PHILADELPHIA – Not long after Zack Wheeler spent Sunday afternoon dominating the New York Mets across the street at Citizens Bank Park, leading the first-place Phillies to a 3-0 win, the Eagles took the field for an evening practice at Lincoln Financial Field.
There was another Zach, different spelling, who drew some of the biggest cheers when he was introduced to a crowd that mostly filled the lower bowl at the Linc. That was Zach Ertz, who took the field and turned a couple of circles, saluting the crowd of 25,896 and thumping his No. 86 with one hand.
Then when practice heated up under the lights, with the barrage of nonstop music and the occasional E-A-G-L-E-S chants, Ertz gave the fans something more to cheer about. He was involved in several team drills, making a few catches and showing that, while he is still here, he will be used by new coach Nick Sirianni.
Quarterback Jalen Hurts also got a nice ovation, but perhaps the loudest applause was showered upon defensive end and Super Bowl LII hero Brandon Graham.
Hurts, though, made the play of the night when he rolled left during 11-on-11 and threw a strike to Quez Watkins, who went above Anthony Harris just over the goal line, securing the ball, then somersaulting into the end zone. The play covered about 50 yards.
The QB wasn’t done. Later in the practice, Hurts threw a perfect touch throw to Travis Fulgham down the right sideline for a 35-yard gain.
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As for Sirianni, this was a new experience for him, too.
The coach held the final practice of OTAs on June 4 inside the Linc. There weren’t any fans then.
Still, he was nonplussed by an experience that was MIA last summer due to the global pandemic. This was the first time the Eagles practiced in front of their fans since the summer of 2019.
“Just being part of the best fan base on the NFL,” said Sirianni when asked how much he was looking forward to the atmosphere. “I’m just looking forward to going out there and being around the fans, but whether it’s practice in front of nobody or practice in front of 40,000 or a game in front of 70,000 people, the way you approach your business has to be the same.
“That’s been my messaging. Hey, there’s going to be people in the crowd tonight. Last year, that wasn’t a thing, so it’s going to be different. But that’s how each game presents itself. Again, practice is great preparation for what you’re about to do in a game. … So, nothing changes. I didn’t even address it to be 100 percent honest because it’s just business as usual.”
The players, however, were a different story.
“It’s been kind of cool (Sunday),” said the linebacker Alex Singleton. “All the rookies and second-year players, because the rookies don’t know. They just know what their college experience was, but the second-year guys I think they’re more excited about it than the rookies because they’ve been there, they’ve played in games.
Most of last year’s games were played in either empty stadiums or at 20 percent capacity.
“The only game that really had a lot of fans last year was when we went to Dallas, so they kind of got to experience that,” said Singleton, prior to the practice and in a virtual interview. “Everybody knows how people talk about the Linc and Philadelphia fans, they’re just all super, super excited to be around them for the first time in their careers.
“I know how excited I am just to be back in front of them because we had a whole year without them. How I played last year, to just be able to show them in person the player I can be. It’s exciting. I know everybody in the building is excited to get over there. I know we’re excited for Thursday (in the preseason opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers). Having two home preseason games is exciting. Overall, the building is charged up. We’re ready to go, we’re ready to get over there.”
The practice was the longest of training camp under Sirianni, running one hour, and 50 minutes. When it was over Graham went to a nearby microphone and led what remained of the crowd in an E-A-G-L-E-S chant.
Ed Kracz is the publisher of SI.com’s Eagle Maven and co-host of the Eagles Unfiltered Podcast. Check out the latest Eagles news at www.SI.com/NFL/Eagles or www.eaglemaven.com and please follow him on Twitter: @kracze.