One by one, reporters and cameramen scurried over to Malcolm Jenkins’ stall.
The Eagles safety is often a desirable interview, quotable and willing to answer questions on end. But on the Tuesday following the worst defeat a defending Super Bowl champion had ever suffered, two days after Jenkins flipped the bird at his former coach and left the locker room afterward without saying a word, the crowd was larger than normal.
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“It was just embarrassing, quite frankly,” Jenkins said of the Eagles’ 48-7 loss to the Saints. “I didn’t feel as a team we had a lot of fight. I’d rather get thrown out of a game than just lay down and take it. … The demeanor of the team really bothered me.”
What do you mean by demeanor?
“Here you go with that [stuff],” Jenkins said under his breath.
There’s isn’t a player on the Eagles who understands the weight of his public words more than Jenkins. He has been, for most of his five seasons in Philadelphia, a careful spokesman for the team. But there have been times when he has felt the need to air a grievance or to speak his mind, no matter the consequences.
And that November day, after the Eagles had fallen to 4-6, was an occasion.
Jenkins’ comments, though, didn’t go over so well in various quarters of the NovaCare Complex, even though he said now that he had no regrets.
“I think it was important for me to say, at least. But I know that some people didn’t agree with me,” Jenkins said Thursday. “They didn’t make it vocal to me, but just everybody gets asked the same questions, and guys respond differently. And I always stick to my own theme. But I know people’s perception is different than mine.”
It might seem as if the Eagles’ turnaround, in which they’ve won six of their last seven, had some correlation to Jenkins' calling out his team. It likely didn’t. Even he wouldn’t agree with that narrative.
Following the Redskins game, when the Eagles clinched a playoff berth, Jenkins dismissed the importance of his comments.
“That was months ago,” he said, “or at least feels like it.”
But Jenkins had reason to be reminded of his remarks this past week. Fifty-six days after the humiliating loss in New Orleans, the Eagles face the Saints again in a divisional playoff game. It’s an opportunity for revenge, and for Jenkins to back up his words and redeem himself against his former team.
Much more is at stake, however.
“This game is bigger than me,” Jenkins said. And the 30-year-old veteran has long proved that he practices what he preaches.
“He has a high standard for himself. So people know he would never ask anybody to do anything he wouldn’t be willing to do,” Eagles wide receiver Jordan Matthews said. “If you ask anybody if they want to be great, most people say yes. So he just wants to hold you to that standard.
“He’s going to remind you, ‘Hey, you said this: You want to be great. You said you wanted to win a championship. You said you wanted to make the playoffs.’ He’s really good at pushing those buttons.”
But if you’re willing to push, you must be prepared for some pull. Defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, another team captain, disagreed in November with Jenkins’ assessment of the Eagles’ demeanor. And it was difficult to find defensive players, outside Jenkins’ position group, who said his critique had resonated with them two months later.
“Doesn’t mean [anything] to me,” defensive end Chris Long said. “I know what my demeanor is, so I’m not going to get up in arms about something Malcolm said because I know I come to play every Sunday.
“You know the saying, ‘A hit dog will holler’? That means if it applies to you, take something from it. If it doesn’t apply to you, it doesn’t make a [difference]. … So it didn’t upset me.”
Jenkins, ironically, used the same adage – A hit dog will holler -- when he was asked why he thought some of his teammates may not have liked his comments.
“If I say guys aren’t playing hard and somebody gets offended,” he said, “they’re probably the one I’m talking about.”
Jenkins has long been willing to test boundaries. He doesn’t blindly conform. He has a natural independent streak and said that he learns most when he challenges conventional thinking. If there’s a difference of opinion, he wants to have an open debate, because it’s “either going to teach me something new or reaffirm my position.”
He applies this philosophy to his business dealings, his charitable foundation, his social activism, and perhaps most of all, football. But Jenkins doesn’t come unprepared. And what he’s found, he said, is that being a nonconformist will often lead to better results.
Luckily, he said he’s mostly had NFL coaches, like Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, who weren’t dogmatic when it comes to scheme.
“I’m always open to suggestions,” Schwartz said. “I think the big thing is just mutual respect that goes back. He’s not a rookie. He’s been through a lot of things. He knows the defense from A to Z. He knows not just his position, but he knows the other positions.”
Jenkins’ size and skill set allow him to play several positions. He may be the only player in the league who plays strong and free safety, slot, and inside as a quasi-linebacker. But it’s also his knowledge of X’s and O’s and his inclination to think outside the box that allows coaches to utilize his versatility.
For instance, Jenkins said, some defenses that have a similar scheme to the Eagles' still get caught with a linebacker covering a receiver because they don’t want a safety responsible for the “A” gap – the inside run lanes on each side of the center -- in case there’s a rush.
