Brent Celek, longest-tenured Eagle, keeps eyes on prize
The Eagles tight end knows he can contribute more, but he has been willing to take a lesser role for ultimate glory.
At his current pace, Brent Celek will finish this season with fewer catches than the year before, which would be the sixth straight season that the Eagles tight end failed to top his previous year's total.
And Celek cares.
"It's tough sometimes being in the position I'm in just because if you don't do it then people think you can't do it," Celek said Wednesday. "I still feel like I can do it. Sometimes you just need the opportunity."
Celek, 32, got that opportunity last game when Zach Ertz was a late scratch. He caught three passes for 39 yards against the Broncos — not exactly the kind of numbers Celek put up in his heyday. But seeing the veteran break tackles and carry defenders was an all too infrequent reminder of what he has meant to the Eagles and that he can still perform at a high level.
"I don't think he's slowed down at all. I don't see it," Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich said. "I watch all the guys very closely, the way he runs and moves. His route-running capabilities. We don't use him because of Zach and Trey [Burton], because those guys are so good in that area as well.
"But when Zach went down and Brent had to step up, there is literally so much confidence in who he is as a football player, what he brings to our team, his leadership and his toughness."
So, yes, Celek cares that he doesn't play as much or isn't as much a part of the passing offense, but when it comes to the Eagles he cares about so much more than himself. If he was so concerned about personal accolades or his bank account, he could have gambled on free agency.
But every time the Eagles came to him about a new contract, whether it was an extension or this past offseason's pay cut, Celek said he never thought too deeply about leaving Philadelphia.
"I know I could have done that, but the money is not the endgame for me," said Celek, who was nominated by the Eagles this week for the NFL's 2017 Art Rooney Sportsmanship Award. "First of all, it's winning a championship. And most importantly, it's winning a championship here. After I've been here for as long as I've been here, what am I going to gain going somewhere else?"
Celek, who is in his 11th season, is not only the longest-tenured Eagles player, but he has spent more years in Philly than any other current professional athlete. While the 8-1 Eagles have acquired players who have won Super Bowls, Celek is the only one who knows what it's like to win a playoff game for this team.
"I look back and I still remember what it feels like walking off that field in Arizona," Celek said of the Eagles' 32-25 loss to the Cardinals in the NFC championship game in January 2009.
Celek, then in his second season, was just coming into his own. He caught 10 passes for 83 yards and two touchdowns in that playoff defeat, and the following season he set career highs in catches (76), receiving yards (971) and touchdowns (8). The Eagles also made the postseason in both 2009 and 2010.
But the Eagles only qualified for the playoffs once in the next six years
"When you're young, you think: I'll probably have two or three more of these," Celek said. "But you get and old and realize, crap, these don't happen very often. I want to tell these guys, 'We've only got one chance. We've got to take advantage of this chance because it's all we've got.'"
Celek, who is signed through 2018, is taking the same approach to questions of retirement. He said he'll wait until after the season to see how he feels. But the Eagles could certainly want him back. He's playing 42 percent of offensive snaps, mostly as a blocker, and still has a part-time role on special teams.
But the Eagles keep him around for more than just his on-field ability.
"He's the ultimate teammate," Burton said. "He holds us to a higher standard. It's elevated the play in our room tremendously."
Celek would rather he contributed more, but his objective isn't individual.
"At the end of the day," Celek said, "there's only one goal I want and that's to win a Super Bowl."
Jay Ajayi was born in London, but when he was 7 he moved to Maryland and eventually settled in Frisco, Texas.
Frisco is located about 30 miles north of Dallas, and Ajayi got to play at AT&T Stadium, located in nearby Arlington, when he was a senior at Liberty High. Sunday will be the first time the new Eagles running back gets to play at Jerry Jones' Pleasure Dome, however, since joining the NFL
"This is a special one for me, I won't lie," Ajayi said Thursday. "Growing up in Texas in my household, the Cowboys were on the TV quite a bit. And it's funny, my mom's actually an Eagles fan, and so, she was super psyched when I got here."
Ajayi's father, Ibi, and mother, Kemi, are natives of Nigeria, but both quickly became fans of American football. They couldn't have picked teams as polar to support.
"It was like a split household," Ajayi said. "My daddy was on the Cowboys side. My mom, she loved Donovan McNabb. That was like her favorite player. She always was rooting for the Eagles."
Ajayi said his parents are now both Eagles fans, just as they were Dolphins fans when he previously played in Miami. He said that more than 20 of his friends and family members will be in attendance when the Cowboys host the Eagles.
He should play more than he did in his first game with the Eagles when he saw the field for 17 snaps and rushed eight times for 77 yards and a touchdown. Last week, running backs coach Duce Staley said that Ajayi was a fast learner.
"A lot of long nights this first week here, me and Duce," Ajayi said. "Staying in the books. He was doing a great job of just giving me a lot of information. At times, it almost felt like a lot. I was able to grasp everything and he made it real, real simple for me."
The bye week gave Ajayi an extra week to study and he said that he now has "a really good grasp of our playbook."
With LeGarrette Blount still expected to get his share of snaps, Ajayi won't likely have too much on his plate. Rookie Corey Clement will also remain part of the rotation, particularly on passing downs. Ajayi was playing fewer third downs in Miami, in part because of his struggles in pass protection.
"It really comes down to knowing your assignment," Ajayi said. "If you don't know who you're going to block, you can't be out there."
