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The Philadelphia Eagles' Emotional Road to Super Bowl Victory
By Zach Berman
Foreword by Merrill Reese
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Philadelphia Inquirer Eagles beat reporter Zach Berman takes fans on a journey through the action-packed season — from the preseason and midseason player pickups that shaped a championship team to the gut-wrenching injury of star quarterback Carson Wentz through to the bold play calling and nail-biting moments in Super Bowl LII, in which the Eagles bested the favored-to-win New England Patriots.
A book unique in its scope and insight thanks to Berman’s on-the-ground reporting, Underdogs will detail the unlikely story that captured national attention; explain how the team resonated among a desperate fan base that waited 57 years for a championship; and even delve into the players’ social activism during a particularly political NFL season. With a foreword by beloved Philadelphia radio announcer Merrill Reese and an 8-page full-color photo insert, it’s the perfect keepsake item for anyone who bleeds green.
During his six years covering the Birds, Berman has developed relationships with some of the most notable characters that led the team to Super Bowl victory. In Underdogs, he’ll explain why Nick Foles contemplated retirement on his way to winning Super Bowl MVP. He’ll detail Howie Roseman’s journey to NFL executive of the year after being cast aside by former coach Chip Kelly. He’ll show Malcolm Jenkins’ journey to team captain, how Chris Long’s life changed in a Tanzania hotel bar, why Eagles kicker Jake Elliott didn’t consider football until he was chosen at random at a high school pep rally, and where Carson Wentz ate dinner the night before he left for the NFL Draft. These more obscure stories offer incredible context and depth to an already fascinating story of success against the odds.
The first time it occurred to me that this could be a special Eagles team came in a Charlotte hotel room in the minutes after midnight on October 12. The Eagles had just beaten the Carolina Panthers on a short week to advance to 5–1. They played without some of their key players on the road against one of the NFL’s best teams on three days’ rest. When they won, it sunk in that there was something different about this team.
Before that, though? This was a book I never expected to write. I wish I could say I stood on the sideline during those early-morning training camp practices in August and saw the makings of a Super Bowl team. They looked like they would be improved in 2017, and I expected a playoff contender, but certainly not the best team in the NFL.
That was also what made the Eagles’ ride so magical. There wasn’t the same “this is the year!” excitement that reaches a crescendo in Philadelphia most Septembers. 2017 was viewed as another year to build—Year 2 with the Doug Pederson–Carson Wentz partnership, the second year of Howie Roseman’s renewal. Owner Jeffrey Lurie emphasized the team’s long-term plan. It wasn’t a Super Bowl–or–bust campaign.
But there was a unique, intangible quality about this team. When building a team, so much attention goes to the quantifiable elements—the height, weight, speed; how well a player passes, runs, catches, blocks, tackles, or covers; all the factors that lead to “talent.” And the Eagles had as much or more talent than just about any team they played. In fact, going into the Super Bowl, they had the superior roster—even though they were the “underdogs.”
But what made this team special was its personality and resiliency, a certain mental toughness and chemistry that was different than anything I had seen in my six years covering the Eagles. It’s hard to identify what leads to those qualities—they’re intangible, after all—but it was the right mix at the right time. The players were motivated and competitive, embracing and embodying the underdog mentality that had galvanized the fan base.
The injuries accumulated throughout the season, but they never caused an implosion. When Wentz injured his knee in Los Angeles, I figured it was one injury too many. Wentz seemed to be the reason the Eagles overcame all the injuries throughout the year. But the team was always more than one player—even their most valuable player.
There was a confidence that was not manufactured, that belied what oddsmakers suggested. I stood by Malcolm Jenkins’s locker after the Eagles lost to the Dallas Cowboys in a meaningless season finale. They were still the top seed in the playoffs, but Nick Foles had struggled and many were left wondering whether the Eagles could beat the NFC’s heavyweights.
“Why should fans be confident during the next two weeks in this team?” I asked Jenkins.
“Why wouldn’t they be?” he responded.
I mentioned the way the offense played in the final two weeks of the season. Jenkins did not want to hear it. And it wasn’t false confidence. He genuinely disagreed.
“We still won thirteen games,” he answered. “Number one seed. Everyone’s got to come through Philly. I don’t care if you were starting at quarterback.… We win one game, we’re in the NFC championship at home in Philly. So yeah, I don’t care who we have at quarterback, who we have at offense, we’d take those odds.”
He was right, except for one part. They wouldn’t have won if I played quarterback. Foles, who had excelled at times throughout his career, thrived on the biggest stage. He was every bit the star quarterback that the franchise had once hoped for a few years earlier.
