It’s a strange week down at NovaCare.
Brandon Graham was talking about this on Wednesday, about how the Eagles have to try to win at Washington on Sunday in the regular-season finale while not getting wrapped up in how the Chicago Bears are doing at Minnesota, that game being played in the same time frame.
Chicago must win, as well, for the Eagles to claim the final NFC playoff slot. Otherwise, the defending Super Bowl champions’ season is over. One oddsmaker has tabbed the chance of both the Eagles and Bears winning at 20 percent.
So, everyone in the locker room knows this could be their last week together, as much as they want to avoid talking about it, as much as they want to stay focused on the task at hand.
Graham first entered the NovaCare Complex as a first-round pick during 2010’s draft weekend, smiling, bouncing around, shaking the hands of every reporter he encountered. He remains one of the most approachable and candid players on the team, willing to acknowledge what sits heavily in the back of his mind.
Graham, a pending free-agent defensive end who turns 31 in April, said he is hoping that if the team makes the playoffs and does well, management might be more inclined to bring him back than has so far been apparent. If not, he hopes he gets a chance to make his proper goodbyes.
Nine seasons is an eternity in the NFL, where the seasons fly by like dog years. Graham has played with Kevin Kolb, Michael Vick, Matt Barkley, Sam Bradford, Mark Sanchez and both versions of Nick Foles. Graham’s mentor was Trent Cole. He played in a 4-3 and suffered a serious rookie-year knee injury under Andy Reid and Jim Washburn, with Washburn reluctant to put him on the field when he returned, then played in a 3-4 for Chip Kelly and Bill Davis, and in a 4-3 again when Doug Pederson and Jim Schwartz arrived.
Earlier this year, Graham said he hears himself saying the same things to rookie defensive end Josh Sweat that Cole used to say to him, about being careful with money and staying out of trouble off the field.
“I feel good where I am [in my career],” Graham said Wednesday. “I’m just excited because I was able to bring a ring to Philly. Hopefully, because it’s not over, another one [lies ahead] … My heart is always going to be with this city. I’m going to be here anyway,” because he intends to build a life in the area after football.
Graham is in the final season of a four-year, $26 million deal signed in March 2015, when he hadn’t established himself as a premier talent, and Kelly was getting rid of players drafted by Howie Roseman. Graham said Wednesday he thought he was going to be traded or cut after the 2014 preseason, but Travis Long, an undrafted 2013 rookie the Kelly regime liked, tore an ACL in the final preseason game. Graham then did enough that season to merit a new contract. In 2015, he started more than half the games for the first time.
“I see a lot of guys come and go,” Graham said. “Me and Riley Cooper [also drafted in 2010] used to say, ‘Man, we’re still here, still trucking.’ Now I’m the only one still standing.” Cooper exited in 2015. “I don’t take it for granted, at all,” Graham said.
Spotrac.com, using contracts of what it deems to be comparable players, pegs Graham’s market value at $15.8 million a year, more than double the $7 million he will make this season. The cap-strapped Eagles are unlikely to come up with anything in that range for him. But Graham knows there are perils in leaving a place where you have earned your stature, where the relationship with management is long and enduring, through ups and downs.
Graham is friends with Larry Foote, a fellow Michigan alum who played 13 NFL seasons, 11 of them with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Foote is now the Cardinals’ linebackers coach.
“Working out with Larry Foote, he used to always say, ‘Try to stay with Philly as long as you can, ‘cause as soon as you start bouncing, that’s when you get out of the league,’ ” Graham said. He said he has seen this happen, even with Cole, who played 155 Eagles games, followed by 21 in Indianapolis before he retired.
“For me, I want to be here as long as I can,” said Graham, who strip-sacked Tom Brady last Feb. 4 to help seal the franchise’s first championship in 57 years.
Graham played that game with a high ankle sprain that eventually required surgery, causing him to miss OTAs, training camp and the preseason. Last year, he led the team with a career-high 9.5 sacks. This year he has just four, though Pro Football Focus credits him with 52 hurries, which it rates as tied for first in the NFL with Buffalo’s Jerry Hughes.
“We’re about to make a run,” Graham said. “I feel like we’re about to win this game and the universe is going to help us get this thing.
“Obviously, I haven’t cleaned out my locker, because I’m feeling real good about my chances. We’ll see what happens. I’m not going to worry myself about it, because I understand it’s a business.”