BLOOMINGTON, Minn. — Brandon Graham and Vinny Curry are usually found on opposite ends of the Eagles’ defensive line, but they’ve been on the same side of things throughout careers that have taken each from bust to boom and now to the Super Bowl.
“We talk about it all the time, and I mean all the time,” Curry said. “We can never forget who we are and what helped mold us. The whole journey from the beginning, we’ve always been underdogs.”
The entire team has adopted that role as it attempts to navigate the length of the postseason without its franchise quarterback, but Graham and Curry lived it during their years of development with the Eagles.
“Nobody said it was going to be easy,” Curry said.
The two starting defensive ends each survived the reign of D-line coach Jim Washburn and his force-fed wide-nine alignment; then a switch to a 3-4 defense under Chip Kelly that pushed them to outside linebacker; and finally another transition to Jim Schwartz, whose hybrid defense requires a little bit of everything.
“We’ve all got stories,” Graham said. “I’m happy to get here after so many years and to win this thing is the mission. I’ve been through a lot, but all the hard work has finally paid off.”
Graham was a first-round pick, 13th overall, in the 2010 draft and suffered quickly from all the expectations that come with being taken in that round. He recorded three sacks in his rookie season but didn’t have a single sack in his second year, when Washburn was hired to Andy Reid’s staff. That was the low point for Graham’s career, and he was widely considered a bust, or “the B-word,” as Graham likes to put it.
“All it did was put a big chip on my shoulder that’s going to carry me through my career,” Graham said. “It was actually a good thing it happened to me because it allowed me to see that you don’t take anything for granted because it can be gone just like that.”
The following season, Curry arrived as a second-round draft pick, 59th overall, and while both players would make it through the year, Washburn didn’t. His methods crashed and burned and he was fired on Dec. 3. It was far too late to save things for the Eagles and too late to change the tide that would lead to the firing of Reid after the season ended.
When Kelly arrived and went with Billy Davis as his defensive coordinator, that upheaval was doubled for the ends who became linebackers. Graham and Curry struggled to get on the field, with both playing only about a quarter of the defensive snaps.
There were isolated bright spots for Graham and Curry while Kelly was coach. Curry had nine sacks in 2014, but his snaps were still limited because he was only being used in third-down or obvious passing situations. Graham also had an uptick in 2014, and his 5.5 sacks, combined with increased playing time, got him a four-year contract extension before the 2015 season.
When the team transitioned back to a standard 4-3 defense under Doug Pederson for 2016, the situation stabilized, although Curry had to deal with a leg injury that really hampered his game. This season, as with so many other things for the Eagles, the journey reached a culmination.
“It’s cool to be here with the same core of guys you were drafted with around that same time,” Curry said. “I told myself that if I was healthy this year I was going to dominate. I held up my end of the bargain.”
Curry has platooned on the right side with rookie Derek Barnett, and Graham on the left side with Chris Long. Both the starters played well more than half the defensive snaps this season, and in the playoffs Curry has been on the field for 64 percent of the snaps and Graham for an amazing 85 percent, with some of those coming in the middle of the line when he doubles as a tackle. Graham had a career-high 9.5 sacks during the regular season, and Curry, who recorded just three sacks, led the team with 41 quarterback pressures.
“A lot of time stuff doesn’t show on the stats,” defensive coordinator Schwartz said. “You can have a great rush and force the quarterback to throw a pass away and you get a stop, but it doesn’t show up the way a sack does. All that stuff goes into what our D-line does. Vinny is very consistent with those things. He doesn’t always get a lot of attention, but for us, it’s more what the group does, and all those guys will tell you the same thing.”
The task on Sunday, getting pressure against a quarterback who is legendary for escaping it and getting the ball quickly out of his hand, is considerable. Limiting Tom Brady’s ability to be comfortable in the pocket is an obvious key to the game.
“He’s still amazing. He always knows where he’s going, and he’s not going to beat himself,” Graham said. “We just have to keep coming and not get frustrated when we don’t get there. ‘Keep coming’ is what we talk about.”
Graham and Curry have taken that approach their entire careers. There were moments it didn’t look as if either of them were going to get where he wanted to go, but now they both have arrived, and they’re ready to do some damage. They say it’s about time.