Onus on Fletcher Cox, other Eagles to fill Brandon Graham energy void | Jeff McLane
Graham, the heartbeat of the team, is out for the season. So who are the Eagles in the best position to step forward as leaders?
Chris Long, like most NFL players — heck, most people — had days when going into work was low on his list of desires.
He’d shuffle into the Eagles’ training complex indifferent about the long hours ahead. The idea of practice, deep into training camp or the season or after a particularly physical outing, could be daunting — even for a player who was typically a pied piper to his teammates.
But leaders sometimes need to be inspired, as well. And as Long would enter the locker room at the NovaCare Complex and head toward the right middle where most of the defensive linemen had their stalls, there would be his motivation: Brandon Graham.
“You’d come in, maybe you’re not feeling it,” Long said, “and there’s BG sitting at his locker eating grits with his pads on at 8 in the morning. We’d still have a few hours till practice, but he’s ready to go. And always with a smile on his face.
“It may not seem like much, but it was infectious.”
Long deserved the bulk of the credit for his perfect attendance at practice during his two years in Philadelphia, but as the former defensive end acknowledged, Graham made showing up that much easier.
That wasn’t the only way Graham’s energy buoyed the Eagles, and hasn’t since Long retired after the 2018 season. For years, the 33-year-old defensive end has been the team’s engine on the field and off. His habits, positivity, and sense of humor have made him a franchise original.
But now he’s gone.
Graham’s season came to a crashing halt last Sunday, when he ruptured the Achilles tendon in his left leg. While the term heartbeat could be a cliche when used to describe the loss of a leader, it is an apt metaphor in this case.
For the first time in nearly 10 years, Graham won’t be in uniform or on the sidelines when the Eagles travel to Texas to face the Cowboys on Monday night. The team has already felt the loss.
“Every day it’s just somebody saying we miss him,” defensive tackle Javon Hargrave said Friday. “He brings the energy. He’s funny. He’s always positive and always pushing us. Even when you feel down and don’t feel like practicing, BG’s the one who lifts us up.
“It’s just every day you miss something about him.”
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Graham says he will do his best to positively impact the team when present. But after Monday’s surgery, he will be mostly bedridden for about four to six weeks. He can still attend meetings and be in the locker room when he returns, but there will be obvious detachment.
The Eagles should have enough horses to offset the loss on the defensive line. And there are others who will pick up the slack if there’s any lull in leadership. But there is unlikely to be anyone in the locker room who can match his vitality.
“The guy never has a ... bad day,” tackle Lane Johnson said. “Even after [last Sunday’s] game, there were people crying for him — I was teary-eyed for him — but he was in there smiling, laughing, and joking.
“He’s just different from everybody else.”
The notion of leadership, as it relates to team sports, can be nebulous. There isn’t one way to lead a group of individuals. And so, its importance can be overstated when compared with say, talent, coaching, or competition.
But what seems to be universally accepted is that good leaders remain true to their authentic self.
“Just know who you are,” defensive tackle Fletcher Cox said. “I know who I am.”
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Cox has been the obvious candidate to assume some of Graham’s leadership roles. Coach Nick Sirianni has focused almost exclusively on the veteran defensive tackle, and for obvious reasons. Cox is also a team-voted captain, he plays on the same side of the ball and with the same position group, and has clout because of his on-field accomplishments.
But he is generally subdued. Cox may speak up or call out effort when necessary — the infrequency enough to carry weight — but Graham had a way of constructively criticizing teammates without generating bitterness in return. It helped that he worked as hard as anyone.
“He’s been here longer than anybody else, and the way he practices, carries himself, and is full energy — there’s really no excuse for anybody else,” Johnson said of Graham. “If a guy who’s played that long can set that kind of example, it rises everybody else up.”
Some players are given leadership roles based upon production, position, salary, or other reasons even if there is little justification. Fans and media may make the wrong assumptions, or about what constitutes leadership, as well.
Cox, who has lined up and had the locker stall next to Graham for most of his career, may be the player most affected by his absence. He missed the first two practices this past week because of an unspecified illness, but Hargrave said the perennial Pro Bowler hasn’t changed much about himself this week.
“I’m going to just continue doing what I’m doing,” Cox said Friday, “and not do anything out of the ordinary to have my teammates even question me about doing extra stuff.”
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Sirianni mentioned Josh Sweat as another possible surrogate, but Hargrave’s description of the fourth-year defensive end as “goofy” would suggest he can offer assistance in keeping players light. Long proposed that another defensive end, one who is publicly introverted, could have influence behind closed doors.
“Don’t sleep on Derek Barnett,” he said. “Nobody works harder. He’s quiet, and he’ll speak up, and when he does, he’ll have something to say.”
Safety Rodney McLeod would be an obvious candidate. He broke the squad down pregame most of last season. But he has yet to return from a knee injury and is questionable for Monday night. Linebacker Alex Singleton was voted captain, mostly for special teams, but he has brought energy to the defense.
Cornerback Darius Slay is congenial and vocal, but often silly. Safety Anthony Harris and linebacker Eric Wilson project professionalism, but both are newcomers and could need time to build up capital.
On offense, center Jason Kelce is a captain, veteran, and long one of the best players on the team. It isn’t mandatory, but production is often a necessary component in leadership. Tight end Zach Ertz, running back Miles Sanders and Johnson may not be particularly vocal, but teammates follow their example.
Quarterback Jalen Hurts has received accolades from coaches and teammates on how he has handled himself, from last season’s backup awkwardness to this season’s promotion to starter. He carries himself with a quiet confidence. But he’s also young and has yet to establish his bona fides.
Like Cox, Hurts said he wouldn’t alter his identity for the sake of compensation.
“I’m going to continue to be the leader and player I am, and try and do my job and execute at the highest level,” Hurts said. “Affect the people around me the right way.”
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Someone will have to step in and assume Graham’s role in breaking the team down after pregame warmups. But most of what he brings to the Eagles — from his energy to whimsically calling every offensive lineman “fat boy” — simply can’t be replaced.
“The world knows that BG likes to talk smack from the first play of the game to the last play of the game — good or bad,” Cox said. “It’s going to be hard to match that. But we’ll bring it.”