The Eagles had just been embarrassed by the Cowboys last month, and Carson Wentz afterward gave an impassioned speech that struck a chord with his teammates not only for its intensity, but for a few choice words the quarterback had used to punctuate his message.
Wentz, who normally substitutes creative words for profanity, was flipping mad and the expletives flowed out.
“I’ve heard him drop hell or something like that,” Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “But he dropped some significant words then and I was like, ‘Oh, OK, he means it.’ ”
Under most circumstances, when an NFL player curses, it hardly qualifies as meaningful. Cussing and football go together like praying and church. From the competitiveness of the sport to its physicality, from drill sergeant-like coaches to the frat-like atmosphere of a locker room, swearing is omnipresent.
“It’s a way to get out frustrations. It’s a way to communicate. It’s a way to be funny,” Eagles tackle Lane Johnson said. “It’s just a way of life around here.”
Cursing is so prevalent in the NFL, according to Eagles guard Brandon Brooks, that those who don’t do it stand out more than those who do. And they’re often identifiable because of the expressions they use in the place of cuss words.
Backup quarterback Josh McCown, most agree, is the most inventive. Flip, daggumit, shoot a mile are some of his favorites. He used holy buckets so often when he was with the New York Jets that some of his teammates had the phrase emblazoned on a T-shirt for him.
Wentz hasn’t adopted many of his fellow quarterback’s familiar phrases, but he uses alternative "F” words to replace the mother of all profanities.
“I’ve been trying to control my language for as long as I can remember,” Wentz said recently. “Really in college when I gained my faith, I was like, I got to start watching my tongue. But by no means am I perfect. You start feeling it and you say something else, something random.”
The Eagles have been mic’ing players this season for video segments on their website, and Wentz was chosen after the win over the Packers in September. Unlike Johnson or defensive end Brandon Graham, the team didn’t have to bleep him out because he used flipping and freaking when congratulating his teammates after touchdowns.
“I think some of the words can sound corny,” reserve quarterback Nate Sudfeld said, “but Carson has done a good job.”
But abstaining is about as hard as threading the needle between a safety and a corner, tackling Saquon Barkley in the open field, or kicking a game-winning field goal. And the cursers are often the first to egg on the non-cursers when they might be ready to blow.
“If a guy knows you’re mad, he’ll go, ‘Go ahead, say it. I know you want to,’ ” McCown said. “They’re just waiting for you to pop. You’ll do something bad and they’ll all look at you like, ‘What’s he going to say?’ ”
Of the more recent players, former Eagles offensive lineman Stefen Wisniewski might have been the only one his teammates said they never heard curse. Hall of Fame safety Brian Dawkins was about as intense as they come, but he hardly ever slipped, despite normal societal and peer temptations.
“The NFL is a microcosm of society,” Dawkins said during a telephone interview. “You’re going to have a bunch of guys use different language to make them feel like they have more control over a conversation or make more emphasis on their words or make them feel part of a crew.
“I just got to the point that none of that mattered more than my righteousness, me being more right standing with my heavenly Father. … When I get mad, I already know I’m not going to use specific words, and if I do, I’m going to repent right away.”
‘It’s how I talk’
Brooks, Johnson, center Jason Kelce and several other foul-mouthed Eagles said they have no such intentions.
“It’s how I talk. It’s how I’ve always been,” Brooks said. “I don’t mean any disrespect by it. Isn’t there a study out there that says people who curse tell the truth more often?”
There is. In 2017, researchers from the University of Cambridge, Maastricht University, Hong Kong University, and Stanford found that those who swear more are likelier to be honest people. They discovered, in their analysis, that if you filter your language, then you’re more likely to filter what you say; the opposite was the case for those who cussed.
“The study also says that people who curse are …,” a nearby Kelce joked, using an expletive. Of course, he was the one who produced the most notorious profanity-laced outburst in Philadelphia sports history in his speech after the Super Bowl parade.
Cursing might also help with pain. A study by Keele University researchers found volunteers who cursed at will could endure discomfort 50 percent longer than their clean-mouthed peers. They believed swearing helped downplay being hurt in favor of a more pain-tolerant manliness.
Injuries are as much a part of football as cursing, but most Eagles said they typically direct profanities at themselves when they make a mistake during practice or a game.
“More than anything, it’s always directed at myself in frustration,” McCown said. “I don’t know if I ever get as upset with others to get to that point as I am with myself.”
Receiver Mack Hollins said that he’s yelled at himself after dropped passes so loud and with such passion that nearby opponents thought they were the intended target. Cursing at a player from another team might draw a penalty for the instigator, but typically there is a warning.
“The ref might say, ‘No. 55, you need to be quiet!’ ” Graham said. “If you get a no-nonsense type of ref, it ain’t cool, he’ll tell me to be quiet because I’m always talking.”
Graham had about a dozen words muted during his four-minute mic’d-up segment after the Bills game. When he forced and recovered a fumble, half of his verbal reaction was inaudible. A proficient trash talker, Graham never cursed at his foes, though.
“Cursing’s not good trash talking because guys hear cussing all the time,” Hollins said. “You have to say something more slick.”
