For the second straight year, Mychal Kendricks sat out multiple games with a soft-tissue injury in the first half of the season. But this year, the inside linebacker watched a rookie step into his shoes and play at a level equal to, and arguably even better than, Kendricks'.
The sample was small, but Jordan Hicks had one of the most productive debuts ever for an Eagles defensive player. Asked whether he learned anything from observing the rookie, Kendricks gave his teammate props, but said he "learned more about myself" during what was essentially five games of inactivity.
"I learned a lot of people have talent," Kendricks said this past week. "This game is unforgiving. You've got to really be able to step up and play. If you're hurt, you're hurt, dude. You've got to be able to play. This game is so unforgiving - the business side of it. We're all renting space."
Kendricks had just finished answering a series of questions from a group of reporters about Hicks' season-ending pectoral muscle injury and how he will compensate for the loss. Kendricks reminded the reporters he has been a four-year starter dating back to his rookie season.
Just this August, the Eagles rewarded Kendricks with a four-year contract extension worth $29 million. So he's renting space longer than most Eagles, it would seem, even in spite of Hicks' performance.
"That's just a contract. That [stuff] can be torn up," Kendricks said. "That contract doesn't mean [anything], to be quite honest. It means they invested in me, if you look at the business side of things."
Indeed, nearly $12 million of Kendricks' salary is guaranteed. So he isn't going anywhere, at least for the next few years. And frankly, the Eagles need him now more than ever. Kendricks was up and down in the two games since his return from a hamstring injury, but there were signs that he could be close to all the way back.
And when Kendricks has been at full speed, he's been electric. He has peaked in the second half of his first three seasons. The Eagles open the latter half of their schedule on Sunday against the Miami Dolphins, and Kendricks will start and likely play the majority of snaps at inside linebacker.
In 20 games over the first halves of Kendricks' first three seasons, he averaged 7.5 tackles and totaled one sack, one interception, and one forced fumble. In 22 games over the second halves, he averaged 8.4 tackles and tallied eight sacks, two interceptions, and four forced fumbles.
Numbers tell only part of the story. Kendricks was constantly around the ball in the Eagles' division-clinching win two years ago in Dallas. He might have been the most disruptive defensive player on the field in the loss to the Seahawks last December.
Can he have that kind of impact in this season's final eight games?
"We're all on a rotation now just because we're so deep," Kendricks said. "I won't be out there as much. So it's going to be hard to [match my previous production]. If I am out there the whole time, then I'm out there. But I don't plan for my performance to fall off."
DeMeco Ryans is probable to play Sunday after missing the last two games with a hamstring injury. Getting him back should help, in particular in lining up the front seven in the Eagles' base defense. Kiko Alonso returned last week after arthroscopic knee surgery and understandably looked rusty, but defensive coordinator Bill Davis said he wasn't ready to increase Alonso's workload.
Hicks (58 of 76 snaps), Kendricks (56), and Alonso (29) rotated last week against the Cowboys. But Kendricks may have to play almost all of the snaps because of his cover skills. He had a strong game covering tight end Jason Witten and running back Darren McFadden in Dallas.
As a run defender, though, Kendricks was often hot or cold. He shot into the backfield early on but misjudged the play and missed McFadden, who ran 13 yards through Kendricks' abandoned gap. But he later read a handoff to McFadden and dropped him for a 3-yard loss.
The Eagles have allowed 100-yard rushers in back-to-back weeks for the first time in the last three years. Blame can be spread around, but culpability has lied chiefly with the inside linebackers.
"I anticipate him hitting his stride and being where he was," Davis said of Kendricks. "It usually takes about two or three weeks of getting back to practicing every day and playing in the games to where you settle in. Hopefully, Mychal is back to where he was."
In other words, he isn't there yet.
"I'm still hurting. I've still got to knock some of this rust off," Kendricks said. "I've got to get my angles right, a bunch of stuff. It'll be all good."
It's difficult to evaluate Kendricks without mentioning injuries. In March, Kelly said the "health aspect" of Kendricks' 2014 season - he missed four games to a calf strain - "was a difficult thing."
This was after Kelly traded for Alonso and before he drafted Hicks in the third round. In between those events, the Eagles had Kendricks up for sale in a trade, according to multiple NFL sources. Kendricks stayed away from the start of the Eagles' spring workouts, although he later said it had nothing to do with the trade reports.
Nevertheless, keeping Kendricks and adding depth to inside linebacker has paid off. He's yet to put together a full season because of injuries and an early-career learning curve, but when he's played at optimum strength the results have been exceptional.
The Eagles may need to see more exceptional play if they are to make a playoff push.
"I've been here. I've been doing this. I play football, man," Kendricks said. "Jordan was doing a good job, just as we all have. Now it's time for people who fill in to step up, just like he did."