- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 2, 2004

PHILADELPHIA — Take a team that has reached three straight NFC Championship games. Fill its two major deficiencies with one of the NFL’s best receivers, Terrell Owens, and one of its top pass rushers, Jevon Kearse, and $26million in signing bonuses later, you’ve got a Super Bowl winner, right?

Perhaps. But after being upset in the past two conference title games, the Philadelphia Eagles know all too well the script doesn’t always go as planned.

“We’ve gotten to a certain point the last three years without these guys,” said Pro Bowl safety Brian Dawkins. “Hopefully, by bringing them in, we’ll get to that next level and be the last one standing at the end of the year.”

As talented as Owens and Kearse are, they bring their own baggage to the mix.

Owens, 30, led the NFL with 51 touchdown catches over the past four years but avoids defenders better than he does controversy. Infamous in San Francisco for screaming at his coaches and showing up opponents, Owens rejected an offseason trade to Baltimore and demanded to be dealt to Philadelphia instead.

He has generally been on his best behavior since the March16 trade and his subsequent signing of a seven-year, $42million contract extension. However, Owens did give the Eagles their first T.O. migraine this month by insinuating to Playboy that former 49ers quarterback Jeff Garcia is gay.

“Why would I regret anything?” responded Owens, whose exploits include a mocking dance on the midfield star after a touchdown in Dallas and autographing a football in Seattle with a Sharpie he carried in his sock. “A lot of people have said I was selfish in a negative way because they looked at some of my gestures on the field. That’s just the way I play.

“I’m stubborn and somewhat selfish, but it’s a good selfish. It’s wanting the ball to make plays. Obviously, that will help the team. It’s like basketball. You’re not going to be able to put the ball in the hoop unless you have it in your hands.”

Kearse’s mouth doesn’t cause problems — it’s his left leg. Kearse led the AFC with 36 sacks during his first three years in Tennessee, but he broke his left foot in the 2002 opener and missed three months. Kearse, 27, recovered to record 91/2 sacks in last season’s first nine games, but he sprained his left ankle the next week and didn’t get to the quarterback in six games after he returned.

“I can’t answer questions about my health better than I did last year, when I was averaging better than a sack a game until I sprained my ankle,” said Kearse, one of the few front seven regulars currently able to practice. “My injuries were totally different. The Eagles know I’m healthy. I don’t know if I’m the missing piece. I’m just blessed to have the opportunity to be here healthy and playing football and to have a chance to go get a ring.”

That particular piece of jewelry also was Owens’ object in coming to Philadelphia. The 49ers, who advanced as far as the NFC title game just once in his eight seasons, were rebuilding again. With the Pro Bowl becoming routine, he wants a Super Bowl.

“I wanted to be here because of the things this team had done in the past,” Owens said. “Winning breeds winning. I’m a winner. I feel this is the best place for me with the best chance of trying to get to the Super Bowl. I looked at the offense, the system, the quarterback. It was a like a business move for me. I tried to do what was best for me.”

And for the Eagles. Owens has averaged 93 catches the past four seasons. Not only has no Eagle ever been so productive, Philadelphia hasn’t had a player with as many as 70 catches during coach Andy Reid’s previous five years. So imagine the glee on the sideline and in the stands when Owens hauled in a pass from Donovan McNabb on the first play of the home preseason opener Aug.20 against Baltimore and raced 81 yards to the end zone.

“Guys were waiting to see T.O. bust out,” McNabb said. “For us to come out that way, it sends the message that we have the ability to go deep now.”

That’s even more important for an offense that lost its best inside runner, Correll Buckhalter, to a season-ending injury, and replaced him with 34-year-old Dorsey Levens. And with top incumbent speed rusher N.D. Kalu also done for the year, Kearse is more pivotal than ever.

No Eagle had more than 71/2 sacks last season. The team total sank from 56 in 2002 to 38 following the loss of Pro Bowl end Hugh Douglas — who returned this week after a year in Jacksonville — and injuries across the line. That’s why the generally tight-fisted Eagles gave Kearse an eight-year, $66million contract, a record for a defensive lineman.

“Jevon has that rare speed, and he knows how to use it,” Reid said.

Indeed, the 6-foot-4, 265-pound Kearse is more cheetah than rhino in pursuing his prey. Even though he snuffed out a late Ravens’ threat with a big stop on a fourth-and-1 run, Kearse is nicknamed “the Phreak” (he has changed the spelling to reflect his new city) because of his ability to get to the quarterback.

“They don’t call Jevon ‘the Phreak’ for nothing,” Dawkins said. “He can do some things that the average D-end can’t do. He’s got an unstoppable motor. Look at his wingspan. Look at how big his hands are. He closes on the quarterback like no other.”

As thrilled as the Eagles are to have Kearse, he said he’s equally happy Owens has received most of the media hype and fan clamor. Owens has reveled in the attention from the throngs at training camp at Lehigh University and the more than 20,000 on hand for the team’s annual fan carnival at Lincoln Financial Field. Not even long-established focal point McNabb is more popular with the title-starved Philadelphia faithful, who have been waiting 21 years to celebrate a championship.

“Pressure?” said Owens, who supplanted Jerry Rice, the most prolific receiver in NFL history, with the 49ers. “How much more pressure can a guy have on his shoulders than to have the best receiver of all time leave and you’ve got to take his place? I had some big shoes to fill, but I don’t think I would be here had I not done what I was supposed to do.”

The Eagles didn’t do what they were supposed to the past two Januarys, but the patient Reid knows sometimes there’s a progression to these things. He was an assistant in Green Bay when the formerly moribund Packers rose to winners in 1992, playoff victors in 1993 and 1994, the NFC title game in 1995 and finally to the ultimate triumph in 1996.

Asked whether he can use that experience to keep his Eagles motivated, Reid smiled and said, “[Packers coach] Mike Holmgren was very persistent. The players stayed positive. And we got over the hump. It was very similar to here. These players are focused. We appreciate that we’re going to get people’s ‘A’ game. These guys have worked very hard to get themselves in that position, and I think they look forward to the challenge every week.”

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