"It was more of a ‘handshake and I’m 52 now,’ " Rolle said after Monday’s OTA session, when a reporter asked what he got from Ryans for giving up his number. "It is what it is. I guess that’s how they look at it. I’m still gonna come out and play hard, regardless of what number I’m wearing."
Rolle is still the Birds’ starting weakside linebacker, the only returning incumbent. He lines up now next to Ryans and second-round rookie Mychal Kendricks. All in all, Rolle has done well for a sixth-round 2011 draftee whom nobody projected as an NFL starter; not only is he small, even by Eagles linebacking standards, he lacks elite speed. His future might be as a situational player and special teams ace, but it’s clear the coaches see something in this stubborn, stubby little linebacker.
Reporters recently got a rare chance to speak with Eagles linebackers coach Mike Caldwell, and Rolle was among the topics that came up.
"Did he do everything perfect last year? No. But he understands that, and he’s working day-to-day to get better at what he’s doing," Caldwell said.
Caldwell played for six NFL teams, including the Eagles, in an 11-year NFL career. Did he ever play with a linebacker Rolle’s size?
"That size? Probably not, probably not," Caldwell conceded. "I don’t think he’s the smallest [in the NFL] — I think there’s a couple around the league that might be a little bit smaller than him — but what he does have, he has a knack and a strength and a leverage that is hard to teach, and he uses it. The thing about it is, he’s been [undersized] his whole life. For him to get to this point, he’s had to make some adjustments and understand what he needs to be able to do to play at that size."
"I haven’t been tall my whole life," confirmed Rolle, who nonetheless was All-Big Ten as a senior. "But football, I tell people, I just get it. I don’t know how. I think I was just born with it. When we sit in meetings and they tell me the coverage, they tell me the defense, I rarely have to look at it twice. On the field, I see something, I know how to go get it. Some guys ask questions about stuff, but it seems kind of simple to me."
Maybe this knack is genetic. Rolle is distantly related to the other NFL Rolles – Antrel, of the Giants, former Raven Samari, and Myron, now with the Steelers, the only Rolle who Brian says he contacts regularly. Brian says he didn’t know much about the Rolles until he read a 2007 Sports Illustrated story about the clan, its athletic accomplishments, and its origins in the Bahamas.
"I never knew we were family; I knew we had the same last name," said Brian, who was described in the story as Ohio State’s fiercest hitter, as a freshman.
Rolle said he is excited about playing with Ryans and Kendricks, and about improving on his rookie year.
"I feel like we’re going to make a lot more plays, we’re going to contribute more to the team," Rolle said. "We’re going to be a better-tackling group than we were last year, and bring the athleticism in with Kendricks."
Missed tackles were an issue for the Eagles in general and Rolle in particular.
"In our defense, we’re taught to pursue fast and take shots, so of course, your missed tackle rate is gonna be high," Rolle said. "At the same time, when you have the opportunity one-on-one, you’ve got to try to make a play."
Rolle and some other newcomers to the team got into occasional Twitter spats with caustic Eagles fans not thrilled with last year’s 8-8 letdown after intense buildup. Rolle’s most memorable tangle came during this year’s combine. He was watching the linebackers bench press on TV, and Rolle, who’d managed an impressive 28 reps himself a year earler, tweeted "These LBs weak."
Some fans treated this as more than an offhand observation, questioning how any Eagles linebacker could criticize others’ performances, and so on, and on, and on. Rolle ended up talking with a fan who’d branded him immature in a piece on Yahoo.com, Rolle trying to explain his perspective. The fan, Vincent E. Heck, Jr., then wrote another post giving Rolle props for reaching out.
"It’s still funny to me, just for the simple fact that people look at us and think we can’t be fans," Rolle said. "If a regular guy had said it, it’d be nothing, but I’m just as much a fan of the game as anybody else, a fan of the young guys that just came out in the draft. I feel like, because we give our opinion, people shouldn’t look at it like we’re looking down on [the combine invitees]. I was just saying in one area, the bench press [they were lacking]. Overall, I thought that was one of the most impressive linebacking groups I’ve seen at the combine ... I didn’t mean any harm by it, didn’t mean to talk down on those guys, I was just speaking my mind as a fan. I shoulda thought about it a little more. We can’t be fans on Twitter."
Rolle said he thinks he has a better fix on Philadelphia now.
"These fans are like none other," Rolle said. "Being booed at home here, I’m looking up in the crowd and I couldn’t believe it. At Ohio State, I lost six games in college, but the ones we lost at home, you still get a cheer from the crowd, you still sing the alma mater. Here, you get booed, people talk down on you. But I understand that they expect nothing but the best. We’re going to try and give them that."
DeSean Jackson is missing this week of optional OTAs because of a family issue. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie missed Monday’s session because his flight back into Philadelphia was delayed by weather, an Eagles spokesman said … In a reversal of recent practice, the Eagles will do their padless walkthrough in the mornings at Lehigh this year, the real practice in the afternoon. Might complicate the commute for fans. n
Contact Les Bowen at Bowenl@phillynews.com; read the Daily News Eagles blog, Eagletarian, at www.Eagletarian.com; follow him on Twitter @LesBowen.