Rodney McLeod spent the first weekend in January for the last five years the same way. The Eagles safety would relax at home after a grueling season, put the NFL playoffs on television, and watch with misery.
“Wondering why I’m not out there making those plays or playing in these games,” McLeod said. “What can I do next year? You always come in, ‘This is the year, this is the year.’ ”
For the first five seasons in McLeod’s career, his teams won either six or seven games. Then he’d pack up his locker after Week 17 and refresh his body before starting the whole NFL cycle again.
McLeod watched the playoffs on television again last weekend, but it took on an entirely different tenor. Regret transformed into preparation. He watched to see whom the Eagles would play this weekend, because for the first time since joining the NFL in 2012, McLeod is on a playoff team.
“It’s good to finally say, ‘This was the year’,” McLeod said.
There’s been much discussion this season about the veteran experience on the Eagles, and especially the players who have won Super Bowls. Coach Doug Pederson mentioned it again Tuesday. The Eagles have 24 players on the 53-man roster who have been to the postseason.
But five established veterans have never played beyond Week 17: McLeod, wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, linebacker Nigel Bradham, offensive lineman Stefen Wisniewski, and offensive lineman Chance Warmack. Each is in at least his fifth NFL season and will play in his first playoff game Saturday against the Atlanta Falcons. The five have their own appreciation for finally having a 17th game.
“When you make the playoffs as a rookie or a second-year guy, you think that’s normal,” Wisniewski said. “When you don’t make it for a long time, you realize how hard it is to make it. I mean, 12 out of 32 is not very many. There’s a lot of vets that have never been there. It’s definitely a privilege to make it to the playoffs.”
On the flight home from Los Angeles after the Eagles clinched a playoff spot, McLeod and Jeffery shared a moment to celebrate. They documented it on social media, letting their followers realize how long the wait has been. They arrived in the NFL as rookies the same year, and they had talked all season about finally breaking through.
— Marc Narducci (@sjnard) January 10, 2018
Jeffery is used to returning to his native South Carolina or vacationing in Florida during the first week of January. This year, he plans on working for a few more weeks.
“I’m not happy [just] being in it,” Jeffery said. “I’m trying to go win it. That’s my mind.”
Jeffery went 10-6 on the Bears as a rookie in 2012. He hasn’t had a winning season again until this year. As a free agent, Jeffery had options. He saw the Eagles as a team on the rise, and he didn’t hide his bullishness from the day he signed in March. He predicted then that Carson Wentz could become the MVP. He thought he could be one of the pieces that could bring the Eagles back to the postseason – and put him in it for the first time. Before he signed his contract extension, he said the Eagles’ success would be a factor in whether he’d stay.
“I think just winning, that’s the most important,” Jeffery said. “Winning championships. A lot of players make a lot of money, but some of them never make the playoffs, never get to experience a lot of things.”
Saturday presents the opportunity Jeffery craved and a spotlight in which he can shine. When asked about a touchdown in a nationally televised win over Dallas earlier this season, Jeffery responded: “Big-time game, big-time players make big-time plays.” The playoffs would qualify as a big-time game.
NFL players don’t often have the chance to watch the rest of the league. They’re working on Sundays. Other than Monday and Thursday games, and the Sunday night game if the schedule breaks right, the playoffs are the chance for the rest of the league to watch — and much of the viewing public to watch, too.
Bradham is a difference-making linebacker for the Eagles who believes he has earned more respect than what has come his way in his career. He has received more attention this season, especially after a standout performance on national television against Carolina in October, but he’s eager to play in front of that audience.
“You wonder why it took so long,” Bradham said.
Warmack has heard veteran teammates throughout his career describe the playoffs, but he kept waiting to experience them himself. Wisniewski would return to family after each of his last six seasons, eat unhealthy food, and watch the playoffs like a teenager hoping that he wouldn’t go his pro career without playing in that type of game.
Pederson invited veterans with Super Bowl and playoff experience to speak in front of the team during the last two weeks. The playoff-less players heard from those who won early in their careers — Malcolm Jenkins earned a ring as a rookie — and late in their careers — Chris Long didn’t make the playoffs until winning the Super Bowl with New England in his ninth season. They also heard from Brent Celek, who reached the NFC championship game in his second season with the Eagles and has not won a postseason game in the eight years since.
They now will have stories to share of their own, letting future teammates know just how agonizing the wait can be to play a 17th game.
“You don’t know if you’re going to get that moment again, so treat it like that,” McLeod said. “It might happen next year if we’re fortunate enough. But teams change. Teams get better. You just don’t know. I’ve gained a lot of appreciation for the game and respect teams that have made the playoffs. I understand what it takes.”