Everyone knows that Philadelphia is the City of Brotherly Love, and for a while, the Eagles lived up to that nickname. But that kind of camaraderie was lacking during Chip Kelly's time with the team as he dismantled the locker room bond with each offseason trade. The tides are turning under first-time head coach Doug Pederson who, along with executive VP of football operations Howie Roseman, is making moves to create relationships that translate to on-the-field success.
After a lot of offseason speculation, the Eagles reached an agreement to keep Sam Bradford in Philly for two more seasons. With only one year under his belt with the team, he hadn't developed the chemistry that quarterbacks need with their offensive weapons to be consistently successful. That is starting to change after his contract extension.
Shortly after signing his new deal, Bradford invited tight end Zach Ertz and wideout Jordan Matthews to his home in Oklahoma City in mid-March. Bradford talked about bringing out others, too, noting it's more than just working out together, "I just think spending the time together at this time of the year is the most important thing." These types of bonding activities seemed few and far between during the Kelly era.
The former head coach didn't seem to buy in to the whole "we" mentality, wanting control over personnel decisions and even going so far as to remove the conference room next to his office. This conference room was first used by Kelly's predecessor, Andy Reid, who thought it was important for the staff to be close to him and for it to be a connection between the front office and the team. Pederson is going back to the more open-door policy.
These decisions made by Kelly to isolate himself within the organization translated down to his players, who spoke about feeling uncomfortable approaching the coach with ideas or issues. He traded away players from the Reid era, and seemingly along with them the soul of the franchise. Players no longer felt their jobs were safe.
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Before the Kelly era in Philadelphia, the Eagles had an offensive trifecta that transcended the football field, and created a brotherhood in the locker room and outside the game. Quarterback Michael Vick, wideout DeSean Jackson and running back LeSean McCoy carried the Eagles to the playoffs and built a team that had swagger — an undeniable energy that was even exciting to listen to on the radio.
The three came at the perfect time, rejuvenating a team that was spoiled by Donovan McNabb, Brian Westbrook and Brian Dawkins in the early 2000s. With a rich history of talented trios, the Eagles needed a new group of guys to rally around, and it was quickly established that these were the ones to do it.
Michael Vick took over soon after McNabb was traded, and had an immediate impact over the offense with Jackson and McCoy. Together in Vick's first season as starter in Philadelphia, the team ranked No. 2 in total offense, and followed that with a 2011 season that ended with the team at No. 4 in total offense.
Their friendship was the same on the field as it was off, making a huge impact on their offensive success. Aside from playing with guys they liked, they had an easier time communicating during games, had a better sense of trust for each players specific role, and a genuine support system when mistakes were made.
To this day, they often fill each other's social media feeds with inspirational quotes, or throwback pictures on Thursdays.
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Howie Roseman is back in charge of personnel, and traded many of the one-year Chip Kelly players, like DeMarco Murray, Kiko Alonso and Byron Maxwell to make use of free agency. Now with a new head coach, the Eagles are looking for their next trio to get the team back on track.
At the NFL Combine, Pederson spoke about how to win over the locker room as a newcomer, "Your message to the team and can they look at you and say you're the leader they want to follow. I think that's the challenge going forward. I think having the experience of being in the locker room as a player helps. Knowing some of the players on the team obviously helps. But the biggest challenge will be to sell your message and for them to buy in."
Usually teams are built around quarterbacks, but in Philadelphia that's a little trickier with Bradford not taking a leadership role until the last half of the 2015 season. Pederson noted, "The fact that he himself put himself in a leadership role toward the end of the season proves to me that he can handle going forward this role and the opportunity to start."
Despite Bradford's efforts with Ertz and Matthews, that might not be enough to build the kind of locker room rapport that the team once had. That role might be placed in the hands of the defense in 2016. In fact, a position group often criticized could be just the group to lead the next generation of Eagles players.
Ahead of free agency, the team re-signed safety Malcolm Jenkins to a four-year extension, which was wildly applauded by his teammates past and present. Jenkins led the defense in 2015 and became a vocal leader on and off the field for the Eagles. His community support, work ethic and blunt analysis of the team's climate help make him a team and fan favorite.
To avoid losing one of their own to an NFC East rival, the Eagles also re-signed cornerback Nolan Carroll to a one-year extension during free agency. Carroll had taken a trip to visit the Dallas Cowboys — just days after teammate Cedric Thornton made the same trip resulting in a new contract — but he chose to come back to Philadelphia.
Jenkins is heading into his eighth season in the league, and Carroll into his seventh. Just up the field from the experienced duo is linebacker Jordan Hicks, who earned the nod at middle linebacker heading into 2016. Hicks recorded 50 combined total tackles and three defended passes in only eight games played during his rookie season.
What makes each of these three players exciting to watch was universal among them in 2015: big play interceptions. All three recorded a pick 6 last season; Jenkins had a 99-yard run off a Tom Brady interception in New England, Hicks took it to the house in Dallas effectively ending the Cowboys' season, and Carroll picked off Eli Manning giving the Eagles a lead in the NFC East mid-season. In a largely disappointing year, these three gave fans — and the team — something to root for, as they came up big against the team's biggest rivals.
Jenkins, Carroll and Hicks could combine for an electric defense in 2016, and as leaders in the locker room, could set the path for the next era in Philadelphia. With so many moving parts on offense, it might come down to the defense to provide some consistency and spark — something that's been missing since Vick, Jackson and McCoy were teammates on and off the field.