I owe the Philadelphia Eagles an apology. I’m sorry I underestimated them as a team when back in August I predicted them to finish at 9-7 and maybe—maybe—qualify for a wild-card playoff spot.
I owe Mychal Kendricks an apology, too. In my pre-game review for the NFC Championship game, I referred to the difference between the talent levels of Mychal and his brother Eric (who plays LB for the Vikings). I gave Eric the edge, symbolic of the overall defensive edge I felt the Vikings linebackers had over the Eagles’ LB group.
In fact, Mychal played a fine game in the 38-7 win over his brother’s team. He led the team with 8 tackles and helped to hold things together after the Eagles’ shaky start on defense early in the 1st quarter.
Joe Santoliquito of CBSLocal.com has a nice article up praising Mychal Kendricks and his current role on the 2017-18 Eagles.
The gist of it is this:
These Eagles are a great melting pot, with no racial or ethnic barriers. There are no position or offense-defense boundaries. These guys actually like each other and like playing with and for each other.
“But it’s a delicate balance—an equilibrium that could have been torn apart easily by Kendricks. This time last year, Kendricks wasn’t happy and he let the Eagles know it. He was viewed as a persona non grata on the defense, playing in 15 games, and starting just eight, finishing with a career-low 32 tackles. He wanted out and the Eagles were willing to oblige. When nothing materialized, Kendricks was not too pleased, though he did something very unselfish and kept his mouth shut. He could have wrecked the harmony of the locker room, and in turn, possibly disrupted the strong knot this team was creating.”
“Being selfish is just not a part of Kendricks’ makeup. He didn’t pout. He didn’t complain. He kept it out of the locker room and kept it professional. He didn’t have to, especially in this day and age, when disgruntled pro athletes are prone to air their grievances via social media or through a multitude of other platforms. Kendricks chose to stay old-school and play—and actually play well, as he did on Sunday.”
“That’s what I did. I think that comes from my support system, the people that I talk to every day. It’s my brother, Eric, it’s my brothers on this team. It’s friends and family, and it’s also the way I’ve been conditioned my whole life from Pop Warner. Duce Staley gave us a great speech last night [before the NFC championship game] that was unreal.”
“He said since the beginning when we all started playing football, this was our dream, playing at the highest level. At some point, you get punched in the stomach, the air knocked out of you, you wanted to quit, right? But something in you, or your system, told you to get back up and keep on going. I couldn’t let these guys down. I wasn’t about to bring what was going on with me inside here and let these guys down. I couldn’t do that.”
I’m trying to recall exactly what the beef was between Kendricks and DC Jim Schwartz two seasons ago. 2015 was the end of the Bill Davis 3-4 defensive system and 2016 was the beginning of Schwartz’ 4-3. Kendricks reported to training camp that summer with 15 extra pounds of muscle at 6-0, 250, thinking he was going to be the main man at inside linebacker. But linebackers are asked to cover tight ends and running backs man-to-man in Schwartz’ system. That kind of coverage is not exactly Kendricks’ best attribute. And when the Eagles brought in Nigel Bradham from Buffalo and Jordan Hicks emerged as the starting middle linebacker, Kendricks was asked to play the weak-side linebacker (WILL) position, as opposed to the strong-side (SAM) position or MLB he preferred.
Schwartz also would lean heavily on nickel and dime packages. Those packages replace a linebacker or two with an equal number of defensive backs, to offset the number of receivers the opponent has lined up against the Eagles defense. Other teams noticed Schwartz was not blitzing as often as he used to, thus opposing offenses used a would-be extra blocker as a receiver. Translation for Kendricks—fewer snaps, decreased playing time.
The transition was unfortunate for Kendricks because he was the weakest of the starting linebackers in coverage; his natural instinct is going after the quarterback. Subsequently, Kendricks saw a dramatic drop in snaps. Despite missing only one game, he was in on only 32 tackles on the season while not recording a sack.
Kendricks and his agent saw some disturbing handwriting on the wall. Here’s a guy who was in the prime of his NFL career, ready to claim a big bucks contract, and he’s not getting prime playing time.
Naturally Kendricks demanded a trade at the start of 2017 training camp. The Eagles said okay. And then they didn’t.
Mychal then did something extraordinary and what became indicative of the spirit of this current Eagles team. He stifled his discontent and bought into the “one for all” mystique of this team.
Thank goodness he did. With yet another season-ending injury to Jordan Hicks and then another to Joe Walker, and with last-minute replacement Dannell Ellerbe faltering for a combination of injury and performance issues, Mychal Kendricks has stepped up to fill the void.
Where would be without Kendricks and his coming through big-time over the past two months?
It’s part of something special about this team. I know for a fact there are about ten guys on this team who feel they should be getting more playing time, or at least more featured playing time, that their potential career earnings are being limited by reduced roles.
But the beauty of a winning team at the professional level is even the guys with a beef about how they are being under-utilized still go out and do their jobs with the idea that their efforts will one day be recognized as long as they are contributing to something that matters.
Apparently this current Eagles team is on a mission that matters. It’s a high-energy group of diverse guys across the board with a sense of history combined with a sincere affinity for social justice. This is not your average beer-league softball team. These guys are unified in some kind of “us (with all our warts) against the material world” sort of conflict.
You rarely see this kind of team unity of spirit in the NFL. Mychal Kendricks embodies it. You may never see this kind of professional bonding again. There will be other teams who will say “we all we got, we all we need”… but at the professional level, extremely few who actually mean it.