When the Eagles traded quarterback Sam Bradford in early September, it seemed to hit tight end Zach Ertz hard. Not as hard, say, as it would have if he hadn't ole-d a chance to block Vontaze Burfict in Sunday's game against the Bengals, or if he had taken the previous week's loss to Seattle a little harder than it appeared when he was captured on television immediately afterwards smiling and chatting with Seahawks players.
Ertz admitted in September that he was "obviously disappointed" upon hearing of the Bradford trade with Minnesota, and who could blame him? It had taken most of the previous season for Bradford to find Ertz in the Eagles' offense, but when Bradford did the results were why we once again were snookered into thinking his next season would be his breakout one.
Ertz caught 30 passes over his last three games last season, an Eagles record for that span of games. With Jordan Matthews, there was an established base of trusted targets to build on, or so was thought after the season, one compelling reason to sign him to that five-year, $42.5 million extension last January. Ertz and Matthews even worked out with Bradford in Oklahoma last spring, to further develop that chemistry.
But something else happened late last season of note. Attempting to hurdle a Tampa Bay defender to convert a third down on Nov.22, Ertz was flipped, landed awkwardly on his neck, and suffered a concussion. It was a scary play, and it was followed, in August, by a hit to his head during practice that required Ertz to undergo the NFL's concussion protocol.
Ertz complained then about rookies lacking "respect"' for veterans like himself in contact periods of practice and that "it needed to be addressed." So when reporters asked head coach Doug Pederson to address it soon afterwards, he said this:
"Football is a contact sport. This is gonna happen. And whether it happens today or it happens Thursday night, it's part of the game. I'm a big believer in you never shy away from contact. You got to have contact. Again, it's a contact sport. You just keep training the guys. You keep talking to them about protection.
"We're in a live situation, too, so I understand the competitiveness of the drill. But I've tried to get the message across, too, sometimes: Just protect each other. Try not to go low if you can. It's reactionary stuff. But you can't fault the players for trying to make plays."
I've included the entire quote so there is no danger of it being out of context. It was clear then that Pederson, despite all his love 'em up talk, expects his players to seek out contact.
Which should make the conversation he has with Ertz a very colorful one.
But I can't help also thinking that maybe at least some of this is psychological. I am not being flip here. No one quite understands the effects of concussions, only that their manifestation varies from player to player, and that there is no set number or intensity which triggers them. We know that characteristics can be altered through them, personalities can change. Whatever you thought of Ertz's pass-catching potential, he was perceived to be tough as nails that rookie season.
That reputation has eroded over the last two Sundays.
Maybe this has nothing to do with his head, only his heart. Maybe this, as many angry fans believe, is just part of the NFL money grab, a player rewarded handsomely for the potential his first three seasons suggested, losing the edge that got him to that point, playing it safe.
But I keep thinking about how he was once perceived and how he is perceived now. And that it's hard to believe, at least for me, that money is its only root.