Tuesday, March 21 2023

PHILADELPHIA — The first years they spent together were lean ones, with more coaching changes than trips to the playoffs. There was no sense back then that they were the building blocks 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 depart for 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 are the thread that ties Philly’s last two Super Bowl teams together.

“What an incredible ride it’s been with those guys,” Johnson said Friday. “I’m very fortunate to be in this position. Not a whole lot of players get to experience it with a core group of guys.”

It has 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 Doug Pederson’s crash landing, and now to their rapid ascent back to the top. Along the journey, they have each become Philly icons in their own way through the processes.


They’ve also been the literal foundation of a franchise that wants 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 side. And together they’ve formed the backbone that has kept the organization from a collapse.

“When I first got the job here, I said I wasn’t like other first-year head coaches,” Eagles coach Nick Sirianni said last week. “I had these unbelievable players that have been to the mountaintop that have played in this league for 10-plus years — two on the offensive line, two on the defensive line. That’s a huge, huge advantage to have those leaders on your football team.”

Graham arrived first, as the 13th overall pick of the 2010 draft, just in time for Reid’s last winning season with the Eagles. Kelce popped up as a sixth-round pick one year later and quickly won the starting center job. Cox was the 12th overall pick in 2012, which ended with Philly dismissing Reid after going 4-12. That netted the Eagles the fourth overall pick in 2013, which they used on Johnson.

Since then, they really have been the core of a franchise that has headed in several different directions since the stability of Reid’s regime. They’ve thrived under four different head coaches, played with seven different starting quarterbacks, and bounced back from three losing seasons. No matter what was happening around the Eagles, they became the glue that held the locker room together.                                                                

“If you look through all the change, I really do think the Eagles have done a phenomenal job of keeping pieces and parts that they think will hold everything together,” Kelce said. “There’s good buy-in and still a solid culture and foundation to build on. There’s many people in this building that have gone through these coaching changes, including the four guys that have been here a decade-plus now.”

If there’s a leader of the core, it’s probably the 35-year-old Kelce, who has been a pillar of strength, toughness and fire with the Eagles ever since his rookie season.

“He’s been like the nucleus of this team for over a decade now,” Johnson said. “With how he plays, with his emotions and 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 head back to the Super Bowl for the first time in five years.

The city of Philadelphia — and everyone else — learned that back in February 2018, at the Eagles’ parade following their win in Super Bowl LII. Johnson donned a bright green “Mummers” outfit that made him look like a giant genie and delivered a wild, expletive-filled victory speech that became the most famous thing to happen on the Art Museum steps since Rocky Balboa ran to the top.

They’ve all had their moments and triumphs over the years and given Philadelphia reason to embrace them. Graham had the strip-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 greatest defensive tackles of the era, making the 2010s All-Decade Team.

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 telling their younger teammates about.

“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 pretty cool to have people who have done it before.”

“To have those guys that have been to the top of the mountain and know what it takes,” Sirianni said. “We’ve got great leaders and they lead the way with how you practice, with how you prepare, how you play in any game. If you play 10 years in this league, you’re successful. Knowing the wins that they’ve had, that’s obviously a huge advantage for our football team.”

The “Core Four” understand that too, and they’ve been trying to use that advantage ever since the playoffs began. But they know it’s even more important now, as the Eagles get ready to leave for Arizona on Sunday afternoon and prepare for a week of Super Bowl frenzy before facing the Chiefs.

“I told them guys, just make sure you have fun when it’s time to have it, but when we’re in between those lines and in those meetings, let’s make it about what we do well,” Graham said. “We didn’t come all this way to get embarrassed. We didn’t come all this way to start playing around now.”

No they didn’t. And they really have come a very long way. Graham (178), Kelce (176) and Cox (173) all rank in the franchise’s top seven in regular-season games. Johnson sits a bit lower with 127.

But they know they are not likely to get any more together. Cox, 32, will be a free agent after the season. The contracts of Kelce and Graham, 34, were structured to make this their last year, too. It’s certainly possible the Eagles will try to bring back some of them, but given their ages it seems unlikely they’d all return.

Saying goodbye won’t be easy. They know each other all too well. As Cox said last week, “I tell a lot of people, I feel like me and B.G. have been married for 11 years now.”

So, if Super Bowl LVII is the end of Philly’s “Core Four,” they want to make sure they go out on top. And they also want to make sure they appreciate and remember every single 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 cherishing every moment, just soaking it all in, just letting all the guys know, ‘Hey, we got a chance to do something special.’ We really do.”

They already have.

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 Twitter at @RalphVacchiano.

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