An NFL locker room moves from one year to the next, the personality completely unique, the sands shifting as players come and go. It has been one of Andy Reid's many strengths to understand what he has within those walls at the NovaCare Complex, so that when the inevitable change comes, the right players are in place to keep chemistry and leadership where they need to be.
As the Eagles get a day closer to the 2009 season, they face a more significant change that usual to the personality of the team, to the ladder of leadership, to the structure of, well, the structure of the diversity of cultures in the locker room. Gone are veterans like Brian Dawkins and Correll Buckhalter in free agency, along with the expected departures of Tra Thomas and Jon Runyan. Those four players, along with free agents L.J. Smith and Sean Considine, were part of a tremendous core of leaders that helped carry the Eagles through the ups and downs and ups and downs of this decade of Eagles football. Clearly, Dawkins, Thomas and Runyan were the leaders of the leaders who have left in a scene-changing off-season.
So how does the roster react? Who is next in line alongside the likes of Donovan McNabb, Brian Dawkins, Sheldon Brown, Quintin Mikell, Asante Samuel, etc? The Eagles are fueled by a strong core of young, ascending veterans and some of those players will move right in line as leaders, just as they have done throughout their football careers.
Count middle linebacker Stewart Bradley among those preparing for the next step in his maturation as an Eagle.
"Any time you lose players and leaders of the quality and caliber that we've lost, it's tough. But it is also the nature of the game," said Bradley. "From a personal standpoint, I'm grateful I had a chance to play with those guys and that I could usurp any knowledge from guys like Dawk, and Tra, Pro Bowl players who have been successful and who have been part of a winning franchise for so long.
"So from that point it's tough, but also I think that we have a young, core group of guys who understand that it is our responsibility to step up and increase our leadership roles. When you're a young player and you have that innate leadership mentality, you still have to know your role on a veteran team. There are older guys already in that role, and that is kind of the way it works. But those players continue their careers in other places, or they end their careers and the natural progression takes over. That's when you see the younger players assume more of that mantle of leadership.
"I think the organization has made it a priority to draft players who have that leadership trait. A lot of us have been leaders throughout our careers, who are accustomed to that kind of atmosphere. So, that's what is going to happen. I'm looking forward to it."
Bradley enjoyed a terrific second NFL season, his first as a starter ever at middle linebacker. He played a physical game, started every week, gave the defense everything he had and played very, very well. Bradley is part of an uncannily-tight group of players at linebacker, and now he is one of the players who must blossom in more ways then his on-field performance.
"I think some people are more prone to become leaders than others, and I think that there are guys who will become a leader because of the role they have, and there are other guys who are just naturally take-charge kind of players," said Bradley. "I think the guys feel comfortable with me in that role. There is nothing planned. It happens naturally when you are among a group of players who have a common goal of winning. Anytime you have that, the issue of leadership is not an issue, because it sorts itself out. The position of linebacker is a leadership type of position, but beyond that, I have the type of personality that lends itself toward leading.
"I felt that a lot of things went well for me last season, including my play on the field. But just as important, I felt that my role in the locker room was where it needed to me and that the guys looked to me for leadership. I felt good about that. I felt like it came naturally to me, and I embraced that role. I look forward to even more of that this season."
No question the Eagles have a lot to replace. Dawkins was such an emotional lightning rod for so long, and his Pro Bowl accomplishments, of course, spoke volumes about his ability on the field. Thomas was a vocal leader on the field and Runyan showed the kind of toughness and durability that defined for every young player what kind of mental and physical threshold is needed to excel in Philadelphia.
The Eagles have, to a degree, gone about the difficult process of changing much of their roster's personality as we know it. McNabb and Westbrook and several veterans remain, but there is a very real transition in place.
And that's OK. That is what happens in the Not For Long.
"It's different every year. You bank on the players around you," said Bradley. "Brian Dawkins is a special player, a one-of-a-kind guy. Dawk is Dawk. But there are more ways to skin a cat. He has such an emotional presence and was so demonstrative, but just because a player like Sheldon Brown doesn't show that kind of emotion during a game, for example, doesn't mean he is any less prepared or intense or is any less of a leader. You can't copy what someone else does or how someone is. You have to be yourself. That's the way it is. You have to be prepared for change in this league. I haven't been in the NFL very long, but I recognized right away that things change fast. You have to learn and adapt. We've done that very well as an organization and we will continue to do that."
Bradley's lasting memory of 2008, the loss in Arizona to the Cardinals in the NFC Championship Game, is a bitter one. And it hurt for a long time after that defeat. But Bradley is like all players at this level. The disappointments are to be learned from, but they are not to be wallowed in. You get better one day to the next, and you don't allow a setback to keep you down.
So Bradley's off-season has been devoted to taking his game to another level. He is working his core even harder than last year, understanding now the rigors and demands his position requires.
"It was tough losing that game. To get that close and then to lose and watch the Super Bowl and think, 'We beat both of those teams, and we're sitting here watching them in the Super Bowl' was very hard," said Bradley. "We felt we had the talent to get there, but things just didn't go our way and it wasn't our best performance that day. But we don't dwell on it. It was disappointing, but it also motivating for me. I want more this year. I want it all, and now that I understand what it takes to get there, I'm going to be even more prepared.
"I played a lot of snaps and feel like I'm going to be ready for that long haul to avoid some of the tweaks that I had. You get into Week 13 or 14 and you patch yourself together and get ready to go. So my preparation will be a little bit more advanced, and I'll be that much more excited about what we are capable of doing."
Leadership? Yes, the Eagles have lost quite a bit in the last couple of weeks. But as they have done in the past, the Eagles will have a new cast of leaders prepared to step into the breach. Bradley is one of those players being counted on to do just that, a natural progression that is already under way.