Cornerback Troy Vincent was signing autographs after a
training-camp session last month when a fan asked, "We've got
the Super Bowl this year, right Troy?" Vincent responded by
saying the team was going to try to get better every week. "Come
on, Troy!" the fan barked. "That's the politically correct
answer! Super Bowl, right?"
A few days later the first-unit offense went against the
first-unit defense in a series of seven-on-seven plays in front
of about 1,500 spectators. On the initial snap wideout Freddie
Mitchell cut to the sideline then raced upfield; quarterback
Donovan McNabb thought Mitchell was running a quick out, and his
throw bounced out-of-bounds, nowhere near Mitchell. The fans
booed, and one yelled, "Get your act together!"
Welcome to a season of great expectations, Eagles. The Rams? A
bunch of lambs. The Packers? Brett Favre's an old stiff. The
49ers? They're West Coast sissies. "Our fans don't understand
how things have changed for us," says Vincent. "Now we're the
team opponents look to on the schedule as a big game. The
bull's-eye will be on us, and that's a big change."
Last season the Eagles finished 11-5 to win the NFC East. No
young quarterback progressed toward stardom as quickly as the
25-year-old McNabb. Then, after routing the Bucs (31-9) and the
Bears (33-19) in the first two rounds of the playoffs, the
Eagles had the heavily favored Rams on the ropes in the NFC
title game. McNabb, however, threw an interception in the final
minute and St. Louis held on to win 29-24.
But a funny thing happened on the way to improvement. In the
off-season the Eagles lost star middle linebacker Jeremiah
Trotter, who was released after a contentious contract
negotiation with coach Andy Reid. That loss might be crippling
if 275-pound Levon Kirkland or unproven four-year vet Barry
Gardner fail to be adequate replacements. Other than adding
three defensive backs in the draft, the Eagles stood pat in the
off-season while other Super Bowl contenders made significant
Philly's top draft pick, 5'10", 194-pound defensive back Lito
Sheppard of Florida, was surprisingly physical in camp and will
push for playing time at corner on passing downs, as will
second-round selection Sheldon Brown (South Carolina). But
cornerback wasn't the Eagles' biggest need--Philly could have
used another playmaker on offense and a middle linebacker.
Scatback Brian Westbrook, who was a third-round draft pick, is
penciled in to fill the former role. The Eagles still have some
flexibility to make roster moves because of how well they've
managed the salary cap--at week's end they were $6 million under
the $71.1 million cap.
"I don't think you need big-time names," says McNabb, the only
quarterback last year to throw for more than 3,000 yards (3,233),
run for more than 400 yards (482) and have better than a plus-10
touchdown-to-interception ratio (25 to 12). "You need to work as
a unit. I just need to develop more chemistry with my receivers."
Says Reid, "We were so close last year. After we played the Rams
in the championship game, I thought the game was a toss-up. We're
in striking range, even without making a big splash."
Philadelphia's veterans have faith in Reid, even if they don't
agree with all his decisions. They go along with him when he
says the club will be better off with a young and improving
receiver such as Mitchell, 24, rather than going after a
high-priced free agent like McCardell. (On Saturday, however,
the Eagles signed former Packers wideout Antonio Freeman to a
one-year deal.) Many veterans were ticked when Trotter was
dropped, but they accepted Reid's explanation that if the team
had signed Trotter it might lose two or three valuable players
over the next couple of years because of cap woes. "Andy's
trying to put the best team on the field," says Vincent. "We
added some good kids in the secondary. But youth gets you to
Week 9. Experience gets you the big silver trophy. We play in a
now league. When you get as close as we did last year, you've
got to do everything you can to get over the hump."
The Eagles are clearly the best team in the NFC East. With
another year of maturity, their kids might even be able to
overtake the Rams. --Peter King
COLOR PHOTO: HARRY HOW/GETTY IMAGES The Eagles like Mitchell (84), but at the 11th hour they picked up Freeman.
COLOR PHOTO: NFL PHOTOS KIRKLAND
Last year the Eagles couldn't play much man-to-man on passing
downs because they lacked depth in the secondary. But with
first-and second-round corners Lito Sheppard and Sheldon Brown
likely to play in dime situations, expect the D to be voracious.
"More corners who can play," says coach Andy Reid, "means you be
more aggressive blitzers."
