Just three Eagles have sacked a quarterback more frequently than Brandon Graham. Just three have forced more fumbles. Only one has been responsible for more tackles for lost yardage. No one has made a more important play in the franchise’s 87-year history.
Yet if it’s possible for a player who will and should go down as an all-time Eagle to be underrated, Graham might fit that bill. The longer he has been with the Eagles, the better his numbers have gotten, the more he has become taken for granted as part of the franchise’s scenery. It feels like he has been here forever. There’s a reason for that. He has been here 11 years. In the NFL, 11 years is forever. Over the last 8½ seasons, he has missed one game. One. He’s always there, like a cozy recliner.
Now Graham, at 32, is halfway through what is shaping up to be the best season. He has seven sacks, 10 tackles for loss, and 20 quarterback hits; double each of those numbers for a 16-game pace, and each would represent a career high. Graham has gone through various stages during his career here, and this is only the latest.
He was the bust first-round pick whom the Eagles should have bypassed to take safety Earl Thomas. He was the defensive end who didn’t rack up a lot of sacks but was oh-so close to the opposing quarterback so many times. He was the playful postgame foil for Derrick Gunn on Comcast SportsNet and NBC Sports Philadelphia. He was the man who batted the football out of Tom Brady’s hands and saved Super Bowl LII. Now he’s the Eagles' best defensive player.
“People are so quick to judge players, whether they are successful or not,” Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said. "I know BG was tagged early as not being a successful draft pick and things like that. He was able to persevere through that. …
“All that doesn’t happen by accident. It happens because he has a passion for the game and he’s enthusiastic, and he has the experience of seeing tough times and has that perspective. I think that’s an important lesson for all our guys.”
It’s an important lesson, too, for anyone who follows the NFL or any professional sport closely. In this age of salary caps and luxury taxes and the popularity of fantasy sports, it is not enough for an athlete to be a good player. He or she must be a good player at the right price, and when the Eagles and Graham agreed in early 2019 to a three-year contract that could be worth as much as $40 million, it was fair to ask whether the team had placed sentiment above good sense. Graham was already 30, an age that, for many NFL players, represents the crest of a career. They’ve just cleared it, and now they’re about to descend, rapidly.
Instead, Graham has continued to climb. He had 8½ sacks and 34 quarterback hits last season and should surpass those totals easily this season. More, as trite as it is to say, it’s pretty obvious by now that Graham’s presence provides the Eagles some intangible, unquantifiable benefits: his institutional memory, his connection with the region, his competitiveness, his leadership. Sometimes a team’s front-office staff can place too high a value on such qualities. Sometimes, it can neglect to value them enough.
“Man, I always tell everyone about BG,” safety Rodney McLeod said. “He’s a different guy on the field. Off the field, he’s probably the nicest guy, always full of energy and smiling. But get out on that field, man, and he turns into a monster and constantly talkative, man.”
“He considers everybody ‘Little Boy,’ whether it’s the running back or whether it’s the offensive tackle he’s going against, and it’s intimidating, as a team or a player, to hear a player who talks but can also back it up in the manner that he does. He brings it every week. He doesn’t change. It doesn’t matter if it’s a preseason game or it’s the Super Bowl. BG is BG.”
It doesn’t matter if it’s practice, either, or if his teammates are his targets. “The one thing he says: ‘Fat Boy!’ ” offensive lineman Jordan Mailata said. “He calls everyone ‘Fat Boy.’ We’ll be stretching, and he’ll just walk past like, ‘Yeahhh, yeahhh, Fat Boy. I’m coming today.’ I’m like, ‘Oh, God. Come on, BG, man. Give us a break.’”
Nope. Graham keeps talking and playing and defying an NFL player’s usual career arc. He’s getting better as he’s getting older. After the 2016 season, he mentioned how much he admired Broncos linebacker Von Miller. A year earlier, Miller had been named the most valuable player of Super Bowl L. A year later, Graham would strip-sack Brady. “I look at Von and say, ‘Man, I would love to be the MVP,’ ” Graham said. “It’s just inspiring. A lot of guys like us, 6-1, 6-2, they don’t give us much hope. But he’s got a burst like no other. He can wrestle with the big boys.”
Graham can, too. He’s still wrestling with the big boys and the little boys and the fat boys. One of these days, he won’t. One of these days, forever will end for Brandon Graham. It’s worth appreciating him before it does.