Training Camp Postcard: Eagles
At Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., where the Eagles drew an astonishing crowd of 17,941 (I kid you not) to their steamy morning workout. That's the second largest throng in the history of Eagles camp, bettered only by the 20,000-strong crowd that showed up a few years back when Terrell Owens was slated to make an appearance in the team's autograph tent. You probably won't be surprised to learn that occurred in T.O.'s first camp with the Eagles, not the train wreck that was the second go-round.
The fans were loud and boisterous on Friday, with near constant E-A-G-L-E-S chants, and some rather Philly-like treatment for the one lone fan who dared to wear a Cowboys jersey (I'll be hearing "Dallas sucks!'' in my sleep tonight). Some of the fan frenzy has to be a byproduct of the Eagles' very brief stay in camp this year. They're only at Lehigh for another nine days. They actually break camp before they ever play a preseason game, leaving Bethlehem on Aug. 12, the day before they travel to Baltimore for their Monday-night exhibition opener against the Ravens.
1. Memo to anxious Eagles fans everywhere: He's fine. Really. Everything's going to be OK. Donovan McNabb may not be all the way back just yet, but if you didn't know the Eagles quarterback had blown out his right knee a little more than eight months ago, you wouldn't be able to tell from his early work in training camp.
"If that's being 75 percent for him, I'd love to see him get to 100 percent,'' Eagles running back Brian Westbrook said Friday after McNabb turned in another strong practice performance. "Minus the [knee] brace, you'd be hard-pressed to tell anything had happened to him.''
McNabb has been very accurate in camp thus far, and I saw him put pass after pass on the hands of his receivers Friday morning. He hit the newly acquired Kevin Curtis in stride on a bomb down the left sideline midway through live team drills, and he's moving around with aplomb, avoiding the pass rush and occasionally taking off if there's no open receiver in sight.
I'm convinced he could start a regular season game next week and fare pretty darn well for himself, but in reality he has more than a month before Philly's Sept. 9 opener at Green Bay to continue making progress. He'll make that without breaking a sweat, even though the Eagles may hold him out of the first two preseason games for precautionary reasons.
I asked him Friday if he wanted me to spread the word that he's good to go, so folks can stop asking him about the state of the knee?
"I've tried to do that in so many words,'' McNabb said. "But this is Philadelphia. It's something to talk about. The biggest question in camp this year is 'How's Donovan?' But really, I'm good. There are steps in this process, but getting back on the field and playing again, it's just like riding a bike.''
2. I think one of the trickiest things for the Eagles to figure out early this season will be how to duplicate the prominence Westbrook had in their offense during last year's late-season run to the playoffs. Westbrook himself is interested to know if a run-pass balance will be the byword with Philly's offense this season, after he was successful carrying so much of the load while the Eagles were winning six consecutive games without McNabb last season.
"I think a lot of people around the league were surprised, but I've been asking for that, to carry the load, for a while now,'' Westbrook told me between practices. "We've been a quarterback dominated team and we've won that way. But I would hope [last year] would influence us to run the ball a lot more than in the past. Andy [Reid] loves the passing game. Sometimes he gets bored with the running game.''
It wasn't too boring when Westbrook was helping the Eagles rescue their season last year. It was smart football by Reid and offensive play-caller Marty Mornhinweg. McNabb comeback or not, Philly shouldn't forget the winning formula that had Westbrook front and center.
3. I can't help but root for Takeo Spikes a little bit this year. The Eagles new weakside linebacker has been one of the best at his position in the first nine years of his career, but has yet to sniff the playoffs. He spent the past four years in Buffalo, and the five previous in Cincinnati. He made the questionable move of leaving the Bengals as a free agent after the 2002 season, just before head coach Marvin Lewis returned them to respectability (and the postseason in 2005). In four seasons as a Bill, Spikes played on just one winning team (9-7 in 2004).
