PHILADELPHIA -- Five observations on the Philadelphia Eagles, based on the practices of Aug. 18:
1. Since the Eagles went out of character in the offseason, adding two high-profile veterans in wide receiver Terrell Owens and defensive end Jevon Kearse, there probably isn't much more the organization can do to try to get over its three-year NFC title game hump. But if coach Andy Reid wants one final suggestion, well, Big Guy, here it is: Have team president Joe Banner, arguably the league's premier salary cap manager, set aside a few bucks for some priest to visit the NovaCare Center and exorcise those demons that continue to haunt your defensive line. Last year, tackles Corey Simon and Darwin Walker somehow each managed to start all 16 games, but the end position was absolutely ravaged by injury. Four defensive linemen finished the year on injured reserve. Philadelphia was so desperate, it basically had to drag Marco Coleman out of retirement, and he wound up lining up everywhere along the defensive front.
This season, not yet underway, hasn't exactly started in encouraging fashion. Eighth-year veteran N.D. Kalu, the projected starter at right end, blew out an anterior cruciate ligament on Tuesday. You've got to feel for Kalu, who was taking an extra "rep" toward the end of practice because some of the backup ends were gassed. Kalu isn't the only defensive linemen, however, to suffer a physical setback, although his is clearly the most serious. Simon missed time in camp because of a back strain, remains sidelined, and no one seems sure when he will return to practice. Walker has gotten very little work because of a hamstring problem. Backup tackle Paul Grasmanis is nursing a knee injury. Last year's first-round draft choice, end Jerome McDougle, had minor shoulder surgery and just returned to practice. McDougle's rookie season was all but a washout because of ankle knee and hip injuries. Another second-year veteran, Jamaal Green, has an ankle injury. Ditto youngster Sam Rayburn. Uh, are we seeing an unsettling pattern here, folks? On consecutive days this week, Philadelphia was forced to bring in free agent reinforcements, first unsigned collegian DeMarco McNeil, then veteran journeyman Colston Weatherington. There was a rumor someone in the front office was checking to see who owned the rights to Reggie White. OK, we're kidding about that last one, but the defensive line injuries are hardly a joking matter. The new starting right tackle, for instance, is Derrick Burgess. Now, make no mistake, Burgess is a high-energy guy, a solid pass rusher who had six sacks as a situational player during his 2001 rookie season, and is certainly capable of surpassing the 5½ sacks Kalu registered in 2003. The problem is, Burgess has played in one game the past two seasons because of foot and Achilles injuries. And he played principally at left end. Burgess looked quick and somewhat explosive on Wednesday, but it's tough to ignore the black cloud that has been floating over his head since 2001, and which now seems to be hovering over the entire defensive line unit. And lest we forget, Kearse, who should make a huge impact if physically whole, missed 17 starts in the past two seasons because of foot injuries. We don't want to rain on what ought to be a Super Bowl parade down Broad St. this year, but the early spate of maladies on the line can't be overlooked. So make the call for that exorcist now, Andy, before it's too late.
2. With the exception of one scary incident in camp last week, when he went down with what appeared to be a serious injury and the Eagles held their collective breath, Kearse has been excellent. The former Tennessee Titans star is going to add another dimension to an already solid defense and provide innovative coordinator Jim Johnson a pretty nifty new toy. But how about Philadelphia's other big offseason acquisition? Well, with the exception of his ongoing ax-grinding against Jeff Garcia, Owens has been a model citizen, according to Eagles coaches and front office staffers. Yes, we agree, his homophobic rant shouldn't be so easily dimissed by the Eagles or, for that matter, by the league. But it appears Owens has been in Philadelphia what he was in San Francisco for eight seasons: A burr under the saddle off the field and a consummate professional and playmaker on it. "He's going to make our other receivers better, too," said standout offensive coordinator Brad Childress. "Guys like him. They feel like they can come to him, discuss routes, figure out the best way to run things together. He has been fine, definitely, and he's a guy who wants to be coached. Some players, they might do something that isn't quite right and, as a coach, you kind of grit your teeth and hold back a little. With him, he wants you to tell him right away, and he takes advice well." Even in practice, Owens has a presence, draws your attention. He is a breathtakingly fluid receiver, a big target who moves lithely through the secondary. If he doesn't make Philly a better and more consistent offensive team, something is the matter. The only remaining question is how Owens reacts to the spread-it-around offense of Reid and Childress if he isn't getting enough touches. Since Reid arrived in '99, the Eagles' leading wide receiver on a yearly basis averaged 55.4 catches, 697.2 yards and 5.4 touchdowns. Only once in that period, did Philadelphia have a wideout with more than 60 receptions and never did the "lead" receiver ring up more than 833 yards. For his career, Owens has averaged 74 receptions, 1,071.5 yards and 10.1 touchdowns. He had at least 60 receptions in all but his rookie season, has five 1,000-yard seasons, and scored double-digit touchdowns in four of the last six seasons. As for the other receivers, Todd Pinkston is coming off a poor year and an NFC title game that the term "miserable" doesn't even adequately describe, but no one has challenged him for the other starting job. The emerging Freddie Mitchell has found a comfort zone working out of the slot and that's where he will remain.
