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WHEN WEAKSIDE linebacker Ernie Sims walked through the door of the Eagles' facility on April 20, the day after the Lions traded him to Philadelphia as part of a three-way deal with the Broncos, he had no idea he would be greeted by his future next-door neighbor. Sims didn't know much about his new team, let alone the tousle-haired middle linebacker he'd be playing alongside. But there to welcome the 6-foot, 230-pound Sims was Stewart Bradley: a year older than Sims, at 26, not to mention four inches taller and nearly 30 pounds heavier. "Stew approached me, excited to have me play next to him," Sims recalls. Why? "Me and Stew," Sims soon learned, "understand that hitting is the main part of football. And we like that."
Evidently. Eagles camp in Bethlehem, Pa., proved notable this summer for many things: the dawn of the Kevin Kolb era at quarterback, the emergence of second-year LeSean McCoy as the team's all-purpose tailback and, not least, the recurring crashing sounds orchestrated by Bradley and Sims, soulmates operating at the heart of defensive coordinator Sean McDermott's 4--3 scheme. Bradley, Sims discovered, was the undisputed leader on the defense, a heartthrob among fans and one of the most talented players in the NFL, physically and mentally. Sims, Bradley found, was a hungry, quick and cold-blooded tackler—who also happened to need a new place to live. "So Ernie got an apartment right next to mine," Bradley says. They now share a locker wall, a block in Philadelphia (near South Street) and a taste for plastic-on-plastic violence that has teammates turning—and minding—their heads.
"I'm loving it," says strong safety Quintin Mikell. "We all know coming on the field that we're not going to be the biggest guys out there defensively. If we go 100 miles an hour, we might make a mistake, but at least somebody's going to get hit."
Just ask backup tailback Eldra Buckley. On one August morning he was nailed twice by Bradley during live practice, provoking playground-level oohs. Then, four days later, Sims jacked Buckley up on a would-be screen ... during a noncontact passing drill. Protests by offensive linemen and a whooping celebration by cornerback (and unflinching defensive partisan) Asante Samuel followed. "Ernie and I push each other," Bradley says. "If he gets a big hit, I'm looking for a big hit."
Last season, Philly's linebackers were known less for doling out pain than for suffering it. Not one of them started all 16 games. Notably, Bradley, who'd turned in a stellar season in 2008, missed the entire year after shredding his right ACL while entangled in a pile during Flight Night, the team's annual training camp open scrimmage. Then, nearly three months later, Bradley's replacement, Omar Gaither, was lost for the season with a Lisfranc sprain that required surgery. Attempts to replace him with a combo platter of five players, including former Philly linchpin Jeremiah Trotter, failed miserably. Amid all the disorder, opposing tight ends had their way over the middle. "Having Stew back," McDermott summarizes, "means a lot."
But none of it will mean much without the right arm of Kolb, upon whom coach Andy Reid has staked his offensive fortunes following the trading of Donovan McNabb to the Redskins. Kolb, 26, struggled at the start of camp but went on to find his groove, buoyed by a skill-position corps with as much youth and talent as any in the NFL. Speedy wideouts DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin are just 23 and 22, respectively; tight end Brent Celek, who exploded for 971 yards and eight touchdowns last year, is 25; and McCoy is 22. Then there are the Eagles' 13 draft picks from April. "God, we got a brand-new team," says defensive end Trent Cole. "I got about 60 percent of the guys' names down."
One particular lesson that 2010 camp drilled into this offense? "You've gotta be a different cat to play defense," backup tight end Cornelius Ingram says, laughing. "Especially linebacker. Especially here."
WITH 2009 STATS
COACH ANDY REID