PHILADELPHIA — Brandon Graham, a veteran defensive end for the Eagles, stood by his locker room last week and smiled as he rattled down every key addition to the team in recent months — a group that includes receiver AJ Brown, edge rusher Haason Reddick and cornerback James Bradberry, safety CJ Gardner-Johnson, linebacker Kyzir White and the newest member, defensive end Robert Quinn.
“I’ve been praying for a team like this. I won’t lie,” said Graham, 34.
“I’ve dreamed of a team like this where, man, we play together and we’re unbeaten,” he added, adding that the chemistry this group has at the moment is similar to the close-knit team from 2017, who won it all.
Chemistry is a fickle thing. If you add big-name players to the locker room mix, you’re just as likely to end up with the “Dream Team” — the ill-fated moniker for the 2011 Eagles, who proved to be anything but a team you dream of.
But the Eagles are on a roll. They struck gold in 2017 with acquisitions like Chris Long on the defensive end and LeGarrette Blount and Jay Ajayi, who helped the Eagles get over the hump and win their first-ever Lombardi Trophy.
And early yields from this year’s ride are looking remarkably strong. The Eagles have quality units on both sides of the ball and are 7-0 for the second time in organization history as they joined the 2004 team that went to the Super Bowl. They look to continue that streak when they take on the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium on Thursday (8:15 p.m. ET, Prime Video).
Brown, who just hit his career-high 156 yards and three touchdowns against the Pittsburgh Steelers, is on his way to 1,600 receiving yards, which would break a franchise record set since 1983 (Mike Quick, 1,409 yards). Quarterback Jalen Hurts is at his best when he throws to his good friend and throws for five touchdowns with no interceptions with a 90.4 QBR. Hurts and Brown have had a strong bond since they were in college, beginning when Hurts was trying to recruit Brown to Alabama.
“When you’re playing for someone you love, who you call family, it has a different meaning,” Brown said. “I know I can’t let him down.”
Gardner-Johnson is tied for the league lead with four interceptions despite switching from corner to safety on the doorstep of the season. Bradberry ranks second in passes defended (10) and went into week eight with the second-best opposing passer rating (32.4) in the league, behind only teammate Darius Slay (31.8). The list goes on.
Thanks in large part to their contributions, the Eagles have top-notch units on both sides of the ball and are 7-0 up for the second time in organization history as they joined the 2004 team going to the Super Bowl.
“[The] The team already had some talent before we came here,” Bradberry said. “We were just like some of the missing pieces, I think they really had to pull everything together.”
There are several reasons why it worked so well. Luck, Bradberry conceded, plays a part. So does the use of what the front office has dubbed the “cohabitation matrix” — a cross-referencing process whereby anyone on the Eagles network who has a history with a potential free agent or commercial acquisition is committed to helping ensure that player that a locker room fits. And perhaps most importantly, Coach Nick Sirianni and the veteran leaders have made a concerted effort to create an environment where newcomers are welcomed and taken under their wing, with ego put aside for the greater good.
“[O]Our guys that we have in this building right now,” said defense coordinator Jonathan Gannon, “care more about their team-mate than about themselves.”
THE CASE OF “Dicker the Kicker” shows how much this group facilitates the acclimatization process.
When Pro Bowl kicker Jake Elliott fell to the ground with an ankle injury in early October, the Eagles signed undrafted rookie Cameron Dicker ahead of their Week 5 game with the Arizona Cardinals. Earlier this week, Sirianni went to the top players on the special teams, a league source said, encouraging them to welcome Dicker as one of their own and to make every effort to make him feel like part of the team.
“[Punter Arryn Siposs] and [long snapper Rick Lovato] took him under her arms. Jake supported him. They hugged him,” Sirianni said. “This is our team.”
Then, during a meeting this Saturday morning, Sirianni shared the full team highlights of Dicker stepping in at the University of Texas to pump him up. Dicker became NFC Special Teams Player of the Week after scoring two field goals against Arizona, including a 23-yarder at the last moment to lead Philadelphia to a 20-17 win.
Bringing in a rookie kicker for a short-term fix is one thing. Adding big name and/or big money players is another. One reason free agent signings and trades don’t work is the way it affects established players in that position group. In a sport where finding job security is a constant struggle, it’s easy to worry when a big-name player signs up.
However, the Eagles have a few key veterans who see the twilight of their careers coming and prioritize chasing hardware over defending their own turf. Graham, 34, has tested that mentality more than anyone, first by signing Reddick to a three-year, $45 million deal in free agency and most recently by acquiring Quinn via a trade from the Chicago Bears. However, Graham was one of the first to greet Quinn when he arrived in Philadelphia and sported that thousand-watt smile as he offered some words of encouragement.
“Really everyone hugged me, made me feel welcome so I didn’t feel like walking around like a stranger,” Quinn said. “I have to thank the guys for giving me such an uncomplicated welcome.”
Slay has taken a similar tact with Bradberry. Sirianni went out of his way to commend Slay – team captain for the first time in his career – for his leadership and said he’s gone whether it’s lending his teammates his car or making sure they have a spot for Thanksgiving beyond to cultivate the kind of family atmosphere that the coaching staff had hoped for.
“We have great leaders on this team who know what it takes to get to the top,” said Sirianni. “It’s not the best group of individuals to win championships. It’s not the best group of individuals to win games. It’s the best team, right? These guys are working like crazy on it.”
THE “COHABITATION MATRIX” was first released in 2018 when Roseman used it during a preliminary interview session with reporters. It’s a system set up by former vice president of player personnel Joe Douglas, now general manager of the New York Jets, that identifies and seeks out individuals who have ties to a player they wish to acquire in order to join a broader Get a picture of how a prospect behaves inside and outside the building.
Its use was fully indicated with Quinn’s signing. Eagles Director of Sports Performance Ted Rath and Secondary Coach Dennard Wilson were on the Los Angeles Rams staff when Quinn was there. Gannon was a scout for the Rams when they drafted him in 2011. And former players Chris Long and Connor Barwin, now director of player development for the Eagles, played with him in the Rams. Everyone offered their input before Quinn was brought on board. Even before Quinn reached the building, the players were talking as if they already knew him.
The process is similar for all prospects, with coaches and staff being asked to submit background information on players they have crossed paths with.
“They did a lot of research and talked to coaches in the league. I know my agent and my second coach [Wilson]they’re pretty familiar with each other – my agent represented Dennard when he was a player,” Bradberry said. “My coach just seems to have trusted that opinion of me as a player and as a person.”
The Eagles didn’t have to look far to find a connection with Brown. Hurts and Brown call each other best friends. Figuring out how they would mesh as teammates wasn’t much of a jump.
“I have a lot of faith in AJ, I think that’s one of the reasons he’s here,” Hurts said. “We’ve always had a great relationship. It’s been nice to see how it’s progressed over the year, personally for him and me and us on the field. I’ve always had great admiration for his mentality. He’s done great things for us, I’m proud of him as a friend and as a quarterback.”
Hurts appear to be at peace this year – as best a football perfectionist can be – and the same seems to be true of almost everyone in the squad. The energy jumps from one player to the next. And that’s no coincidence.
“It’s the best players who hold the best players accountable,” Brown said. “Jalen says all the time there’s a standard, and we raise that standard every chance we get. Me included, the guys came in and we got to work. We weren’t looking for alms. We got down to work and we know what we have to do and what we want to achieve.”
https://www.espn.com/nfl/story/_/id/34933993/newest-eagles-players-key-philly-undefeated-start Busy Eagles offseason paying off