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TSN Preseason Analysis - Philadelphia Eagles


B&G

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Eagles Support Group

Vinnie Iyer and Mark Eckel

The Sporting News

BURNING QUESTION

Will the team's offseason losses lead to a step backward?

To maintain success in the salary-cap era, it's imperative to let high-priced veterans go for potential impact rookies whenever possible, and a prime example was the drafting of Jerome McDougle to replace Hugh Douglas (see "What's New").

The team has some new faces, but its core reasons for winning remain: The uncanny (and back healthy) Donovan McNabb and a secondary few teams can match in terms of talent, depth and experience. The Eagles again will rely on McNabb to make the offensive plays and their corners and safeties to set up everything they do on defense.

The concern is how they will rebound from consecutive NFC championship game defeats and if they can dig deep enough to take that one extra step to the Super Bowl. Before returning to the position to do so in the playoffs, they will have a tougher test within their own division.

While the team is just as good as last season, its competition is much improved. The Giants are gaining steam as an NFC East favorite.

It won't be easy for the Eagles to retain their elite status, but with McNabb's magic and smart Andy Reid as their coach, it's hard to see them going in reverse. --Vinnie Iyer

WHAT'S NEW

Eagles fans don't consider patience a virtue. They certainly were screaming throughout a roller-coaster offseason. Still feeling the horror and pain of the NFC championship game loss to Tampa Bay, Eagles faithful grew more anxious when team officials allowed free agents Douglas, Brian Mitchell, Shawn Barber and Sean Landeta to leave town.

The fans saw danger ahead and demanded answers. Team officials, time after time, asked for patience and said everything was going to be all right. Trust us, they said, and don't forget to send in your full payment for tickets to new Lincoln Financial Field.

Finally, on draft weekend, the team showed the aggressive nature that helped it win 34 regular-season games the past three years and reach back-to-back NFC championship games. First, the Eagles moved up from No. 30 in the first round to No. 15 and grabbed Miami (Fla.) defensive end McDougle, a pass rusher and supposed Douglas clone to replace the dozen sacks they lost.

Next, they got the player they say they would have taken at No. 30 -- Rutgers tight end L.J. Smith -- at No. 61 in the second round. Smith, a star waiting to happen, should flourish in the Eagles pass-happy West Coast offense.

Less than 24 hours after the draft, the team came to terms with All-Pro free safety Brian Dawkins on a seven-year contract. The roller coaster was headed back up, and this time the screams were from delight.

SPOTLIGHT PLAYERS

QB Donovan McNabb: The Eagles' last two seasons ended the same way -- with a McNabb interception in the NFC championship game. Two years ago, the Rams' Aeneas Williams intercepted a fourth-down pass in the final minute. Last year, the Bucs' Ronde Barber made an interception late in the fourth quarter and returned it for a touchdown.

Perplexing is the fact McNabb rarely throws interceptions. He threw just six in 361 attempts (1.7 percent) during the 2002 regular season and has thrown a total of 38 interceptions in 1,639 regular-season attempts (2.3 percent) in his career. If anything, McNabb is too cautious.

As he begins his fifth season in Reid's West Coast offense, McNabb must learn to trust his receivers and take more chances. He need not turn into a reckless gunslinger, but he must take advantage of his elite arm strength. McNabb also can make plays with his legs. Last season, he averaged 7.3 yards per carry and scored six rushing touchdowns.

He is mature enough now that he runs only out of necessity. The Eagles learned last year that they can survive without McNabb but can't thrive. McNabb must be in MVP form for the Eagles to reach their first Super Bowl since the 1980 season.

The secondary: The Eagles' unit is the best in the NFL and features three Pro Bowl players: cornerbacks Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor and Dawkins. And Eagles coaches say second-year man Michael Lewis, who will start at strong safety, might be on his way to Hawaii, too.

Vincent, 32, shows no signs of slowing down after making a fourth consecutive Pro Bowl trip. He is excellent in run support, handles most receivers man-to-man and is a student of the game. If Vincent has lost any physical skills, his mind makes up for it.

Taylor, the best No. 2 cornerback in the NFL, is tall and athletic and uses long arms to break up the passes he is not be able to track down. Taylor led the Eagles with five interceptions in 2002, one more than he had the past two years combined.

Dawkins' signing was the team's best offseason move. Jim Johnson's defense is designed around Dawkins, who can blitz, play center field, cover slot receivers man-to-man and support the run. Had Eagles officials allowed Dawkins to play out the final year of his contract, it would have had ramifications in the locker room.

Lewis replaces veteran Blaine Bishop, who was released after his only season with the team. Lewis, a second-round pick last year, made plays and big hits in limited time as a rookie. The coaches say he adds intensity, speed and toughness to a secondary already filled with all three.

Al Harris, one of the league's best nickel backs the past three years, was traded to the Packers to make room for two high draft picks from 2002: first-rounder Lito Sheppard and second-rounder Sheldon Brown.

