Eagles Hope Big Spending Pays Off
By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 1, 2004; 2:29 PM
The Philadelphia Eagles finally dusted off their checkbook for a Super Bowl-or-bust season.
The result should be spectacular, one way or the other. The Eagles could be the NFL's best team. Or high-priced additions Jevon Kearse and Terrell Owens could prove to be far too brittle and far too disruptive, and the Eagles could fall to afterthought status quickly by losing the cohesive, spread-the-wealth approach that has made them successful under Coach Andy Reid.
Either way, it will be interesting.
While winning three straight NFC East titles but losing three straight NFC title games, the Eagles have had one of the league's best coaches, in Reid, making use of one of the league's top offensive talents, in quarterback Donovan McNabb, and one of the league's most dependable defenses, overseen by coordinator Jim Johnson. The front office constructed a built-to-last contender, but was notorious for a conservative approach to salary-cap management that left McNabb without a top-shelf receiver or runner to worry opposing defenses.
The Eagles, in short, got just what they budgeted for and just what they deserved -- a team good enough to contend but not good enough to take the final step. Winning a Super Bowl requires bold moves and good fortune, and the Eagles lacked both ingredients.
Now the bold moves have come, with this offseason's signing of free-agent defensive end Kearse and the trade for wide receiver Owens. Of course, as with all bold moves, there is the chance that they could backfire.
On the opening day of free agency -- March 3 -- the Eagles signed Kearse to an eight-year, $66-million contract that included a $16-million signing bonus and $4 million in roster bonuses. He was regarded by many executives around the league as the best player available on the unrestricted free-agent market, and he gives the Eagles the dynamic pass rusher that they lacked last season after the free-agent departure of defensive end Hugh Douglas. He proved to the Eagles when they signed him that he was healthy. The problem in recent seasons, however, has been staying healthy, and Kearse's history of injuries certainly raises the possibility that this could be a lot of money that ends up being misspent.
The Eagles tried but initially failed to trade for Owens after he and agent David Joseph missed a February deadline to void the remainder of his contract with the San Francisco 49ers and make him a free agent. The 49ers traded Owens to the Baltimore Ravens, and it looked as if McNabb and the Eagles again would be a player short on offense. But the Players Association brought a case before NFL special master Stephen B. Burbank, who apparently was on the verge of declaring Owens a free agent before the parties reached a settlement that resulted in Owens being traded from the 49ers to the Eagles for defensive end Brandon Whiting. Owens signed a seven-year, $48.97-million contract that included a $2.3 million signing bonus and $13.7 million in other bonus money.
Owens is the big-time receiver that McNabb needed. He gives the Eagles another game-changing player on offense. Reid said he was okay with the move, even with Owens's penchant for generating controversy in San Francisco, because he had coached Owens at the Pro Bowl and was impressed by his dedication and work capacity, and he believed that Owens would fit in.
Owens indeed is a hard worker who plays and practices at full tilt. And he is as gifted of a receiver as they come. But for all his predictable talk about just wanting to win, he showed in San Francisco that, like most great receivers, he believes that the ball should come his way regularly; and when it doesn't, he lashes out at the nearest coach or teammate. Reid's offense in Philadelphia has been built upon distributing the ball evenly. Last season, no Eagles player had more than 126 rushing attempts or 49 catches. But was that out of choice or necessity? It's about to become clear, and Owens probably won't be bashful about making his feelings known if he doesn't like how he's used.
The Eagles had a draft-day chance to add a potentially dominant runner to the mix, and it looked like they were about to do so when they traded up from 28th to 16th in the first-round order. Every tailback, including Oregon State's Steven Jackson, remained available. But the Eagles selected Arkansas offensive tackle Shawn Andrews, a curious choice given that Philadelphia's offensive line already is anchored by tackles Jon Runyan and Tra Thomas.
Reid's plan for Andrews became clear when he traded disgruntled guard John Welbourn on the second day of the draft. Andrews is penciled in to start at guard as a rookie. But that makes the move even stranger -- trading up for the 16th overall pick to take a guard? Andrews was regarded by many scouts around the league as the second-best tackle available in the draft behind Iowa's Robert Gallery, who went second overall to the Oakland Raiders.
But he comes with questions about his dedication and work ethic after ballooning to 401 pounds early in the offseason -- in part, he said, because doctors advised him to stop working out because of polyps blocking his nasal passages and affecting his breathing. Andrews underwent surgery for the condition in early May and has his weight down into the 340s, but he still has plenty to prove as he enters the league.
