JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- If Jeff Thomason is uptight, he isn't showing it. He is enjoying his week in the spotlight.
"Right now, I'm living a dream," he said. "It's surreal. It's crazy. I was sitting at my desk, and now I'm sitting here at the Super Bowl."
Thomason is the veteran tight end the Eagles brought out of retirement to play in the Super Bowl after starter Chad Lewis suffered a severe foot sprain making the second of his two touchdown catches during the NFC title game. Thomason played in two Super Bowls as a member of the Green Bay Packers when Andy Reid was an assistant coach on that club, and played for the Eagles after Reid became Philadelphia's head coach. But he was out of the NFL the past two seasons, and was working as a project manager for a construction company in New Jersey.
"It's a thrill for me to be able to share this with people -- not only my teammates, but also the guys back at the construction company," he said. "My phone's been ringing, people I haven't heard from in years. My two youngest kids, they just want Daddy at home. But the oldest one, he's having a lot of fun."
Thomason is slated to get into Sunday's game against the New England Patriots for about 15 plays in the Eagles' two-tight-end packages. L.J. Smith takes over for Lewis as the starter. But Thomason is not a novice, having had a 10-year NFL career with the Cincinnati Bengals, Packers and Eagles. He has 67 career catches for 650 yards and 10 touchdowns.
He says he hadn't had any notions of returning to the NFL since the Carolina Panthers decided against signing him after a 2003 workout. He stayed in top shape by training for triathlons, spending an hour in the morning five or six days per week running, swimming or biking. But that's different than being in football-playing shape, and he acknowledges that his body has only begun to readjust to withstanding the pounding that comes with putting on the pads and slamming into mammoth defensive linemen.
"I've been hit a few times in practice now," Thomason said, "but nothing like it will be Sunday."
It has felt good to be back, Thomason said, because leaving the sport abruptly is not easy.
"Football is your identity for so long," he said. "It's not just what you do. It becomes who you are. You miss it when it's gone. All of a sudden it's taken away from you, and you have to go find a job without a lot of experience doing anything else."
His boss at Toll Brothers, Inc., Chris Gaffney, traveled here to be on hand for Super Bowl week. Thomason works in a trailer overseeing construction and sales for 150 new homes, and he says he will be overloaded with work when he returns. He hasn't been to his office since signing with the Eagles.
"I tried to get over there and get some paperwork lined up," he said. "But I didn't get a chance."
He says he was "shocked" when Lewis, his friend and former teammate, called him around 10 a.m. the morning after the NFC championship game, saying he'd been hurt and he would push for the Eagles to sign Thomason, who had watched the NFC title game on television but was unaware that Lewis had been injured. Thomason, 35, said he initially had some doubts but quickly convinced himself that he was up to the task.
He is now the hero of every former athlete who thinks he still has something left. Asked this week what advice he would have for all the ex-NFL players who will be watching him play Sunday, Thomason said: "You never know. Stay in shape. Run some triathlons."
Former NFL quarterback Boomer Esiason, an NFL analyst for CBS, says he thinks the Patriots' defensive game plan will be similar to the one they used so successfully against the Indianapolis Colts and quarterback Peyton Manning during the AFC playoffs, dropping as many as eight defenders into pass coverage and making the offense patiently string together a series of shorter plays to sustain a drive. The key to the game, Esiason said, will be for Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb to be patient and not force throws further down the field into tight coverage.
"Romeo Crennel [the Patriots' defensive coordinator] is probably going to do to Donovan McNabb what he did to Peyton Manning, with eight guys back in the secondary," Esiason said. "When you have a great player on a big stage, he's going to want to make plays. Donovan has to be patient and manage the game. The underneath passes are going to be there. He'll be able to run for five or six yards when he wants. I don't see them blitzing. Why would they? This is not Ben Roethlisberger. This is a seasoned veteran who can burn them if they blitz. I think the Eagles have a better chance of winning if Donovan goes 17 for 25 for 185 yards than if he goes 20 for 40 for, say, 350 yards."
As the Patriots try for their third Super Bowl title in four years, Esiason said he is among those in awe of Coach Bill Belichick and his top sideline lieutenants, Crennel and offensive coordinator Charlie Weis.
