Brandon Graham Could Put Punctuation on ‘What If?’
PHILADELPHIA (973espn.com) - Brandon Graham stepped to the podium at the NovaCare Complex Wednesday for the first time since he was the No. 13 overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft
For those who don't know the podium at any NFL facility is usually reserved for the head coach, the coordinators, and the starting quarterback.
The NFC Championship Game changes things, however. An influx of reporters in for the game forces the stars to use that format in an effort to better handle the demands on their time.
Just reaching that podium was checking off a box for Graham, labeled for years as a "what if" player by Eagles fans.
As in what if Philadelphia didn't trade up in the 2010 NFL Draft to select Graham at No. 13 overall and simply took future Hall of Fame safety Earl Thomas, who went a pick later to Seattle, or rangy defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, the 15th overall selection that year to the New York Giants?
Graham was a constant reminder of what might have been.
A funny thing happened as the years passed, however. In a short-attention-span world, Graham slowly started to get better and by the 2016 season he was so good under new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz that he was named second-team All-Pro.
This time around the personal accolades weren't there in a season in which Graham played even better but the team ones were, including a franchise-record-tying 13 wins, the NFC East crown, and now a chance to win the George Halas Trophy and represent the NFC in Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis.
Graham was asked about all the fans who didn't believe in him on Wednesday but took the query in another direction, preferring to focus on the high road and the task in front of the Eagles on Sunday, the talented Minnesota Vikings.
"It's a good feeling," Graham said of turning around the bust narrative before pivoting to more positive things. "We try to take advantage of this opportunity because whenever I hear people talk about being in this position, it's an opportunity that doesn't come often and it's not like Tom Brady and them guys who has been fortunate to be able to be in these type of games every year.
"It's not guaranteed every year, so let's embrace this moment and enjoy the moment and make sure that we go out there and give our best effort. And make sure that we don't leave no stone unturned where we could have did out there in those games because we don't want to have no regrets."
Regrets would be losing a home game to the Vikings, who like the Eagles have persevered through significant injuries and are riding a quarterback in Case Keenum few in the national media seem to believe in.
"You can't take nobody lightly and I think Case does a good job as far as moving in the pocket, being able to extend plays with his legs and you know just being able to trust himself going out there," Graham said. "You know, going out there, making plays because he’s got the receivers. He’s got the running game that's been helping him take a lot of pressure off of him. And like I say, [Minnesota offensive coordinator] Pat Shurmur put him in a good position as far as his play calling and kind of playing to his strengths of what he's good at."
In last week's divisional round win over Atlanta, it was Graham and his running mate on the defensive line, Fletcher Cox, who set the tone on defense against the high-powered Falcons.
"I was happy to be able to get out there and stay out there a little longer because I've been out for two weeks [with an ankle] injury," Graham said. "I was just happy because I was still in shape. My body was feeling good. Even after the game, today, I was feeling good in practice."
Graham has another opportunity to put his signature on a big game against the Vikings. Due to a late-season injury to starting left guard Nick Easton, Minnesota offensive line coach Tony Sparano has done some shuffling moving veteran right tackle Mike Remmers inside and allowing second-year player Rashod Hill to take over at RT.
Hill struggled mightily against Saints star Cameron Jordan in the divisional round and No. 55 is ready to prolong the young player's troubles.
From an Eagles' perspective, the potential biggest mismatch on the field Sunday projects to be Graham against Hill.
"They put everybody in good positions and I'm excited for the matchup but it's on me to go out there and make sure I rise up to the occasion and make sure he doesn't get off on me," Graham said when asked about Hill. "Like I say, I don't get caught up in the experience too much. But overall I just try to learn my opponent and see what he does well and see what I can kind of exploit him on that I do well. And may the best man when win. But I am excited for the matchup."
As are so many fickle Eagles fans who have to save their "what ifs?" for other players these days.
-John McMullen covers the Eagles and the NFL for 973espn.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JFMcMullen