Earl Wolff was sitting at his locker at the NovaCare Complex on Thursday afternoon, his back to everyone, his head hanging low, when out of the corner of his eye he saw DeMeco Ryans enter the room.
A rookie safety, Wolff is nursing an injured right knee and has missed four of the Eagles' last five games. Though he had practiced Thursday, he still felt so sore that he worried whether he'd be healthy enough to suit up Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys, for the game that will determine whether the Eagles reach the playoffs. He motioned to Ryans, who leaned in for a conversation in which he mostly whispered and Wolff mostly listened.
This, according to Wolff, is what Ryans told him:
Earl, think about it this way, man: Stay positive. Just think about doing everything you can recovery-wise. I'm telling you. Friday is like a day off. Saturday, you're not doing much, either. You might wake up Sunday feeling 110 percent.
"He can tell when there's something wrong," Wolff said. "That's the type of guy he is, man."
It is difficult to understand or appreciate the respect that Ryans commands among his teammates. It borders on reverence. Part of it is how he plays and how much he plays. He has been on the field for 1,120 snaps this season, according to the statistical and scouting firm Pro Football Focus. That's already more than he played all of last season. That's more than 96 percent of the Eagles' total defensive snaps. That's a rather high number of snaps for a middle linebacker who is finishing his eighth NFL season, who tore his left Achilles tendon just three years ago, and who turns 30 in July.
Yet he hasn't buckled under the heavier workload. His four sacks and two interceptions are career highs, and his 96 tackles are his most since 2007, his second year in the league, and his durability is of particular note this week. The Cowboys will be without linebacker Sean Lee, their best and most valuable defensive player. He's out with a neck injury. Ryans will play. Ryans always plays.
The rest of it is him - who he is, how he carries himself. For a while it was easy to lump Ryans in with the other misbegotten player-personnel decisions that the franchise made within the year following the 2011 lockout, to include him in that wholesale roster reshaping that earned the Eagles that mocking "Dream Team" moniker and that dropped them to the bottom of the NFC East.
Nnamdi Asomugha, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Jason Babin, Vince Young, Ronnie Brown, Cullen Jenkins, Steve Smith - all of them had showed up in 2011 to so much fanfare, and thanks to that March 2012 trade with the Houston Texans, Ryans arrived as the leader and player who was supposed to solidify the Eagles defense.
He was just OK last season. He started 16 games, but nothing about his statistics was striking, and no one wants to hear about leadership when a team is nose-diving to a 4-12 season. One quarterback sack? One interception? We're quick to quantify everything about sports these days, to probe the numbers for an insight we otherwise wouldn't have found just by watching the games, and on the whole that is a valuable development. But Ryans brings something beyond the raw data, and those intangible attributes matter, too. It is no accident he's the only one of those ballyhooed acquisitions who's still here.
"As bad as it was last year, it couldn't be anything but good this year," he said. "Coming in with the new staff, new players, you always expect the best, and I feel like we've come a long way since last year - a totally different culture in this locker room."
He's had a greater hand in that cultivating change than perhaps any other player, just as he had in Houston.
"I've never seen a free agent or player leave and have the effect it had when DeMeco left," said linebacker Connor Barwin, who was Ryans' teammate for three years with the Texans. "It was across the locker room, 52 guys who were shocked and surprised."
For Barwin, the most telling memory of the Texans' reaction to Ryans' departure was a television interview that defensive lineman Antonio Smith gave just after the trade. Smith stared into the cameras and criticized the team's general manager, Rick Smith: "I'm not in [agreement] with it, Rick. . . . Come on, Rick."
So open a show of defiance within a franchise remains rare in the NFL, but Smith's words captured the sentiment within the Texans locker room, crystallizing what the Texans had lost and what the Eagles have since gained.
"He's the same guy he was in Houston," Barwin said. "He never alters. He always carries himself as the utmost professional, and it's not an act. There are some guys who can fake it, but for 'Meco, that's who he really is."