Before January 19 2003, only one team had ever lost at home in the NFC Championship game, under the new playoff format. Then came the horrific loss the Tampa Bay Buccaneers handed the Eagles in the final game ever played at Veterans Stadium. If that loss wasn't disheartening enough, the off-season that followed took a toll on the framework of this team, and surely it's mental makeup as well. The Eagles are a slightly different team going into camp this season, and it's hard to tell if this group has what it takes to make the next step towards a Super Bowl championship. The changes that took place over the off-season can be looked at many different ways, but in the end the Eagles got younger, slightly quicker and Eagles fans hope that means the team will be improved over last year's unit.
The off-season began with a whirlwind of a day that saw both Brian Mitchell and Shawn Barber sign contracts elsewhere in a matter of hours. Mitchell, deeply wounded by the team's offer of just above the league minimum to him, spurned the team and headed up the turnpike to sign with the New York Giants. Had the team offered him a more respectable contract, he would still be wearing midnight green. After all, Mitchell was the team's best player in its most important game, and deserved better treatment. Dorsey Levens soon joined Mitchell in New York, and his acquisition will spell the end of Ron Dayne's career as a Giant. With very capable halfbacks Correll Buckhalter and Brian Westbrook behind Duce Staley, Levens' loss does not necessarily hurt the Eagles chances on offense.
Like Mitchell, standout weakside linebacker Shawn Barber became the third straight LB to leave the team in two years, signing a long-term deal with Kansas City. Sure the Chiefs may have overpaid for Barber's services but this unit has lacked continuity since Jeremiah Trotter was jettisoned to Washington two years ago. As we enter the 2000 season, the Eagles will have two new backers, Nate Wayne replacing Barber, and little known Mark Simoneau taking Levon Kirkland's spot in the middle. As a whole, the linebackers should be quicker, but how they grasp Jim Johnson's system will be crucial to the success of this defense.
Perhaps the biggest loss of this off-season was that of Hugh Douglas. During perhaps the most controversial contract negotiations seen in the city of Philadelphia in recent memory, Douglas's agent Drew Rosenhaus dooped Douglas into believing he had a better offer on the table from the Jacksonville Jaguars then he did from the Eagles. In actuality, those two deals were nearly identical and Rosenhaus ran away with more money after his client signed with the Jaguars then he would have if they stayed with the Birds. Douglas however, was disheartened by Joe Banner's comments that the team does not like to sign players over 30 years old. At his introduction as a Jaguar, Douglas had this to say "I can't wait to go back to my secret lab and get stronger, and then to go up there and kick their [expletive here] next time we play them."
The Eagles did create some excitement on draft day when they traded up to select Jerome McDougle out of Miami in the first round to replace Douglas. Eagles fans hope that he will be able to step in and replace Douglas's pass rushing ability in the very near future.
Sure there were changes this off-season that could be detrimental to the team's on-field performance, but there is light at the end of the tunnel. Having a full season with a healthy McNabb will be scary for opposing defenses. Watching game tapes from previous seasons has revealed to me that when healthy, McNabb is the most potent quarterback in the NFL. Combine that with the ever-developing Todd Pinkston, and newly drafted Billy McMullen at wide receiver and McNabb will have a more versatile receiving corps this year. The team still does not have a legitimate number one receiver who is a downfield threat, but this group will be more talented then last.
As a whole, this team still appears to be a work in progress. Until practices are in full swing, complete with contact and emotion, nobody will no just how good this team will be. Having the offensive line in tact for another season is great news for McNabb, and the defense will be solid with Brian Dawkins leading the best secondary in the league, and doing so for the long term. This should be an exciting season for Philadelphia, but just how high the Eagles will fly is yet to be seen.
Stay tuned tomorrow as we profile the Eagles rookies in 2003.