With the dog days of summer appearing to have finally unleashed its wrath on the northeast portion of the United States, the time for NFL teams to report to training camp are not too far behind. In less that one-month teams will assemble at their respective training camp facilities to begin the quest of winning perhaps the most coveted award in professional sports, the Lombardi trophy. The emotional roller coaster ride, better known as the National Football League season, is like the claws of summer, about to reel in millions of fans, players, coaches and other numerous participants. The professional sports scene has hit its annual ‘calm before the storm'. No more hockey or basketball games. The baseball season is near its halfway mark of the season. This is when you know that the NFL is ready to burst on the scene with a mighty vengeance. One of those 32 teams preparing to march towards Super Bowl XXXVIII in Houston is the Philadelphia Eagles. After having their hearts torn out of their chests for the second consecutive year in the NFC Championship game, the Eagles are poised to make another strong push to add something that the city of Philadelphia has never been able to enjoy, the sweet savory success of being crowned the Super Bowl champions.
As soon as Tampa Bay's Ronde Barber intercepted Donovan McNabb's pass in the fourth quarter of January's NFC Championship game, the pain of losing a second championship game in as many years struck Eagles fans with the force of a steel-toed boot to the gut. Immediately the questions began surfacing. Had the Eagles window of opportunity to get to and win a Super Bowl slammed shut? Was Donovan McNabb the guy who could lead the Birds to that championship? Could Andy Reid, the 2002 NFL Coach of the Year, get this team going back in the right direction? So many questions were asked in the following days of that loss and very few answers could be given. Then, as if falling a game shy of the Super Bowl wasn't enough, the unrestricted free agency signing period started. After team president and salary cap guru Joe Banner promised the fans of Philadelphia an "exciting" off-season, veterans Hugh Douglas, Brian Mitchell and Shawn Barber were allowed to leave via free agency. In all, the Eagles lost eight of the sixteen unrestricted free agents. Once again the same questions reared their ugly heads just like after the loss to the Buccaneers. Except this time the Eagles commitment to winning was questioned. How could the Eagles expect to win if they allowed major contributors to walk away? Not only did they lose an sure-fire Hall of Fame kick return specialist, a locker room leader and veteran defensive end and an athletic, playmaking linebacker. They lost a lot of guys who were key pieces in perhaps the deepest team depth-wise in the NFL.
While the fans were stewing in anger or shaking their heads in disbelief over the free agent losses, the Eagles brass was conjuring up a plan to replace those key departures. They traded away long time nickel-back, Al Harris and a 4th round selection in the 2003 draft to the Green Bay Packers for a 2nd round selection in the same draft. They acquired little known linebacker, Mark Simoneau from the Atlanta Falcons for a 2003 6th round choice and a 2004 4th round selection. They quickly brought in a salary cap casualty from Green Bay, linebacker Nate Wayne, for a visit and signed him a day later to a 4-year contract. Simoneau will replace last season's duo of Barry Gardner and Levon Kirkland at middle linebacker and Wayne will man the weakside linebacker position that was Shawn Barber's before he signed in Kansas City. Despite falling short in their efforts, they wooed restricted free agent Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila to take the spot of Hugh Douglas at right end. Not signing Gbaja-Biamila could've been a blessing in disguise though because it enabled the Eagles to retain their 1st round selection (30th overall) in the draft. Had Gbaja-Biamila signed a contract here, it would've required the Eagles to turn over their 1st round pick to the Packers as compensation.
Later that month the Eagles were able to maneuver their way up in the first round of the draft to select Miami (Fla.) defensive end Jerome McDougle. The San Diego Chargers took the 30th and the 62nd overall selections in exchange for the 15th pick where the Birds eagerly snatched up McDougle, who was supposedly the second best defensive end available behind Arizona State's Terrell Suggs (drafted by Baltimore 10th overall). The Eagles continued to make excellent picks in the draft and addressed several key areas of need. Tight end L.J. Smith was drafted in the 2nd round (61st overall) and wide receiver Billy McMullen Jr. was the choice in the 3rd round (95th overall). On the second day of drafting, where gems are sometimes discovered, the Eagles started off by picking McDougle's Miami teammate and fellow defensive end Jamaal Green with their compensatory pick (131st overall) received for losing linebacker Jeremiah Trotter the previous year. The final two players were picked to add depth to positions that sorely need it. Offensive lineman Jeremy Bridges (6th round 185th overall) will fight with Scott Peters, Bobbie Williams and Artis Hicks to replace the departed Doug Brzezinski as the top backup on the OL. Lastly the Eagles drafted safety Norman LeJeune (7th round 244th overall) to lend a helping hand on special teams units and provide depth behind Brian Dawkins and Michael Lewis in the defensive backfield.
The day immediately following the draft, while fans were gleaming and praising the Eagles for such a successful draft, the front office signed the most dominant free safety in the NFL, Brian Dawkins, to a contract extension that will all but ensure him to retire as an Eagle. Suddenly the proclamation made by Joe Banner for the "exciting" off-season was appearing to come to fruition. Despite the distractions of Bobby Taylor and Duce Staley's voluntary mini-camp holdouts used to try to pressure the Birds for new contracts, the Eagles appear ready to contend once again this season.
So here we are. In less than thirty days the practice fields at Lehigh University will spring to life with the sounds of shoulder pads smashing into each other. With every hard hit, reception, interception and successful slant route the fans will work themselves into that frenzied football mode. The Philadelphia Eagles will once again demand full attention as one of the NFL's elite teams. Sure the team suffered the aforementioned losses of free agents, but one thing the Eagles do have is a solid core group of players intact for years to come. They're returning ten of eleven starters on offense. The only exception is that Cecil Martin no longer will man the fullback position. That duty is now instilled upon free agent acquisition Jon Ritchie, who came to the Eagles via the Oakland Raiders and is widely considered as an upgrade from Martin. Ritchie, along with the same mammoth offensive line, will be clearing the way for running backs Duce Staley, Correll Buckhalter and Brian Westbrook. Buckhalter rejoins the active roster this year after spending the entire 2002 campaign rehabbing his torn ACL that was suffered in mini-camps last year.
Donovan McNabb is entering his fifth NFL season and according to head coach Andy Reid, is the magical year for a quarterback in his west coast offense. McNabb will be throwing to mainly the same group of wide receivers sans Antonio Freeman, who could still be re-signed. Offensive coordinator Brad Childress says that fifth year wide out Todd Pinkston is poised for a breakout season and that the battle for the void left by Freeman at the slot wide receiver position is a heavily contested one. Freddie Mitchell is battling with rookie Billy McMullen to fill that void. Many view this season as a "make or break" season for the former first round draft pick Mitchell. If he fails to beat out McMullen it will solidify the whispers of "bust" creeping throughout the NFL in regards to the ex-UCLA standout. The tight end position is virtually the same with savvy veteran Chad Lewis entrenched as the starter while showing rookie L.J. Smith the ropes of being a solid NFL player. Lewis, who must improve in the reception category, gives McNabb a nice safety blanket to throw to when he's on his game. The preliminary reports from the Eagles coaching staff says that Smith will make an immediate impact due to his knack for getting downfield. The speed and athleticism that Smith potentially can bring to the table is something the Eagles haven't seen since the days of Keith Jackson
Donovan McNabb has taken the reigns of team leader not only on the field but vocally and emotionally too. He's going to have his troops ready to wash that bitter taste of the loss to Tampa out of their mouths and poised to attack the rest of the National Football League. McNabb and his Eagles are ready for football, are you? (part 1 of a 3 part series. Next week we'll preview the defense)