Friday, September 01, 2006

Philadelphia Eagles Preview


By John McMullen

Four straight NFC Championship Game appearances are a distant memory in Philadelphia after the Eagles imploded and finished a dismal 6-10 in 2005. Conventional wisdom regarding the collapse placed all the blame on the NFL’s most selfish teammate, Terrell Owens, and his public obsession with destroying his one-time friend and benefactor, quarterback Donovan McNabb. But, there were a number of other things that unraveled in the City of Brotherly Love as well, not the least of which was a series of injuries to key players like McNabb, running back Brian Westbrook, wide receiver Todd Pinkston and kicker David Akers. To once again become competitive in the NFC East, the Eagles invested heavily in both the offensive and defensive lines and head coach Andy Reid feels those upgrades, along with a healthy and stress fee McNabb will be enough to put the Birds back on top in the division.

QUARTERBACK

It's hard to ascertain what bothered McNabb more last year, the litany of injuries he suffered through, which included a painful bruised sternum and a sports hernia that eventually ended his nightmare of a season, or the petulant antics of the NFL’s real-life “Leon”. What can be said is both problems are in the rear view mirror but many questions have arisen concerning McNabb’s ability to lead and whether his own locker room respects a guy that far too many people in the African-American community have ludicrously labeled a “company man.” When McNabb is healthy, the Eagles have gone to the playoffs every season and he was playing spectacularly early last season in spite of the sternum problem, T.O. and Reid's almost comical lack of faith in the running game. Clearly, McNabb is the best quarterback in the division and while he will likely always struggle with accuracy at times, he remains one of the best five signal callers in the game. The stubborn Reid finally learned a valuable lesson after McNabb went down last season and he had to watch Mike McMahon and Koy Detmer. The Eagles have needed a better backup to McNabb for years and they finally got it this offseason when they inked fellow T.O. punching bag, Jeff Garcia. The veteran certainly won’t wow you anymore but he will provide the Eagles with a reliable No. 2 quarterback for the first time in the McNabb era. Reid’s blind spot, Detmer, is also finally history.

RUNNING BACK

The real problem at running back in Philly is Reid himself. The Eagles coach simply loathes the running game and would like to throw the ball more and more. Obviously that philosophy is flawed and it helped destroy McNabb last season because he took big hit after big hit early in the season. The book on Westbrook is that he is a too small to be an every down back but if you look at Tiki Barber in New York or Warrick Dunn in Atlanta, that reasoning seems specious. It would be nice to see the ball in Westbrook’s hands 25-30 times a game to see what he could do but that’s pure fantasy with Reid at the controls. Behind Westbrook, the Eagles will have Ryan Moats and Bruce Perry, a pair of undersized runners who can break a long one if they get outside but they are virtually useless between the tackles. Philadelphia hopes that toughness and inside running ability will be provided from Correll Buckhalter but the former Nebraska star has a knee held together by chicken wire.

WIDE RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS

Obviously most of the talk in Philadelphia is about who isn't lining up at wide receiver for the Eagles, Owens. T.O.‘s one-plus year tour with the team was a roller-coaster ride; one spectacular Super Bowl season giving way to a soap opera that destroyed a once-proud franchise in record time. This year, the Birds top receiver was going to be
Reggie Brown, who set an Eagles rookie record with 43 receptions last season. Brown certainly has talent but he sure won‘t scare your average NFL defensive coordinator and it‘s hard to imagine Brown getting the best of a double-team on a consistent basis. The rest of the receiving corps was even less impressive. Pinkston was attempting to return from a torn Achilles' tendon and just wasn't healthy. Greg Lewis was abysmal in 2005 and free-agent signee Jabar Gaffney lacks the speed to be anything more than a slot receiver. The Eagles are trying to sell their fans on a pair of rookies, Jason Avant and Hank Baskett, but expecting significant contributions from them this season is just not fair. The Birds finally dropped the arrogant act last week ans made a deal for Donte' Stallworth, a talented, underachieving former first-round pick in New Orleans. Stallworth has greet speed but average hands. That said, he is a huge upgrade over the alternatives. With Stallworth still learning the offense and the overall lack of talent on the outside, you can bet Reid will develop game plans that have McNabb dumping the ball off to Westbrook and his tight ends. The Birds added Matt Schoebel, a free agent tight end from the Bengals, to complement starter L.J. Smith at tight end and both players are good receivers but struggle in the blocking game. Smith will also need to overcome his propensity for putting the ball on the turf.

