By Tristan Tucker
PHOENIX — Following an ACL tear, NFL defensive ends on average put up two sacks in a given year, according to a 2017 study. Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Brandon Graham had 11 after his tear, a career high for the 34-year-old in his 13th season.
Although Seattle Seahawks quarterback Geno Smith was named AP Comeback Player of the Year, there’s little doubt Graham deserved equal consideration. Graham, a member of the Eagles’ 2018 Super Bowl-winning squad, suffered his ACL tear in Week 3 of the 2021 season but returned this season to elevate Philadelphia’s dominant pass rush.
“You have to decide in those moments what you’re going to do,” Graham said. “Who are you going to be? How do you want to come back from this? And when it gets hard, who are you going to show up? Are you going to tuck your tail, or are you going to stand tall? And so I chose to stand tall and have fun during the hard times.”
According to Graham, faith and family blazed the path for a smooth comeback. Graham also credited the Eagles’ training staff, physicians and his teammates for augmenting his mindset and body during the road to recovery.
“(My family) took care of me during that time,” Graham said. “My wife took care of me and my kids at the same time when I couldn’t walk or do anything, and so I’ve got to give a big thanks to her.”
The Eagles drafted Graham with the 13th overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft, making him the longest-tenured Eagle. Though Graham was effective out of the gate, he wasn’t named a Pro Bowler until the 2020 season. Possessing the ability to play all across the defensive line, Graham’s versatility was recognized across the league, but he could never cross the double-digit sack threshold.
Graham went on to cement his name in the Philadelphia history books with a picturesque strip sack of Tom Brady in Super Bowl LII, allowing fellow end Derek Barnett to scoop the ball and seal the Eagles’ first Super Bowl victory in franchise history.
That season saw Graham set his single-season sack record with 9.5, just 0.5 away from having his first double-digit sack season. Graham’s production fell off in the subsequent season before he picked himself up and elevated his play in 2019 and 2020. Even still, it seemed like time was running against Graham. And then the then-33-year-old tore his ACL.
ACL tears are commonplace in the NFL. But according to a 2022 study, athletes who suffer ACL tears are usually younger, with the average age being 25.7.
Of the 379 studied players, the median years of experience was three, the mean weight was 238 pounds and the average number of career snaps was 2,049. Graham had 12 years of experience, was 265 pounds and had taken 5,868 snaps at the time of injury. Against all odds, Graham came back for his age-34 season.
The Eagles defense wouldn’t be the same without Graham. Not only has Graham’s 11-sack season helped Philadelphia achieve a total of 70 sacks on the year, the third-highest mark all time, but he has served as a steadying presence for newer and younger faces on the edge.
“It’s tremendous,” teammate Haason Reddick said. “Having guys like that that have been on this stage because this is, for football, this is the biggest stage in the world, so you just want to make sure that everything that you do here goes right, and it’s always good to be able to lean on your veterans who have been here before.”
One season removed from tearing his ACL, Graham isn’t showing any signs of slowing down.
“I’m making sure I don’t lose sight of what I’ve done to get to this point and making sure we keep putting that work in until the job is done,” Graham said. “I think we’ve done a good job so far.”
Tristan Tucker is a sports media graduate student at Medill. You can connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn.