WITH NFL POSITION GROUPS STARTING TO REFAMILIARIZE THEMSELVES FOR 2018, SI SAT IN AS THE MOST INFLUENTIAL UNIT OF '17 GATHERED FOR ONE LAST LOOK AT A MAGICAL SEASON. THEEAGLES' O-LINECARRIED A CRIPPLED OFFENSE, RAISED UP A SUFFERING FAN BASE (DOG MASKS!) AND PASTED THE PATS IN SUPER BOWL LII
JASON KELCE:There's no position like the offensive line. The rest of the offense, they can say they care about blocking schemes, but they don't. They're interested in route concepts, where the running back is going.... We're in our own realm. That makes us closer.
LANE JOHNSON:You don't get noticed until you mess up. You can play 70 good snaps and then have a sack and, Hey, you're terrible! Have a few more? O.K., you're history! That's the life we live.
KELCE:If a receiver catches two long TDs and also drops five, he had a good game. If you have one huge block and also give up a sack, you're on a fast track out of the league.
JOHNSON:I gave up three sacks one game my rookie year, to Justin Houston. I got on Twitter, saw some s--- I didn't want to read.
KELCE:Not only are [linemen] getting it bad on Twitter. They're also going to get it bad from the rest of us.
Inside Chickie and Pete's, a divey sports tavern near the Eagles' practice facility, the table shakes with laughter. Kelce is telling the truth. Every O-lineman must possess some combo of meaty muscles and twinkle toes to thrive in the NFL trenches. Thick skin is a prerequisite too—especially in Philadelphia, where egos are pancaked like opposing pass rushers during weekly film sessions that serve as comedy roasts. Told You So Tuesdays—that's what the linemen call the meetings led by coach Jeff Stoutland. "F---, the NFL is such a stressful environment, you have to have laughter with the pain," says Johnson. "If you don't, you're going to go crazy."
It's another Tuesday now, three months after Super Bowl LII, and the Eagles' suddenly famous offensive line is gathered inside a private room: the five starters from their 41--33 win over the Patriots—left tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai, left guard Stefen Wisniewski, center Jason Kelce, right guard Brandon Brooks, right tackle Lane Johnson—plus captain and left tackle Jason Peters, who missed the game with an injury. It's a familiar gathering, save for the location. Most often the group dines downtown at Del Frisco's Steak House, where their standard order of shared appetizers typically includes two tuna tartars, three fried calamaries, three cheesesteak dumplings, three lobster mac and cheeses, two creamed corns, three château mashed potatoes, two asparaguses, several shrimp cocktails and (sometimes) one seafood tower. After that, everyone digs into either a 22-ounce prime rib eye or a 32-ounce tomahawk—everyone, that is, except Wisniewski, who's been known to house both.
For Wisniewski, LG evidently means both left guard and legendary gourmand. He used to devour six scrambled eggs every morning, until he decided his body needed a change ... and upgraded to eight. Studious and religious, the 29-year-old Pittsburgh native thrives on strict routine; rookies often get confused upon first seeing him perform elaborate hand- and footwork drills alone on the sideline at practice. "It appears he's being a coach's pet," says Kelce, "but then you realize Wiz just vehemently believes this will make him a better player. It's the same thing in the cafeteria."
As a group that strives for egalitarianism, payment at these meals is typically decided via credit card roulette. Last season Kelce was dealt some terrible luck, twice getting stuck with back-to-back checks—bills that can climb above $2,000. Which seems somewhat unfair given that Kelce is the only O-line starter listed under 300 pounds. "He was f------ pissed," reports Brooks.
Kelce does cop to sometimes throwing "temper tantrums." The most famous example, of course, came when he stood atop the Rocky steps during the Super Bowl parade and aired his grievances against the church of football, Martin Luther in a mummer's costume.
This is the first time since the parade that this group of six has gathered, which gives the meal the feel of a family reunion. It is an eclectic brotherhood. Kelce plays the baritone sax; Vaitai—or Big V, which is much easier to say than hal-lah-poo-lee-VAH-tee—sometimes jams on a guitar or ukulele. Wisniewski taught high school English while attending Penn State; Brooks interned in both city government and private equity last offseason; Johnson dug graves as a high schooler in east Texas. Then there's Peters, the last to arrive tonight; he pulled up in his tricked-out Dodge pickup, airbrushed front-to-back in Super Bowl--themed artwork, including a fresco of his fellow linemen on the rear slider window.