Many coaches have no such regard. Former Eagles assistants Jim Washburn and Howard Mudd used language so filthy during their first training camps in Lehigh that coach Andy Reid was forced to move defensive and offensive line drills farther from fans.
But most players said that getting cursed at by coaches decreases the higher the level. Doug Pederson tries to keep his profanity to a minimum, but he, too, admitted to losing his cool in moments of frustration, although it can be calculated.
“That’s where it sort of raises their eyebrows because when it comes from me, it’s like, ‘OK, he must be really mad or something’s going on,’ ” Pederson said. “I even tell the team all the time, I’m like, ‘Guys, you’re making me do something I’m very uncomfortable doing.’ ”
‘Hard to get away from’
Most cursing takes place in the locker room. Several years ago, the Eagles placed in large letters motivational words like leadership, passion, commitment, and respect above the stalls in their practice facility locker room. And while there are daily examples of those qualities, a gathering of 60-something young men often can lead to common-denominator behavior.
“We’ve been in locker rooms since high school most of our time, especially now,” linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill said. “And it’s just like a big fraternity. A lot of things are said that I’m probably not really proud of. You’re around a bunch of guys who have that kind of language, so it’s hard to get away from.
“It’s the nature of the beast.”
Tackle Jordan Mailata wanted to curtail his cursing. At the start of spring workouts, he said he placed a swear jar in his stall and each time he cussed he paid $1. He said he accumulated about $40 in about two weeks before giving up.
"I would probably be up to $1,000, to be honest,” Mailata said. “It’s not me outside of football. But the culture of the locker room, the culture of being out on the field training, you don’t really take that culture. You leave it here.”
It didn’t take long for Mailata, who was drafted in 2018 after playing rugby in his native Australia, to realize that the connotation of certain curse words from his country — a very naughty one, in particular — were much different than they were in America.
“The first time I said it here, everyone looked at me like, ‘Did he really say that?’ ” Mailata said. “I called somebody a stupid … out of frustration. But saying … isn’t a big thing back in Australia.”
Mailata proceeded to explain that the word could be taken as either a diss or a compliment.
“I like when he calls me it,” Johnson said. “He calls me a silly … all the time.”
Johnson’s probably the bluntest with his words, according to most Eagles. But he said his goal in cursing is often to make his teammates laugh, particularly before or after a difficult practice.
“It’s just like a big fraternity. A lot of things said that I’m probably not really proud of. You’re around a bunch of guys who have that kind of language, so it’s hard to get away from. ... It’s the nature of the beast.”
Johnson’s interviews with reporters are also often laced with profanities. The same applies to Brooks. Jenkins usually has the willpower of a politician in front of cameras and recorders. But when Orlando Scandrick publicly questioned his leadership after being released, Jenkins used a pejorative expression to describe his former teammate.
“I think the first few words that came out of my mouth were, ‘I don’t give two …,’ and then it was on,” Jenkins said. “It’s really hard to be intense and be mindful of every word that comes out of your mouth.
“I actually go into some of my speeches going, ‘OK, I’m going to try and not curse,’ and then by halfway through I’m so caught up in it, things just come out.”
The word that starts with the letter in between “E” and “G” is by far the most popular, on purpose or not.
“The F-word, it doesn’t have a price tag in here,” McCown said. “It is freely used. Hey, to each his own. It’s not how I try to go about it, but I’m not perfect either. It slips out.”
Dawkins said that cursing was part of his vernacular growing up in Jacksonville, Fla., and then in college at Clemson. But as he got deeper into his Christian faith, he began to question his motivations and the meaning behind his words.
“I can choose to use other words and have the same emphasis. If I give you a strong doggonit,” Dawkins said with exclamation, “that can get you going. I don’t need to use a curse word and I can get the same results. I can drop a real good fudge on you, but even that was pushing the limits for me.”
McCown said he picked up shoot a mile from his father. Flip came from one of his coaches long ago. Holy buckets was a favorite of his former offensive coordinator Mike Martz. Wentz called kicker Jake Elliott a son of gun after he booted the 61-yard field goal to beat the New York Giants two years ago.
“The funniest thing I’ve heard McCown say,” Brooks said, “is, ‘I’m hanging in there like an old sack of nuts.’ ”
Said Kelce: “I think guys that don’t curse are also not making that statement because it’s less about cursing and more about saying something provocative. You’re not going to hear him say, ‘Shove it up your butt.’ It’s not just about cursing, it’s about the intent behind the words, as well.”
But for Dawkins, McCown, Wentz, and others like them, it’s mostly about their beliefs.
“Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. That’s what the word of God tells me,” Dawkins said. “And so, when I’m in that impassioned state or that angry state, what’s in the heart is going to come out. So that means I need to clean what’s in my heart so that in those times of passion and exertion, what’s going to come out of me is uplifting things.”
But they’re only human. And it should be noted that since Wentz’s profane, postgame comments in Texas last month, the Eagles haven’t lost.
“I can get very fired up,” Wentz said. “It’s been a battle. … I’ve come a long way trying to control it, even when I’m legitimately just pissed off.”