"What Belichick and Weis and Crennel have done is amazing, and they've saved the best for last, with the things they did in the last two games," Esiason said. "With what they've done even with the injuries and free agency and salary defections, how can you not say nice things about them?"
Belichick, however, winces when the words "coaching genius" are spoken near him. "If you'd seen my grades in French," he said this week, "you'd never say that." . . .
Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson is known as a blitz-happy coach. His peers around the league rave about the creativity of Johnson's blitz packages. Atlanta Falcons Coach Jim Mora, the former defensive coordinator of the San Francisco 49ers, talked before the NFC title game about Johnson's skill in finding ways to overload one side of an offensive line and get a blitzing defender into a seam between blockers.
But Johnson didn't blitz Falcons quarterback Michael Vick much in the NFC championship game. His wrinkle for that game was to move speedy defensive end Jevon Kearse from left defensive end to right defensive end, so that Kearse could be the closest pursuer when the left-handed Vick rolled out to his favored side. Johnson had Kearse and fellow defensive end Derrick Burgess hang around the line of scrimmage on passing plays instead of rushing too far up the field and creating running room for Vick on scrambles. The idea was that, if the Eagles could get some pass-rushing pressure up the middle from their defensive tackles, Vick would take off running toward the outside, and Kearse or Burgess would be right there waiting. The strategy worked beautifully, and the two defensive ends combined for three sacks.
The Eagles might not be able to rely on blitzes against the Patriots, either. Weis might utilize maximum-protection schemes to safeguard Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, and Johnson said the onus could be on Kearse and Burgess to win their individual matchups with New England offensive tackles Matt Light and Brandon Gorin to get to Brady.
"They might release two receivers and keep everybody else in to block," Johnson said. "The key is going to be our [defensive] line and the pressure we get off our edge."
Kearse says he knows that his role will be different in this game than it was when the Eagles faced two mobile quarterbacks, Minnesota's Daunte Culpepper and Vick, during the NFC playoffs. "With those quarterbacks, our job was to keep them in the pocket," Kearse said. "With Brady, we have to go after him and see if we can get some hats on him."
Said Esiason: "Everyone thinks Jim Johnson is this great blitz coach. But he hardly blitzed Michael Vick. It's a cat-and-mouse game: Which defensive coordinator is going to blink first and try to go after the quarterback and risk having that quarterback burn him?" . . .
Brady and Belichick are 8-0 in postseason play, and are trying for their third Super Bowl title together. Brady, at 27, is aiming for his third Super Bowl most valuable player award, and Esiason said: "He'll go down as one of the five greatest quarterbacks of all-time if he keeps doing what he's been doing."
McNabb said of his counterpart: "As a quarterback in this league, he has pretty much what we want." . . .
The Eagles are the upstarts this week. But they have seemed loose so far, beginning with their coach.
"Andy's been good,'' Johnson said. "Andy's been the same. Our practices have been the same."
The relaxed mood is consistent with the Eagles' usual demeanor, according to middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter. "The people on this team are comedians," Trotter said. "We just play loose. We crack jokes on the sideline, even in the huddle. If you watch us, we really enjoy playing."
Even McNabb, who is guarded in his public comments, can be a cut-up behind the scenes. Said Esiason: "Donovan does a great imitation of Andy Reid when Andy Reid is not around." . . .
Reid remains noncommittal about whether the Eagles will use tailback Brian Westbrook to return some punts Sunday. . . .
The Eagles practiced in a driving rain Wednesday. Reid didn't want to move practice indoors because the facility available to the Eagles has a gym floor, not turf . . .
Reid said he has watched tapes of the Patriots' Super Bowl triumph over St. Louis three years ago, in part because New England's defensive tactics against Rams tailback Marshall Faulk in that game might provide a clue about how Belichick and Crennel will try to deal with Westbrook on Sunday. Westbrook has succeeded Faulk as the sport's most dangerous receiver coming out of the backfield.
But Reid cautioned: "The one thing the Patriots do is, they change things up. You have to be ready for anything. . . . One of the great things about this defense is the flexibility they have to take away your strengths. It's a great challenge for us, to maintain our strengths." . . .
