Q&A: Rodney McLeod knows 'a banner... a ring' is still the bar in Philly

The last four years have been crazy for both him and the Eagles but now that the dust has settled? There's hope again. McLeod's presence is exactly what this team needs, too.

It’s been easy for most everyone to mock these Philadelphia Eagles.

From their head coach inserting Nate Sudfeld into a Week 17 game to apparently tank to that coach getting fired to yet another roster cleanse, the fall of the Eagles has been quite mind-blowing. A short four years ago, they slayed Tom Brady and the New England Patriots to win a Super Bowl.

Just about everyone with a pulse outside of Philly expected the Eagles to be bad in 2021.

Then, lo and behold, they walloped the Atlanta Falcons in their season opener, 32-6.

Which begs the question: Are these Eagles… good?

The week leading up to that surprising shellacking, Go Long chatted with one of the Eagles’ captains for an hour: Rodney McLeod. The 10-year veteran safety didn’t sugarcoat expectations, either. He fully believed this team we all view as the pits of the NFC East was viewed much differently internally. The Super Bowl, he maintained, was still a real goal.

And in our conversation, you can see why he’s so qualified to shoot such expectations into the atmosphere.

His perspective is exactly what this young roster needs. You won’t find many career arcs like this.

Originally undrafted out of Virginia in 2012, McLeod spent four seasons with the St. Louis Rams, inked a big deal with the Eagles in 2016 and helped that ‘17 team win it all. Three games into ‘18, he tore both his ACL and MCL. He helped the Eagles claw their way into the playoffs in ‘19 and then, as that maddening 2020 season grinded to the finish, McLeod tore the ACL in his opposite knee.

He cried. He wasn’t sure what the future held. He’d need to rehab all over again.

In our latest Q&A, McLeod takes readers inside his brain through his decision to press on and be the voice this new-look Eagles team needs. (He really, really likes Jalen Hurts and DeVonta Smith, too.)

Coaches rested the safety in that opener to give his knee more time, but we’ll see him soon.

He knows Year 10 could be special.

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You came in as an undrafted guy. You’re not supposed to last until this point. You’re not supposed to win a Super Bowl. How have you lasted this long and become a champion?

McLeod: I think it’s just a credit to my consistency. I tell that to a lot of young guys who come into the league who ask me, “How have you lasted this long?” I just say “consistency.” That’s not only on the field. That’s consistency in my everyday approach when I enter the building, from my regiment to recovery to my film and prep work. And then, of course, on the field is the most important thing. If you’re not consistent there, you won’t be around for a long time. So I really just try to be a consistent player day-in and day-out.

When you put on the tape, it’s Rod doing the same thing every single practice. But that’s what it takes to stick around, to win a championship, to be labeled as one of the best. That’s what it is. I’m obsessed with the grind and I feel like everything is important. You need to be fully committed. So I’ve always been that guy and it’s allowed me to be here for 10 years.

I’m looking forward to getting another banner, man, this year.

But what does ‘consistency’ mean to you? It’s one of those things you hear a lot. Everybody’s trying to be the same dude day-in and day-out. But what does it really look like?

McLeod: Honestly, it’s boring. It’s you being so detail-oriented. I think you also have to have a great level of focus. You have to hold yourself to the highest standard and be your biggest critic in order to get to that level. And I think you always have to find ways to sharpen your tools. Know your weaknesses. Make them your strengths. There’s always room for improvement. As the game evolves, “What can I take from this guy? What can I take from that guy?” And then I apply it to my game. I feel like I heard LeBron mention that during The Shop in one of his episodes this year. He talked about the game evolving and adding new moves to his game or adding the 3-point shot to his game. That’s something he didn’t do at first but that’s what the game evolved to.

How has this game evolved over this last decade and what are your new “moves” you’ve added?

McLeod: Maybe it’s not necessarily something I added from a technique-standpoint. But maybe it’s the way I have to prep in my self-study. Maybe there are things teams are doing now that they weren’t doing much before. I think about corners and their press technique and the way these receivers now beat press technique vs. a defensive back. It’s like basketball in a sense. You look at their offseason drills and how they prepare, and then you ask, “How do I stop this? I have to make sure my ankles are good and stay square longer.”

You’ve lived the highest of highs. You’ve been through some lows. Just there in Philly, alone. First, to win a Super Bowl the way you guys did, what make that team special?