OFFENSIVE LINE

The offensive line was Philadelphia‘s Achilles heel on offense last season. Age, injuries and bad technique all contributed to the poor play of the Eagles‘ offensive front in 2005. The bookends, left tackle William (formerly Tra’) Thomas, who is coming off back surgery, and right tackle Jon Runyan, who signed a new deal, are back and should have at least one more competent year in them. Todd Herremans moves inside to guard along with the emerging Shawn Andrews while Jamaal Jackson takes over the pivot full-time after the Eagles failed to land LeCharles Bentley in free agency (ed note: Bentley is out for the season after being injured in Cleveland’s training camp). The big question marks are inside. Andrews is rook solid but Herremans is a natural tackle who must learn how to use his hands better. Jackson just doesn’t look like the type that will ever dominate but he should be an upgrade over the athletically challenged Hank Fraley. A pair of highly regarded rookies, tackle Winston Justice and guard Max Jean-Gilles, will help provide depth. Justice’s development will be watched closely since the age of Thomas and Runyan make an heir apparent necessary.

DEFENSE

DEFENSIVE LINE

In Philadelphia, the linebackers get vilified but the lack of a consistent pass rush is what hamstrung Jim Johnson’s defense last season. With that in mind, the defensive line will look dramatically different in 2006. The Eagles signed former Saints pass-rushing star Darren Howard to line up opposite Jevon Kearse at defensive end and for the second consecutive year, the team’s No. 1 draft choice was a defensive tackle, former Florida St. star Brodrick Bunkley. The Eagles hope the additions help Kearse, a former superstar who’s play dipped dramatically last season. With the added help, Kearse must become the playmaker he once was if the Eagles expect to bounce back. Bunkley will join '05 first-round choice Mike Patterson to give the Eagles a pair of young inside players but Bunkley missed 14 training camp practices before finally signing and may have a tough time adjusting. Some critics also feel Bunkley and Patterson are far too similar to excel together meaning the Eagles must find a competent run-stuffer among Darwin Walker, Sam Rayburn and Ed Jasper to field a solid inside rotation. Trent Cole's emergence as a nickel pass rusher will be a key. If Cole gets consistent pressure from the edge, that enables Johnson to move Howard inside on passing downs.

LINEBACKERS

Whether it’s fair or not, many observers feel Reid doesn‘t place a premium on acquiring athletic, play-making linebackers, especially on the outside. Pro-Bowl middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter is the only player with big-time skills among the linebacking corps. Trotter is a hammer against the run and can blow up plays with the blitz. If he has a weakness, it’s in pass coverage where he lacks the innate feel for the zone and has poor ball skills. Shawn Barber and Matt McCoy will battle for the weak side spot. The fans remember Barber fondly from his first stint in Philly but age and injuries have robbed him of explosiveness and the team would like McCoy, a second-year player to step up. On the strong-side, the most hated Eagle of them all Dhani Jones is back. The former New York Giant had a bad year in 2005 and the fans would love if he was replaced but there are no other options. Rookie Chris Gocong is a good athlete but is a project who will need two to three years to develop.

DEFENSIVE BACKS

There is little doubt this is the strength of the Eagles defense despite appearing vulnerable last season. In today’s NFL, the pass rush is the be-all, end-all and the term shutdown corner is an oxymoron. The lack of a significant pass rush was the problem in 2005, forcing good players into impracticable situations. At safety Brian Dawkins may have lost a step and he needs to learn there is no crying in football but he is certainly still one of the top five safeties in the game. People finally figured out that Michael Lewis is awful in pass coverage but I have news for you, most strong safeties are and Lewis is a stud in run support. At cornerback, Sheldon Brown and Lito Sheppard, returning from a season-ending high ankle sprain will be back to give the Eagles one of the best tandems in the league while Roderick Hood is turning into an excellent nickel back.

SPECIAL TEAMS

A groin injury took away one of the Eagles’ best weapons, kicker David Akers, last year. But, Akers seems healthy and ready to go and should regain his spot as one of the top kickers in the game. Philadelphia will also welcome back a healthy punter in Dirk Johnson. Like McNabb, Johnson had his 2005 season derailed by a sports hernia and his replacements were nothing short of inept. While, Johnson is not at Akers’ level amongst punters, he is a solid, consistent guy who should help Philadelphia in the field position game.

2006 OUTLOOK

After everyone involved embarrassed themselves during the T.O. fiasco, the Eagles just want to return to football and get back to the top of the NFC East but that will not be easy. While Philadelphia made huge strides and addressed holes on both lines, they still look like the least-talented team in the division. They do, however, have the best quarterback in the division and McNabb gives Philadelphia a huge advantage over its division rivals who sport Eli Manning, Drew Bledsoe and Mark Brunell. Reid must cultivate that advantage and stop putting McNabb in unworkable situations. The Eagles can not abandon the running game and allow opposing defenses to pin their ears back and take shots at the franchise. Reid has preached a need to restore balance in his game plans, but we have all heard that before. The coach’s ability to follow through will likely tell the tale in 2006.

-You can reach John McMullen at jmcmullen1@comcast.net or john@phillysportsline.com

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