Early in training camp, second-year quarterback Donovan McNabb dropped back to pass and locked onto rookie wide receiver Todd Pinkston, running a deep out to the left side. Cornerback Mark Tate was covering Pinkston, and safety Jason Bostic was closing in as McNabb let fly. By the time the ball came spiraling down to Pinkston, Tate and Bostic were all over the wideout, and the pass was batted to the ground. "Ahhhhh!" McNabb said, slapping his hands together in disgust. Alas, even though McNabb isn't a rookie anymore, we haven't seen the last of his ill-advised throws into double coverage.
"I'm going to make a comparison," Eagles coach Andy Reid, the former Packers assistant, said after practice. "In Green Bay we talked as a staff about benching Brett Favre in his fourth season—and it almost happened. Then Brett went on to win three straight MVPs. This is a process that takes time. The second year will be better than the first, and the third will be better than the second. There will be down times, I can guarantee you that. But Donovan's a sharp kid who wants to be the best, and I know he'll turn into a top-notch NFL quarterback."
In the meantime the Eagles have a few other elements in place that make them a potential playoff contender. Running back Duce Staley, whose 1,273 yards rushing was fourth best in the NFC last year, now has the added benefit of the game's best run blocker, right tackle Jon Runyan, clearing holes for him. Runyan, a 6'7", 330-pound free-agent signee who was Eddie George's primary earthmover with the Titans the past four years, will team with 1998's top pick, 349-pound Tra Thomas, to give the Eagles one of the top sets of tackles in the NFL.
On defense, Philadelphia had a league-high 46 takeaways last year—after being last in 1998 with 17—thanks to the risky style of defensive coordinator Jim Johnson. He adds pass-rushing outside linebacker Carlos Emmons, a free-agent pickup from the Steelers, and first-round pick Corey Simon, a defensive tackle from Florida State who held out the first two weeks of camp, to a front seven that already was the strength of the team.
Though Philadelphia comes up short at wideout (Torrance Small, 49 catches in '99, leads a nondescript group) and tight end (incumbents Chad Lewis and Jed Weaver combined for 34 catches last season), quarterback remains the overriding question. How soon will McNabb mature into a quality passer? Can he withstand the venom sure to spew from the most impatient fans in the western world?
You might remember McNabb's introduction to the NFL: Draft day, 1999, commissioner Paul Tagliabue announces that the Eagles, with the No. 2 pick, have chosen the mobile and strong-armed McNabb from Syracuse over Heisman-winning running back Ricky Williams. From the reaction of the Philly faithful in attendance, you'd have thought Scott Rolen had just been traded to the Atlanta Braves. "You dream about this moment your whole life, making it to the NFL," a pensive McNabb recalls, "and you're welcomed to your dream with the biggest boo you've ever heard. My parents are upset to this day. I keep it in mind for motivation."
He didn't perform well enough in six starts as a rookie to silence everyone, not with a 49% completion rate, which was 11 percentage points less than Reid would like. However, McNabb worked in the off-season with each prospective receiver for at least one week; in fact, he moved into Charles Johnson's Tempe, Ariz., home for six weeks and threw five times a week to his prime target. "There's no question I have a better feel for the game," McNabb says. "But there are still times when I'll see something on the field and know what I have to do, but I just can't make my body do it in time. I need to be able to just play football. That's when you succeed. I'm a patient guy. I've got my eyes wide open. I'll get it."
Reid made it a point this summer to walk around camp with his diamond-studded Super Bowl ring from Green Bay's 1996 world championship season. "If you're a player, and you have pride, you understand this," he said, flashing his hardware like a woman showing off her engagement ring. Coming off a five-win season, Philadelphia is at least two years away from thinking about such gaudy jewelry. Any hope for even a wild-card berth this season is tied to these three facts: Six of the Eagles' 11 losses last year were by six points or less; Philly should have one of the NFL's best running games; and, at times last year, McNabb (with a 6.7-yard rushing average and an arm strong enough to throw bullets through the late-season Veterans Stadium winds) showed flashes of brilliance.
"You know how football is today," says Tom Modrak, the Eagles' director of football operations. "It's instant-gratification time. Donovan's going to have his good days and his bad days. We'll survive the bad ones. People just need to have realistic expectations about him this year."
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