Marcus Hayes: Carson Wentz, Fletcher Cox, Lane Johnson see larger leadership roles with exodus of veteran Eagles

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The Eagles scraped away the last and most resistant residue of their old guard, and a new day has begun.

In a little more than a month, the Eagles declined their options on safety Malcolm Jenkins and linebacker Nigel Bradham, and declined to re-sign left tackle Jason Peters. They left a vacuum of leadership.

That vacuum must be filled. The replacements are ready.

Fletcher Cox is ready. Lane Johnson is ready.

Carson Wentz is, finally, ready.

Of the three departing veterans, most outsiders properly appreciate the magnitude of only one: Peters, a seven-time Pro Bowler in Philadelphia whose regal bearing and public reticence added proper mystique to his legend. The others possessed similar influence.

Jenkins served as the team’s spokesman and its conscience, but he was much more. His social justice wars aside, he brought a Super Bowl ring when he arrived from New Orleans in 2014, which meant he understood the grueling road to a title. He also operated with irreproachable professionalism, selflessness, and grit. He coached players who sought to replace him. He played special teams. He played in every game and missed just two snaps to injury. He was the team’s players union rep. He led the pregame hype huddle.

Bradham didn’t say much, and he wasn’t immediately a leadership type — his missteps upon arrival in 2016 painted an accurate picture of his maturity level in that moment. But, by 2017, his example was exemplary. He played tirelessly, and he played hurt, and he played every linebacker position.

He saved the team in 2017 and in 2018 after injuries sidelined middle linebacker Jordan Hicks. He was downright heroic in 2019 as the middle linebacker when his own injuries limited his effectiveness.

All three combined outstanding play — the foundation point on which leadership is built — with accountability, longevity, and toughness. Cox, Johnson, and Wentz were watching.

Cox, 29, is the franchise’s best defensive lineman since Reggie White. Drafted 12th overall in 2012, Cox entered the league a painfully shy Mississippi man-child. He needed six seasons and a ring before he grew comfortable enough to represent the team with his current measure of candor and confidence.

Johnson will be 30 in May, which gives him at least five more years of productivity, considering he’s coming off his highest-rated season. The Eagles drafted him fourth overall in 2013 but, like Cox, it took a while; he needed four seasons to overcome the stigma of serving two suspensions for testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs.

He then went to three consecutive Pro Bowls and should have made a fourth in 2019. He’s been the most honest player on the team since 2016. It was Johnson who, upon the firing of Chip Kelly, unmasked Kelly for the bloodless dictator that he was.

And, of course, there is Wentz, who actually had a defining moment. He matured into his leadership at Buffalo on Oct. 17, in a cold rain that drove in off Lake Erie; a season-saving win against an elite defense, on the road, that kept the club from falling to 3-5.

The previous 10 days had been marred by anonymous criticisms from a teammate and the front office and a blowout loss at Dallas. Wentz was not affected. He spoke out in the players-only meeting in the week leading up to the game — which is remarkable in that it is remarkable, considering this was his fourth season as the starter. But we all come along at our own speed. From Buffalo on, the team was his.

So yes, Wentz can handle this. They all can.

Besides, let’s be realistic here: The leadership index in this franchise wasn’t very high the last two seasons.

They endured two separate incidents of anonymous finger-pointing at Wentz. In 2018, several teammates characterized him as an aloof, insubordinate churl who played favorites on and off the field. At the very least, the 2018 bombshell and the mutterings in 2019 indicate a disregard for the very unity that leaders are supposed to shepherd.

Also in 2019, short-time mercenary cornerback Orlando Scandrick, upon his departure, depicted the team as a rudderless ship crewed by self-satisfied preeners living off the memory of their sodden march up Broad Street and their glorious, if profane, celebration on the Art Museum steps.

Jenkins chided Scandick for his comments, but Scandrick wasn’t wrong.

This was not unforeseeable. The vacuum of leadership has been growing.

The Eagles lost one man of great character, offensive coordinator Frank Reich, after they won Super Bowl LII. Doug Pederson — who, having spent two whole seasons as an NFL head coach, actually wrote a book as a guide to aspiring championship coaches — elevated lightly regarded receivers coach Mike Groh to replace Reich. It was the biggest mistake of Pederson’s tenure.

The Eagles then lost Foles, another man of great character, after the 2018 season. After Wentz shredded his left knee late in the 2017 season, Foles took over and won the Super Bowl MVP award. That earned him a statue outside Lincoln Financial Field — a statue that caused Foles no end of embarrassment, considering Wentz reassumed his starting role as soon as he was healthy, two games into the 2018 season.

One teammate told me that Foles was so conscious of overshadowing Wentz that, unless he was changing clothes, Foles would avoid his own locker for days at a time. That’s leadership.

There was no Reich for two seasons, and no Foles last year. It showed. And no, the presence of Peters, Jenkins, and Bradham did not foster perfect chemistry, but they did their best.

It’s just somebody else’s turn now.


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