A few hours after the Eagles’ final training camp practice had concluded, Brandon Graham ventured a few miles north from the NovaCare Complex in South Philadelphia to Fairmount, where several thousand fans awaited his presence.
On a refreshingly seasonable August evening, Graham, Philadelphia’s longest-tenured professional athlete, stepped onto a stage. Holding a mic with his left hand — the same hand that he used to strip-sack Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LII to help secure the team’s first Super Bowl title — the 35-year-old defensive end flashed his iconic smile, and he directed the team’s fight song, waving his arms as if he were conducting an orchestra.
“E-A-G-L-E-S … Eagles!” Graham shouted while the crowd chanted in unison.
The team labeled the massive public gathering that was held last Thursday evening as its “Kelly Green Block Party,” to celebrate the return of the iconic jersey color. For Graham, though, he relished the moment, just days before he begins the 14th season of his career.
Graham, along with fellow team captains Jason Kelce, Lane Johnson, and Fletcher Cox, all are back with the Eagles as they enter the twilight of their storied careers. Each player is playing on a new contract for this season. Cox, Kelce, and Graham all signed one-year deals in free agency, while Johnson and the Eagles agreed to a one-year extension through the 2026 season that netted the All-Pro right tackle an extra $30 million in guaranteed salary.
» READ MORE: unCovering the Birds, bonus episode: Smile! It’s Brandon Graham.
The four key veterans have played essential roles over the last decade-plus. They have helped develop culture and identity; they have won the franchise’s only Lombardi Trophy together, and they have established themselves as some of the best at their respective positions.
The Kelce-Johnson-Cox-Graham quad has played in a combined 654 games with 50 years of NFL experience — all in Philadelphia.
“I think you’ve got [four veterans] who take a lot of pride in themselves and how they prepare and play the game,” quarterback Jalen Hurts said last week. “Obviously in this city, they’ve had great tenures here. They’ve been able to play through different times in terms of different coaches that have been here and see different versions of the Philadelphia Eagles.
“It’s always good perspective to have here as we continue to evolve as a team.”
The next chapter of this evolution, as it pertains to Kelce, Johnson, Cox, and Graham, will be helping guide the team back to the sport’s biggest stage. Roughly seven months ago, the Eagles fell just short of clinching their second Super Bowl title as they lost in heartbreaking fashion to the Kansas City Chiefs.
With a roster that’s widely favored to run it back, Kelce is approaching each moment with special appreciation.
“We’ve played a lot of football together,” he said. “We know each other very well. We’ve been through a lot of battles. It’s really rare that that many guys get to play over a decade together. We’re obviously very proud of the way our careers have gone here and the way we’ve played together and the way we’ve fought through adversity in our 10 years.
“We’re definitely really happy that all of us are returning.”
‘This feeling never gets old’
Graham, Kelce, Cox, and Johnson all were taken in successive drafts between 2010 and 2013.
When the Eagles clinched the NFC championship with their dominating victory over the San Francisco 49ers in late January, the four veterans and Hurts all took the stage to accept the conference trophy near the 50-yard line at Lincoln Financial Field.
The powerful image of their celebrating together served as a vignette of the four’s respective journeys. But each offseason is filled with uncertainty as the likelihood of their remaining teammates in the future dwindles with each snap.
For now, the “Core Four,” as they’ve been popularly labeled, remain with the Eagles.
“I keep coming back to what [offensive line coach] Jeff Stoutland and my wife say, ‘When you don’t want to play, you’ll know it.’ You’re going to just firmly not want to do it, it’s not going to be fun anymore,” Kelce said earlier in the summer. “I always say, I don’t think that’s ever going to happen — but it’s like no, one day, you’ll wake up and you’re going to not want to do this.”
» READ MORE: The new Jason Kelce film is ‘a love story’ and ‘a gift from the documentary gods’
Has Kelce reached that tipping point yet?