It seems virtually certain that wide receiver Terrell Owens will return from his ankle injury to play for the Eagles on Sunday. But it remains unclear how much he'll play. Owens said Wednesday that he feels capable of playing the majority of the game but he doesn't know how extensively the coaching staff plans to use him.
It appears that the Eagles coaches are planning to use Owens for 20 to 40 plays as the third receiver behind Todd Pinkston and Freddie Mitchell, but Reid continues to take a wait-and-see approach in his public comments on the issue. McNabb said he doesn't think he'll have any problem regaining his timing with his favorite receiver during the regular season.
"It's not going to take much time," the quarterback said. "The good thing to see is that he still has that drive, that determination. I'm not saying he's going to be 100 percent. But when you get this close and you're 85 or 90 percent and then you add that adrenaline of playing in the Super Bowl -- T.O. will be the old T.O."
Reid said that when Owens originally was hurt during a Dec. 19 game against Dallas, he didn't think he'd be seeing Owens on the field again this season.
"I thought he broke his ankle," Reid said. "I didn't figure he'd be back. But it wasn't quite that bad. The doctor gave him a window of opportunity to come back. And if you give that guy a window, he's going to climb through it. It doesn't surprise me that he's on his way back here."
NFL career rushing leader Emmitt Smith plans to announce his retirement this afternoon after 15 seasons, 13 with the Cowboys and the past two with the Arizona Cardinals. No one appreciates Smith's accomplishments more than other successful running backs.
"He was tough to tackle," former Denver Broncos tailback Terrell Davis said here Wednesday. "He had good balance and great hands. He could block. He's so consistent. I know how it is to stay at a level day in and day out, and he did it. I've never heard anyone say anything bad about Emmitt Smith. When it came to staying healthy, he was one of the lucky ones, and I was one of the unlucky ones."
Said New York Jets tailback Curtis Martin, who becomes the league's active career rushing leader with Smith's departure: "He has been so consistent. Every running back that is considered great is because of consistency. Part of it is physical, but more of it is mental. You have to have a mentality of rising above the pain. It's not that you're so durable. It's that you're able to deal with the pain. I'm quite sure there were times that he was injured, but I credit his consistency to his ability to deal with that." . . .
Martin appeared at an awards ceremony with Seattle Seahawks tailback Shaun Alexander, who lost this season's NFL rushing title to Martin by a single yard.
"When I first saw Shaun, I said, 'You have to be mad,' " Martin said. "For a running back, winning the rushing title is like being the heavyweight champion. When I saw him, I said, 'I won, but I feel for you.'" . . .
Alexander, who is recovering from suffering torn ligaments in his wrist, accused Seahawks Coach Mike Holmgren's play-calling of costing him the rushing title immediately after the regular season finale. Alexander is eligible for unrestricted free agency in March, but he said Wednesday the episode will not be a factor in whether he re-signs with Seattle.
"The whole one-yard thing was way over-juiced," Alexander said. "If people are around me, they know what I was talking about. All of that was about the team setting a goal and trying to accomplish it. The media twisted it just enough to make it look like I was selfish. But we moved past it. Will it have anything to do with my decision? No. Coach Holmgren and I have a good relationship."
Alexander said his preference is to remain with the Seahawks. But he became the latest running back -- joining the Colts' Edgerrin James, a prospective free agent, and Buffalo's Travis Henry, who has asked the Bills to trade him -- to express interest in the Dolphins.
"I'm definitely intrigued about Miami," said Alexander, indicating that he'd heard good things about new Dolphins coach Nick Saban.
Alexander added: "I definitely have some ideas where I want to go. I definitely want to take care of my family. I definitely want to win a Super Bowl." . . .
Manning appeared at the same ceremony, alongside Culpepper, and picked up yet another award for breaking Dan Marino's single-season NFL record for touchdown passes.
Manning said that Marino was his second-favorite player growing up--after his father, Archie. "I almost did not want to break the record," Manning said. "I almost wanted to tie it. But I don't think my receivers would have let me stop." . . .
The Dolphins hired Jason Garrett as quarterbacks coach.