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Saying goodbye to Zach Ertz

Thanks for everything, Zach.

Super Bowl LII - Philadelphia Eagles v New England Patriots

There is one fewer Super Bowl hero left in Philadelphia.

Zach Ertz, the man who scored the game-winning touchdown in the Eagles’ first and only Super Bowl victory, has been traded to the Cardinals. Ertz, at age 30 and in the final year of his contract, leaves the team following 130 games (including playoffs) across nine years.

An Ertz trade was a long time coming. I assumed this offseason that he won’t even suit up for the Eagles this year. It didn’t even register in mind several months back that he would be here, so I had mentally checked out on him being a member of the team. Still, even knowing for almost a year that Ertz’s time was winding to a close with the Birds, it was a shot to the guts and sad to see him part as the Eagles themselves look rougher and rougher on the field.

Five different Eagles players scored a touchdown on February 4, 2018: Alshon Jeffery, LeGarrette Blount, Nick Foles, Corey Clement and Ertz. All are now elsewhere or out of the NFL entirely.

The road to Ertz’s iconic Super Bowl catch wasn’t exactly as smooth as revisionist history might say. He was a second-round selection, the 35th pick overall, in 2013. He oozed potential from the start. He looked good during the Chip Kelly era. His receiving yard totals went up from 469 to 702 to 853 from 2013-2015. Maybe it was our own expectations working against us, but Ertz being merely good instead of prolific felt like a bit of a letdown. The team hadn’t won a playoff game since 2008. DeSean Jackson and LeSean McCoy were jettisoned in successive offseasons. Eagles fans were starved for star power and Ertz was the lone skill position player on the team who could, in theory, fit that billing. I anxiously recorded his stats and would compare them to the early career numbers of the great tight ends of the past. I wanted Ertz to be great. The Eagles needed Ertz to be great.

The turning point for Ertz was a moment he’d probably want a redo on. It was Week 13 of the 2016 season. In the part of the season where it was clear that the Eagles wouldn’t be reaching the playoffs, every game and every win was with the goal of building for the future. In a road game against Cincinnati, Ertz, in what could only be looked at as sheer cowardice, absolutely whiffed on a block on a Carson Wentz scramble:

The fans and media alike, rightfully, crushed Ertz for the no-effort move in a lost season. Even I, the staunch Ertz truther, felt like a schlub for ever hoisting all my hopes and dreams upon his shoulders.

Following that play late in 2016, Ertz was never the same.

I mean that in the best way possible.

2017 came along and, well, I’m sure we could all effortlessly spin our own narrative on how that season transpired.

Doug Pederson looked like Bill Walsh. Carson Wentz looked like Brett Favre. Ertz was a throwback star in his own right too. In an era where tight ends are some of the biggest physical freaks on the field like Rob Gronkowski or former basketball forwards like Tony Gonzalez or Antonio Gates, Ertz was something completely different. A nimble route-runner with footwork that looked ballerina-trained, Ertz manipulated leverage against defenders unlike any Eagles player I’ve ever seen. Ertz was never a brute force nor a speedster, but he became perfect at the simplest aspects of the game: running routes and catching the football. It sounds silly, but in watching the Eagles the last few years, I’m sure fans have grown to realize how rare it is to see a player like Ertz in his prime.

Ertz was a star participant in the two biggest Eagles wins of my lifetime.

During the 2017 NFC Championship Game, Ertz showcased that, as a wise man once said, anyone could’ve gotten it that night:

Putting Harrison Smith, the man graded as the top player in all of football by Pro Football Focus in the 2017 season, in an absolute blender was legendary.

The Eagles faithful watched proudly that night as the Birds beat the Vikings up and down the field and back again on the road to a 38-7 victory. I was in the stands with family and friends. I had watched every home game of Ertz’s career. As Ertz cooked the alleged best player in the NFL and the Eagles smashed their way into the Super Bowl, I was reflecting on Ertz and all those Eagles players, what their careers meant, what they meant to me on a personal level.

Ertz was that dude.

Then there’s the Super Bowl...

I will always think about Cris Collinsworth being a little cry baby loser when Ertz scored that game-winning, LIFE-ALTERING touchdown against the Patriots to give the Birds a 38-33 lead they would never relinquish. In a moment where I should’ve been celebrating one of the pinnacles of my existence, I had to listen to him cry his eyes out about that touchdown not being a catch and nervously wait out the review process. You know what, Cris? Ertz had the best hands of any Eagles player I’ve watched. He caught it. Of course Ertz caught it. He caught everything in 2017.

Even more improbable than a touchdown of that magnitude was a play Ertz had earlier on that Super Bowl scoring drive. Facing the longest fourth and one in human history, down one point with 5:40 remaining in the game, Foles, with defenders in his grill, hit Ertz for a two-yard gain. There has never been a bigger two-yard gain than that. It was a play that the Eagles never EVER convert. Never in a million years would I expect the Birds to move the chains on that one. That’s how reliable Ertz had become, turning in an all-time Philly sports clutch performance.

The cycle of hope and disappointment that had been in Eagles fans’ mind about Ertz was washed away during the 2017 season as he was selected for his first Pro Bowl and was totally eradicated after Ertz’s playoff heroics.

I had watched Ertz’s career begin as a snotty 19-year-old college kid, watched him transform into something truly special as I waded through the crashing waves of my early 20s and I now see him leave as I’ve turned into something resembling a functional adult. I forget what it’s like to not have Ertz on the Eagles.

He is now gone amidst a deflating Eagles season. In a year where good memories might be slim, I will forever remember Ertz scoring his last touchdown in midnight green against the Buccaneers and the ensuing “Fly Eagles Fly” song that broke out after. That’s exactly how I want Ertz to stay in mind for good: scoring touchdowns against Tom Brady.