Kelce is also correct about this: Most NFL bodyguards are overlooked, only garnering attention when skill position players reward them with expensive watches or cowboy boots, as Philly QB Carson Wentz has done for his line the past two years. But this unit is special. Pro Football Focus ranked them as the league's best line, as did the league, at its Honors. As the engine of an injury-riddled, no-name offense, they epitomized the underdog ethos that defined the Eagles' first Super Bowl win.
Tonight's menu: cups of crab fries, pints of beer and full racks of ribbing. Naturally, the center starts things off.
KELCE:All right, so: February 4, Super Bowl.... What's everybody been up to since then?
JOHNSON:I want to summarize for everybody. Big V, he's been drinking a lot of alcohol. JP has been getting new trucks and putting decals on them. [Wisniewski] has been in the Word. [Kelce] just got married. [Brooks] just got a new house. And I've been depressed since!
The table cracks up. That last part, of course, is a lie. After all, what could be more fun these days than life as an Eagles lineman?
A MILE AWAY from Chickie and Pete's, the O-line meeting room at the NovaCare Complex is undergoing offseason construction: ceiling tiles have been stripped, the lights shut off; rows of black rolling chairs are strewn about. But the most important feature remains: a whiteboard on which the bespectacled Stoutland had scribbled, in green dry-erase marker, HUNGRY DOGS RUN FASTER.
When Stoutland left Alabama to join the Eagles in 2013, he was a my-way-or-the-highway hardass. Then he read It's Your Ship, a book of management techniques by Capt. Michael Abrashoff, a former Navy commander. Suddenly Eagles linemen were being encouraged to interrupt meetings, disagree about techniques and suggest strategy changes. "I don't want robots in here," Stoutland told them. "You might know even more than I know."
A line must operate like synchronized swimmers, he preached, because one errant movement can disrupt the entire routine, but everyone takes a different path toward making that happen. Johnson is the class clown. (Fart jokes? Sure. But he's also unafraid to take on, say, head injuries: "We're going to be 45, and we'll walk outside and forget we don't have any damn pants on. We joke about that all the time, because what else can you do?") Wisniewski and Kelce are both renowned brainiacs—"a genius" and "a freakin' genius," according to Stoutland—whose analytical chitchats sometimes continue right into their three-point stances. Brooks and Peters are cooler customers blessed with All-Pro natural instincts—"mammoth, unbelievable players comfortable in all moments," Kelce says—and therefore content to speak only when necessary. And then there are the soft-spoken youngsters like 2016 draft picks Vaitai and reserve guard Isaac Seumalo....
WISNIEWSKI (to Vaitai):We appreciate you for taking all the bullets.
KELCE:Stout does all the coaching through you and Isaac. You guys just take that big ol' pile of s---.
WISNIEWSKI:And you just smile the whole time.
JOHNSON:I've never seen this man pissed off. Can't happen.
WISNIEWSKI:I mean, horrible things have been screamed at you. Terrible things. Like, a lot.
KELCE:But it's all coming from love, you know?
Vaitai nods as Peters wraps an arm around his shoulder. This is the kind of support that made last season's Eagles unique, forging bonds that led to a league-leading 63 rushes of 10-plus yards. Consider this tradition, which Kelce calls "one of the coolest things we did all year": The night before each game, the linemen, tight ends and running backs would all meet to review the run scheme. But first one player would stand up and deliver a heartfelt speech about his motivation for playing football.
Kelce focused on a Calvin Coolidge quote about persistence, which his grandfather had given him on a notecard when he was 18. Wisniewski shared a Bible passage called "The Parable of the Talents," imploring teammates to maximize their abilities and avoid becoming "wicked and slothful servants." Johnson addressed the PED tests that he failed in 2014 and '16, and he cried. Brooks recounted how teammates had helped him overcome a debilitating anxiety disorder that sometimes led to vomiting and shivers during pregame warmups.
But the first lineman to speak was Peters. Of course. "The alpha dog," says Stoutland. "The godfather," says Wisniewski. The 36-year-old Peters has made the Pro Bowl nine times and is among the league's most respected linemen, in part for his caring presence. When Stoutland's dog died in late 2016, for instance, Peters gifted him with a pigskin-sized Shih Tzu. (Stoutland took the puppy home and named him Oliver, or Olie. As in O-line.)
Which helps explains the scene in Week 7 last year, against the Redskins, when the entire Eagles sideline flocked onto the field, encircling a medical cart, after Peters went down with a torn ACL and MCL. Peters remembers "grabbing my leg, making sure the bone was still in my skin." But Wisniewski remembers more what happened next, how his fallen teammate dispatched advice to his replacement, Big V, from the back of the medical cart: "I was like, this dude is a beast."
