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THE MORE THAN 10,000 FANS WHO ATTENDED Eagles training camp on Aug. 2 witnessed a thrillingly familiar sight. Familiar, in that quarterback Donovan McNabb, dressed in a red practice jersey, black mesh shorts and black tights, dropped back, evaded the pass rush and lofted a pinpoint pass to receiver Reggie Brown. And thrilling, in that McNabb was able to do it at all.
McNabb blew out the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in a loss to the Tennessee Titans last Nov. 19. ACL tears such as the one McNabb suffered can take up to a year to heal, but here, less than nine months later, was the five-time Pro Bowl selection, moving only slightly gingerly—and not even wearing a knee brace—as he ably, and often spectacularly, guided Philadelphia's offense through a progression of 11-on-11 drills.
Yes, fans have plenty of reasons to be optimistic. Jevon Kearse, and all of his game-changing ability, has also returned at defensive end. Other additions—including two-time Pro Bowl linebacker Takeo Spikes from the Bills and standout fifth-year receiver Kevin Curtis from the Rams—make the Eagles a formidable team. What's more, Philadelphia used McNabb's absence as an opportunity to develop a more versatile, and dangerous, offensive attack.
Last season sixth-year running back Brian Westbrook, who ranked sixth in the NFL with 1,916 total yards, proved that he's capable of being an every-down force. Although coach Andy Reid insists that he never questioned Westbrook's ability—"I've always looked at Westbrook as a feature back," he says—it wasn't until McNabb tore up his knee that the Eagles fully used him as such. Even with their star quarterback sidelined, Philadelphia still finished the season ranked second in the NFL in total yards.
The Eagles are quietly confident that McNabb will be fit to begin the season. And, despite chatter in the Philly media that 2007 might be McNabb's last shot to prove that he's got what it takes to bring a desperately longed-for championship to the city, Reid says that he's here to stay—even though some believe that Reid drafted Kevin Kolb in the second round to be McNabb's successor sooner rather than later. "People read into that that I'm trying to replace a quarterback," says Reid. "But my hope is that Donovan has 10 more great years."
Backing up these dynamic skill players is an offensive line that ranks with the NFL's best. Jon Runyan and William Thomas have started 103 games together, the most of any tackle tandem in Eagles history. The line's star, however, is right guard Shawn Andrews, who lost 60 pounds before the '04 season. "He was really a good player at 380," says offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg. "Now he's a Pro Bowl player at 330. His endurance is so much better, and he can keep his power late in the game."
Andrews and the rest of the offense won't be able to excel in those late-game situations unless the Eagles' defenders improve on their one major bugaboo from the '06 season: stopping the run. Philly ranked only 26th in that category last season, yielding 136.4 yards a game and allowing opponents to surpass 200 yards on the ground four times. The Eagles' run-stopping deficiency was particularly evident in their playoff loss to New Orleans, in which the Saints—led by Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush—ran for 208 yards. That poor effort did not go unnoticed; says safety Brian Dawkins, "To a man on this defense, we want to shore up one area, and that is the run."
On a positive note Philadelphia's defense rang up 40 sacks and ranked ninth against the pass in '06—and the Birds have a full complement of secondary starters returning in cornerbacks Sheldon Brown and Lito Sheppard and safeties Dawkins and Sean Considine.
The return of Kearse, who was lost for the season after spraining multiple ligaments in his left knee in a Week 2 loss to the Giants, will reintroduce a disruptive element that will impact the defense in ways that extend beyond the pass rush. "There are certain blocking schemes you just can't use against the Eagles when Jevon is in the game," says Dawkins. "You can't slide away from him."