About an hour after Super Bowl LII ended, and about five minutes after Meek Mill’s “Dreams and Nightmares” stopped blaring from the locker-room speakers, the Eagles gathered around Malcolm Jenkins. The 30-year-old safety is this team’s undisputed leader, its soul, and its conscience. Despite Philadelphia going 7-9 and finishing in last place in the NFC East during head coach Doug Pederson’s debut season with the team in 2016, Jenkins had spent all spring pitching free agents on the notion that this group was building something special. And there he stood, in the middle of a pack of world champions.
“I’ve been in the league for nine fucking years,” Jenkins hollered. “I ain’t never been a part of nothing like this. I ain’t seen nothing like this.” After sharing a few more thoughts about how far these Eagles had come, Jenkins spotted the Lombardi Trophy near the back of the crowd. “Bring that up here,” he said. “Every single person in this room is on here. It took every drop from every single one of y’all. And we did it.”
As Jenkins spoke, Eagles executive vice president of football operations Howie Roseman stood on a cooler about five people deep. Once exiled to the football wilderness during the Chip Kelly era, he’s since emerged as the architect of the most flawless roster in football. The feel of the Eagles’ locker room has Pederson’s indelible imprint, but assembling this team was undeniably Roseman’s work. After climbing down from his vantage point following Jenkins’s final words, Roseman hugged wide receiver Torrey Smith and running back Jay Ajayi—just two of the many Eagles he acquired in 2017 to bolster the margins of the depth chart and lift Philly over the top. “Everybody laughed at Doug when he said this team had more talent than when he played and won a Super Bowl in Green Bay,” Eagles center Jason Kelce said. “People laughed at him. Everybody played up to their potential. Everybody gave themselves to the next man.”
Philadelphia’s 41-33 victory over the Patriots was a triumph for the best version of the league’s best team—a version that had been on display for the vast majority of the season. Pederson was brilliant as both a play-caller and play designer, and let the overwhelming talent lining this roster take over when it mattered most. The Eagles may have entered the Super Bowl as an underdog, but they were the superior squad on Sunday night. This was the same group that rolled to a 10-2 start before franchise quarterback Carson Wentz went down with a torn ACL in mid-December, and that stomped the Vikings in the NFC title game once Nick Foles began doing his best Wentz impersonation. “We don’t have anybody—well, maybe after this game we do—where you look at the roster and say, ‘Wow, look at this unbelievable star here,’” Kelce said. “It’s a complete team. All phases, all year.”
Every element of the Eagles’ Super Bowl win was representative of that team DNA, the crowning achievement for a crew with a deep-seated understanding of exactly who it is. Late in the first quarter, running back LeGarrette Blount (another first-year Eagles player) ripped off a 36-yard carry that featured a crushing second-level block by Kelce. It set the stage for something bigger. On the next snap, Foles took a play-action shot to wide receiver Alshon Jeffery in the end zone, where the 2017 free-agent signee levitated over cornerback Eric Rowe to haul in a 34-yard touchdown. Of Foles’s 43 passing attempts, 21 came on looks that used play-action, the highest total in Super Bowl history. Whether through run-pass options or traditional dropback designs, the Eagles had made play fakes a hallmark of their offense all season. They rode it all the way to a title, with Foles earning MVP honors after throwing for 373 yards with three touchdowns.
Philadelphia’s second touchdown drive was capped by another one-two punch perfectly illustrative of what has made this offense go. On a second-and-10 from the New England 43-yard line early in the second quarter, Foles hit Jeffery on a picturesque over-the-shoulder throw as the receiver worked out of the slot and back outside against Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore. All year, Pederson has created extra space for his pass catchers by deploying them from unconventional spots. On Sunday, that meant calling for a steady diet of vertical routes from the slot and even the backfield. (The prime example of the latter came on running back Corey Clement’s 22-yard touchdown in the third quarter.) Following Jeffery’s highlight-reel snag, Blount rumbled for a 21-yard score behind a perfect combination block from Kelce and right guard Brandon Brooks. No other offensive line in football was better at climbing to the second level and picking off linebackers than Philadelphia’s this season; even though New England used heavy fronts to take away some of that unit’s typical tactics, Kelce and friends were able to firmly control the game.
