McNificent Return!: Donovan's Back for the Eagles

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McNificent Return!: Donovan's Back for the Eagles

IconLast week, I postponed a column that would have dissected the Eagles offense with quarterback Donovan McNabb returning from a season-ending knee injury.

I’m glad I did.

Had I spent the last nine months in a cave, I wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference between the last pass McNabb threw in 2006 and the first one he threw in his 2007 preseason debut.

His 27-yard completion to Kevin Curtis was a clear indicator that McNabb’s mechanics aren't going to be an issue. Throughout the game, the QB stepped into his passes with confidence—and for someone who's prone to throwing a wobbly ball, the majority of his nine passes were fairly tight spirals.

Two plays were especially encouraging. First, after stumbling on a drop, McNabb regained his balance and connected on a 16-yarder to Jason Avant while pushing off his repaired knee. Then, on the Birds' second drive, Donovan put a 58-yard pass to tight end Matt Schobel where only the receiver could pull it in.

McNabb finished finish the evening 6-of-9 for 138 yards and a passer rating of 109.7.

The Philly offense didn’t miss a beat with McNabb in the lineup. In fact, No. 5's presence seemed to breathe life into an Eagles team that was dominated by the Baltimore Ravens in the preseason opener.

McNabb didn't play in Baltimore, due largely to concerns about the impact the artificial surface might have on his knee. In his absence, the Birds struggled on both sides of the ball and suffered one of their most embarrassing defeats in quite some time.

Assuming that McNabb stays healthy, I can see the 2007 offense being better than the 2004 Super Bowl version. Before anyone has me committed, let me explain why.

In 2004, the focal point of the O was Terrell Owens, whose presence opened up the offense and turned marginal receivers like Todd Pinkston, Freddie Mitchell, and Greg Lewis into stars. Brian Westbrook had not yet earned Andy Reid's full trust, but was nonetheless effective in his limited touches. Tight ends L.J. Smith and Chad Lewis were productive as well.

In 2007, the Eagles' West Coast Offense (or Bill Walsh Pro Set, in honor of its late creator) will be closer to what Reid envisioned when he first drafted McNabb.

Coming off knee surgery isn't easy, but McNabb at 80 percent is better than most of the signal callers in the NFL. If he's limited as a runner, fine. Joe Montana never scrambled around like Fran Tarkenton under Walsh; more athletic players like Steve Young and McNabb only add another dimension to the system.

McNabb’s accuracy has improved each season, especially on deep balls. Before he got hurt, he was having an MVP-caliber year. The only concern this fall will be his ability to remain upright.

The Eagles will run the ball more in 2007, building on the success they had at the end of 2006 with Brian Westbrook and Correll Buckhalter. Most encouraging was the play of Westbrook, who displayed the versatility and durability we'd all been waiting for. His expanded role and the absence of McNabb also helped Westbrook emerge as a leader in the locker room.

With Buckhalter and rookie Tony Hunt in the mix, there's plenty of depth in the backfield. I wonder how much more effective the offense would be if Reid gave five or so touches to the fullback...assuming he could find one who could block.

L.J. Smith's sports hernia is a setback for the tight ends, but I believe Matt Schobel and rookie Brent Celek will hold their own. If Smith can make it back, it only makes the offense better.

As for the receiving corps—I'm excited. Very excited. Collectively, I'd say this is the best group of receivers McNabb has ever had.

Reggie Brown is an emerging star and should enjoy his first 1,000-yard season. He’s not a burner, but he runs excellent routes and will go up to get the ball in traffic. Kevin Curtis was a steal in free agency; the speedster enjoyed success in St. Louis and will become a fan favorite in Philadelphia if Reid draws up a few vertical routes for him. Hank Baskett has the size (6’2”, 220 pounds) and talent to be a number-two receiver, as he proved by averaging over 20 yards a catch and hauling in two touchdowns of longer than 80 yards in his rookie season. Jason Avant looks ready to contribute, and will battle for the number-four receiver spot with Greg Lewis, a pro who never complains and is a reliable player when called upon.

The offensive line, finally, is as good as any in the NFL. The unit became more dominant as the offense balanced itself out at the end of 2006.

Jon Runyan and William Thomas are the incumbent tackles, and both are great in the run game. Todd Herremans moved to guard last season and looks to have locked up the spot with his solid play. Center Jamaal Jackson is the anchor. Shawn Andrews brings attitude—don’t let that smile fool you. I'm confident in his ability to handle even the best competition in the league, provided his ankle is healthy.

If it is—and if a handful of other breaks go Philly's way—the Eagles offense could be special in 2007.  

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