Thursday January 20th, 2005

What an exhausting first (and only) day of free agency it must have been for Jevon Kearse.

When the opening bell of the NFL's prime shopping season first sounded at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday, many assumed the talented Tennessee defensive end was headed for Washington D.C., where he would become the latest in a long line of free agents to smile and accept an eight-digit check from Redskins owner Daniel Snyder.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the heist in Washington. By midday it became apparent that nothing was signed, sealed and delivered between Kearse and the Redskins, and the word around the league was that Chicago was making a serious push for the player who many considered the only real titan among this year's free-agent crop.

Later in the afternoon, the momentum in the Kearse sweepstakes seemed to keep shifting westward, to Seattle, as the Seahawks reportedly made their run at free agency's best available pass rusher.

But when everything was said and done, Kearse landed in Philadelphia, signing an eight-year, $66 million contract that makes him the highest paid defensive lineman in NFL history. Apparently the Eagles were in the driver's seat all along, maybe without much in the way of real competition, and were bound and determined to make a first-day splash at one of the game's most pivotal positions.

Some will say, and I'll echo their point, that giving Kearse a $16 million signing bonus and $4 million more in 2004-2005 roster bonuses is a risky proposition for a guy who has missed 14 games the past two seasons and whose sack totals have decreased in each of his first full seasons in the league. More than one observer around the league believes Kearse from here on out stands a decent chance of being a very good player who already has logged his career's best performances.

But I also understand the Eagles' move. When you've lost three consecutive NFC title games, the past two at home to underdogs, as Philly has, you have to do something bold and daring in order to change the dynamics. You can't simply sit back and look content to win 11-12 games, go to the playoffs and then break your fans' hearts every January. Three years or so is about the statue of limitations for that particular blueprint.

And two other factors were crucial to the Kearse signing: First off, the Eagles were loaded with cash and salary-cap room, a cool $25 million or so under the league's salary ceiling. If you've got it, you might as well spend it, because cap room doesn't do you any good if it stays nice and neat on a piece of paper. Only the Minnesota Vikings started free agency with more maneuverability under the cap, and they too are looking to unload a good chunk of their $33.3 million surplus.

Secondly, the Eagles just didn't spend big on Kearse in order to spend big and make a show of how they're trying to break out of their NFC title game slump. They spent big on a young pass rusher, one of the few players that savvy Eagles president Joe Banner always believes in paying top dollar for. Kearse, despite his health concerns, is 27 and entering his sixth NFL season.

True, the Eagles could have just held onto defensive end Hugh Douglas last year for less than what they just gave Kearse. But the important difference is that Douglas was 32 last year and entering his ninth NFL season. Philadelphia's tried and true policy is that you never give big money to players on the downside of their career. No matter who it is. To do otherwise is to flirt with cap disaster. Isn't that right, Troy Vincent?

If you look at what the Eagles have done on their defensive line of late, their methodology is at least consistent. They took heat for it, but they let Douglas walk. He went to Jacksonville, took its big money, and had a miserable year. They tried to pilfer a young pass rusher in Green Bay's Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila in restricted free agency last spring, and saw the Packers match. Then they went out and traded up 15 spots in the first round of the 2003 draft, selecting promising University of Miami defensive end Jerome McDougle.

With Kearse upgrading the pass rush, now all the Eagles need to do on defense is make sure they have some cornerbacks who can cover, replacing Vincent and fellow free agent Bobby Taylor. They don't have to be spectacular, just solid. The great thing in the NFL is, the better the pass rush, the more you can get away with in the secondary. That's the way things work.

Now we all expect the Eagles to turn their attention to their offense and go shopping for that impact receiver who can help them out of their January rut. It could be a trade for San Francisco's Terrell Owens is the target, or perhaps another former Titan, in restricted free-agent receiver Justin McCareins of Tennessee.

Whatever comes next, the Eagles stepped out of character on the first day of free agency, turning both bold and overly generous by all previous standards. In acquiring Kearse, Philadelphia paid handsomely for a difference maker. But will he make the key difference, or be just another unnecessary big-money free agent signing?

The hard, cold reality in Philadelphia is this: Anything short of a Super Bowl run in 2004, and we'll all know the answer.

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