An NFL team's fourth preseason game is supposed to be for the guys you don't know, the guys fighting for jobs in the league, hanging on to the hope that they'll be the 52nd name on the 53-man roster, that they'll land on the practice squad, that they'll have something resembling a future in pro football. It's not supposed to be for a player who has started 53 games at linebacker over the last four seasons, who ostensibly will be one of the Eagles' starting outside linebackers this season. It's not supposed to be for a player whom a team can't afford to lose. It's not supposed to be for, say, Mychal Kendricks.
Yet the Eagles' fourth preseason game is Thursday night against the New York Jets, and . . .
"There's a chance he plays," coach Doug Pederson said Monday.
What's going on here? Kendricks sat out the Eagles' first two preseason games with a hamstring injury then was on the field in the fourth quarter of Saturday's victory over the Indianapolis Colts - you know, the fourth quarter, with the backups and the maybes and the never-will-bes. Now, per Pederson, Kendricks might suit up against the Jets. Weird. Or perhaps not so weird.
"He hasn't played. He hasn't played," Pederson said. "We want to see him get game and live reps. That's the bottom line."
That's a strong sell there by a first-year NFL head coach. But it appears Kendricks will be the only prospective Eagles starter to play against the Jets, and having him do so smacks of the sort of message-sending test of an athlete's mettle seen at all levels of sport. If the Eagles were a high school basketball team, Kendricks would be running suicides after practice with the jayvees. If they were a high school swimming team, he'd be cleaning the pool after a meet. It's difficult not to see this decision as an indication that this new coaching staff is trying to . . . shall we say . . . encourage Kendricks to play through nagging, soft-tissue injuries that he might not have played through in the past.
Remember: He has never appeared in all 16 regular-season games since the Eagles made him a second-round draft pick in 2012. He missed four games in 2014 with a calf injury. If the Eagles, particularly defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, regarded Kendricks as so essential to their defense that the unit would be damaged significantly by his absence, why risk sending him out there Thursday?
Neither Kendricks nor Schwartz was made available to the media Monday, but already the Eagles have provided some clues to how they'd answer those questions. At a minimum, they have taken Schwartz's insight and opinion into strong consideration when making player-personnel decisions intended to improve their defense. Leodis McKelvin, Ron Brooks, Nigel Bradham, and most recently Stephen Tulloch - all of these signees played for Schwartz with previous teams, and Bradham and Tulloch are linebackers. Are both of them here merely to push Kendricks, or is Schwartz that much more comfortable and confident in them? Kendricks is supposed to be part of the Eagles' nickel package, there to cover a tight end or a running back on a pass route - except he didn't play in the nickel at all against Indianapolis.
If nothing else, the Eagles are signaling that Kendricks needs to show them that he's more than just another dispensable cog on defense. Pederson can argue all he likes that the Eagles need a longer look at Kendricks in this new system or that they need to get him some reps to prepare him for the season opener against the Cleveland Browns on Sept. 11. But consider wide receiver Jordan Matthews, who injured his knee on Aug. 9, missed the team's three preseason games, and hadn't practiced again until Monday. He all but scoffed at the idea that he'd play against the Jets.
"That's always been that way," Matthews said. "I've never played in the fourth preseason game, so I don't really think of that as a big deal. And it wasn't just me. They were patient with a lot of the guys. Coach Pederson has played. He understands that you don't want a guy to come back and be 80, 70 (percent) unless you need him that day. Basically, the situation was the risk far outweighed the reward to rush me back just to get some reps in the preseason. So he saw that. The other coaches saw that."
They apparently see something different when they look at Mychal Kendricks. And for whatever reason, they need to see more of it Thursday, in a game that is never supposed to be for the guy he is supposed to be.