Questions to Ponder as Training camp nears(Part 2)

<B>For the first time in recent memory the Eagles offense may just be ahead of its defense as training camp approaches.There is continuity at many positions and the team returns ten starters from last season's record unit.A healthy Donovan McNabb will be a key to the season, and if his wide receivers can produce even better numbers then they did last year, then this could be another historic season for the Eagles offense. That's not to say there are not question marks with this unit however.</B>

The Eagles offense scored the most points in franchise history last season, and that was with six games minus Donovan McNabb. Imagine what this team can do with a full year with a healthy McNabb. After a season when A.J Feeley and Koy Detmer lead the team to a 5-1 record without McNabb, and Duce Staley rushes for over 1,000 yards, there shouldn't be any questions, right? Well if you dig below the surface, there are plenty of uncertainties surrounding this unit.

The Eagles offensive line has been together for three seasons as a unit, but after surrendering the second most sacks in franchise history, many people are looking for a scapegoat. After his lackluster performance in the NFC Championship game it is easy to place blame on the wide shoulders of Tra Thomas, and to a degree it is rightly placed. The six-year veteran was manhandled by the likes of Simeon Rice and other defensive ends last year. Jon Runyan also needs to step up this year against Michael Strahan and others if the line intends on protecting McNabb from suffering further injury. If only this unit could play the way they did in the game McNabb suffered an injured ankle, every Sunday it would be unbeatable. Just how well the offensive line executes throughout the year will be key to this team's success.

For the past five seasons Cecil Martin has been this team's starting fullback. Unfortunately he is best known for his public service announcements on Phanavision during games and on Comcast Sportsnet during the season. This may be an unfair assessment for a guy who's known as a fairly solid blocking back, but since arriving in the Eagles backfield he has tallied only 103 rushing yards. Martin was utilized as a receiver out of the backfield from time to time, and once he made way into the open field it was evident that he did not have the speed of fullbacks such as Ritchie Anderson, Mike Alstott and Jon Ritchie. This off-season was time for a change at the position.

Ritchie was signed to replace Martin and hopes to make another run to the Super Bowl in 2003. Like Martin, Ritchie is not a stellar running back, but he is very effective as a receiver. What the Eagles may lose from Martin's blocking ability will be compensated by this offensive threat. Ritchie is no slouch as a blocker, but his claim to fame is his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. Last season Ritchie was an integral part of Oakland's run to San Diego, but as the season wore on the Raider wide receivers took away many of his receptions. If Ritchie can be as good a blocker as Martin and become the threat out of the backfield he is capable of being then this offense will add another dimension to an already complex scheme.

Eagles Wide receivers have another year together going into 2003 and if Todd Pinkston can continue to improve then many people will quickly forget the need for a speedy number one receiver. The questions lie behind him however. James Thrash disappeared in 2002, and Freddy Mitchell couldn't even make his way onto the field. The selection of Billy McMullen should be a great addition to an already developing core of receivers, but when Peerless Price is available and the Eagles do not even make an effort to acquire him then it's hard to consider the position an upgrade. If Thrash can return to his 2001 form and Pinkston continues to develop then McNabb will finally have the weapons to take this team to the next step. But if not, then the Eagles may be forced to make a run at Terrell Owens next year to add that pure number one receiver.

Much Like James Thrash, Chad Lewis was very ineffective last season. When the Eagles chose L.J. Smith in the second round of the draft the team acquired a rebuttal for New York's Jeremy Shockey. Just how much time Smith is on the field will be a key in his development and the overall form of the offense. Smith looks to challenge Lewis for the starting role, and the more he's on the field the more success Philadelphia will have, because there aren't many linebackers in this division who can match up with a young, big, fast tight end who can go over the middle. But if Lewis is once again the starter, he will need to return to Pro-Bowl form and become the tight end he once was for this offense to have any success in passing situations.

Donovan McNabb is the motor of this offensive machine and if he stays healthy, then this team will be even more feared then last year's group. It is time for Donovan to step up and take this team to the next level; he has all the weapons in place and a system that he should finally be familiar with. However, McNabb has struggled in big game situations, and should the Eagles make another trip to the conference championship game, he must lead the team to the next step. If he does not, then there will be even more questions leading up to training camp 2004.


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