Stewart Bradley walked through the players' entry at the NovaCare Complex and walked down the hallway toward the locker room, and former Eagles linebacker Ike Reese looked him over, exclaiming, "Now THAT'S what a linebacker looks like! It's another reminder of why I retired."
While Reese has moved on to a career in the Philadelphia media, Bradley is as excited as anyone about his next step: Returning to the football field after missing all of last season after suffering a knee injury in early August.
"When the time is right, I will be out there," said Bradley. "It's been a long process and I've gone through it step by step and here I am. I feel great. I'm confident that I will be where I need to be when the season begins."
That's the real question, after all. Bradley is ready to assume his place in the middle of the Eagles defense, but just how much of Bradley will the Eagles get? How close to 100 percent can Bradley be after suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament during the team's inaugural Flight Night! event at Lincoln Financial Field. It was an innocent play, as most of them are. Bradley was in coverage and Reggie Brown caught a pass and there was Bradley moving toward Brown and then, pop, his knee went. And Bradley felt it right away, took a mis-step or two and then walked off the field and into the locker room.
And his season was done. Over. Shattered.
Fast forward to now, and imagine the possibilities with Bradley back as the defense's brain. He is a 260-pound man who is a force against the run. Bradley plays outstanding downhill football, blitzes well and is able to cover sideline to sideline. And if he 100 percent, all the way back, unafraid to put his foot in the ground and really go, the defense will be better by leaps and bounds. Bradley is going to have dust to clear off and instincts to regain, and the training ground that is the post-draft camps and then the summer grind at Lehigh University will be vital.
Last year was a tough challenge for defensive coordinator Sean McDermott, who ran through a series of unsatisfactory stopgaps last year at middle linebacker. The Eagles never replaced Bradley's three-down abilities and all the scheming in the world by McDermott's creative mind could replace what Bradley brought to the defense.
Now, though, the Eagles are banking on Bradley making a complete recovery. They are counting on him to be the force he was before his injury, and, that being the case, working the X's and O's around his varied skills. That's saying a lot. That's ultimate respect. That's also putting a lot of faith in Bradley's return to the Pro Bowl level of football he played in 2008, in his first full season as an NFL starter.
We can talk all about the changing face of this defense, and about how the locker room is a series of new personalities. One of the keys, maybe the key is Bradley's return. What is the success rate for players coming back to the field 13 months after suffering an ACL injury? How will Bradley work through the throbbing of 16 games of pounding on his knee?
What happens if he isn't as good initially as he was before the injury?
The Eagles must prepare for every scenario. A healthy Bradley is an enormous boost for the defense. If he is not quite all the way back, the Eagles must adjust. Joe Mays is pushing after showing some encouraging signs -- especially on special teams -- in his second NFL season. Having Omar Gaither healthy will add some depth to the team's nickel picture. And of course the Eagles have a draft to conduct, and maybe one of those 11 picks will be used as a hedge to Bradley's health questions.
Right now, though, the sky is clear and the picture is promising for Bradley. His rehabilitation is over. He looks absolutely terrific. Now it is about getting his game together after the year off, about having confidence in his knee and about re-establishing himself as one of the game's best middle linebackers.
It is a fascinating subplot as the Eagles make over their defense. Having Bradley back is like adding another draft pick, albeit one who was on the verge of being something special before his injury. How quickly he comes back, how good he is right off the bat, is going to play a huge part in the success of the defense in year two with McDermott running the show.