If the 2013 Eagles were a lesson in perseverance, a story about the unexpected rise to a division title of a team dismissed by pundits, entrenched in quarterback controversy and mired with a flawed defense, then its poster child is safety Nate Allen.
You don’t often see the zig-zagging trajectory of an NFL player’s career path the way Allen’s has.
He’s been a high draft pick, a rookie starter and the league’s top rookie in his first professional month. He’s also been surgically repaired, benched and sauteed by media and fans. The Eagles have tried to replace him more times than he can count, with draft picks, free agents and street signings.
But as he enters his fifth season as the starting safety, a job he’s held at this time every year except one, the soft-spoken Allen acknowledged he’s become the rare example of an NFL survivor.
“Yeah. I don't let anything rattle me, man,” he said. “I can beat myself up and let everybody else beat me up, but yeah, I just know what I'm trying to accomplish and I just come to work every day and the Lord has a plan for me.”
Allen and Malcolm Jenkins will man the back end of the Eagles’ secondary when the season opens Sunday at the Linc against the Jaguars. The first official practice of the regular season kicks off Tuesday afternoon.
One reason for optimism about the Eagles’ defense is the continuity from last year to this year. Ten of 11 starters return from last year’s unit that switched from a longtime 4-3 front to a 3-4 scheme under new coach Chip Kelly and coordinator Billy Davis.
Jenkins is the lone newcomer to the starting lineup, and his ability to play multiple roles and move around is another reason to believe the Eagles are better equipped to match up against some of the league’s better passing offenses.
Allen, a 2010 second-round pick, coaxed his career up out of the gutter last year and started all 16 games for the first time in his career. He put forth his steadiest season and resolved the tackling deficiencies that plagued him in 2011 and 2012.
Although he signed a one-year deal in the offseason to come back and compete with Earl Wolff for the starting job, Allen went into camp with the upper hand and never let his guard down.
He started the first three preseason games alongside Jenkins and rested for the finale, the surest sign he’d again won the job.
“I think we've seen Nate grow because his understanding is now letting him calm his mind to slow down, and he's seeing more because he understands his landmarks,” Davis said. “He understands where his eyes need to be placed. He understands the two‑gap system of not having a safety be a primary run defender. All those things are growing, and you see Nate play better and better.”
It’s a testament to his resiliency that Allen even positioned himself to start last year and come back on a one-year deal. If the Eagles hadn’t failed miserably in trying to replace him, over and over again, Allen very well might have been out of the NFL by now.
First it was Kurt Coleman, then Jarrad Page, then Jaiquawn Jarrett, then Patrick Chung, then Wolff. One after another, Allen outlasted them all. This year’s camp might have been the first since his rookie season that Allen really wasn’t contested.
“But it doesn't really matter,” Allen said. “Everybody is getting ready for Jacksonville. And like we always say, everybody is always just one play away from starting. So starter, non-starter, we’ve all got to get ready.”
More than likely, it’s that kind of mentality that enabled Allen to prevail year after year. It’s fairly hard for this city’s athletes, especially the ones who don’t perform to standards, to mute out the venom and the vitriol directed at them from fans and media.
Before he was the poster child for perseverance, Allen was the target of rampant criticism when the Eagles had lost their way on defense in 2011 and 2012, the two-year decline that cost Andy Reid his job.
Allen took the criticism in stride, never lost his temper, never pointed fingers and didn’t hide from reporters.
“You have to have a short memory,” he said. “You just can't listen to things. I don't read anything. I don't read what the media is saying. That'll beat you up for sure. The fans, I don't even mess with it.”
Now that he’s turned his career around, Allen has the chance to keep trending upward, to finally fulfill the potential that came with being one of the most scrutinized second-round picks in team history.
The Eagles drafted Allen with the pick they acquired from the Redskins on Easter 2010, the night they dealt away Donovan McNabb.
Allen’s career started so promising. He picked off passes in each of his first three games and won Rookie of the Month for September. But in December, he tore his right patella tendon and underwent season-ending surgery.
He steadily regressed for the next two years and would have been cut if any of the safeties brought in to replace him had actually done their jobs.
It seems as if Allen is finally close to being the player he’s always wanted to be, but he won’t allow himself one second of self-indulgence.
"I don't think I’ll ever,” he said. “Like I say all the time, once you think you're that player you want to be and you've peaked, then that's when the bottom is going to fall out, especially at this level.
“You’ve always got to be getting better, even if it’s just a little bit every day, because there’s always younger guys coming in, faster guys coming in. You always have to be getting better. You can’t ever just settle and feel like you’re comfortable where you’re at, like you’ve made it.”
Nobody will ever accuse Allen of settling.