Without muzzle, Kendricks blossoming for Eagles

Without muzzle, Kendricks blossoming for Eagles

Eagle Eye: Eagles-Packers Predictions

November 9, 2013, 9:00 am
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According to stats from team coaches, Mychal Kendricks has 38 tackles in the last three games, including 12 last Sunday against the Raiders. (USA Today Images)

Mychal Kendricks used to be that guy. The guy imploring teammates to play harder, the guy wearing his emotions on his sleeve, the guy dreaming of an NFL career and wondering why others weren’t.

He was that guy in high school and in college, and in those stomach-knotting moments as the national anthem was belted out just minutes before his first NFL preseason game.

“Patriots. The first game,” Kendricks recalled. “I’m juiced. I was excited as hell. And it’s the preseason. I’m hyped up. I’m yelling at these vets, who have already been here. And it’s preseason.”

Then, suddenly, Kendricks wasn’t that guy. Before he took the field against the Patriots that night, the message had come down from cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie: Hey, rookie. Shut your mouth.

“[Rodgers-Cromartie says] ‘Man, c’mon, shut the [expletive] up, it’s preseason.' ” Kendricks said. “I’m like, ‘[Expletive], I didn’t even think of it like that. It’s an emotional game for me. They’re playing the national anthem. I’m looking at that shield like, “Man, I’m in the NFL.’

“[Rodgers-Cromartie] was like, ‘Yo, calm down. Chill out, bro. It’s preseason. You still gotta make the team.’ I’m like, ‘[Expletive], you’re right.’ After that, I never said nothing the whole year. I didn’t say [expletive].”

The concept of rookies trying to assimilate in a new environment among a variety of individuals and personalities is the league’s hot-button issue at the moment, given the controversy swirling these days around the Miami Dolphins’ locker room.

But Kendricks’ story is also very telling about the Eagles’ locker room last year, and some of the inner turmoil that manifested in the team’s 4-12 record.

That Kendricks felt muzzled by -- of all people -- one of the most underperforming marquee acquisitions of the Andy Reid era goes a long way in explaining why the Eagles at times last year seemed immune to the pain of persistent losing.

This season, veteran linebacker DeMeco Ryans, who emerged last season as one of the team’s few genuine leaders, encouraged Kendricks to release the animal that Rodgers-Cromartie had caged.

“I just told him, ‘Be yourself. Everybody is gonna feed off the energy you bring,’” Ryans said. “That’s the thing. You can’t let anybody control how you play this game. How you played in high school and college, you have to keep the same fire and enthusiasm. You talk the talk if that’s what gets you going.”

This year, Kendricks hasn’t just talked. He’s backed up his words with action. Each week he looks more like the lightning-quick spark plug that convinced the Eagles to use a high second-round pick on him last year.

At 5-foot-10, the former Cal linebacker and Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year is using his speed -- clocked a 4.47 in his 40 -- and the experience gained from playing alongside Ryans to maneuver around fullbacks and offensive linemen to wrap up ball carriers.

In his past three games, Kendricks has 38 tackles, according to stats compiled by Eagles coaches. He piled up 12 last Sunday against the Raiders, while spending much of the afternoon spying dynamic quarterback Terrelle Pryor.

The week before, against the Giants, he racked up 17, his most this season.

“I’m not anywhere near where I want to be,” he said. “I want to be one of the best. If you’re not trying to be the best, then I don’t know why you do what you’re doing.”

Ryans, who usually isn’t big on hyperbole, admitted that he sees some of himself in his intern.

“Just his instincts, knowing where the ball is going, what’s going to happen, being able to make unbelievable plays,” Ryans said. “You’re like, “Man, how did you slip through the backfield and make the tackle?’ It’s special to watch.”

To his credit, Kendricks didn’t let last season’s losing culture rub off on his ambition. The coaches miscast him on the strong side, matching him up against taller tight ends and playing behind a defensive line scheme that invited offensive linemen into the second level. It made for some difficult moments.

“[Expletive] getting hard, [opponents] in our face and we’re losing. What are you gonna do?” he said. “You going to sit and fold like a napkin or you gonna stand up and rise to the occasion and own up?

“That’s how I’ve been. That’s how I am. That’s probably a big reason as to why I’m here right now. If I was the type of guy to fold in certain situations and any type of adversity, I wouldn’t be here because there’s stuff that’s happened to me -- not even dealing with football -- there’s stuff that I’ve been through that’s way worse.”

This year, Kendricks speaks his mind. He’s rah-rah again. He tells his defensive linemen to go 100 miles per hour, even if they screw up.

“Power of one, man,” he said. “And when they don’t get it down, [expletive] it. Blow his ass up. Kill the man in front of you and everything will take care of itself. That’s what I say.”

And he’s free to keep saying it.

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