This was mid-September, two weeks into the season, and Mychal Kendricks was at the Nova-Care Complex getting a massage and feeling sorry for himself.
The second-year linebacker, like most of his defensive teammates, had played poorly in both of the first two games -- a hung-on-for-dear-life win over the Redskins and a three-point loss to the Chargers in which the defense gave up a disconcerting 539 yards and 33 first downs.
Then he got a call that turned around his season.
Howard Lett, who was Kendricks' Pop Warner coach back when he was a little tyke in Fresno, Calif., and is the father of his best friend, Jordan Lett, called to see how he was holding up.
Kendricks cried him a river. Lett responded with a Rocknesque pep talk.
"He gave me an inspirational speech," Kendricks said. "He just talked about taking the field with full confidence and knowing that it's yours.
"That's how I used to be in high school and college. But I kind of got away from that because everyone's so good here. Sometimes you find yourself just trying to survive out here, man. But when you take that field like you own it, there's no surviving to be had. You know you're going to survive. You know you're going to do good. You know you're going to kill it out there.
"After talking to him, that instilled a little more confidence in me. I try to go out every game now and take the field with confidence, take the field like I own it."
Kendricks has had his ups and downs this season. But as the year has gone on and he and the rest of the defensive players have become more comfortable with their roles in Bill Davis' defense, his play has improved dramatically.
He no longer is just trying to survive. He is looking to make plays, and more often than not, he does.
He made some huge ones in Sunday's 24-22 win over the Cowboys that clinched the NFC East and put the Eagles in the playoffs. Forced a first-quarter fumble that led to an Alex Henery field goal. Later intercepted a pass that the Eagles cashed in for a touchdown.
He also had a team-high 12 tackles as the Eagles held Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray to 3.0 yards per carry.
"Mychal is a great athlete," Davis said. "Sometimes he'll take a chance and sometimes it misses and sometimes it hits. He's done a great job. He's made a lot more plays for us than he hasn't. And he continues to understand leverage and concepts and where help is and where help isn't and how to play."
Kendricks still is young and raw; a work in progress. But he and other young players like defensive end Fletcher Cox are the future of Davis' unit. Kendricks has Pro Bowl talent. It just needs to gel.
"That's what people tell me," he said. "But all I know is what I know. What I know is I just have to go out there and play ball and work hard every day and strive to be the best.
"Sometimes things don't fall your way. You can prepare for a game and you go into the game thinking you're going to kill it, and then you don't do as good. Sometimes you go into a game and you're on your heels, timid a little bit, because you're not sure what's going to happen. They come at you with different looks and all of a sudden, you end up fitting stuff real good and you end up having a good game.
"In this league, it's that crazy. It's any given day. You've got to keep working, keep working. That's why I'm not going to say I see myself being somewhere or moving in this direction. I see myself working hard every day and taking it one day at a time and just striving to be the best I can be."
The 6-foot, 240-pounder is much happier in Davis' 3-4 scheme than he was as a rookie in the disjointed wide-nine 4-3 the Eagles played during their four-win fiasco.
"I like playing in a 3-4," he said. "I feel you can do more things with it. Not only with me, but everybody else. You're rocking and rolling and disguising things."
Kendricks is second on the team in tackles with 137. He has three interceptions, four fumble recoveries, one forced fumble, four sacks and six hurries. He had two sacks in the Eagles' 54-11 win over the Bears two weeks ago.
His coverage skills still are a work in progress. He's done a pretty good job on opposing tight ends this season. But he's also given up a few big plays.
"I've locked a couple down, but some got away from me too," he said. "It's any given day, man. Any given day."
The Eagles will need him to play like he owns the field Saturday night when they face the Saints and their powerful offense in the first round of the playoffs.
Kendricks is expected to spend a fair amount of time assigned to Drew Brees' top receiving weapon, 6-7, 265-pound tight end Jimmy Graham. If he can somehow manage to neutralize Graham, the Eagles have a very good chance of advancing to the next round of the playoffs.
