SportsProf

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Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Seldom in Doubt

Skip Bayless on the Philadelphia Eagles.

I don't necessarily agree with him, but the Eagles should allow for the doubting.

After the Eagles lost the NFC championship game two years ago at home to a Carolina team that they were favored to beat, Eagles fans went into the off-season worried. They worried because that made three straight losses in the NFC championship game, two in a row because their passing game seemed outmatched and where their linebacker play seemed subpar. In addition, there were worries at defensive end, because they didn't get much of a pass rush, either.

Previously, Eagles fans had wondered publicly about the team's personnel moves. There were times where Andy Reid and company made moves that left people wondering, but the body of work of the Reid administration over the past five years has been very good. They have drafted reasonably well and signed some good free agents. But after the Carolina loss, the fans were worried, and there was no talk from the team about what it might do in the off-season.

The team needed improvements, but they had convinced some in the local media that linebacker play wasn't key to a successful defense for them and that they were happy with their wide receivers and their defensive line. So what happened? On the first day of the free-agent signing period, they signed All-Pro DE Jevon Kearse, the former Tennessee Titan. After a complicated series of events, they acquired WR Terrell Owens. And, for good measure, they inked then recently released LB Jeremiah Trotter, as a backup. All played well (Trotter, after starting perhaps a half a dozen games beginning in mid-season, was named to the Pro-Bowl as a starter). In short, they perceived that they had needs, and they moved to fill them. The fans were very excited going into the season, as well as they should have been. And the Birds played very well.

Going into this season, the fans were worried about quality play on the defensive line, depth on the offensive line and in the offensive backfield. The team has a ton of good (if not great) players on the defensive line, and they answered a potential problem at DT by drafting Mike Patterson of USC on the first round (especially in light of the holdout of DT Corey Simon, who is unhappy at being named the team's "franchise player"). They answered depth questions at RB by taking Ryan Moats, a spark plug out of Louisiana Tech, on the third round, after many had projected he would go higher (some still believe they should have opted for the "big" back). As for the offensive line, they get back G Shawn Andrews, last year's first-round pick who looked very promising in the pre-season before getting hurt in the first game, and they drafted OT Todd Herremans out of a D-II school, and he's looked good so far. OT Tra Thomas is still battling a medical problem, but no one seems publicly worried that the Eagles haven't re-loaded their offensive line.

Enter the Achilles' heel, wide receiver.

They let the overly talkative Freddie Mitchell go before this season began (although he was more productive in his own mind than in the eyes of the team, the media and the fans), and then WR Todd Pinkston, who did show some improvement last year, rolled up his Achilles' in practice and is done for the year. That leaves them with Greg Lewis, a third-year man with 24 catches in his career, one-time third-round pick Billy McMullen out of UVA, who has not cashed in on his opportunities to date, and this year's second-round pick Reggie Brown out of Georgia, who has played well in training camp. In all likelihood, none will immediately change the way defensive coordinators plan for the Eagles the way T.O. has.

T.O. returned to the Eagles today, and questions abound. If he plays the way he's capable of playing, if he gets his act together, and if he can co-exist with his QB and coaching staff, he can put up the type of season that will get him even bigger money than he's making now (which, by the way, still puts him in the Top 10 of receiver compensation, according to a report by Chris Mortensen that I heard on ESPN Radio the other morning). If that happens, the Eagles will still reign supreme over the NFC East.

But if that doesn't happen, and the T.O. that has confounded impressive football men in San Francisco shows up and acts out, then the question that will be answered immediately will be whether the Eagles did enough in the off-season to plan for this contingency. If Lewis, McMullen and Brown step up, then Andy Reid looks like a genius. But if they play WR the way Barry Gardner and Levon Kirkland played middle linebacker a few years ago, Donovan McNabb ought to double his padding, because opponents will blitz him off the bus. And Andy Reid and company won't look very smart, because, to Bayless' way of thinking, they should have seen the T.O. storm coming.

Right now, the best the Eagles' coaches can do is to honor Kipling's words from "If" (and, I'm paraphrasing here) stand tall amidst the commotion and allow for the doubting of, well, all but diehard Eagles fans.

It may be that they'll be able to reach a workable detente with Terrell Owens.

And it may be that as we speak they're working on a deal that will ship him to Cincinnati (or whichever of the four teams in the NFL that Mortensen identified the other day that might have enough cap room to pull off a deal with the Eagles). If anyone is interested, of course.

Sure, as Bayless says, the Eagles can really lose out here, and he has a point.

But T.O. can really lose out here, too. After his track record in San Francisco, if he does anything now other than give his best, who will want him? Who will give him that big payday that he richly deserves? One burned, twice shy, the saying goes. What will teams say after two teams have been burned? They'll bar the doors.

So, in the end, Skip, the Eagles aren't at as big a disadvantage as I perceive you think. Because life will go on for the Eagles, and given the weakness of the NFC they'll still go 10-6 without him and make the playoffs, and you can be sure that two years from now they'll have rectified the situation enough to return to Super Bowl-quality status. And, to your point, they probably will have learned the lesson that you don't think that they have learned.

But T.O. might be stuck in the middle of nowhere.

With no one to listen to him.

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