In the free agent frenzy of 2011, Cullen Jenkins was signed to fit Jim Washburn’s attacking scheme and provide pressure up the middle, but in his introduction to Philadelphia it was immediately clear that he brought much more to the table.
The context here is important: the Eagles had just traded for Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and signed Nnamdi Asomugha, Jason Babin and Vince Young. Eagles management had embraced the “all in” mantra, Young had labeled his new squad the “dream team” and Babin had sent a tweet comparing the Eagles to the Miami Heat.
There was an understandable buzz in the air at Lehigh, an energy and maybe a bit of self-satisfaction over the way the Eagles had seemingly ambushed the rest of the league in free agency. Enter Jenkins, a notable signing, for sure, but not one who rated on the level of the Pro Bowlers who had arrived just before him, at least not in name recognition. All he had was a Super Bowl ring, and much-needed perspective.
“You have a lot of hype about the team right now,” Jenkins told reporters at Lehigh, wearing a new Eagles visor and speaking in flat, measured tones. “You just don’t put talent on the field and win because of it. You have to have camaraderie, trust, work ethic. Everything has to come together.”
The words added a sobering dose of reality to the preseason furor, and carried all the more weight coming from a veteran who had just won it all. And they proved incredibly prescient. Reporters around the team would soon learn that Jenkins was one of the most honest and reliable sources of insight on the Eagles, and a voice whose words carried weight.
I never saw him wearing his Super Bowl ring – instead Jenkins endearingly and perhaps dangerously practices with his wedding ring on – and the defensive tackle who had spent his entire career in Green Bay was reluctant to speak out too openly at first. He was new to Philadelphia and wary of over-stepping his bounds. Plus he was something of a joker. After Juqua Parker returned an opening game fumble for a touchdown, I asked Jenkins what he saw on the play. “I had left and got a drink and sat down and talked for a little and came back,” Jenkins deadpanned, “and he was still running.”
But as the season spiraled, Jenkins was one of the few Eagles willing to stand up and call out the team for what it was.
“The biggest thing that we’re missing here is attitude,” Jenkins said after the Eagles blew a third straight fourth-quarter lead to lose to the 49ers. “At some point the man in you has to come out.”
Before long Jenkins had become the man in the middle of the pre-game huddle at the 50 yard line, barking out to the full team assembled around him before the Eagles went to the locker room for the final time.
When the Eagles season hit its absolute bottom, their embarrassing 31-14 loss in Seattle, Jenkins sat at his locker, head down. It was hard to even approach him, but he talked.
“We came out here, we got it handed to us. There’s no excuses at all,” Jenkins said. “You’ve got to have pride, you’ve got to have that desire in you that makes you play for more than just money. You play this game because you love it, you play the game because you accept the challenge, you play the game for a lot of different things, and right now we just ain’t manning up.”
It was one of the most honest post-game assessments I’ve heard.
On the field, Jenkins was good last season but not great. He had 5.5 sacks and delivered possibly the hit of the year when he destroyed the Giants’ D.J. Ware at the MetLife Stadium. But he had just a half-sack in the team’s last 11 games, despite being more of a pass rusher than run stuffer.
Still, he played hurt and he brought a professional, serious demeanor to a locker room where the hype and attention and negative reaction to a terrible start clearly irked some players.
That’s why it made sense to keep Jenkins and why the team's statement on the defensive tackle cited his impact “on and off the field.” It’s something teams say all the time, but in this case it’s warranted and why a 31-year-old defensive tackle is worth the $5 million roster bonus he will reportedly retain.
I doubt the Super Bowl talk will be thrown around as casually this preseason as it was last year, but if the Eagles are to make a run, Jenkins’ experience and level head could be an important factor on a team whose players have had precious little playoff success.