"I think Mychal has played really well all year long," coach Chip Kelly said. "He's come up with some critical turnovers for us this season at junctures where we really needed it. And that's what we kind of have learned as a group to expect out of Mychal."
GOOD HANDS PEOPLE
Duce Staley is batting 1.000. In his first year as the Eagles' running backs coach, he has a league rushing champion, LeSean McCoy, who shattered the team's single-season rushing record with 1,607 yards.
"Now the bar's set so high, what am I going to do (for an encore)?" the former Eagles running back joked.
The Eagles averaged an NFL-best 160.4 rushing yards per game this season. But there's another number that Staley is particularly proud of: 1.
That's the total number of fumbles by McCoy and the Eagles' other two running backs -- Bryce Brown and Chris Polk -- in 464 touches (carries and receptions) this season.
That lone fumble was by McCoy in the Eagles' 31-20 Week 6 win over Tampa Bay. Since then, Staley's backs haven't put a ball on the ground in 310 touches.
Last season, the Eagles had 37 fumbles and lost a league-high 22. The team's running backs had eight of those fumbles in 410 touches, losing six. McCoy had four fumbles (three lost) in 254 touches. Brown, a rookie, also had four (three lost) in 128 touches.
"We emphasize ball security all the time," Staley said. "We've added more drills to remind them to focus on the ball. We do it in our drills. We talk about it in our meetings. Every time I get a chance, if I see a bad ball -- and what I mean by a bad ball is a ball that's being carried away from the body and the (five) points of pressure are not being used, I make sure to point it out and talk to them about it, and they take it upon themselves too.
"They're their own worst critic. There's a lot of motivation in the (running back) room to do better. If you fumble, they know the guys in the room are going to be going, 'Wow.' Because we work so hard on that."
McCoy often carries the ball away from his body when he's in space, but tucks it in when he senses tacklers around him.
"One thing about McCoy when you watch him on film that is so surprising," Staley said, "is he understands traffic. When he's away from traffic and he's out making his move, the ball is extended. But when he's about to enter traffic, when there's a lot of people, a lot of color, around, he brings it closer to his body."
Staley has worked with Brown on ball security. The kid basically only played one season of college ball. But he has done a much better job of protecting the ball this season than he did as a rookie.
"I'm very happy with that," the coach said. "That comes with him just continuing to evolve as a player. Having that time off from college, what he went through, he never was taught how to carry the ball, didn't understand the five points of pressure, didn't understand the things that come along with it.
"And he can still get better at it. He'll tell you right now that he can still get better with that."
FIGURING THE EAGLES
-- Cornerback Brandon Boykin is one of just four players with six or more interceptions. He's the only one of the four who played less than 1,000 snaps:
R. Sherman, CB, SEA, 8, 1003
A. Rolle, S, NYG, 6, 1155
D. Levy, LB, DET, 6, 1055
B. Boykin, CB, PHI, 6, 635
-- The Eagles dramatically increased their use of multiple-tight end formations in the second half of the season. In their first eight games, they used "12" (two tight ends) and "13" (three tight ends) personnel on just 17.5 percent of their offensive plays (95 of 542 plays). In their last eight games, they used two- and three-tight end sets on 37.7 percent of their plays (193 of 512).
-- Three hundred nineteen of the Eagles' 500 run plays (63.8 percent) have been with 11 personnel (one back, one tight end).
-- One of Nick Foles' weaknesses was supposed to be his ability to throw the deep ball. But he led the league in passing this season on throws of 20 yards or more, completing 25 of 55 attempts for 803 yards, 14 touchdowns and one interception. That's a 124.0 rating, or 4.8 points higher than his league-best overall rating.
THIS AND THAT
Center Jason Kelce is one of the few offensive linemen in the league who wears knee braces. Started wearing them this season after tearing his ACL last year.
