Rodney McLeod knew he was back, really back, early in the Eagles’ preseason game Thursday night against the Ravens, when the defensive signals started coming in from the sideline.
Once, then again, coordinator Jim Schwartz made a call that required McLeod to inch toward the line of scrimmage, to anticipate a running play and involve himself in it. McLeod didn’t know if Schwartz was making those calls just for him, but he liked to think he was.
Often, when McLeod is healthy, his involvement leads to running backs and wide receivers falling to the ground as if they were sacks of flour.
Late in the first quarter, he involved himself with Ravens quarterback Trace McSorley. McSorley bootlegged to the left. McLeod – 11 months removed from surgery on his right knee, playing in his first game since Week 3 last year against the Indianapolis Colts – tracked him down and dropped him for a 1-yard loss.
“Felt like a rookie all over again,” he said, “in the sense of just being out for so long and going through an injury like I did. You always just question yourself and how it’s going to be. You try to envision it, and I envisioned it how it played out today: me making tackles and me flying around like I never left.”
Of the encouraging things that the Eagles learned from their lightning-truncated 26-15 loss Thursday – that Josh McCown didn’t need much time to show he can be their No. 2 quarterback, that J.J. Arcega-Whiteside is one intriguing rookie – McLeod’s seamless return to the secondary was perhaps the most consequential.
His absence for those final 13 regular-season games and two playoff games was an underrated reason that the Eagles struggled so much for so long – and that their defensive performance regressed as much as it did.
In 2017, when they went 13-3 and won the Super Bowl and McLeod missed just two games, they allowed the 17th-most passing yards in the NFL (3,637) and the fewest rushing yards (1,267). Last year, just two teams gave up more passing yardage (4,308), and their run defense dropped to seventh (1,551).
That decline isn’t entirely attributable to McLeod’s injury, but ask yourself how different, how better, things might have been if he’d been out there more. Corey Graham, Tre Sullivan, even Avonte Maddox, with his quick assimilation into the lineup – none of them was an adequate replacement at safety for McLeod alongside Malcolm Jenkins.
“One, from the chemistry standpoint,” said McLeod, who made three tackles in his one quarter of action Thursday. “We’ve all played a lot of ball together, especially me and Malcolm. So we know each other very well.
"Two, my experience. That’s kind of hard to replicate. The guys who came in last year obviously did a good job, man. We made it to the playoffs. It wasn’t pretty, but we made it. We came up short, but getting myself back and some other guys, we’ve got a lot of depth.”
He has been wearing a brace on his knee throughout training camp and during Thursday’s game, but he said he felt free and easy moving on the field. He has to feel that way to be at his best. That’s his game: anticipating a play, having the range to get from sideline to sideline, arriving at the precise moment to break up a pass or deliver a hit. He doesn’t plan to wear the brace all season, he said, but it will depend on his level of comfort.
Anything, of course, is better than what he did for much of last season: poking his head into team meetings, offering advice or insight to his teammates, getting around on crutches and watching the games from his couch until the Eagles’ victory over the Jaguars in late October at Wembley Stadium in London. That was the first time the Eagles’ trainers allowed him on the sideline with the team.
In the NFL, there is nothing more isolating than being injured and unable to play.
“You want to be there every step of the way,” McLeod said. “You want to be in meeting rooms. You want to be out on the field making plays. Those are moments you can’t get back, moments you look back on and cherish. Not being out there was difficult. Being a leader on this team, it was hard.
"You almost feel like you let guys down. But this team is different, a tight-knit brotherhood, and these guys embraced me, motivated me, each step of the way. I owe a lot of these guys a lot of credit for keeping me involved in some way.”