Jenkins saw something in his team that others might have missed, and I thought about that while driving home after the Eagles beat the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC Championship Game to advance to the Super Bowl. The Philadelphia streets flooded with fans that night celebrating the NFC title. But inside the Eagles’ locker room that night, they weren’t surprised. And they weren’t finished. They expected to go to the Super Bowl to win.
Throughout the week in Minnesota, they were not the “happy-to-be-here” team. That confidence that was present all season? It only intensified leading up to the Super Bowl. I predicted them to win that game because when putting aside the “Patriots mystique” and analyzing the matchups, I thought the Eagles had the advantage. However, I must admit, when Tom Brady took the ball down five points in the fourth quarter, I thought there was too much time on the clock and the Patriots would win. I had seen that movie before. Then Brandon Graham came through with the biggest sack in Eagles history and gave Philadelphia a memory decades in the making.
The scene in the postgame locker room revealed a joy that I had never seen before. Some players danced. Others cried. And when Doug Pederson gathered the team to speak, it could have come straight out of a sports movie. But this was as real as could be, and better than any script that could have been written.
The team was a privilege to cover—a journey ripe with rich storylines, compelling characters, and drama that made the Eagles’ story unique.
My hope is that comes across in the following pages. As a beat reporter for the team, I’m provided a unique, behind-the-scenes view of the team. I’m in the locker room just about every day, conversing with the principle characters and seeing the story unfold in front of me. This book gave me the opportunity to take a step back from my day-to-day coverage of the team, to widen my lens to examine how this team and this unprecedented victory came to be. I was able to connect the dots of how the roster was assembled, how the team improved, and the qualities that inspired and made possible the team’s Super Bowl run. I’ve also had the privilege of getting to know the team, and by the end of this book, you, too, should have a better understanding of the backstories of some of the players, coaches, and executives who made this season so special.
The reporting in this book is a compilation of what I’ve written and observed during my six years in the trenches with the team. Most of the quotes were said directly to me or in a press conference or group interview session. If the quote or information was given directly to someone else, the source is identified in the text. The in-game dialogue comes from players who wore a microphone for videos released by NFL Films or the Eagles’ official website. This was all weaved together into a narrative of the season. It’s their story—not mine, so this is the only time you’ll hear my voice in these pages.
The best part of every morning as a kid in the Philadelphia area was reading the sports page. I’d digest the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Eagles coverage instead of breakfast. I’d often read the Philadelphia Daily News during lunch. I learned about the Eagles through the words of their writers.
For that reason, covering the Eagles’ first Super Bowl for those very publications—and now in this book—was deeply personal. In my daily reporting, I try not to lose sight of that eager, passionate teenager waking up today in Philly looking for the latest news on the Eagles (even if they’re looking for that news on their phone). In many ways, my daily coverage is written for him or her. So is this book.
May 15, 2018
The wildest Super Bowl party wasn’t the one going on in the overfilled streets of Philadelphia on February 4, 2018. It was unfolding in the Eagles’ locker room at U.S. Bank Stadium.
After defeating the New England Patriots—the NFL’s ultimate Goliath—Eagles players, coaches, and executives all gathered in the U.S. Bank Stadium locker room for a long-awaited, surreal celebration. They had answered the decades-long prayers of their city, and it was time to party. The players hadn’t yet changed out of their uniforms when the music started and the champagne sprayed. But when Doug Pederson, the Eagles head coach, walked to the middle of the locker room and called everyone together under a purple banner that read “Super Bowl LII Champions,” the celebration halted so Pederson could speak. After each of the team’s wins throughout an improbable postseason run, Pederson would start off, “We’re not done…”
And after every game, they’d shout back, “Yet!”
On this night, after their miraculous victory, Pederson started his postgame speech with a question.
“Are we done?”
“Yes!” the players responded in unison.
“We’re done, baby!” Pederson said. “I’m so happy for every one of you—coaches, players, [owner Jeffrey] Lurie, the organization—for everything you guys have put yourself through from day one… [and battling] through the injuries. Guys, I can’t tell you how happy I am. I really am. You’re world champions, men!”
His players, euphoric from victory and the flowing libations, hung on every word. They shouted back in unison, “World champions!”
“World champions!” Pederson repeated. “Just look around! Look around. OK? This is what you guys have done. This is what you’ve accomplished. You guys get on me a lot about dress code and the way we practice and do things. Well, guess what? It’s for this moment right here. For this moment! Because [that’s] the discipline it takes to win this game. And this is a team game. We said before: An individual can make a difference. But…”
“A team makes a miracle!” The players finished Pederson’s sentence, affirming what he told them throughout their playoff campaign.
