'I've prayed for a team like this': How the Eagles' splashy offseason is paying off

ByTim McManus ESPN logo
Thursday, November 3, 2022

PHILADELPHIA -- Standing by his locker stall last week, Eagles veteran defensive end Brandon Graham smiled as he rattled off all the key additions to the team over the last several months -- a group that includes receiver A.J. Brown, edge rusher Haason Reddick, cornerback James Bradberry, safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson, linebacker Kyzir White and the newest member, defensive end Robert Quinn.

"I've prayed for a team like this. I'm not going to lie," the 34-year-old Graham said.

"I've been dreaming about a team like this where, man, we're playing together, we're undefeated," adding that the chemistry this group has right now is similar to the tight-knit 2017 squad that won it all.

Chemistry is a fickle thing. When you add big-name players to the locker room mix, you're about as likely to end up with the "Dream Team" -- the ill-fated moniker for the 2011 Eagles who proved to be anything but -- as you are a team you dream about.

But the Eagles are on a roll. They struck gold in 2017 with acquisitions like defensive end Chris Long and running backs LeGarrette Blount and Jay Ajayi, who helped get the Eagles over the hump and capture their first-ever Lombardi Trophy.

And the early returns on this year's haul look remarkably strong. The Eagles have top-rated units on both sides of the ball, and are 7-0 for just the second time in the organization's history, joining the 2004 team that went to the Super Bowl. They look to continue that streak when they face the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium on Thursday (8:15 p.m. ET, Prime Video).

Brown, fresh off a career-high 156-yard, three-touchdown performance against the Pittsburgh Steelers, is on pace for 1,600 receiving yards, which would shatter a franchise record that has stood since 1983 (Mike Quick, 1,409 yards). Quarterback Jalen Hurts is at his best when throwing to his good friend, tossing five touchdowns with no interceptions with a 90.4 QBR. Hurts and Brown have been tight since their college days, beginning when Hurts tried to recruit Brown to Alabama.

"When you're playing for somebody that you love, that you call family, it's a different meaning behind it," Brown said. "I know I can't let him down."

Gardner-Johnson is tied for the league lead with four interceptions despite making the move from corner to safety on the doorstep of the season. Bradberry is tied for second in passes defensed (10) and entered Week 8 with the second-best opposing passer rating (32.4) in the league behind only his teammate Darius Slay (31.8). The list goes on.

"[The] team already had some talent on it before we got here," Bradberry said. "We were just kind of some of the missing pieces I guess they needed to really bring it all together."

There are several reasons as to why it has worked out so well. Luck, Bradberry acknowledged, plays a part. So, too, does the utilization of the "cohabitation matrix" as the front office has called it -- a cross-referencing process where everyone in the Eagles network who has history with a prospective free agent or trade acquisition weighs in on that player to help ensure a locker room fit. And perhaps most importantly, there's been a concerted effort on the part of coach Nick Sirianni and the veteran leaders to create an environment where newcomers are welcomed and taken under wing, with ego being set aside for the greater good.

"[O]ur guys that we have in this building right now," said defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon, "care more about their teammate than they do themselves."

THE CASE OF "Dicker the Kicker" shows the degree this group goes to ease the acclimation process.

When Pro Bowl kicker Jake Elliott went down with an ankle injury in early October, the Eagles signed undrafted rookie Cameron Dicker in front of their Week 5 game at the Arizona Cardinals. Early that week, Sirianni went around to the top special teams players, a league source said, encouraging them to welcome Dicker as one of their own and go out of their way to make him feel like a part of the team.

"[Punter Arryn Siposs] and [long snapper Rick Lovato] took him under their arms. Jake gave him support. They embraced him," Sirianni said. "That's our team."

Then, during a meeting that Saturday morning, Sirianni showed the entire team highlights of Dicker kicking at the University of Texas to pump him up. Dicker went on to become NFC Special Teams Player of the Week after hitting a pair of field goals against Arizona, including a 23-yarder in the closing moment to lift Philadelphia to a 20-17 win.

Bringing in a rookie kicker for a short-term fix is one thing. Adding big-name and/or big-money players is another. One reason free agent signings and trades don't work out is because of the way it affects entrenched players at that position group. In a sport where the search for job security is a constant struggle, it's easy to be concerned when a big-name player is brought in.

The Eagles, though, have some key veterans who see the twilight of their careers coming, and are prioritizing chasing hardware over defending their own turf. Graham, 34, has had this mentality tested more than anyone else, first with the signing of Reddick to a three-year, $45 million deal in free agency, and most recently with the acquisition of Quinn via a trade from the Chicago Bears. Graham, though, was one of the first people to greet Quinn when he arrived in Philadelphia, wearing that thousand-watt smile as he offered some encouraging words.

"Really everyone embraced me, made me feel welcome so I don't feel like I'm walking around like a stranger," Quinn said. "I've got to thank the guys for welcoming me as easy as they did."

Slay has taken a similar tact with Bradberry. Sirianni went out of his way to praise Slay -- a team captain for the first time in his career -- for his leadership, saying that whether it's lending teammates his car or making sure they have a place to go for Thanksgiving, he has gone above and beyond to cultivate the kind of family-like atmosphere the coaching staff was hoping for.

"We have great leaders on this team that know what it takes to get to the top," Sirianni said. "It's not the best group of individuals that wins championships. It's not the best group of individuals that wins games. It's the best team, right? These guys work like crazy to do so."

THE "COHABITATION MATRIX"was first made public in 2018 when Roseman used it during a pre-draft interview session with reporters. It's a system set up by former VP of player personnel Joe Douglas, now the general manager of the New York Jets, where people who have connections to a player they are thinking about acquiring are identified and sought out in order to get a fuller picture of how a prospect conducts himself both inside and outside the building.

Its usage was on full display with the Quinn signing. Eagles director of sports performance Ted Rath and secondary coach Dennard Wilson were on the Los Angeles Rams staff when Quinn was there. Gannon was a scout for the Rams when they drafted him in 2011. And former players Chris Long and Connor Barwin, now the director of player development with the Eagles, played with him on the Rams. All offered their input before Quinn was brought on board. Before Quinn even arrived at the building, players were talking like they already knew him.

The process is similar for all of their prospects, with coaches and staff members asked to submit background information on players they've overlapped with.

"They did a lot of research, talking to coaches in the league. I know my agent and my secondary coach [Wilson], they're pretty familiar with each other -- my agent represented Dennard when he was a player," Bradberry said. "My coach I guess just trusted that opinion about me as a player and as a person."

The Eagles didn't have to look far to find a tie to Brown. Hurts and Brown call each other best friends. There wasn't much of a leap involved in figuring out how they would mesh as teammates.

"I have a lot of trust in A.J. I think that's a lot of the reason why he's here," Hurts said. "We've always had a great relationship. It's been beautiful to see how it's unfolded throughout the year, personally for him and I, and us on the field. I always had a lot of admiration for his mentality. He's been doing great things for us, I'm proud of him as a friend and as a quarterback."

Hurts seems at peace this year -- as much as a football perfectionist can, anyway -- and the same seems to be true for just about everybody on the roster. The energy is pinging off one player to the next. And that's no coincidence.

"It's the best players holding the best players accountable," said Brown." Jalen says all the time, there's a standard, and we're raising that standard every chance we get. Including myself, guys came in and we went to work. We didn't look for handouts. We went to work and we know what we've got to do and what we're trying to accomplish."

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