He’s the unsung hero of Zach Ertz’s return to the Eagles, a return that seemed awfully improbable just a few months ago.
Let’s be honest. Ertz belongs here. He’s an all-time great Eagle, a record-setting tight end, a dude who wears his heart on his sleeve and loves this franchise and this city so much that he broke down crying in a press conference in January talking about the prospect of leaving.
But he belongs here not just because of the legendary plays in the Super Bowl or the 561 receptions or the three Pro Bowls, but because the Eagles are a better team with No. 86 in an Eagles uniform. And Jalen Hurts is a better quarterback when he has a 3rd-and-5 machine to throw to.
This all seemed like such a long-shot when last season ended. No way he’d be back.
Ertz was bitter at the front office for a contract negotiation that turned ugly, he felt disrespected by Howie Roseman, he made it clear he wanted out and if a premium draft pick was offered up, Roseman presumably would have pulled the trigger on a trade.
The months went by. Nothing happened.
Then Ertz had a terrific training camp, and when he spoke Wednesday, he seemed happy — even overjoyed — to be coming back for a ninth season here.
And it’s fair to wonder how we got to this point.
Remember this name: Jason Michael.
Michael played for legendary Jack Harbaugh at Western Kentucky and quarterbacked the Hilltoppers to the 2002 NCAA Division 1-AA national title. He’s been an NFL assistant for 16 of the last 17 years, and when Nick Sirianni got the Eagles’ head coaching job he brought Michael with him from Indy.
"In my opinion we've got the best tight end coach in the NFL in Jason Michael," Sirianni said Tuesday.
Michael and Ertz had never met before this spring. They had no relationship.
But soon after Michael got here, he began calling Ertz just to talk football and make sure Ertz knew how much he wanted to work with him.
“For me, I just want to make sure that those lines of communication are open,” Michael said in June. “I respect Zach Ertz as a player. … I have great respect for him. He’s played winning football at a high level for a long time.
“I look forward to an opportunity to work with him, hopefully, as it goes forward. Just want to make sure that there’s communication there."
That was the first we heard of any communication between the Eagles and Ertz, who skipped the Eagles’ spring minicamps.
And it turned out to be a critical step in the Eagles and Ertz mending relations.
It shouldn’t be surprising that one of Sirianni’s coaches was so proactive about keeping the lines of communication open with a disgruntled player. Sirianni is a big believer in communication and connecting.
One of his first major achievements as head coach here was convincing the veteran players — who had already announced they were skipping minicamps — to participate in a series of scaled-down spring workouts.
For a rookie coach to reach guys like Fletcher Cox, Jason Kelce and Brandon Graham is impressive. And for a new position coach to connect so quickly with a three-time Pro Bowler like Ertz is impressive as well.
Michael didn’t know Ertz. Ertz didn’t know Michael. But they found some common ground, and those spring-time conversations were at least part of a massive thaw in relations between the Eagles and one of their all-time greats.
A thaw that led to him spending his ninth season with the Eagles.
It speaks awfully highly of Michael that in literally his first few weeks on a new job he was able to make such a difference.
“A lot of people had raved about him, particularly Trey Burton, one of my best friends — he was in my wedding — and he loves the guy,” Ertz said Wednesday. “And he’s been so good for me mentally during this time.”
Coaching is about X’s and O’s, it’s about teaching technique, it’s about figuring out what the team on the other sideline is thinking.
But it’s also about people, and when you have good people in your building, something like this can happen.
No matter how unlikely it once seemed.
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