The last time Eagles center Jason Kelce missed a game, Chip Kelly was the coach and David Molk — remember him? — was his replacement.
Kelce had been grinding it out through a core muscle injury in 2014 that hurt so bad he’d wince when laughing or sneezing. He lasted the first 2½ games before surgery was necessary.
But he sat out only four games, and since has started in 99 straight, the longest active streak for NFL centers. No. 100 should come Monday night against the Seahawks. Kelce, in his typical pragmatic way, downplayed his durability or the milestone’s significance.
“I don’t think a number means much,” Kelce said Wednesday. “I think you just try and be available and do your job. And I’ve been fortunate to be able to do that, and obviously, injury rates in this league are pretty substantial.
“I’ve been pretty lucky, all things considered, to not have injuries over the course of 100 games that would sit me down. But I think that a lot of it’s just pretty good fortune.”
Kelce has had plenty of injuries, all right, and the century mark isn’t written in stone after he suffered an elbow injury last Sunday. He’s been a limited participant in practice, and while he said that the swelling had gone down and that his elbow felt “surprisingly really good,” the streak seemed in jeopardy when he left the Browns game.
He tossed his helmet to the ground, waved off going into the blue medical tent, and stomped along the sideline, clearly in pain. But Kelce missed only five snaps. He went indoors, had an X-ray that presumably came back negative, and after halftime was back at center with a brace over his left arm.
“That is a tough son of a gun,” running back Miles Sanders said after the game. “Probably the toughest player on our team and plays through whatever.”
Kelce has popped up on various injury reports over the last six-plus seasons. He has played through everything — some reported, others not — from knee tears to ankle sprains, from elbow tears to broken toes, from muscle bruises to more hand injuries than it’s worth documenting.
He has taken more anti-inflammatories than he cares to admit. In each of the last four offseasons he has contemplated retirement. But he continues on, now in his 10th season, having played in 143 out of a possible 161 games, including the playoffs.
Only Falcons tackle Jake Matthews has a longer active streak — 104 games — among offensive linemen. And while Kelce’s far from the record for centers — Mick Tingelhoff’s 240 straight games — NFL injuries have steadily increased over the last decade.
There might not be a more respected player at the NovaCare Complex. Young and old follow his lead. Guard Nate Herbig said that he was initially “starstruck” by playing alongside one of his heroes. He joked before the election, “Kelce for president.” Guard Isaac Seumalo called Kelce the “epitome of professionalism.”
He’s been a leader by example since his rookie season, when he started in his first game. He’s led by word on occasion, although he typically prefers one-on-one interaction. And Kelce has helped nurture Carson Wentz every step since he came into the league, the relationship between the quarterback and center one of the most important in football.
“From the moment I got here,” Wentz said, “he’s been the same.”
Kelce is the first to say he isn’t perfect, both on the field and off. He can be mercurial. He can be thoughtful or introspective one moment, aloof and distant the next. He’s had his share of tantrums.
“He’s a no-[bull] type of guy,” Eagles defensive end Brandon Graham said. “He’s cool, he’s out here working hard every day. He’s aggressive. He’s got aggression every day. He’s mad one minute and he’s happy, he’s up and down. But what I love, he always has that edge when he’s on the field.”
This season has been especially taxing on the 33-year-old. The Eagles’ offensive line has had many injuries and on Monday night it likely will have its 10th different starting combination, with right tackle Lane Johnson shelved for the season by an ankle injury.
Kelce hasn’t played his best football. His snapping, for instance, has been inconsistent and played a role in the Eagles’ loss to the New York Giants two weeks ago. But is it any wonder considering the constant turnover at both guards spots?
I’ve never really been around a player, an offensive lineman of his caliber, that does what he does day in and day out.
When Kelce left, Luke Juriga took his place and the Eagles couldn’t get anything done on offense. He knew how much his absence would affect the offense. In the 16 games Kelce has missed over his career, the Eagles have gone 4-12. When he’s in the lineup they’re 69-50-1.
“He’s somebody that does things right all the time and his game may not be perfect each week, but this guy, he practices, and plays hurt,” Eagles coach Doug Pederson said. “He gives of himself for his teammates. He’s a great leader, not only in the offensive line room but I think on this football team. … I’ve never really been around a player, an offensive lineman of his caliber, that does what he does day in and day out.”
It’s unclear if this will be Kelce’s final season. He has said previously that he waits until about a month after the season, after it has worn off, to assess his future. He came close after the 2018 season, but he said he didn’t need much time last offseason to decide he’d come back.
Kelce is signed through the 2021 season. No matter what happens, he has already etched his name alongside other Eagles greats. His three straight All-Pro honors certify his standing as one of the best centers of his era, maybe one of the most athletic ever.
He’s been blessed with speed and strength despite how his size — big in the general sense, small for his position — would seem to be an obstacle for both. And genes have had to play a role in his durability.
But Kelce has also put in the necessary work in the weight room and taken nutrition seriously. His obvious toughness can’t be understated, along with the sense of duty of just being there for the teammate you line up next to, however cliched that may sound.
“I don’t want to come out. I don’t want to miss time,” Kelce said of his thinking after he injured his elbow. “There are guys counting on me. There’s people counting on me.”