PHILADELPHIA >> With every way he would turn his 34-year-old, surgically repaired, NFL-tested, NFL-proven body Saturday, Haloti Ngata was more convinced he was in the right place.
Whenever he would look across the line in his first official full-pads Eagles practice, he would see Jason Peters, sweating, working, trying to cram one more Pro Bowl season into a career of plenty.
Whenever he would look at Carson Wentz or Nick Foles hand the ball to Darren Sproles, he would look one way, then the other. But every time Sproles would sprint free, and he would be doing that regularly, Ngata would look back to what once had been for them both.
Even as the Eagles defense would break for a small huddle, he would see Michael Bennett, and smile that, at last, they were on the same team.
Nostalgia? Some. Reality? Plenty.
“Like J.P. (Jason Peters) and (Darren) Sproles, we just didn’t to end our careers being on I.R.,” Ngata would stop and say afterward, his features looking every day of those 34 years, the sweat suggesting the desire of a rookie. “I just have that hunger still.”
The leading story, the theme, the issue that will define the Eagles this season and well beyond is the continuing development of Carson Wentz and his recovery from major knee trauma. But an underlying tale is one that continues to grow in significance. That is, while other franchises, including some on their own block, trust processes and other roster-building scams, the Eagles will be just as willing to trust proven if aged pros.
By this summer, Peters, 36, often injured but his ring finger finally meeting his professional dress code, might have been pushed into retirement. That was a Super Bowl the Eagles won with Halapoulivaati Vaitai filling in as he recovered from knee injuries of every “CL” designation. He didn’t have to return. But Peters did.
Sproles broke his arm and tore his knee on the same play, ending his last season early. But at 35, he’s not only back, but has been the one Eagle very early in camp most likely to elicit regular gasps of awe from the fans.
“It’s fun to see ‘43’ out there with the ball in his hands,” offensive coordinator Mike Groh said. “I know that. People on defense have to be conscious of where he is. He’s a weapon for us. He’s somebody that we haven’t seen in the huddle in a long time. So, every time he gets the ball in his hands, I know I get excited.”
Sproles has been to the Pro Bowl three times, Peters nine. When the Eagles needed a receiver, they signed Mike Wallace, 31, with Pro Bowl experience. Bennett? He’s 32, and three times has been to the Pro Bowl.
Then there is Ngata, as typical a recent Howie Roseman project as possible. Like last season, when they loaded up with accomplished veterans LeGarrette Blount, Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith, the Eagles had no particular urge to organize a youth movement. They even shooed away their first-round draft pick, trading it to Baltimore and moving down. Adding Ngata on a $3 million, one-year gamble virtually screamed “encore.”
Just last year, Ngata seemed through, missing the last 11 games of the Lions’ season with a ripped biceps. Entering his 13th NFL season, Ngata looks the part of a seasoned but determined veteran, a little older than most of his teammates, yet no less willing to go crashing into the backfield from his spot on the defensive line. And never mind that he and Bennett are a combined 64 years old, either. For Jim Schwartz, he of the aggressive defensive coordination, prefers the seasoning.
“Here is the first thing: Being around those guys in the meetings, being around those guys on the field with the energy they have, with the experience they bring, it never feels like they’re sort of older vets,” Schwartz said. “They’re excited about what we do. They’re excited about being here. That’s probably the first thing that strikes me about guys like that.
“But all the way across the board, the thing with those guys, and I’m trying to think of the best way to put this, is that when you’re talking about guys that are 10-year vets, they know what it takes to get their bodies through. They know what training camp is all about. They know what a regular season is all about.”
Bennett won a Super Bowl in Seattle, then tried to help the Seahawks win one the next year too. That alone makes him a nice fit in a room trying to run that same play.
“Everything that is happening here is something that I’m used to,” he said. “I am used to being in the playoffs. I am used to being in a top defense. So being here is kind of normal for me.”
The Eagles want the playoffs to be normal. If prancing to the Art Museum becomes normal, too, they wouldn’t mind that either. So no one around there was willing to wait for that to happen. Rather, they acted. Roseman did. And so did Ngata and Peters and Sproles, bouncing back from injuries, refusing to act their age.
“Camp is a grind,” Ngata said. “If you don’t like it, you probably shouldn’t be doing it. It’s good to bring the energy. And we have these younger guys, and they see it and understand that we’re all going through it.”
Some of them were old enough, and accomplished enough, and sore enough to not even try. Others wanted championships. Haloti Ngata was in the right place indeed.
Contact Jack McCaffery @email@example.com; follow him on Twitter @JackMcCaffery