Some of Pederson’s best work as a play designer this season has come when scheming tight end Zach Ertz into space on high-leverage downs. For an offensive staff that delights in devising game plans each week, a matchup nightmare like Ertz makes for the ideal muse. Sunday proved to be no exception. The Eagles went a combined 12-of-18 on third- and fourth-down conversions against the Pats, and five of those were the result of passes to Ertz. That included the eventual game-winning touchdown, which offered another telling example of how remarkably these Eagles have intertwined scheme, personnel, and situational awareness. Late in the fourth quarter, on a third-and-7 from the New England 11-yard line, Philly lined up with three receivers bunched to the right and a single receiver split to the left. Just before the snap, Clement motioned out of the backfield to the right, leaving Ertz as the only pass catcher on his side of the field. Ertz worked one-on-one with safety Devin McCourty, beat him inside, corralled the pass, and then plunged into the end zone. “They’re able to put us in situations that aren’t generic,” Ertz said of Pederson and his staff. “Obviously, I’m a tight end. But I’m split out wide by myself to the left, and we motioned the back away so we know it’s man coverage. It’s all those pre-snap indicators. They just do a phenomenal job just kind of making the game easy.”
Earlier on that drive, Pederson dialed up another perfect play call. Facing a fourth-and-1 from their 45-yard line—a down with colossal significance, considering that Philly was trailing 33-32 at the time—the Eagles ran a mesh concept with Ertz and fellow tight end Brent Celek that allowed Celek to pick Ertz’s man and free him to pick up the first down coming across the middle. That Pederson would even go for it in that situation reveals how fearless both he and this team are, but again, that’s part of these Eagles’ identity. Similarly, when Pederson decided to go for it on a fourth-and-1 near the goal line toward the end of the first half, no one in the huddle blinked. And when the play call was sent in, Philly’s offensive players couldn’t help but smile. “I can’t tell you how excited everybody in the huddle was to run that play,” Kelce says. “We felt like it was perfect. Fourth down, they’re going to be real aggressive. They’re probably going to lose track of Nick Foles, the most dangerous receiving target we have.”
The call was “Philly Special,” a goal-line concept that the Eagles installed in the playbook a few weeks ago. On fourth down, in the Super Bowl, with more than half the game still to go, Pederson called a reverse pass to his quarterback. “For a coach to call that play in that situation … are you kidding me?” Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich said of Trey Burton’s 1-yard touchdown toss to Foles. “That’s just the aggressive play-caller that [Pederson] is. It couldn’t have come at a better time.”
The Eagles offense was at its finest all evening, delivering a lights-out performance on the game’s biggest stage. For most of the night, though, one of the league’s premier defenses lagged behind its usual standard. That is, until it didn’t. When Tom Brady and the Patriots took the field down 38-33 with 2:21 remaining in the fourth quarter, the Eagles unit appeared to be reeling. It had gone the entire contest to that point without a sack, as the NFL’s most ferocious defensive front had been blanked by a combination of stellar offensive-line play and quick throws. On a second-and-2 from the New England 33-yard line, that changed. “One of these plays, [Brady] was going to hold onto the ball,” defensive end Brandon Graham said. “And we wanted to let him know to not hold on for too long. Because we’re coming.”
On that snap, Graham lined up as a defensive tackle over right guard Shaq Mason, beat him to the edge, and managed to knock the ball out of Brady’s hand. Philadelphia rookie Derek Barnett quickly scooped up the fumble. Despite allowing New England to rack up 613 yards and Brady to throw for a Super Bowl–record 505 yards, the Eagles defense had finally arrived. “We knew it was going to be about matchups, and I knew the way the center was pointing,” Graham said. “I had one-on-one all game. I’d been bulling him, and I switched it up. I acted like I was going to bull him and snatched him.”