“Goddamn! We made a miracle, dog!” one player shouted from the back.
“Philly’s gonna burn!” another player hollered.
“Tonight, you did it. We did it!” Pederson said. “Against a fine football team. When you’re asked, you’re complimentary. But at the same time, we’re going to party!”
Who was Pederson kidding? The party had already started—one look around the room would tell you that. Of course, the postgame locker room was only prologue for what would come next—a team-wide bonanza in Minneapolis that night, more celebrations in the days that followed, a parade up Broad Street that will long live in Philadelphia lore, and a lifetime of glory. They were the ultimate underdogs who had just won the Super Bowl with a backup quarterback as MVP. Pederson wasn’t going to tame their fun.
“I don’t know how or where we’re going [tonight],” Pederson said. “But we’ll figure it out!”
“All bottles on Mr. Lurie!” one player shouted to no one and everyone at the same time.
Then, all the players dropped to one knee and prayed. After the prayer, safety Malcolm Jenkins came to the middle of the group. A vocal leader of the team, he followed Pederson’s speech after every game to address his teammates. Jenkins is a polished communicator when in front of the camera, but he’s unplugged when riding the high of a victory. His candid rallying cry after quarterback Carson Wentz’s season-ending knee injury eight weeks earlier set the tone for the Eagles’ postseason response thereafter. When the Eagles reached the pinnacle of the NFL, what remained for Jenkins to say?
“Real talk, I don’t got nothing for you, man!” Jenkins said. “I’m so proud to be a part of this team, man. I’m telling you, I’ve been in the league for f—ing nine years. I ain’t never been a part of nothing like this and [never] seen nothing like this! First time we’re bringing this thing back to Philly. I said it a few weeks ago, ‘Be legendary!’ That s—is etched in stone!”
Jenkins called for and was handed the Lombardi Trophy, the iconic twenty-two-inch, seven-pound sterling silver prize that had never seen the inside of the Eagles’ South Philadelphia headquarters. Jenkins’s teammates crowded him, sticking their hands up to touch the trophy.
“Every single person in this room is on this, man!” Jenkins said. “It took every single drop from every single one of y’all! And we did it! Despite what anybody said, man. We believed in each other every time something came, and we fought harder, we loved more, we grinded harder, and this is it. And we had more fun doing it than anybody. We started on family, and we end it on family. One, two, three: Family!”
With that, the party could resume. The players chewed cigars, sipped scotch, and sprayed champagne. Jenkins walked over to his locker, took off his jersey, and reached for the top shelf, where a bottle of Johnny Walker Blue awaited him. He took a big swig straight from the top before passing it around. This is how to celebrate a miracle. Back home in Philadelphia, fans poured into the streets, climbed greased light poles, and prepared to party until dawn. But inside the locker room, where players posed with the elusive Lombardi Trophy, there was an ecstasy that could only be understood by the fifty-one other teams that had won a Super Bowl before.
There were hugs and long embraces all around, with no teammate spared from the joy. The soundtrack ranged from Queen’s “We Are the Champions” to Drake’s “Big Rings” to Meek Mill’s “Dreams and Nightmares,” a song that had become an anthem for the Eagles during their playoff run. When the Philadelphia rapper’s music pulsated throughout the locker room speakers, a dance party broke out. Players jumped up and down, singing along while holding their cell phones high into the air to document the moment. It was the type of raw emotion that is seldom witnessed, even after a dramatic victory. There’s always another week, a reason to try to stay humble, some controversy to avoid. Win the Super Bowl, though, and the cloak of decorum can come off. It’s a feeling of pure joy few have experienced, and it was sweeter than the team could have imagined.
“This trumps everything,” said linebacker Mychal Kendricks, who had played in Philadelphia since 2012. “Nothing else even matters.… There’s a point in time where you just don’t give a damn. And [this] was that time.… Do you understand what we just did, bro? First time in Philly history!”
BUILDING THE MIRACLE TEAM
AN OBSESSIVE OWNER, A DESPERATE CITY
Jeffrey Lurie waited almost twenty-four years to become a world champion. Throughout his time owning the Eagles, Lurie often used the word “obsession” when discussing his quest for the Super Bowl, and once said that winning a Super Bowl is “what I think about every single day of the year.”
