Les Bowen: Pressing questions heading into Eagles training camp

Brian Westbrook, running through hole against Dallas in December, had an ankle cleanout last month.
Brian Westbrook, running through hole against Dallas in December, had an ankle cleanout last month.
Posted: July 23, 2009

JUST FINISHED enumerating the five key areas of concern as Eagles camp commences Sunday, and then I realized not one of them had anything to do with Donovan McNabb.

I'm not quite sure this is allowed. I might have to check with an editor. Usually, training camp begins with the declaration that McNabb is "at a crossroads." The man has spent more time down at the crossroads than Robert Johnson.

That's not so much the case at Lehigh this year, though. This year's crossroads, as far as I can see, came during the offseason, when McNabb wanted a contract adjustment and the Eagles acquiesced. True, they did it in a way that would not hinder them from moving on to Kevin Kolb next year if this year goes badly. But they seem to have settled the matter of who will start at quarterback this season, barring injury, regardless of slumpage, and they've given McNabb every reason to think that if he plays well, he'll have the job in 2010. That's more certainty than most of us can get in an uncertain world.

A few years ago, the big issue was health, after back-to-back McNabb surgeries in '05 and '06, for a sports hernia and an ACL. But now McNabb has started 33 of the last 35 games, including last season's playoffs. There is no reason to consider him particularly fragile.

McNabb played unsteadily on his still-healing knee and the Birds missed the playoffs in '07, so last year at this time there was speculation that the Kolb era might be near. It seemed that speculation was being borne out when McNabb was benched for the second half of a loss in Baltimore on Nov. 23. But Kolb did nothing to change the tone of a crushing defeat. Then McNabb rallied the Eagles into the playoffs, and the NFC Championship Game.

Now, well, things are about as copacetic as they are going to get in Philadelphia for an 11th-year quarterback who hasn't won a Super Bowl. Sure, the issue of whether McNabb is capable of doing that remains crucial. But as urgent, attention-demanding worries go, in July 2009 it is way down a list that starts with the suddenly iffy outlook for Brian Westbrook.

So, feel free to relax a little, DMac. Take a deep breath. Maybe even smile at the first Lehigh news conference. This time around, it isn't all about you. At least, not so much.

The five most obvious

areas of concern as the

Eagles convene at Lehigh:

1What's up with Brian Westbrook?

We know the franchise running back underwent a surprise ankle cleanout early last month. The team's stance then was that he probably would not play in the preseason, but should be ready for the season opener Sept. 13. What's the status of Westbrook's rehab as camp begins?

Will Westbrook be running plays with the rest of the team in a few weeks, just skipping the contact drills, or is he going to spend August off on his own field somewhere with head athletic trainer Rick Burkholder? The answer might give us a better idea of how ready Westbrook really is going to be for the opener, and how much of the preseason practice workload is going to have to be absorbed by rookie LeSean McCoy and underwhelming holdover Lorenzo Booker.

2 Sean McDermott's defense.

Officially, coordinator Jim Johnson is on a leave of absence as he is treated for metastasized melanoma. Unofficially, it seems unlikely Johnson will resume his duties this season. McDermott has the trust of Johnson, Andy Reid and the players, but he is 35 and has never run a defense. How will the Eagles' defense look different? And who fills Brian Dawkins' leadership role?

3 The offensive line must come together.

This point will be belabored at length in tomorrow's Daily News. With Stacy Andrews still rehabbing his ACL, the new-look o-line wasn't together much in minicamps. Lehigh will begin the crucial work of getting what should be a younger, stronger, quicker bunch synched up. Expect this topic to recur throughout the season, whether the headline is "Gee, who thought these guys could mesh so seamlessly?" or "Tangled line trips up Birds."

4 Care and feeding of the rookies.

I can't remember when an Eagles offense anticipated such a contribution from the kiddies. That's exciting, and scary. LeSean McCoy will be most squarely in the crosshairs this preseason, with Brian Westbrook out, but the Lehigh crowds will be closely monitoring first-round wideout Jeremy Maclin and fifth-round tight end Cornelius Ingram as well. Maclin could figure into the return game.

5 Sheldon Brown's situation.

The only remaining defensive starter from the Eagles' Super Bowl XXXIX team skipped voluntary workouts because he was disappointed he couldn't get a new contract, or a trade to a team that might give him one. With Brian Dawkins gone, Brown is an important locker-room presence. What's he thinking? How's he behaving? Might he still get traded if another team has an emergency? Is he going to start ahead of newcomer Ellis Hobbs?

Five much less obvious areas of concern as the Eagles convene at Lehigh:

1 What form will Donovan McNabb's touchdown-dance tribute to Michael Jackson take?

In recent years, No. 5 has often seemed to be the only athlete willing to risk looking uncool enough to evoke something as old-school as "Thriller." Now he has plenty of company. Can McNabb raise his game?

2 Can Reggie Brown revive his Eagles career, or is he this summer's Jerome McDougle?

In minicamps, Brown looked like a man determined to recapture the promise of his first two Eagles seasons. Unfortunately, he's swimming in a deeper wideout pool than the Birds have seen in the Andy Reid era. Like McDougle a year ago, Reggie might have waited too long to start to turn it around.

3 With Brian Dawkins in Denver, who is going to tell Quintin Demps, "Kid, dial back the volume a little until you've actually done something?"

Demps' brash toughness is a strength, as he vies to replace the franchise legend at free safety. However, there's a line between confidence and arrogance. Swagger is one of those things that works better when it's earned.

4 With Jon Runyan gone, who's going to start the training-camp fights?

This is an important role. When the big guys on the offensive and defensive lines start swinging, spectators feel a refreshing breeze, and the skill position players get to rest a little. (Unless they opt to show solidarity with their mates by running toward the scrum yelling, "Hey! Hey!" and waving their arms threateningly, as often happens.)

5 Will Jack Ikegwuonu's roommate risk bringing the Xbox to Lehigh?

We kid, Jack, we kid. Seriously, the cornerback from Wisconsin has to be really relieved to finally put behind him those residential burglary and criminal trespassing charges that somehow took nearly 3 years to resolve. Now the only question Ikegwuonu has to answer is about the serious knee injury that caused him to miss last season. He could be an interesting addition to an already crowded defensive backfield. *

Send e-mail to bowenl@phillynews.com

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