The turnover set up a Jake Elliott field goal to give Philly an eight-point lead with just over a minute left; when time ran out on Brady and the Pats one drive later, the Eagles were crowned world champions. Following Jenkins’s speech in the locker room, there was mostly jubilation. A group of about eight players downed shots of Hennessy from Gatorade cups. “Oh, that’s refreshing,” Kelce said as three of his teammates nearly wretched. Roseman, meanwhile, snacked on an Uncrustables peanut butter and jelly sandwich, wanting to get something in his stomach before the fun of celebrating the franchise’s first Super Bowl title fully began.
But amid all the commotion, one quieter scene unfolded. Seated at his locker, Jenkins held the Lombardi Trophy. He cradled it like a newborn baby, staring into the glistening silver as if there were deeper meaning to be found in the metal. In that moment—for Jenkins, for the most complete team in football, and for the entire city of Philadelphia—there was.
The Starting 11
A look at 11 big story lines, key developments, and interesting tidbits from Super Bowl week.
1. Brian Urlacher, Hall of Famer. Damn, that sounds good. On Thursday afternoon, I ran into Bleacher Report writer and longtime NFL reporter Dan Pompei. Dan has covered the league for 30-plus years, and growing up in Chicago, I’d long read him in the Sun-Times and Tribune. Earlier that day, he’d written a column on The Athletic detailing how he planned to present Bears legend Brian Urlacher to the Hall of Fall selection committee. Football’s HOF process is fascinating, as one writer with an intimate knowledge of a player’s career spends about 10 or 12 minutes making the case for his inclusion. After considerable deliberation, the committee decides whether said player belongs in Canton.
During his 13-year career, Urlacher went to eight Pro Bowls. He was voted first-team All-Pro four times, and was the centerpiece of arguably the best defense of his era. From 2004 through his final season in 2012, Chicago’s finish in Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA was as follows: ninth, first, second, 10th, seventh, 21st, fourth, fourth, first. It’s no coincidence that the unit’s one falloff, in 2009, coincided with Urlacher dislocating his wrist in Week 1 and missing the rest of that season. Urlacher’s Hall of Fame worthiness was obvious to anyone who had ever watched him play. Still, Dan was worried about doing Urlacher justice and getting him in on the first try.
This year’s crop of finalists was absurdly stacked. Along with Urlacher, Ray Lewis, Randy Moss, and seven-time All-Pro guard Steve Hutchinson were also in their first year of eligibility. They joined a crop that included Terrell Owens, Brian Dawkins, Isaac Bruce, and Alan Faneca. Several guys who will get into the Hall eventually were destined to be left out in the cold.
Urlacher made it, providing a fitting capstone to the legacy of a player who weighed 258 pounds at the 2000 NFL combine. That’s not outlandish for a linebacker from that era—except that Urlacher played safety in college. He clocked a 4.59-second 40-yard dash in Indianapolis, and after joining head coach Lovie Smith’s Tampa 2 defense, Urlacher was often asked to drop 25 yards deep in coverage. You can count on one hand the number of linebackers in NFL history who were better athletes than Urlacher, and he combined his physical gifts with a ferociousness that made him a perfect torchbearer in Chicago’s storied linebacker lineage.
It’s hard to even explain what it was like watching Urlacher over the years as a Bears fan. For a team that hasn’t had much to celebrate recently, Saturday’s Hall of Fame results were a welcome moment.
2. The 2018 Hall of Fame class is an intriguing case study for two positions that are underrepresented in Canton. Considering how pass-happy the NFL is now, it might seem hard to believe that there were only 25 modern-era wide receivers in the HOF before this weekend. But it’s true. Owens and Moss bring that total to 27, and their induction is the right call. Owens deserved to get in after spending a few years on the outside looking in, while Moss—easily the most exciting football player of my lifetime and probably the second- or third-greatest ever at his position—absolutely had to be selected in his first year of eligibility.
There’s a chance, though, that those could be the last two receivers to make it in for a few years. A glut of highly productive players is about to become eligible over the next four years or so, a list that includes Calvin Johnson, Steve Smith, Reggie Wayne, and Andre Johnson (and potentially Larry Fitzgerald) to go along with 2018 finalist Bruce. Given the way the system works, it’s possible that group could cannibalize one another’s chances to the point that deserving players will have to wait longer than they should.
