Loss of Owens Likely to Make Eagles Stronger

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 7, 2006; 12:33 PM

The Philadelphia Eagles, minus wide receiver Terrell Owens, probably won't be the dominant team they were two years ago, when they steamrolled their way through the NFC on their way to a Super Bowl appearance. But the Eagles, with quarterback Donovan McNabb presumably healthy again, likely will be better than the disjointed team they were last season, when they unraveled amid the Owens-generated controversies and McNabb's injury and plummeted to last place in the NFC East after winning four straight division titles.

The Eagles hope they added through subtraction when they released Owens after being unable to trade him. Owens's departure was inevitable after a 2005 season in which the Eagles suspended him for four games for conduct detrimental to the team, then deactivated him for the final five games of the season.

Veteran players in the Eagles' locker room say they believe they still could have held things together last season if McNabb had been healthy. That, of course, wasn't the case. The quarterback never was himself all season, struggling with a sports hernia that eventually required season-ending surgery. The Eagles limped home to a record of 6-10, becoming the fifth straight Super Bowl loser to follow up with a losing season.

The offseason began with the Eagles losing offensive coordinator Brad Childress, who was named the head coach of the Minnesota Vikings. The Vikings would have liked to have hired Eagles executive Tom Heckert as their front-office chief. But the Eagles made certain that wouldn't happen by promoting Heckert to general manager.

The Eagles, as usual, focused on the draft for retooling their roster. They had a very good draft, managing to get both the players they'd targeted as possibilities for their first-round selection. They used that first-round pick, the 14th overall choice, on Florida State defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley, and traded up to get their other alternative, USC offensive tackle Winston Justice, when he still was available in the second round. A draft weekend that was full of maneuvering--the club traded away defensive tackle Hollis Thomas and guard Artis Hicks--left the Eagles getting linebacker Chris Gocong in the third round and guard Max Jean-Gilles in the fourth. They also emerged with the most famous fifth-round draft pick in the world, Olympic skier Jeremy Bloom.

Coach Andy Reid loves to build his team through his offensive and defensive lines, and he and Heckert are doing it again. Bunkley can be paired with last year's first-round pick, Mike Patterson, in the middle of the defensive line. Justice, who played right tackle at USC but is projected as a left tackle by the Eagles, will bide his time playing behind veteran offensive tackles Tra Thomas and Jon Runyan, but probably will be a starter by next season. Jean-Gilles also could be a starter eventually. Gocong played defensive end in college but becomes a linebacker with the Eagles, and should receive plenty of playing time as a rookie.

The Eagles will cross their fingers and hope that McNabb stays healthy. They released Mike McMahon, who failed miserably after taking over as the starter last season, and signed veteran quarterback Jeff Garcia as a free agent. If nothing else, Garcia gives McNabb someone with whom to commiserate about Owens.

The team didn't acquire a true No. 1 receiver to replace Owens. The Eagles studied the possibility of trading for Eric Moulds or Javon Walker, but both wideouts were traded elsewhere. They did sign Jabar Gaffney as a free agent, but he's more of a complementary player than an offensive centerpiece. Reid says that's fine, maintaining that his offense can function smoothly with receivers who are good but not necessarily great players. The Eagles need Reggie Brown to take a major step forward as a second-year pro, and tight end L.J. Smith and tailback Brian Westbrook probably will end up being McNabb's favorite targets. Bloom would like to break into the wide receiver rotation but his biggest contributions as a rookie probably will come as a kick returner.

Reid is telling anyone who will listen that he plans to be more committed to the running game this coming season. But he doesn't have a workhorse runner on his roster, and those words usually have been meaningless when coming from him in recent years.

The inexplicable part about last season's folding act was that the defense remained basically healthy, yet played poorly. The Eagles' one big-money move in free agency was to sign defensive end Darren Howard, formerly of the New Orleans Saints, to a six-year, $30.5 million contract that included $10.5 million in bonuses. The addition of Howard to a team that already has Jevon Kearse gives the Eagles two big-time defensive ends, and the club's coaches like Howard's versatility. He might be shifted to defensive tackle in some situations to give the unit more speed up front.

The Eagles have enough going for them that, in another division, they might enter the season as the front-runner. That isn't the case in the powerful NFC East, with the Dallas Cowboys, Washington Redskins and defending-champion New York Giants all having made significant offseason upgrades. It wasn't so long ago that the Eagles benefited from the shortcomings of their division foes. Now, they could be held back by the prowess of their rivals. But they remain one of the best-run organizations in the league, and they have made moves this offseason to put themselves back on course to being a consistent winner and contender, season after season.

Around The League

The Saints traded linebacker Courtney Watson the Buffalo Bills for tight end Tim Euhus. It's the second time this offseason that the Saints traded Watson. The previous deal, to the Miami Dolphins for linebacker Eric Moore, was voided when Moore failed his physical. . . .

The New England Patriots signed guard Russ Hochstein to a two-year contract extension running through the 2008 season.

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