There was a moment in the visitors' locker room after the Eagles beat the Dallas Cowboys in a nationally televised game last season when the ordinarily soft-spoken Alshon Jeffery had no time for false modesty following a performance in which he had scored.
Jeffery dripped with a swagger that he has brought to the Eagles from the Chicago Bears and he was emboldened by performing on a big stage.
“Big-time game, big-time players make big plays,” Jeffery said.
If you want to see Jeffery at his finest, don’t go to a practice in July. Watch him in big moments, when the lights are brightest and the stakes are highest, and you’ll see why the Eagles paid Jeffery $52 million and why he’s their No. 1 wide receiver.
Offensive coordinator Mike Groh, who has known Jeffery since Groh was his position coach in Chicago earlier this decade, explained that Jeffery “understands the moment.” Jeffery agreed. So do his teammates.
“He’s so chill … but when it’s time for something to be done and it needs to get done, he just gets it done,” wide receiver Nelson Agholor said. “If it was basketball, he’d be the one who wants to take the last shot. He’s that kind of guy.”
So when the Eagles’ postseason hopes appeared slim when they were 6-7 and traveling to play the Los Angeles Rams on national television, Jeffery helped keep the season alive with the best game of his Eagles career: eight catches for 160 yards. In the last three games of the season – all with Nick Foles at quarterback – Jeffery averaged more than five catches and 100 yards.
And who can forget how Jeffery caught fire during the playoffs last year, with 12 catches for 219 yards and three touchdowns in three games? The catch Jeffery considered the most spectacular of his career came in the Super Bowl to finish a week in which no one seemed more confident than him.
So how’s this for his next spectacle: Jeffery will play a postseason game on Sunday against his former team. It’s his first time back at Soldier Field since the Bears let him leave in free agency. He never reached the postseason with Chicago. And the Eagles need Jeffery’s hot streak to continue if they are to reach the sport’s biggest stage again.
“I can’t wait for this game, for sure,” Jeffery said.
One natural story line this past week has been Jeffery’s returning to Chicago – except Jeffery sounded uninterested in contributing to that angle.
“I really have no feelings, honestly,” Jeffery said. “It’s a playoff game.”
How about emotions toward Chicago, which he called home for five years and where his beloved Bulls play?
“I love the city of Philadelphia,” Jeffery said. “Chicago was just when I was there for work.”
That comment did not seem a slight at Chicago as much as Jeffery’s declining to reminisce. This is not a homecoming for Jeffery. The Bears are a team in the way of the Eagles' advancing.
“We’re playing the Bears, but if we played anyone else, I couldn’t wait to play this game,” Jeffery said. “I’m excited to be back in the postseason.”
It’s similar to the tone Jeffery struck last season before playing the Bears – he caught a touchdown pass against his former team – but others in the locker room noted the significance of the game to him. Jeffery not-so-subtly wore a Michael Jordan jersey after the game.
Even coach Doug Pederson said Friday that Jeffery is “excited about going back to Chicago and looking forward to that opportunity.” And Bears cornerback Prince Amukamara said that Jeffery “still has probably some type of revenge in the back of his head.”
The best seasons of Jeffery’s seven-year career came in Chicago – he averaged 87 catches, 1,277 yards, and eight touchdowns in 2013 and 2014 – before he left following two subpar seasons shortened by injury and suspension.
“Part of him wanted to stay in Chicago,” Barry Charley, Jeffery’s cousin and the principal at Calhoun County High School, told The Inquirer and Daily News in August 2017. “When I spoke with him, he felt like he was letting them down by leaving. But it was a business decision. He loved Chicago. He spoke very highly of Chicago. But he was looking forward to going to Philadelphia, as well, to make it his home.”
Jeffery seemed publicly apathetic about what the reception for him will be at Soldier Field. He also sounded like the type of player who wouldn’t mind if it was adversarial.
“Honestly, I love away games,” Jeffery said. “No disrespect to our home crowd in Philly, but I love away games. I love hearing other team’s [crowd loud] at the beginning of the game, but they’re quiet at the end.”
Jeffery is the Eagles’ No. 1 wide receiver, a fact that can be confirmed with their payroll and playbook. But look at the league’s statistical leaders, and Jeffery is nowhere near the top.
He finished the 2018 regular season with 65 catches for 843 yards and six touchdowns in 13 games. The catches and yards were actually improvements from last season, but it was the fourth consecutive season Jeffery failed to reach 1,000 yards.
There was a lull at one point in the season when Jeffery went five weeks without more than four catches or 48 yards in a game and didn’t score. Yet Jeffery was the last player in the locker room who seemed to publicly complain – “I’m not worried about targets. No one is. We’re just trying to win a game,” Jeffery said in November – and he disagreed this past week that he had a “rough stretch.”
What has become clear this season is that if the Eagles feed him the ball, he’ll be productive. He has caught a career-high 70.7 percent of his targeted passes this season, which is more than 20 percent better than last season.
Jeffery’s production improved in December. Three of those games came with Foles at quarterback. The biggest difference appears to be a willingness to give Jeffery a chance to make contested catches, which is when he’s best. The 6-foot-3, 218-pound former basketball player has often said he doesn’t believe the term “50-50 ball” applies to him – the percentages are much better when he’s involved. He has told both Carson Wentz and Foles: “Throw it up and give me a chance.”
“I’m going to catch it. No one else is going to catch it,’” Jeffery said after the Rams game.
In each of the last three games, Jeffery made similarly contested catches that few receivers in the NFL can make. One time, he even ripped a 50-50 ball from Agholor – Agholor jokes he got “Moss’d,” a reference to Hall-of-Famer Randy Moss – and his teammates are seldom surprised by Jeffery’s catches.
“He's in a really good groove right now,” Groh said. “I think he is playing with a lot of confidence. That catch for a touchdown [against Washington] is as good a catch as you can make with a guy trying to rip the ball out of there. Just shows how strong his hands are.”
Jeffery said the strong hands come from a childhood of catching hard passes from his older brother. There are enough highlight-reel plays to produce rankings. The obvious top choice was in the Super Bowl, when Jeffery turned and caught a 34-yard touchdown with a defender in his face while falling backward. And he did it while playing with a torn rotator cuff.
The second-best catch, identified by both Jeffery and Groh, came in 2013 while with the Bears. It was a deep touchdown in which Jeffery reached over the helmet of a Minnesota Vikings defender to grab the ball and still had the body control to stay inbounds.
Groh said Jeffery’s “catch radius,” “body control,” and “really strong hands” allow him to make those types of catches. On both plays, Jeffery wasn’t wide open. He still made the play.
That’s what must happen when Jeffery plays his first postseason game in Soldier Field. Sitting by his locker on Friday, he was told of Agholor’s description that Jeffery is the type of player who “wants to take the shot.” Jeffery smiled and agreed. He knows when the moment is biggest.
“Just know I’m coming,” Jeffery said.