It weighed on Zach Ertz.
In fact, all you need to say is “Vontaze Burfict” and we all know what you’re talking about. There’s a reason why during what he thought was his goodbye press conference in January, Ertz brought up the play from 2016 on his own.
You remember the one.
Ertz, then in his fourth year, passed up on a chance to block a charging Burfict in the first quarter of an eventual loss in Cincinnati, side-stepping out of the way. That game ended up being a low point in the Doug Pederson era and that play became attached to Ertz like a scarlet letter as some kind of faulty evidence of a lack of toughness.
Forget the fact that the block wouldn’t have altered the play, forget the fact that Ertz ended up with 79 yards and a touchdown that day, forget the fact that he had already returned that season from a painful displaced first rib. He was soft because he didn’t block Burfict.
Last January, Ertz remembered that incident as the moment “when everyone wanted me fired or benched.”
That didn’t happen, of course. Instead, Ertz went on to have a magical three-year run after that moment and vowed to respond in a way that would show how tough he was and how much he belonged in a city that embraced that toughness. He did.
The Eagles traded Ertz on Friday. And he leaves behind him an incredible legacy.
Instead of being remembered as the guy who sidestepped that block in Cincinnati, he’ll be remembered as a guy who used that as fuel to become one of the greatest players in franchise history.
Ertz was criticized for that play and it got to him. But he didn’t pout, he didn’t ask for a trade, he just wanted to be better.
He got Philly.
“In society today, I think a lot of people want to be told how good they are and it’s just not the case. It’s not reality,” Ertz said on Friday. “It’s OK to be told that you’re not playing great. It’s OK to be told that you need to be better and in reality no one should have to tell you that as a professional athlete. I could tell myself if I played well or if I didn’t play well. I could tell you exactly how the fans are going to react based on how I played. I know.
“So for me it’s just what it is. You can’t take it for more than what it is. These people love their team, they love the Eagles, they love their players. This city loves their players. And they want to see us succeed as much if not more than we want to succeed."
The very next week after that Bengals game, Ertz caught 10 passes for 112 yards. It was just the fourth 100-yard game of his career. And there were more highs to come.
Ertz had a very good 2016 season but he was named to three consecutive Pro Bowls from 2017-19. He had at least 70 catches, 800 yards and 6 touchdowns in three consecutive seasons, becoming one of just five tight ends in NFL history to pull that off, joining Antonio Gates, Jimmy Graham, Tony Gonzalez and Greg Olsen. He finishes his Eagles career second all-time in receptions, just 10 behind Hall of Famer Harold Carmichael.
As the Eagles made their Super Bowl run at the tail end of the 2017 season, it was the memory of that Burfict play and the criticism that followed that fueled Ertz, especially as he picked up a huge conversion in the fourth quarter against the Falcons in the divisional round.
"I still hear that stuff from the Cincinnati game last year. Two years ago, it would have [eaten] me up,” Ertz said in January 2018. “Living in the city, you're going to develop some extremely tough skin, what I've learned. And I've rallied around the guys in the locker room, and they have definitely changed the way I look at life over the past year or so.
“So obviously that week was not easy for me. But it's something that I've embraced, something that definitely changed my outlook of the game and I'm definitely a better player because of it."
A few weeks after Ertz said that he was diving into the end zone at U.S. Bank Stadium for the go-ahead touchdown in Super Bowl LII. He still has that game-winning touchdown football; not a bad souvenir.
A couple years after that, Ertz played in a playoff game just two weeks after suffering broken ribs, cartilage damage and a lacerated kidney. He wasn’t himself in his final playoff game as a member of the Eagles, but he desperately wanted to be out there.
“The standards are so high for a reason,” Ertz said Friday. “The fans care so much and it’s tough for some people, but I loved it and that was the bottom line. I loved playing here. I didn’t care if I got booed. I didn’t care if I got said bad things on a Monday after a terrible game on Sunday because I knew I was going to be in here Monday early catching JUGS machines if I had a couple drops or working on blocking if I missed a block, and that’s all I cared about, was trying to get better and be the best player I could.
“The legacy stuff, that’s for you guys. I just know I did my best each and every day to be the best player I could and I could walk out of the door today obviously emotional but content that everything that we’ve done here.”
That’s how Ertz will be remembered.
That Burfict play? It was a negative at the time but Ertz turned it into something incredible. From that point on, he ended up being one of the toughest and one of the best players to ever come through Philadelphia.
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