Sixty-six players accepted the NFL’s offer to opt out of the season because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many more deliberated long and hard before making the decision to return.
You might think Jason Kelce was a member of that second group.
“For myself and my family, there wasn’t too much discussion about it,” said the 32-year-old Eagles center, who is entering his 10th season in the league. “We kind of already knew that we were going to go back and try to do this thing.
“In my opinion, I feel like I have a responsibility not just to my family but to this entire organization and to all of the people who have gone to great lengths to put this thing together and try to make it happen.
“That’s not to say anything [negative] about anybody who made the decision to opt out. I completely understand all of that. And if I was in a situation where medically there was some additional risk to me or my family, we might be having a totally different discussion.”
He has a 9-month-old daughter at home. He has more money than he’ll ever need. He has a Super Bowl ring. He’s been a first-team All-Pro selection each of the last three seasons. He could walk away from the game today with no regrets.
But he needed to get back. For a lot of reasons, he needed to get back.
“For a year that’s been so different for every American, coming back and getting back into a meeting room where I’ve heard [offensive line coach] Jeff Stoutland install inside zones 85 times in my life, getting back to some semblance of normalcy has been therapeutic in some regards,” Kelce said.
“This whole experience has really made me appreciate just how awesome it is to come in here and be able to work with a group of people and a group of teammates. Yeah, it’s just been awesome.”
The NFL’s new normal is very different from the old normal, thanks to masks and social distancing. Daily COVID testing. Constant temperature scans. Beepers you carry around that go off if you get too close to another person. Wearing masks everywhere, including the weight room.
Kelce admitted that all of the COVID restrictions make it difficult to connect with teammates. But the alternative is to not play.
“I completely understand the parameters that are in place to keep us safe,” he said. “Unfortunately, it comes somewhat at the expense of personal connections and the ability to talk to new guys and to forge relationships.
“It’s not as easy when somebody is covering half their face with a mask, as everybody has found out throughout the past year.‘'
Masks or no masks, Kelce is in the process of trying to forge a critical new relationship with an old friend – nine-time Pro Bowler Jason Peters.
With right guard Brandon Brooks out for the season with an Achilles injury, the Eagles have moved the 38-year-old Peters from left tackle to Brooks’ spot. Peters never has played guard. Andre Dillard, the team’s 2019 first-round pick, will start at left tackle.
“It’s been really fun working with Jason,” Kelce said. “We’ve played nine years together at center and left tackle. Now, playing right next to him and ironing out details that go with playing next to somebody, like what happens with your footwork and how you’re going to hit a specific block, and what you’re thinking on this play and how you’re thinking of attacking this, these are all things that we’re going to continue to iron out during training camp.”
An offensive line is made up of five individual players who, regardless of their talent level, must be able to play as one cohesive unit. That wasn’t always the case last season.
Peters, Kelce, Brooks, and right tackle Lane Johnson have a combined 18 Pro Bowl invitations. Yet, the Eagles finished only ninth in fewest sacks per pass play last season and quarterback Carson Wentz had 16 fumbles, which were the second-most in the league.
“If there’s one area where I felt I struggled last year, it was passing off games in pass-pro,” said Kelce, referring to stunts and twists and other pass-rush ploys by defenses. “We saw quite a bit of that last year.
“There weren’t many instances where any of us got beat one-on-one much. But there were a lot of instances of us needing to pass off games just a little bit quicker and just a little bit better. That will make a big difference in our ability to protect Carson.”
Besides Peters learning a new position, there also is the matter of Dillard’s readiness to be the starting left tackle. Dillard played 346 snaps and made four starts as a rookie. He had his ups and downs.
The 6-3, 320-pound Washington State product is extremely athletic. But there were questions about his strength, toughness, and temperament. He often got thrown around by bigger, stronger defensive linemen and edge rushers.
But Kelce said Dillard added needed weight and strength in the offseason.
“His weight-room numbers have been very impressive,” he said. “He’s really taken advantage of the offseason. Especially one like this. Now, it’s just a matter of him getting out there and getting the technique things honed in. That’s where he really needs to take the next step.