Meet the Eagles offense

Andrew Whalen

It has been too long since a Villanova reporter wrote something positive about the Philadelphia Eagles. There have been far too many negative contributions by Giants and Jets fans, determined to overlook this team’s unlimited ability and recent accomplishments.

That changes now because the current team is too professional. If you are stuck watching Fox TV Sunday this fall, this introduction could help you find a greater appreciation for South Philly football. Unleash your Eagles spirit.

Andy Reid is the head coach of the Eagles. He is largely responsible for the Eagles renaissance following a very dark period in the mid ’90s. Much credit has also been given to playboy owner Jeffrey Lurie, who has not been afraid to pursue attractive free agents, as well as reigning salary cap guru Joe Banner, who has signed quality young talent to lucrative long-term deals.

Andy Reid was widely criticized early in his tenure because of his stubborn demeanor, conservative play calling and unwillingness to admit he needed a big name wide receiver.

As of late, however, considering the three straight NFC Championship appearances and fluke Super Bowl loss, Reid’s and offensive coordinator Brad “Hey Terrell” Childress’ decisions have not been overly second-guessed. While superstar receiver Terrell Owens remains a touchy subject, the coach and team have looked solid in the preseason. The goodwill Reid has amassed, however, could be destroyed instantly in the “What have you done for me lately” world of the NFL.

More than anyone, Reid’s destiny is tied to the quarterback he drafted, Donovan “The Franchise” McNabb. McNabb is a mobile quarterback who has the potential to survive forever in the pocket before breaking off for a high-stepping first down run, or unleashing a 70-yard touchdown bomb. McNabb’s best quality, however, is his care of the ball.

While it sounds contradictory, McNabb is actually cautious when scrambling and throwing the deep pass. He rarely coughs it up or throws into double or triple coverage. His multiple interceptions in the Super Bowl were an anathema, and will not happen at so crucial a time again. No one pushes himself harder or wants to win as a team more than McNabb. He is the leader and face of the organization because of his work ethic on the field, graciousness toward players and coaches and genuine marketability.

Villanova fan favorite Brian Westbrook exploded on the NFL scene with an elusive quickness that had one ESPN commentator mention him in the same sentence as Walter Payton. Donovan calls Westbrook the team’s secret weapon, although I’m not sure just how much of a secret he is anymore. His size and speed create mismatches that result in giant gains. Eagles fans will never forget his 84-yard punt return against the Giants that changed the course of two team’s seasons two seasons ago. This year Westbrook is looking for a big money contract, so expect him to be his exceptional self.

Westbrook will share the running back load with 2005 draftee Ryan Moats. Moats is similar in size to Westbrook and also possesses that coveted breakaway speed. It is not yet clear whether he is able to catch the ball or take a season’s worth of punishing hits with the same skill as Westbrook. Some critics think that the Eagles are undersized and understaffed at the running back position because of the loss of the oft-injured Correll Buckhalter. While it remains to be seen just how much of a loss the larger Buckhalter is, don’t be surprised to see the Eagles pick up a last minute utility back.

Regardless, Andy Reid has no intention of running Westbrook repeatedly up the middle where he is more susceptible to injury. Look for Reid to rotate and rest his backs, have McNabb hit Westbrook for passes out of the backfield, and rely on his infamous wide receiver to create diversions downfield.

As the off-season proved, Terrell Owens can cause distractions anywhere. The greater the coverage, be it cornerbacks, linebackers or media blitz, the more T.O. seems to thrive. T.O.’s undisputed athletic ability and brute physicality enable him to drive through tackles and gain additional yards after the catch. While sometimes known more for his childish antics and mocking dances, the fact remains that if opposing defenders like Ray Lewis don’t want to see or hear about T.O., they need to keep him out of the end zone. Like Stephen A. might say, “Quite frankly, no one can.”

T.O. has been impossible to stop or contain in the past, and this year he figures to be even better. The NFL has since outlawed the Roy Williams’ collar tackle that ended Owens’ regular season. T.O. is also very mad about his contract and wants to prove to the Eagles organization that he is the greatest player on his planet. He cares about money and his ego too much to not show up. Sports fans would agree that the overexposure has been difficult to stomach at times. That said, T.O. says he plans to reward the fans with a “season for the ages.”

T.O.’s traveling circus, Todd Pinkston’s season ending injury, and the dismissal of big play/big mouth Freddie “FredEx” Mitchell would have wrecked a lesser team.

The Eagles, however, have taken advantage of this adversity by giving their younger receivers a chance to succeed. Greg Lewis, a speedy wideout who scored an impressive touchdown late in the Super Bowl, will step in as the number two receiver. Lewis has sure hands and a knack for separating himself from the defender. 2005 draftee Reggie Brown is looking to buck a Reid-era Eagles’ receiver trend, that is to find playing time as a rookie. In the two years that he started at Georgia, Reggie led his team in receptions. With so many teams’ attentions tuned to Westbrook, Owens, and Lewis, there is the possibility that Brown could be catching some easy scores.

As if all these offensive options weren’t enough, McNabb has also connected for seven clutch touchdowns over the last two years with Rutgers graduate L.J. Smith. During that period Smith shared time with the veteran Chad Lewis. This year Smith will be the primary passing target at tight end. Smith is one of several young tight ends, like Jeremy Shockey and Antonio Gates, who are revolutionizing the way the position is played in the NFL. He is dynamic and a good blocker who can also stretch the defense.

Smith needs to focus on protecting the ball; otherwise, he is an invaluable asset. The hard-hitting fullback and horn bleeder, Jon Ritchie, returns from injury, too. Ritchie has proven he can catch the ball in an emergency situation and score the occasional touchdown.

Finally, last but not least important is the Eagles offensive line. The Eagles line has been consistent over the past few years. I would be more willing to extend superlatives in their direction had they just showed up in the first half of last year’s Super Bowl. Left tackle Tra Thomas and right tackle Jon Runyan have both been to the Pro Bowl before. Center Hank Fraley should go to Hawaii someday. Right guard Shawn Andrews, last year’s top pick, showed enormous promise before injury. He routinely put charging defenders flat on their backs. Artis Hicks starts at left guard, but there is competition for his spot. The Eagles line has done a good job in the past protecting McNabb.

The Eagles’ pass-heavy offense, however, can put tremendous strain on any offensive line. While it is more often their job to battle “in the trenches,” the Eagles line also does a good job getting out on the run and blocking downfield. It is not uncommon, however, to see a lengthy run brought back because of something reckless Runyan or Fraley might have done.

If offense wins games but defense wins championships. Doesn’t that mean theoretically that the Redskins, Patriots, Giants and Ravens are all better than the Eagles? Not this year.