If there is one thing that hurt the Eagles' chances of making a run in the playoffs in the last few years, it has been a rash of untimely injuries to their franchise quarterback. Over the last three seasons, McNabb has missed a total of 15 games dealing with ailments like a sports hernia in 2005, a torn ACL in 2006 and a sprained ankle last season, while also suffering from nagging thumb and groin problems along the way. Andy Reid's team managed a mediocre record of 7-8 without McNabb in the lineup during that span, but Jeff Garcia, now a starter in Tampa Bay, was the only backup quarterback to take over the offense and lead effectively, as he was under center for six of those wins in ‘06.
What's encouraging is that by the end of last season, McNabb looked fully recovered and was throwing the ball well, passing for six touchdowns and just one interception in the last four games, and also looked to make plays with his feet, recording nine rushing attempts for 53 yards in week 15 against Dallas and 6 carries for 37 yards the following week against the Saints.
The big question is whether he can stay on the field for the entire season, and the fact that McNabb was suffering from shoulder tendonitis during the Eagles' mini-camp at the beginning of the month might not be a good sign. While he is expected to make a full recovery and not miss any game action, at 31-years-old, it might not be as easy for him to rehab from injuries and after taking so many hits over the years, it might not take as much to knock him down anymore.
It's hard to question McNabb's toughness and he clearly still has the ability to play football, but what good is a quarterback if he can't play more than a few games a year? With Kevin Kolb still being projected as the quarterback for the team's future more than for the present, the Eagles will need McNabb to stay on the field and guide the offense if they hope to make it back to the playoffs.
How the Eagles use their stable of running backs-
By now, most people know Brian Westbrook is the real deal. Not only did he establish himself as a Marshall Faulk-like dual threat by setting career-highs in rushing yards (1,333), receptions (90), and receiving yards (771) last season, Westbrook also proved to be durable, as he got more carries (278) and started more games (15) than he ever had before. Reid has engineered a heavily pass-oriented style of the West Coast offense during his tenure in Philadelphia, but with Westbrook's emergence as one of the best backs in the NFL and with the depth the Eagles have at the position, expect more of a ground-based attack this season.
Lorenzo Booker was brought in through a draft-day trade and he will push for a spot as the team's second running back. A third-round pick by the Dolphins in 2007, Booker flashed some his ability late last season when he recorded 28 catches in only seven contests. His speed and hands are his best traits, and he will be used in a variety of ways, either in the backfield at the same time as Westbrook, splitting out as a receiver in motion, or even lining up in the slot.
Correll Buckhalter (#28) could be a bigger part of the Eagles offense in 2008 after scoring four touchdowns last year.
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With three talented backs on the roster with running styles that compliment each other, the Eagles might go back to a "three-headed monster" attack like they had in 2003, when Westbrook, Buckhalter, and Duce Staley combined to rush for over 1,600 yards and 20 touchdowns.
Will the offensive line play up to expectations-
If keeping McNabb healthy is a key component to the Eagles' success in 2008, than having the offensive line perform at a high level each week is just as important. The unit made up of Jon Runyan, William Thomas, Shawn Andrews, Jamaal Jackson, and Todd Herremans has been the Eagles starting front wall for the past two seasons, and although they are coming off of a solid season as a group, a few questions remain.
The first area of concern is that McNabb was sacked 44 times last season, the most times he has been taken down since 2000. It didn't help that he stood in the pocket much longer than normal and appeared hesitant because of his surgically repaired knee, but the line definitely had a breakdown in protection on a few occasions, allowing at least three sacks in nine different games.
Depth on the line is also somewhat of a concern, especially after the heir-apparent at left tackle, Winston Justice, struggled mightily in his first NFL start against the Giants. Many of the reserves along the line, including Justice, have little in-game experience, as guard Scott Young is the most veteran backup on the team, with just four years of professional experience under his belt.
Still, the line has potential to do great things with one of the most dominant lineman in the league in Andrews, and established veterans like Thomas and Runyan around him. The Eagles also did a good job of preparing for the future by selecting a number of lineman in this year's draft. Mike McGlynn and Mike Gibson are two rookies who could make an impact on the team within a few years.
What kind of defensive formations will Jim Johnson use-
Always a master of creating mismatches and disguising how he wants to attack an offense, defensive coordinator Jim Johnson will have even more opportunities to experiment with defensive formations this year because of how much talent and versatility the Eagles have along their front seven.
As usual, substitutions along the front line will be a key to Johnson's scheme, and Victor Abiamiri Trevor Laws, and Darren Howard are all likely to get significant playing time off the bench with the potential to be solid contributors. In the past, players like Jevon Kearse and Chris Gocong have been used as "jokers", meaning that they rushed from a three-point stance at times, while blitzing from a standing position at others to create confusion. Expect to see Gocong in a similar role this year, while Chris Clemons, Trent Cole, and Brian Smith are just a few players on the roster who could fill the same kind of role because of their pass rushing ability.
Seeing the Eagles shift into a 3-4 formation on defense as opposed to their normal formation of four lineman and three linebackers might also be a possibility. While Stewart Bradley, Omar Gaither and Gocong are slated to be the starting linebackers, the coaching staff loves Akeem Jordan's athleticism and intelligence and will try to get him on the field. Also, Laws played defensive end in the 3-4 scheme at Notre Dame, so he could be a candidate to fill that position at times.
Andrew Pluta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org