Many Eagles-Bills connections entering second preseason game

EAGL14-r
Eagle defensive back Ronald Darby runs through a defensive drill at practice.

There are as many as six daily nonstop flights to and from Philadelphia and Buffalo, and they’ve been busy with former Eagles and Bills in recent years. The Oregon-to-Philadelphia connections became a running joke during Chip Kelly’s time in Philadelphia, but it’s Buffalo-to-Philadelphia now.

The latest example was last week’s trade that sent cornerback Ronald Darby to the Eagles and wide receiver Jordan Matthews and a third-round pick to Buffalo. Darby is expected to make his Eagles debut Thursday night – when, of all teams, the Bills visit Lincoln Financial Field.

“It’s awkward of course because just a few days ago I was there eating lunch in the cafeteria,” Darby said. “It’ll be weird, and a good feeling at the end of the day.”

Matthews, who injured his chest in his first practice with the Bills, will be out Thursday. But those are just two of several connections between the teams.

The Eagles have five other former Bills: linebacker Nigel Bradham, safety Corey Graham, cornerback Ron Brooks, offensive tackle Jason Peters, and long snapper Jon Dorenbos. Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz was the Bills defensive coordinator in 2014 for three of those players, and offensive coordinator Frank Reich is best known as Jim Kelly’s backup quarterback with the Bills during their heyday in the early 1990s.

On the other sideline, Matthews is one of four former Eagles. The most notable is running back LeSean McCoy, who became the Eagles’ all-time leading rusher in 2014 before he was unceremoniously traded to Buffalo in March 2015. He’s joined by safeties Colt Anderson and Jordan Poyer. Their new head coach is Sean McDermott, a former Eagles assistant and defensive coordinator who grew up in Lansdale and went to La Salle College High School. Four of his assistants have Eagles connections — including offensive line coach Juan Castillo, who replaced McDermott as defensive coordinator. And the team recently hired Derek Boyko as vice president of communications after he spent 17 years with the Eagles.

“If it were the first time that I was going back to Philadelphia as a coach, it would be a little bit different,” McDermott said at his Tuesday news conference. “I’m more focused on our team. I want us to go out and perform the way I expect us to perform. And maybe after the game, I’ll get a chance to catch up with some family and friends, and that’ll be nice, too.”

This is only a preseason game and it comes three seasons after McCoy’s trade, so it’s far removed from his emotionally charged return in 2015 when he kissed the Eagles logo at midfield before the game and cameras focused on whether McCoy and Chip Kelly would embrace.

[The Eagles have a running back void that just fits Wendell Smallwood | Marcus Hayes]

It would be more notable if Matthews was playing. Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz is Matthews’ close friend who drove the wide receiver to the airport Friday to catch a flight to Buffalo. He said after the trade that it’s “going to be really weird” and “is not going to be fun” to see Matthews come out of the visitors’ tunnel at Lincoln Financial Field. Matthews’ injury means Wentz won’t see him in a different jersey.

“It’s interesting how it all works out for him,” Wentz said. “It’s unfortunate. We talked. I told him I’m praying for him a lot. It’s tough with the trade and getting injured and everything.”

Matthews was dealt, in part, because the Eagles needed to upgrade their secondary. When the season begins, they could have three former members of the Bills secondary on the roster. Both Darby and Graham were starters in Buffalo the last two seasons, and Bradham was a starting linebacker in Buffalo before coming to Philadelphia.

“It’s another level of chemistry,” Bradham said of playing with the former Bills.

Graham, Bradham, and Brooks were appealing to the Eagles because of their history in Schwartz’s scheme in 2014. Graham was the most recent addition, arriving in the second week of training camp. He’s expected to have a role in certain defensive packages and on special teams. He signed with the Eagles after three seasons playing for his hometown team, and he acknowledged it was challenging for his family when the Bills released him in March. His family and friends grew up Bills fans, after all.

But during Graham’s time in Buffalo, he saw former teammates take that same Buffalo-to-Philadelphia flight. As a free agent, he found that Philadelphia had similar appeal.

“When I was Buffalo, I knew more about the connection here,” Graham said. “When Nigel came here, when Brooks came here, I was like, ‘man!’ But I knew why. I knew Schwartz wanted some of the guys he had before. But for Shady [McCoy], I’m pretty sure it will be big for him. Any time you come back here, it’s home for him. So he’ll be ramped up, ready to roll. I know how he is and I know from being there with him, it means a lot and will be special for him.”

All the connections are softened by it being an exhibition game. But the postgame handshakes will be plentiful for two sides that know each other well, and for Eagles fans, it might be worth studying the Bills’ roster, too. If recent years are an example, the two teams could continue doing business.

“Apparently, the organizations like each other,” Bradham said. “They do a lot of working together. There has to be some kind of connection somewhere.”