THE EAGLES' troika of starting linebackers is uncommonly close. They barbecue together, they go to the movies together—during training camp they saw the Will Ferrell comedy Step Brothers—and they have nicknames for each other. Chris Gocong, who plays on the strong side, is C-Rex, because, it's claimed, he holds his arms like a Tyrannosaurus rex when he runs. Stewart Bradley, who mans the middle, is Big Blue, because, says weakside linebacker Omar Gaither, "He's got the big blue eyes, and the ladies love it." Gaither is known as O.G. because creativity only goes so far.
They're also uncommonly inexperienced. Bradley, Gaither and Gocong, each of whom is 24 years old, have combined to start 34 NFL games. Every other starting corps in the league includes at least one member who has started 34 or more games himself. "Teams are going to attack us," says Gocong, a 2006 third-round pick who earned the starting job last year after spending his rookie season on injured reserve. "They're going to try to isolate me on a tight end. They're going to try to see what we do against runs we haven't seen. They're going to try to focus on us, and we have to face up to the challenge."
They'll do it in a defensive system orchestrated by coordinator Jim Johnson that's notoriously difficult for linebackers and hell on opponents. "We get on the field and pick the defense we want to play," says Gaither, a 2006 fifth-round pick. "Everything changes based on the offense's formation and personnel. Nothing's ever the same." Says Johnson, "We ask a lot of our linebackers. It might take them a year [together] to pick it up."
In the ultracompetitive NFC East, where the Cowboys have designs on a Super Bowl title and the Giants are defending one, the linebackers' learning curve has to be steep—and several factors suggest that Bradley, Gaither and Gocong have the tools to handle it. They combine above-average speed with unusually large size for the position: The 6'2", 245-pound Gaither calls himself "the little guy" next to Bradley (6'4", 254) and Gocong (6'2", 263). And their backgrounds and interests suggest that, working together, they're bright enough to master Johnson's system. Gaither made the SEC's All-Academic team three times in his career at Tennessee; Bradley, a 2007 third-round pick out of Nebraska who started one game in his rookie season, takes French lessons and plans to intern with an investment bank after the season; and Gocong earned his degree in biomedical engineering from Cal Poly--San Luis Obispo.
In a drill early in camp, tackle Winston Justice blindsided Gaither after the whistle. Gaither tried to wrestle with the 6'6", 320-pound behemoth by himself. "Next thing I know," he says, "I've got my dogs coming in, Chris and Stewart. They've got my back, and I know that." While other linebacking corps are more experienced, few can say they've so quickly bonded as C-Rex, Big Blue and O.G. have. The Eagles can only hope the bond will hold.
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CRASH COURSE Gaither (96) and Gocong (57) are a year up on their partner, Bradley, in learning Philadelphia's complex schemes.