Eagles' deep leadership group huge reason behind 6-1 start

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Eagles' deep leadership group huge reason behind 6-1 start

Before the season began, Eagles players chose five captains — two players on offense, two from the defense, and one for special teams. At the time, their choices seemed obvious: quarterback Carson Wentz, left tackle Jason Peters, defensive end Brandon Graham, safety Malcolm Jenkins and special teams ace Chris Maragos.

Looking back on it, any number of players would’ve been worthy of votes. Middle linebacker Jordan Hicks. Tight ends Brent Celek or Zach Ertz. Running back and punt returner Darren Sproles. Right tackle Lane Johnson, or center Jason Kelce. The list goes on.

When you stop and think about it, this Eagles' squad has tremendous leadership. From top to bottom, across the board, in every phase of the game, in every position room, there are veterans, free-agent newcomers and young players alike demonstrating supreme accountability.

The leadership on this team has been second to none — and it absolutely is a huge reason why the Eagles’ record is 6-1 right now.

“It’s valuable because you have a bunch of guys who challenge each other every day in practice,” Graham said Wednesday. “It’s not just one guy telling a whole bunch of guys. It’s one guy, two guys here kind of coming up with their own little thing on how they’re going to make practice a lot better and take them to the next level.”

Graham is in his eighth season with the Eagles. He’s been a part of some playoff teams, in 2010, ’11 and ’13. He’s also been through 4-12 and 7-9 seasons that brought about coaching changes. He’s been through highs and lows with the organization, but Graham does see some differences, specifically with regard to the mindset this group approaches their jobs.

“Looking back, I feel like there’s a lot more conversations going on other than negative things,” Graham said. “I’m not saying it was negative in the back, but I don’t hear too much when we’re going out to practice.

“People are like, ‘Oh man, I feel a little sore,’ but once practice starts going, I couldn’t tell that that guy was sore because of how he came to work. That makes our job easy because we don’t have to start over a lot of things, we can keep going. That’s what I like.”

In recent weeks, the Eagles have lost quite a few veteran leaders to season-ending injuries. Captains Peters and Maragos are both down for the year, as are Hicks — the quarterback of the defense — and Sproles. For a lot of other franchises, replacing the talent on the field would not be the only concern.

But as Jenkins explains, there’s less pressure than ever on some of the captains or most visible leaders in the locker room.

“I think the biggest thing now is you’ve got this micro-leadership, where even your younger players who might only be in their second or third year have a form of ownership on the team, and a form of leadership in some capacity,” Jenkins said.

Jenkins maintained the Eagles have always had strong leadership since he arrived as a free agent in 2014. However, there’s clearly less to worry about with so many self-motivated personalities together in the same room.

“You have your leaders that are at the top, but not everybody’s looking for them for answers,” Jenkins said. “Everybody’s invested. Everybody’s bought in. Different guys are stepping up at different times, so that leadership role has been spread.”

Second-year running back Wendell Smallwood is one of those young players that’s taken it upon himself to be accountable to his teammates. He recalled what it was like walking into a veteran Eagles' locker room a a rookie, and how it quickly changed his program.

“It was a lot of pressure on me, honestly,” Smallwood said. “Being around the guys and knowing all they put in, and not wanting to disappoint these guys who are putting in that hard work every day.

While the running backs room still have another seasoned-veteran in LeGarrette Blount to help ease the blow, Sproles’ injury was unquestionably a hit to the unit’s and team’s leadership. Yet, from the moment Smallwood arrived, Sproles — a 13-year NFL veteran — was also setting an example of how to be a professional.

It’s an example that clearly took for Smallwood. Looking at the rest of the Eagles' roster, it appears the example Jenkins has set for a young cornerback like Jalen Mills has taken as well. Or the example Peters set for Lane Johnson years ago. Or the example Maragos set for special teams units often built with kids who are just breaking into the league.

Micro-leadership, as Jenkins described it.

“We’ve been working together, and I think it’s just you don’t want to let the next man down,” Smallwood said. “You want to be able to be someone who they can count on it, and not guys looking back, like, ‘Can I trust him to do this? Can I trust him to do that?’

“It’s just confidence everyone has in the other player and the other guy to make their play and be able to focus on just doing your job. It’s been working well.”

Jenkins played for a championship team with the Saints as a rookie in 2009. Wide receiver Torrey Smith, who signed with the Eagles this past offseason, also won a Super Bowl with the Ravens in 2012. These are players who have witnessed firsthand the kind of leadership it takes to win football games in January and beyond.

“When I was in Baltimore, I was a baby,” Smith said. “We had Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Haloti Ngata, Terrell Suggs — I mean, it was crazy leadership there.

“But this locker room, and I said that as soon as I came here, this is a really good locker room, really balanced, a lot of guys who are here for the right reasons is what it seems. That’s definitely one of the strengths of this team.”

