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

USA Today Images

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.

Roob's 10 observations: Wendell Smallwood's chances, Tom Brady-Nick Foles handshake, Bryce Brown's elite company

AP Images

Roob's 10 observations: Wendell Smallwood's chances, Tom Brady-Nick Foles handshake, Bryce Brown's elite company

Wendell Smallwood working his way back into the running back picture, the bizarre NFL career of Bryce Brown, Michael Bennett and Shakespeare, the handshake that never was and Brian Westbrook’s 2006 postseason.

Only one place you’re getting all this!

It’s all this week’s Roob’s 10 Random Eagles Observations, and it starts here:

1. It’s been interesting watching Wendell Smallwood this preseason. He’s a guy who when training camp began I didn’t give much of a chance to, only because he’s never been able to stay healthy and the Eagles went into camp with a deep, talented stable of backs. But while Matt Jones, Josh Adams and Donnel Pumphrey have been banged up and on and off the field, Smallwood has not only stayed healthy, he’s made the most of his reps. He looks terrific. I’ve always felt Smallwood is a talented kid. I wrote about him last week and how he spent the offseason learning how to take better care of himself, and so far it’s paying off. Much of making an NFL roster is simply handling the workload during camp and proving to your coaches that they can rely on you. And Smallwood hasn’t missed a rep. This preseason. Not one. So far he’s outlasted the other guys in that battle for the fourth running back spot behind Jay Ajayi, Corey Clement and Darren Sproles. Has he done enough? With a couple weeks before final cuts, it’s too early to say. But he’s definitely worked himself from the brink back into the mix.

2. I’ve been disappointed by Mack Hollins’ training camp. He’s one guy I expected to make a big leap in Year 2, and while he still might, he hasn’t flashed yet. Shelton Gibson and Bryce Treggs have both outplayed Hollins in practice. Hollins has that great size and is a valued special teamer and as a second-year fourth-round pick he’s probably got the team made. But I expected to see more. Treggs is another guy who was off the radar when camp began but has that great speed and keeps showing up at practice. And Gibson simply looks like a different guy from last year. The depth the Eagles have at wideout is insane. Guys like Rashard Davis, Greg Ward Jr. and DeAndre Carter probably have no shot to make the team, but once upon a time, they would have been starters around here.

3. Michael Bennett is an interesting dude. Someone in the locker room used the phrase, “All’s well that ends well,” and he said, “Where’s that phrase from?” I said it’s the name of a Shakespeare play, and he said, “A lot of people think Shakespeare wasn’t a real person.” I said, “Yeah, there’s a theory that he was three different people.” His response: “I’m three different people.” 

4. I know a lot of people think the whole “Tom Brady hasn’t shaken Nick Foles’ hand” thing is overblown, but it really bothers me. There are certain customs in sports that are there for a reason. Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback ever, and he should have sought out Nick either on the field immediately after the game or somewhere after the game — the lockers weren’t too far apart. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but sportsmanship means a lot to me. I know one thing: If the Patriots won that game, Nick Foles would have found Tom Brady, told him “Great job,” and shook his hand. 

5. Brian Westbrook’s 2006 postseason was insane. He rushed 20 times for 141 yards against the Giants and 13 times for 116 yards against the Saints. His average of 7.8 yards per carry is second-highest in NFL history in a single postseason (minimum 30 carries) behind Hall of Famer Marcus Allen’s 8.03 in 1983. He’s the only back in NFL history with back-to-back playoff games with 100 rushing yards, a 7.0 average and a touchdown. His 257 rushing yards are third-most in NFL history by a back in a two-game postseason (behind Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson in 1985 and Arian Foster in 2011). 

6. I love listening to Doug Pederson talk about why he’s so aggressive as a play caller. Because generally, he admits he really has no idea. I think it almost evolved by accident. He started going for it on fourth down in 2016 with nothing at stake and it started working, and he just felt comfortable doing it, and he just got in that habit, and the team got used to it and enjoyed it, and by the time the Super Bowl came along it had developed into his personality and the team was completely in step with him, and the success of the Philly Special was the product of that. You can’t run that play if you’re the least bit tight or indecisive, but the team had gotten so used to Pederson doing anything at any time in any situation it was just another play. The man is a genius.

7. Chip Kelly and Pederson have the same number of regular-season wins after two years. 

8. You figured that had to be wrong so you looked it up, didn’t you!

9. I’ve never seen an assistant coach grow as much as Frank Reich did in his two years with the Eagles. When he first started out as Doug’s offensive coordinator, he seemed to be painfully shy around the media, gave one-word or brief answers during press conferences and appeared generally uninterested in providing anything remotely revealing about football or the players he coached. By the time he left, he was one of the most interesting, insightful and quotable assistant coaches I’ve ever been around, and his commentary after the Super Bowl about Nick Foles’ performance was brilliant. I’m convinced this transformation had a lot to do with him getting the Colts head coaching job. Teams don’t want a head coach who can’t handle the media, and Frank in a very short time went from a guy who wasn’t comfortable in those situations to one who embraced them.

10. Bryce Brown had one of the strangest career arcs in Eagles history. He averaged 15 yards in his first 10 NFL games and 19 yards in his last 30 NFL games. In between, with LeSean McCoy injured, he ran for 178 yards on just 19 carries against the Panthers and 169 yards on 24 carries against the Cowboys, with two TDs in each game. Only three players in NFL history have had consecutive games with 165 rushing yards, a 7.0 average and 2 TDs — LaDainian Tomlinson, Barry Sanders and … Bryce Brown. Other than those two historic games in a seven-day span, he averaged 3.5 yards per carry and 18 yards per game. But for a brief bit of an otherwise forgettable 2012 season, he made NFL history. 

More on the Eagles

Eagle Eye podcast: Previewing second preseason game

USA Today Images

Eagle Eye podcast: Previewing second preseason game

On this edition of Eagle Eye, Derrick Gunn and Barrett Brooks discuss the likelihood of Carson Wentz not being healthy for the regular-season opener. Is this the best team Doug Pederson has had in Philadelphia? Also, how do players approach the second preseason game?

1:00 - Updating Carson Wentz's status.
4:00 - Guys still confident Wentz will start against the Falcons?
7:00 - Doug Pederson says this is the deepest team he's had.
10:30 - Doug Pederson and Nick Foles speak about preseason snaps.
15:00 - How do players approach the second preseason game?

Subscribe and rate Eagle Eye: Apple Podcasts / Google Play / Stitcher / Spotify / Art19

More on the Eagles