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Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Don't Pop the Corks Just Yet


That's what they are in Philadelphia after the Eagles' first opening day win since 2000 (and that game was memorable, when the Eagles, fortified by cramp-preventing pickle juice on a very hot day, waxed the Cowboys to start the season).

There are many reasons to be optimistic. A running game that showed no signs of missing Duce Staley. A high-octane passing game with a bona fide star receiver who did his college work at Tennessee-Chattanooga (yes, that's where T.O. went to school). A QB whose accuracy has been questioned who looked very accurate on Sunday. A second-year TE who made a nice TD catch. An offensive smorgasboard, an offensive juggernaut. People always wondered what Donovan McNabb could do with a first-line WR. Now they know.

Still, there are a few reasons to doubt in light fo three straight losses in the NFC title game. A defense, with undersized DTs, over-injured DEs, misunderstood LBs, questioned CBs, outstanding S's that bent but did not break, that defended well against the pass but still resembled more of a sieve than a dam against the run. A defense that didn't have all starters on the field together in the pre-season, a defense that thankfully had the Giants to defend in the first game and not, say, the Minnesota Vikings, whom they get in the second game. A defense that probably will improve against the run.

Their special teams played pretty well. True, Brian Westbrook isn't returning punts, but second-year player Reno Mahe, Westbrook's backup at tailback, had some nice returns. And rookie J.R. Reid (not to be confused with the former Carolina basketball player of the same name) had an inspirational kickoff return after the Giants' early TD, refusing to quit.

But before the Birds pop the champagne corks and take their place in the Super Bowl, there are key questions that need answering:

1. Injuries. So far, they've lost Shawn Andrews, the very promising starting G, for the season (broken fibula). Ditto for DE N.D. Kalu and backup RB Correll Buckhalter, who really was going to be more than a backup. How many more key players can get injured for this team to continue to strive toward the Super Bowl? Last year, they were banged up a bit, and this year, they've lost those 3 already and outside LB Nate Wayne couldn't go on Sunday, either. And starting CB Lito Sheppard is playing with a broken thumb, while back-up DT Paul Grasmanis didn't play because of an achilles problem. The offensive line now has no depth, as the first back-up lineman, Artis Hicks, will started at left guard, wtih Jermane Mayberry moving to right guard. And, of course, the big fear in the City of Brotherly Love is what would happen if Brian Westbrook, who at times looked like Barry Sanders out there, were to get hurt. What would happen then? Some observers say that the Eagles offensive line can protect anyone and create holes for anyone; they just might get the chance to prove it.

2. Defense. We all know the old adage that "offense sells tickets, but defense wins championships." Defensive coordinator Jim Johnson has his work cut out for him, as the Giants, woeful offensive line and all (but with good RBs in Tiki Barber and Ron Dayne) at times went through the Eagles' front seven like it was a house of cards. The Birds will have to firm up their run defense, and they don't have any run stuffers on the defensive line. In an era where 330-pound linemen like Ted Washington have defined the position, only one DT in the Eagles' rotation, back-up Hollis Thomas, tops 300 pounds (starters Darwin Walker and Corey Simon weigh something like 297 and 288 pounds respectively). And the LBs will have to show that they are strong enough to stay in there when the going gets tough.

It's very early in the season, and every team has its challenges. The Eagles most certainly have theirs. Their offense was dazzling, and that unit looked to be in mid-season form.

Unfortunately, so did the Eagles' defensive unit, albeit mid-season 2003 form, where their run defense was, unfortunately, running out of gas with about half of the d-line rotation out because of injury.

If the Eagles can stay healthy, develop a little depth at running back and figure out a better way to stop the run, then they (and their fans) could well be popping the corks in the winter of 2005.

If they can't do some or all of those things, then the fan will popping off during what could prove to be a very long off-season.

To be fair, the Eagles' front office has done a good job of managing the team's roster and addressing weaknesses. The two most glaring weaknesses from last season were the lack of a game-breaking receiver and the lack of a strong pass rush. They remedied those issues with trading for T.O. and signing Jevon Kearse. The next weaknesses were the following: run defense and starting LBs. They got healthier on the defensive line with the return of Paul Grasmanis, Hollis Thomas, Derek Burgess and Jamal Green (and they'll have Jerome McDougle healthy for an entire season), so the interior line play should improve. Yet, they didn't markedly improve the LB position and they probably weakened a bit at corner, letting Bobby Taylor and Troy Vincent to leave via free agency. That said, in the era of the salary cap, it's hard to field outstanding, deep units on both sides of the ball the way, say, the Steelers did in the late 70's and early 80's. The dropoff at corner isn't all that significant, as Sheldon Brown and Lito Sheppard are good talents, and the cognoscenti argue the LB is the least important position in the Eagles' defensive scheme. And, if the offense proves good enough to control the ball and keep the defense off the field, the defense should be better rested and better able to play at the top of its game.

On balance, the Eagles' offense is better than it was three years ago, when the Eagles went to their first NFC title game, while their defense is not as good. If the latter proves to be good enough, the Eagles will win their first Super Bowl.

So long as no other key players get hurt.


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9:40 AM  

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