“I guess there’s days that I don’t want to do this,” he said. “But I think largely, over the course of the season and everything, I still really enjoy coming in. I still feel like I can do it. I still feel like I’m healthy enough to do it. And I can do it the right way. So, that’s pretty much the biggest reason why [I keep playing].”
Kelce, who turns 36 in November, and Johnson, 33, are coming off All-Pro and Pro Bowl seasons. Whenever they decide to hang it up, both players will garner Pro Football Hall of Fame consideration.
Entrenched at right tackle, Johnson has not allowed a sack since Week 11 of the 2020 season, according to Pro Football Focus. He also has not allowed a quarterback hit since Week 7 of the 2021 season.
Kelce is one of only three NFL centers to be named first-team All-Pro five times in their career, joining Dermontti Dawson and Mike Webster, both of whom are members of the Hall of Fame. If he stays healthy, Kelce (139 consecutive starts) also could break Jon Runyan’s franchise record for most consecutive games started (144).
“In playing for this city, it demands the players to be the best versions of themselves,” Johnson said at the beginning of training camp. “Yeah, it’s a big market, a lot of pressure. But at the same time, I feel like you get addicted to that. It’s all about our brothers. I’m just soaking it in and really cherishing my time with them.”
» READ MORE: How the Eagles’ Lane Johnson draws on his mother’s strength: ‘We’ve been through the road of hard knocks’
Johnson has developed his reputation as an iron man with his willingness to play through different injuries. During the playoffs, Johnson played with a torn adductor in both sides of his groin. As described by one league source, Johnson’s injury was one that would have sidelined other players for at least a couple of months. Johnson had surgery in the offseason, and he’s once again prepared to handle his assignments on an island.
“We don’t want to go anywhere else,” Johnson said of the combined commitment from the four veterans to Philadelphia. “It’s something different about this city. You don’t get the same treatment as you do here, the same passion for football.
“You can’t really find that anywhere else.”
» READ MORE: Brandon Graham: ‘It ain’t really about the money’
Cox, who turns 33 in December, and Graham garnered interest from other teams in free agency, but both returned to the Eagles on separate one-year contracts. Cox’s deal is worth up to $10 million, while Graham’s contract is worth up to $6 million.
“Obviously, I’ve been here with these guys for a long time,” Cox said. “… It’s always hard because you never know. In this league, you never know. That’s the business part about it. I didn’t want to go anywhere.”
Cox, a member of the NFL 2010s All-Decade team, is a four-time All-Pro selection and six-time Pro Bowler. His effectiveness as a pass rusher declined over the last couple of years, but he rebounded in 2022 with seven sacks, up from 3½ in 2021.
“This feeling never gets old,” Cox said. “It’s a blessing to be here for 12 years and still play at a high level.”
Graham is coming off one of the best statistical seasons of his career. Appearing in a rotational role behind starting edge rushers Josh Sweat and Haason Reddick, Graham recorded the first double-digit sack season of his career (11) while he logged just 474 defensive snaps (43%).
» READ MORE: Four guys, 10 years, all Eagles: Jason Kelce, Brandon Graham, Fletcher Cox, and Lane Johnson ride together one last time
All four veterans have taken on mentorship roles for younger players, whether it be Kelce to Cam Jurgens, Johnson to Jordan Mailata, Graham to Nolan Smith, or Cox to Jalen Carter and Jordan Davis. The depth reasons are obvious, but dig deeper, and one might notice the veterans are, in certain ways, grooming their potential future replacements.
“We know we’ve got something special,” Graham said. “It’s been cool to see some of the guys take the next step in their game from learning from us. We are deep, but we’ve got to stay focused and together.”
Kelce, Johnson, Cox, and Graham, who have retained their status as team captains, are integral to the Eagles’ success as they collectively help control the heartbeat of the locker room and the huddle.
At this moment, that pulse is still thriving.
“I want to be here. That’s where I am now,” Cox said. “… Hopefully we all retire as Eagles. I think that’s all our plan.”
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