The 16th week of the NFL season always brings a welcome respite to footsore football writers eager for fresh storylines:
Forget about those lucky half-dozen Eagles voted by the inexpert panels of fans, players and coaches Tuesday to be the best at their positions. What are they going to say? Thanks? No, the real entertainment comes from The Snubs' reactions. This year, the 12-win Eagles have three: center Jason Kelce, who would be going to his third Pro Bowl, as well as defensive end Brandon Graham and special teamer Kamu Grugier-Hill, who would be going to their first. (Also, Jalen Mills. According to Jalen Mills).
Kelce went to the Pro Bowl after the 2014 and 2016 seasons, much to his surprise.
"Both the years I went were two of the worst years I've had," Kelce said Wednesday. "Last year was probably the worst year of my career. It's pretty ironic, the two years I don't think I deserved to go, I wind up going."
He's a first alternate this year, but he probably didn't even deserve alternate status in his previous trips. Kelce missed four games in 2014 with a sports hernia, and, while he returned for the last nine games, the injury limited him considerably.
"I was pretty hobbled," he admitted. "I felt that pretty [severely]."
Injury wasn't the issue last season. He needed eight games to wash away the residue of three years in Chip Kelly's wacky scheme.
"Last year I had a rough start to the year," Kelce said. "That definitely was a humbling thing."
Now, stronger of body and nimbler of mind – he has a more intuitive grasp of Doug Pederson's system – Kelce has played the best football of his seven-year career. His snub this season is made all the more vexing after his last two games, in which he was simply brilliant.
Against the Rams, for instance, he pancaked linebacker Mark Barron on Corey Clement's 28-yard screen-pass reception that sparked the Eagles' first scoring drive; took out defensive end Robert Quinn on Jay Ajayi's 19-yard run during the third TD drive; then, with the team pinned at the Eagles' 7, manhandled 305-pound defensive tackle Tyrunn Walker to spring Ajayi for 14 yards late in the second quarter.
He was even better against the Giants on Sunday. Kelce twice took out two defenders on the same play, his signature moment arriving on Ajayi's 22-yard run in the middle of the third quarter: He first stoned linebacker Kelvin Sheppard, took two steps and tuned up linebacker B.J. Goodson. Kelce took out Goodson again on the next play, a 32-yard catch-and-run by Ajayi. That drive ended with the touchdown that iced the win and secured a first-round bye.
Kelce is the fulcrum of the No. 1 scoring offense and the No. 2 running game in the NFL. Pro Football Focus grades him to be not only the best center in the NFL but the best run-blocking lineman in the league, and PFF grades him higher overall than the Falcons' Alex Mack and the Cowboys' Travis Frederick, who made the team ahead of him.
"He does everything well. Run-block, pass-block; the angles that he takes to give us the big holes," said LeGarrette Blount, who has run behind Maurkice Pouncey in Pittsburgh. "Look at the film. A lot of those runs where we come through untouched is because he's getting through the line and getting to the linebacker on the second level. Guys get snubbed every year. I wouldn't have imagined it being him."
Kelce isn't sweating it: "Alex Mack and Travis Frederick were pretty darned good."
Graham feels the same way. Pretty much.
"It was right down the list. I understand. It's all about the numbers. It's always been about the numbers. Just gotta get more next year. Gotta figure out a way to get up in there," Graham said. "It just puts that extra chip on my shoulder."
Graham, who also is a first alternate, resigned himself to the reality that, at defensive end, stats matter. He has a career-high 9½ sacks and two forced fumbles, numbers that don't stack up against the Pro Bowl ends: DeMarcus Lawrence of the Cowboys has 13½ and four; Everson Griffen of the Vikings, 13 and three; Cameron Jordan of the Saints, 10 and two.
Graham said the numbers he cares most about are 12-2, the Eagles' current record, which secures them a first-round bye; and 3-0, which will be their playoff record if they win the Super Bowl.
"For me, my whole mindset is, we're going to the big bowl this year," said Graham, noting that last two teams standing don't send their players to the worst all-star game in sports, since it happens the week before the Super Bowl. "We wouldn't be able to go to the Pro Bowl, anyway."
However, he would have triggered an extra $500,000 in incentives by finally reaching the Pro Bowl; half this season and half as a salary escalator next season. By reaching nine sacks this season, he already boosted his 2018 base salary of $6.75 million by $500,000, but that Pro Bowl trip would look mighty good on his resume as he enters free agency as a 31-year-old in 2019.
"You want to get that under your belt, be able to say, 'Pro Bowler,' " Graham said.
That's doubly true if you're a second-year player just making your mark in the league.
The Cardinals punted 75 times this season, 44 percent more than the Eagles (52). This makes sense, since the Eagles are among the top two NFC offenses in points, yards and third-down conversion rate, while the Cards rank among the bottom four in each category.
This also means Budda Baker has 44 percent more chances to make big special-teams plays than Kamu Grugier-Hill.
Baker is going to the Pro Bowl.
Grugier-Hill is not.
"I think it comes down to, our offense doesn't punt the ball," he said. "Other teams are punting, like, 10 times a game. If you were to average out the number of tackles per punt, then look at the numbers."
That's not necessary. Grugier-Hill had 18 special-teams tackles, some of them show-stoppers. Baker had 15. Grugier-Hill blocked a kick. Baker did not.
Grugier-Hill, who was better-coached than we could ever know, also kicked off four times after kicker Jake Elliott was injured at Dallas. Baker did not.
Baker won the fan vote. Grugier-Hill did not.
"I'm disappointed because I set my standard to be the best," he said. "We've got bigger goals now."