BLOOMINGTON, Minn. – Reggie was overpowering at the Super Bowl.
Maybe Fletch will be, too.
When the Packers ended their 29-year championship drought, after the 1996 season in Super Bowl XXXI, Reggie White, a big-money free-agent defensive lineman, made sure Titletown reclaimed its nickname. In the most breathtaking display of condensed defensive dominance in NFL postseason history, White sacked Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe three times in the game’s final 18 minutes and squelched any hopes of a comeback.
The Eagles would be delighted if their $103 million tackle lays out Tom Terrific a couple of times in Super Bowl LII on Sunday night. The way Fletcher Cox is trending, that might just happen.
Since the beginning of the 2016 season, when the Eagles signed Cox to his six-year extension, their immediate success was mapped around Cox’s play. This was true even as they bet heavily on quarterback Carson Wentz, the second overall pick in 2016, but they never foresaw Wentz developing as quickly as he did, so they expected Cox & Co. to carry the load.
Their plan has never looked better than it does today. Since Wentz tore his left ACL in Game 13, the burden of winning shifted ever more to the defense, and Cox has been its postseason power plant. The Eagles have allowed just 17 points in their two playoff games. His energy is infectious.
“Fletcher’s playing out of his mind right now,” said defensive end Vinny Curry. “It’s energy that trickles down to each guy.”
Near the end of the season, Cox vowed to lead the defense and the line through the playoffs, and he has. He had a sack and two tackles for a loss in the divisional round against the Falcons, and he was just as disruptive against the Vikings.
“He got into the playoffs,” said Tim Jernigan, who starts alongside Cox, “and he turned it up another notch.”
Eagles coach Doug Pederson has seen this before. He was the Packers’ backup quarterback when the Minister of Defense rained destruction on the Patriots. It was a timeless example of big-time players making big-time plays in the biggest of situations.
“During the regular season, you’re kind of methodically going about your business,” Pederson said. “Then you get closer to the playoffs, guys begin to hone in and focus in.”
This has been building.
Cox was hurt early in the season, but in the eight games through November in which Cox was fully healthy, he played 72 percent of the snaps, though never more than 83 percent in any game.
In the six meaningful games since December, he has averaged 83 percent of the snaps.
“He’s been playing really well, but he’s been playing a lot, too,” said backup tackle Beau Allen. “Even more impressive to me: He’s been playing really, really hard. When you have a guy who’s one of the best guys on your team, one of your highest-paid guys, who plays that much and plays that hard, it’s tough to do. He’s really been leading by example. When I see that, it’s a big motivator.”
Since the Eagles traded veteran quarterback Sam Bradford the week before the 2016 season, any real hope of winning hinged on Cox. Wentz was a rookie without a No. 1 receiver or a No. 1 running back. If the Eagles hoped to win quickly, it always was with defense first.
In 2016 they hired big-name coordinator Jim Schwartz, bolstered Malcolm Jenkins on the back end with safety Rodney McLeod and signed linebacker Nigel Bradham. Before this season, they drafted defensive end Derek Barnett and cornerback Rasul Douglas, signed end Chris Long and cornerback Patrick Robinson, and traded for cornerback Ronald Darby and tackle Tim Jernigan. They did all of this to supplement Cox’s transformative talent in the middle of the line. These were surer bets than their 2017 free agents on offense — running back LeGarrette Blount and receivers Torrey Smith and Alshon Jeffery — but only if Cox produced.
Which he did. Cox earned a third straight Pro Bowl berth this season. He had 5 1/2 sacks, even though he missed all or parts of three games and saw double-teams on virtually every snap he took … just like Reggie used to see. Last week, Patriots coach Bill Belichick said there is no better tackle in the game than Cox, so he can expect to see a lot of attention again Sunday.
Like Reggie, Cox has embraced the attention and the moment. It’s what great players do.
Buddy Ryan once called White the best lineman who ever played, but as several teammates noted, his greatness wasn’t limited to the trenches.
“As intimidating as he was on the field, he was probably the biggest kid in the locker room,” former Packers quarterback Brett Favre said in 2006, on the eve of White’s posthumous induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. “Guys were able to go up and talk to him, and it didn’t feel like he was too big.”
Cox, too, is magnetic. Cox, too, is contagious. Maybe Cox, too, can dominate a Super Bowl as his teammates ride his coattails.
“The guy plays reckless,” Jernigan said. “When you see the guy in the room who has, honestly, maybe the most talent — the guy who’s in that position of stardom — coming in and putting in that work, then going out there and proving it on the field, it has no choice but to rub off on everybody else.”