Kendricks' play mirrors improvement of defense
THE FIRST LESSON came before his very first game. Eagles linebacker Mychal Kendricks saw the NFL logo etched onto into the grass. His eyes squinted as the national anthem played. He looked across the field at Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, figures who seemed to be around since before he started dreaming of this moment.
"I'm in the NFL," he thought, and his next thought was to convey this feeling to the rest of his Eagles teammates. To Cullen Jenkins, a Super Bowl champion. To Jason Babin, another grizzled veteran. To DeMeco Ryans. To Nnamdi Asomugha.
To Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.
"DRC was like, 'C'mon, man, shut the [bleep] up,' " Kendricks recalled yesterday. " 'It's preseason.' "
Yup, preseason. Game 1 of the preseason two summers ago.
"He was like, 'You, calm down,' " Kendricks continued. " 'Chill out. You've still got to make the team.' And I'm like, '[Bleep], you're right.'
"After that I never said nothing the whole year. Not a word."
All of those guys, with the exception of Ryans, are gone now, grizzled veterans on other teams or, in Asomugha's case, released. So Kendricks is using his words again, charging up a defense as young and unproven as he is, reading offenses with more regularity - and more success - as his resume fills with more real games.
"I think Mychal is one of those guys that, every single week, he gets better and better," coach Chip Kelly said a day after Kendricks excelled in the 49-20 victory over Oakland. "He's really starting to come along. It's exciting. When you have a rock-solid guy, DeMeco standing right there, and then all of a sudden, now Mychal.
"His game is starting to elevate, and I think that's a positive as we move forward."
Only a month ago, such a statement would have been met with universal ridicule and cynicism. The Eagles had just been crushed by the Denver Broncos, and the player whom coaches had raved about all summer long, who had played the 3-4 defense in college and excelled during a 33-27 opening-game victory over Washington, now seemed as lost as he had been as a rookie under the 4-3 played by the Eagles last year. And the new head coach who had predicted great things for Kendricks over the summer seemed to be hedging his bets a bit.
"He thinks a little bit too much and doesn't let himself go play," Kelly said then. "Just kind of pull the trigger and go."
Kendricks' early struggles reflected those of a defense that was then on track to set NFL records for futility. His improved play since reflects the surprising promise of the last month, in which five consecutive opponents have been held to 21 or fewer points.
Kendricks is a thoughtful guy. His answers convey both confidence and self-deprecation, sometimes in the same sentence, sometimes regarding the same game or same play. He will defend his play against teams like San Diego and Kansas City one moment, then point out his own errors the next. He will talk about playing fast without overrunning things, walking you through his thought process and his learning curve.
"There are times when you get down on yourself and question whether you're the man for the job when you get your ass kicked," Kendricks said. "For the first couple of times. That's when you have good people, good teammates around you who help keep your head on your shoulders and make sure that you know that you are here for a reason. That you are one of the best."
Kendricks' guy has been Ryans, the veteran linebacker now in his eighth season. Ryans has helped him with his tape study and stayed in his ear about running to the play without overrunning it, about thinking just enough out there to unleash the athletic tools that helped him become a second-round pick two springs ago.
"People try to make football all these different things," Ryans said. "But hey, man, you've just got to get to the football. My message to him has always been just seeing the game. Understanding and anticipating before the snap. Understanding what can you get. What you're not going to get. That allows him to play faster and be able to make plays in the backfield. I definitely see his growth from Year 1 to Year 2. He's communicating with guys. He's making calls. He understands. He's a very confident guy."
You would even call him cocky if he didn't punctuate everything with self-criticism, and an emphasis on making everyone around him better.
When he was asked yesterday how close to a finished product he was, Kendricks said, "Not close at all, probably. I'm not anywhere near where I want to be. I want to be one of the best.
"That's what we do this for. If you're not trying to be one of the best, then I don't know what you're doing. That goes for everyone up and down this locker room and that goes for other teams, too. If you're not trying to be the best, you're [fooling] yourself. You're selling yourself short. And you can bust your ass and try to be the best and never be the best. But if you never tried, you really can't talk."
On Twitter: @samdonnellon