Passing over Jackson leaves Brian Westbrook as the Eagles' primary tailback -- unless they pursue Eddie George in the post-June 1 free agent market -- after they permitted Duce Staley to depart via free agency. Staley was joined in exiting by longtime starting cornerbacks Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor, who are slated to be replaced by Lito Sheppard and Sheldon Brown. The Eagles also traded away reserve quarterback A.J. Feeley and wideout James Thrash, their leading receiver last season. They signed veteran quarterback Jeff Blake to replace Feeley, and Thrash's exit leaves Todd Pinkston and Freddie Mitchell to complement Owens.
The rest of the cast largely will be the same. The Eagles lost linebacker Carlos Emmons to the New York Giants in free agency, but signed free agent Dhani Jones from the Giants to replace him.
They are the team to beat in the NFC East, even with the return of Coach Joe Gibbs to the Washington Redskins and the Bill Parcells era entering year two in Dallas. They perhaps are the team to beat in the entire NFC, and no one should be surprised if the Eagles are rewarded for their offseason boldness with a Super Bowl triumph. Don't be shocked, either, if it all falls apart. But it was a chance that the Eagles simply had to take.
Around the League
June Free Agent Market Opens
The June free agent market should get going today after 4 p.m., when teams can release players and defer portions of the salary-cap hits for the moves until the 2005 season.
Not all of the players in danger of being post-June 1 cuts will be released immediately. But quarterback Kurt Warner, the two-time league Most Valuable Player for the St. Louis Rams, probably will be released today, and could agree to a contract with another club tonight or Wednesday. Agent Mark Bartelstein promises to move quickly. Most executives around the league expect Warner to sign a one-year contract with the Giants, but Bartelstein warns that nothing is in place and nothing is definite. Chicago, San Francisco and Baltimore also are among the interested teams.
Tennessee probably won't release George today. The Titans probably will go through another round of negotiations with the tailback and his agent, Lamont Smith, to see whether they can agree to a reworked contract. But at least for now, both sides seem resigned to George moving on, and his suitors could include Oakland, Dallas and Philadelphia.
If George does become a free agent, he will be dropped into a tailback market that still includes other options for interested clubs. Antowain Smith, James Stewart and Stacey Mack are among the still-unsigned unrestricted free agents.
The scramble for jobs will be fairly intense over the next couple weeks, as veterans try to get on rosters before coaches and front-office executives disappear for a few weeks of vacation before training camps open. In addition to the players about to hit the market, here are some of the other notable still-unsigned free agents, by position:
QB -- Kordell Stewart (Bears)
Damon Huard (Patriots)
Chris Redman (Ravens)
Rob Johnson (Raiders)
Shane Matthews (Bengals)
WR -- Oronde Gadsden (Dolphins)
Antonio Freeman (Packers)
Bill Schroeder (Lions)
TE -- Cam Cleeland (Rams)
OL -- Solomon Page, G (Chargers)
DL -- Kenny Holmes, DE (Giants)
Chad Eaton, DT (Seahawks)
Dana Stubblefield, DT (Raiders)
DB -- Jason Sehorn, S (Rams)
Browns Not Ready to Release Couch
Cleveland apparently won't release quarterback Tim Couch any time soon. The Browns were reluctant to trade wide receiver Dennis Northcutt to Baltimore earlier in the offseason, and they probably won't make Couch available to their AFC North rivals at a time when the Ravens are searching for a backup quarterback. Green Bay remains interested in trading for the former top overall draft choice but might wait to see if the Browns release Couch closer to the season. . . .
Many in the league regard New England as the front-runner, ahead of Dallas, to sign quarterback Vinny Testaverde after his expected release by the New York Jets. . . . The Cowboys seem interested in trading for Packers cornerback Mike McKenzie but probably wouldn't surrender more than a second-round draft choice. Green Bay has been seeking a first-round selection and another pick. . . . Carolina could add to the list of available quarterbacks by releasing veteran Rodney Peete. . . . The Giants are about $8.5 million under the salary cap and likely will be shopping for a middle linebacker and an offensive tackle as well as their backup quarterback. One linebacker possibility is Jeremiah Trotter, about to be released by the Washington Redskins. . . . The Packers probably will release defensive end Joe Johnson quickly, saving $4 million in salary-cap space. . . . Defensive end Tony Brackens agreed to a one-year contract today with Jacksonville, returning to the Jaguars nearly three months after they released him in March to clear $4.7 million in salary-cap space. Brackens's new deal is based heavily on incentives, the team said. "We were interested in bringing Tony back,'' Jaguars negotiator Paul Vance said in a written statement released by the club. "It took time to get a deal that made sense for him and for us."
Next: Pittsburgh Steelers
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