Once Nick Foles got his feet under him, the Eagles offense became every bit as dynamic in the postseason as it had been in the regular season, when Carson Wentz held the controls.
This says a lot about Foles, and about head coach Doug Pederson, offensive coordinator Frank Reich and quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo. But don’t dismiss what it says about the Eagles’ offensive line, which kept Foles’ feet under him — he was not sacked in Super Bowl LII, was sacked only once in the NFC championship game, throwing from mostly clean pockets as the Birds piled up 79 points in their final two games.
Best Eagles offensive line ever? There have been some good ones, studded with Hall-of-Fame names. But none of the previous versions powered an attack that put 164 rushing yards, 374 passing yards, and 41 points on the board in winning the Super Bowl. None of them overcame the loss of their most esteemed member seven games into the season and still dominated the postseason.
From left to right, they were Halapoulivaati Vaitai, Stefen Wisniewski, Jason Kelce, Brandon Brooks, and Lane Johnson. Kelce and Johnson were named all-pro, Brooks and Johnson were selected for the Pro Bowl, with Kelce named a first alternate.
“They’re the best O-line in football,” Foles said Wednesday as the Eagles cleaned out their lockers. Never before has the sound of strapping tape being stretched across boxes sounded so cheery.
The NFL agreed with Foles. The night before their Super Bowl triumph, the Eagles linemen received the Built Ford Tough Offensive Line of the Year award. Unlike the game, this was not an upset: The Eagles had won the O-line of the week award four times, more than any other NFL unit.
“They can run, they can move, they’re powerful,” Foles said. “But I think the big thing is relationships. They all get along, they’re all in sync. I mean, you’ve got Jason Kelce, who’s the best center in the league, one of the smartest football players I’ve ever played with. I don’t know how he sees what he sees. He’s amazing, watching him go out on runs.
“Every single one of them, unbelievable, I can’t say enough about ’em, because the O-line anchors an offense. If you don’t have an O-line that’s good, you’re going to have a tough time. … The reason our offense was successful, it started up front with them, with our running game, then everything came off that.”
Kelce, usually the most thoughtful of the group, was nearly overcome with emotion Sunday night at U.S. Bank Stadium.
“The last two weeks after we won [against Atlanta and Minnesota], I found myself in the shower, crying, dreaming of this moment,” he said. Kelce went on to talk about a quote his grandfather offered him when Kelce was 18, about persistence, attributed to Calvin Coolidge. At the time, Kelce was dealing with not getting any Division I scholarship offers.
“Really, persistence has summed up my whole career, summed up my whole life,” he said.
Kelce walked on as a linebacker at Cincinnati, then moved to the offensive line, and was a sixth-round Eagles draft choice in 2011 — ultimately the best of that group, along with fifth-round running back Dion Lewis, who played for the Patriots on Sunday.
“Just keep going, keep moving forward, no matter what obstacle comes in your way, just keep moving forward. The resilience of this team is incredible,” Kelce said.
Kelce was the fulcrum, Johnson and Brooks might have been the best in the league at their positions, but the key to everything might have been Vaitai, who really elevated his play in the postseason. For a while after nine-time Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters went down, Oct. 23 against the Redskins, Vaitai was doing well to hold his own. He gave up sacks here and there, lost focus from time to time, but was good enough to get by with. One of the biggest postseason questions was whether Vaitai would be a weak link, whether teams could target him as a way of getting at Foles, who is much less mobile than Wentz.
Vaitai’s shutdown of Minnesota’s Everson Griffen was a key to the Eagles’ win in the NFC championship game, and then, as the Patriots shifted and stunted Sunday, “Big V” remained steadfast.
Pederson indicated Wednesday that Peters, who is rehabbing two torn knee ligaments at age 36, will return to the starting job when he is healthy. That might be a bit awkward, but given that Peters’ constant presence guided Vaitai through his Super Bowl journey, it’s hard to envision Vaitai objecting.
“Everything I do is for him,” Vaitai said Wednesday. “I want the best for him. I wish he was playing. … J.P. has my back, and I have his back.”
Vaitai, a second-year player from TCU, was among many Eagles who had no idea what Super Bowl LII would be like.
“It was a crazy experience,” he said. “I went into the game like it was a regular-season game; I didn’t want to make the game bigger than it is. Sometimes I tend to get nervous, but I wasn’t nervous for this game. … We all did our part and executed.”
Peters and Wentz were the two most prominent Eagles who didn’t make it to the playoffs healthy, but season-ending injuries to middle linebacker Jordan Hicks, running back/returner Darren Sproles and special teams captain Chris Maragos also left important roles that had to be filled.
“We never panicked when key players like that went down. We stayed normal,” Vaitai said.
“The O-line, we’ve just been so close with each other,” Vaitai said. “Our chemistry is just great. We do things outside of football. We like to hang out. … Our bond, we know what each other’s going to do. I know what Kelce’s going to do, I know what Stefen’s going to do.”
Wisniewski reflected on “an unbelievable season, an unbelievable football game. Tom Brady throws for 500 yards and scores 33 points and we win? Come on. That’s unbelievable. Unbelievable game, unbelievable day.”
Someone asked Wisniewski, a six-year veteran, a question about the inevitable bittersweet quality of locker room clean-out day — the group will be at least a little different when it reconvenes in a few months for OTAs.
“Every other last day of the season I’ve been on was bittersweet. This is just sweet,” he said. “Yes, some guys’ll be gone, that’s the way this works, but a lot of these guys will be back. I’m trying not to think about next year yet. I’m going to soak this in for a while first.”
Wisniewski began the season backing up second-year guard-center Isaac Seumalo, one of the coaching staff’s rare misjudgments. That arrangement changed two weeks into the season, and “Wiz” seemed to mesh better with the group and improve virtually with each passing week.
“We have a really good O-line,” Wisniewski said. “Tight ends that can block, some great schemes. We thought we had an advantage in that [Super Bowl] matchup, our O-line vs. their front seven, we did a great job, had a good plan, planned it all week, worked our butt off all week. We were physical. The running backs did a great job. It was fun to be a part of.”
The line, Wisniewski said, “is a really tough group, really physical group, really smart group that paid attention to detail. There’s a lot of planning and talking and film study that goes into making it look good on game day. … Guys were willing to sacrifice and put in extra time and extra thought and extra effort. Ultimately, all that stuff paid off.”
He suffered an ankle injury Sunday and sat out a series but quickly hustled back onto the field.
“I taped it up and just kept playing. I wasn’t about to miss the Super Bowl,” Wisniewski said.
At the time he spoke with reporters, Wisniewski didn’t know exactly what he had done to his ankle — he was about to get it looked at — but he didn’t really care, he said:
“Who cares? We won.”
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