A question about Jason Kelce’s peculiar cleats delved into a tutorial about the evolution of the pass rush in the NFL, how it has affected offensive linemen, forced many to change their style of footwear, and in turn propelled the Eagles center to protect his susceptible toes.
Conversations with Kelce are often serpentine adventures, especially the more focused the topic. Ask him a generic question about an upcoming opponent or a certain play and you’re bound to receive a relatively broad response. But the narrower the subject, the deeper the veteran can go.
At this point in his career, Kelce would often rather talk about anything – film, religion, politics, child-rearing, you name it – other than football. It’s about as close as an outsider might get to seeing how the wheels turn inside perhaps the most cerebral player on the Eagles.
But the cleats question struck a nerve. And the most direct reason Kelce had a steel toe added to the front of his Nikes: Guard Brandon Brooks stepped on his foot a year ago and broke his toe.
“You get stepped on with this and it doesn’t hurt,” Kelce said after grabbing one of the old-school molded cleats most linemen used to wear. “It hurts, but you’re not going to break a toe off of it. When Brandon Brooks steps on you with a screw-in cleat that big, it’ll shatter your toe.”
The bigger explanation involves the transformation of defensive fronts since Kelce first entered the NFL in 2011. Defensive linemen are more explosive, coordinators incorporate five-man lines more often, and rushers run more stunts and twists, the center said.
What all this has meant, at least on the surface, is that more offensive linemen are wearing screw-in cleats rather than the once-popular molded “shark” cleats. But in Kelce’s case, his ability to adjust to the ever-shifting winds of the league shows why he was voted to his third straight All-Pro first team Friday.
His position may not be a glamorous one, and he may be taken for granted publicly because of his reliability, but the Eagles aren’t in the playoffs for the third straight season without the 32-year-old.
“I could spend the whole press conference here and longer really talking about Jason Kelce, what he means personally to me and then what he means to this football team and this organization,” Eagles coach Doug Pederson said Friday. “He’s one of the guys that just kind of epitomizes what we’re all about; his toughness, his mental and physical toughness.”
Kelce played every snap in the regular season for the third time in the last five years. He has started in 89 straight games, an NFL best for active centers. And along with his All-Pro nod, he was chosen to play in his third Pro Bowl.
His calming presence on offense has helped quarterback Carson Wentz overcome a midseason lull and helped overcome various injuries on the offensive line. It won’t get any easier Sunday against the Seahawks in the wild-card round with Brooks out and right tackle Lane Johnson questionable.
Halapoulivaati Vaitai will play either right guard or right tackle. But if Johnson isn’t available, Matt Pryor will start in Brooks’ position. Pryor has some experience, having played 43 snaps alongside Vaitai in the first meeting with Seattle in November and 35 snaps in last Sunday’s regular-season finale at the New York Giants.
They did fine in spot duty, but even Kelce couldn’t minimize the difference.
“Obviously, we’re not going to replace Brandon Brooks. It’s impossible to do that. He’s the best offensive lineman in the NFL,” Kelce said of the Pro Bowl guard. “Lane Johnson, if he can’t go, he’s again the best tackle in the NFL. We would love to have him.
“But [offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland] does a great job making sure guys are ready to go. The team that we put together, we’re fortunate enough to be deep.”
Deep enough to sustain a possible Kelce retirement this offseason? It’s a question worth pondering, however brief, considering his flirtation with the idea over the last several offseasons. But the still freakishly athletic Kelce is under contract for another two seasons and still performing at an elite level.
“I don’t really want to keep harping on this, but I mentioned it last year, this is something that goes through your head, and it has been for like three or four years,” Kelce said. “So I don’t want to say this offseason was any different at all.
“The bottom line is I’m a Philadelphia Eagle and I’m playing until I’m not.”
Last season was particularly hard on Kelce’s body. He played through an MCL knee sprain, the broken toe, and various other ailments. He’s had nagging bumps and bruises this season, like most players, but the avoidance of significant injury for a worker in the trenches isn’t lost on him.
“It’s a lucky stat,” Kelce said of playing every snap this season. “The injury rate in the league’s pretty high and I’ve been fortunate. The football gods have taken care of me.”
And the Eagles’ equipment crew. Nike doesn’t make a cleat with a steel toe. Kelce had an equipment assistant hot-rod his pairs with rubber black covers on the outside. He said he switched to screw-in cleats several years back when he realized he needed more anchoring against the increasing number of penetrating 4-3 fronts.
