NEW ORLEANS – For just a moment, just one slippery, elusive moment, Eagles defensive end Brandon Graham had the football game in his hands on Sunday.
The Eagles were already leading, 14-0, in the first quarter and the Superdome crowd was shifting nervously in their seats when Graham bull-rushed around the New Orleans offensive line and strip-sacked quarterback Drew Brees, knocking the ball to the turf at the Saints' 35-yard line.
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From Pop Warner to the NFL, defensive players, particularly the big-pawed linemen, are taught to fall on fumbles, secure possession, and let the offense worry about advancing the ball. But then there is human nature.
The ball bounced up to Graham, a gift rising into his hands so effortlessly that he suddenly thought about more than just recovering it.
“We always say we wish we could have plays back. That’s one of them,” Graham said in the quiet locker room, after the 20-14 loss ended the Eagles' season in the divisional round of the playoffs. “In that situation, I went with what I felt was the right thing to do because of the way the ball bounced up. I was just trying to win. I wish I had fell on it.”
Graham tried to squeeze the ball to his midsection, but it got away from him. He felt that one of the Saints must have gotten a hand in, but that wasn’t apparent on the replays. The ball bounced away and was recovered by the Saints. The officials were so confused by the play that they initially ruled that possession had changed twice – once with the Saints losing the ball and once with the Eagles losing it – which would have given New Orleans a first down rather than a fourth-and-22. A review showed that Graham never had possession, however, even though he did take a step as if to begin a return while the ball was still loose in his hands.
“Always fall on it,” Graham said. “We could have gone up 21 right there, or even 17. Either one of them would have helped our cause.”
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Getting that fumble would have helped a lot. The Eagles had scored touchdowns on their first two possessions while the Saints' first two possessions ended in an interception and a punt. If the third possession had ended in a strip-sack to set up Nick Foles and the offense with a short field, maybe the momentum of the game – not to mention the score – would have been difficult to turn around.
But the Saints punted out of trouble, Foles threw a deep interception on the next drive, and Brees was able to stop the bleeding for New Orleans with a touchdown drive following that. The Eagles wouldn’t score again. Their final six drives ended with five punts and then the interception that went through the hands of Alshon Jeffery.
The offense grinded to a sudden halt after the opening two scores. The Eagles didn’t have possession in New Orleans territory from 4 minutes, 39 seconds of the first quarter until 2:28 of the fourth quarter. It’s amazing they held on as long as they did, or that they really had a chance to win it on their final drive.
Imagine if another touchdown had fallen into their laps in the first half, just as that fumble briefly fell into Graham’s. The final score tells you how important 21 points might have been.
“That was a tough one to swallow,” Graham said. “What I take away from this season is how hard we fought despite what everybody thought. I’m going to carry that through life. When stuff happens, don’t give up.”
Something has to happen with Graham in the offseason. He will be an unrestricted free agent and will get a big contract from someone. Whether the Eagles can afford him, or whether they choose to, is unknown. Graham turned 31 in April, but he is coming off a very good season. The defensive end rotation was thinned by the loss of Derek Barnett, and forced to help out on the interior because Tim Jernigan missed most of the regular season, Graham was on the field for almost 75 percent of the defensive snaps. Sunday might have seen his last ones with the Eagles.
“I’m always thinking about that,” Graham said. “I want to give a good last impression if that’s what it is. We weren’t far away and we went a lot farther than people expected. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I love it (with the Eagles). People know me. I’m happy. But I understand everything. If this was my last one, I’ll say my goodbyes in a classy way and just keep it moving.”
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Graham is only one of a number of Eagles whose return next season is up in the air. The flight home Sunday night was the last time that team will be together.
“I don’t have any regrets,” Graham said. “We played hard. We just came up short. I don’t know what the future holds, but if we had to go out, I’m glad we went out like that.”
If the football had not betrayed him in that frenzied moment, maybe the ride would have continued. Most of the other Eagles also had moments and plays they would have liked to change, but it doesn’t work that way. You live with the outcome and keep it moving.