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Posted: Friday August 17, 2001 12:43 AM
Updated: Sunday August 26, 2001 7:22 PM
Sports Illustrated's Don Banks checks in from Bethlehem, Pa., to tackle three questions that matter to Philadelphia Eagles fans:
|| After releasing both starters and drafting Freddie Mitchell in the first round, did the Eagles really upgrade at wide receiver?
Former Redskins WR James Thrash signed with the Eagles in the offseason.
In cutting their ties to the underwhelming tandem of Charles Johnson and Torrance Small, we're going to go out on a limb here and say that the Eagles couldn't have possibly failed to improve unless they brought back Harold Jackson and Ben Dawkins, both of whom are in their mid-50s.
Johnson and Small were the team's second- and third-leading receivers last season, combining for 96 catches for 1,211 yards and 10 touchdowns. They managed that despite not being fast, athletic or a particularly good fit for the Eagles offense. Johnson, however, was popular in the team's locker room and well-liked by quarterback Donovan McNabb, which didn't count for as much as he probably presumed.
So what does Philly have in free-agent signee James Thrash, late of Washington, 2000 second-round pick Todd Pinkston, and the confident and quotable Mr. Mitchell? Two things: More speed than they've had in a long, long time; and receivers who are young and athletic enough -- Thrash is the oldest at 26 -- to grow into playmakers for McNabb.
Thrash and Pinkston are the expected starters, with Mitchell close to overtaking Na Brown for the third receiver role. Combined, the group had
just 69 receptions and three touchdowns in the NFL last year. That would scare some teams. But for the Eagles, they've already survived the most
frightening part. They went 11-5 and went to the playoffs last year with Johnson and Small as downfield threats.
|| Is the Duce ready to be set loose again?
A return to health by Duce Staley would help Donovan McNabb and the passing game too. Ronald Martinez/Allsport
Running back Duce Staley not only suffered one of the most meaningful injuries of the season last year, he also has rebounded from one of the more strangely named conditions in recent memory. His Lis Franc foot sprain - the name goes back to the days of Napoleon - in Week 5 ended his season and left the Eagles without the man who had opened the season with a 201-yard rushing performance.
It's hard to pronounce Staley all the way back until we see him in game conditions -- and we have the Eagles' Veteran Stadium carpet problems to thank for that -- but it's so far so good in his comeback. Staley ran a little tenatively early in camp, but has looked more comfortable in recent days.
The problem is that this type of injury can recur at any time, making each stride a potential season-ender. There's also limited football history with a Lis Franc sprain, with Staley's surgery and rehabilitation methods differing than those of former Cleveland running back Errict Rhett, who is dealing with the same injury.
Staley, at 5-11, 220 pounds, is a power runner who usually bulls over defenders, often dragging a man or two with him for extra yardage. But that running style can produce great stress on the feet and that's not what Staley needs about now. If he changes his approach, will it change his level of productivity?
The Eagles are counting on Staley to provide the non-McNabb ground game that virtually disappeared after his injury. A setback now could prove devastating to their legitimate Super Bowl hopes. In the 37 games he
has played since the start of 1998, Staley has rushed for almost 2,700 yards and caught passes for another 900-plus.
|| We understand they can't afford to fixate on it, like the media has, but will the Eagles ever manage to beat the Giants?
Ron Dixon's TD return of the opening kickoff set the tone in the Giants' playoff win against the Eagles. Al Bello/Allsport
To a man, the Eagles in training camp don't want to talk about the hex against the defending NFC East champion Giants when the visiting St. Louis Rams loom in the Sept. 9 regular-season opener.
But, in case you've been under a rock since Rich Kotite was fired, Philadelphia hasn't beaten the G-men since Dec. 1, 1996. That's a streak of nine consecutive losses, including the 20-10 NFC divisional-round playoff outcome last season. That game made head coach Andy Reid 0-5 against New York in his two-year tenure.
Truth be known, yes, the streak has more than ebbed into the collective Philly psyche at this point. The two teams don't play until Week 7 at New York, and then close the regular season in Philadephia. That's a long time to wait for vindication if you're the Eagles.
But Philadelphia has a couple reasons for hope. First off, the Eagles' defense basically shut down the Giants in the playoff game. New York scored on the opening kickoff return, and later on a Jason Sehorn interception return. Without those, the Eagles win 10-6. Right?
Philadelphia also had no Staley for the last two losses last year, and has every reason to believe that a more experienced McNabb gives it an even bigger advantage in the quarterback matchup. In the NFL, the team with the better quarterback usually wins. Who do you like? McNabb or Kerry Collins?
But until they beat the Giants, the Eagles will have nothing to say about it. For nine very good reasons.