"I'll probably wear them until they slow me down enough that I can't get the job done," he said. "There's no reason not to wear them. They're annoying. I've stopped wearing them at practice just because guys don't fall down as much. But in terms of the game, it's almost not worth going out there without them. You get rolled up on, it obviously could ruin your whole season just like it has before for me. It doesn't take away that much. I'm a little less agile, a little less quick. But the bottom line is I'm still quick enough, still fast enough, to get the job done."
Kelce said some less-athletic offensive linemen might not be able to survive with knee braces.
"There are some guys, if they put them on, they wouldn't be fast enough to play at this level," he said.
-- Lane Johnson admits he needs a break. The rookie right tackle really hasn't had an opportunity to kick back and relax since before his final season at Oklahoma. He's played all but one offensive snap this season, which was preceded by training camp, which was preceded by OTAs, which was preceded by the combine and pre-draft workouts, which was preceded by the Senior Bowl, which was preceded by his final season with the Sooners.
"I'm not gonna lie to you," he said earlier this week. "I'm a little tired. I haven't had an offseason since college. But I'm going to keep battling until we're done. Everybody's tired. It's no excuse to quit or anything. When everything's on the line, that when I want to play my best."
FROM THE LIP
-- "As unpopular and undesirable as it is for us to be sitting here right now and acknowledging that we didn't get it right, the fact that we're making this change makes a statement that we're not going to accept not being really successful." (Browns CEO Joe Banner, after firing head coach Rob Chudzinski after just one season)
-- "Every road trip in '09 we had Popeyes. Coach needs to bring back the Popeyes. When we get on the plane, have the Popeyes ready." (Saints WR Robert Meachum, on what he thinks the team needs to do to change their road luck this week against the Eagles)
-- "I'm not gay. I really, really like women. That's all I can say about that." (Packers QB Aaron Rodgers, in response to Internet rumors that he is gay)
BY THE NUMBERS
-- Five of the 12 teams in the playoffs -- Carolina, Kansas City, New Orleans, San Diego and the Eagles -- weren't in the postseason last year. Since the league adopted the current playoff format in 1990, at least four teams have made the playoffs every year that weren't in the previous season.
-- NFL games averaged 46.8 points this season. That's the highest average in league history, surpassing 46.5 in 1948.
-- Eleven teams, including the Eagles, scored 400-plus points this season. There's never been more than nine in a year before.
-- The Broncos are the first team in history to have five different players with at least 10 touchdowns in the same season: Demaryius Thomas (14), Knowshon Moreno (13), Julius Thomas (12), Eric Decker (11) and Wes Welker (10). No team ever has had more than three.
-- There were 24 individual 400-yard passing games this season, surpassing the previous high of 18 in 2011.
-- Seven quarterbacks had a passer rating of 100.0 or better, which is a record. The previous high was five in '09.
To Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott. Three years ago, McDermott got a raw deal when he was abruptly fired by Andy Reid as the Eagles' defensive coordinator after just two years on the job, even though his defense led the league in takeaways over those two years and held the eventual Super Bowl-champion Packers to 21 points in a five-point playoff loss. He was immediately hired by Ron Rivera to be his top defensive lieutenant in Carolina. McDermott's unit finished second in the league in total defense and points allowed this season. He already has been interviewed for the Redskins' vacant head-coaching job and is on the short list of candidates for a couple of the other openings.
To former Eagles president Joe Banner and his boss, Browns owner Jimmy Haslam, for giving a pink slip to their head coach, Rob Chudzinski, after just one season. Unless the guy gets caught driving naked through the drive-thru at McDonald's, how do you fire your coach after 16 games and less than one year after you thought he was the perfect guy for the job. Chudzinski isn't the guy who traded his top running back for a future draft pick. He's not the guy who drafted Brandon Weeden. One year? Really? A pox on both of your houses.
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