McLeod: We play this game to win a championship and some of the greatest players to ever put on a helmet haven’t been there. And I was fortunate enough to be on a team that brought the city of Philadelphia its first. I think for us that year, we endured a lot. A lot of adversity was put in front of us. Losing some of our leaders and some of our most impactful players. Carson Wentz being one. Having an MVP season. Jason Peters, another experienced veteran, we lost on the offensive line. Darren Sproles, a Hall of Fame returner. A great back. The list goes on. We took our hits. We took some to the chin. But we just kept going. I think believing in one another — we lived on that mentality that not one guy was responsible for us winning. It was truly a team effort. It was a band of brothers, man.

We just said, “No matter who was behind center, no matter who was blocking for the quarterback, we’re going to get it done.” The coaches prepared those guys for those moments. Nick Foles, man, was a diamond in the rough that year. He came onto the scene and just did what he was asked to do. And everybody else supported him and had the utmost confidence in him. When you feel that level of support, of belief, of confidence from others, it makes you play even better. I would say all of those things played a part in us winning. We treated that Super Bowl like the next game and didn’t make it any bigger than what it was.

Because the belief was there. No matter what. And we faced a lot. We faced games where we were up by 20 and we faced games where we were down by 20 and had to battle back. We were prepared for it all. It only made us stronger.

Virtually every team that wins a Super Bowl these days has a Hall of Fame quarterback. You guys were the quintessential “team” that rallied around this underdog theme. And you took down the greatest quarterback and greatest coach ever. What was really inside of that group?

McLeod: That… that… grit. That underdog, Philly, blue-collar mentality. We have to win that game. We were different that year and fed off of that and really embodied it and loved it. We just wanted to prove people wrong. On the highest stage vs. Brady and Belichick together — one of the best duos ever — we did it in a hard-fought game. It wasn’t easy. But we earned every ounce of it.

Since then, so much has changed. You’d obviously take the Super Bowl win with any madness that comes after. But how crazy has it been the last three years to see coaches in and out. Star players out. You’ve survived through it all. How do you weather all these storms?

Yeah, it has been a storm every single year. A different one. The year after we won a Super Bowl, that’s when it started for me. I go down Week 3 with the ACL injury and I’m done for the season. Then, shortly after, two other starters — Jalen Mills and Ronald Darby — go down with season-ending injuries. Now, our whole secondary is dismantled. Just like that. We’re coming back with one starter from that Super Bowl: Malcolm Jenkins. So how can a team withstand that? Again, we found a way to push through, make it to the playoffs and, honestly, we’re a catch away from going to the NFC Championship.

Then, the following year, we lose our entire receiving corps. Ninety percent of that season, we’re playing with guys coming in a week before the game. We still carry this “next man up” mindset that we’re going to get it done. We’re not going to complain. Boom, we made it to the playoffs. We didn’t make it to where we wanted but we found a way again.

And then last year, man, was probably the worst its been. There were injuries. There was… it just didn’t feel good. We won four games. That’s not us. No excuses. We couldn’t find a way to win some of those close games. It’s hard to step into a leadership role with Covid. There was a lot going on. I’m glad to still be standing and still be a part of this team. I’m looking forward to this new year.

So in ’18, what happened to your knee?

McLeod: I had an ACL and a MCL tear in ’18. And then last year was the ACL on the opposite leg.

Mentally, that has to be as demoralizing as it gets. It happens. Then, it happens again. How did you mentally blast through that?

McLeod: Yeah, I wouldn’t say I “blasted” through that. It teaches you a lot about yourself. You find out a lot about who you are during those dark moments. It hit hard. I go from winning the Super Bowl to trying to come back to repeat — and I think we had that ability to do that as a team. And I go down. And I hadn’t been injured in my first seven years of playing, which is unheard of. I go down with this devastating injury, one that back in the day would end a football player’s career. But it turns out, things have evolved.

I couldn’t let this injury get in my way. That was my mindset the first time around. I wanted to come back and prove I was that player I left off at.

And then, last year, I felt like I let my teammates down. I couldn’t complete the season. I get hurt with three games left when we’re making a push for the playoffs. There’s now a side of me that now questions the rest of my career because of when I got hurt. I’m going into Year 10. Am I going to be the same? Am I going to be able to recover the same? Now, those doubts and those voices really start creeping in. Do I have enough grit and determination in me to really take on this road to recovery, this 10-month journey. Do I have it in me? I was down. It really took a lot of people around me to bring me back. I was on low battery on the iPhone. I needed charged.