Joe Walker has played exclusively as the Eagles' middle linebacker in their base defense, but opposing offenses have thrown more than they've passed against that personnel grouping.
Of the 69 snaps he has played since replacing the injured Jordan Hicks, Walker has dropped to cover 34 times. He also rushed four times against the pass. Has it been circumstantial or are opposing offensive coordinators challenging Walker, who has performed better against the run?
It's difficult to say. While the defense hasn't missed a beat since Hicks suffered a season-ending Achilles tendon rupture — with Mychal Kendricks taking most of his nickel downs — the Eagles likely brought veteran Dannell Ellerbe in this week to compete with Walker.
"I think we'll start him probably learning all three positions," defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said of Ellerbe.
Walker, who missed his entire rookie season with a torn ACL, said that the game continues to slow down for him. He said that having Nigel Bradham and Kendricks flank him on the outside has helped him call the plays and set the front alignment.
"Those guys are experienced," Walker said. "They keep the huddle calm, especially for me. I make the calls, but they also help."
Five questions with: Mychal Kendricks
If you couldn't play the position you now play in the NFL, which position would you want to play? Running back. I've tried to play running back a couple times. I've already asked Doug [Pederson]. … They were going to put a package in, but they never got around to it. I stopped asking.
What's your least favorite part of the week practice leading up to a game? The waiting is the worst. The Saturday before you go to the hotel.
What's the hardest you've ever been hit? Probably in college. It was against Miami in a bowl game. I had to split the wedge [on a kickoff return] and I got hit so hard. I got taken out of the game for a period.
What's your favorite play you ever made in football? It had to be a quarterback hit. Either the one against [Robert Griffin III] and the Redskins or the one against Seattle and [Russell Wilson].
When did you first think that you were good enough to play in the NFL? When Coach Clancy [Pendergast] came from the Arizona Cardinals to coach at Cal, he was like, 'You're going to be a good player. You remind me of [former Bears linebacker] Lance Briggs.'
Inside the game
Last week, Tim Jernigan became the 11th highest-paid interior defensive lineman in the NFL when he signed a four-year, $48 million contract. A potential annual salary of $12 million slots the defensive tackle alongside the Bears' Akeim Hicks and the Steelers' Stephon Tuitt.
Jernigan's performance in the first nine games of this season and the expected market for interior defensive linemen places the $12 million-per-year salary in context. But what raised some eyebrows around the NFL was a guaranteed number of $26 million.
Is that figure fully guaranteed or only in case of injury? While a closer look at the Jernigan's deal, as provided by an NFL source, didn't answer that question, a year-by-year breakdown did provide some more detail. A $10 million signing bonus and the remaining $478,000 of his base salary this season are fully guaranteed.
Jernigan's base salary for 2018 ($3 million) is also fully guaranteed. His base salary for 2019 is guaranteed at $11 million, but it wasn't clear was how much was fully guaranteed or when it becomes guaranteed. The same applies to the $1 million of his $12 million base salary for 2020 that is guaranteed.
For 2021, Jernigan's $12 million is not guaranteed. To hit the $48 million ceiling of the contract, he would have to hit yearly escalators tied to performance incentives.
— The Eagles haven't seen much of the zone read this season, but when they have they've had mixed results in stopping option football.
The Panthers were the only opposing offense to employ the tactic for more than two plays. When quarterback Cam Newton handed off, Carolina running backs gained only 10 yards on five carries against the Eagles. But on the two occasions in which he kept, Newton rushed for 32 yards and a touchdown.
The Redskins' Kirk Cousins (one carry for 9 yards) and the Chiefs' Alex Smith (2 carries for 12 yards) were the only other quarterbacks to run off the zone read.
The Eagles, though, could face their toughest challenge, at least in stopping a mobile quarterback, when they face the Cowboys' Dak Prescott on Sunday. Prescott is averaging 7.4 yards per carry this season, a significant increase over a 4.9 average in his rookie year.
Dallas likes to call his number inside the red zone. Prescott has five rushing touchdowns this season, and with running back Ezekiel Elliott suspended, the Eagles will need to be prepared for defending the zone read.
"This is probably a game we're going to have to devote some resources to it," Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said Tuesday. "Particularly short yardage, red zone."
The Cowboys like to also run Prescott off bootlegs and draw plays, so the Eagles will have to be ready for just about anything.
Inside the locker room
When reporters walked into the Eagles locker room on Monday, a copy of Tom Brady's new book, "The TB12 Method: How to Achieve a Lifetime of Sustained Peak Performance," was in Carson Wentz's stall.
Wentz said the book, in which the 40-year-old Patriots quarterback lays out his progression approach to exercise, nutrition and rest for athletes, was sent to him. Asked if planned on reading it, the Eagles quarterback said that he likely would during the offseason.
BY THE NUMBERS
Number of victories, including the playoffs, the Eagles have had since 2000, fifth in the NFL. Of the top ten teams — 1. Patriots 233, 2. Steelers 197, 3. Colts 191, 4. Packers 187, 5. Eagles 177, 6. Ravens 176, 7. Seahawks 172, 8. Broncos 171, 9. Saints 160, 10. Giants 157 — the Eagles are the only ones without a Super Bowl over that span.
Number of 20-plus-yard rushing plays the Eagles have had this season, which is tops in the NFL.
Number of 40-plus-yard field goals for Jake Elliott this season, which is second to only David Akers (17) in Eagles history.