We spent a few days earlier this week in Bethlehem, Pa., on the campus of Lehigh University, where fans trudged through mud and sat through torrential downpours to watch their Dream Team wrap up the final days of camp. Whether they saw DeSean Jackson and Nnamdi Asomugha going head-to-head in passing drills or a mere special teams walk-through, the die-hards were either glued to the edge of their seats or pressed up against the temporary fencing that surrounded the three practice fields. One of the biggest ovations came Monday morning, but it wasn't for the players. Toward the end of practice, some 275 servicemen and women representing every branch of the military ringed the sidelines while the crowd chanted "USA! USA!" and showered them with applause.
The Eagles broke camp a day later, headed first to Pittsburgh for last night's preseason game against the Steelers and then back to team headquarters in Philly. Coach Andy Reid led them off the field in a single-file line that snaked around the edges, giving players a chance to exchange high-fives and handshakes with fans. In that moment, you couldn't help but wonder what the scene would be next year if they opened camp as the defending Super Bowl champs. It's just another way of asking whether or not Philadelphia can live up to all the hype and its potential. (Luckily, the ugly 24-14 loss to the Steelers counts for nothing.)
Samuel, however, isn't a fan of being called a Dream Team.
"Anybody can put big names together on paper," he says. "The Washington Redskins did that for years, right?"
What, exactly, does Reid think of the moniker?
"If people want to call it a Dream Team, that's OK," he says. "I'm into what's real -- and what's real is continuity, trust, hard work. I'm into those things. There's one way of getting that, and it's working your tail off and fighting through the mental fatigue and physical fatigue. That's what I think this crew has done so far. There are going to be highs and lows in the season, and how are you going to handle that? You're going to bank off the tough work, the fundamentals, and your relationship with the guy next to you. The final story is told in February, at the end of the season."
What impact will these guys have?
The Eagles were the only team to have two wideouts -- Jackson and Maclin, who else? -- finish among the league's top 20 in receiving yards last season. When newly acquired Steve Smith -- who ranked eighth in that category in 2009 with the Giants -- is cleared to return from the microfracture surgery he had on his left knee, Philadelphia will have a three-headed monster that might only be stopped when its goes up against the cornerback trio of Nnamdi Asomugha, Asante Samuel and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie in practice. A ticket to watch those battles might be better than any game.
Moments after he called the third-string offense and defense onto the field -- which, he stressed, was for three plays only because of time constraints -- Reid walked toward the line of scrimmage and held everything up for a few precious seconds. Turning his attention to one of the sidelines, he hollered at the first- and second-string defense, "Off the field! Sideline! Sideline!" Like scolded children, the players shuffled backward, but they couldn't be held back for long.
When the third-string defense stopped a run a few yards deep in the backfield, the players on the sideline came sprinting out to the numbers, hooting and hollering and jumping up in the air as if they'd just won an actual game on a last-second play. There may be eight new starters on defense and a new coordinator in Juan Castillo, who was an offensive line coach for 13 seasons, but the foundation for great chemistry is being laid.
"He's a talented guy," general manager Howie Roseman says. "He's gone into Dallas and New York and had success against teams that we play. His skills fit what we look for in a quarterback. He's an athletic guy who can make plays with his feet and his arm."
But where is he in terms of learning the offense?
"He's a player who can go in and win a game under normal circumstances," offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg says. "We've still got a lot of hard work left to do to get to that point. He's over the hump, just a little bit, on that learning curve."
"It hasn't been that bad. The NFL is obviously faster, but I think it's pretty comparable and the difference in speed isn't that drastic," he says. "I just want to get a thorough grasp of the defense and be a leader out there. It's everyone's goal to make it to the Super Bowl, and that's what we're shooting for this year."
Until that happens, he'll still throw a nod of respect his brother's way.
"With all the hype and stuff that's been thrown at us, we're being called Super Bowl favorites now?" says Matthews, a perplexed look on his face. "The Packers are still the Super Bowl champs, so until they get knocked off, they still have it."
The first six games shouldn't be too tough to handle -- only two of those opponents had a winning record in 2010 and just one, the Falcons, were a playoff team. But four of those six games are on the road, which could make it difficult for the Eagles to find an early rhythm. They open up in St. Louis and travel to Atlanta before playing back-to-back home games against the Giants and 49ers">49ers. Then they're living out of a suitcase again, off to play the Bills and Redskins before their bye week.
But there's no time to kick back and relax. Coming off their bye week, the Eagles better be ready for their close-up. They play three straight at home, with the first two against the Cowboys and Bears in prime time, followed by a visit from the Cardinals. Then they're back in the spotlight with a prime time game against the Giants at New Meadowlands Stadium.
Beginning with that trip to New York, the Eagles play four of their final seven games on the road -- with their Dec. 1 game in Seattle falling on a Thursday and their Christmas Eve game against the Cowboys falling on a Saturday. But Philadelphia will have to worry about more than settling into a routine. Of their three remaining home games, two should be epic battles with the Patriots and Jets coming to town. Except for that month where they're at home in the middle of the schedule -- the bye week, followed by three games -- finding any sort of groove could be hard to come by. But that shouldn't stop Philadelphia from easily locking up the division title, with bigger things yet to come.