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Eagles Insights: Appreciating Brandon Graham, what's impressive about Sean Desai, should the Eagles pursue Shaq Leonard?
One reason why Brandon Graham will set an Eagles record
Brandon Graham will break the franchise record for games played on Sunday when he plays his 189th regular season game, and this benchmark should be met with marvel and studied by teammates and future Eagles as an example.
Graham was once considered a first-round bust who blocked those on social media yearning for those drafted behind him. By Graham’s own admission, he thought he was about to be cut before his fifth season until Travis Long suffered an injury in the final preseason game. He didn’t become a full-time starter until his sixth season. There were different points in free agency when it appeared Graham might sign elsewhere. But he’s remained in Philadelphia, whether by luck or by choice, and he’s now a franchise icon and a beloved figure in this city.
He turned into a reliable pass rusher and run-stopping edge with the versatility to bounce inside on four-man fronts. He recorded the most famous sack in franchise history as an interior rusher. He reached double-digit sacks for the first time last season as a rotational player. He’s lived so many lives, played so many roles, for so many coordinators. In fact, his first coordinator (Sean McDermott) will be on the opposite sideline this weekend. The coach who drafted him was on the opposite sideline on Monday. You can play an NFL version of the Kevin Bacon game with Graham, and he’s only played in one city.
He missed all but three games in his second season with a knee injury. He lost his 12th season because of a torn Achilles tendon suffered in Week 2. But he recovered each time, and he’s remained durable from the type of week-to-week injuries that can chip away games played and erode a team’s trust that a player can be available on Sundays.
Graham will set this record for a reason more than his pass rushing or durability, or even what he does on the field. I think often about a comment Graham made last season about lasting this long in the NFL. He spoke about good attitude and good luck, noting that he brings “good juju.” Teammates are awed at the energy he possesses every day. It was described by former defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon as “sustained positive enthusiasm.” That laugh and smile is impossible to miss in the locker room.
“That’s a choice,” Graham said. “Sometimes you need it, sometimes you need to fake it until you get the real energy.”
And that might be the enduring lesson of Graham playing the most games in franchise history. Who would you rather spend time with at work — the person who is a fountain of enthusiasm or the person who drains the enthusiasm from the room?
Because keeping Graham on the roster this long is a conscious decision; certainly, the Eagles could have found someone to be the No. 3 pass rusher who is younger, has more upside, or more athletic traits — and perhaps is less expensive. And it’s a choice from Graham, too. He’s won a ring, made a Pro Bowl, etched his name into franchise record books, and has no shortage of post-career options. But he’s still at work early, still talking trash through training camp practices, still a vocal and constant presence in the locker room, still making plays on Sundays. That joy in Year 14 cannot be overstated.
A few weeks ago, I stopped by an event Graham participated in on a Friday night at Hope’s Cookies in Villanova. He scooped ice cream and signed autographs with proceeds from the event supporting Philabundance. The line spread around the block even before Graham was due to appear. Children and adults wore Graham jerseys, eager to meet him.
Ten years ago, this would have seemed to be the most improbable scene to imagine a decade later. But you know what could have been predicted? Graham greeted everyone with that smile, that laugh. He was everyone’s best friend.
It takes more than a good attitude to play the most games in franchise history — the football ability matters most, of course — but the attitude is what I’ll think about this weekend when Graham breaks David Akers’ record. It’s not the sack on Brady. It’s not overcoming the bust label. It’s the “good juju.”
Because from my view, that’s always been his superpower.
Impressed by Sean Desai? Watch his second halves
There are so many reasons to be impressed by defensive coordinator Sean Desai this season, but what stands out to me is that the Chiefs, Dolphins, and Rams did not score against Desai’s unit in the second half of games, and the Cowboys scored only six points. (If you’re fact-checking this by countering that the Dolphins scored in the second half, that was a defensive touchdown.)
What that trend shows me is how Desai can adjust as the game progresses and remain dynamic and reactive. This is such an important part of coaching. Planning is vital, but it’s also important to remember that the other team has planned for you. So what’s your counterpunch? And what do you anticipate the other team will do as the game progresses?
“I think our players do a great job of understanding what’s happening, and the coaches, each of the position coaches, when they meet with the guys, they are meeting with them throughout the first half in between series, it’s just kind of getting everybody back to,’ hey, this is what we have to do to go win this second half,’” Desai told reporters on Wednesday. “Whatever our plans are and tweaks that we have to make, we communicate as a staff and coaches with the players, and then the players respond. It’s ultimately on them, and they do a great job of kind of — and we try to get them in the right positions, and they do a great job coming out with that energy and intensity to dominate in the second half, and they’ve done a great job of that.”
A head coach should be hired for more than success as an offensive or defensive coordinator, so my view on Desai being a worthy coaching candidate this offseason has more to do with leadership and organizational skills than scheme. But in assessing him as a coordinator, I’d harp on this success with adjustments. Opponents are scoring 2.55 points per drive in the first half against the Eagles and 1.51 points per drive in the second half. That’s a huge difference. That’s someone who makes adjustments.
Should the Eagles pursue Shaq Leonard?
Shaq Leonard cleared waivers and is available to sign anywhere. The Eagles are thin at linebacker after Nakobe Dean’s injury. Nick Sirianni was present for Leonard’s best seasons in Indianapolis, so he would have insight on the type of player and person Leonard can be for a contending team. But there’s also the reality that Leonard lost his role in Indianapolis, so you’re not getting the 2018 version.
Still, this is a move I would make if I were the Eagles, the interest was mutual, and the price was reasonable. Similar to signing Julio Jones,, you would not add Leonard expecting the player from five years ago. But Leonard would have a path to playing time if his form is better than what the Colts saw this year — Zach Cunningham and Nicholas Morrow are the Eagles’ top linebackers — and the Eagles have had success integrating in-season additions into specific roles. Look at Ndamukong Suh and Linval Joseph last season.
Linebacker is a different type of position, where it becomes obvious quickly if a player’s athleticism has eroded. But I also think this is the way the Eagles need to operate at linebacker, given that they’re not going to make a big investment in the position. Finding value in change-of-scenery players (similar to Cunningham) is how they get by on a year-to-year basis. And if Leonard can return to the form he once showed, he’s only 28. Philadelphia has seen linebackers have late-career resurgences here. Remember Jeremiah Trotter’s second stint?
Should point differential be a concern?
Bo Wulf asked me on a recent episode of the PHLY Eagles show about any concerns I had about the Eagles if I had to find one. And my answer was point differential (+61). It’s a “caviar problem” to complain about not winning by enough points, and I understand they can’t be the juggernaut they were last season every week — especially playing a more difficult schedule.
But point differential is a revealing stat on a year-to-year basis, and the Eagles are tied with the Chiefs for No. 6. Four teams — Baltimore, Dallas, San Francisco, and Buffalo — have a point differential in triple digits.
The Eagles had a point differential of +80 this time last season (against a softer schedule) and finished No. 3 in the league with +133. The Chiefs finished No. 4 in the league last season. When the Eagles won the Super Bowl in 2017, they tied for No. 1 in the league (with the Patriots) for No. 1 in point differential. In the past 10 years, the 2021 Rams and the 2015 Broncos were the only Super Bowl champions who did not finish in the top five in point differential — and the only two without a point differential in triple digits.
So pay attention to this stat during the final seven games. There’s more than enough time to pad it. And the final three weeks could give the Eagles a chance to inflate those numbers, too. But this is a stat that tends to show a team’s dominance.
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