Peters's season was over, but he hardly disappeared. He continued to attend O-line meetings, prowled the sideline on crutches and texted tips before and after games to Vaitai, whom the Eagles entrusted with blindside duties rather than slide Johnson to left tackle. "That was a huge decision," says Stoutland. "I don't think we would've been nearly as productive if we'd moved Lane."
Two weeks after Peters went down, the Eagles dropped 51 points on the Broncos' then No. 1 D, winning their seventh of nine straight games. "That was one of those 'Wow' moments," coach Doug Pederson says. "All five guys were just charging like bulls, man. But synchronized."
The unit only grew stronger, befuddling foes with trap schemes and run-pass options (RPOs). After Wentz tore his left ACL in Week 14, the line insulated backup Nick Foles, allowing only one sack each against the Falcons and the Vikings to open the playoffs. Of course, that 15--10 home win over Atlanta was noteworthy more for what happened afterward: Nodding to Philly's status as the first underdog No. 1 seed in divisional-round history, Johnson and defensive end Chris Long slipped on rubber German shepherd masks, sparking thousands of rush orders that overwhelmed the Chinese-based retailer, CreepyParty.
Clearly canines had been on Johnson's mind. A week or so earlier, Stoutland had gotten fired up and motioned to his favorite phrase ... which he'd evidently not looked at in some time. Johnson had made one minor alteration. Now the whiteboard read: HORNY DOGS RUN FASTER.
FOR STOUTLAND, the epitome of his line's 2017 season was not that domination of Denver, nor was it the 215 rushing yards they rolled up against Dallas on Nov. 19, nor was it the pummeling they put on Minnesota in the NFC championship game, in which Vaitai held All-Pro D-end Everson Griffen without a sack. "The culmination of it all was in the Super Bowl," Stoutland says. "There were some unbelievable things done."
The Patriots' defense deployed a kitchen sink of three-man stunts, picks and pops—anything to throw the Eagles' front five into disarray. And nothing worked. The line synced up on a silent count; Foles was never sacked; and in the end Philly amassed 538 total yards, more than New England's D had allowed in a single game since 1986.
Color Stoutland's guys unsurprised. After all, they had two full weeks to prepare for Bill Belichick & Co. The final exam might as well have been taken with open notes. Says Kelce, "Everybody asks, Were you nervous? I wasn't that nervous. We knew their strengths; we had a good feeling for how they were going to play everything. It felt like it was going to be one of those games where we go out there and dominate these dudes."
Two plays stick out. On the first, late in the first quarter, the Eagles called an inside zone run on second-and-two at their own 31. Deploying a "jam front" of one nose tackle and three other D-linemen, the Pats blitzed in a way that the Eagles hadn't seen on tape. The resulting 36-yard burst by Legarrette Blount was the result of multiple conversion calls (basically, the passing off of a block from one lineman to another) from Kelce that Stoutland lauds now as, "the highest level of Silicon Valley. Those things can't happen if you don't have players that, in the heat of the moment, within a split second, work together."
Then, in the second quarter, after a deep pass from Foles to Alshon Jeffery set up first-and-10 at New England's 21, the Eagles ran a play they call 97 Force. Again Kelce made the correct presnap read, which allowed Wisniewski and Vaitai to hit the defensive backfield, springing Blount for a touchdown scamper that put Philadelphia ahead 15--3. "Everything was just like we drew it up," Wisniewski says. "It was all precise. We communicated it and it looks good when it's all flowing."
THE DOUBLE-DECKER tour buses pulled out of the Lincoln Financial Field parking lot and turned right onto Broad Street, embarking on a parade route that stretched five miles north toward downtown. This was Feb. 8, four days after the Super Bowl. Behind the wheel of the 12th vehicle in the fleet, the driver had barely steered one block before a voice shouted from the back: "Stop the bus! Open the doors!"
Grabbing Stoutland's hand, Peters bolted down the stairs, out the door and onto the street. "He was like General Patton walking through the battlefield," says Stoutland, who teared up as his entire line followed, marching along the green-clad crowd, slapping hands and chugging Bud Lights as 15 other Eagles buses pulled farther away. No matter. Everyone was headed for the same spot, outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Then it was time for Kelce—festooned in a shimmering, multicolored leprechaun costume that he borrowed from the Avalon String Band, which performs each year in Philadelphia's Mummers Parade—to step behind the mike and take charge.
