Celek is one tough tight end

Posted: August 21, 2014

Whenever an offensive player sustains so forceful a hit during a football game that his helmet tumbles to the ground, there is often that subsequent half-second when everyone has the same thought: Oh, my Lord - his head came off.

Brent Celek took one of those hits Friday night. He caught a pass for a 22-yard gain against the New England Patriots, and safety Patrick Chung - whom the Eagles had released in March after one ignominious season - drilled him in the chest. Yet this was one of those rare occasions when no one watching the game either at Gillette Stadium or on TV had that silly-if-instinctive reaction.

For one thing, most viewers probably reacted by thinking, Oh, my Lord - Patrick Chung made a tackle. For another, Celek bounced up so quickly after Chung cracked him that there was no time to worry or wonder whether he'd been hurt at all.

"For some guys, they may have been down for a long time and had some players come visit them and get carted off," Eagles coach Chip Kelly said Tuesday. "I think he takes a lot of pride in his toughness, never wants to [lie] on the field."

Celek's toughness is a valuable component to the Eagles' offense for a host of reasons - some of which have to do with a few short-term issues that have to sort themselves out, some of which are intrinsic to Kelly's system and strategy.

In the here and now, there isn't a whole lot that's assured about the Eagles' skill-position players or their health. LeSean McCoy has a bruised big toe. Chris Polk, one of McCoy's backups, hasn't been out for more than three weeks with a hamstring problem. Injuries have hounded wide receivers Jeremy Maclin and Riley Cooper throughout training camp and the preseason, so much so that they and rookie Jordan Matthews - the team's projected starters - practiced together for the first time only Monday.

With all that relative uncertainty, the presence of Celek and Zack Ertz has to be at least a little heartening for Kelly and the Eagles. OK, at least we're all right at tight end. The two already were the ready-made answer to the question that has hovered over the Eagles since March: How will their offense flourish without DeSean Jackson? Easy. They will use a two-tight-end set more often - even lining up Ertz as a wideout from time to time - and present defenses with a conundrum. If an opponent assumes that the Eagles will run the ball out of this formation, Celek and Ertz are fast enough and precise enough in running their routes that they can get open downfield against most linebackers and safeties.

That's where Celek's toughness is particularly beneficial in that it's an underrated aspect in creating big plays. You think of "big plays" on offense and you think of speed and elusiveness and the kinds of qualities that Jackson brought. But Celek, about to begin his eighth NFL season, averaged a career-high 15.7 yards per reception last year, and that's no coincidence.

In Kelly's system, so many passing plays free receivers in the area of the field between the hash marks, where more men with bad intentions lurk, that a player like Celek takes on greater importance and can deliver greater production.

"It's always been that question: Are you man enough to go over the middle?" Eagles tight ends coach Ted Williams said. "I think that's always been a mentality. There are certain guys who say they want to, but in essence, when it comes down to it, they're not willing to do that. You have to not only be willing to do it - you have to do it. You just can't say, 'I'm going to go over the middle and catch the ball.' And this offense has a lot of that built into it, where you're reading the middle of the field. You're not trying to get hit, but it's always a possibility that you will.

"Mental toughness is really hard to teach, but by the same token, the players teach each other that. You see Brent do it and you have to say, 'I can do it.' Having a good leader like Brent Celek, with good work ethic and physical strength and prowess, sets a very high standard. Everybody in that room is looking at him, and if he sets a high enough standard, the whole group will do it that way."

It's why that single play Friday night in Foxborough, Mass., during a preseason game, is so revealing and so important for the Eagles. It may have looked like Brent Celek lost his head, but he never lost the ball. The Eagles will need that sort of strength from him, now and for months to come.

mikesielski@phillynews.com

@MikeSielski

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