NFC East Reporter
PHILADELPHIA — The first few years they spent together were lean, with more coaching changes than trips to the playoffs. It didn’t make sense then that they were the makings of greatness. They didn’t even win their first postseason game until they had played together five years.
Yet here they are in their 10th and possibly final season together, about to head to their second Super Bowl, and now forever linked as the Eagles’ “Core Four.” Jason Kelce, Brandon Graham, Fletcher Cox and Lane Johnson aren’t just the elder statesmen of this current Eagles team, they’re the thread that holds Philly’s last two Super Bowl teams together.
“What an incredible ride it’s been with these guys,” Johnson said Friday. “I’m very fortunate to be in this position. Not many players get to experience that with a core group of guys.”
It’s been quite an experience for all of them, taking them from the end of the Andy Reid era, through the tumultuous Chip Kelly years, to the Eagles’ first Super Bowl championship, to the crash landing of Doug Pederson and now to his rapid rise. back to top Along the journey, each has become Philly icons in their own way through the processes.
They have also been the literal foundation of a franchise looking to build from strength in the trenches. Kelce at center and Johnson at right tackle have been the anchors of the offensive line. Graham at defensive end and Cox at defensive tackle have been huge pieces on the defensive end. And together they have formed the backbone that has prevented the organization from collapsing.
“When I got the job here, I said I’m not like the other first-year head coaches,” Eagles coach Nick Sirianni said last week. “I had these incredible players who have been on top of the mountain and played in this league for 10-plus years — two on the offensive line, two on the defensive line. It’s a huge, huge advantage to have those leaders in your soccer team.”
Graham went first, as the 13th overall pick in the 2010 draft, just in time for Reid’s final winning season with the Eagles. Kelce emerged as a sixth-round pick a year later and quickly won the starting center job. Cox was the 12th overall pick in 2012, which ended with Philly firing Reid after going 4-12. That gave the Eagles the fourth overall pick in 2013, which they used on Johnson.
Since then, they’ve really been the core of a franchise that has gone in several different directions since the stability of the Reid regime. They’ve thrived under four different head coaches, played under seven different starting quarterbacks and bounced back from three losing seasons. No matter what happened around the Eagles, they became the glue that held the locker room together.
“If you look at all the changes, I really think the Eagles have done a phenomenal job of keeping pieces and pieces that they think will hold it all together,” Kelce said. “There’s good buy-in and there’s still a strong culture and foundation to build on. There’s a lot of people in this building that have been through these coaching changes, including the four guys that have been here over a decade “.
If there’s a core leader, it’s probably Kelce, 35, who has been a pillar of strength, toughness and fire with the Eagles since his rookie season.
“He’s been like the core of this team for over a decade,” Johnson said. “With the way he plays, with his emotions and his passion for the game, it bleeds into everything we’ve been trying to do here for years with the culture.”
“They deserve a trip to the Super Bowl”
Kevin Burkhardt and Greg Olsen talk about the Eagles defeating the 49ers to return to the Super Bowl for the first time in five years.
The city of Philadelphia, and everyone, found out in February 2018, at the Eagles’ parade following their Super Bowl LII victory. Johnson donned a bright green “Mummers” outfit that made him look like a giant genie and delivered a wild, exclamation-filled victory speech that became the most famous to ever take place on the steps of the Art Museum since Rocky Balboa climbed to the top.
All have had their moments and triumphs over the years and have given Philadelphia reasons to embrace them. Graham had the sack of Tom Brady at the end of Super Bowl LII that sealed the Eagles’ 41-33 victory against the Patriots, a play he called “definitely a life changer.” Johnson became a symbol of strength when he went public with his battle with anxiety and depression that caused him to miss part of the 2021 season. Cox has been one of the best defensive tackles of the era, making the team of the 2010s.
Together, they’ve won: seven winning seasons, four division titles, five trips to the playoffs and, of course, that incredible championship run under Pederson that they’ve never stopped talking about to their younger teammates.
“Since the day I got here, that’s all they talk about,” defensive tackle Javon Hargrave said. “They tell me how they feel when they went to the Super Bowl and all the memories they had. It’s great to have people who have done it before.”
“Having those guys who have been to the top of the mountain and know what it takes,” Sirianni said. “We have great leaders and they lead the way with how you train, with how you prepare, how you play in any game. If you play 10 years in this league, you’re successful. Knowing the wins they’ve had. Obviously, that’s a big plus for the our soccer team.”
The “Core Four” understand this too, and have been trying to use that advantage since the playoffs began. But they know it’s even more important now as the Eagles prepare to leave for Arizona on Sunday afternoon and prepare for a week of Super Bowl frenzy before taking on the Chiefs.
“I told them, guys, just make sure you’re having fun when it’s time to have fun, but when we’re between those lines and in those meetings, let’s do what we do well,” Graham said. “We didn’t come all this way to embarrass ourselves. We didn’t come all this way to start playing now.”
No, they didn’t. And they really have come a long way. Graham (178), Kelce (176) and Cox (173) are among the franchise’s top seven in regular season games. Johnson is a little lower at 127.
But they know they are unlikely to meet again. Cox, 32, will be a free agent after the season. The contracts of Kelce and Graham, 34, were structured so that this would also be their final year. It’s certainly possible the Eagles will try to bring some of them back, but given their ages it seems unlikely they’ll all return.
Saying goodbye won’t be easy. They know each other too well. As Cox said last week: “I tell a lot of people, I feel like me and BG have been married for 11 years.”
So if Super Bowl LVII is the end of Philly’s “Core Four,” they want to make sure they come out on top. And they also want to make sure they appreciate and remember every second.
“I’m thankful to be with these guys,” Johnson said. “I know how much it means to them. They don’t have to say anything. I’ve been around them all these years.”
Cox added: “It means a lot. I’ve been loving every moment, just soaking it all in, just letting all the guys know, ‘Hey, we’ve got a chance to do something special.’ We really do.”
They already have it.
Ralph Vacchiano is the NFC East reporter for FOX Sports, covering the Washington Commanders, Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants. He spent the previous six years covering the Giants and Jets for SNY TV in New York, and before that, 16 years covering the Giants and the NFL for the New York Daily News. Follow him on Twitter at @RalphVacchiano.
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