Lurie is not a Philadelphia native; he moved to the city in 1994 after purchasing the Eagles. But he felt like he had waited a lifetime for this. He acquired a franchise that was almost like a civic trust, the city’s fandom an inheritance from generation to generation. There is no better indicator of the Eagles’ role in Philadelphia and its suburbs than to sample the mood in the region the day after an Eagles win compared to an Eagles loss. And whenever the season concluded—whether it was after the last regular season game, a playoff game, or the Super Bowl in 1981 and 2005—there was always that irksome feeling of an unfulfilled dream. When that dream was finally realized, Lurie basked in his ability to deliver on a longstanding pledge.
“I can’t tell you how many times people come up to me wherever it is—there’s always Eagles fans everywhere—and they just… start crying,” Lurie said of his experience after the Super Bowl. “They… start hyperventilating. The stories they have with their mothers, their fathers, who they got to experience it with. I don’t know if you could explain it to fans everywhere in the country, but those of us who know the passion and the love for this football team, and how much they’ve wanted the Eagles to win a Super Bowl, it’s like it gets played out every day in a real emotional, personal way.”
Lurie never expected it to take so long. On May 6, 1994, he spent a then-record $185 million to purchase the Eagles, a team with a rabid fan base, a decrepit stadium, and little history of success in the Super Bowl era. In the thirty years before Lurie purchased the team, the Eagles totaled only ten winning seasons and one Super Bowl appearance. The Wall Street Journal panned the purchase, and Lurie wondered if he’d made the wrong decision. But he wanted into the NFL badly after a failed attempt to buy the New England Patriots, and the well-known passion of Philadelphia sports fans appealed to him. Lurie did not want to be an absentee owner, vowing that wherever he bought a team he would move there from Los Angeles. He’s now in his twenty-fifth year in the Philadelphia area, where he’s raised his two children and met his now-wife, Tina.
But when he bought the team, Lurie was an outsider (a Boston native) vowing to deliver to Eagles fans what had always eluded them. On May 17, 1994, the city hosted a celebration for the new owner. Among the thousand or so in attendance were Mayor Ed Rendell, Eagles players, Mummers, cheerleaders, season-ticket holders, and the Keystone Jazz Band.
“If I were to describe myself as any particular type of owner,” Lurie said that day, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, “it would be a fans’ owner, because you really get great satisfaction when you can go out on the streets and scream you’re number one and you’re world champions.”
Early in Jeffrey Lurie’s ownership, he jotted down a list of what he thought were the essential tenets to a winning organization. Those included a first-class practice facility and a state-of-the-art stadium dedicated to the football team; a dynamic head coach with a strong staff of assistant coaches; a smart, creative football executive; and a franchise quarterback. The Eagles upgraded their facilities during Lurie’s first decade of ownership, checking off the first two items on the list. The other parts were more uncertain.
His first coaching hire came in 1995 when he tabbed Ray Rhodes to lead the team. The Eagles achieved early success, reaching the playoffs in Rhodes’s first two seasons and going 1–2 in the postseason. Then came two substandard seasons that forced Lurie to examine his next move. Lurie would later realize why Rhodes failed to produce a championship. “We didn’t have a franchise quarterback, so it was not sustainable,” he would say. But at the time, the failure to deliver cost the coach his job.
After the 1998 season, Rhodes was dismissed and the Eagles made a bold decision to hire Green Bay Packers Quarterbacks Coach Andy Reid, who had no coordinator experience and did not top any lists of hot coaching prospects. But Lurie and team president Joe Banner were sold on Reid’s long-term vision, a sign of his organizational skills and leadership qualities. Reid didn’t find much need to explain his plan to the public; he had the support of his bosses. The first step was picking their franchise quarterback. The Eagles chose Donovan McNabb with the No. 2 overall pick in the 1999 draft—the same selection the Eagles used on Carson Wentz seventeen years later—even though it was not met with universal approval. McNabb was famously booed on his draft day by a bus full of Eagles fans who trekked up the New Jersey Turnpike to New York City because they wanted running back Ricky Williams. The McNabb pick proved to be the right one, and together with Reid he led the Eagles to one of the most successful periods in franchise history. From 2001 to 2004, the Eagles made the NFC championship game every year. They lost in three consecutive Januarys before finally breaking through to reach Super Bowl XXXIX—where they faced the New England Patriots, Lurie’s childhood team and the franchise he once tried to purchase. The Patriots beat the Eagles that evening, spoiling the Eagles’ chance at a Super Bowl and solidifying a Patriots dynasty that would continue for years to come.
