All things considered, Stewart Bradley made it through the 2009 season far better emotionally than some young players who miss an entire season because of a devastating injury. He kept his mind in the game by breaking down film. He sat in on all the meetings. He provided a pair of eyes for a linebacking group in constant flux.
But in the end, Bradley didn't lose his mind. He didn't become basket case from one week to the next as the Eagles made their move to the playoffs. Instead, Bradley worked hard rehabbing the torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered in the Flight Night! injury at Lincoln Financial Field way back in early August and here he is now, on even ground with everyone else, aiming to be in the middle of the defense when the Eagles are next on the field at their post-draft mini-camp in early May (and oh, doesn't that seem like a long, long time away!).
"I'm feeling really good. I'm focusing on getting healthy and getting back on the field for mini-camps," said Bradley, who is now five months into his post-surgery recovery. "I'm going to be smart about it and move along at the right pace. I'd like to be out there for the mini-camps, but we will see how it goes. There is no sense rushing it. I feel great and it's coming along well and for me, the important thing is being ready for September.
"It was tough, but I didn't have any kind of depression about it. It was reality. I took a positive approach and it wasn't a severe injury as far as those kinds of injuries go. It was just one ligament. All of the moving parts were fine. The ligament is repaired and I'm making it stronger than ever. I'm going to be ready to roll."
Stewart's absence, of course, created a major void in the middle of new coordinator Sean McDermott's defense. The Eagles tried Joe Mays and Matt Wilhelm in training camp. They went with Omar Gaither early in the season. After he was injured, well, it became so much more difficult. Will Witherspoon, Akeem Jordan and Jeremiah Trotter rounded out the six-pack of players the Eagles used to try and replace Bradley and, frankly, none of them came close to what Bradley provides to the defense.
He is a rarity in this league. Bradley is 263 pounds and plays the run with force. He has the ability to run sideline to sideline and play in coverage. Bradley is excellent in the blitz game, too, calls the signals and is the brains on the field for McDermott.
The translator, if you will.
Bradley is one of the few linebackers who has been able to play in all three packages within this defense and in 2008, his first year as a starter and his second season in the league, he had at least gained some notice among national observers as a potential All-Pro player.
Then, as he chased down Reggie Brown in a non-contact drill on a beautiful summer night at Lincoln Financial Field, Bradley stepped wrong and his season was over. Just like that, he was done and the Eagles were dealt a crushing blow to the defense.
Bradley saw how the defense moved around so many parts throughout the year and he applauds the effort of his teammates and McDermott, who was thrust into the role when Jim Johnson took a leave of absence in the spring and then died as the Eagles practiced at training camp.
"It was a tough position to be in for everybody. We had injuries and guys were moving all over the place. Will came in and had to learn how we do things without, really, any practice time. Sean was great. He had a pretty impressive year shuffling guys around and keeping guys fresh and putting guys in different roles," said Bradley. "I also think Sean was really creative with his blitz package. He has come up with a lot of new ways to attack the quarterback and attack offense considering how many different ways Jim already had devised. We had all of those blitzes, plus all of these new creations, so it has been fun to watch."
Bradley is at the NovaCare Complex every day, in great spirits, making sure he eats right and stays patient and diligent in his rehab assignment. He isn't 100 percent yet, and when he says he wishes the NFL had a six-game disabled list rather than a season-long Injured Reserve designation, he is only part joking. No matter how good he looks and how well he moves, Bradley is still a ways away from being ready to play football at the highest level.
In time, though. Bradley is on the way back. Whether it is in May, or June or in August at Lehigh University, Bradley will return to his middle linebacker position and he will be counted on to resume the career path of a star middle linebacker.
Bradley sees the green of the field now after locking himself in the athletic training room for the last five months and working with his head down and his patience high.
"I'll be out there with the guys and I can't wait for that day," he said. "I missed it so much, you can't imagine. But I'm healthy and my body feels great, so when it is time, I'm going to be ready to help this football team."