If ever a team’s season were about one player, it is the Philadelphia Eagles of 2007 and their quarterback Donovan McNabb. For a star athlete in his prime, McNabb is coming off a season that dimmed his luster considerably. If it were just the injury, as serious as it was, McNabb would not have had to hire his own PR guy. To put it bluntly, McNabb lost this town and his team last year.
It remains to be seen whether he can win them back. Maybe I am being too simplistic, but in my mind McNabb’s journey back to the top will be what ’07 is all about.
When he was injured in the November ’06 game against Tennessee, McNabb had already reached his nadir. The team was struggling and his leadership was again being called into question. When Jeff Garcia took over, the team lost to the Colts, mostly because the Eagles once-proud defense had been torn apart. It appeared the post-Terrell Owens season would find the Eagles out of the playoffs. Then Garcia reached back the way veterans sometimes do, and the Eagles shocked the NFL by reeling off five-straight wins to finish once again in the playoffs. The new quarterback was the toast of the town. While he said all the right words about it still being Donovan’s team, in truth the Eagles had become Garcia’s. It meant one thing and one thing only to Andy Reid: If McNabb were to regain this squad, Garcia had to go.
During the off-season, McNabb made a determined effort to win back his teammates and the fans. He had to overcome the image of being the quintessential company man. One of his earliest moves was to hire Rich Burg, who had been canned by the Eagles, as his PR. By hiring Burg, McNabb was signaling to one and all he was his own man. Next McNabb made himself available to the media in situations not controlled by the organization. Sometimes he even contradicted the coach on the status of his injury. I believe all of McNabb’s efforts to distance himself from Reid were done with the coach’s blessing. Reid realizes, in order to be effective this season, McNabb has more than an injury to overcome. He can’t afford his teammates second-guessing him. He can’t afford fans screaming for the backup the first time he throws an interception. The fans are a lot less likely to call for A.J. Feeley or Kevin Kolb than if the backup were Garcia. None of this is meant to overlook the other questions surrounding the Eagles, but they are all questions a good organization can answer.
The preseason is not finished and already the Eagles have suffered a major hurt with Shawn Andrews. The extent of Andrews’ ankle injury seems shrouded in mystery. Even if the coach and the medical staff don’t think it is serious, Andrews feels otherwise. The Eagles can not afford to lose Andrews for any appreciable length of time.
With L.J. Smith nursing yet another injury (groin), the tight end situation appears unsettled, although rookie Brent Celek has played well in the preseason. If the Eagles are truly going to run the ball more (and McNabb’s health seems to dictate that), this could be the season Brian Westbrook becomes the league’s elite running back. As usual, he will not get a lot of help from his running mates. Correll Buckhalter is a journeyman, but he can block. Tony Hunt is as green as the grass at the Linc. Donte’ Stallworth is gone, but with wide receivers Kevin Curtis, Reggie Brown and Hank Baskett, the Eagles passing game will do just fine. In fact, the offense should return to being as dangerous as it has ever been; it’s the defense that has a big question mark over it.
In addition to the demise of McNabb, ’06 was best remembered for the fall from grace of Jim Johnson’s defense. The pass rush was non-existent and left the secondary shockingly exposed. Brian Dawkins, Jeremiah Trotter, and Jevon Kearse all showed age is not on their side (Trotter wound up cut last week). They’re not going to get younger this season. A crop of fresh, talented linebackers is the bright spot, along with the hope Lito Sheppard and Sheldon Brown can return to star form. But, after all is said and done, the story line this season will center squarely on McNabb.
Though a Super Bowl will once again elude the Eagles, we’ll remember ’07 as McNabb’s redemption with an 11-5 record and another NFC East title.