That was part of the problem this year with legendary guards Faneca and Hutchinson. The latter was eligible for the first time in 2018, and while his case is slightly stronger than Faneca’s, their résumés are similar enough that putting Hutchinson in while leaving Faneca out wouldn’t have felt right. As it turned out, both guys missed the cut.
However it happens, it’s critical that Faneca and Hutchinson get in the HOF sooner rather than later. Guards are historically undervalued in Canton, and those two set the standard at the position for an entire generation.
3. Of everything that happened following the Super Bowl, Jason Kelce’s postgame comments may be what I remember most. The Eagles’ All-Pro center is always thoughtful, intelligent, and earnest. There was something beautiful about the way he responded to reaching the NFL mountaintop. In looking back on his team’s resilience all season, he quoted Sylvester Stallone from Rocky Balboa, saying he listens to the speech Rock gives his son before every game. “That’s how winnin’ is done,” Kelce growled as he finished the monologue and flashed a smile.
The weight of the moment also prompted Kelce to grow contemplative. He talked about crying in the shower following the Eagles’ playoff wins over the Falcons and Vikings, just imagining what it’d be like to win a title. He then mentioned how he had long been driven by a Calvin Coolidge quote about persistence, a message that his grandfather passed down to him at age 18, shortly after he finished high school without a single Division I scholarship offer. “My father and mother told me to stay after my dream,” Kelce said, fighting back tears. “And I’ve officially accomplished the best thing in this sport, with a group of guys who mean the world to me. Because really, persistence has summed up my whole career—really, my whole life. Just keep going, just keep moving forward.”
4. Kelce was a key part of a brilliantly executed (if somewhat reactive) approach for the Philly offensive line. Last week, I wrote about how the Eagles’ biggest advantage in the trenches appeared to be their mobile offensive line facing off against a relatively unathletic Pats linebacking corps. Predictably, New England responded by putting a true nose tackle over Kelce and using two other interior defensive linemen for most of the game, as a way to keep the nimble members of Philadelphia’s line from pulling. “They ran a lot of jam fronts tonight,” Eagles right tackle Lane Johnson said. “They did a good job of plugging their backers. They try to mix things up and try to throw you off what you’re good at.”
As a result, the Eagles went from embracing a typically varied approach to blocking specific concepts to deploying more straightforward schemes. It ended up serving as a reminder of what makes this unit so good. Even without its entire arsenal of blocking methods, it still dominated.
Blount’s 21-yard touchdown run in the second quarter was a picturesque example of zone blocking at its best. Despite Patriots nose tackle Malcom Brown doing a nice job of playing down the line of scrimmage, right guard Brandon Brooks was athletic enough—and had the right amount of help from Kelce—to eventually overtake him on a combo block all the way on the other hash mark. Kelce never stopped moving his feet in the direction of the middle linebacker, thus allowing him to eventually get to the second level even after all of the help he gave Brooks. Johnson’s (extremely difficult) cutoff block looked effortless.
Even without injured left tackle Jason Peters, the Eagles offensive line was the best in football this season. This group proved that again on Sunday.
5. The Eagles’ use of Corey Clement out of the backfield was a great wrinkle against New England’s linebackers, and another example of Doug Pederson’s game-planning flexibility. The 2017 undrafted free agent (seriously, how many first-year Eagles came through in the Super Bowl?) finished with a team-high 100 receiving yards, 77 of which came on two vertical routes that he ran as a split back out of a shotgun formation. Philly hit the first one on a third-and-3 late in the second quarter. Figuring the Patriots would use man coverage, Clement ran a wheel route and torched strong safety Jordan Richards down the right sideline. Foles placed great touch on his throw over the top, and Clement took the ball 55 yards to the New England 8-yard line to put the Eagles in position to execute their trick-play touchdown at the end of the first half.
On the Eagles’ next possession, early in the third quarter, they faced a third-and-6 just outside the red zone. Again, Pederson sent Clement down the field; again, Foles dropped a dime to him more than 20 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. This time, it went for a 22-yard score.
