Unity in faith, focus and protests driving Philadelphia Eagles' early rise in 2017

There aren't many successful NFL teams that, upon some locker-room prodding, wouldn't classify themselves as anything other than a family.

Franchises are largely steered, at least with their dollars, by one all-important position, but even amid an era influenced by free agency and rash with annual roster turnover, where else is the fraternal spirit so vigorously valued?

Case in point: The league's top two teams entering the 2017 season. Members of the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots have consistently taken less money than the market says they're worth simply to play with each other. And the runner-up Atlanta Falcons, with plenty to brag about, talk up their "Brotherhood" motto more than they do their MVP quarterback, their unparalleled wide receiver or their 3-1 start to the new year.

And yet, in Philadelphia, just 22 months after the city's own team replaced its head coach for the second time in four seasons, inviting upheaval and additional impatience from a fan base starved for title success, the word "family" rings louder than usual.

If the Philadelphia Eagles have been full of anything in 2017, it's unity.

A family affair

It started in the offseason.

At the helm of the staff entering the spring was Doug Pederson, a man who, before succeeding Chip Kelly in the shadow of ex-Eagles icon Andy Reid, had last been a head coach at Calvary Baptist Academy, a private 800-student K-12 school. Still, who came running to play for Pederson's bunch, a sub-.500 club in 2016, when the new league year kicked off? Only Alshon Jeffery, a former Pro Bowler and the consensus top wideout on the market; and LeGarrette Blount, the NFL's top rushing scorer on those title-winning Patriots.

NFL: New York Giants at Philadelphia Eagles
Blount, left, is but one of several high-profile veterans fitting in with Philadelphia. USATSI

In any other year, Jeffery and Blount, not to mention fellow Super Bowl champ Chris Long, may have been shrugged off as short-term gambles -- or, to use de facto Eagles general manager Howie Roseman's own term, "Band-Aids." But early in 2017, the new faces, joined by former Baltimore Ravens Tim Jernigan and Torrey Smith, look, act and talk a whole lot more like Eagles than mere poster men for a second rendition of Roseman's infamous "Dream Team" of the late Reid era.

Jeffery already considers Carson Wentz, a quarterback the Eagles will tell you is the surest face of the franchise they've had since Donovan McNabb, a "little brother" and is bent on helping the second-year passer reach MVP heights. Never one to hide his opinions over the course of a career in and out of other organizations, Blount has been adamant in his support of Pederson even after getting zero carries in a game. And Jernigan has ingratiated himself as an early pillar of a defense already littered with fan favorites in Brandon Graham, Fletcher Cox and Jordan Hicks, touting the opportunity to "rock those wings" in the process.

By all accounts, these guys want to be in Philadelphia. A popular counter to that notion might be that they want to be anywhere the money is. But tell that to Blount, who signed for a guaranteed $400,000 -- less than what even the fourth-string back on his old team, the Pats, is making in 2017. Tell that to Jeffery, who settled for a one-year deal with the intention of proving himself in and re-upping with Philly when, say, Pierre Garcon got $47.5 million in San Francisco.

And tell that to an Eagles team that continues to both figuratively and literally shower its coach in support (see: Week 1 Gatorade bath) after oddly timed speculation of in-house efforts to "usurp" Pederson. A team that, even with all its inconsistencies, sits atop the NFC East and looks every bit like the Dallas Cowboys challenger their summer suggested.

A divine calling

If Tim Tebow's stint with the Eagles had extended beyond a single preseason under Chip Kelly, the role of faith in Philadelphia's locker room might garner nationwide headlines. But an already-hefty contingent of players grounded in their Christian beliefs -- Wentz chief among them -- has expanded in 2017 to the point that it's virtually become linked to the team's core.

That's not to say any member of that contingent has directly credited the Eagles' success either in the win column or the locker room to the faith they value, nor is it to say Christian beliefs are the only thing motivating a diverse lineup.

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Carson Wentz poses in a promotional shot of his "Audience of One" Bible app series. YouVersion

But to deny that Wentz, what with his inescapable motto of playing for God, or an "Audience of One," has influenced the Eagles as much with his tantalizing talent in the pocket as his presence on the spiritual playing field would be to overlook perhaps the most common story of Philadelphia's coming together under Pederson.