I was reminded of my character and who I am and that I’m doing this for more than myself. You owe it to everybody to go back out there and show ‘em that things are going to happen and challenges are going to occur in your life. Obstacles are going to be at your door, no matter what you do. It doesn’t have to be sports-related. It’s all about how you approach it, the attitude you have that will ultimately get you through.

What’s it like being that iPhone?

McLeod: I was that iPhone on the low battery and needed somebody to charge me up. Everybody got me back to 100 percent before I went into surgery and before I started that climb on the comeback.

You’re such a voice and a leader from that Super Bowl team that can all apply today. This is such a different team than it was in ’17. You’ve seen the changes all around. What kind of presence can you have for a younger team?

McLeod: Yeah, and I’m not alone when it comes to being a leader on the team. There’s always more than one leader. But I want to be the example. I’ve always been like that. Every stage of my career, I’ve been a “lead by example” type of guy. Vocal when needed of course. But I can just show the way and speak on my experiences — that helps these younger guys. “How do you watch film, Rod? What are you looking for?” Teaching them the ways and how to end up with a 10-year career. All of it will pay off. It’s taking that time after practice, for 20 minutes, to work on some technique that maybe a player’s lacking. The film room. To even, what do you do to recover and get your body back? All those things are important, man, when we’re talking about winning and how to have a long career in this league and be that consistent player.

But you still have to get through those tougher moments. I can’t imagine, at the end of last season, you guys were in every headline with Doug (Pederson) and the coaches, I guess, not wanting to win that last game? As a player, is that frustrating to figure out, “What are we trying to do here?”

McLeod: Yeah, I think every player — when they strap on the helmet — we go out with the intent to win. The way that we practiced that entire week was to win the game. It’s always frustrating when you now hear how maybe our goal as an organization was not to win. Or whatever strategy we had. Everybody’s understanding was we were going out to win that game. That’s the approach everybody takes whether it’s Week 17 and it has some sort of implications for our draft pick or it’s a preseason game as a player, you go out there to win.

That’s all behind us. Nobody’s thinking about that. It’s a new year. It’s a fresh staff. A new energy in the building. New faces, great additions. We’re looking forward to getting back to that level that we know we can play at — what the city expects from us and what we expect from ourselves. We know what the standard is.

You absolutely want to win those games but you did get a pretty good receiver out of it, too. You’re facing DeVonta Smith — the Heisman Trophy winner — every day in practice. How good is he?

McLeod: We got a guy who comes to work. He doesn’t say much. He just works. I see a competitive guy at heart. He doesn’t say much but he wants that ball in his hands. He wants to go against a guy like (Darius) Slay, one of the best at his craft. Very skilled, man. Everybody knows his speed is there. But he has some real nice releases off the line. A lot of people questioned his stature, being a smaller guy — He can’t do this or do that. Can he withstand the hits? And you saw immediately in the preseason game where he got in and played, he took a pass right into the middle of the defense and didn’t think about going down. He was willing to absorb the hit and take more. He showed, “I’m putting it on the line for you guys. That’s what I’m here to do. That’s what I’m about.” I’m excited for the young fella this year. His rookie year will be a grind. He’ll have some wins. He’ll have some losses. But I know his character. He’s always looking to get better.

So that size stuff doesn’t matter?

McLeod: It don’t matter. He just sees green, man. He’s just trying to go. He’s just trying to win.

What about Jalen Hurts? We got a taste of him at quarterback last season. What kind of quarterback is he and what kind of faith do you have in him? He’s a player I feel like we all only know a little bit about right now.

McLeod: Jalen is another guy who has a story behind him. A guy who faced adversity and found a way to persevere in his short career. Especially in college but even last year. People really resonate with his character, his approach, his attitude. That’s why we elected him as a captain. Because he has shown us his commitment to this team. He has shown us his ability to lead. His competitive spirit — day-in and day-out — that’s him. Putting in the work? That’s Jalen. Whether that’s on the field during practice or getting guys together after practice to work on timing or whether it’s conditioning, he’s there on the front lines. And that’s what you want to see from your quarterback and that’s why guys are just rallying behind him and will do whatever is asked for him.

We go as he goes. I’m excited for him to go into this 2021 season as a starter, as a captain to lead our team.

Back to you, are there any other trials, any tribulations as a player or as a person that made you?

