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.