Rodney McLeod admitted he had some nerves. After all, he hadn't played since early in the 2018 regular season before suffering a knee injury that KO'd him for the remainder of the year and earned him a ticket in the athletic training room for the next 11 months.
Thursday night, then, was special for McLeod. You can say that preseason games don't matter, but McLeod would disagree. McLeod started and played with the first-team defense in the Eagles' 26-15 weather-shortened loss against Baltimore, but that didn't matter. What mattered is that McLeod played, made a tackle, and felt great afterward.
"It's been a long journey, man," McLeod said. "I had some nerves. I was excited, nervous, all of that. It had been such a long time since I played and I was anxious to get out there and shake out the nerves. It felt great. I was so excited. It was like I was a rookie all over again."
"I thought he moves around well," head coach Doug Pederson said. "Of course, I'll evaluate the film, look at it in the morning and watch him some more closely, but overall felt like he really settled in, did a nice job."
Last season's injury was the first significant one of McLeod's career, and he treated it the right way. He attacked his rehab, kept his focus in the short term, and exercised patience that he didn't know he had. It all paid off for McLeod. The slow and steady road has him on track to play in the regular-season opener against Washington, barring any setbacks.
"I still have work to do. We're still two-plus weeks away from the first game, so I'm going to keep working and getting stronger and better and more comfortable," McLeod said. "I just know it felt great to be out there with the guys, working with them. The communication was there. It felt normal to me. It felt like I never left."
A key piece in the defense, McLeod's absence rattled the defense in 2018. The Eagles moved some pieces around and survived thanks to the genius of defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz and his staff, along with the versatility of players like Avonte Maddox, a cornerback who filled in nicely at safety. But McLeod's ability to cover sideline to sideline, tackle in the open field, and help in run support was too much to fully replace.
"That's over. That's in the past. I'm focused on the future," McLeod said. "I'm just feeling really good right now. Happy to be back. Looking ahead to more."
Check out the best photos from the Eagles' preseason tilt against the Baltimore Ravens.