It was the longest four minutes of their season.
That’s how long, in real time, the Eagles worried that Fletcher Cox, their best player, might be done for the year. With 3 minutes, 19 seconds to play at Green Bay last Thursday, Cox collapsed to the ground. Something was wrong with his right leg ... which is connected to both his right foot, which required offseason surgery, and his right toe, which hindered him all training camp.
The franchise feared the worst — especially the man who plays on his left hip.
“I can’t even put words on what it’d be like without him,” Brandon Graham said. “Especially with all the injuries that had happened already.”
Graham plays left end on a line that was supposed to feature Malik Jackson and Timmy Jernigan along with Cox in the middle. Jackson suffered a Lisfranc injury in Game 1 and is gone for the season. Jernigan broke a foot and is out until at least November. And now, Cox, hobbled in Game 4.
Four grim medical staffers attended to Cox on the field before he finally limped to the sideline, the attendants surrounding him, tight-lipped and grim. Head coach Doug Pederson shook his head as Cox passed. Tight end Alex Ellis moved aside to let the big man through. Tight end Dallas Goedert, seated nearby, didn’t make eye contact.
“He’s a great player. We need him out on the field,” Goedert said. “I was just hoping it was something uncomfortable, and he’d get back out on the field. Hoping it was nothing serious.”
They all knew: If it was something serious, the season would be in great peril.
It wasn’t serious. One report said Cox had cramps, but Cox refused to confirm that Wednesday. He looked fit before Wednesday’s practice, and he was not on the official injury report. He insisted that, in Green Bay, “everything was fine,” though it clearly was not.
Regardless, when Cox missed just four plays, every Eagle from owner Jeffrey Lurie to chief landscaper Tony Leonard sighed, relieved.
Cox is their best player. Has been since 2015, when he earned the first of his four consecutive Pro Bowl honors. That was the season before the Eagles drafted franchise quarterback Carson Wentz. To a large degree, the team that won Super Bowl LII two years ago and won a playoff game last season was built around Cox.
Feel free to rank the runners-up however you like. Wentz has been superb, but has he been among the two best players in the league at his position? Have offensive tackles Lane Johnson and Jason Peters, or safety Malcolm Jenkins, or center Jason Kelce, or tight end Zach Ertz?
Cox also is their most indispensable player; and no, being the best and being the most indispensable aren’t the same thing. You could argue that, given the way their depth lies, the Eagles could better afford to lose Peters, Johnson, Ertz, or Wentz than they could afford the absence of Cox — or of Jenkins, Kelce, or linebacker Nigel Bradham, for that matter.
Even diminished, Cox remains the most important player.
The fallout from the foot injuries — lack of conditioning, less power, reluctance to use his full repertoire of moves — has limited Cox to six tackles and no sacks. That’s a pace for 24 tackles, or 20 fewer than 2018. He had 10 1/2 sacks last season, a career high, and profootballfocus.com rated him No. 2 among defensive tackles, No. 3 among all defenders.
This season he’s rated ninth and 27th (among players who have played at least 100 snaps). Still, Graham, at No. 18, is the only Eagle rated higher. Don’t expect Cox to remain mired in the pack. He looked great last Thursday.
“The last game, I felt really good. I got a bunch of my explosiveness back,” Cox said. “I was running around. I was doing my normal counters, felt like they were on point. A bunch of my cuts off the football were there. I’ve taken big strides since the first game.”
This development cannot be overstated.
Jim Schwartz’s wide-nine defensive philosophy hinges on ends hitting the quarterback. The tackles disrupt the interior to give the ends freedom and space. Even if the linemen don’t pile up sacks, the pressure might pull a running back or receiver away from a pattern to help block, which in turn limits the quarterback’s targets, which makes coverage easier for the linebackers and defensive backs.
The Eagles rank last in both pass defense and sacks, so these linebackers and defensive backs need all the help they can get.
They need Cox.
He missed just 80 seconds of game time in Green Bay.