McLeod: I think with everything I experienced, I just find a way to get stronger. I gain something from everything I thought I lost. I gained the mental toughness. I gained the ability to withstand and know what it feels like to be at the lowest and how to persevere and rise to the occasion when your back’s against the wall and people are doubting you. All of it makes me who I am. I feel like the underdog. Being undrafted and lasting 10 years in the league, someone will say, “How?” I wasn’t a five-star recruit coming out of high school. Three star. I went to the University of Virginia. I had injuries there that affected my placement in not getting drafted. But I just kept going.

For me, that’s it. It’s the story of the underdog.

With the injuries, were there times when it really could’ve been a rock bottom? When you really could’ve crumbled in that moment? What was the worst that you had to work through?

McLeod: I would say, this time around, recently. I never really had the same emotions I had before up to this point of this last injury. My career flashed in front of me. Whether or not I was the same at this age and at this time. Did I have it in me to go through another 10 months of pain, of sitting on the side watching guys play this game that I love. You just worry about your job. Now, you’re opening the door, the opportunity for somebody else. It takes a special individual and a strong-minded one to still come to work every single day as the same guy and still have the same level of support that you would whether you were the starter or the one on the crutch.

So, it takes a certain level of mental toughness as well. This one hurt the most. I didn’t know what was going to happen. I’m here. God is good. I’m going into my 10th season and just looking forward to getting back out there in the battle, man.

Did you consider stepping away? Did those thoughts of retirement enter your mind?

McLeod: I wouldn’t say “step away” per se. I don’t know if I got to that level. But I didn’t know if I would have it in me just to rehab. People don’t realize what you have to sacrifice and what you have to put your body through to get back to this level. I don’t want to come back and be 80 percent of Rod. I want to be 100 percent. Fearless. Making plays. Doing everything and finishing where I left off last year. That takes a different type of commitment and you have to give up a lot to make that happen.

It is a mental grind of, “Shit, I have to do this again?” Something willed you to those rehab sessions when you could’ve been down and out.

McLeod: That’s my family. My wife. Everybody who knows me. Those same people who send me those messages and gave me those calls — that’s who I’m doing it for. I’m doing it for them, for the support they gave me and the ability to stand up on my own two feet again. They’ve been in my corner to this point and I can’t let them down.

What goes into your “Change Our Future” foundation? Anything else you’re into off the field? How are you trying to make a difference?

McLeod: “Change Our Future” is my wife and my organization we started last year in the midst of Covid. We’re excited about our Game Changers program where we were able to partner with WHYY here in Philadelphia that does a lot to support the kids. So we both have the mantra of putting kids first. In everything we do, let’s change futures for kids. Creating opportunities. Resources. Education and welfare. A lot of kids who are black and brown in urban communities, we’re just trying to bring that bridge of equality because there’s a great disparity there. So what we came up with was this program called, Game Changers, where we will first provide mentorship. I feel like a lot of people who label individuals as their game changers, a lot of times, have been mentored. They’ve had an influence in their lives. We want to embody that and become those game changers. With some of my teammates, we’ll have a game-changing tour this year where we’re giving them opportunities to go into classrooms twice a month to mentor a group of kids. Talk to them. Answer questions. I’m just hoping that this gives kids hope and that it gives them the affirmation they need. Maybe Jalen’s story inspires some of them to continue to push on: “If Jalen can do it, I can do it.”

We also have another program I’m super excited about — giving kids the opportunity to speak out on a lot of societal issues and a lot of issues within their community. It puts them in position to be that game changer for their community. We can form the leaders of tomorrow. These kids can identify a change they want to see. Or they can identify a game changer who they label as one because of the work they’re doing in the community or their mentorship role.

What are your expectations this season? I imagine as a player you’re not thinking about rebuilding even with all of those young players. To you, what’s a successful season?

McLeod: A successful season is only one thing. It’s a banner. It’s a ring. In my eyes. First and foremost, our goal is to win the division and give ourselves a chance to get in. From there, it’s doing our part each and every week. We know what our goals are but if we do the things that we need to do for 17 weeks, consistently, we’ll end up where we’re supposed to be.

People may say you are nuts and that this team isn’t remotely close to contending for anything. What would you say to them?

McLeod: The same thing we said in 2017 when we won it. We just blocked out the noise. As long as we believed inside those walls, inside that building, inside that 53-man roster, that’s all we need. That’s all we got.

Miss any previous Q&A’s at Go Long? The full archive is right here. We’ve chatted with the likes of Ryan Leaf, Bruce Smith, Drew Bledsoe, Edgerrin James, LeRoy Butler and Kurt Warner. And if there’s someone you want to hear from, never hesitate to let us know.