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Philadelphia's core four: Brandon Graham, Jason Kelce, Fletcher Cox and Lane Johnson define Eagles

PHOENIX -- It was not long after the Philadelphia Eagles had been blown out of their wild-card playoff game by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last year, and the vision for the future was clear to perhaps only those who toiled in the building just off Broad Street.

There was never any doubt that the Eagles would be aggressive and fearless in the face of risk when it came to acquiring players -- that is how owner Jeffrey Lurie wants his franchise to operate. But Philadelphia was not a boom-or-bust team. There was a throughline in the roster that supplied a bridge from successful years across the down ones and would now provide the on-ramp to the much better ones. The signature wheeling and dealing would come later for general manager Howie Roseman. First, that bridge, one of the most important pieces of the Eagles' entire structure, had to be maintained. And it began with convincing All-Pro center Jason Kelce to delay retirement for another year. How did Roseman pull that off?

"I mean, begging?" the general manager recalled. "Begging would be a proper term to use about what we were trying to do to get him to come back. It's very unusual that you're talking about a guy who gets better and better and better with age. He's a unique player, a unique person for our football team. He's a true legend."

That Kelce, now in his 12th season in Philadelphia, announced his return in a video, with beer foam dribbling down his beard -- head coach Nick Sirianni had helpfully shipped Kelce a keg, the way other people send flowers to court a loved one -- only enhanced Kelce's stature as an iconic Eagle, and one of the longest-tenured and most critical players in the team's history.

He has some company. Brandon Graham, Kelce and Fletcher Cox were drafted in successive springs by Andy Reid's Eagles. And the following year, Chip Kelly, who succeeded Reid as the head coach in 2013, took Lane Johnson in the first round. Kelce is the tone-setter, but that quartet has done more to shape and nurture and enforce the Eagles' culture -- and put Philly in position for a rapid recovery from a massive overhaul -- than anyone else.

When Doug Pederson became Philadelphia's head coach in 2016, Graham, Kelce and Cox were familiar faces -- Pederson was beginning his climb up the NFL coaching ladder on Reid's staff when they were drafted -- and he knew immediately he would need them for advice, support and help. Then only in the middle of their respective careers, those three had already seen plenty in Philadelphia. The bittersweet end of Reid's era, the short-lived Kelly experiment, the renaissance of Michael Vick, the drafting of a backup named Nick Foles. They were natural choices for Pederson's players' council, and he turned to them for input on things like how many times they should practice in pads. The coach made them the messengers of a culture change in the locker room when things got messy, which they did during a five-game losing streak in Pederson's first year. They were the ones charged with reminding their teammates during that stretch that they were still a good team.

But there were also the more specific needs. Like when Johnson would be disappointed with his Pro Football Focus grade or upset that he wasn't voted first-team All-Pro.

"You kind of had to reel him back in," Pederson said. "Kelce was the ringleader, the voice of reason. He was the one I would say, 'You've got to go talk to Lane.' "

The 2022 Eagles' appearance in Super Bowl LVII is a testament to the machinations and resiliency of an organization that won the Lombardi Trophy at the end of the 2017 season with Pederson and Foles, the latter of whom incredibly carried Philadelphia to the promised land after a season-ending injury to MVP candidate Carson Wentz. Just five years after that initial triumph -- five years that included farewells to the head coach, both quarterbacks and nearly everyone else from that championship roster -- Philly is in position to lift another Lombardi.

Of course, this is also a credit to those four -- Graham, Kelce, Cox and Johnson -- who have remained, excelled and propelled that sharp V-shaped recovery. Some older players calcify in their jobs, losing their relevance as the locker room inevitably gets younger and their bodies and performance give way to the ravages of the game. These four, instead, became pillars, two each on the offensive and defensive lines, which -- not coincidentally -- are the most dominant parts of an uber-talented team. These four have racked up sacks and pancake blocks, they've collected All-Pro selections and Pro Bowl invites, having survived multiple regime changes, injuries, brief flirtations with free agency and contemplations of retirement.

According to NFL Research, there are just 21 active players in the league today who have at least 10 years of experience for just one team. The Eagles are the only organization to have four such players on their active roster. The last NFL franchise to boast at least four players on its roster with 10-plus years of experience on that team, no prior experience elsewhere and a Super Bowl win together during that span? The 2019 Patriots, merely a part of the greatest dynasty in the Super Bowl era.

A few weeks ago, Cox said he feels like he and Graham have been married for 11 years, and that is not such a stretch. Last month, Cox, whose locker is next to Graham's, reminded Graham to brush his teeth.

"If you look at all the change, I do think the Eagles have done a phenomenal job of keeping the pieces and parts they think will hold everything together so that there is good buy-in and still a solid culture and foundation to build on," Kelce said last week. "The blow-it-up method is hard to reload everything with. When you have a good culture established that far precedes me -- this culture was established, I would say, with Andy Reid, maybe those guys would say even before that -- we have a great locker room, we have a lot of guys that care for one another. I was brought into that as a young player."

