When Jim Schwartz was asked about Chris Long’s exploits on and off the field, he focused on the former because, he said, “You could probably spend two hours talking about” the latter.
The defensive coordinator then spent the next 30 seconds Thursday praising Long’s professionalism, his big-play prowess, and his two-sack performance in the Eagles’ win over the Texans last Sunday.
Schwartz is better-suited to discuss the defensive end’s on-field ability rather than his off-field character, and the disparity in how much time he said it would take to talk about the latter vs. how much he spent talking about the former wasn’t meant as a slight. But it was a backhanded compliment in the way some have come to view Long in the twilight of his career:
Humanitarian first, player second.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. And surely Long wouldn’t have a major problem with that categorization. The Eagles nominated him for the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year Award earlier this month, and he has publicly expressed how humbled he was to be recognized.
There might not be a player as universally liked in the Eagles' locker room, and it extends beyond his charity, leadership, and football lineage.
“Where he came up, who his dad [NFL Hall of Famer Howie Long] is, you expect him to be some type of person,” tackle Lane Johnson said. “And then, when you meet him, you realize he’s probably one of the most down-to-earth, probably the best personality-guy on the team.
“He’s had a lot of stuff that’s good in his life. He was drafted No. 2 overall, but he had to play in his dad’s shadow growing up and had a tough time in St. Louis. I think he just handled it all well.”
Writing a profile can be tricky. You go in with a basic premise, with questions built on that notion. Sometimes, the answers are supportive, and it ends there. Sometimes they aren’t. But there are also occasions when a more complex picture is being painted.
The idea here was to dive into Long’s role as a leader on the Eagles, particularly this season, in what could be his final year of playing football, with the Man of Year Award as a backdrop. And that is part of the story. But there’s more to Long, some that can be captured here, most that can’t in 2,500 words.
No matter how great his deeds or how positive the feedback, he doesn’t want to be venerated.
“I bust balls. I cuss all the time. I’m immature. I like to have a good time. All those things are true," Long said this week. "And you can care about other people, too. I’m just me, whatever that is. And that’s what kind of drives you a little crazy about the man-of-the-year stuff, too. I just never want to send the wrong message, even if that message is: I’m a better guy than I am.
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“When I think of man of the year, I think of [Eagles quarterback] Carson Wentz. I think of clean-cut, awesome, never had a bad intention. He’s just perfect. I’m a little rough around the edges.”
Long is proud of his philanthropic endeavors, from Waterboys, which has funded 53 wells and brought clean, accessible drinking water to nearly 200,000 people in need-based communities, to donating parts of his salary the last two years to educational programs in Philadelphia and other cities to which he’s been connected.
Football has provided him a platform to help his initiatives thrive, a fact he acknowledges when the subject of retirement is broached. But none of it would be possible if he wasn’t one hell of a player. And while he never said so, and teammates such as Johnson and center Jason Kelce could only speculate, Long doesn’t want his off-field accomplishments to overshadow his on-field ones.
He was a great player with the Rams, notching double-digit sacks in two seasons. But Long was like that tree that falls in a forest with no one around to hear it. In eight years in small-market St. Louis, he never experienced a winning season and was never voted to the Pro Bowl.
He’s had quite a second act, winning Super Bowls with the Patriots in 2016 and the Eagles in 2017. But Long did so as a supporting performer. His reputation had grown, but in considering last offseason whether he wanted to return for an 11th year, he wrestled with the idea of playing in a lesser role.
“I came back this year because I didn’t want to have to watch us making another run on TV or from another locker room,” Long said. “And I couldn’t leave Philly – the city. But it certainly wasn’t the perfect football situation for me. [Derek Barnett] getting hurt is why I’ve had more snaps.
“Was there times when I was looking at the roster and I’m like, ‘Where do I fit in?’ Even if I’m playing well, sometimes when you’re old, they just don’t use you. I don’t want to say there were better options, because I didn’t have any other options. I was under contract here, so it was retire or come back.”
