BETHLEHEM, Pa. - They arrived in Lehigh on a July afternoon in 2005, a few months removed from Donovan McNabb's scoring drive in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl and a few weeks away from Terrell Owens' performing crunches for television cameras on his front lawn. They were the new batch of players joining a franchise approaching the apex of the NFL, members of an 11-man draft class on a team that had won four consecutive NFC East titles.
After seven completed seasons, Mike Patterson, Todd Herremans, and Trent Cole remain. They've outlasted McNabb, Owens, and team president Joe Banner, experienced a losing season and winning seasons and a pair of 8-8 seasons. And after Jamaal Jackson's exit during the offseason, they are now the longest-tenured Eagles.
"If you look at the average life of an NFL player, and then you think about how the three of us have been on the same spot for eight years, it's something pretty special," Herremans said. "We've been through quite a bit together. We've watched the team change. We've been part of the team changing."
Of the 32 draft classes that season, only the Eagles and Cowboys still have three players who have spent their entire careers with the team. In Dallas, two of the players - DeMarcus Ware and Jay Ratliff - are perennial Pro Bowlers.
In Philadelphia, the players are part of the core. Cole has been to two Pro Bowls, but the trio represents more of the glue on the team than the ones whose jerseys are displayed in the team store. In fact, only Cole's No. 58 was sold in the merchandise tent at training camp.
"Any of the veteran leadership you can get on the team is very important," coach Andy Reid said. "Especially guys that have been through what we do here. It's a little different than what some other teams do, than what some of the colleges do. When these new guys are coming in, they're kind of learning our way. So those guys are great to have around to share their experience with."
When Patterson attempted to pinpoint why these are the three who lasted, he mentioned that they had attitudes the coaches appreciate. They operate in workmanlike fashion, low-maintenance players who fill important roles.
When healthy, they are starters. They offer valuable voices in the locker room and familiar faces for Reid. And they help explain what makes a good draft class and how the Eagles can use 2005 when making future decisions.
The rookies first met at minicamps at the NovaCare Complex in spring of 2005. Patterson was the first-rounder who received most of the attention. Herremans, a fourth-round pick, arrived with a low profile from Saginaw Valley State. Cole, a fifth-round selection, was an afterthought prospect trying to transition from linebacker to defensive end.
Patterson remembered an early relationship because they were all linemen, with similar sizes and personalities. But it was a big class, and many of the players were friends.
Herremans and Matt McCoy, a second-round pick who is now with the Seahawks, used to help organize paintball excursions for the group. Cole and Sean Considine, a fourth-round pick who is now with the Ravens, hunted together during the offseason. Patterson and Reggie Brown, a second-round pick who is out of the NFL, lived across the street from each other.
The group lost members seemingly each season during the early years. Seventh-round pick David Bergeron didn't make the team. Another seventh-rounder, Keyonta Marshall, and sixth-round pick Calvin Armstrong lasted only one year. Fifth-round pick Scott Young, third-round pick Ryan Moats, and McCoy did not make it past their third year in Philadelphia. Considine and Brown left in 2009.
"We've grown closer to each other, and it's more like a brotherhood," Patterson said. "I've had the chance to play with guys, I can say, for my career. Eight years is a long time. I've been lucky to have these two."
At the first camp, Herremans watched Brown and figured he'd be the best one of the group. Each has developed in his own way - Herremans into the versatile lineman who plays both guard and tackle; Patterson into a consistent starter, lining up with the first-team nearly every game of his career; and Cole into a feared pass rusher who has reached double-digit sacks in four of the last five seasons.
Their first NFL season helped build perspective. With the hangover of a Super Bowl loss and the messy distraction of the Owens-McNabb feud, the Eagles limped to a 6-10 finish. Rookies who thought they were entering a winning program heard stern words from veterans telling them the season was unsuccessful in Philadelphia. Patterson called it the low point of his Eagles tenure.
When the Eagles rebounded to finish 10-6 the following season, Reid emphasized after the playoff loss to the New Orleans Saints how important it was to reinstitute a winning culture for the draft classes that had not experienced success. Reid's message was clear: Winning can be the product of a culture, and it was important for young players to experience that culture early in their careers.
The reason is that young players become wily veterans, when the ones seeking advice in the locker room convert into the ones offering advice. A marked transition occurred when Brian Dawkins and McNabb left in 2008 and 2009, respectively. Herremans said that during the last two seasons, the change crystallized.
"As you watch guys come into the locker room and leave the locker room," Herremans said, "you know it's going to happen."
Soon enough, it will happen to the three from the 2005 draft class. But not yet. Both Herremans and Cole signed contract extensions during the offseason. It marked their third contracts with the team. Patterson, who is recovering from brain surgery, is in his second contract, which runs through 2016. By virtue of their ages and their experience, they are respected in the locker room.
"And it's not something that just happened this year because we're the three longest-tenured," Herremans said. "We're guys that have been here for a while and constantly put in the work."
Tom Heckert drafted the 2005 class and believed that a draft which yielded three starters can be considered a success. Howie Roseman, who was then the director of football administration and is now the general manager, has researched the topic and agrees that three is the number. If one player is a Pro Bowler and another becomes a starter, the class can also be considered strong.
Three starters after seven years is an achievement, which is ultimately how the 2005 class will be judged. Other players have moved on and either struggled or started itinerant careers, but the Eagles identified the three who could be long-term players for the team.
"That's a great draft because you have a Pro Bowler, that's your difference maker," Roseman said. "Then you get two solid starters with great character who are part of your core."
Roseman said the draft class can also be used as an example to his scouts that there are "no throwaway picks." If a core player can be found with Herremans in the fourth round and a Pro Bowler such as Cole in the fifth round, then those rounds could continue to yield dividends.
"Are we going to find them or is someone else going to find them?" Roseman asked.
The other factor to consider is that the Eagles had 11 picks that season. Roseman often moves around in the draft to accumulate draft choices, a strategy that can be criticized if they move back and miss a chance to select a difference maker. But by stockpiling picks, Roseman sees practicality. If the Eagles have three starters remaining from an 11-player class, that's nearly the same percentage as a team that has two starters remaining from a seven-player draft.
"The more chances you have, the more lottery tickets you have," Roseman said. "That's our philosophy, as well. Because as much as we think we're going to be good, the history says they're not going to all pan out."
Eight years later, the Eagles found three who panned out. They share a bond off the field, starting roles on it, and have been linked ever since the April weekend in 2005 when they were made teammates. And they want to stay together as long as possible.
"I kind of look back now, there's only three of us left, we got a whole new team in front of us, a lot of people come and go," Cole said. "We're the three last standing."