In 2008, Reid and McNabb would reach one more NFC Championship game together, but again, they went no further. A couple years later the Eagles tried loading up for another run with Michael Vick at quarterback, but lost in the first round of the playoffs two seasons in a row. After fourteen years, Reid’s tenure in Philadelphia had run its course. The Eagles parted ways with Reid after he posted a 4–12 record in 2012, then hired Chip Kelly, the University of Oregon’s innovative head coach who represented a significant shift from Reid. Kelly brought an up-tempo offense, a devotion to sports science, and—as it later turned out—an abrasive personality leading to internal griping about his interpersonal skills. Still, the Eagles reached the playoffs in Kelly’s first year, and optimism grew in Philadelphia.
AN ELUSIVE SUPER BOWL
By 2014, twenty years had passed since Lurie bought the team. There was one Super Bowl appearance, five NFC championship games, and zero parades up Broad Street. While the fans had grown restless, Lurie explained that he felt the sting more than anyone else. That did not assuage the Lincoln Financial Field tailgaters, though, and they let him know it whenever they could. But Jeffrey Lurie remained resolute about his core beliefs. The faces changed, the facilities were updated, yet Lurie still sought the right combination of quarterback, coach, and personnel executive. He was convinced it would eventually materialize.
“I anticipated it being difficult, but I thought if you can get to four, five, six championship games, or get to the playoffs the majority of the years, as we have, then you’d have the luck that would transcend whatever strengths or weaknesses you have,” Lurie said. “Other teams have had that. We haven’t. If you keep the same values and the same passion to do the best you can, that’ll right itself over time.”
It didn’t happen with Kelly. The team collapsed in the final month of the 2014 season to miss the playoffs. Then throughout the 2015 season, after major front-office and roster upheaval orchestrated by Kelly, Kelly’s ship sank as trust in him had eroded. Lurie fired Kelly during the final week of the season, not even waiting until after the finale. Disappointed that the locker room and organization were muddled in low morale, he now sought a coach with “emotional intelligence,” one who realized the fragility of a locker room and who could help rebuild the organizational culture. Lurie began the process of hiring his fourth coach, seemingly no closer to the Super Bowl than he was in 1994. The hope from the fan base renewed every summer, but patience thinned and skepticism mushroomed.
After firing Kelly, Lurie took out the checklist he keeps in the top drawer next to his bed and added a new requirement for a successful franchise: chemistry. That elusive, immeasurable, all-important element in the locker room and the organization that breeds real success. Lurie had come to embrace the value of culture in a franchise’s success, both among the players and between the coaches and the executives in the front office. In fact, one of Lurie’s prevailing lessons between the Eagles’ two Super Bowl appearances was the “absolutely paramount importance of collaboration and a selfless locker room culture.”
It would be easy to confuse that motive with seeking what’s comfortable and finding someone who can placate those in charge. That perception only became more pronounced when Lurie hired Doug Pederson as head coach in January 2016. Critics of the decision charged the Eagles with trying to recreate the Andy Reid era, since Pederson was the first quarterback Reid signed and was later his assistant coach in both Philadelphia and Kansas City. (Of course, with nine playoff appearances in fourteen years, there could have been worse eras to emulate.) Pederson was an unheralded hire—no other team interviewed him for a head coaching position—but Lurie said he “checked the box on everything.” In Pederson, who was forty-seven at the time, Lurie saw a “smart, strategic thinker” with “unparalleled” communication skills, and found him “comfortable in [his] own skin.” Lurie seemed unworried about how the hire would sell. After two decades, he had learned the standings sell more than the sizzle.
“The fans just want to win,” Lurie said. “In picking a new head coach, it’s not about winning the press conference. It’s just about picking the best leader, and it was very clear to us that was the way to go.”
The Eagles’ search had started with two thousand pages of information on twenty-five candidates. That list was soon pared down to six available coaches. The Eagles spoke to two internal candidates and four from outside the organization. Multiple reports suggested the Eagles were trying in earnest to hire Giants offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo, but then the Giants swooped in and offered him their head coaching job. That created the perception that Pederson was not the top choice. Lurie insisted otherwise.
“At the end of the search,” Lurie said, “this was an easy call.”
After Pederson’s hire, Lurie once again consulted his list. He had picked his new head coach and felt good about his staff. The facilities, with continued investment in renovations, were in great shape. He thought he had made strides toward creating the culture of collaboration required to win. But he still needed a franchise quarterback. He also needed someone who could figure out how to get one. Fortunately, that man was already in the building.
THE REDEMPTION OF HOWIE ROSEMAN
Howie Roseman walked through the locker room after the Super Bowl with his shirt untucked under his suit, a Super Bowl Champions cap on his head, and the type of satisfied smile that could only belong to someone who lost his dream job only to be handed it back again.
- On Sale
- Oct 30, 2018
- Page Count
- 288 pages
- Running Press