Alshon Jeffery could have blown up the locker room.
LeGarrette Blount could have, too.
Neither did. In fact, they made it bulletproof.
Jeffery and Blount didn’t get the numbers they’d hoped to get early in the season, but their examples as selfless veterans created an esprit de corps that propelled the Eagles to the top of the NFL. Everyone noticed.
“I think its huge,” said veteran safety Malcolm Jenkins. “In the locker room, people notice it. It’s one of the things that allowed us to move forward as a team.”
Tight end Zach Ertz and quarterback Carson Wentz are the only skill players going to the Pro Bowl. Considering the Eagles shared the NFL scoring lead after their 12-2 start, any realistic forecast of the season would have predicted Jeffery, who has two 1,000-yard receiving seasons, or Blount, who has two 1,000-yard rushing seasons, would be voted onto the team with them.
They were not, and they don’t care. Do they?
“We’re all prideful men. I can tell you right now: LeGarrette wants the ball. Alshon wants the ball. But our goals as a unit are more important than individual goals. In this day and age, that’s hard to come by,” Jenkins said. “They probably had cases where they could have complained about not getting the ball. They kind of kept that inside.”
“Whatever it takes to win one game at a time,” said Jeffery, who keeps everything inside. “Stay patient. Stay focused.”
Impatience would have been understandable.
Jeffery was the No. 1 receiver on the free-agent market when he left Chicago and signed a 1-year, $9.5 million, show-me deal with the Eagles. Blount ran for 1,161 yards, led the league with 18 rushing touchdowns and won a Super Bowl last year in New England. Both needed big seasons to earn bigger paydays with more security, but it soon became clear that wouldn’t happen in Philadelphia.
Since the start of his second season Jeffery averaged about 84 catches for more than 1,260 yards per 16 games, but after his first seven games, Jeffery found himself with just 26 catches for 354 yards and two touchdowns, a pace for 59 catches, 809 yards and five TDs — poor numbers for a free agent who would be 28 in 2018, who couldn’t find a lucrative, long-term deal in 2017.
Jeffery never complained.
“If you think about stuff like that it’ll make you frustrated and create bigger problems in the locker room, and at home,” said Jeffery. His employment problems are solved. He signed a 4-year, $52 million extension three weeks ago.
Blount didn’t arrive with Jeffery’s fanfare, and he signed for only $1.25 million, but then, Blount was a different commodity. He was 30, carried character baggage from his days in Tampa and Pittsburgh, and bore the indelible stain as one of Bill Belichick’s castoffs.
Blount began with a bang. He carried the ball 14 times and caught a touchdown pass in the season-opening win at Washington. Then, in Game 2, he did not get a carry in a loss at Kansas City.
Blount never complained. No one should have expected him to complain, he said: “All the titles of selfishness that came with me were completely wrong. I get tired of hearing that. That’s never been the case.”
Whether or not those accusations are valid, his stature cannot be questioned. Neither can Jeffery’s. Physically, they dwarf their teammates, and that matters in a football locker room. Jeffery, at 6-foot-4 and 221 pounds, looks like a tight end when he stands with the other receivers. Blount, at 6 feet, 250, looks like the big brother who keeps bullies away from taking the other backs’ lunch money.
They have produced for years at demanding positions in a brutal league. Blount has played in 122 games and has scored 61 touchdowns, which is 16 more games and 41 more touchdowns than the Eagles’ other four active running backs combined. Among the other five receivers, only Torrey Smith has a 1,000-yard season, and that came in 2013.
Blount and Jeffery are the lead dogs.
Doug Pederson understands that, and that’s why he cultivates one-on-one relationships with Jeffery and Blount. That is a manifestation of the “emotional intelligence” owner Jeffrey Lurie cited when he replaced dispassionate Chip Kelly with Uncle Doug.
“Specifically with LeGarrette, I definitely had a conversation with him after (the Chiefs game). He was good with that,” said Pederson, who said he has spoken with Jeffery, too. “The communication has been there, and it will continue to be there.”
A late addition
Their self-sacrifice set a tone by the time Pro Bowl back Jay Ajayi arrived at the trade deadline, carrying some baggage himself. Ajayi made big plays from Day 1 but he didn’t see the ball much in his first three games. Ajayi appeared upset after the third game, which Ajayi immediately refuted. Pederson met with Ajayi the next morning and discovered that Ajayi, who can be standoffish, was downcast less about his inclusion than about his failure to score on a couple of plays. Ajayi wasn’t pouting. He understood the environment he had entered.
“You’ve got marquee players just playing a role,” Jenkins said. “It’s hard to come into a locker room and be the guy who’s being selfish.”
“Jay’s a mature young player. He knows what his role is,” Blount said. “None of us are selfish.”
Lately, things have changed again. Ajayi has gotten Blount’s carries in the last three games. Once again: No problem.
“You don’t want to have any kind of negative vibes, especially in your (position) meeting room. You don’t want any animosity, discomfort, awkwardness,” Blount said. “I don’t think there’s a need to be frustrated or upset when you’re 12-2. Whatever we’re doing is obviously working, and there is nothing for me or anybody else to complain about.”