Eagles Catching Up Faster Than Expected

IRVING, TX. - Last year's passing game for the Philadelphia Eagles was a shadow of what was expected.

Quarterback Donovan McNabb and some guy named WR Terrell Owens were expected to ride the momentum of the previous season's Super Bowl run and take it one step further, as many preseason predictions called for the Eagles to claim the Lombardi Trophy at the end of the 2005 season as Super Bowl champions.

Everyone knows what happened. Owens found himself in a firestorm that ultimately led to him essentially being fired for the last handful of games of last season. McNabb spent most of the season trying to recover from a sports hernia, an injury that ultimately brought his season to an end after nine games. The Philadelphia passing game ground to an awkward halt, and the Eagles failed to make the playoffs.

In the offseason, Owens was not welcomed back, a move lauded in Philadelphia as "the right move" and one that simply needed to be done for team chemistry reasons, but also a move that drew whispers that the Eagles would not be able to resume their status as an elite passing team.

So much for logic.

Through four games, the McNabb-led Philadelphia offense has sizzled, particularly through the air. McNabb is healthy again, and throwing for nearly 300 (297) yards per game. The Eagles, with an average of 29.25 points per game, lead the NFL in scoring.

Dallas head coach Bill Parcells said McNabb obviously is playing very well this year, in large part because he "looks like he's in good condition," and said that just because Owens now wears a Dallas uniform, the Eagles still utilize the same package of pass routes and plays.

If the biggest difference between last year's offense that averaged 19.375 points per game and this year's version is McNabb's health, the second-biggest difference i the emergence of a more talented and versatile of wide receivers. Tight end L.J. Smith leads the Eagles with 18 receptions through four games, and running back Brian Westrook is second on the team with 15. But unlike in years past, when the team featured one star wideut and a bunch of guys who were little more than afterthoughts in the Philadelphia gameplan, the Eagles now boast a trio of wide receivers who force opposing teams to account for them at all times.

Donté Stallworth was acquired in a trade with the New Orleans Saints before the season, and is third on the team with 12 catches through four games. More importantly, however, Stallworth is one of the fastest receivers in the league, and leads the Philadelphia wideouts with a gaudy average of 20.7 yards per reception, and is tied for the team lead with a pair of receiving touchdowns.

Stallworth has had a strained hamstring early this season, and reports out of Philadelphia have him listed as questionable or perhaps even doubtful to play against the Cowboys. But according to Dallas cornerback Anthony Henry, the Cowboys are preparing to see Stallworth in the lineup, and are fully aware of the challenge he presents for the Dallas defense.

"Stallworth has added a lot of speed to their offense," Henry said Wednesday. "He definitely makes them more dangerous."

Reggie Brown, in his second season since being drafted in the second round out of Georgia, is emerging into a solid all-around receiver, as well. The 6-1, 197-pounder has the toughness to go over the middle, and is more than fast enough to give McNabb another downfield target, averaging 19.3 yards on his 11 receptions. Brown also has a pair of touchdown receptions.

The third outside receiving threat is Greg Lewis, the fourth-year former free agent from Illinois. Lewis has nine receptions so far this year (17.2 yards per) and scored a pair of touchdowns in Philadelphia's win Monday night over the Green Bay Packers.

Parcells said the rest of the Eagles' receivers were overshadowed last year by Owens, but said that the addition of Stallworth made an already-solid group that much more dangerous.

"They're the highest-scoring team in the league," Parcells said. "We're up there close to 'em, but when you're scoring like they are, it's a dangerous offense."

There will be times in Philadelphia's West Coast offense that Stallworth, Brown and Lewis all will be on the field at the same time. Naturally, the Cowboys will need to generate a significant pass rush to force McNabb to throw before he's ready, and hopefully force errant passes. But Henry, Terence Newman and Aaron Glenn will have to come up with strong performances to keep the Philadelphia offense in check. With McNabb healthy, and the dangerous Smith and Brian Westbrook as alternate targets, the Dallas defense will have to at least control -- if not contain -- the most versatile trio of receivers they have faced so far this season.

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