There were collective shouts of joy in South Philadelphia on Monday night after Brandon Graham was selected to his first Pro Bowl. In fact, defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz admitted tears were shed when players and coaches found out. Graham is their emotional leader.
He’s also the team leader in sacks (7) and tackles for loss (14) this year, plus the guy responsible for the most iconic play in franchise history. That clutch strip-sack on Tom Brady in the Super Bowl. So it was only fitting to hear Schwartz tell how the organization responded to the Pro Bowl news.
“Man, there were some tears shed in the coaching staff rooms last night,” Schwartz told reporters on Tuesday. “Just a totally deserving guy. He’s had a long career and he’s been a very good player for a long time, but to get his first Pro Bowl nod, it sort of choked everybody up.”
Graham ranks fourth on the Eagles’ all-time sack list (58) and there’s a good chance he’ll be number two when all is said and done. Reggie White’s 124 sacks seem rather unattainable. And Graham is the longest-tenured player on defense (11 seasons) and set the franchise record for most games played by a defensive lineman (157). The only thing missing from his resume was a Pro Bowl. (For the record, he was a Pro Bowl alternate in 2016). Now he finally has his picture “up on that wall.”
“He’s an incredibly hard worker,” Schwartz said. “He plays with a lot of spirit, all the things that you respect about a player, Brandon Graham personifies. So, for him to get that nod was big.”
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Graham Saved Schwartz $500 at Senior Bowl
It seems like everyone has their favorite Brandon Graham story, but his defensive coordinator might have the best tale of all. Schwartz told this story during Super Bowl week but was quick to bring it up again on Tuesday when speaking about his stud defensive end.
The year was 2010 and Schwartz was selected to coach the North Team in the Senior Bowl. He was the head coach of the Detroit Lions at the time so he was familiar with Graham who was a Detroit native and college standout at Michigan. Anyway, Schwartz called the entire coaching staff into his office the night before the all-star game and offered $500 to whoever picked the MVP. One catch: Schwartz got to choose his player first.
“And I picked Brandon Graham, so I didn’t have to pay out any money to anybody because he was MVP,” Schwartz told reporters on Tuesday. “But that’s probably my best story with him.”
Graham recorded two sacks, five tackles, and forced a fumble in that game to earn MVP honors as the North Team rolled to a 31-13 win. The performance greatly improved Graham’s draft stock, vaulting him from the second into the first round. The Eagles traded up 11 spots to take the 265-pound pass rusher at No. 13 overall.
“He had an outstanding game,” Schwartz said. “People could see him rush and see a lot of the things that we use him in now. And he moved up significantly in the draft.”
Tough Sledding for Graham Early in Philly
It’s easy to now look back on Graham’s early days in Philly with rose-colored glasses. But those lenses were black and blue in 2010 as Graham took his lumps as a rookie from both the fans and media. Remember, everyone wanted the Eagles to take Earl Thomas in the first round. They needed a franchise safety to replace Brian Dawkins but instead traded up for an undersized defensive end.
Making matters worse, Graham struggled to stay healthy in the beginning and missed 16 games over his first two seasons. His production was nothing to write home about, surely not for a first-rounder. He racked up only 17 sacks in his first five seasons while Thomas made four straight Pro Bowls. The criticism and scrutiny could have driven a weaker man insane.
“I think what you can’t overlook with Brandon is he wasn’t an immediate success as a rookie. It’s a tough business in the NFL,” Schwartz said. “There’s scrutiny from the fans, there’s scrutiny from the media, there’s scrutiny from the locker room, scrutiny from the coaches. It’s tough to deal with.”
But Graham dug his knuckles in the turf and motored on. He developed into a full-time starter in 2015 and then a light bulb went off when Schwartz arrived in 2016. He posted a career-high in sacks (9.5) during the Super Bowl run and hopes to surpass that number this year. He only needs three more sacks to do it.
“He never lost his faith,” Schwartz said. “He never wavered, and he got past that and has gone on to have an outstanding career, and he has a lot left on his career. I’m really proud of him.”
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