July 27, 2023
They came together after the Andy Reid era fell apart. They were along for the hype and burnout of the Chip Kelly days. They saw the highest of highs and lowest of lows with Doug Pederson. Now, the Eagles' veteran "Core Four" is attempting to get back to their third Super Bowl together and take part in their second parade down Broad Street.
Brandon Graham, Jason Kelce, Fletcher Cox and Lane Johnson are the elder statesmen of an Eagles team that's flushed with young talent like Jalen Hurts, DeVonta Smith, Landon Dickerson and Josh Sweat. Each offseason is filled with uncertainty if all four will remain with the Birds, but, for now, the crew is together for (at least) one more shot at the Lombardi Trophy.
Speaking with Eagles media as training camp opened on Wednesday, Cox, Johnson and Kelce discussed the group's shared time together (Graham was not made available to speak to reporters, but will be later in camp).
Their goals are simple: to win it all again and, hopefully, retired together as Eagles.
"Obviously, I've been here with these guys for a long time," said Cox, who was a first-round pick in 2012, Reid's last year in Philadelphia. "We all talk about it. We all joke about it and hopefully we all retire as Eagles and I think that's all our plan."
"The Core Four! Is that all the old guys?" joked Kelce, the most unheralded of the bunch when he arrived in Philly as a sixth-round pick in 2011. "We've played a lot of football together. 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."
Johnson, the No. 4 pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, shared those sentiments, reflecting on some of the older players he saw who set a blueprint for late-career success.
"I think if you look at the guys who played here before us, for me, [Jon] Runyan, Tra Thomas, Jason Peters. I see guys like him, [Andrew] Whitworth, Trent Williams, those guys pushing into their late 30s, early 40s. That's my motivation," Johnson said. "I remember I came in my rookie year, JP was 32, 33 and I see how he's first in every drill, how he's running from drill to drill, so those guys set the example for me."
That got me thinking about other "core fours" we've seen in Philly sports history and how unprecedented this run has been in terms of longevity and winning.
The Eagles had an elite foundation with Thomas, Donovan McNabb, Brian Dawkins and Brian Westbrook from 2002-2008, but they never won the Super Bowl.
Julius Erving, Moses Malone, Bobby Jones and Maurice Cheeks were all Hall of Famers who won a title with the Sixers, but those guys were all way later in their careers when they came together and they never were close to approaching the heights of the summer of '83 again.
The mid-1970s Flyers won two Cups with Hall of Famers Bobby Clarke, Bill Barber and Bernie Parent, but they were categorized as a greater collective under the iconic "Broad Street Bullies" moniker.
The closest modern analogue would be the Golden Era Phillies with multi-time All-Stars Cole Hamels, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley, four beloved homegrown players who won a championship, made it to another World Series and delivered perhaps the two best regular seasons in franchise history in 2010 and 2011.
What ultimately separates this Eagles group, however, is that they essentially have had two different periods of championship contention, which is just so utterly rare for any franchise that hasn't employed Tom Brady.
Three of them were here when Nick Foles was drafted in 2012. All four were here when he made his return in 2017, filling in for MVP-level Carson Wentz and turning in the greatest performance in the history of Philly sports. The 2020 season went up in flames as both Pederson and Wentz were sent packing and what could've been a massive retool under Nick Sirianni turned into an expedited retool, sending the Birds back to the Super Bowl just two years later.
They're still making an impact, too. Kelce and Johnson are players who should make the Hall of Fame and are still All-Pro players at 35 and 33, respectively. Graham had the most sacks in his career with 11 in his age-34 season in 2022. Cox, as a part of a strong defensive tackle rotation, totaled seven sacks last year, his most since his First-Team All-Pro campaign in 2018. All four are as integral to this team's success as new-generation Eagles like A.J. Brown, Haason Reddick and James Bradberry.
I was in the Eagles' practice locker room one day last season speaking with Graham. He knew I was a new guy on the Eagles beat and we were talking about him being the longest-tenured vet and those types of things. I jokingly mentioned to him that I was a sophomore in high school when he was drafted and he laughed. You could tell he felt old. Taking an even further step back, there are Eagles fans in high school right now who have no memories of the Eagles without these four dudes being a driving force. That just doesn't help in a league with the wear-and-tear and turnover that the NFL has.
If the Eagles are the last team standing in Las Vegas next February, I'd bet the house that they all came up big to get them to the mountain top yet again.
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