Sheppard had a disappointing rookie year; he was slowed early by nagging injuries, never caught up and did not play much. Brown, who will battle with Sheppard for the nickel spot, showed good toughness last season and was a factor on special teams. The coaches say Sheppard is better against outside receivers and Brown is better in the slot. Brown also could play as a backup safety.

The defensive line: The Eagles like to throw nothing but fastballs at an offense, rotating a group of fresh pass-rush specialists at end. The Eagles lost Douglas -- the team's premier pass rusher -- to Jacksonville as a free agent, but coaches say they have a group of players who collectively can replace his double-digit sack total.

Derrick Burgess, who had six sacks as a rookie and then missed most of last season with a broken foot, should be ready to contribute again. N.D. Kalu had eight sacks in 2002 and will be joined in the pass-rush rotation by McDougle and fellow rookie Jamaal Green. Brandon Whiting, the starting left end the past three seasons, is a good run stopper and a coach on the field. Whiting will be replaced on most passing downs.

At the tackle spots, the team has talent and depth.

Corey Simon is just a notch below the league's top tackles and is primed to make the jump into the premier class. He is a good pass rusher who has become more disciplined against the run.

Darwin Walker, given a chance when Hollis Thomas broke his foot last season, emerged as a fixture in the middle. Walker showed both a good inside pass rush and the ability to shut down the opponent's running game. He wore down at the end of the season but should get more rest with a healthy Thomas ready to play. Versatile Paul Grasmanis gives Johnson a good four-man rotation inside.

GAME PLAN

Reid always will be a pass-first, run-later coach. Last year, however, with some influence from offensive coordinator Brad Childress, who cut his offensive teeth at the University of Wisconsin under Barry Alvarez, the Eagles ran more and more effectively. The team never will be a 50-50 run/pass team, but its stable of diverse running backs can take pressure off McNabb.

Reid's biggest challenge is to utilize the special skills of his three backs -- the running/receiving combination of Duce Staley, the power of Correll Buckhalter and the speed of Brian Westbrook -- and keep all three happy. Reid's strength, fortunately, is designing unique packages to keep defenses off-balance.

In the passing game, McNabb uses a lot of short slants to wide receivers and screen passes to running backs. McNabb throws an occasional deep ball, usually to receivers Todd Pinkston and James Thrash, to keep defenses honest. But this offense is based on moving the chains and getting yards after the catch. Smith should help in both areas.

On defense, Reid allows Johnson the freedom to run his unit with little interference. Johnson's defenses blitz a lot -- from any spot on the field. He will send linebackers, cornerbacks and especially Dawkins from his safety spot. Johnson can afford this luxury because he has the NFL's best group of cornerbacks.

DAN POMPEI'S TAKE

A great defense and a great quarterback is a nice combination. But losing to Tampa Bay in the NFC championship game might have taken some of the steam out of the Eagles.

FALL FORECAST

The NFC East is better from top to bottom than it was the last two years, and it certainly will be more competitive. Still, there is no reason to think the Eagles won't win their third straight division title. How far they go after that will be determined by the performance of McNabb and the new players on defense and special teams.

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Originally posted by B&G

Perplexing is the fact McNabb rarely throws interceptions. He threw just six in 361 attempts (1.7 percent) during the 2002 regular season and has thrown a total of 38 interceptions in 1,639 regular-season attempts (2.3 percent) in his career. If anything, McNabb is too cautious.

As he begins his fifth season in Reid's West Coast offense, McNabb must learn to trust his receivers and take more chances. He need not turn into a reckless gunslinger, but he must take advantage of his elite arm strength.

These are the two most critical points for the Eagles to be successful in the upcoming season.

A difference between McNabb and Detmer/Feeley was that the backups threw caution to the wind, especially Detmer. He had nothing to lose, so he made some passes that McNabb would never had made. As a result of trusting his receivers, they made the plays. McNabb may have held the ball too long or taken a sack in a similar situation. He has that tendency when a receiver isn't open by a step or two.

It's no secret that the Eagles receivers are not game-breakers. However, they do have some talent and could show a lot more if McNabb would take a chance every now and then instead of waiting for the perfect play/pattern to develop.

Success depends on McNabb. The backups can keep the team in games but cannot provide the spark that #5 brings to the field.

Still sick of the dink and dunk WCO. Throw the ball down field for God's sake! Maybe even on first down. What a concept.

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While the team is just as good as last season, its competition is much improved. The Giants are gaining steam as an NFC East favorite.

I hate it when the Giants start getting credit during the offseason. That is usually when they falter. I don't think they can handle the expectations of success. Let's hope it changes and some of the veterans know how to handle expected success. Otherwise, the every other year trend will continue.

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That sure was a LONG preseason analysis. Do they give in-depth, position-by-position analysis of each team?

OR are they just :jerkoff: all the Eagle homers out there b/c their team has choked two years in a row in theNFC title game?????

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