The 2022 Eagles’ appearance in Super Bowl LVII is a testament to the machinations and resiliency of an organization that won the Lombardi Trophy at the end of the 2017 season with Pederson and Foles, the latter of whom incredibly carried Philadelphia to the promised land after a season-ending injury to MVP candidate Carson Wentz. Just five years after that initial triumph — five years that included farewells to the head coach, both quarterbacks and nearly everyone else from that championship roster — Philly is in position to lift another Lombardi.
Of course, this is also a credit to those four — Graham, Kelce, Cox and Johnson — who have remained, excelled and propelled that sharp V-shaped recovery. Some older players calcify in their jobs, losing their relevance as the locker room inevitably gets younger and their bodies and performance give way to the ravages of the game. These four, instead, became pillars, two each on the offensive and defensive lines, which — not coincidentally — are the most dominant parts of an uber-talented team. These four have racked up sacks and pancake blocks, they’ve collected All-Pro selections and Pro Bowl invites, having survived multiple regime changes, injuries, brief flirtations with free agency and contemplations of retirement.
According to NFL Research, there are just 21 active players in the league today who have at least 10 years of experience for just one team. The Eagles are the only organization to have four such players on their active roster. The last NFL franchise to boast at least four players on its roster with 10-plus years of experience on that team, no prior experience elsewhere and a Super Bowl win together during that span? The 2019 Patriots, merely a part of the greatest dynasty in the Super Bowl era.
A few weeks ago, Cox said he feels like he and Graham have been married for 11 years, and that is not such a stretch. Last month, Cox, whose locker is next to Graham’s, reminded Graham to brush his teeth.
“If you look at all the change, I do think the Eagles have done a phenomenal job of keeping the pieces and parts they think will hold everything together so that there is good buy-in and still a solid culture and foundation to build on,” Kelce said last week. “The blow-it-up method is hard to reload everything with. When you have a good culture established that far precedes me — this culture was established, I would say, with Andy Reid, maybe those guys would say even before that — we have a great locker room, we have a lot of guys that care for one another. I was brought into that as a young player.”
Kelce, at 35, is no longer a young player — none of them are. And the realities of contracts and playing time mean it is unlikely all four will return next season, whether they win another title on Sunday or not. That, though, is a problem for the weeks after the game. The run-up to the Super Bowl has, instead, been a celebration of their durability and consistency. Consider this scene from last week: Defensive tackle Javon Hargrave was recalling how all he has heard from the quartet since joining the Eagles in 2020 is what it feels like to go to the Super Bowl when Graham, at a nearby locker, began modeling his new, Day-Glo Super Bowl jacket, the tags dangling from his arm. Graham is, as Pederson remembers him, the team’s Energizer Bunny, intent on keeping the workday fun and light.
The longevity of the four surpassed even the expectations of those who were involved in drafting them, although that was not always assured. Kelce — who, teammates note, often limps through practice — admitted he contemplated retirement most seriously after Pederson was fired. Cox was briefly a free agent last offseason before the Eagles brought him back on a reduced deal. Johnson is playing through a painful torn adductor muscle. And Graham is Lurie’s primary example of resilience. The Eagles were booed when he was drafted with the 13th overall pick in 2010, one spot ahead of safety Earl Thomas. Graham did not make the instant impact fans expected of a first-rounder, but Lurie believes in the benefits of patiently letting players develop. Graham has rewarded Philadelphia since, most particularly this season, after he recovered from an Achilles’ tear and returned with a career-high 11 sacks.
But the rest was largely by design. Joe Banner, who spent 12 years as the Eagles president with Reid, said that in evaluating players, the team was especially focused at that time on finding extremely driven, high-I.Q. individuals who presented very little character risk. They had tried to project leadership ability, although Banner admits that is difficult to get right. Mission accomplished with Graham, Kelce, Cox and Johnson. Pederson said when he was fired, he heard from those four, who apologized for not doing more to help the team win. And when he was hired in Jacksonville, Pederson heard from them again, offering congratulations.
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