The Eagles would eventually sweeten his contract by guaranteeing his 2018 salary. When executive Howie Roseman confirmed at the NFL owners' meetings in March that Long would return, it was clear that the 33-year old’s concerns were being addressed.
“I think sometimes there’s this perception that Chris is a hugely important part of the team because of what he does off the field, which is a big part of Chris Long," Roseman said. "He’s an unbelievable teammate.
"But, Chris Long is really productive. And when you go back and you watch our games against some of the best teams in football and the NFC, you look at the Rams game, you look at the Falcons game, you look at the Vikings game, you look at the Super Bowl -- the guy is getting consistent pressure on the quarterback.”
During the 2017 regular season, he recorded five sacks and 18 quarterback hits, and forced four fumbles, even though he played only 48 percent of the time. He didn’t notch a sack in three postseason games, but he had five hits and made arguably the most important defensive play in the NFC championship when he forced an interception that was returned for a touchdown.
He’s been even better this year, particularly after Barnett’s season ended with a torn rotator cuff after Week 7. In the Eagles’ first seven games, in which Long played 53 percent of the defensive snaps, he totaled one sack, one forced fumble, and nine hits. In the last eight games, in which he’s been on the field 63 percent of the time, he has 5 1/2 sacks, a forced fumble, and 11 hits.
In the win over the Texans, Long had two sacks, three hits, and he forced a fumble.
“It feels good. I’ve had plenty of games when I’ve rushed better than last week,” he said. “I don’t think people watch football intently up front to know what the hell’s going on. So, you really have to do something loud for people to know you’re there.”
The Eagles’ other 33-year-old defensive end also has benefited from more playing time. Michael Bennett recorded three sacks, five tackles for loss, and 14 hits in the first seven games, when he was playing 60 percent of the time. In the next eight games, in which he’s been on the field 74 percent of the time, he’s has five sacks, seven tackles for loss, and 14 hits.
Schwartz said he still believes that a steady rotation on the defensive line benefits older players, but he acknowledged that Long and Bennett, who have yet to miss a game, are meeting the challenge.
“Those guys know what time it is,” Schwartz said. “They know that they need to be available for their team.”
Will they be available next year? Long is under contract, but the year is voidable, and the Eagles may not like the cap number ($5.6 million). Bennett, who was acquired in a March trade, has two years left on his deal and has a $7 million cap figure for 2019.
The Eagles have other questions at defensive end. Barnett, a former first-round draft pick, will be back for his third season. But veteran Brandon Graham is slated to become a free agent. Discarding Long and/or Bennett, despite their age, could be costly.
“It’s up to the Eagles,” Bennett said. “But there’s a lot of jobs out there.”
Bennett has said that he wants to play in Philly again. Long has been noncommittal about his future, especially with the playoffs still a possibility.
“I’m trying to make that a February decision and not think about it,” Long said. “I feel good physically. I’m playing well.”
Long said that when he was drafted out of Virginia, he imagined he would play for only eight seasons. But he got hurt late in his time with the Rams and didn’t want to end his career that way. He had to start over, first playing in an unfamiliar scheme in New England and then as complementary piece in Philly.
When Long first signed with the Eagles, he had to share a locker stall. But it didn’t take long for players to gravitate to their new teammate. His positivity is infectious, they said. Receiver Nelson Agholor recalled when Long, not long after they met in OTAs, told him that he would be a big part of why the Eagles would win a Super Bowl.
Linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill said that Long is often the voice of encouragement after a particularly rough film session. Johnson said that Long is his spirit animal when he’s struggling.
“He easily influences people,” Johnson said. “People watch him and how he approaches stuff, his mannerisms, and just his personality, and they gravitate to it. It’s almost like, not a wrestler, but you know how a wrestler has all eyes on him? That’s just who he is when he walks into a room, and he’s not really trying.”
