Teams' depth, preparation offset injuries
Even with Terrell Owens and Richard Seymour sidelined, the Eagles and Pats have rolled this postseason.
Eagles players are taking a matter-of-fact approach to questions about the status of wide receiver Terrell Owens for Super Bowl XXXIX. Running back Brian Westbrook says he hasn't seem him in practice so he can't judge. Coach Andy Reid gives a wait-and-see approach as the week progesses.
And why not? Even though Owens was acquired to help reverse the curse of three consecutive NFC championship game losses, the Eagles beat the Vikings and the Falcons during the playoffs without him. The Patriots zipped through the playoffs with key voids at defensive end and cornerback because of injuries to Richard Seymour, Ty Law and Tyrone Poole.
Players may win Super Bowls but something has to be said for the systems developed by Reid and Patriots coach Bill Belichick. Since 2001, regardless of injuries, these have been the NFL's elite franchises with a combined seven appearances in conference championship games.
Belichick is a master of developing complete football players instead of just position players. The strategy has paid off to a point in which the Patriots are on the verge of winning three Super Bowls in four seasons. Offensive players such as wide receiver Troy Brown can play defense while defensive players such as lineman Dan Klecko and others can switch to offense.
Whether Seymour plays, and he probably will, Belichick gets full use of his entire roster, so much so that he heads to the Super Bowl with only 52 players -- one shy of the limit. He might pull a player off the practice squad, but it doesn't matter. This team is well prepared.
"People forget that Jarvis Green (a backup defensive end) had three sacks against the Colts last year in the AFC championship game," McGinest said.
Instead of loading up on high-priced superstars, the Patriots concentrate on building the roster from the middle. Twenty-five players made $1 million or more this year instead of having most of the money tied up in a dozen players.
"I think there are two main constants," linebacker Tedy Bruschi said. "The one constant is the coaches. Our coaches have remained consistent. The other constant is our core group of players who have been there through thick and thin. There is a group of us now that has been to a total of four Super Bowls. I think there are six of us that have been here since 1996 when we went to the Super Bowl and lost to Green Bay. I think with us sort of leading the way about how things are supposed to be done around here and how the Patriot attitude is supposed to be, I think we have been able to welcome guys in and show them how things are supposed to be done here."
By no accident, three of those players -- McGinest, Bruschi and Ted Johnson -- are linebackers, in the heart of the Patriots 3-4 scheme. They might be aging, but their versatility has given Belichick's staff the flexibility to switch between 3-4 and 4-3 alignments when necessary. Linebackers by trade, these three players are simply good football players who help the Patriots ward off times of injuries.
"We are a real versatile group of guys who can do a lot of different things," McGinest said. "We are real rangy. I'm more of an elephant, a defensive end/linebacker. Mike Vrabel is more like a defensive lineman. He used to be a defensive lineman like myself. Tedy Bruschi used to be a lineman even though he is smaller in size. Roman Phifer is like a general. Ted Johnson is just a crusher, a big physical guy who is a run stopper. We do a lot of things. We all cover. We all can rush. We can all defend the pass pretty well. Being able to do a lot of different things makes it easy for coordinators to get their game plan together."
The stability at the linebacking corps enabled Belichick to build up a surplus at defensive lineman to fend off in case of times like recently when Seymour has been out with a knee injury. Ty Warren and Vince Wilfork are like Seymour, former first-round picks. Like all good poker players, Belichick needs his aces in the whole.
The Eagles' depth has been tested all season, and Reid has shown amazing resiliency. They have 11 players on the injured reserve list, including starting tight end Chad Lewis, fullback Jon Ritchie and guard Shawn Andrews. The backfield has lost halfback Correll Buckhalter and two other fullbacks -- Thomas Tapeh and Bruce Perry. And they made the Super Bowl without Owens.
"Both teams have a lot of depth, and I think that's very important when you get to the playoffs because you are going to have guys get banged up," Eagles middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter said. "If you can get guys to step in their roles and step up, those are the teams that are going to go all the way. Keith Adams always played very well when given the opportunity to fill in for Mark Simoneau at linebacker. Now, he has a bigger opportunity."
In recent years, the Eagles built depth the unconventional way. They've mastered the undrafted free-agent market, adding jewels such as defensive tackle Sam Rayburn, wide receiver Greg Lewis, offensive linemen Artis Hicks and Hank Fraley, cornerback Roderick Hood and others. Adams was a waiver claim from the Cowboys in 2002.
|“||Both teams have a lot of depth, and I think that's very important when you get to the playoffs because you are going to have guys get banged up. If you can get guys to step in their roles and step up, those are the teams that are going to go all the way. ”|
|—Eagles MLB Jeremiah Trotter|
How did the Eagles survive without Owens? Simple. Lewis, the team's fastest receiver, caught four passes for 129 yards in two playoff games. Big plays win playoff games. Freddie Mitchell and Todd Pinkston combined for only 11 catches in those two games, but the threat of a big play from Lewis stretched the field and let Donovan McNabb have a 111.3 playoff quarterback rating.
But the Eagles may not have made the Super Bowl had they not changed their way of welcoming back former Eagles. Trotter re-signed after having a miserable experience with the Redskins despite making $5 million a year. He signed for the NFL minimum and eventually made the Pro Bowl as one of the league's better run-stopping middle linebackers. Hugh Douglas returned after a bad first season in Jacksonville and added depth to the defensive line.
"We've had a lot of injuries in the backfield, but we've done well," Westbrook said. "Coaches prepare us well by telling us 'every backup you are one play away from starting.' You never know when you are going to play. We have talented guys, talented guys who are backups. Coaches don't expect any dropoff from first team to second team."
When the Eagles lost Buckhalter for the season with a knee injury, they signed Dorsey Levens. Levens averaged 4.4 yards a carry during the regular season and scored a touchdown during the playoffs. While Westbrook's versatility in being used as a receiver out of the backfield and as a runner keeps defenses honest, the newly selected Pro Bowler -- the 10th on the Eagles roster -- he hopes to have Owens on the field Sunday.
"T.O. opens up a lot of things," Westbrook said. "When he's healthy, he has the ability to draw double coverage. When I'm healthy, I have the ability to do the same things. Defenses can't double cover everybody. They can't send linebackers and safeties all the time on us, so that opens up somebody else for single coverage."
But if Owens can't play, the Eagles will do their best. It got them to Jacksonville without their premier offensive playmaker.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.