When your center makes more money than any of your quarterbacks,
you're serious about wanting to get people blocked. The Eagles'
first free-agent pickup this off-season was center Steve
Everitt, who left the Ravens to sign a five-year, $11.5 million
contract, immediately lifting his salary past those of
quarterbacks Ty Detmer, Rodney Peete and Bobby Hoying.
Two years ago the big-money pickup was running back Ricky
Watters. Last year it was cornerback Troy Vincent. The Eagles
have always been active in the free-agent market, which is a
luxury you can afford when you don't have a lot tied up in your
quarterbacks. But a center seldom gets the big deal.
Everitt is that good, though, and coach Ray Rhodes is that
concerned with putting a good line in front of Detmer and,
particularly, Watters. Three of the five teams in the NFC East
are located in cold-weather cities, so it's sensible to want to
run the ball. No one knows that better than Rhodes.
Let's take the figure of 123 yards rushing. In two years under
Rhodes, the Eagles have hit that number, or bettered it, in 20
games, counting playoffs. They've won 18 of those games. On the
15 occasions they've run for less than 123 yards, they've lost 11.
What's more, the Eagles haven't had a Pro Bowl lineman since
Jerry Sisemore, 15 years ago. That means they've been grinding
out all those yards without any stars up front, which is a
tribute to their determination and, of course, to Watters. But
just think what would have happened if the line were anywhere
near the caliber of, say, the Cowboys'.
Well, Everitt's a start. He was flirting with Pro Bowl
recognition for a couple of years, but last season he tore a
pectoral muscle and appeared in only eight games. Now he says,
"I'm kind of looking at this like being a rookie again, like
having to prove myself. I think that before I hurt myself last
year I was playing as well as I've ever played.
"I love this offense," Everitt adds. "It seems like the last few
years I've been in an offense where the whole idea was to take
what the defense gave you. Here, you make them take what you
give them. You dictate from the first play."
Not that the Eagles were operating with a stiff at center last
year. Raleigh McKenzie was a respected veteran, but he was 33,
and in Everitt they have a player seven years younger. The rest
of the line? Hog-type drive-blockers. Philadelphia is solid at
guard, with Joe Panos and Mike Zandofsky, but the tackles have
only one career start between them. Rhodes will go with Jermane
Mayberry, the club's first-round pick in '96, and third-year
veteran Troy Drake, who appeared in 11 games last year as a
backup. If either falters, Barrett Brooks, last year's left
tackle, might break back in.
Watters had more carries than any back in the NFL last
season--353, for 1,411 yards--yet he still moaned about not
handling the ball enough, even though he wore down noticeably in
the stretch. That concern will be addressed with not one but two
backups to share the load. Charlie Garner's 5.4 yards per carry
in 1995 was the best in the NFL, and he averaged 5.2 yards last
year, though on just 66 carries. At 5'9" and 187 pounds, Garner
wears down when he gets more than six or so carries in a game.
That sets things up for Duce Staley, a 220-pound slasher out of
South Carolina, the best-looking rookie runner in Philadelphia
since Wilbert Montgomery in '77.
Rhodes must address another problem, though, and that is the
shaky way the Eagles ended the '96 season. They staggered into
the playoffs and were shut out by the 49ers in the first round.
His driving, high-emotion approach had taken them only so far.
"We ended up a tired football team," he says. "Maybe there was
too much hitting in practice, too many hours on the field. As a
coach I've got to look at myself."
What he sees might be a coach with one of the NFL's more brutal
and elemental attacks.