Phil Sheridan: With Vick, Reid puts pressure on McNabb again

Posted: September 07, 2009

The departure of A.J. Feeley brings back memories of a disturbing episode in recent Eagles history that has a real chance of repeating itself with a vengeance in the weeks to come.

We want A.J., we want A.J. . . .

It was September 2003, just eight months after the Eagles' gut-punch loss to Tampa Bay in the NFC championship game at Veterans Stadium. The Eagles opened their inaugural season at brand-new Lincoln Financial Field with home games against the two most recent Super Bowl champions.

They lost to the Bucs, 17-0, on a Monday night. Six days later, they got destroyed by New England. By the third quarter of the Patriots game, Donovan McNabb was being booed every time he took the field. A chant went up from the crowd.

We want A.J., we want A.J. . . .

With the Eagles scheduled to begin preparation today for their opener at Carolina, McNabb faces the highest degree of difficulty to start a season since '03. The minefield in front of him is even more daunting than in 2005, when the Terrell Owens drama was at its highest pitch. That year, at least, McNabb had Owens and Brian Westbrook on the field on Sunday.

This year, McNabb will begin the season with almost no feel for his offensive teammates. The line, overhauled after a decade of unheard-of continuity, hasn't played together at all. Westbrook, coming off two off-season surgeries, has not played a preseason down. The receiving corps looks strong, but young enough to raise question marks. There is no depth at tight end.

In years past, the defense could carry the team while the offense found its rhythm. This year, with turnover at the coordinator spot and in key positions, the defense figures to need more time to come together than the offense.

Those would be a lot of questions for any team that reached the conference championship game the season before and was widely praised for its off-season moves. But it is the ticking time bomb planted in the locker room by coach Andy Reid that makes McNabb's situation really precarious.

He has exactly two weeks to introduce himself to the strangers in his huddle and make this offense work. If he doesn't accomplish this very tricky task, the crowd at the Linc is apt to be less than supportive by Week 3, when a certain former Pro Bowl quarterback is eligible to return to action.

If McNabb has two weeks even remotely as difficult as those first two in '03, this whole season will deteriorate into bad soap opera.

Exaggeration? A couple of weeks ago, McNabb was treated to a "We want Vick" chant during a preseason game. And you can bet he still remembers how "We want A.J." sounded less than a year after he played a game on a broken ankle.

Of course, McNabb can make this whole idea moot by being sharp and leading the Eagles to victory Sunday in Charlotte, N.C. He can inspire his teammates and win over the fans by following that with a convincing performance against New Orleans at the Linc a week later. Get off to a 2-0 start and Reid can ease Michael Vick into action according to his still-mysterious plan.

By providing a couple of NFC South opponents as appetizers, the NFL did the Eagles a favor. McNabb and the offense will not have to be at peak efficiency to put up points on the Panthers and Saints.

The X factor is Reid. When McNabb has slumped during his career, his coach has not always been of much help to him. While many coaches would take pressure off a struggling quarterback by running the ball more, Reid has gone even more pass-happy - as if hoping McNabb would throw his way out of whatever funk he was in.

This year, the challenge is daunting for Reid as well as McNabb. Can Westbrook handle a full workload? If not, can rookie LeSean McCoy handle the pass-protection responsibilities Reid places on his backs? How will a new, untested line respond to pass-blocking 45 times a game?

In '03, McNabb was sacked 11 times in the first two weeks. He was asked to throw more than 50 times against the Patriots. Reid simply wouldn't run the football, even though the line clearly wasn't up to the task of protecting the QB.

We want A.J., we want A.J. . . .

It was a mess, but Reid stuck with McNabb, and the Eagles wound up going back to the NFC championship game. Six years later, Reid is asking McNabb to win right away with an untested and unfamiliar supporting cast. And he's asking him to do it with Vick over his shoulder instead of Feeley.

What could possibly go wrong?


Contact columnist Phil Sheridan at 215-854-2844 or psheridan@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/philsheridan

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