“It’s really not that hard. I do it all the time,” Jenkins said. “But I laugh at other teams who don’t make that simple switch mainly because they don’t want to put a safety in the box if there was the small chance of a run.”
Jenkins’ study of film and scheme is comprehensive, his coaches and teammates said. It allows him to collaborate with coaches both in game-planning and during the game. And if you’re unwilling to take player input, especially when that player will be an extension of you on the field, Jenkins said, those coaches often fail.
“I’ve been with coaches who are like, ‘This is the scheme, just run what I say,’ like they’re basically playing Madden,” Jenkins said. “And I hated it. That’s how things were in 2012 in New Orleans [with defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo] and we were one of the worst defenses in NFL history.”
He acknowledges that his exhaustive approach can be irritating at times. His micro-managing with every imaginable run fit can test the patience of defensive linemen, especially in Schwartz’s scheme, who are conditioned to play fast and loose.
“It can be sometimes a little much on the D-line,” Long said. “You’ll be like, ‘Malcolm, Malcolm, you’re overthinking this.’ But it’s good to have somebody who’s thinking about the ramifications and the possibilities.”
Jenkins helps make the calls in the secondary and lines up the back seven, even though that job is normally reserved for the free safety. And he’s not shy about going up to Schwartz in-game and asking for adjustments.
The week after the loss to the Sants, the Eagles were still down to their deep reserves at cornerback when they hosted the New York Giants. They were getting bludgeoned. Jenkins went to Schwartz and asked for the calls to be streamlined.
“The guys were just a little bit behind all the calls and [he] just said, ‘Hey, look, we just need it quicker’ -- not meaning the call quicker – but ‘we just need to be able to communicate quicker,’ ” Schwartz said. “So we eliminated some things and eliminated some layers of the defense.”
The Eagles came back and have been on a run since, with Jenkins helping Schwartz craft a winning formula to account for the inexperience in the secondary.
Jenkins has overstepped his bounds before. In the forgettable 2015 season, he publicly questioned the way then-defensive coordinator Bill Davis reviewed film during defensive meetings. He felt that players weren’t being held accountable because mistakes weren’t being singled out.
“He pulled me to the side and we talked about it,” Jenkins said. “Me and Bill actually have a good relationship. For me, I reeled myself back in out of respect for him in that regard. And he explained to me why he didn’t put guys on glass or yell. And I was like, ‘OK, well, that makes sense.’ ”
Jenkins, in the November game in New Orleans, acted as if he had more at stake, and personally, he did. He was facing his former team at the Superdome for the first time since the Saints let him walk in free agency, a chip he still carries on his shoulder.
Saints coach Sean Payton said again Wednesday that letting Jenkins leave was “one of the bigger mistakes we’ve made.”
Said Jenkins, when told of Payton’s statement: “That decision was made. Some things you can’t get back.”
As the Eagles were getting pounded early in the fourth quarter, Jenkins’ frustration grew and reached a crescendo when Payton, already ahead, 38-7, early in the fourth quarter, had Drew Brees drop back and target running back Alvin Kamara on a deep route.
Jenkins had man coverage and got beat for a 37-yard touchdown. As he walked out of the end zone, he gave Payton the middle finger. They let bygones be bygones after the game.
“Sean and I genuinely have a good relationship,” Jenkins said. “I loved playing for him. … He and I are probably some of the most competitive people you’ve ever been around.”
When the visitors' locker room opened after the game, Jenkins was dressed and gone. He did a paid TV appearance and was stopped briefly in the tunnel by a few reporters, but his irritation was obvious. He was still annoyed two days later.
“When a team jumps on you like the Saints did and things get rolling, you find out a lot about yourself,” Jenkins said then. “You’re going to get blown out regardless. You’re either going to get blown out swinging or you’re going to get blown out laying down. And I think you had a little bit of both.”
Reporters relayed Jenkins’ message to other leaders on the team. Some, like defensive end Brandon Graham, said they agreed. Eagles coach Doug Pederson said Wednesday that he “felt the same way.” But he never said anything publicly. Some players didn’t like being put in the position of having to answer for Jenkins.
“When you talk about demeanor it’s making excuses about your teammates,” Cox said then. “We just got to play better football.”
The Eagles have, despite or because of Jenkins’ comments. He said that he wished sometimes he could be more carefree during interviews like tackle Lane Johnson.
“I’m in a position where I’m out in front,” Jenkins said. “A lot of guys will defer to me and so I got to make sure that what I say somewhat represents the whole.”
He may have missed the mark in November, or did he?