Commentary

Unresolved issues, uncertainty accompany Eagles at minicamp

As much as Eagles coach Andy Reid wants to focus on winning, his team's many unresolved issues appear to be standing in the way, writes Sal Paolantonio.

Originally Published: May 5, 2008
By Sal Paolantonio | ESPN.com

PHILADELPHIA -- A stubborn cold front hovered over South Philadelphia on Saturday as the Eagles opened the 10th season of the Andy Reid era -- a slate gray overcast sky delaying the promise of spring.

Reid had already promised that his team -- as it is currently constituted -- would rise out of last winter's fallow disappointment and flower into a title contender. He said that right after making his final pick of the draft.

"The guns are fully loaded, and we can go right now and compete for a championship," he said.

He repeated it Saturday, saying with "the players I have in the room," the Eagles can be in contention this season -- after finishing in the basement of the NFC East last year. "It's that simple," he said.

But like the unseasonably cool wind beating across the practice field, there was a distinct air of uncertainty surrounding an Eagles team that had an offseason filled with unfinished business, which now spilled over into minicamp.

Donovan McNabb chortled that this was nothing new: "Ever since I've been here, it's never been resolved until training camp."

This spring, however, Philadelphia's unresolved issues have been particularly stubborn and, at minicamp, readily apparent.

Exhibit A was the crowded field at cornerback. How odd it must have been for Asante Samuel, who was named to the 2007 All-Pro team and the most coveted defensive player in free agency, to sign a $57 million contract ($20 million guaranteed) with the Eagles, only to be sharing the starting left cornerback duties with Lito Sheppard, a two-time Pro Bowler himself who has said he wants out of Philly.

[+] EnlargeLito Sheppard
AP Photo/H. Rumph Jr.Lito Sheppard reported to Eagles minicamp as rumors swirled about his future.

For months, Reid tried desperately to trade Sheppard, but deal after deal fell through -- first with the Rams, then the Saints, then the Bucs and, finally, the Jaguars. Sheppard's agent was asking for too much in a renegotiated contract, or Reid was asking too much for a player who has missed 14 games because of injury in the past three seasons.

So there was Sheppard, being a good soldier, showing up for minicamp, forcing defensive coordinator Jim Johnson to give him time with the first team -- even shuttling him to the right side to share duties with the other starting corner, Sheldon Brown.

"It was definitely awkward," running back Brian Westbrook said.

"We'll see how this thing, everything plays out," safety Brian Dawkins said.

For five years in New England, winning three Super Bowl rings, Samuel watched head coach Bill Belichick manipulate players and the media in a way that never allowed team dysfunction to bubble to the surface. In fact, taking a page right out of the Belichick public relations manual, Samuel brushed off the controversy.

"That ain't got nothing to do with me," he said. "I just do what my coach tells me to do." And then he looked at the media throng assembled in front of his locker. "I don't know why you all are here anyway," he added. "You know I don't talk to the media."

Samuel is wearing midnight green because Belichick would not acquiesce to his contract demands, and because Reid was desperate to improve his team's woeful turnover production last season. In 2007, the Eagles had just 19 takeaways, ranking last in the league. They finished with just 11 interceptions, ranking last in the NFC. In the past two years, Samuel had 16 picks, the most in the league.

But even though the Eagles finished last in the NFC East, they finished first in the division in points allowed. Why the obvious contradiction there? Again and again, Philadelphia couldn't find a way to get into the end zone, finishing 24th in the league in red-zone offense.

The Eagles, 8-8 last season, always seemed to be just a play away. In fact, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Eagles played in more close games last season than any other team in the league. For 78 percent of the playing time, Philadelphia was within eight points (or one possession) of its opponents -- either leading or trailing. That was the highest percentage for any team in the league in 2007.

Thus, Reid made a long, unsuccessful tour around the league this offseason, searching for one more veteran big-play receiver. When New England's quest to re-sign wide receiver Randy Moss was stalled, Reid picked up the phone and called one of Moss' representatives to gauge his interest in leaving the Patriots. Moss said thanks, but no thanks.

Then there was the call Reid made to Detroit Lions general manager Matt Millen two weeks before the owners meeting in Florida. His inquiry: wide receiver Roy Williams. Was Millen, in fact, listening to offers for Williams? Nope.

