Rich Hofmann: Eagles middle linebacker Bradley 'ready to rumble' after ACL tear

Eagles' defense will get a big boost if Stewart Bradley, arriving at Lehigh yesterday, returns to his pre-ACL-tear form.
Eagles' defense will get a big boost if Stewart Bradley, arriving at Lehigh yesterday, returns to his pre-ACL-tear form.
Posted: July 30, 2010

BETHLEHEM - Three hundred sixty-odd days ago, Stewart Bradley's was the torn ACL that sabotaged the Eagles' defense before it even got started, the knee injury that turned the toughest games of 2009 into ACHell.

In the aftermath, the quote from Cowboys tight end Jason Witten was the one that stood out. Here it is, repetition offered as context:

"That's huge," Witten said, last August. "Playing against that defense last year, he was really the one that made it go. He probably didn't get as much credit as he deserved. He was as good as any middle linebacker we played last year. I thought he was a really, really good player . . . He's a smart, physical player. It's a huge, huge loss for them. I hate it for him because he was a young player on the rise."

The Eagles never could replace him, not even with the revolving combo-platter of (in order) Omar Gaither for three games, Jeremiah Trotter for three, Will Witherspoon for two, Chris Gocong for one, Trotter for one more, Joe Mays for one, Trotter for two more, Akeem Jordan for one, Trotter for one more, and Jordan for one more.

Dizzy yet?

By about midseason, the Eagles couldn't even try to pretend to cover an opposing tight end with a linebacker. Witherspoon couldn't stop the run. Trotter couldn't cover the pass, the rest just mixed and matched and left the Eagles with a hole in their defensive heart.

Now Bradley is back. This is the single fact that nobody seems to want to recognize. ESPN has polled its experts and done a power-rating thing and determined that the Eagles have slipped from seventh in the NFL to 17th - almost entirely, apparently, because of the switch at quarterback from Donovan McNabb to Kevin Kolb.

But Kolb is going to be fine. The X-factor guy - the single-most important player for this team, this year - will be wearing No. 55. If he is close to the middle linebacker he was in 2008, a defense that was shredded in its biggest games last season becomes respectable again.

And for his part, Bradley said, "I feel good. I feel really good. I'm excited for this camp. I've been training really hard this offseason. I'm champing at the bit to get out there and get the pads on and get going. I'm ready to rumble."

He said there is no plan - not that he knows of, anyway - to give him extra rest or to baby the right knee during this training camp, which really begins today with the first full squad workout in the afternoon. Having suffered the same injury in college, Bradley said that the most important lesson he learned is to "trust the knee and know that it's fully healed, and trust your rehab."

That is his intention.

"I'm just looking forward to a little contact," Bradley said. "It's been a long time since I hit somebody. You don't realize how much you miss that until you can't do it."

The hours and days and weeks of rehab - much of it performed in tandem with tight end Cornelius Ingram, who "might get a little pop" during the reintroduction-to-contact phase - are now behind Bradley. Now the questions will receive answers on the field.

There are people who talk about ACL injuries and how they really take more than a year before the player is back to where he was. There are other people who talk about the ever-improving medical technology shrinking that window. There are still other people who say it depends upon the person, and who will stack up Bradley's rehab ethic against anyone's. And, well, we will see.

But if Bradley is Bradley again, or a reasonable facsimile, he is the kind of player who can make everyone around him better - tackles, linebackers and safeties. If Bradley is Bradley again, the sharpest rock in their shoe - that inability to cover opposing tight ends - finally will be gone.

Until then, though, the skeptics rule.

"We don't spend a lot of time trying to dissect the public opinion of us," Bradley said. "But I can see that there are definitely new faces, and there are some X-factors. But having practiced with the guys and seeing the guys run around, we're very confident as a group in what we can accomplish."

But it starts with him - and that's despite all of the attention on the other side of the ball.

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