- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- In an age of salary caps, the Eagles use a visor. Not all of their overhead is covered by signing bonuses.
Unlike most teams that spend right up to the cap, the Eagles save cap space by minimizing the use of huge signing bonuses to squeeze star players onto the payroll. It's smart business. The formula they used to build a four-time NFC championship game finalist was to draft wisely and get long-term deals with good young players before their rookie contracts expired.
The Eagles' prudence allowed them to be vultures in last spring's free-agency period. Watching Terrell Owens balk at going to the Ravens in a trade, the Eagles attacked and stole him when the deal with Baltimore was rescinded. When the Titans figured they didn't have the cap room to franchise defensive end Jevon Kearse, the Eagles lured The Freak to Philly to punch up their defense.
Saving money for a rainy day might be the boring thing to do, but it allowed the Eagles to storm into their first Super Bowl in 24 years. The Redskins, they are not. Just call them opportunists.
"First of all, with Jevon, we thought if a corner, defensive end or offensive tackle is available, we were going to go after them," Eagles vice president of player personnel Tom Heckert said. "We think those three positions are necessities. With Jevon, we weren't sure if the Titans were going to tag him or not, but if they didn't, we were going to try to get him."
Like many top teams, the Eagles subscribe to the belief that cornerbacks, wide receivers, defensive ends, offensive tackles, quarterbacks and running backs are the hardest positions to find. Championship teams can be built around a core group of players at those six positions.
"The T.O. thing was a no-brainer," Heckert continued. "It may have been a big contract, but to give up what we had to get him wasn't a lot. Plus, we need to add playmakers on offense. That's why we keep cap space available. If you don't spend it one year, you push that money into the next year."
The Eagles were coming off a tough season with their wide receivers. Despite going to their third consecutive NFC championship game, they were reeling at the receiving position. Carolina Panthers cornerbacks bragged about how they physically pushed around Donovan McNabb's targets. Former first-round Freddie Mitchell had never done better than a 35-catch season. Todd Pinkston, a former second-rounder, had only one 60-catch season in his first five years and that was in 2002.
Owens was the answer. The Eagles rewarded him with a seven-year, $48.7 million contract that included $13.7 million of guarantees. To get the superstar receiver McNabb had always wanted, this deal was a no-brainer.
"By having the cap room, if we wanted to go after somebody like Terrell, we could do it as opposed to other teams that might have to cut two players to make room to sign somebody like him," Heckert said. "We had a little safety net."
Despite the cost of an eight-year, $62.6 million contract, including a $12 million signing bonus, Kearse was another no-brainer acquisition. Statistically, the Eagles fell from the fourth-ranked defense in 2002 to 20th in '03. They let their best pass-rusher, Hugh Douglas, go to Jacksonville, and the Eagles lacked an outside pass rush. As a team, they got only eight sacks out of the defensive end position in 2003. Douglas used to get that in half of a season himself.
"It's not overkill to keep taking players at defensive end or cornerback," Heckert said. "You can't have enough of those players. It almost seemed to be overkill when we drafted Lito Sheppard in the first round and then take Sheldon Brown in the second round when we had Bobby Taylor and Troy Vincent. You can't have enough cornerbacks. We had just taken [defensive end] Jerome McDougle in the first round in 2003, but Kearse was a natural."
To the players who had been frustrated by three failed trips to the NFC title game, the acquisitions of Owens and Kearse displayed how serious Andy Reid and ownership were about getting to the Super Bowl. McNabb, with Owens' help, went from being a career 57-percent passer to completing 64 percent of his passes in '04. The defense dropped from 20th to 10th and had the swagger of a champion again.
Economically, it wasn't bad either. The Eagles were in a new stadium. With new revenue from Lincoln Financial Field, the Eagles had no trouble having an $88.9 payroll this year, which was above the league's $80 million salary cap. If going cash over cap can win a Super Bowl win, owner Jeffrey Lurie was all for it.
Another major change for the Eagles involved the return of former defensive leaders Douglas and Jeremiah Trotter.
Though Trotter's exit was over a personal disagreement between Trotter and Reid, it meant something to Trotter when Reid called him after he hurt his knee with the Redskins. The Redskins cut him. Trotter, feeling as though he was still part of the Eagles family, didn't mind returning for the NFL minimum of $535,000.
"I can't say I wish I never left because I think everything happens for a reason," Trotter said. "Even though it was a bad experience in Washington, I learned a lot. I grew from the experience."
Trotter ended up returning to the starting lineup at middle linebacker and trimming 50 yards a game from the team's rushing yardage allowed. His 260-pound frame and ability to attack the run fixed a major hole in the defense and even earned him a trip to the Pro Bowl.
"Early in the season, our safeties were leading the team in tackles, and I remember telling Michael Lewis that there was no way in the world safeties should lead the team in tackles, no matter how much Cover 3 we were using," Trotter said. "I wasn't starting at the time I said that. By bringing in a guy like myself who is 260 pounds and can run and loves contact helped. I love to come downhill and hit linemen in the mouth and get off blocks."
Trotter's re-signing was also a sign to the veterans on the Eagles that management realized the value of depth and leaders.
"The main thing with an older player is if the guy is injury free and can play at a high level, we want to have them around," Heckert said. "We don't want it to sound negative, but the bottom line is facts are facts. Guys over 30 years old tend to get hurt and not last a whole season. We have to use our salary cap wisely, so you can't pay as much for a player who is getting older."
The Eagles, who have $17 million of cap room, have 13 free agents, including Trotter, Douglas, Dorsey Levens, Chad Lewis, Jermane Mayberry, Ike Reese and Jon Ritchie. Seeing how valuable these veterans have been to the team, it's now possible invitations will be extended to bring many of these players back if they want to play for modest contracts.
The Eagles, as an organization, have been wearing their smart caps.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
The Eagles had the cap room to be active players this past offseason, adding Terrell Owens and Jevon Kearse.