Eagles' Sheppard now sideline supporter

Lito Sheppard and Brian Dawkins (20) hit Arizona's Steve Breaston. Sheppard was beaten three times for TDs in the game.
Lito Sheppard and Brian Dawkins (20) hit Arizona's Steve Breaston. Sheppard was beaten three times for TDs in the game.
Posted: December 18, 2008

During the games, he stands among the others waiting for the call that doesn't come. And yet he waits, right where he is supposed to be, helmet in place, chin strap buckled, listening for the name he never hears.

The highest praise you can give Lito Sheppard, the Eagles' forgotten cornerback, is that if you didn't know, you wouldn't know. Not as he prepares for the games, not as he moves among his teammates, not as he hears the loud ticking of the countdown clock on his career in Philadelphia.

"I'm still running around, jumping around, making noise and flying around practicing," Sheppard said yesterday. "It can [take] a toll on you if you let it, but hey, what can you do about it? I'm not pouting about it. It's not my decision."

When the Eagles signed Asante Samuel, everyone knew the landscape of the cornerback position had been altered, but the new contours were uncertain. Would Sheldon Brown be the odd man out? Would Sheppard become a nickel back with only slightly reduced playing time? Would Joselio Hanson become lost in the shuffling situation?

By this point in the season, the picture is clear, and Lito Sheppard can't get on the field with the defense. He plays special teams, and otherwise he waits for what he knows will not arrive. Just two years after getting his second Pro Bowl invitation, Sheppard speaks of the team's recent revival in the third person like any other spectator.

"I'm not going to make [my situation] a distraction right now, considering how the team is doing and winning," Sheppard said. "These guys are playing great, and I don't want to be part of saying anything other than great. . . . I'm rooting these guys on, and hopefully they can help me get a ring."

Someone pointed out his shift of perspective, and Sheppard laughed.

"Yeah, I noticed that," he said. "It's the truth. If I was out there helping, contributing, then it would be we."

But that's not how it is. Sheppard went from a nickel back to a dime back to nothing at all in the defensive schemes. He was beaten on some passes during the season, and his last real appearance was in the Arizona game, when he had cover responsibility on the receivers who caught all three of the Cardinals' touchdowns.

Now the Eagles are primarily using Hanson as the fifth defensive back and have begun to work safety Quintin Demps into the pass-defense packages as well. Sunday against the Browns, Sheppard wasn't involved in a single tackle for the second straight game, a back-to-back streak that hadn't happened since he was a rookie in 2002.

"It's hard, but he's been a great sport about it," said Brown, whose locker has been adjacent to Sheppard's for five years. "He had a couple of plays this year when it didn't happen to go his way. But the thing about Lito is, he bends but he won't break. He just needs more action. He's still a Pro Bowl player. I believe that at the bottom of my heart, and I hope people know that and give him that opportunity."

The opportunity almost certainly won't be in Philadelphia, although Sheppard is under contract through the 2011 season. He came into the season dissatisfied with the extension he signed in 2004, and despite having hired agent Drew Rosenhaus to get him a better deal, the Eagles didn't budge.

"It's a situation that just didn't pop up out of the ground. It just progressed up into this," Sheppard said. "I don't think I could have done anything differently. Things happen for a reason, and you learn from them. That's what I'm doing now, learning."

The lesson is that things change quickly in this business and while Sheppard is well-paid by most standards - he makes $2 million this season and put away an $8.7 million signing bonus when he took the extension - he missed his chance for a huge payday like the one Samuel received. It's all about time and place. For Sheppard, he knows his time in this place is growing short.

"If you get moved out and they move another guy in, you can't get mad at the other guy. He's just doing his job," Sheppard said. "All these guys are my brothers, and these are lasting relationships, so I'm not going to be bitter or sour with these guys because of something I've done or something the organization has done. That's between me and the organization."

What he does instead is put his helmet firmly into place, snap the chinstrap and stare out at the field where he is rarely welcome.

If you didn't know, you wouldn't know, and as the Eagles try to hold together for a few more weeks, the final measure of Lito Sheppard might not be the kind of teammate he is when he plays, but the kind he has been when he doesn't.


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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