Tim Jernigan seemed pretty darned happy Friday, as he stood ready to finally make his season debut Sunday against the Giants, but Fletcher Cox might have been even happier.
Last season, when the Eagles were forging their path to the Super Bowl, Jernigan was enough of a force at defensive tackle that opposing offenses couldn't focus all their energy on the other defensive tackle, Cox, who was named to the Pro Bowl for the third year in a row and also received second-team All-Pro honors.
"Tim just comes out and creates a lot of havoc. I'm actually excited to see him on Sunday," Cox said. "It's great, man, 'cause now a team has to pick who they want to double-team. With him winning those one-on-one battles, it puts us in better situations."
This season, Cox has been paired with Haloti Ngata, who turns 35 in January, and several practice-squad-level DTs. The dropoff from Jernigan has been severe.
Jernigan was elevated to the roster from the reserve non-football injury list on Tuesday.
"It's been a long road," he said Friday. "It's a blessing, man. I'm just glad to be out there with my brothers playing football again."
Jernigan's journey began back in the spring. Friday, he declined to detail what happened, "for safety reasons," but a source with knowledge of the situation said Jernigan called the Eagles one day, saying he was in Florida and had awakened with excruciating neck and arm pain. When Jernigan was examined at NovaCare, an MRI showed a badly herniated cervical disk.
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In April, Jernigan underwent a cervical fusion, which would allow him to play again after a long rehab, but also would increase his chances of herniating the disk just above or below the fusion. The source said another herniation could be a career-ender for Jernigan, who is 26. The Eagles almost immediately requested and got a revision of the four-year, $48 million contract negotiated during the 2017 season, removing guarantees. Jernigan can still make all his money, but he is easier to cut.
"I think everything worked out for the best for both of us," Jernigan said Friday.
Asked if he had thought it would take this long to be ready to play, Jernigan said the stakes were a bit higher than that.
"[Bleep], I'm blessed to play football again," he said. "One day when this thing is over with, or I'm wrapping it up, I'll get more in detail about everything, but I'm lucky to play football again."
Asked if he thinks the injury will affect him for the rest of his career, Jernigan said: "I don't think so. It's only one way to find out, and that's Sunday. When you go out there Sunday and you're taking on a couple of double-teams and you gotta tackle [Giants running back] Saquon Barkley, you'll find out if you're all right or not."
Jernigan said that during the six months he was unable to lift weights or practice, "I just told myself and promised myself that I wouldn't ever let anybody play with more purpose and passion than I plan to play this game with, as long as I'm playing. It definitely means so much more to me, and it has definitely been tough watching. Whether this season would have been good or bad, it's just been tough for me to watch."
Jernigan said that watching the games, "It's hard, man. Especially, sometimes watching games that, you know, maybe I could have made that play. … It's going to be interesting to see how I play on Sunday."
He said his 3-year-old daughter, Naomi, "is a big reason I'm here today. … I was kind of up in the air and trying to figure things out [before undergoing surgery], and my oldest daughter told me she wanted to go to the Super Bowl again. She definitely gave me that lift to say, 'Get your butt back out there and keep playing football.' "
Jernigan said he felt "instant relief" after surgery.
He said he understands that "of course, you got to knock a little bit of the rust off – the guys you're going up against have been doing this stuff since July," but "I've got confidence in myself, I've got confidence in the guys beside me."
Jernigan was a second-round pick, 48th overall, of the Ravens in 2014, when Eagles player personnel vice president Joe Douglas worked in Baltimore. The Eagles traded down 25 spots in the third round of the 2017 NFL draft to acquire Jernigan, who ended up playing 48 percent of the defensive snaps last year in a solid, deep rotation.
"It means a lot" to get Jernigan back this week, safety Malcolm Jenkins said, as the 4-6 Eagles fight to save their season against the NFC East rival Giants. "He's a talented player, but also he's got a mean attitude. He's one of those guys that I think is very disruptive up front. Everything we do on defense is predicated on how we disrupt up front, whether it's the run game or the pass rush. Obviously, we want to put an emphasis on [stopping] the run game. I think having him back helps."
Barkley gained 130 yards on just 13 carries in the teams' first meeting, Oct. 11 at MetLife Stadium, a 34-13 Eagles victory. It is the only Eagles win all season that didn't come down to the final minutes.