Walk into any NFL cafeteria, and you’ll often see tables divided by race or position. Johnson and Kelce are probably Long’s closest friends on the Eagles. He went to the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival with Johnson in June and vacationed in Grand Cayman with Kelce and his wife in February.
But Long will often eat with other groups. He crosses over because he’s relatable, his teammates said. Bennett and Long, for instance, have a self-described bromance.
“He has a sense of compassion and connection with everybody,” Bennett said, “and I think that’s really unique.”
He’s a leader by example and by word, teammates said. There are others who speak for the team, such as safety Malcolm Jenkins. But Long breaks the team down in the locker room before and after games. His messages resonate, his teammates said, because he captures the mood of the week.
“The best one was before we beat L.A. this year,” defensive tackle Fletcher Cox said. “He was telling us how everybody had written us off and how nobody in the world believed in us. Everybody outside the locker room would be shocked.
“And, after the game, he asked us that same question, ‘Are you all shocked we won the game?’ ”
Kelce said that effective leadership is being able to communicate across a societal spectrum while maintaining your core beliefs, something Long has done because he’s genuine and true to himself.
“Nothing comes off as if he has an agenda,” Kelce said. “He’s saying it because this is what he believes and what’s as simple as right and wrong. But he’s also not judgmental.
“It’s funny, considering where he grew up. I’m a big believer in kids being exposed to a lot of things growing up, and I feel like he grew up in very privileged Virginia. But he can still relate to everyone.”
Having a sense of humor helps. Long erected a shrine to quarterback Nick Foles late in the season because he wanted to lighten the mood in the locker room before an important game but to have some fun.
Foles was amused, because he and Long have a relationship that dates to their year in St. Louis. They have an inside joke about the dreadfulness of that season -- “I call it Earth City Magic," Long said, "because Earth City was where we went to practice every day -- Earth City, Missouri.” -- as opposed to the greener pastures of playing for the Eagles.
When music with a reggae beat starts playing, Long and Cox stare at each other as though they’re at a nightclub, and they start dancing.
Long isn’t quite the prankster he was with the Rams. He has a story about building small houses around rookies’ cars that required chainsaws, or one that involved linebacker James Laurinaitis’ Audi, bubble wrap, peanuts, and a thousand crickets. Helping with outrageous rookie haircuts has been about the extent of his mischief in Philadelphia.
But he tapped into the Philly psyche with his and Johnson’s dog-mask routine last postseason, and he adopted the team’s latest rallying symbol when he donned a ski mask and paced the sideline late in the Texans victory.
“I spent eight years on teams that were struggling year-round – 1-15, 2-14 – and if you don’t keep it light, you’re going to lose your mind,” Long said. “So, I think it’s just a habit. I don’t know any other way than to have fun, and I think, honestly, as far as teammates getting tight with each other, that’s what this thing is all about.
“You got to get to know the people in your locker room, and you got to have fun.”
And that also involves busting chops. Johnson’s favorite was when Long told Bennett, who had recently written the book, Things That Make White People Uncomfortable, that it should be titled, Things That Make White Pass Rushers Uncomfortable: Rushing Out of Lanes.
Long doesn’t just dish it out -- he can take it. Johnson said he teases Long about his left-wing politics and his willingness to argue on social media with those who disagree by calling him a “Twitter Politician.”
“He’s got a lot of his dad in him. But at the same time, he has a lot of his mother in him,” Johnson said. “She’s a lawyer. You know how he gets on Twitter. He doesn’t really care about what he says, but he tries to speak the truth no matter how people seem.
“Even the charity thing. People think that’s just for acclaim. But that’s just who he is. He likes seeing people happy.”
Long isn’t afraid to speak truth to power.
“I will work harder than other people off the field because I want to be productive,” Long said. “I’m not saying I’m the better person, I just think we’ve been more productive off the field than most people.”
He’s had the same approach and production on the field, and there hasn’t been as much acclaim. Maybe it’s because he never matched his father in football. A dime-store psychologist might suggest that Long is compensating.
But that probably wouldn’t be telling the whole story.