With the position of playing wide receiver in the NFL comes a certain, shall we say, confidence. Confidence that no man on Earth is capable of denying the best of the best an opportunity to catch the football, turn up the field and make big plays happen and, truly, bring crowds to their feet.
Eagles’ wide receiver A.J. Brown has that, um, confidence. Well, maybe he’s taken it a step beyond, as he has an “Always Open” sign hanging in his locker, he wears the most attention-getting cleats he can muster up and if you ask him, he is, well, always open.
“I have a lot of respect for everyone who plays this game,” Brown is saying one day in mid-December as the Eagles dug their teeth into the stretch run of the 2023 regular season. “But I also have the belief that if I am out there, I’m open. That’s just me. I love the competition. I love the challenge. I know I’m going to get every defensive player’s best shot and I welcome that. That is what makes me the best player I can be.”
Brown is the best player he can be and, it so happens, one of the best players in the NFL and one of the best wide receivers the Eagles have ever had. In just two seasons, he has posted the kind of ridiculous numbers that place him among the franchise’s greatest: 88 receptions, 1,496 yards and 11 touchdowns teaming with one of his best friends, quarterback Jalen Hurts. In his first season in Philadelphia after the Eagles acquired him in a trade with Tennessee during the 2022 NFL Draft, Brown tore it up.
What would he do for an encore?
“I knew,” he said, “that the stakes had been raised and that’s how I prepared myself in the offseason,” Brown said after being named both an All-Pro and Pro Bowl receiver in ’22. “When I reported for this season, I was so excited, ready to go. I was thinking, ‘This is going to be a special year.’ That was my mindset.”
The power of the mind. Maybe that has something to do with what Brown has been this season. Or maybe it is the manifestation of all that work combined with incredible natural gifts that has helped Brown soar even higher, and as the Eagles make the turn for the 2023 postseason, it is Brown and fellow big-play wide receiver DeVonta Smith around whom the offense is built.
“We complement each other, play off each other’s skills,” said Smith, who in 2022 recorded 95 receptions, 1,196 yards and 7 touchdowns. “I think we bring out the best in each other, push each other.”
That has certainly been the case in this regular season. Brown set an NFL record with six straight games of 125-plus receiving yards and had seven 100-yard-plus games in the team’s first 12 outings (at this writing, prior to the Dallas game). Brown was the go-to receiver in the passing game as the Eagles started the season far ahead of the pack in the NFL, and as defenses rolled their coverages his way and tried to take him out of the offensive equation, Smith stepped up and filled the void with four touchdown catches and at least 99 receiving yards in four of five games from November into December.
“We know that we have two of the premier playmakers in the entire league, and we need to make sure they are a big part of our offense every week,” head coach Nick Sirianni said. “That’s not always easy to do because everybody wants the football. But they both understand that there are a lot of ways to help the team and they are willing to do whatever it takes.
“It isn’t always about catching the football. Everyone here recognizes all the little things they do to help this team win football games.”
In the 2023 NFL, “chunk” plays are often equal to a team’s ability to score big points. The bump-and-grind days of yesterday’s league just doesn’t cut it any longer: You wanna score points? You gotta throw the football and you need to make big plays.
Enter Brown. Enter Smith.
“I’m here to win football games. I’m here to win a championship,” Brown said. “We had our taste last year. Getting to the Super Bowl, man, that was a ride. But you walk away with winning the game and you want more. You want it all. We want it all. I want it all.”
The Eagles put themselves in playoff position through the first three months of the season with an uneven mix of timely defense, big-play offense and enough mental strength to erase weeks of halftime deficits. The constants were Brown, and then Smith and both Brown and Smith. And as the Eagles put the finishing touches on this regular season and point toward the playoffs, they know the passing game is going to have to come up big, bigger, biggest.
“I think they are both great players and they are difficult matchups for defenses, and I have total confidence in both of them,” quarterback Jalen Hurts said. “You know the great ones, and they’re great ones. They can do it all, in every way.”
What, then, is the personality of a football team that aims to take it one step further than a season ago? It may just be Brown leading the way, with Smith in lockstep. If the Eagles are to go where they want to go to finish out the regular season and then roar in the playoffs, they need to ride the talents of Brown and Smith, and Smith and Brown.
Defenses know the deal: Are you going to try to take out the brawl of Brown or erase the smooth of Smith. It is easier said than done.
“Shoot, we have so many weapons in this offense, and we need to put it all together and stay at that highest level,” Brown said. “I just know that if you give me a chance to catch the football, I’m going to find a way to come up with it. That’s just the way I think. We’re a team first, so the ball isn’t going to come my way all the time and that’s fine. I’ll do everything to win.
“We’re at the point in the season where we all have to step up our games. I can only control what I can control and that is me. I’m here to make plays, so let’s go.”
Photos: Philadelphia Eagles Kiel Leggere; Drew Hallowell