Days before he was named the NFL Players Association's Community MVP for donating $120,000 to fund service dogs, a contribution through his mission to "demonstrate the love of God" via his own Audience of One foundation, Wentz came through on a promise to give his game check to teammate Jake Elliott, who lifted the Eagles over the New York Giants in Week 3 with a franchise-record 61-yard field goal. (The two agreed to support a charity of Elliott's choice with the money.) And all of that came just weeks after Wentz appeared in two separate devotional video series created for YouVersion's Bible app, the second of which featured fellow Eagles Nick Foles, Trey Burton, Zach Ertz and Chris Maragos.

Even on the surface, the movement of faith has been a whole lot more than a pregame prayer or a post-touchdown point to the heavens. And it's been building since Wentz's arrival, since right after the QB started unleashing his #AO1 slogan as a rookie.

The tales of impromptu locker-room baptisms have been widely shared, as have several players' decision to don Easter-themed shoes for the NFL's My Cleats, My Cause campaign in 2016. Practice huddles have been broken with shouts of "One-two-three, Je-sus!" And before spending some of his off time in the summer delivering guest sermons at church in hometown Bismarck, North Dakota, he hitched a flight with now-former Eagles receiver Jordan Matthews, another speaker in the Bible app series, to paint houses and play with underprivileged kids in Haiti.

"We had some nicer air-conditioned accommodations set up for them, [but] they politely refused and chose to sleep in the dormitory alongside their church group and about 100 other North Americans that came to serve," said Janeil Owen of Mission of Hope, the service organization with which Wentz partnered and has since, through the Audience of One foundation, given $500,000 for construction of a multipurpose sports and Christian leadership training complex in Haiti. "Carson is an incredible dude ... [He] understands the power of play and the pull that has on kids. We want to help develop that skill set but more importantly develop and disciple that young person in their journey." 

It's a message that's been translated into the Eagles facility, not only through Wentz but other players who have publicly declared themselves part of Philly's Gospel group -- Foles, Ertz, Burton, Hicks, Maragos, Smith and linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill among them.

Another part of the family.

A stand together

As with any family, adversity is inevitable, and no amount of offseason unity or off-field faith has kept the Eagles from encountering some early in 2017. Roseman and team owner Jeffrey Lurie were all smiles with fans when they dined at a downtown Kansas City barbecue spot the night before the Eagles' Week 2 showdown with Reid's Chiefs, endorsing "E-A-G-L-E-S, Eagles!" chants and muttering "Go Birds" before and after dinner.

But days earlier, Lurie and the organization found themselves in a political dispute of sorts, igniting some charged discourse as they shot down claims that they would not consider signing former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick solely because of his kneeling during pregame national anthems to protest social injustice.

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Malcolm Jenkins, center, has drawn support from both teammates and Lurie. USATSI

A week later, after President Donald Trump publicly called for NFL owners to "fire" players who protest for reform by kneeling during anthems, Lurie was prompted to join his players on the sideline for Week 3, literally linking arms with his team in one of many league-wide rebukes of the president's comments. Not everyone may have agreed with the Eagles' stance, even if not a single player took a knee as Kaepernick did in 2016 -- and as former Eagles cornerback Ron Brooks did during the preseason.

But everyone on the Eagles refused to be divided. Unlike dozens of teams who united in support of players' right to protest, though, their actions also followed weeks of additional standing together off the gridiron.

Pro Bowl safety Malcolm Jenkins, who appeared on CNN on Sept. 28 to explain why NFL players are protesting, had been raising his fist during anthems since 2016, not to "protest" America but to call "for racial equality and a much-needed reform to our criminal justice system." And his demonstration, endorsed verbally and with a literal hand of support from teammate Chris Long, coincided with meetings between Long, Smith, Lurie, fellow safety Rodney McLeod, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and local law enforcement to discuss potential policies and practices for justice reform.

In other words, the Eagles were acting together long before they assembled with linked arms and long before NFL headlines were littered more with reports of Trump's feud with football than, say, the team's rise to the top of the NFC East.

Maybe all of it equates to additional wins on the field, because, you know, that's what all of this comes down to. Maybe it doesn't. That's a question for another day -- or, more specifically, playoff time, which becomes more likely with wins like their 26-24 victory in Los Angeles in Week 4.

But if there's one thing, right now, you can't say the Eagles are not? It's a family.

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