Posted: Tuesday September 20, 2005 11:24AM; Updated: Tuesday September 20, 2005 11:54AM
The average fan may not notice it, but Dawkins means as much to Philadelphia as quarterback Donovan McNabb. He's the heart of the defense, a player who epitomizes the entire Eagles team: steady, focused, unfazed by any setbacks that might disrupt their journey towards another postseason run. Dawkins also doesn't have to say much in the locker room. He does enough things behind the scenes to keep his teammates prepared for Sundays.
When the Eagles lost Vincent and fellow cornerback Bobby Taylor to free agency after the 2003 season, Dawkins called Hall of Fame defensive back Ronnie Lott to ask for advice on handling the transition from playing with veteran players to younger players. Lott told Dawkins to take it as a challenge, to see it as a chance to help his teammates become polished professionals. Today, fourth-year cornerbacks Sheldon Brown and Lito Sheppard can't say enough about Dawkins.
They wondered how this 31-year-old veteran would interact with them, especially because of the differences in age. But Dawkins opened up to them. He always boosted their confidence before the start of last season. "He'd tell us that Bobby and Troy got beat at times, too," Brown said. "And then he'd say the big question was how we would respond on the next play."
As an added benefit, Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson moved Dawkins into a position to protect his younger teammates. He's no longer that in-the-box force that hovers around the line of scrimmage looking to blitz or disrupt running plays. Since that role now belongs to strong safety Michael Lewis, Dawkins operates more as a centerfielder with the luxury of coming off the edge whenever necessary. With Dawkins behind them, Sheppard and Brown can play as aggressively as they like, and that's helped them become rising stars.
Dawkins has done more than just help Philly's young corners, though. When Owens and McNabb were at the height of their offseason drama, Dawkins mediated between the players, telling each that he was willing to listen to their issues. Dawkins also spent a week working out with McNabb and some younger receivers and running backs in Phoenix in July. Normally, McNabb uses this week to hone his timing with his teammates, but Dawkins wanted to be a part of it as well. He even ran through the drills while wearing jogging pants in the 115-degree heat. He wanted that intensity to rub off on the younger players, and it naturally did.
What Dawkins understands is that these responsibilities now fall on his shoulders. Earlier in his career, Vincent would've been the one to step in between teammates, the guy who made sure the team remained focused. But when Vincent signed a free agent deal with the Buffalo Bills after the 2003 season, it opened the door for Dawkins to prove he could be a vocal leader. Suddenly, Dawkins is now the old man in the room -- along with defensive tackle Hollis Thomas, he is one of two veterans with at least 10 years or more with the team -- and he keeps his younger teammates grounded.
After playing on some lousy Eagles teams in the late '90s, Dawkins realizes how fortunate he is to be part of Philadelphia's recent success. He also understands that he doesn't have much time left in Philly. He's entered that realm where he knows he's playing on his last contract, especially since the Eagles don't re-sign players once they're past the age of 30. But here's to hoping he gets his proper recognition before his career ends. Lord knows he's done enough to deserve it.