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5 Philadelphia Eagles
Paul Zimmerman
August 17, 1998
Despite an off-season front-office shake-up, Ray Rhodes's team will have a difficult time improving on last year's dismal showing
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August 17, 1998

5 Philadelphia Eagles

Despite an off-season front-office shake-up, Ray Rhodes's team will have a difficult time improving on last year's dismal showing

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Schedule

Sept

6

SEATTLE

13

at Atlanta

20

at Arizona

27

KANSAS CITY

Oct.

4

at Denver

11

WASHINGTON

18

at San Diego

25

OPEN DATE

Nov.

2

DALLAS (Mon.)

8

DETROIT

15

at Washington

22

at N.Y. Giants

29

at Green Bay

Dec.

3

ST. LOUIS (Thurs.)

13

ARIZONA

20

at Dallas

27

N.Y. GIANTS

It's been the highlight of Eagles practices this summer: Hugh Douglas versus Tra Thomas in the one-on-one pass-rush drills, the race around the corner, ballroom dancing at breakneck speed.

Douglas is the onetime defensive force from the Jets. A rookie sensation with 10 sacks three years ago, then a disappointment as an undersized 263-pounder trying to play a base end position in Bill Parcells's 3-4 defense, he's happy to have been traded to the Eagles and given a six-year, $25.3 million contract, which makes him the highest-paid player in franchise history.

Thomas is the No. 1 draft pick whom Philly installed as its varsity left tackle before Paul Tagliabue had even finished announcing his name. He'll be one of the most carefully scrutinized rookies this fall as the Eagles once again try to fortify a position that has bedeviled them. He's the fourth left tackle they've drafted in the first or second round in the last five years, the eighth man to play the position in the last nine. This time they feel they've finally got it right.

Now the two combatants are lined up for their daily matchup. Douglas begins a wide, looping rush—his forte is speed—and Thomas, a 6'7" 349-pounder who actually looks slender, matches him step for step, riding him into no-man's-land. Juan Castillo, the offensive line coach, yells so loudly his hat falls off.

Douglas smiles. The players line up again. Blam-blam-blam. Douglas's hands are a blur, smacking the right shoulder to set Thomas up, faking the inside move, a left shoulder slap, a quick cut to the outside, and he's in clean—all in a heartbeat. Silence. Veterans are supposed to do that to rookies.

"Never saw this at Florida State," Thomas says after practice. "All that swatting of hands. Pulling back, faking, it's almost a martial arts thing out there. But I'm learning, man. I'm learning. Working with Hugh every day has been great for me."

"Very talented rookie," Douglas says. "You don't see that kind of foot speed on a guy that size. Good guy for me to work against."

What does Tra Thomas mean to the Eagles this year? Well, the line gave up 64 sacks in '97, third most in team history. This year the rest of the line will be O.K., nothing special. Start with a pillar on the left side, though, and you've got something to build on. Bobby Hoying, who was Philly's third-string quarterback at the start of last season, played well when he was given the starting job with seven games to go.

"Then they started blitzing me," he says. "Let's say I wasn't ready for all they threw at me." After throwing no interceptions in his first three starts, Hoying had six in his next four. The Eagles were 2-4-1 with Hoying at the helm, including losses in their final three games, but he's the guy now.

Ricky Watters, who gave the Eagles three solid years at running back, is gone—to Seattle as a free agent—without so much as an offer from Philadelphia. The plan is to replace him with injury-prone Charlie Garner, who has a career average of 4.7 yards per carry but has never carried more than 116 times in a season, and second-year man Duce Staley, who had all of seven rushing attempts last year. Irving Fryar caught 86 balls in '97, the most ever for a 35-year-old wideout, but the Eagles are still figuring out how to take the pressure off him. And Jon Gruden, very efficient as the offensive coordinator, is now coaching the Raiders. His replacement is former Stanford offensive coordinator Dana Bible; the Cardinal was 5-6 last year and ranked eighth in the Pac-10 in offense. This is a unit with problems.

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