A Decade of the Eagles’ ‘Heart and Soul’
PHILADELPHIA (973espn.com) - Back in January after the Eagles' disappointing divisional-round playoff loss in New Orleans, the longest locker-room session of the season for the media that covers the team on a daily basis was winding down.
One by one reporters filed down the hallway to the nearest exit at the NovaCare Complex and waiting with a warm hug for everyone was the "heart and soul" of Philadelphia's favorite team, Brandon Graham.
It sure felt like an ending, full circle for the first-round pick out of Michigan in 2010.
When Graham first arrived in Philadelphia, he did the same thing, hugging the members of the media he met and for the first time showing off what now the trademark smile, the effusive laugh, and the unrelenting positive nature which got the Detroit native through some tough times.
The early years for Graham in Philadelphia were anything but easy. The constant reminders that he wasn't Earl Thomas or Jason Pierre-Paul, an ACL tear which stunted his development, the ping-ponging back and forth from 4-3 defensive end to 3-4 outside linebacker, the thought he would be cut by Chip Kelly to make room for Travis Long all the way up to the 180 where Graham finally lived up to the promise.
From there it became second-team All-Pro honors and the knowledge that Graham was architect of the biggest play in franchise history, the late-game strip sack of Tom Brady in Super Bowl LII which essentially sealed the Eagles' first Lombardi Trophy, all accomplished while fighting through an ankle injury which resulted in offseason surgery before the 2018 campaign and a tweaked hamstring caused by favoring the ankle.
At 31 and with big money on the horizon for Graham, Howie Roseman made sure his offseason plan included keeping the veteran edge player with a new three-year $40 million contract, a deal that could mean Graham finishes his career in Philadelphia wire to wire, something Thomas couldn't do in Seattle and Pierre-Paul was unable to accomplish with the New York Giants.
"He is the heart and soul of this football team," head coach Doug Pederson assessed this spring when discussing Graham.
Part of that stems from the energy Graham brings to work every day, a needed boost through the grind of any NFL season.
“With his energy every single day and what he brings to the defense, what he brings from a leadership standpoint to our team, it's pretty impressive that he's played this long," the coach explained. "Really, to me, he can go several more years. I really do believe that.”
Graham is now under contract through the 2021 season and will be entering his 10th season when training camp kicks off later this month.
Through all the accomplishments, however, Graham still finds ways to motivate himself and one goal he has set for himself is double-digit sacks, something he's never reached with 9 1/2 during the 2017 Super Bowl season as the high-water mark.
It's the one stat that the under-educated judge edge players on and the reason Graham continues to be chided by some critics who haven't recognized how complete his game has become for Philadelphia in recent seasons.
“Tenth year, and I’m trying to crack the double digits on the sacks; that’s always been a goal, but I feel really good about achieving that with the culture we have,” Graham said.
That culture is created by defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz who leans on the defensive line to be the "engine" of the defense with Graham, along with All-Pro defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, as the highest-firing pistons. The addition of another potential pocket pusher in Malik Jackson inside is supposed to make things either for both Cox and Graham.
“We have Malik (Jackson) in the middle, Fletch (Cox) in the middle. It’s going to be a problem (for opposing teams),” Graham surmised.
The glass is always half full for B.G. and 10 sacks in Year No. 10 sure sounds like a compelling script.
“... I think we have a chance to do something special," Graham admitted. "But we also know that we’ve got a lot of work to do."
-John McMullen covers the Eagles and the NFL for 973espn.com. You can reach him at email@example.com or on Twitter @JFMcMullen