Kelce, at 35, is no longer a young player -- none of them are. And the realities of contracts and playing time mean it is unlikely all four will return next season, whether they win another title on Sunday or not. That, though, is a problem for the weeks after the game. The run-up to the Super Bowl has, instead, been a celebration of their durability and consistency. Consider this scene from last week: Defensive tackle Javon Hargrave was recalling how all he has heard from the quartet since joining the Eagles in 2020 is what it feels like to go to the Super Bowl when Graham, at a nearby locker, began modeling his new, Day-Glo Super Bowl jacket, the tags dangling from his arm. Graham is, as Pederson remembers him, the team's Energizer Bunny, intent on keeping the workday fun and light.

The longevity of the four surpassed even the expectations of those who were involved in drafting them, although that was not always assured. Kelce -- who, teammates note, often limps through practice -- admitted he contemplated retirement most seriously after Pederson was fired. Cox was briefly a free agent last offseason before the Eagles brought him back on a reduced deal. Johnson is playing through a painful torn adductor muscle. And Graham is Lurie's primary example of resilience. The Eagles were booed when he was drafted with the 13th overall pick in 2010, one spot ahead of safety Earl Thomas. Graham did not make the instant impact fans expected of a first-rounder, but Lurie believes in the benefits of patiently letting players develop. Graham has rewarded Philadelphia since, particularly this season, after he recovered from an Achilles' tear and returned with a career-high 11 sacks.

But the rest was largely by design. Joe Banner, who spent 12 years as the Eagles' president with Reid, said that in evaluating players, the team was especially focused at that time on finding extremely driven, high-I.Q. individuals who presented very little character risk. They had tried to project leadership ability, although Banner admits that is difficult to get right. Mission accomplished with Graham, Kelce, Cox and Johnson. Pederson said when he was fired, he heard from those four, who apologized for not doing more to help the team win. And when he was hired in Jacksonville, Pederson heard from them again, offering congratulations.

Kelce, an undersized sixth-round draft pick, encapsulates what has made the four so integral to Philadelphia's success. He is a five-time All-Pro, arguably the best center in football right now, and apparently an honorary Mummer. He arrived in Arizona wearing an "Underdog" T-shirt, a theme that no longer applies to Kelce or the Eagles.

Johnson calls Kelce the "nucleus" of the team, saying the center's passion for the game bleeds into everything the Eagles do.

"Kelce, how he presents to public -- like a fun-loving guy, he is a little bit different -- all of those things are true, but he has those things and also the drive and work ethic and desire to be the best personally and be part of a team that has a lot of success," Banner said. "There's a very fundamental thing they have in common, in addition to being talented players. That's the reason they have been on the team as long as they have and why they are not just good players but people that have elevated the whole roster."

The quartet's survival across multiple coaching regimes is one of the wonders of each individual's longevity. New regimes often import and export players to fit their schemes and their cultures. These four were so important they could fit into what any coach wanted to do -- they, in fact, made the job attractive to coaching candidates. The front office has even asked for Kelce's help in evaluating centers in the last few years, and last spring, he gave his approval to Cam Jurgens, whom the Eagles took in the second round and who will eventually replace Kelce.

On a day-to-day basis, their most important job may be showing other players how to prepare. Robert Quinn, the veteran defensive end who was acquired in an October trade, noticed how Cox and Graham took notes and how they spoke to the team about how to perfect their craft. They lead from the front, Quinn said, and because they already have a Super Bowl ring, players are more open to taking coaching from them. And they make it easier for newer players to quickly fall in line.

"This is my first time being on the big stage, and seeing how they react calms me down and gives me confidence," rookie safety Reed Blankenship said. "They are great role models. They make me want to play this game as long as I can, to be just like them."

When left tackle Jordan Mailata was asked about his inspiration, he held up his phone. His wallpaper is a picture of Kelce, wearing a Batman mask, his jersey rolled up to reveal his belly. "Fat Batman" is a true leader, Mailata said.

"It's just showing them how to practice," Graham said. "You've got to make sure you bring it every day. Some days, you don't have it. You've got to make sure you can talk about it and tell people, 'I need you. Finish the practice the right way.' It's more how we carry ourselves every day, our regimen. Those older guys have a regimen -- the steam room, the sauna. Trent Cole used to do a lot of that, and I idolized him when he was here. So I do the same thing. And those guys are in there with me doing what I do."

There has been an undeniable wistfulness whenever Graham, Kelce, Cox and Johnson have come up in the last 10 days -- and a whole lot of references to advancing age. Cox, who piled up seven sacks during the regular season, has talked about testing free agency for the first time, and Kelce has said the outcome of the Super Bowl will not determine whether he decides to retire. Beyond that, there has been little acknowledgement that the longest running show in Philadelphia sports could end on the Super Bowl field Sunday night.

Lurie, though, sat off to the side of the maelstrom of Opening Night and grew briefly emotional when he noted how very close he is to these four players and how much he loves their larger-than-life personalities. They are family, he said, and always will be.

"Every single day, they wanted what was best for the franchise," he said. "I was proud to collaborate with them and have them. They helped us thrive."

Perhaps Lurie didn't notice -- he was already speaking in the past tense.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter.

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