The key, say the veterans who now man the linebacker positions for the Eagles, is to always be ready for anything. It sounds like an easy concept to follow, but when you consider where Nicholas Morrow and Zach Cunningham have been, even in these last few months, you might have a new appreciation.
Morrow joined the Eagles in free agency after playing 99 percent of the snaps with Chicago last season – 1,086 defensive plays, to be exact. He had been with Oakland/Las Vegas and Chicago over five seasons before signing with the Eagles, so the idea of "always being ready" wasn't anything new to him.
"This league teaches you that you have to prepare the same way every day, no matter what is going on around you," he said. "You never know what might happen next."
What happened next for Morrow is that he didn't make the initial 53-man roster and then wasn't signed by another team in the league while he was on the streets, as they say in the league, and joined the Eagles' practice squad and watched the Week 1 win in New England at home with his newborn baby, changing diapers and trying to maintain his sanity.
"It was different, that's for sure," he said.
Starting linebacker Nakobe Dean suffered a foot injury in that game and the Eagles placed him on the Injured Reserve list the next day and then promoted Morrow to the 53-man roster. All he has done since then is start three games, record a perfectly timed safety in the win over Tampa Bay, and then on Sunday, Morrow had the following stat line: 11 total tackles, 3 quarterback sacks, 1 forced fumble.
A career day for a guy who was not on the team's 53-man roster to open the season and who, exactly three weeks earlier, was up to his elbows in poopy diapers.
"You can't let yourself be affected by anything that you can't control, and I knew that the only thing I could control was me," he said. "The Eagles have shown confidence in me and the guys around me have helped. It's really been a team effort. I know we all have a lot of room to improve. That's how I look at things."
His partner at linebacker, Zach Cunningham, was unemployed well into Training Camp before getting the call to travel to Philadelphia and work out for the Eagles in early August. He brought only a few essential things with him and signed a contract on the day the team had its public practice at Lincoln Financial Field. His introduction to Eagles fans: more than 50,000 in attendance for that night practice.
"I've always known what the fans are like and how much they love the Eagles, but that was pretty eye-opening," he said.
Cunningham quickly assimilated himself into the defense and earned a starting role and he's been around the football in the Eagles' 4-0 start. Against Washington, Cunningham led the defense with 13 total tackles, 9 solo, and was in the right place at the right time.
Two veterans, two starters, and stories that intertwine with one common theme: They were out there for the rest of the league to sign and, well, they both ended up as Eagles.
And as productive players, the defense has used them in just the right way.
"It's really a combination of everything," Cunningham said. "We're getting great play from the guys up front and that makes my job easier. Everyone has helped me learn the defense and I've been around long enough (Cunningham is in his seventh NFL season) to pick things up pretty fast.
"I feel good out there. This is a good defense for me, I can get to the football and make some plays and help out in any way that I can. That's what we're all here doing – making sure that we do our part to help this team win games."
The Eagles hope that Dean returns following Sunday's game against Los Angeles, and when he is back on the active roster, the expectation is that Dean will step back into his starting role as the signal-caller on defense. However that works out, the Eagles know this: They have adjusted on the fly at linebacker, they've won games, and they've built some depth for the remainder of the season.
All of this is very good news.
"That's the way it is around here," Morrow said. "Next man up. It's my turn and I'm making the most of my opportunity."
What a win! Relive the best moments as Photography Director Kiel Leggere and his team take you behind the scenes of a Week 4 overtime win.