Sunday, November 17th, 2019

Memory of flight

Matthew Sherry

Editor

Memory of flight

Matthew Sherry NFL

By the time it had ended, the only suitable comparison was a heavyweight boxing contest.

And for the city that bred Rocky, it felt apt that their long-awaited maiden Lombardi Trophy came in such a manner, with a team and storyline operating eerily in line with the fictional character whose statue represents one of its major tourist attractions. This was Balboa-Creed Part 1 revisited, a dizzying contest that left the press box dazed and competitors battered. Playing Balboa, of course, were the Eagles, the upstart underdog tackling the established Master of Disaster.

“I’ve retired more men than Social Security!” The line famously uttered by Apollo Creed ahead of his opening bout with Rocky could just as easily apply to Tom Brady. The 40-year-old has put more daggers through hearts than William Wallace and, with 2:21 remaining at Minnesota’s fittingly spectacular US Bank Stadium, he was about to add the latest scalp to his unprecedented career.

The stage was set.

Down five, ball in hand, he began with a simple out to Rob Gronkowski, the unstoppable tight end now locked fully into ‘beast’ mode. Eight yards of 75 chalked off, Brady – who opened the half with three successive drives of the same length that ended in seven – looked at ease behind an offensive line that had stymied the vaunted Philadelphia pass-rush most of the night.

Yet for all the unshakeable feeling of inevitability lingered, he hadn’t accounted for the fact his opponents on this night were right where they wanted to be. Back as Rocky, sporting the underdog tag they wore proudly to reach this giant stage.

The play – ‘rush’ – was a basic concept, a four-man rush with seven sitting in zone coverage behind. James White had slipped open into the flat and Brady, stepping up in the pocket like he had all night, had the mind to hit him. Only Brandon Graham had other ideas.

With David Andrews and Joe Thuney double-teaming Fletcher Cox, he had a one-on-one match-up against Shaq Mason, one of the NFL’s better guards. The defensive end, playing inside, engaged his opponent, whipped his right hand away and, with an assist from right tackle Cam Fleming’s rear, barrelled into the quarterback. By the time Brady realised, it was too late. The ball was out, nestling into the hands of Derek Barnett, in the right place at the right time having been wrestled to the ground by left tackle Nate Solder.

“I feel like against a guard, nine times out of 10, I win that battle,” Graham told Gridiron afterwards, before admitting he was battling through a hamstring strain. “All I wanted to do was push the pocket, not let him step up and get off the field. In the end, we just made a play. Everybody knows how it goes with Tom Brady on that last drive, and it wasn’t to be today.”

There were to be more punches thrown, most notably a clutch 45-yard Jake Elliott field goal, but Graham’s was the telling blow. The one that ensured, when the final bell rung, the confetti would be of the green, black and silver variety.

At least an hour passed before Philadelphia’s players were ready to leave the ring. Perhaps they just needed time to come to terms with it all; maybe, for all their outward confidence, this was a hurdle even they didn’t believe their tale could overcome. Or perhaps they were just battered, having absorbed countless haymakers from the best ever and remained on their feet.

Whatever it was, they needed their moment to process the achievement.

By the time most reached the locker room, some had been more successful than others. Queen’s We Are The Champions blared from the speakers – a welcome contrast for this writer having endured Justin Timberlake’s mark-missing halftime show – with owner Jeffrey Lurie conducting the orchestra. Nearly a quarter of a century at the helm had been counting down to this moment, when Lurie watched his team unseat the greatest franchise of the last two decades and, ironically, the one he supported and tried to buy himself in 1993. To the day he’d hold the trophy he was clutching close as the music blared out.

He’d soon have to give it up. “Have you held it yet,” he said as he passed it on to Fletcher Cox – who jigged with it, cigar hanging from his teeth. His was the universal feeling, yet there were other emotions. Many players stumbled around blankly, still clearly shell-shocked and emotionally exhausted. Others, like cornerback Patrick Robinson, who signed a one-year, $775,000 contract this offseason and played to a near-Pro Bowl level, were just emotional.

“It’s a great feeling,” he told Gridiron, fighting back the sniffles as tears streamed down his face. “It has been a long, hard road – but I finally did it. I always knew I was going to bounce back. I just didn’t know how.”

As he spoke, a limping thoroughbred brushed past Gridiron’s arm. Carson Wentz, the saviour turned forgotten man, struggled with the juxtaposition of winning his first Super Bowl this way. Understandable for someone who was right there with Brady in the MVP race at the point he went down for the year, and then watched on from the sidelines as an unglamorous backup took his team to the ultimate prize.

He congratulated each teammate in his path, before taking a stop as a small man, also sporting a cigar, approached him. Their conversation was brief but meaningful: “This is going to be your team for many years, and I can’t wait to see what you do with it,” said general manager Howie Roseman. Given what Wentz, in year two, displayed earlier in this campaign, it’d take a brave man to bet against him winning more rings. Philadelphia is his city for now and the foreseeable future.

