PHILADELPHIA (AP) — The caricatures on Nick Sirianni’s T-shirt depicted A.J. Brown making a one-handed grab and DeVonta Smith holding the ball as he struck a Heisman Trophy pose.
The caption read: “The Dynamic Duo.”
The Eagles coach wears all kinds of Philly sports shirts to news conferences and practices, often for fun, sometimes with a not-so-hidden message to a player he’s trying to support. His attire of choice Wednesday could have been a salute to what is — by the numbers — the greatest wide receiver tandem in franchise history.
Or maybe Sirianni was making a point that all is cool between Brown and the Eagles.
Brown was caught on camera looking perturbed in a chat with Sirianni at the end of the Eagles’ playoff win against the Giants. Was Brown agitated because he was banged-up? Yeah, a little, though Brown didn’t want to get into specifics of any injury. Was the receiver who set team records this season irritated that he had only three catches for just 22 yards?
Ah, now we’re on to something.
“Throw the ball to me 100 times,” Brown said, “I’m going to want it 101 times. I just feel like I can change the game. Getting the ball often keeps you in the rhythm. It puts you in the zone. Locked in. Of course I want the ball.”
So many times this season, Brown got the ball.
Brown was acquired in a draft-night deal with Tennessee that is already on the short list for one of the greatest heists in team history. Upset with his contract in Tennessee, the Eagles sent two draft picks to the Titans for Brown and immediately gave him a $100 million, four-year deal with $57 million guaranteed.
Brown was worth the price and is a big reason the Eagles are preparing to host San Francisco in Sunday's NFC championship game.
He had 155 yards receiving in his Eagles debut and kept on rolling all the way to 88 catches for 1,496 yards and 11 touchdowns. He topped Mike Quick’s 1,409 yards in 1983 for most in a season in team history.
Across the field, Smith put up similar bold numbers. Smith finished his second NFL season with 95 catches, which are the most by a wide receiver in team history (Irving Fryar had 88 in 1996). Smith’s 95 receptions trailed only tight end Zach Ertz’s 116 in 2018 for most in a season.
Smith also caught a TD pass in the playoffs against the Giants.
But Hurts and the Eagles romped past the Giants without much need for super stats out of Brown. Brown — who sprung a pivotal block on Smith’s TD catch — could only watch as the Eagles finished with 268 yards on the ground.
Sirianni downplayed any lingering effects of friction between the two.
“Not really anybody in the pass game really got a lot of targets or a lot of opportunities because we were running the ball so well,” Sirianni said. “But that’s what you want from your receivers, to want to have the football. Part of the reason receivers are good is because they want and crave the football. They want the ball to change the game. But make no mistake about it, he was thrilled that we won the football game.”
Brown won’t let a few seconds of unhappiness define him.
While so many elite wide receivers over the last two decades exhibited look-at-me “diva” behavior, Brown has mostly kept a low profile when it comes to showboating. Sure, he pulled out a towel and wagged his finger at the goal post before he swatted the structure three times after he scored twice against the Titans.
But that’s kid’s play compared to former Eagle Terrell Owens and his driveway sit-ups when he wanted a new contract. Or when Minnesota’s Randy Moss bent over and pretended to moon the Green Bay crowd. Or when Owens, then with San Francisco, celebrated a touchdown against Dallas by posing on the star in the middle of the field. Or when Antonio Brown stripped off his gear on the sideline and walked off. The list goes on.
“I’m never the receiver to go on the sideline to try and cause problems on the sideline,” Brown said. “I’m not that person. I’m a guy who goes and talks to the quarterback or talks to the OC and do it that way. I’m not out to cause commotion on the sideline. That’s not who I am. I’d never be that guy.”
Brown and Smith, the 2020 Heisman Trophy winner and 10th overall pick in the 2021 draft, may not cause commotion off the field but they sure do disrupt opponents once they get there.
Cornerback Darius Slay playfully called Brown with his tinted visor “a swole Batman” and Smith “a skinny Batman” early in the season and the nicknames caught fire in Philly. Center Jason Kelce rocked a Batman mask in their honor following a win over the Steelers. Slay said there are no “Robins” on the Eagles, no room for sidekicks. The receivers feel that way, too.
“Anybody in the receiving room feels like he could be a number one receiver,” Smith said. “Just go out there and do your job. When plays come to you, make the most of the opportunity.”
Philadelphia’s history with wide receivers has been spotty at best. Donovan McNabb’s prime seasons were spent throwing to James Thrash, Todd Pinkston and Freddie Mitchell. Travis Fulgham topped Eagles wide receivers in yards with 539 in 2020 and he’s didn't play an NFL game this season.
Brown hangs an “Always Open” sign in his locker. He hopes Hurts sees it in bright lights against the 49ers, when the focus is on playing to win, not whatever aches or gripes still might be nagging Brown.
“I know I’ve got a big week ahead of me,” he said. “I’m not worried about it and I don’t think nobody else should either because it’s not a big deal.”
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Dan Gelston, The Associated Press