Although, even players who have spent their entire career with the same organization can see this has become a strength. Just ask Celek, the Eagles’ longest-tenured player with 11 seasons under his belt.

“I think we just have a lot of guys that like to compete and play hard for each other,” Celek said. “You need that having a good team.”

The Eagles’ front office has certainly done an outstanding job of bringing in the right kind of players and people over the past few years — the organization’s “culture,” as Chip Kelly used to say. When you have self-motivated people like Wentz breaking the huddle on the field and leading by example off of it, great leadership happens organically.

That being said, multiple players interviewed also pointed to coach Doug Pederson’s influence over this Eagles' roster as a reason for the tremendous leadership as well.

“I love the attitude of this team, and that’s a credit to Coach,” Graham said.

“I just think it’s the second year in a culture with Doug and what he’s been able to do,” Jenkins said. “Obviously, the maturation process is really taken place, and you have a team that’s stable and poised.”

From the coaching staff to the locker room, from Wentz to the 53rd player on the roster, there is an air of accountability with this Eagles team. It’s already taken them far seven weeks into the season. Injuries or not, this team exhibits the kind of steady mindset that could carry them a lot further.

No surprise, Schwartz-Belichick, and more in Roob's observations

No surprise, Schwartz-Belichick, and more in Roob's observations

Some Zach Ertz, some Vinny Curry, some Jim Schwartz and lots of Nick Foles in Tuesday's edition of Roob’s 10 random Eagles Super Bowl observations!

1. Foles didn’t play the last five weeks of 2015. He started one game last year for the Chiefs. He hurt his elbow on the first day of training camp. He didn’t play a single snap in the preseason. He threw four passes the first 12 weeks of this season. So when Foles replaced Carson Wentz on Dec. 10 in Los Angeles, he had barely played any football for two years, and he had never practiced or played with Alshon Jeffery, Torrey Smith and Nelson Agholor. Of course it was going to take some time for Foles to develop a comfort level with his receivers and just a comfort level feel for playing quarterback in the NFL again. But what he’s done the last two weeks shouldn’t be that shocking. We all saw 2013. Different offense but same skill set. It was not a fluke. You don’t put up those kind of numbers if you don’t have tremendous ability, and Foles historically has been very accurate and thrown very few interceptions. What he’s proven these last two weeks is that he can be accurate and secure with the ball under the pressure of the postseason against very good opponents. It just took a while to get there, which is understandable. 

2. Curry officially has three tackles and no sacks in the Eagles’ two playoff wins, and I think he’s playing absolutely the best football of his life. Forget the numbers. Curry has been so disruptive in these wins over the Falcons and Vikings, generating tremendous pressure on the quarterback and holding his own against the run. Curry is listed with four hurries in the postseason, but even that doesn’t convey just how relentless he’s been. He doesn’t get the notoriety of Brandon Graham, Fletcher Cox or Tim Jernigan, and I’m sure he’s disappointed he had only three sacks during the regular season. But he’s playing fantastic football right now.

3. Remember when “Zach Ertz doesn’t get yards after the catch” was a thing? Man, he’s shut a lot of people up this year, hasn’t he? He was massive Sunday. Guy’s a beast.

4. Schwartz spent 1992 coaching linebackers at Colgate and that offseason he landed an internship doing research for the Cleveland Browns’ coaching staff. The Browns’ head coach? Bill Belichick. Schwartz talked about Belichick Tuesday but made it clear his years alongside the Patriots’ head coach are irrelevant now: “I owe a lot to Bill Belichick,” Schwartz said. “He got my career started. The first three years of my NFL career were with him in Cleveland. But that's the last thing that any of these players [care about]. You think any of our players care that in 1993 I got hired as an unpaid intern? Do you really think that they think that's going to [make a difference?] They are just going out and playing.”

5. It blows my mind that Foles has now won more playoff games in an Eagles uniform than Randall Cunningham.

6. We all tend to think of Tom Brady as being unbeatable in the postseason, and that 27-9 career playoff record is imposing. But keep in mind the Patriots usually have the No. 1 seed and Brady rarely has to play away from the friendly confines of Gillette Stadium. In Foxboro, Brady is 19-3 in the postseason with an eight-game winning streak. Outside Foxboro? Brady has actually played only one postseason road game the last 11 years — he lost in Denver in 2013. And in his career, he’s 3-4 in the postseason on the road and 5-2 at neutral sites (also known as Super Bowls). So that means Brady is 19-3 in the playoffs in his career at home but 8-6 outside of Foxboro, which is still very good but definitely not quite as imposing.