After the game, Clement said that Philly’s use of him was inspired in part by the success that Jaguars change-of-pace back Corey Grant found against the Patriots in the AFC championship game. “We did a ton of film study on the [AFC title game],” Clement said. “Corey Grant did a great job of being utilized out of the backfield. I think we tried to act the same way on this game plan and really don’t take your foot off the gas. You have to find some weaknesses. That’s how you win the game.”
6. The Malcolm Butler drama is a baffling subplot to what was a horrendous day for the Patriots defense. It was hard for anyone to get a straight answer from the Pats after the game as to why Butler—who’d played more than 98 percent of the snaps in New England’s first 18 games this season—was on the field for zero defensive plays during the Super Bowl. Coordinator Matt Patricia made some opaque references to packages and game plans. Cornerback Eric Rowe said he didn’t know he was starting in Butler’s place until right before the game. When asked about the situation later, Butler told ESPN.com’s Mike Reiss, “They gave up on me. Fuck. It is what it is.”
Regardless of whether the decision was the result of strategy or discipline, it’s worth second-guessing given how relentlessly the Eagles moved the ball up and down the field. Philly turned the ball over only once, on a pick that was initially deflected, and punted one time. Maybe an approach involving a reasonably useful cornerback could have helped New England stop the Eagles from piling up 538 yards of total offense.
7. The moment after a crushing Super Bowl loss probably isn’t the best time to ask a 28-year-old megastar to contemplate his football mortality, but just in case there is something to Rob Gronkowski’s comments, let’s step back and appreciate the wonder of the Pats tight end. After catching just one pass for 9 yards in the first half, Gronk was unstoppable over the final two quarters. On New England’s opening possession of the third quarter, Brady barely looked at anyone else. Gronk hauled in four passes for 68 of the drive’s 75 yards, and capped it off by running a vicious whip route against cornerback Ronald Darby for a 5-yard touchdown. That a 6-foot-6 265-pounder who absolutely trucked Philly defensive end Derek Barnett on a block earlier in the game can corkscrew a solid defensive back into the ground in open space and then come back one quarter later and posterize the same corner on a fade route is simply ridiculous.
As is the case with Brady and Belichick, there’s no arguing Gronk’s place in the pantheon of his profession. He is the greatest tight end who’s ever walked the earth.
8. This week’s line-play moment that made me hit rewind: Brandon Graham seals the deal.
Philadelphia’s greatest strength along its defensive line is unquestionably its depth, but its impressive versatility proved its most valuable asset on Sunday. Graham is typically an outside rusher in the Eagles’ scheme, but Philly decided to keep him on the field as an interior pass rusher while sending Timmy Jernigan to the bench in sub-package situations. Graham had gotten close to Brady a few times while working against right guard Shaq Mason (who had a nice game, for the most part), and in the biggest moment of the game, Graham finally got home. Rather than hitting Mason with another bull rush, Graham gave his shoulder a small tug. With Mason setting for a power move, it made all the difference.
9. This week in tales of the tape: The Eagles manufactured first downs with a combination of pick plays and rub routes all game, showing once again why they’re the best third- and fourth-down team in the NFL.
When Philly desperately needed a first down on a fourth-and-1 late in the fourth quarter, it went to a mesh concept that required Brent Celek to get in the way of safety Devin McCourty and allowed Ertz to break free and gain just enough to move the chains.
On a third-and-6 earlier in the same drive, Philly lined Ertz up as the inside receiver in a trips bunch to the left. As the two outside receivers cleared out the middle of the field, Ertz ran a quick follow route designed to exploit the vacated area. This wasn’t a pick play, but the concept is similar. The goal was to use a jumble of bodies to free up a playmaker on a high-leverage down; no other team in football did that better than Philadelphia this season.
10. This week in NFL players, they’re absolutely nothing like us, Part I:
I don’t know what Gronk did here, but it certainly shouldn’t be possible.
11. This week in NFL players, they’re absolutely nothing like us, Part II:
And that, folks, is why you go sign Alshon Jeffery.