Yet this night, and the fanfare inevitably followed, wasn’t about the Eagles’ highly-touted former second overall pick. It was about the three men exemplifying their unlikely journey to immortality.

The main protagonists on the Eagles’ glorious night were a microcosm of the overall narrative surrounding this team (that of the underdog, if you haven’t already picked it up). It is a storyline so strong that the whole city has bought in, proudly donning the dog masks that became the symbol of their run through the postseason. A run they hoped, but surely never truly believed, would end with an elusive first Super Bowl.

The parallels between the three are striking: Roseman, the GM shunted to the corner when Chip Kelly was in charge and restored when he left; Doug Pederson, the career backup quarterback who swapped high-school sidelines for the NFL within a decade; Foles, the signal-caller signed to backup the Eagles’ long-term future with minimum fanfare this offseason.

That the trio have operated amid minimal attention all season, despite Philadelphia being the NFL’s dominant team, is unquestionable. The narratives were there even before kickoff. Sure, everybody knew the Eagles were good, but Pederson handle would crumble in the biggest moment. Wasn’t it inevitable that Foles would become, well, Foles?

Yet, judging by the mood in the locker room, all those questions served to do was further motivate a team who, like so many that thrive on this stage, had caught lightning in a bottle. It had given them yet one more reason for added motivation.

When Gridiron dared to ask linebacker Nigel Bradham about beating Brady, his response was emphatic: “I DON’T WANNA BE TALKIN’ ABOUT TOM BRADY ‘COS I’M THE WORLD CHAMP,” he screamed. “I’M TIRED OF TALKING ABOUT TOM BRADY. I WANT TO TALK ABOUT NICK FOLES.” So we did: “I think Foles was the best quarterback on the field today. It was amazing to see him go out there, and do everything we knew he could do. He went out there and shocked the world.”

The feelings were equally strong regarding their head coach. “Coach of the Year!” players yelled as Pederson addressed the team, doubtless in reference to his one vote for the prize. Although, at this point, it must be added that Belichick only earned a single nod too. “He should have been coach of the year,” added Bradham. “But I’m sure he would rather have this trophy than that one!”

In the end, it was Peterson who might have most impacted the game. From his masterful shepherding of backup Foles to his incredible aggression, best summed up by the end-of-half fourth-and-goal playcall that ended with his quarterback catching a touchdown pass. “We’ve had that up our sleeves the whole year and have talked about when we might use it after every game,” Roseman says. “And our head coach decides that is the moment he is going to call it. He’s got big balls.”

The same could be said for Roseman, who has wheeled and dealed his way into Eagles hearts, building a roster that can sustain in the face of losses and adversity. Even so, his best decision might still have been plucking an offensive coordinator from Kansas City and asking him to replace Chip Kelly. “Everybody disrespected Doug Pederson and nobody believed in him,” says Chris Long. “He was the coach of the year. How do you overcome so much? Nobody even expected us to be good when we had everybody healthy.”

“An individual makes a difference. A team makes a miracle.”

The importance of the quote sitting proudly above the Eagles’ locker-room door was emphasised by its prominent place in Coach Pederson’s address to the players. Yet, despite it acting as lighter fuel for a group so clearly emboldened by the feeling nobody believed in them, suggesting their victory in Minnesota was anything miraculous does a disservice to the third member of the triumphant triumvirate.

For their ability to overcome injuries to Wentz, left tackle Jason Peterson and linebacker Jordan Hicks, among others, owed as much to the stacked roster built by Roseman as it did to Foles’ clutch brilliance and Pederson’s aggressive play-calling, masterful gameplans and overall culture. He is the man responsible for trading up to grab Wentz, for bringing back Foles and, generally, for assembling the most best squad in football.

Lest we forget that the book going into this game was that the Eagles were more talented in virtually every aspect. It is for that reason that some veterans in the locker room believe this can be more than a one-time run to glory. “For this to be the second year, what we have been able to do is phenomenal,” says veteran safety Malcolm Jenkins. “We didn’t get the result last year but laid the foundation. We went from the bottom of the division to the top of this league. We are built to last. Every team won’t be the same next year, including this team. We are the best team in the league. We lost five major contributors and still won it all.”

Roseman and Pederson are the men entrusted with fulfilling the next phase of this task: ensuring this victory is a beginning rather than end. Pederson talked before and after the game about the game about emulating their opponents and building a dynasty. “This is the new norm for Philadelphia,” he told his adoring public on the parade.

Where Foles stands in that future remains to be seen, and there are various other questions facing a regime up against in in the salary-cap stakes. For now, though, it feels like folly to throw forward too far. Those are questions for another day. Philadelphians have waited over 50 years for the moment their Eagles, a founding father of the NFL, won it all.

“We are looking forward to what we can do in the future,” continues Jenkins, “but now is the time to celebrate.” Indeed, that is the only order of business right now. Except for maybe giving Rocky some company atop those steps in front of the Museum of Art.

This article originally appeared in Issue XXXVII of Gridiron magazine – for individual editions or subscriptions, click HERE

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