Brandon Graham isn’t the most talented pass rusher in Eagles history; he might not even rank in the top handful there.
But if you were to change the ranking criteria to factor in persistence, to consider leadership, along with mental and physical toughness, you would find No. 55 at or very near the top.
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His tone doesn’t vary, on or off the field, even in a season such as this one, when another 32-year-old might wonder whether chasing around Aaron Rodgers this weekend as a nine-point underdog is really going to be anything more than pointless drudgery.
At Green Bay’s Lambeau Field on Sunday, Graham is scheduled to make his 155th appearance in an Eagles uniform, which will tie him with Trent Cole for the most games played by a defensive lineman in franchise history.
This is quite a feat for a 2010 first-round draft pick who blew up his knee as a rookie, then had a hard time getting on the field again until defensive line coach Jim Washburn was fired late in the 2012 season.
Even after he made the signature defensive play of Super Bowl LII, his strip- sack of Tom Brady, Graham thought a year later that he was heading into free agency, and was surprised to get the three-year, $40 million deal he’s playing under now.
As defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz noted last week, “This league rewards people that are perseverant, teams that can persevere. It rewards people that are tough-minded.”
On the Eagles, the players most closely personifying those qualities are two undersize veterans, center Jason Kelce and Graham. It’s no accident that their tenures are the team’s second- and third-longest, behind 38-year-old, nine-time Pro Bowl offensive lineman Jason Peters.
“Man, it’s always special, anytime I get to go out on this field, I always kind of reminisce, and look back, and kind of look at the view that I’ve been looking at for, well, it’s been 11 [seasons] now, actually. … It’s a blessing, man,” Graham said Thursday. “Because, all the stuff I’ve been through – not knowing where I’d be, getting ridiculed by you guys, keeping me on my toes, having fun, a little bit, at the same time.”
Graham gauged his career as “up and down” early on, but “consistent the last five or six years,” especially since the Super Bowl.
At 3-7-1, Graham is in a spot he hasn’t been in for quite a while. Asked about the danger of players giving up, cruising to the end of this frustrating season, he gave a fiery lecture.
“I don’t see no danger at all, man. I see five games left. I see a focused team, that’s really trying to really get it right,” Graham said. “At the end of the day, we want to prove you wrong. … Everybody wants to tank the season, say ‘It’s over, ahhhhhh!’ – ‘The sky is falling!’ … You will see, we’re going to fight to the end. I’m going to bet on us all the time.”
Graham said team leaders won’t let players “fall into that. We hear it, we address it now.”
“I can’t have people talking negative about what didn’t happen – I don’t care what didn’t happen. … We’ve still got an opportunity but it’s on us and our attitude on how we’re going to fix it.”
Graham seemed to suggest that rallying late to make the playoffs in 2018 and 2019 might have led the team to be less alarmed and urgent than it needed to be, in losing all three games since its bye week.
“We can’t let stuff slide anymore, which we have, because we’re thinking it’s going to come – no, you got to be right; we got to be real with ourselves and be honest with ourselves and let people know where they’re at, and where we’re trying to go, if they’re trying to go there,” he said.
“Man I’m excited, because I know when we go out to Green Bay this week, we’re going to fight like we did last year,” in a 34-27 victory sealed by a final-seconds end zone interception. “All it takes is a lot more focus than we normally [have]. We know we’re physical. We know we’re going to go out there and play hard. But let’s be smarter than what we’ve been doing with the penalties, and let’s make our plays when they come to us.”
Graham has been stuck on seven sacks through these three successive losses, though against Seattle he recorded his highest Pro Football Focus grade of the season, 90.7. He recorded five pressures of Russell Wilson and four hurries in 27 pass-rush attempts.
Graham’s career sack total of 58 ranks fourth in franchise history; Graham might need an unlikely contract extension past 2021 to catch third-place Clyde Simmons, who had 76.
When teammates talk of Graham, they mention his tireless effort, but they also note his demeanor – Graham keeps up a running monologue on the field, even in practice, part of his effort to ratchet up intensity. He was asked Thursday if he plans to trash-talk Rodgers, the league’s top-rated quarterback this season.
“You got to have fun. Nobody is exempt … but at the same time, it’s much respect,” Graham said. “I’ll tell him that to his face – ‘Hey, man, it’s all respect, but today, it’s going to be that type of day … we’re comin’ today.’ … ‘You better get ready,’ that type of stuff.