Cornerback Troy Vincent was signing autographs after a training-camp session last month when a fan asked, "We've got the Super Bowl this year, right Troy?" Vincent responded by saying the team was going to try to get better every week. "Come on, Troy!" the fan barked. "That's the politically correct answer! Super Bowl, right?"
A few days later the first-unit offense went against the first-unit defense in a series of seven-on-seven plays in front of about 1,500 spectators. On the initial snap wideout Freddie Mitchell cut to the sideline then raced upheld; quarterback Donovan McNabb thought Mitchell was running a quick out, and his throw bounced out-of-bounds, nowhere near Mitchell. The fans booed, and one yelled, "Get your act together!"
Welcome to a season of great expectations, Eagles. The Rams? A bunch of lambs. The Packers? Brett Favre's an old stiff. The 49ers? They're West Coast sissies. "Our fans don't understand how things have changed for us," says Vincent. "Now we're the team opponents look to on the schedule as a big game. The bull's-eye will be on us, and that's a big change."
Last season the Eagles finished 11-5 to win the NFC East. No young quarterback progressed toward stardom as quickly as the 25-year-old McNabb. Then, after routing the Bucs (31-9) and the Bears (33-19) in the first two rounds of the playoffs, the Eagles had the heavily favored Rams on the ropes in the NFC title game. McNabb, however, threw an interception in the final minute and St. Louis held on to win 29-24.
But a funny thing happened on the way to improvement. In the off-season the Eagles lost star middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter, who was released after a contentious contract negotiation with coach Andy Reid. That loss might be crippling if 275-pound Levon Kirkland or unproven four-year vet Barry Gardner fail to be adequate replacements. Other than adding three defensive backs in the draft, the Eagles stood pat in the off-season while other Super Bowl contenders made significant moves.
Philly's top draft pick, 5'10", 194-pound defensive back Lito Sheppard of Florida, was surprisingly physical in camp and will push for playing time at corner on passing downs, as will second-round selection Sheldon Brown ( South Carolina). But cornerback wasn't the Eagles' biggest need—Philly could have used another playmaker on offense and a middle linebacker. Scatback Brian Westbrook, who was a third-round draft pick, is penciled in to fill the former role. The Eagles still have some flexibility to make roster moves because of how well they've managed the salary cap—at week's end they were $6 million under the $71.1 million cap.
"I don't think you need big-time names," says McNabb, the only quarterback last year to throw for more than 3,000 yards (3,233), run for more than 400 yards (482) and have better than a plus-10 touchdown-to-interception ratio (25 to 12). "You need to work as a unit. I just need to develop more chemistry with my receivers."
Says Reid, "We were so close last year. After we played the Rams in the championship game, I thought the game was a toss-up. We're in striking range, even without making a big splash."
Philadelphia's veterans have faith in Reid, even if they don't agree with all his decisions. They go along with him when he says the club will be better off with a young and improving receiver such as Mitchell, 24, rather than going after a high-priced free agent like McCardell. (On Saturday, however, the Eagles signed former Packers wideout Antonio Freeman to a one-year deal.) Many veterans were ticked when Trotter was dropped, but they accepted Reid's explanation that if the team had signed Trotter it might lose two or three valuable players over the next couple of years because of cap woes. "Andy's trying to put the best team on the field," says Vincent. "We added some good kids in the secondary. But youth gets you to Week 9. Experience gets you the big silver trophy. We play in a now league. When you get as close as we did last year, you've got to do everything you can to get over the hump."
The Eagles are clearly the best team in the NFC East. With another year of maturity, their kids might even be able to overtake the Rams.