ENEMY LINES an opposing team's scout sizes up the Eagles
"Donovan McNabb was the best quarterback in football last
January. If young quarterbacks such as Michael Vick, David Carr
and Drew Brees want a model, they should watch McNabb. He knows
when to stay in the pocket and when to take off. I wouldn't
trade him for anyone except Peyton Manning.... I don't like the
team's skill players. Losing Correll Buckhalter to a torn ACL
hurts because he was the perfect inside runner for a
northern-based team late in the year, a bruiser with some
shake.... Duce Staley's foot injury makes him an average back. I
wouldn't count on Dorsey Levens's staying healthy--he hasn't
been a good back for three years.... The wideouts? A bunch of
average players, except for James Thrash, who should be featured
more because of his speed and toughness.... I like the offensive
line. Tra Thomas is the most underrated tackle in football, a
masher who's quicker than people think. Jon Runyan is strong but
not quick enough to handle the top ends such as Michael
Strahan.... Two things worry me on defense. First, losing Hollis
Thomas to a broken foot is a huge blow because he's a Jim
Burt-type run-stopper. Second, if they think Barry Gardner will
be an adequate replacement for Jeremiah Trotter, they're nuts.
I'd play Levon Kirkland over Gardner. Kirkland hits better....
The special teams give Philly a big edge. David Akers has an
outstanding leg and is consistent. He wins two games for them
Sept. 8 at Tennessee
16 at Washington
Oct. 6 at Jacksonville
13 Open date
20 TAMPA BAY
28 N.Y. GIANTS (Mon.)
Nov. 3 at Chicago*
25 at San Francisco (Mon.)
Dec. 1 ST. LOUIS
8 at Seattle
21 at Dallas (Sat.)
28 at N.Y. Giants (Sat.)
NFL rank: 11
Opponents' 2001 winning percentage: .513
Games against playoff teams: 4
PROJECTED LINEUP with 2001 statistics
COACH: Andy Reid; fourth season with Philadelphia (27-21 in NFL)
2001 RECORD: 11-5 (1st in NFC East)
NFL RANK (rush/pass/total): offense 14/20/17; defense 7/18/2
OFFENSIVE BACKS PVR*
QB Donovan McNabb 11
493 att. 285 comp. 57.8% 3,233 yds. 25 TDs 12 int. 84.3 rtg.
RB Duce Staley 46
166 att. 604 yds. 3.6 avg. 63 rec. 626 yds. 9.9 avg. 4 TDs
RB Dorsey Levens 210 [N]
44 att. 165 yds. 3.8 avg. 24 rec. 159 yds. 6.6 avg. 1 TDs
FB Cecil Martin 269
9 att. 27 yds. 3.0 avg. 24 rec. 124 yds. 5.2 avg. 2 TDs
RECEIVERS, SPECIALISTS, OFFENSIVE LINEMEN
WR James Thrash 76 63 rec. 833 yds. 8 TDs
WR Todd Pinkston 160 42 rec. 586 yds. 4 TDs
WR Antonio Freeman[N] 144 52 rec. 818 yds. 6 TDs
TE Chad Lewis 86 41 rec. 422 yds. 6 TDs
K David Akers 166 37/38 XPs 26/31 FGs 115 pts.
PR Brian Mitchell 302 39 ret. 12.0 avg. 0 TDs
KR Brian Mitchell 302 41 ret. 25.0 avg. 1 TD
LT Tra Thomas 6'7" 349 lbs. 15 games 15 starts
LG John Welbourn 6'5" 318 lbs. 15 games 15 starts
C Hank Fraley 6'2" 300 lbs. 16 games 15 starts
RG Jermane Mayberry 6'4" 325 lbs. 16 games 15 starts
RT Jon Runyan 6'7" 330 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
LE Brandon Whiting 16 tackles 2 1/2 sacks
LT Darwin Walker 4 tackles 1 sack
RT Corey Simon 35 tackles 7 1/2 sacks
RE Hugh Douglas 39 tackles 9 1/2 sacks
OLB Carlos Emmons 61 tackles 1 sack
MLB Levon Kirkland [N] 79 tackles 1 sack
OLB Shawn Barber [N] 14 tackles 0 sacks
CB Troy Vincent 57 tackles 3 int.
SS Blaine Bishop [N] 20 tackles 0 int.
FS Brian Dawkins 56 tackles 2 int.
CB Bobby Taylor 34 tackles 1 int.
P Sean Landeta 97 punts 43.5 avg.
*PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 98)
"If they think Barry Gardner will be an adequate replacement for
Jeremiah Trotter, they're nuts."