But this season, Kelce said, has seen more defenses utilize five-man fronts to get one-on-one matchups. A center might not even have to block against a four-man rush.
“Teams this year have done a better job of attacking the center, who is usually the weakest guy on the line exclusively,” Kelce said. “When I first got in [the NFL] it was a four-man rush, there might be like a fire zone [blitz] this way, a fire zone that way. It ain’t like that anymore.”
There are still blitzes, of course, but many of the five-man rushes, Kelce said, are now easier to spot pre-snap. The center is often responsible for making these calls and setting the protections, and they’re often right, but coordinators have adapted and called more stunts and twists, which aren’t as easy to detect.
“The chances that all five guys hold up in pass [protection] throughout the game is so small, and we’re not just going to rush you straight, we’re going to games, two-man games, three-man games, and that’s the whole flavor of the league and it [stinks],” Kelce said. “When I first came in everybody was big, but they weren’t explosive. 3-4 [fronts] were rampant … and it’s all these big, fat guys.
“They’ll hold up in the run game, but in pass [rush] they don’t have the pop in the hips to do it. Whereas now you’re seeing much more of these 4-3 [defenses like] Seattle, Dallas. The linemen, they’re smaller, but they’re … explosive and [you need] something to really dig in to stop that power. That’s why everybody’s going away from sharks for the most part.”
While a center’s job is perhaps less complicated when it comes to pre-snap calls, it’s more difficult post-snap. Kelce has always been exacting in his preparation, but the increasing fluidity of the pass rush makes what can be spotted on film more important in simulating at practice.
“If you’re on scout team and you’re messing it up, you’re going to hear about it,” Eagles reserve interior lineman Nate Herbig said. “He’ll be [upset] if it’s not perfect. If the linebacker doesn’t do exactly what [an opposing defense] does, if the D-line doesn’t slant as far as they do. He knows exactly how he wants it.”
An undrafted rookie, Herbig said the best piece of advice he’s received from Kelce was to “just shut up and listen.” Pryor said that the nine-year center has every lineman “on point" when he comes to the Eagles’ game plan and scheme.
“He’s smarter than a lot of the coaches I’ve had in my life,” Herbig said, “from the mental standpoint of the game.”
Pryor is big and athletic, but he hasn’t played enough to really get a read on his capabilities. He stood out in one-on-one drills as early as his rookie training camp, but games were another story. For Sunday, though, he’ll have a week of first-team repetitions. That is where most of the work will be done.
“Once you’re out on the field there’s not a lot of – for lack of a better term – babysitting,” Kelce said. “If they don’t know what they’re doing by that point, there’s some critical errors going on. There might just be a little bit of overstated communication would be the best way to put it.”
Kelce doesn’t have to worry as much about Carson Wentz, in terms of their communication, but Sunday will be the fourth-year quarterback’s first foray into the postseason. The center said that there will be a greater attention to detail, and that he will take a greater interest in the game plan.
“Obviously, everything’s ramped up. Everything at stake is higher. It causes more emotion or whatnot,” Kelce said. “At the end of the day, you’re still going out there, you’re playing the game, and I think the teams that don’t let the moment get the best of them generally come out on top.”
Only tackle Jason Peters and Graham have played in more playoff games than Kelce among the Eagles. He has long been one of the more thoughtful leaders on the team, although in recent years he can be hot or cold with reporters. It could be he has gotten tired of the monotony of the questions or how his answers can be misconstrued.
But there isn’t a more respected player in the locker room, from veteran to rookie. He has admitted that youngsters like Miles Sanders and Dallas Goedert, or practice squad call-ups like Greg Ward and Boston Scott have invigorated his play as the Eagles went on a four-game winning streak to capture the NFC East.
Kelce has been realistic about his future, however. He has many other interests outside football. He recently became a father for the first time. He has seen Connor Barwin and Chris Long, two of his closest friends in the NFL, retire and shift into other fields.
But how many have hung up their cleats at the height of their careers? Only 12 other centers in NFL history have received All-Pro honors as many times as Kelce.
“It’s nice whenever you’re get recognized … but I just think a lot of the individual stuff gets overplayed,” Kelce said. “I think a big reason why anybody has individual success is because of the plays being called, the guys around him."