The return to health of Donovan McNabb--and the banishment of his nemesis--willrestore this once-feared team to prominence, even though Philadelphia doesn'thave a marquee receiver to catch McNabb's passes.
The circus--as defensive end Jevon Kearse describes it--has folded its tent andheaded west, and the Freak and his teammates couldn't be happier. With theoff-season move of Terrell Owens to the Cowboys, the Eagles believe they'repast the nightmare of 2005. "There's no more War of the Roses,"linebacker Dhani Jones says, referring to the messy feud between T.O. andMcNabb that set an ominous tone for what turned out to be a 6--10 fall fromgrace. "One person can make or break a team, and last year you saw thedifference between when a team is superunified or disassociated."
The truth is thatPhilly was done in by more than Owens's petulance and the resultingdistractions. Coming off four consecutive NFC title games and a Super Bowl lossto the Patriots, coach Andy Reid's team, some players say, had becomecomplacent. Then there was the seasonlong barrage of injuries, McNabb's sportshernia being the most devastating.
After somebrilliant and heroic efforts by McNabb early on, the five-time Pro Bowlquarterback went down for good in mid-November. He has come back strong and isas breezy and upbeat as ever, resolute in his belief that the lack of areceiving option that even comes close to approaching Owens's skill level won'tkeep him from regaining his mojo.
Before Owensjoined the Eagles in 2004, McNabb, bereft of big-time playmakers, tended toplay unevenly in big games--as though he believed he had to do it all himself.How much help he'll have this year depends in part on the development of theteam's young pass catchers, with '05 second-round draft pick Reggie Brown, wholed all NFL rookies with 571 receiving yards, the most logical to emerge.McNabb is also intrigued by the potential of Hank Baskett, a 6'4",220-pound rookie free agent from New Mexico who has excellent hands. Thewideout corps will be strengthened by the addition of veteran Donté Stallworth,acquired on Monday in a trade with the Saints.
When healthy,fifth-year halfback Brian Westbrook is McNabb's most explosive option. Thequarterback puts the 5'8", 203-pound Westbrook in a class with "the oldMarshall Faulk. He has a bigger heart than his size would indicate."Problem is, the diminutive rushing-receiving threat gets hurt a lot, missingthe last four games of last season with a right-foot sprain and most of thepreseason this year with a sprained left foot.
The NFC East is adifferent division from the one the Eagles ruled from 2001 through'04--stronger top to bottom. It will take a spirited and focused effort forPhilly to compete with the defending division champion Giants, the resurgentRedskins and T.O.'s new teammates in Dallas.
"Last year isburied in a casket, and the casket doesn't need to be opened up for any DNAtests," safety Brian Dawkins says. "You'll see a very emotional groupthis year. I promise you that."
10 at Houston
17 N.Y. GIANTS
24 at San Francisco
2 GREEN BAY (M)
15 at New Orleans
22 at Tampa Bay
26 at Indianapolis
4 CAROLINA (M)
10 at Washington
17 at N.Y. Giants
25 at Dallas (M)
Opponents' 2005 winning percentage
Games against playoff teams
AN OPPOSING TEAM'S SCOUT SIZES UP THE EAGLES
> As strangeas it sounds, Donovan McNabb is the most underrated player on this team. Hestill doesn't get enough credit or respect. He's the leader and bestplayer--the whole deal.
> Thatleadership is important. One of the biggest challenges facing this team is toregain its swagger.
> Getting ridof Terrell Owens was the right move. But it will take time for Donté Stallworthto absorb the Eagles' system, so it will be up to Reggie Brown to pick up a lotof the slack.
> Theoffensive line--and particularly left tackle William [formerly Tra]Thomas--needs to stay healthy and execute well, especially in the running game.In fact, Philadelphia can't afford a serious injury to anyone in theoffense.
Brian Dawkins wasa great safety a couple of years ago, but he can't make the plays he used to beable to make.
Hood's playfilling in for injured All-Pro corner Lito Sheppard last season has putPhilly's coaches in a bind this year: With Sheppard back, where to put Hood?The physical fourth-year pro fought his way to the pros, first as a walk-on atAuburn and then as an unsigned free agent. "He's one of the best-keptsecrets in the NFL," linebacker Jeremiah Trotter says. "He's going tobe a serious weapon in this league."
WITH 2005 STATISTICS
ANDY REID (70--42 in NFL), eighth season with Philadelphia
SACKS 7 1/2
TACKLES 3 1/2
SACKS 3 1/2
SACKS 3 1/2
(R) Rookie(college statistics)
NFL RANK (RUSH/PASS/TOTAL)
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DODGEBALL Westbrook is Philly's most electric player, but injuries have kept him from joining the elite backs.
HELMET PHOTOS BY DAVID N. BERKWITZ