PHILADELPHIA -- Filing into the locker room after Wednesday’s practice, various Eagles picked up the personalized smoothies waiting for them on a nearby table.
"What is that, cow’s blood?" asked one player, vaguely alarmed by the violet shade of a teammate’s drink.
"True Blood," suggested another.
Striding past the smoothie table without helping himself to a beverage was wideout Jeremy Maclin, and who could blame him? Maclin’s high-speed collision with a Gatorade station on the Cardinals’ sideline last Sunday, a slapstick and borderline-scary ending to an 18-yard punt return, might have been enough to put him off sports drinks for a while.
The Eagles' 24-20 loss to the Cardinals -- along with the impromptu electrolyte bath -- put a damper on Maclin's career day: 12 catches for 187 yards and two touchdowns. Ever since Chip Kelly was hired away from Oregon in January of 2013, Eagles fans had been salivating at the thought of Maclin unleashed in the coach’s up-tempo spread system. They had to wait a year to see it. Maclin tore his ACL in July of 2013, missing all of last season. While expectations for him going into 2014 were high -- Maclin had reportedly returned with more speed and burst than ever following his rehab -- it’s fair to say that he’s now exceeding them.
He’s currently ranked 10th among the league's receivers with 39 catches for 632 yards (16.2 per catch) and six touchdowns. At this pace, Maclin will finish with 89 catches for 1,466 yards. The franchise record for receiving yards in a season is 1,409, set by Mike Quick in 1983.
Maclin’s workload last Sunday also included a pair of punt returns for a total of 25 yards -- all this despite coming off the field briefly after being sandwiched between two Arizona defensive backs. After catching a slant inside, Maclin was on the receiving end of an unpenalized helmet-to-helmet shot from safety Deone Bucannon. Maclin’s helmet collided with that of Cardinals star cornerback Patrick Peterson, who stayed on the turf for several long minutes before he was helped to the sideline, done for the day.
That Maclin trotted onto the field for the Eagles' next possession -- after passing a series of concussion tests, and getting the cut on his left ear cleaned up -- surprised none of his teammates. In a league in which every player has overcome adversity just to make the roster, Maclin stands out for his resolve, his resilience -- his "want-to," as Kelly calls it.
Neglected and emotionally abused as a boy, he was all but adopted by the family of his youth football coach in Kirkwood, Missouri. In July of ’06, Maclin tore his right ACL, delaying his debut at the University of Missouri for a year. Upon suffering the same injury seven years later, Maclin tweeted, "sad day but I have setbacks my entire life." This latest season-ending injury, he insists, was a "minor setback."
"Everybody in this league works hard," Maclin told me. "What can separate guys is what’s going on upstairs, how you think, how you approach situations. It’s all about how mentally tough you can stay, and how much support you have around you."
As a measure of how much they appreciate his grit, Maclin’s teammates recently voted him the winner of the club’s 2014 Ed Block Courage Award. Recipients are often players who overcome serious injuries and return to high-level competition. Maclin, who joins Houston's Arian Foster, New England's Rob Gronkowski and Dallas' Rolando McClain as strong candidates to be the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year, seems to be taking that to a new level: He’s surpassed his pre-injury level of excellence and is playing the best football of his life.
Kelly -- who speaks as rapidly as his offense operates -- immediately rattled off these qualities when asked what Maclin does especially well: "Outstanding speed .. Really, really good hands … He’s got a real toughness to him … he’s been a real physical blocker for us on the edge."
It’s no secret within the organization that the presence of Maclin made it a little less scary for the Eagles to part ways with DeSean Jackson before last season. While Maclin was still rehabbing his knee, the club made him a five-year offer that wasn’t quite sweet enough to suit him. Instead, he signed a one-year, $6 million deal. He bet on himself, in other words. And he’s winning. With the numbers he’s now putting up, Maclin will be in a position to sign a much more generous contract after this season.
He’ll probably stay in Philly. Yes, he’s fast and sure-handed and a solid blocker, making him more beloved still in the City of Brotherly Shove is the fact that he’s a wideout with a linebacker’s temperament. As Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Bob Brookover recently noted, Maclin "does not do the diva act we have seen from a long list of No. 1 NFL wide receivers."
If Maclin breaks the superstar receiver mold in that respect, his desire to polish every facet of his game is more typical of the elite class he strives to join. "I want to become one of the best receivers to play this game," Maclin said. "Whether I get there or not, who knows? But the great ones -- Jerry Rice, Cris Carter, Randy [Moss] -- they worked to get better each and every day."
That hunger is the trait Kelly was describing: "He’s got a 'want-to' in terms of wanting to go get the ball ... When you call his number, he’s going to go get it."
Kelly specifically mentioned Maclin’s effort on his 54-yard touchdown catch on a deep post at Arizona. "He was the fourth read in that progression," said Kelly, "but he ran the route like he was the number one read."
On the possession following his concussion scare, Maclin came right back over the middle for a 12-yard reception. Popping off the turf, he used his right hand to give a gratuitous shove to Bucannon. It was an edgy, borderline-dirty, quintessentially Philly move designed to send a message: You do not even begin to intimidate me.
Asked about it, Maclin smiled, his answer calling to mind a defendant pleading the fifth: "I have no memory of that."
It had been washed away, perhaps, in the Gatorade bath.