An ominous omen for a season with all the potential to fulfill promises, or an excuse for frantic Eagles fans to fret?
Whether or not the sore right shoulder of Donovan McNabb proves to be a serious injury, the Eagles are hopeful McNabb can carry their offense in 2004. And after three consecutive failed attempts to journey beyond the NFC title game, the Eagles know any trip to Jacksonville is contingent on McNabb’s health.
Andy Reid says he’s not worried. Even after a pair of organized team activities in which Jeff Blake was the team’s No. 1 quarterback (No. 2 QB Koy Detmer recently underwent knee surgery), Reid believes nothing that happens in June can hinder the team in January. Always spinning positives, Reid told the media the injuries to the top two quarterbacks allowed them to get Blake the prescribed number of reps.
Sure, there is a lot of white space on the calendar between today and July 30, when veterans report to Eagles training camp, and we’re a full three months clear of the Eagles-Giants season opener. But the pressure of three failed bids to win the NFC title continues to build. If the Eagles’ window of opportunity is to remain open, Philadelphia has to show its fans the promised land.
The Eagles have broken from their usual financial strategy of spending only on their own emerging, under-30 stars in the offseason. The additions of impact free-agent talent that includes DE Jevon Kearse and WR Terrell Owens cost the Eagles $26.3 million up front, two players who haven’t played a full season in either of their last two. But their impact could be profound, and it must be for the Eagles to realize their Super Bowl dreams in Jacksonville. Owens’ presence should benefit the offense twofold. Obviously, he gives the Eagles a much-needed No. 1 target. With Todd Pinkston and James Thrash serving as McNabb’s top options in years past, Owens is a major upgrade. With Champ Bailey out of the division, McNabb should never enter a Tuesday film session fretting over a divisional matchup with Bailey. The best corner in the division is probably second-year Cowboys LCB Terence Newman unless Will Peterson comes back at 100 percent for the Giants.
Without the aid of an elite cornerback, every division foe should be expected to provide help in the form of a free safety or extra defensive back. Banking on steady double-teams on Owens is a major reason the Eagles are so amped about their running game. With a tremendous line of run blockers, expect breakout seasons from Correll Buckhalter and Brian Westbrook. Buckhalter has the build of an every-down back without being considered an upper-echelon runner. Reid and offensive coordinator Brad Childress plan to continue a rotation at the position, using scatback Westbrook as a change-of-pace back and do-it-all type. Reno Mahe and rookies Thomas Tapeh (more of an I-back who could snag goal-line carries) and Bruce Perry are also in the mix.
The personnel lends itself more to Childress' style. Childress scaled back the passing game last season after McNabb’s brutal start. Though the modified playbook was only partially to blame for McNabb catching fire, the Eagles plan to keep the run balance they lacked prior to last season.
Now, if they can only stop the run. Renowned defensive coordinator Jim Johnson also tossed out his preferred pressure-based defense last season, with widespread injury robbing him of core starters. FS Brian Dawkins is back, and if healthy, he’ll have a huge season.
As poorly as the LB corps played at times last season, the key is the defensive line. The Eagles were 22nd in rushing defense in 2003, and after the Giants rushed for 180 yards in Week Seven, the Eagles allowed an astounding 155 yards per game on the ground over their final 10 games.
With Kearse — here’s that health caveat again — the Eagles may have the best defensive line in the NFC. DT Corey Simon and DT-DE Darwin Walker are one-gap defenders who create havoc for offensive linemen being asked to help contain Kearse on the edge. Even when Kearse isn’t making the play, he’s helping make plays. In other words, teams that double-team Kearse leave themselves open to pressure elsewhere. The LDE position is a bit of a question mark — Reid would never call it a concern. Last year’s first-round pick, Jerome McDougle, is injured again, and Derrick Burgess has proved unreliable because of durability issues. Rush specialist N.D. Kalu was inadequate as a starter and returns to his blitz-only role.
If Reid narrated the Eagles’ offseason, it would have an optimistic tone. And why shouldn’t he? The additions of Kearse and Owens should make the Eagles a more well-rounded team, a criticism every observer referenced after Philly’s playoff loss to the Panthers in the NFC title game. But Eagles fans, the ultimate pessimists, are still waiting for something more.