He left the field like he owned it. He left the field like a king.
As he should.
Fletcher Cox rolled out of Lincoln Financial with his right index finger raised, and he received the loudest ovation of them all. Eagles fans know what they’re watching. They recognize greatness.
Cox had led the Eagles over the Chicago Bears, 22-14. The Bears’ best player is edge rusher Khalil Mack, but Khalil Mack was the second-best player in the stadium Sunday.
“Khalil’s a great player. An All-Pro," Cox said. "He always plays on another level. He’s different.”
I asked him, “Who else is different?”
“I’m different,” he replied.
It’s true. And when he’s different, which is when he’s healthy, the Eagles are their best. He was different in Sunday’s game, in which the defense allowed the Bears 164 yards of offense, almost 42 percent less than usual, and held them to four points fewer than their average, 32 percent less than their average.
When Cox is right, the Eagles are right, because he is their best player. Not quarterback Carson Wentz, and not tight end Zach Ertz, and not linemen Lane Johnson or Brandon Brooks. It’s Cox, and it’s not close. They’ve won without Carson. They cannot win without Cox. They haven’t had a defensive player this dominant since Reggie White. Sorry, Dawk.
Cox, 28, has been to the last four Pro Bowls and was a first-team All-Pro last year, when he collected 10 1/2 sacks. But after offseason foot surgery cost him the preseason, he wasn’t himself in the first six games. One NFL source said that due to the nature of Cox’s foot injury, the Eagles weren’t sure if Cox would fully recover at any point this season.
He roared back last week at Buffalo, with 1 1/2 sacks and six tackles. He was even better Sunday against the Bears.
On the first play of the game, Cox shed a block and lunged backward to tackle running back David Montgomery. He timed the next snap perfectly and pushed Montgomery toward Brandon Graham and Kamu Grugier-Hill. On third down, Cox collapsed the pocket and hit Mitch Trubisky as he threw.
Graham’s recollection of the series:
“Cooooo-oooh! I was, like, ‘You on one! You hit the quarterback with the first pass rush, then that other ...’ " Graham said, then shrugged. "That’s just Fletch being Fletch. I’m glad he’s back at it.”
Is he ever. In 2018, Cox graded out as the No. 2 defensive lineman and the No. 3 overall defensive player, according to Pro Football Focus. Entering Sunday’s game, he was the No. 8 lineman and 14th overall, but that was easily explained.
“Obviously, I had no training camp. I was kind of just building up. Getting back to where I could be dominant,” Cox said. “These guys thrive off whatever energy I bring.”
They thrived last week, when the Bills, then 5-1, managed just 253 yards and 13 points. Cox registered 1 1/2 of the Eagles’ four sacks. He had none Sunday, but he made Graham’s possible.
“That boy can’t be blocked," said defensive end Vinny Curry. “He’s, like, the engine to this team.”
Note the distinction: Cox isn’t the engine of the defense. He’s the engine of the entire team.
As he should be. At $17.1 million a year, Cox is the second-highest paid defensive tackle in the league, trailing only Aaron Donald, who is the NFL’s best player.
The Eagles now are 5-4. If they hope to make a run to the playoffs, they will ride Fletcher Cox, if only because Wentz lacks weaponry.
Speedsters Nelson Agholor and DeSean Jackson have been neutralized, and Jackson is hurt, again; he has played, essentially, one game this season. Alshon Jeffery can’t get open and he occasionally can’t catch -- not unlike Agholor. Mack Hollins and J.J. Arcega-Whiteside are nonfactors. Teams scheme to stop tight ends Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert. That leaves running backs Jordan Howard and Miles Sanders as the most dependable options.
The Eagles have become a run-first team that, for better or worse, relies on the defense to make stops and protect leads, like some team from the 1980s.
They are what they are. If that’s what they are, then when Cox is whole that strategy works better.
For now, he is whole.