- Halapoulivaati Vaitai—‘Big V’—and the rest of Philly’s offensive front know who to call when things get tough: Peters, the injured All-Pro left tackle who remains a vital presence for the Eagles
ANAHEIM, Calif. — While the Eagles are spending the week in Southern California, practicing on a custom-made gridiron at Angel Stadium in between two of their biggest games of the season, Halapoulivaati Vaitai will make sure to make a specific call back to Philadelphia at least every other day.
Vaitai is a newlywed, having married his college sweetheart, Caitlin, this past summer. He’s from a big, close-knit Tongan family. But this call he makes doesn’t have to do with either. After practice, on the Saturday night before the game and in the hours before kickoff on Sunday, the Eagles’ young left tackle will either text or speak to the person who’s been in the position he’s in some 176 times before.
“If we have any doubt in our mind,” Vaitai says, “we just call on Jason Peters.”
Antonio Brown has Call God. The Eagles offensive line has Call J.P. Peters, who is rehabbing a season-ending knee injury, did not travel with the team for its eight-day West Coast road trip between games in Seattle and Los Angeles, but his 6’4”, 328-pound presence is still very much felt.
Not much about this week is ordinary for the Eagles. Their practice space is the outfield usually patrolled by Mike Trout, the Angels centerfielder and Eagles superfan. The baseball grass is more slippery than football grass, so players chose to practice with the longer metal screw-in cleats. But as the Eagles returned to practice trying to rebound from their 24-10 loss to Seattle, for Vaitai there was something that has been a constant since he was drafted by the Eagles about 19 months ago: He had the advice of Jason Peters running through his head.
One of the most indelible moments of the Eagles’ 10-2 season came early in the third quarter of the team’s Monday night win against Washington in Week 7. While blocking on a passing play, Peters—the nine-time Pro Bowl left tackle who began his career as an undrafted free agent out of Arkansas—toppled to the ground as a defender crashed into his right knee. While the medical staff zipped up Peters’ leg in an air cast, the entire Philadelphia bench emptied onto the field—and some of Washington’s, too—and the home crowd began chanting Peters’ name in tribute.
But what happened next was even more remarkable. Peters, while being carted off the field with a torn ACL and MCL that would throw some doubt on the 35-year-old’s playing future, started calling out specific instructions for his replacement, Vaitai, to finish out the game.
“He was telling me two things,” Vaitai says. “The first was, get off the ball. Playing left tackle is not an easy job, but he said, get off the ball. And the second was just calm down. He says to treat everything like practice.”
Last season the Eagles’ hot start hit a speed bump after right tackle Lane Johnson began serving his 10-game PED suspension. Between starting a rookie quarterback, and replacing one of the offense’s best players, Johnson, with another rookie, Vaitai, the offense stumbled. This year, after Peters went down, the veteran was determined to do everything he could to make sure his injury didn’t derail the 2017 Eagles season.
So far, it hasn’t: Vaitai’s play since stepping in for Peters in late October has been a welcome improvement over 2016, when the fifth-round pick out of TCU was pushed into a starting role, subbing for Johnson, for which he wasn’t quite ready. A few weeks ago, Eagles coach Doug Pederson praised the play of Big V—his nickname in the locker room, for the obvious reasons of his 320-pound frame and his tongue-twisting first name—and said he’d been giving him less help in protection schemes. This year, Vaitai says, the difference is simply the experience he gained from playing last year.
But like the team overall, Vaitai is coming off a difficult night in Seattle. Drawing a tough matchup against explosive Seahawks pass-rusher Frank Clark, he gave up two sacks and several quarterback hurries. One of the sacks came on a third-down stunt that the Seahawks ran against Vaitai and left guard Stefen Wisniewski, with defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson pressing outside and Clark looping back inside, where he had a free lane to Carson Wentz. Vaitai could only chase after him. On the second sack, Clark beat Vaitai with a move to the inside, after earlier in the game setting him up with the outside rush.
Seattle has a disruptive defensive front, and the offensive line had the added challenge of playing in one of the NFL’s noisiest venues. The Eagles offense used a silent count, triggering the snap through signals relayed from Wentz to right guard Brandon Brooks to center Jason Kelce. Keeping one eye on the signal coming through the guard on the opposite side of the line and the other on the defensive end is no small task. (Noise will not be an issue this week, in front of a Los Angeles crowd that is likely to have more Eagles fans than Rams fans.) No matter the circumstances, though, Vaitai was disappointed in his performance. So he sought out Peters, who told him to calm down, first of all.
“He says, ‘You look like you are all over the place, but that’s easily fixable,’ ” Vaitai says. “It was just all technique. [Clark’s] job is to get through me, and my job is to block him. I’m making it hard on myself, because I am doing a lot of things. Sometimes, I go off [course]. Because of nerves; I don’t know. But J.P. always says, trust the process. You are still young, and you don’t learn from your mistakes if you don’t make them.”
This kind of support system on the Eagles’ offensive line extends beyond just Peters and his 24-year-old replacement. Last season Brooks was diagnosed with an anxiety condition that manifested itself in extreme nausea and stomach pain, causing him to miss two games. “[Peters] was the first dude to step up and really have my back to be like, I know it is happening, I get it,” Brooks says. "Just being that positive voice, that rock to lean on when I was going through it. Someone you can really open up to and tell exactly what’s going on. He really helped me through that.”
Another example: Last Friday, the day before the team charter left for Seattle, Kelce stopped at the locker of Chance Warmack. The former No. 10 overall pick by the Titans played earlier this season in a left guard platoon with Wisniewski but now serves as a backup. Warmack would not even enter the game last Sunday, but that didn’t stop Kelce from going over with Warmack his spacing on a pass play they’d run on the practice field that day.
“Honestly, that’s why I think we have so much success—because we just communicate all the time,” Warmack says. “There’s no dumb question. And that’s not just limited to the offensive line; that’s everybody. I could go to the defensive line, and ask them a question about something, and they’re going to tell me. There’s always information floating around this locker room, so if you need help with something, you can get it anywhere.”
For Vaitai, the first resource is Peters, whom he’d grown up watching and randomly met in a Dallas-area shopping mall while Vaitai was still playing for TCU. Never did Vaitai imagine that Peters would become his mentor, much less that he’d be replacing him for an Eagles team at the top of the NFC. As both Vaitai and the Eagles offense try to get back on track this week, they have another tough challenge against Wade Phillips and a talented Rams defensive front. But instead of letting doubt creep in, Vaitai is intent on learning from his mistakes. Always at the top of his mind is that same, simple piece of advice he’s heard every week from Peters: Get off the ball. To win on the offensive line, you have to beat the defensive end to the spot he’s trying to beat you to.
By the time the Eagles finished practice Wednesday night, the powerful Santa Ana winds had started to carry down a faint smell of the raging fires about 50 miles north in Los Angeles. Players finished their post-practice workouts and treatment; showered and drank Kombucha; and boarded buses for the 20-minute ride back to the hotel. Vaitai had one remaining part of his routine: making that call back to Philadelphia.
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