7. I was just thinking Mike Trout is from Millville, New Jersey. Wonder if he’s an Eagles fan (see story).

8. The more I re-watch Sunday’s game, the more I feel like Doug Pederson’s play-calling might have been the best I’ve ever seen. That was one of the most dominating defenses of the past decade that came to South Philly Sunday night, and Pederson had an answer for everything (see story). He kept the Vikings off balance, he was aggressive from the start, he used all the Eagles’ weapons and he didn’t let up on the gas as the lead kept growing. I really felt like the Vikings weren’t all that interested in playing football by the middle of the third quarter. The Eagles took their heart away, and a ton of the credit for that goes to Pederson.

9. The Eagles are 17-3 since their five-game losing streak last year.

10. Let’s put Foles’ two playoff games completing 77 percent of his passes into perspective: Every Hall of Fame quarterback combined has had four total postseason performances since 1950 completing 77 percent of his passes with no interceptions (minimum of 20 attempts). Foles just did it twice in nine days. Astonishing.

Mike Trout predicts Super Bowl pain for Tom Brady

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Mike Trout predicts Super Bowl pain for Tom Brady

Mike Trout hasn't decided if he will travel to Minneapolis to watch his beloved Eagles play the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LII. Trout said he enjoys staying at home and watching the game on television with his family. (There's something cool about that.) He also digs the commercials.

Wherever baseball's best — and highest paid — player decides to watch the game, he will have one important accessory with him: his dog mask. The same one he wore at Lincoln Financial Field during the Eagles' trouncing of the Minnesota Vikings in Sunday's NFC Championship Game.

"I will definitely be wearing that dog mask," Trout said during a conference call with reporters Tuesday. "Gotta ride with it."

Eagles tackle Lane Johnson gave Trout the dog mask that has come to symbolize the Eagles' place as an underdog in the playoffs and again in the Super Bowl. The Eagles have come to relish that status.

"A lot of people doubted them," Trout said. "They lost the majority of their captains and starters (to injury), but they're still fighting. Next-man-up mentality."

Even some of Trout's teammates with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim doubted the Eagles. But no more.

"They give me grief all the time," Trout said. "Now they're all rooting for them. Throughout the season, there were a lot of ups and downs. But now we're going to the Super Bowl."

Trout, of course, was raised and still lives in Millville, New Jersey, less than an hour's drive from Philadelphia. He grew up a fan of all the Philly teams and, in fact, was in the parking lot outside of Citizens Bank Park celebrating with friends the night the Phillies won the World Series in 2008.

Trout, 26, is a season-ticket holder with the Eagles and a close friend and hunting buddy of Carson Wentz. Trout, who saw his first Eagles game back in the Veterans Stadium days, was able to visit with several Eagles players after Sunday's big win over the Vikings.

"I told them to go get it," he said. "Obviously, there hasn't been a Super Bowl champion in Philadelphia. I told them to go get it."

Trout recalled watching Super Bowl XXXIX more than a decade ago. The Patriots beat the Eagles, 24-21, in that one.

Trout sees a different Eagles team in the rematch.

"This team is just a little bit different," he said. "They want to win and it's not just one guy carrying them. Every guy has a part in it."

Trout's buddy, Wentz, won't be playing in the Super Bowl. He may have been on his way to the NFL's MVP award hadn't he been knocked out by a season-ending knee injury in December. Nick Foles has taken over and been at the helm for two playoff wins.

In six spectacular seasons in the majors, Trout has won two American League MVP awards and finished second three times. (That's why he will make $34 million in 2018.) He finished fourth in the voting in 2017 and would have finished higher if he hadn't missed significant time with a thumb injury that required surgery. He feels for Wentz, who has to watch from the sidelines.

"It's definitely difficult," Trout said. "I went through it last year. It's tough for him. I thought he was the MVP. It was hard to watch when he went down. But he's working hard. He's walking. I'm sure he'll be ready for next season.

"What he did on the field this season was amazing, and now Nick has stepped up."

Tuesday's conference call was set up by the Angels' media relations department because of the large demand to speak with Trout, who has emerged as the Eagles' most visible fan, woofing and pumping his fist in triumph with the rest of the fans at the Linc. Trout said he'd never heard the place louder than it was as Patrick Robinson ran back that game-turning pick-six in the first quarter Sunday night.

Philadelphia fans dream of a day when they will be cheering for Trout rounding the bases in a Phillies uniform. He is signed through 2020. His free agency is not that far away.

As always, Trout deflected a question about whether he could see himself playing in Philadelphia someday.

"I'm an Eagles fan," he said. "Obviously, I grew up a Philly sports fan. I love playing in Anaheim. I have a couple more years on my contract. I love Anaheim and the West Coast."

That wasn't exactly a no.

Trout was more direct when asked about what he expected in the Super Bowl.

"It's going to be tough," he said. "Anybody that goes against Tom Brady is going against the best and maybe greatest of all time.

"I still think the Eagles will pull it out and they're going to win, 31-24."

And the decisive play will be?

"An interception of Brady," Trout said.