Bob Ford | Camp's rituals won't answer key questions

Posted: July 27, 2007

The Eagles begin their annual migratory return to Lehigh University today, settling in for a short, time-honored roost that is a good deal more honored by time than by the players themselves.

In fact - with all due respect to the fine people of the town of Bethlehem and all of Northampton County and those tireless PennDot workers who have made the Northeast Extension the exciting experience that it is - you could end this antiquated silliness right now as far as I'm concerned, too.

Perhaps in a bygone era, the idea of getting the team together for a real bonding experience before the season was worthwhile. You got the rookies to sing their college fight songs, and you short-sheeted the beds and had some meaningful "bull sessions" around the campfire, and, man, that stuff paid off in the cold rain of late December when it was third-and-1 at the 5-yard line. Sure, it did.

The Eagles have a coach in Andy Reid who believes in those sepia-toned lessons from the past: Teams play as they practice. Good people do good things. Training camp is an opportunity to build team unity through collective suffering.

As long as Reid is around - and while the clock is ticking on that one, it isn't very loud yet - some of this is going to be on the menu. That's just who he is. This year, however, even Reid has scaled back on the team's internment at Lehigh. The full squad will be bunkered in for less than two weeks, partly because of the exhibition schedule and partly because the NovaCare Complex is a better place to practice.

If the organization chose to do so, the entire training camp could be held at NovaCare. You could still get the fans involved, maybe hold practice a few times at the Linc (with concessions open!) and have the same autograph sessions that the players more endure than embrace.

It is an idea whose tide has crested for some other teams but hasn't quite lapped onto the wide banks of Lake Lurie. Maybe soon. In any case, it is back up the Extension, with equipment trucks loaded down by pads and helmets, preparing for a season bearing an equally heavy weight of unanswered questions.

Chief among those questions for the Eagles is whether quarterback Donovan McNabb will be fully healed from a 2006 season-ending knee injury that required ACL surgery. And more to the point, if even a completely recovered McNabb is good enough to get the team to the championship that has eluded him in his first eight NFL seasons.

McNabb was great at the beginning of last season, so-so midway through, and absent after that. Which McNabb will show up this time is the big question. Whether he can display the same mobility he had before the knee injury is a sub-category of that question.

The Eagles chose not to pay starter's money to free-agent backup Jeff Garcia, despite Garcia's unexpected success at the end of 2006. So, unless you have more faith in A.J. Feeley than most, the fortunes of the team are hinged solidly to McNabb's performance. Everything else is interesting to talk about, but nothing even comes close to being as important.

Among those other topics is the offense that McNabb will attempt to direct. No. 1 wide receiver Donté Stallworth has been replaced by Kevin Curtis, tight end L.J. Smith is coming back from surgery to repair a sports hernia, and the rest of the receiving depends on one's opinion of Hank Baskett and Jason Avant. More telling, however, will be whether the Eagles' reliance on Brian Westbrook and the running game will continue now that McNabb is back. Offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg went to the run to help protect Garcia, and Westbrook responded by piling up nearly 2,000 combined yards, including 1,217 on the ground.

Would the Eagles really revert to their throw-throw-throw tendency despite overwhelming evidence that there might be a better way? Good question. Let you know in October.

Defensively, it appears someone was paying attention last season when the undersize Eagles were getting pushed around. Takeo Spikes and Chris Gocong will start at the outside linebacker positions, which should help, but there is also the sense that Jeremiah Trotter may turn out to be only a ceremonial starter in the middle.

According to the Eagles, the line will be much better because former No. 1 draft pick Brodrick Bunkley has finally caught on and because big lugs Ian Scott and Montae Reagor give the line the size and depth it has lacked. Jevon Kearse needs a big comeback year at left end for everything to work smoothly, though, and one more solid season out of Brian Dawkins at safety is a must, too.

Those are the high points, although few of them will come into sharp focus during the brief sojourn at Lehigh. Instead, everyone will sweat a lot and do their drills, and the tea leaves of training camp will yield their usual weak brew. Nothing means nothing until the real games.

But tradition must be honored, and that is what the Eagles will doing for the next couple of weeks. It will be a festive time in the hills again.

At least until the second day.


Contact columnist Bob Ford

at 215-854-5842 or bford@phillynews.com.

Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/bobford.

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