"When he came with the mummer's outfit," says Brooks, "you knew it was going to be a special day. Jason lives for s--- like this. This is the mayor right here."
Roaring and increasingly raspy, the center's six-minute screed turned Kelce into a local hero as he rattled through perceived slights against his fellow Eagles: "Jason Peters was told he was too old.... Big V was told he didn't have it. Stefen Wisniewski ain't good enough. Jason Kelce's too small. Lane Johnson can't lay off the juice. Brandon Brooks has anxiety...." More than anyone, though, Kelce reflected this long-shot spirit. A walk-on linebacker at Cincinnati and 2011 sixth-round pick, he ranked as the NFL's best center last season according to PFF, with the highest run-blocking score (97.9) in the site's history.
Kelce says his speech was meant to pay homage to his favorite wrestler, Stone Cold Steve Austin, but really it's Johnson who best captures Austin's smack-talking essence.
WISNIEWSKI:What would you have said before the Super Bowl if you were allowed?
JOHNSON (mimicking a WWE promo):You've heard of performance-enhancing drugs, but you'd better get looking forward to some performance-enhancing ass-whoopings! I've got a whole lot of 'em—I can guarantee you that, my brother!
Johnson has been barking at the Pats all offseason, calling them a "fear-based organization" and railing against their "arrogance." He was especially miffed, he says, when former Oklahoma teammate Geneo Grissom, now with New England, refused to shake hands during Super Bowl warmups: "He said, 'No, we're not friends.' I was like, 'What the f--- are you talking about? I don't know if his coach told him to do that. I thought it was chickens---." (Grissom claims this happened after an Eagles field goal.)
The big men have earned the right to beef (like this SB LII gem, from Kelce: "The last defense we had seen was Minnesota's, and we were like, 'These dudes have got some players'; then we see [the Patriots] and we're like, 'These dudes have got some ... coaches'"), and they're ecstatic to be part of a franchise and a city that love seeing their personalities on full display.
PETERS:Every organization is definitely not like this.
JOHNSON:Speak your mind, you'll be back on the couch.
BROOKS:Some organizations [are] like robots, man.
JOHNSON:We don't want to say their names.
THE EVENING is winding down. Pints are polished off, cups of crab fries emptied. For everyone, it has been a busy five months since the Super Bowl. Vaitai's wife, Caitlin, prepared for the birth of their first child. Johnson and Brooks renegotiated their contracts, freeing up cap space so Foles could be re-signed. Everyone except Peters and Johnson attended Kelce's wedding in downtown Philadelphia, toasting with shots of Jameson.
Their collective profile has risen. Everyone has received free meals and obliged picture requests over dinner. "Most offensive linemen are not hounded in public," Kelce says. "But Philly is such a blue-collar, hard-nosed city; they appreciate us." Still, fame is fickle, especially in Philadelphia. "[These fans] are passionate," Peters says. "Come to the first game. If we're not up 20, we might get booed."
It marks something of a salary-cap-era miracle that every Super Bowl O-line starter will return. (Peters should reclaim his starting role from Vaitai.) But the Eagles must embrace change elsewhere. Offensive coordinator Frank Reich took the Colts' head job. Quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo left to run Minnesota's offense. And the rest of the league will spend this offseason scheming ways to stop all the RPOs and traps. "That's where it really becomes fun," Kelce says. "I love that chess match."
The biggest change, though, will come from within. The Eagles can no longer claim underdog status, even if, Wisniewski notes, ESPN's post--Super Bowl power rankings had the Pats ahead of the Eagles. ("Really? Are you kidding me?") Johnson has stashed his dog mask in a closet; Kelce has retired his mummer's costume. It will be impossible to capture the precise magic of last season, but these hounds will find other ways to stay hungry.
KELCE:I would be really scared if, like, everybody thought we had everything figured out. But it doesn't feel like that at all. We're already having daily discussions about, What if we did this? How can we do that better? Everyone knows we can be better. That's the biggest thing I've taken away.
JOHNSON:A good quote to sum this all up is from Robert Earl Keen Jr. "The road goes on forever and the party never ends."
WISNIEWSKI:Who is that?
JOHNSON:Country singer. The road goes on forever and the party never ends. Good song.
"YOU HAVE TO HAVE LAUGHTER WITH THE PAIN," SAYS JOHNSON. "IF YOU DON'T, YOU'RE GOING TO GO CRAZY."
Ninth Pro Bowl selection
Took every snap with Peters out
One half sack allowed; one penalty
Highest PFF run grade ever
PFF's No. 4 guard
All-Pro; PFF's No. 6 tackle
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