[+] EnlargeDonovan McNabb
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesSo far, the Eagles have come up empty in their efforts to find Donovan McNabb a big-play receiver.

The Eagles' front office also nosed around Larry Fitzgerald, but the Arizona Cardinals restructured his deal.

All this happened after Reid publicly admonished McNabb, who suggested on his Web site (yardbarker.com) that the team needed more "playmakers." Be careful, the coach said, or your teammates might take that the wrong way.

Well, now everyone is changing his tune. Repeating something he said when he was Disney's host at ESPN the Weekend in Orlando, Fla., in early March, McNabb said Saturday that he wasn't necessarily focused on getting another wide receiver.

"I said playmakers," he said. "I didn't say receivers. I said guys that can come in and make plays for us. We brought in Asante, who led the league interceptions two years ago."

How many quarterbacks have you heard clamoring for another cover corner? Later, McNabb was asked if he thought the Eagles had been aggressive enough in the offseason. He laughed, then said rather insincerely, "I think they did a great job." Then he laughed again.

There is still one possible trade hanging out there -- the one Cincinnati Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis says he won't make, the one that would secure the mercurial, disgruntled Chad Johnson. So far, Reid and team president Joe Banner have been putting out the word to their media mouthpieces that they have no interest in Johnson. (Talking about him publicly would be tampering.) You could understand their reluctance to go down that road again, given how things ended with Terrell Owens.

But when Owens was in an Eagles uniform, McNabb drove the team to a Super Bowl. And by virtue of a draft day trade, the Eagles have two first-round picks in 2009. Given that they have traded out of the first round the past two years, it's not unreasonable to conclude the Eagles would seriously consider trading one of those first-rounders in '09 for Johnson -- if and when Lewis and the Bengals change their minds about trading him.

Acquiring Johnson would also keep him out of a Dallas Cowboys uniform. Remember, the Cowboys' stated pre-draft goals were a running back, a wide receiver and a cornerback. They didn't get a receiver.

As for McNabb, whether he's being facetious or not, he is realistic enough to know this could be his last year in Philadelphia. Second-year quarterback Kevin Kolb is waiting in the wings.

McNabb is also well aware of what his team's problems were last season, beginning with him. He had another season in which he didn't play all 16 games, missing 2½ with an ankle sprain and swollen thumb. The Eagles lost both of his missed starts: at New England and at home against Seattle.

The Eagles finished sixth in the league in total offense, eighth in rushing and 12th in passing.

"Statistically, we did well," he said. "But we knew our flaws in the red zone. That was important for us, and are just the thing that we have to correct."

Tight end L.J. Smith, returning from offseason groin surgery, will help because the Eagles' top wide receiver last season, Kevin Curtis, often got lost in the tight confine s of the red zone. He finished the year with just six touchdown catches.

And opponents learned to bunch up on Westbrook on third down. He led the team with 90 catches, but had just 8.6 yards a catch.

Recognizing this, Reid traded a fourth-round pick to Miami for swing back Lorenzo Booker, who was quickly discarded by Bill Parcells because film study showed Booker wasn't much of a pass-blocker and a poor special-teams player. Reid has said he envisions Booker and Westbrook in the same backfield on passing downs -- a concept that Westbrook did not totally embrace.

"It'll be my job to keep him off the field," he said.

Reid also hopes his second-round pick out of California, the diminutive DeSean Jackson, can add some downfield firepower. Jackson runs the 40 in 4.4 seconds, but he's listed at just 5-foot-9, 169 pounds -- not exactly a player expected to solve your red-zone problem.

Right now, Jackson's primary responsibility is fielding punts adequately and returning them spectacularly. Philadelphia finished 28th in the league in punt return average last season.

"I think it will be big for us to get some good field position and start the offense in the right position," McNabb said, "where we can just drive and score. Again, you can't put that much pressure on these young guys. … At this point, it's hard to say what could possibly happen."

Sal Paolantonio covers the NFL for ESPN

Sal Paolantonio

SportsCenter correspondent / NFL reporter
Sal Paolantonio joined ESPN as a SportsCenter correspondent in August 1995, primarily reporting on the NFL. Beginning in 2004, he also served as host of NFL Match-Up, a weekly "Xs and Os" football show produced by NFL Films.