On the day after the night that Jason Peters went down and stayed down, Jeff Stoutland didn’t feel much like getting up, either. Carson Wentz had completed a 14-yard pass to Nelson Agholor in a 34-24 Eagles victory over the Redskins on Oct. 23, a good play in a big Monday Night Football game, but then everything stopped because Peters was still on the ground. They lifted him onto a cart and drove him off the field, his 14th NFL season and seventh with the Eagles finished after just seven games.
Everyone learned the official diagnosis the next day: Peters had torn the ACL and MCL in his right knee. Stoutland, the Eagles’ offensive-line coach since 2013, could hardly handle it.
“You want to know the truth?” Stoutland said Tuesday. “My heart broke. My heart was broken. I about want to cry right now. That guy was playing — since I’ve coached him, now, and I’ve been here for five years — he was playing his most productive football, his most dominating football, this year. And for all the success that we’re having right now — and it’s one game at a time now, don’t misunderstand me — for him not to be here, it’s like, ‘This guy’s put all this time in his whole life, and this has to happen?’
“From that standpoint, it kind of threw me into a tailspin — I’ll be honest with you — because I love the guy so much.”
Stoutland pulled himself out of his funk quickly, because there were games to win and there was a new starting left tackle, Halapoulivaati Vaitai, to coach. But the manner in which he spoke about that moment, and about Peters, made it plain that his disappointment over the injury ran deeper than its depriving the Eagles of Peters’ talent. It wasn’t just that Peters will likely be a Hall of Fame inductee someday, or that his absence from the lineup made Stoutland’s job more difficult to do and the Eagles’ goals this season more difficult to reach. There was something more at work here, when it came to Stoutland’s regard for him.
For instance, Stoutland has been sending Peters video of the Eagles’ offensive-line play from the team’s two games since the injury, and Peters has been reviewing and critiquing it, offering recommendations — for Vaitai and Lane Johnson, in particular — equal to those that Stoutland or another coach might. He seems the exception to the cliché that the most gifted athletes usually make the worst coaches, because they struggle to teach others what comes so naturally to themselves.
“It’s rare,” Stoutland said. “Even when I speak to him about how we’re going to handle a certain guy or a certain move, and the way he explains it to me — ‘Hey, look, this guy’s got this little move at the end of the rush’ — that maybe the normal coach or person wouldn’t even see, he’s able to elaborate and explain that in a really unique way.”
This is a side of Peters that people outside the Eagles’ inner circle, outside the locker room or the offensive linemen’s meeting room or even Stoutland’s office, don’t often see. Peters doesn’t speak with the media much. After games, usually — that’s it. But the esteem in which his coaches and teammates hold him is obvious as soon as you ask any of them about him. It was fitting, bitterly, that Stoutland spoke about Peters at such length and in such detail Tuesday morning, just hours before Roy Halladay’s plane crashed into the Gulf of Mexico. The qualities that Halladay’s teammates, managers, and coaches cited in their tear-streaked testimonies — the generosity with his teammates, the commitment to his craft, the relentless pursuit of excellence — were the same ones that Stoutland described in Peters.
“I like good people,” Stoutland said. “I want to be surrounded by good people, people who have good hearts, who care about other people, who are willing to go out of their way to do something for somebody else, because our world is full of selfish people. This person? This guy has a heart of gold. … A lot of people from the outside don’t know that about him, but as good a player as he is and as dominating as he is, as long as he’s played in this league, he’ll go out of his way to help any young player.”
Peters will turn 36 in January. His future with the Eagles has become something of a biannual off-season question, and when the time comes to consider it, the front office does ask Stoutland for his insight and opinion. “I’ve always made my case, and I’m not one to be shy,” he said. “I don’t care.” The new contract Peters signed in June reportedly lowered the salary-cap savings and significantly increased the dead-money cost to the Eagles if they were to cut him after this season. It was a show of increased commitment to a great-but-aging player. Will the recently torn ligaments in his right knee change the dynamics of that deal, give the Eagles pause about bringing Peters back?
This much is certain: One man who watched Jason Peters go down on that Monday night last month will be ready to make a case on behalf of the best player he’s ever coached.
“I know him,” Jeff Stoutland said. “I know how hard he works. I know how much he loves this game. Don’t ever count that guy out. Ever.”