­son Thurs­day, the long­stand­ing, stan­dard bet was still in doubt.

What was more likely, that an Ea­gles fan would be struck by light­ning … or that a Su­per Bowl cham­pi­onship ban­ner would be un­furled in the Linc?

As it hap­pened, de­spite a lengthy de­lay for vi­o­lent weather, the ex­pected oc­curred and a flag was draped from the sta­dium roof. With a crisp graphic of the Lom­bardi Tro­phy and “2017 World Cham­pi­ons” nicely pre­sented in green, black and white, there for­ever would be an in-house re­minder of what once hap­pened when so many were ex­pect­ing the usual.

“It’s not go­ing to get too much big­ger than open­ing up the 2018 sea­son in front of a home crowd,” Mal­colm Jenk­ins said. “And we’re the ones who get to make them loud.

“We take that re­spon­si­bil­ity se­ri­ously.”

Mo­ments later, the en­core would be­gin. The new cham­pi­onship ban­ner was in place, and long should it wave. The field and the spec­ta­tors were thor­oughly drenched. Only the Ea­gles would de­cide whether the mo­ment would be, too. That, they did with an 1812 vic­tory over the At­lanta Fal­cons, who were typ­i­cally pre­pared to pro­vide them with comic foil.

“We had the day af­ter the Su­per Bowl stuff, then the pa­rade, then we got our rings,” Jay Ajayi had said. “Now it’s here.”

The prob­lem, if there is one, with un­veil­ing a cham­pi­onship ban­ner seven months af­ter it was won is that it tech­ni­cally no longer be­longs to all of the play­ers en­trusted to hang an­other. By the time the Ea­gles made it through their pa­rade, their draft, their mini-camps and that goofy, four-ex­hi­bi­tion-game nosethumb, 17 of the Su­per Bowl cham­pi­ons were re­placed by new play­ers. That is enough to field an en­tire lineup, with six more wait­ing for a doc­tor to de­cide some­thing.

So the team last seen pin­ning a 41-spot on New Eng­land in the Su­per Bowl was noth­ing like the one that scored three points in the first half of a home game Thurs­day. LeGar­rette Blount and Tor­rey Smith were gone, and Brent Celek had been rel­e­gated to be­ing the hon­orary alumni cap­tain. That’s how fast it turns around. One minute, Tom Brady is for­get­ting to shake hands, the next Nick Foles is for­get­ting to throw touch­down passes.

“This football team un­der­stands it is a new team, a new year,” Doug Ped­er­son said. “They have moved on. It seems like these events sort of keep pop­ping up for us to sort of re­flect, which are great, I love them, be­cause we’re all part of it. But here’s still a bunch of guys on this ros­ter that didn’t go through that.”

Enough did, how­ever. And that was enough to keep the Ea­gles com­pet­i­tive in a game against an op­po­nent that should be a fac­tor deep into the NFC play­offs. As usual, they flus­tered Matt Ryan, who rarely ex­cels dur­ing vis­its to his home town, stop­ping the Fal­cons within the five on each of their first two pos­ses­sions, At­lanta set­tling for a to­tal of three points. Julio Jones was a hand­ful, but was un­able to score a touch­down.

It was only when Ped­er­son or­dered a Philly Spe­cial re­boot, with Foles snag­ging a third-and-five pass from Nel­son Agholor to move the Birds from the At­lanta 41 to the 26, that the cham­pi­onship-cel­e­bra­tion-night feel was re-es­tab­lished. Even­tu­ally, that led to the first of Ajayi’s two touch­downs.

At this point, if Car­son Wentz wins his job back, it will cost the Birds their top re­ceiver.

“We’ve got a lot of guys who are ex­cited to com­pete,” said Jenk­ins. “I think that’s the big­gest thing.”

That was dif­fi­cult to rec­og­nize in the first 30 min­utes, though the Ea­gles were alone in their early in­com­pe­tence. Nei­ther team would score a first-half touch­down and the ref­er­ees would seem to throw a flag ev­ery other play. Not that the Fal­cons were un­pre­pared to play, but they were flagged for a false start be­fore run­ning their first play.

That en­try to the sea­son was the NFL’s penalty for per­mit­ting its un­pro­fes­sional coaches to ruin the con­cept of a pre­sea­son and al­low paid play­ers to en­ter mean­ing­ful games ar­ro­gantly un­pre­pared.

“The big­gest thing that comes if you haven’t ex­pe­ri­enced a Su­per Bowl be­fore, and in my ca­reer I had only been to the Su­per Bowl one other time, is how short the off­sea­son is,” de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Jim Schwartz said. “It comes up on you pretty quickly. You have to get guys tran­si­tioned to a dif­fer­ent mind­set right away.”

Nine months ago, some Ea­gles were pranc­ing around the Linc in dog masks, cel­e­brat­ing their un­der­dog sta­tus. This sea­son, many have said they will “em­brace the tar­get,” aware that they will be a team that ev­ery op­po­nent takes spe­cial care to de­feat.

“Ev­ery year,” Brandon Gra­ham said, “is a new year.”

This one started late, first be­cause of the weather, then be­cause of a half-agame of slop­pi­ness.

Let the record re­flect that the Ea­gles didn’t make it through one, not one, bloody post-world-cham­pi­onship quar­ter with­out hear­ing some muf­fled boos. And let it show that Foles was heck­led ex­actly two of­fen­sive series af­ter be­ing the Su­per Bowl MVP. Hey, at least Ped­er­son got in and out of the night with­out a grow­ing quar­ter­back con­tro­versy.

Light­ning struck once since the Birds were last in the Linc, and they won a cham­pi­onship. It struck again Thurs­day night, in more ways than one.

MIKE REEVES - FOR DIG­I­TAL FIRST ME­DIA

Ea­gles owner Jef­frey Lurie and for­mer player Brian Dawkins lead the pregame cel­e­bra­tion Thurs­day.

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