What made the last offensive play of the Eagles' season most remarkable wasn’t the play itself, but, rather, what came after.
A short pass from Nick Foles slipped through Alshon Jeffery’s reliable hands and landed in the hands of a Saints defender. Less than 2 minutes remained, the Eagles trailed by six and had one timeout, so the season was effectively over. Jeffery knew it as he lay facedown on the Superdome turf. Foles, whose 13th game-winning drive was squelched by the drop, came over and helped him up.
You probably wouldn’t see Tom Brady do that.
Jeffery jogged to the sideline, where coach Doug Pederson awaited him ... with open arms.
You probably wouldn’t see Bill Belichick do that.
“Keep your head up,” Pederson said as Jeffery walked into Pederson’s hug. Nothing from Jeffery, still stunned. “Keep your head up,” Pederson said again; this time, Jeffery lay his helmeted head on Pederson’s shoulder.
Jeffery lay his helmeted head on another man’s shoulder. On the sideline of an NFL football game.
A few moments later, Foles saw Jeffery blankly staring out at the Superdome field as the Saints walked down the clock. Foles ran over and grabbed Jeffery where his pads meet his collarbone.
“Hey,” Foles said.
Jeffery’s gaze stayed on the field.
“Hey,” Foles said again; this time, Jeffery tilted his head and looked at Foles.
“I love you.”
Jeffery nodded, and patted Foles on the shoulder in appreciation.
I love you.
On the sideline of an NFL football game.
“I love you” ... to the guy who just lost it.
“That’s what this team’s about,” Foles said later, unashamed, as always. "That’s what playing this game’s about. I don’t regret anything.
"I’ll always play this game to develop relationships. That’s what makes a strong team.
Maybe Vince Lombardi was wrong when he recycled that maxim. Maybe winning is not the only thing. Maybe winning can be produced by a much more real thing. Of all things.
There is a certain congruity that, in the City of Brotherly Love, there exists a brotherhood that loves each other so openly. The Love Birds.
This seems a little sideways. Love contradicts the essence of the sport. No other pastime is as randomly, legally violent. It’s much easier to hate than to love a man who’s trying to maim you. But it was, in fact, love -- unconditional love, non-judgmental love -- that carried the Eagles to their first Super Bowl win last year. It centered around Pederson, and his bottomless “emotional intelligence,” which originally attracted owner Jeffrey Lurie.
Yes, there was talent, too, and execution, and commitment; but, after the Eagles lost franchise quarterback Carson Wentz and four other key players, love kept it together.
Who knew that the road back to the playoffs would test that love even further? Wentz, incredibly, was lost for good again after the 13th game. But this time the Eagles had lost even more key players, and this time they had a losing record, and they seemed dead in the water thanks to a blowout loss here to the Saints and an overtime heartbreaker at Dallas, Wentz’s final game. And then came Foles. And more love. And more winning.
The Love Birds won five of their last six regular-season games and snuck in with the sixth seed. They then flew to Chicago and upset the Bears. They then flew south, to New Orleans, and took a 14-0 lead into the second quarter Sunday in the divisional round -- against the No. 1 seed that had beaten them by 41 points and mocked them afterward. It took a lot of love to survive that November night.
But that’s why you love them. Because they love the game. Because 41 points doesn’t end the season.
And because, somehow, they love you, too. They understand that, even at your worst, you have the best intentions at heart. You love them because they’re mutts like you -- underdogs, the sum of whose parts create an impossible whole.
You love them because they’re corny (Pederson, Foles, Wentz), and weird (Lane Johnson, Jay Ajayi, Michael Bennett), and wild (Fletcher Cox, Nigel Bradham, Tim Jernigan), but they’re also utterly genuine, so utterly lovable. You love them because they’ll tell you they’re thinking about quitting, like Jason Kelce and Foles have done. You love them because they’ll share their passions, like Malcolm Jenkins and Chris Long have done. You love them because they’ll share their fears, like Zach Ertz and Brandon Brooks have done.
But, more than anything else, you love them because they feel the same way you feel about football and family.
Left tackle Jason Peters counseled Brooks through his struggles with anxiety. Little wonder, then, that Peters had tears in his eyes as Brooks was carted off the field in the first quarter Sunday with a ruptured Achilles tendon -- an injury Peters suffered twice in 2012.
And then there was Jeffery, the picture of pity and empathy. On the sideline, hands on his helmet, as the Saints got a final, first-down coffin-nail. A moment later, biting his lip so he wouldn’t cry as Ajayi came over to comfort him. “It’s on me,” Jeffery said, over and over and over again.
He said the same later, in the locker room ... and then he just sat in front of his locker. Alone. Earbuds in, no music playing. His cracked ribs ached, but that wasn’t why he couldn’t move. He’d let everyone down; fans, franchise, and, most of all, teammates. Five minutes he sat there. Ten. Then, finally, he walked away ... to a place he knew would soothe him.
To the team plane, where his brothers awaited with open arms.