It was after midnight, but the Eagles were crowing in the visitors’ locker room.
“You had 17 tackles tonight, man,” Nigel Bradham said after the Eagles upset the Panthers.
“Yeah. Seventeen. We had 27,” Mychal Kendricks replied.
“I had 10? Wooo,”Bradham crowed. “Wooo. Wooo!”
“Chill, bro,” Kendricks said.
Bradham is through chilling.
“That’s a lot!” Bradham said. “A lot!”
It was, in fact, a lot. Kendricks entered the game at Carolina with 18 tackles in the first five games. Bradham had 28 in the first five.
The Panthers attacked the Eagles with their tight ends and running backs Thursday night. The linebackers responded with their best game of the new regime; specifically, Bradham and Kendricks responded. Middle linebacker Jordan Hicks, the marquee player of the underappreciated group, missed the second half with an ankle injury.
His absence just gave his partners a better chance to shine. Again. Both played well when Hicks missed the second half of the win over the Giants in Week 3. They occasionally played well in 2016, too — but not this well, and with even less appreciation.
It doesn’t help their quest for recognition that they play on a defense dominated by a pedigreed line, a Pro Bowl safety in Malcolm Jenkins and, at middle linebacker, Hicks, a third-year stud and the star of the future.
Meanwhile, both Bradham and Kendricks are disposable. Bradham, in his sixth season, is a free agent in 2018. The team can also disengage from the final two seasons of Kendricks’ contract in 2018, for a manageable $3.2 million salary-cap hit. Also in his sixth season, Kendricks has often been criticized for poor decisions and poor coverage skills.
He’s getting better. They all are.
“I know for sure we get overlooked,” said Bradham, who led the linebackers with 98 tackles last season. “I had a guy out there today, he was like, ‘I don’t know who you is … but you a beast!’ And I’m, like, ‘You don’t know who I am? You must not know football. But you gonna know me today!’ ”
By the night’s end, Bradham and the rest of the defense allowed the Panthers running backs 1 rushing yard.
“They say we have one of the best front sevens in the league, and they only talk about the front four,” Bradham said. “How they not gonna talk about us? We’re going to get our respect.”
Twenty-seven tackles commands respect. So do making big plays and playing hurt.
Bradham made a big play midway through the third quarter when he hammered tight end Ed Dickson 1 yard short of a first down, forced a punt, and gave himself a stinger on the play. Talk about no respect; he wasn’t even given credit for the tackle. He missed one series but returned.
Later, with just under two minutes to play, Kendricks made a similar stop, on second down, near midfield, which eventually forced a Panthers punt.
“I’ve done that twice this year,” Kendricks said, proudly. “Same scenario, against New York. It’s crazy, bro. Literally, the same [stuff].” He paused and thought about it. “It might have been the same damn call.”
It helps that, this season, they play in the same defense as last year, with the same teammates. Their spotty performances last season were partly due to acclimation to a new scheme and new personnel.
“I’m more comfortable with my teammates,” said Bradham, who arrived last season. “Chemistry. Knowing how to play off guys, knowing what styles certain guys have. They know my style as well. We’re all kind of aggressive.”
Being overly aggressive had hindered Kendricks before this season. Now, he’s playing smarter.
“It’s definitely being familiar,” Kendricks said. “Understanding what they need, down and distance. What defense we’re in; what we’re allowing them to get.”
And knowing better how to get there.
“I’ve been focusing on taking better angles this year, to where I’m not missing tackles,” Bradham said. “That was my main focus coming into this season. I didn’t want to miss too many tackles or overrun the ball. I felt like last year I had a couple of bad angles on certain plays I could have made.”
“I’m still working on that, actually,” he said, then added, “I just haven’t gotten many reps. I haven’t even gotten many reps in practice, man, and that’s real [stuff]. I still feel like I’m finding myself in this defense.”
When things slow down, instinct takes over.
“I’m a naturalist. That helps out a lot. Some guys overthink some stuff. Not me,” Kendricks said. “Use your vision. Use your eyes. Use your cues.”
It’s a valid explanation. Kendricks was selected in the second round of the 2012 draft by Andy Reid’s regime. He then shined in 2013, when Chip Kelly took over, but early-season injuries hampered him in 2014 and 2015. Last year, when Doug Pederson replaced Kelly, new coordinator Jim Schwartz marginalized Kendricks further.
He played just 27 percent of the plays. He’s up to 51 percent this season. True, that percentage is padded by Hicks’ absences, but Kendricks is still playing about 40 percent of the time when Hicks is healthy.
“He’s just playing to his potential, man,” Bradham said.
They both are.
“We know we’ve got to get to that ball,” Bradham said. “We know we’ve got to be the focal point that brings the energy to this defense every game, and gets everything moving. We’ve got to continue to move fast and continue to bring that controlled chaos.”
By the witching hour, the rest of the league had awakened to their particular brand of mayhem.