Jason Peters sat in the back of a cart, his left leg encased in an air cast, while the cart rolled off the field and into a Lincoln Financial Field tunnel on Monday night, Oct. 23, 2017. The home crowd chanted his name.
Fans appreciated Peters’ stellar career and the role he’d played in getting their team to 6-1 that evening with a victory over Washington, but at least some of them were thinking they might be saying goodbye. Peters was a 14-year veteran who had just shredded two knee ligaments. His 36th birthday was approaching.
At the time, Eagles coach Doug Pederson called the tribute “breathtaking.”
“For a guy that means a lot to this organization, this community, this city. His blood, sweat, and tears have been on that practice field, that game field, for a lot of time, a lot of Pro Bowls,” Pederson said then.
That sounded a bit like a farewell speech, but Peters’ goodbye has proven to be much longer and more difficult. On Friday, when Pederson announced that Peters, now looking at his 39th birthday in January, would undergo season-ending surgery for a longstanding toe injury, not many fans on social media lamented his loss.
Twitter comments included: “He should never have been on the team this year,” and “I hope he never plays another down for us,” along with “couldn’t he have done this [surgery] a month ago?”
Peters got a Super Bowl ring three years ago, but he watched the confetti fall from the sideline, while Halapoulivaati Vaitai played left tackle. Peters has spent the last three seasons chasing the experience of winning a championship on the field of battle, to no avail. A bit like Ryan Howard in his final years with the Phillies, Peters has limped in and out of games, a symbol of his team’s declining fortunes, of its inability to move on from players who were too old or too frail, or both.
Management was ready to finally move on last offseason, when it wished Peters well in free agency, but first Brandon Brooks’ torn Achilles, then Andre Dillard’s torn biceps tendon ended up making the team rely on Peters’ failing body to once again protect Carson Wentz.
Pederson decided to pull the plug on Peters, who was trying to stay upright last Sunday through his second game at right guard, after the same three-and-out series that led him to replace Wentz with Jalen Hurts.
“It’s an injury that we’ve known about, and he’s battled through it. He’s done everything he can for this football team. … He means a lot to me personally, not only on the field but off the field as well,” Pederson said Friday.
“He wanted to be out there with his teammates, obviously, for the remainder of the season. It’s just to the point now where the injury is a little bit too bad for him to continue. … [Nate] Herbig will be the right guard.”
Herbig was 6 years old when Peters began his NFL career as an undrafted tight end from Arkansas, with the Buffalo Bills in 2004. In 2005 Peters moved to tackle, and the NFL started to notice the man the size of an extra-large refrigerator (listed at 6-foot-4, 328) who glided through space effortlessly.
Herbig was asked Friday what he has learned in two seasons in the offensive line room with Peters.
“For me, it’s just every little thing he does, like how he takes care of his body, how he approaches, the game, his film study, what he eats, how he works out – just everything, because at the end of the day, he’s a Hall of Famer,” Herbig said. “I hope to have half the career that he’s had up to this point.”
The Eagles introduced Peters to Philadelphia on the Sunday before the draft in April 2009. They’d used one of their first-round picks, 28th overall, along with fourth- and sixth-rounders, to acquire Peters from the Buffalo Bills, who weren’t willing to give him the contract he thought he deserved.
Peters had just made back-to-back Pro Bowls at age 27, and he was so excited to hear his agent, the Bills and then-Eagles president Joe Banner had worked everything out – a four-year, $55 million contract and a trade – that he flew to Philadelphia on no sleep, to introduce himself to his new organization.
Then-Eagles coach Andy Reid called him the best left tackle in football that day. Reid, now coaching the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs, recalled Friday via text that it “was fun to watch his Buffalo tape, but even more fun to have him in an Eagles uniform. On top of that, he’s a great kid. I love him. He will be in the Hall of Fame soon after he hangs up his cleats.”
Peters ultimately added seven Pro Bowl invitations with the Eagles to his resume, and four more All-Pro designations to go with the two he earned with the Bills.
Reid said Friday that Peters had “feet, hands, and the want to be great.”
Eagles offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland has said he left Alabama to join Chip Kelly’s Eagles coaching staff in 2013 because of the opportunity to coach Peters. Last month, in discussing Peters’ move from left tackle to right guard, a position he’d never played, Stoutland said that Peters was “almost like an artist. … It doesn’t matter what position he plays, he understands, visually, he gets it.”
In the summer of 2017, Peters was asked about his relationship with team owner Jeffrey Lurie, and Peters said: “We’re best friends. We talk all the time, he texts me. We talk before every game.”
Linebacker and center Chuck Bednarik made the Pro Bowl eight times, all as an Eagle, one time more than Peters. As Eagles offensive linemen go, the only player in team history who might have been as talented would be right tackle Bob Brown, who was an Eagle only from 1964 to 1968; much of Brown’s tremendous career was spent with the Rams (1969-70) and the Raiders (1971-73).
Jordan Mailata, the former rugby player from Australia, will get the rest of this season to prove he can fill Peters’ cleats, assuming Mailata stays healthy. Dillard waits in the wings. It will be hard for either of them to approach Peters’ legacy of long-lasting dominance.
Peters returned this year on a one-year contract. It seems inconceivable that the Eagles will want to bet on Peters’ health yet again next season, with so many cap problems and so much rebuilding to do.
Peters hasn’t spoken to reporters since he stood in the Linc locker room after the playoff loss to Seattle last season and made it clear he wanted to continue his career, here or elsewhere.
“If I couldn’t get it done, I’d just walk away, but I can still go. I want to be here ... but the nature of this business, sometimes they move on,” he said then. “We’ll have to see.”