- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 7, 2005

PHILADELPHIA — After three straight tries, the Philadelphia Eagles last season finally won the NFC Championship and reached the Super Bowl for the first time in 24 years, losing to New England, 24-21. Since then, things have really gotten interesting.

The fun started when some of the Eagles said quarterback Donovan McNabb got sick during the game. McNabb vehemently denied the claim and that was that — until a certain wide receiver brought it up again.

Then, since late July, a defensive end was shot, the No. 2 wide receiver and backup running back were lost for the year, the starting running back held out and a top defensive tackle did the same and then was cut. And, of course — how could we forget? — there was the whole Terrell Owens thing.

And the regular season hasn’t even started yet.

“To have the things that have happened this offseason and going into training camp, it has been a lot different than anything I’ve experienced,” said All-Pro safety Brian Dawkins, who is starting his 10th season with the Eagles.

This has hardly been a peaceful prelude to a season in which Philly will attempt to take a giant leap for Eagle-kind and claim the first Super Bowl championship in franchise history. This isn’t the way you want to start. Given all that has happened, the temptation is to regard this as a team with some serious issues.

And maybe it is. But the view is decidedly different from the inside. The spiffy Eagles locker room in the NovaCare training complex is a gloom-free zone, and not just because of a skylight that lets the sunshine in. Much of the warm rays emanate directly from McNabb, who is starting his seventh season. This is his team. He understands that and the responsibilities that come with ownership.

“My job is to make sure guys around me are prepared and the guys are loose and ready to go,” he said, explaining that the only way to get the message across is to be the same way himself.

“Hopefully, it will be contagious where people understand exactly what my feelings are toward everything,” he said.

The Eagles were 13-3 last year and 59-21 over the last five seasons, qualifying as probably the second-best team in the league behind New England in that span. They exude a winner’s confidence, and no wonder. They’re good and they know it. McNabb is a top-flight quarterback, Brian Westbrook a multi-purpose threat and Owens, for all his indiscretions,can be as good as it gets. The defense, always solid, threatens to play even nastier this year.

“I think the sky’s the limit for us,” McNabb said.

But about those issues …

The Eagles lost receiver Todd Pinkston and running back Correll Buckhalter for the year. Pinkston had his shortcomings, but he also led the NFC in yards per catch. Buckhalter was trying to back up Westbrook after missing all of last year but re-injured his knee. Quality depth at both positions is a concern.

Then there are the contract squabbles, and not just Owens’. Westbrook, a product of Hyattsville’s DeMatha High School, missed the first seven days of training camp in protest of the restricted free-agent tender offer he signed in June.

Last week the Eagles withdrew the franchise tag on another unhappy camper, defensive tackle Corey Simon, allowing him to become a free agent. Simon, who never reported, is among the best at his position, but the Eagles were looking down the road, as they usually do, and felt they were better off with another $5.3 million in salary cap space. They also believe they have the depth and talent to replace him.

Some of Simon’s ex-teammates seemed surprised, but they also knew it was simply business, no more, no less. Like with injuries, it’s part of the game. Life goes on. After uttering the appropriate comments (“One of the great tackles in the game and a great guy,”McNabb said), they strapped on their helmets and went back to work. This is what professional athletes do.

“We know it’s a business, and it’s something we just have to deal with,” defensive tackle Darwin Walker said. “It’s not personal. It’s not like we’re playing Pop Warner.”

What happened to defensive end Jerome McDougle, however, was something no one should deal with. Just before camp started, McDougle was shot in the stomach by armed robbers in Miami and spent several days in critical condition. He has since recovered and returned to the team last week, hoping to play at some point this year.

As for the other stuff, mainly centered on the never-ending saga of the free-spirited Owens and the resultant static and noise that fills air time and newspaper space, the Eagles seem impervious to all of it.

“When it comes time to play football, we just go out and play,” said center Hank Fraley, a Gaithersburg High School graduate.

“What I’ve seen from this team is that they’re very, very hard workers,” coach Andy Reid said. “They don’t allow distractions to bother them. … These guys are out here cranking, and that’s what they’re focusing on. They’re not focusing on distractions. They’re focusing on football, and that’s very important.”

More than one player said Reid and his staff are largely responsible for that.

“We pride ourselves on being businesslike and having a solid work ethic, striving to improve,” fullback Jon Ritchie said. “I think it kind of trickles down from the top, Coach Reid and the assistants. I think it’s pretty basic. I think we realize that if achieve what we want to achieve, to pay attention to any distractions that are existing or are fabricated by outside sources will not help us.”

Currently, Owens is with the team and practicing, and maybe that’s all that should matter. At his best, he is perhaps the most dangerous receiver in the league, a true game-breaker. At his worst, he is still that but with the added sideshow elements of petulance, selfishness and bizarre statements and actions.

Owens, who played hurt in the Super Bowl and still caught nine passes for 122 yards, threatened to hold out if the Eagles failed to renegotiate the seven-year, $49 million contract he happily signed last year. He nevertheless showed up at camp, then tweaked his groin muscle. After missing a few days, Owens began working out on his own, then had a heated exchange with Reid and ended up getting suspended for a week.

During a television interview, Owens called McNabb a “hypocrite.” He said Reid told him to “shut up” during their dispute, which set him off.

“I told him, ‘My name isn’t Reid,’ ‘ Owens said during the interview. “I’m not one of his kids. The last time I checked, my name is Owens. You want me to treat you with respect, treat me with respect.”

Then he added, “My attitude is not going to change.”

During his vacation at home in New Jersey, a shirtless Owens entertained his fans by signing autographs, lifting weights, and doing a few sit-ups. It was great television, and a helicopter hovered overhead.

When he heard the latest comments, McNabb — usually so upbeat that all he has to do when he feels down is go outside and look at the sun, water his plants and walk the dog — snapped to Owens (they don’t speak), “Keep my name out of your mouth.” Those were the same words McNabb used after Owens accused him of being tired in the Super Bowl.

Owens returned, welcomed (or jeered) by hundreds of fans and blanket media coverage and an airplane flying overhead trailing a banner that read, “T.O. Must Go.” He has yet to speak to reporters, and pretty much is communicating non-verbally with McNabb and most of his coaches. But in his first preseason appearance after he came back, Owens caught a 64-yard touchdown pass from McNabb against Cincinnati on the first play.

“Business as usual,” McNabb said afterward.

Said Reid: “The coaches will coach him, and he’ll play.”

Yeah, the Eagles sure are flustered. McNabb said every time he changes TV channels, “It seems like there is something on about the Eagles or me or T.O. It is quite humorous to me.”

And, said Dawkins, “none of that changes what we do on the field. And through all of this, what I think is kind of getting lost a little bit is the fact that we’re trying to push for another Super Bowl.”

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