With the Eagles, he's finally on a team that's favored to win, and has a recent track record for success. "That's your motivation, to be playing meaningful games late in the season,'' Spikes said. "Dick LeBeau, who coached me in Cincinnati and Buffalo, said you never reach your full potential as a player unless you have other great players around you. Now I do.''
4. Looks like Jeremy Bloom, the former Olympic skier who Philly drafted in the fifth round in 2006, is well positioned to handle the Eagles punt and kick returns this season. Bloom spent all of his rookie year on IR with a hamstring problem, but he's healthy again and has looked sharp in camp. The former moguls champion said last year that it would take his body time to transition from skiing to football, because of the different muscles and movements he used in each of them. Bloom's speed in the return game should give Eagles fans a few thrills along the way in 2007.
5. The Eagles are pretty happy with their depth at numerous positions. From this vantage point, they're deep at linebacker, receiver, tight end, quarterback, defensive end and in the secondary. For a team that lost a lot of key players to injury last season, Philly has done a nice job of trying to ensure that it can withstand a few such subtractions this year.
I think they're especially well stocked at linebacker with Spikes, Jeremiah Trotter and Chris Gocong as the expected starters, with rookie Stewart Bradley and a pair of second-year vets in Matt McCoy and Omar Gaither in reserve. At tight end, the Eagles go four-deep, with L.J. Smith, Matt Scobel, rookie Brent Celek and Lee Vickers all having chances to stick.
Of the three NFC East teams I've visited in camp (all but Dallas), the Eagles easily have the best depth. They're going to cut some players in the next few weeks who will be quickly snapped up by other NFL clubs. If I had to choose now, Philly would get my nod to defend its surprising division title of a year ago.
Earlier this year, the Eagles mistakenly paid Westbrook a $3 million offseason bonus twice, and remarkably enough, they're still waiting for him to return the money. Asked this week about the status of the repayment, Westbrook told reporters to "ask Joe [Banner],'' the Eagles team president. Banner isn't touching the topic for comment, but I'd be willing to bet the organization isn't just going to forget the whole matter. Westbrook reportedly has already invested the money, making it difficult for him to liquefy the cash and repay it.
I wonder how long SI.com would wait for me to repay $3 million that I wasn't owed? Insert your own punch lines here.
Eagles fans last year fell hard for rookie receiver Hank Baskett, who turned into a legitimate big-play threat as the season wore on. But this year's fantasy sleeper could be second-year receiver Jason Avant, a fourth-round pick in 2006. Avant injured a knee during mini-camp last year and saw action in just eight games during the regular season, catching seven passes for 68 yards and a touchdown.
Avant is a slot receiver, and he's in competition with Baskett for playing time in the No. 3 receiver role. But he took a big step in his development this offseason, and the Eagles are high on the former Michigan standout. He has great hands, and while not a burner, could make himself a valuable possession-type receiver in the Eagles offense.
If all of their quarterbacks stay healthy this preseason, the Eagles are going to have a veteran passer to shop in trade in a few weeks, and Kelly Holcomb would be that guy. Philadelphia got Holcomb from Buffalo in March in the Spikes-Darwin Walker deal, but once the Eagles drafted Kevin Kolb in the second round, Holcomb became the odd man out (backup A.J. Feeley got a three-year contract extension in late February).
Who makes the most sense as a potential trade partner? The Eagles are keeping an eye on the situations in Atlanta, Minnesota, Detroit and maybe Cleveland, depending on how the Brady Quinn contract saga plays out. All four of those teams might pursue another veteran arm at some point this month. The Eagles would likely be in line for a conditional seventh-rounder that could become a sixth if Holcomb plays, or if someone really got desperate, maybe a sixth that could become a fifth.
"Kelly Holcomb can win games for you,'' Reid said, perhaps pumping up the Eagles' potential market. "This guy is a good football player. In this system right here, he would not be trying out to make the Philadelphia Eagles.''