It will be interesting to see how Owens affects the performance of quarterback Donovan McNabb. He remains a very average passer from an accuracy standpoint, with a 57 percent career completion rate, and a guy who doesn't often hit people in stride and allow them to do something after the catch. Be honest, how many times have you seen a Philadelphia running back have to reach back or bend down to catch a swing pass? McNabb is far more accurate moving out of the pocket. But in Owens he has a receiver who wants the ball on the cut. Give him credit, though, for this: McNabb doesn't turn it over very often. He has a touchdown pass to interception ratio of 1.8-1, pretty solid. And the Eagles last season established a new franchise record for fewest turnovers, with just 22. Want a guy for the latter rounds of your fantasy football draft? You might want to take a flier on tight end L.J. Smith, the team's second-round pick in 2003, who caught 27 passes as a rookie. The presence of Owens is going to open up the middle of the field a bit more and Smith could score 5-6 "red zone" touchdowns this season.
3. First-round offensive guard Shawn Andrews, whose selection shocked a lot of the locals, especially after the Eagles moved up 13 spots to grab him (everyone figured that Philadelphia was seeking a pass-rusher, like Will Smith), is a certified masher. Reid did the right thing immediately inserting him into the lineup in mini-camps. It was time to begin infusing the line, which didn't exactly enjoy a sterling 2003 season, with some fresh blood. This was a unit, after all, that featured five starters last year who averaged 28.5 years of age and 6.4 season of experience in the league. Over the next few seasons, the line will need some refurbishing and it sure looks like the Eagles began the eventual makeover with a very nice building block. Since having surgery to excise polyps from his sinus cavities, Andrews has shed much of the excess weight he was carrying around, and is in far better shape than he was at the end of his college career at Arkansas. We're not quite buying into the 340 pounds at which the Eagles listed him on Wednesday, but he's a lot closer to that weight than to the nearly 400 pounds of a year ago. Andrews has really rocked some defensive linemen in camp. He comes off the ball hard and, when he rolls his hips forward and gets momentum going in a positive direction, he has lots of pop. The intriguing part of Andrews' game is his very quick feet. He's not a real polished pass blocker yet -- not surprising, given the Arkansas offense, right? -- but has the tools to be. In time, he could move out to right tackle and eventually replace Jon Runyan, who is under contract through 2005, but at a total cost of $10 million in base salaries. The Eagles caught a lot of heat for taking Andrews so early in the first round. But if early results are any indication, it was a savvy move.
4. It was only two years ago that the Eagles fielded a linebacker corps that included Levon Kirkland (middle), Carlos Emmons (strong side) and Shawn Barber (weak side). All three are gone now. The new trio -- Mark Simoneau in the middle, Nate Wayne in his second season at the weak-side spot, former Giants starter Dhani Jones at strong -- is a bit suspect. Count on the ingenious Jim Johnson, though, to somehow camouflage perceived shortcomings. This is not an especially big group, and Simoneau clearly eroded physically late last year, but the 'backers represent the kind of "downhill" defenders Johnson prefers at the position. The trio must toughen up against the run and it's notable the threesome has not gotten much work together in camp, because of injuries. Also notable is that the re-acquisition of former Pro Bowl middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter provides a lot more depth than Johnson has enjoyed in the past. Ike Reese is a nice "nickel" player and has logged a lot of snaps. Keith Adams is developing into more than simply a special teams guy. And while Trotter won't wrest the starting job from Simoneau, we're betting that at some point this season, he will make a play that helps to win a game. At the veteran minimum, how could the Eagles pass on Trotter, a guy they know and who knows them?
5. The Philadelphia front office garners a lot of credit, and deservedly so, for making a lot of good moves. But standing on the practice field Wednesday, and watching the manner in which Reid's staff worked, something occurred to us that hasn't gotten much play. And that is, you ask: The ability of the Eagles to maintain continuity among the coaches. That is no small feat, trust us. Offensive coordinator Brad Childress and defensive counterpart Jim Johnson both were candidates for the San Francisco head coach vacancy two years ago. Both stayed, rewarded with new deals by management, contracts that put them among the highest-paid assistants in their respective categories. Excluding the three quality control guys, there are 14 assistants on staff, and all but two have been here for the entire term of Reid's tenure. A few of them even preceded Reid in Philadelphia, and he retained them when he succeeded Ray Rhodes in 1999. The only two newcomers to the staff were former Detroit head coach Marty Mornhinweg (2003) and secondary coach Trent Walters (2004). There have been some shakeups in the Eagles front office and scouting departments, a few of them even dubious, but assistants simply don't depart from here and that's fairly remarkable. The 14 position assistants on the staff average 5.3 seasons with the team and you just don't see that kind of stability anymore. Kudos to Reid, president Joe Banner and owner Jeff Lurie for emphasizing an element of the game that seems to have been forgotten in other NFL precincts.
Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.