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Rich Hofmann | A Saintly obsession


BACK IN THE day, back when the Boston Celtics

acquired Dennis Johnson just so they could have somebody to try to put the handcuffs on the Sixers' Andrew Toney, you could build your team that way. In that sport, in that time, the notion that you would construct yourself to counter a specific opponent made sense because the sporting world was more orderly and predictable.

The NFL is not like that, and 2007 is not like that. So the notion that the Eagles have just spent the offseason retooling in response to the way they were beaten by the New Orleans Saints in the playoffs is probably too simplistic. For all any of us knows, the Saints will stumble this season after breaking out under coach Sean Payton in 2006. In the salary-capped world of the NFL, there are too many moving parts, too many variables, too much parity. Keeping your eye on the ball means keeping your eyes moving constantly. To fixate on one team, on one spot, assures that you will miss the next move.

That said, the Saints do kind of hang over everything on NovaCare Way - even acknowledging that the Bears ended up winning the NFC, and the Colts ended up winning the Super Bowl, and the Patriots still scare everybody most of all. The Saints look like the team that has a chance to be there for a long time in the NFC, and they are on the Eagles' schedule again this season, just before Christmas.

"I've got that game circled on the calendar about three or four times," All-Pro guard Shawn Andrews was saying the other day. His reasons are more personal, though. He suffered a scary neck injury in the playoff loss, a contusion that sent him to the hospital, and while he won't talk about it, there is some kind of personal issue that he seems to feel needs settling. Whatever.

Andrews is fine now, same as always, all full of personality, showing off a new haircut in the locker room at the Eagles' minicamp, a mohawk kind of thing that he insists you refer to as a "bro-hawk." But when you ask him about the Saints - who ran all over the Eagles' defense, who prevented the Eagles from scoring down near the goal line in a crucial fourth-quarter sequence, who played shootout football and played ball-control football and did them both simultaneously - he turns serious.

"If you want to focus on that game, if that's your personal opinion, you're not alone," Andrews said. "A lot of people do and I can't say that you're wrong. We know what we have to do as a team, and we know what we have to do to better ourselves. We take from that what we can but we also move on."

You ask the same question to coach Andy Reid and he says that, ultimately, you can't fixate on the one game, the one loss.

At the same time, he said, "As far as making yourself into a good football team, I would say it's the freshest one on your mind, in particular when you're in the playoffs and you get beat by a team."

It is impossible not to see the influence that game had on the ensuing months - or, maybe more accurately, it might just be that the Saints playoff loss merely crystallized on one January evening the months of flaws and frustrations that the Eagles had been gradually uncovering all along.

You cannot say the result has been a revolution, but we are seeing a fast philosophical evolution taking place.

People in the organization scoffed when linebacker Jeremiah Trotter, in his frustration after the Eagles were run over during a regular-season game in Indianapolis, made the observation that the defense was just too small. But they have gotten bigger almost everywhere on defense in the offseason.

Run defense didn't used to matter to defensive coordinator Jim Johnson, provided some unspoken tipping point was not reached. Well, the Saints apparently tipped it. Now, run defense matters. Now, the Eagles even have deigned to sign Ian Scott, a defensive tackle described as a run stopper.

Run offense. The transformation began in the middle of last season, and there is now a vow to continue balancing this thing out, even after Donovan McNabb returns at quarterback. The drafting of Penn State running back Tony Hunt, the kind of between-the-tackles runner who has so often been an afterthought for the Eagles, seems to have provided some emphatic punctuation - and remind everyone of the touchdown that got away near the end of that Saints game.

But it is even more subtle than those points. When nickel linebacker Shawn Barber left the Saints game with an ankle injury, it did two things: mark the now-departed Barber as too much of an injury risk, once and for all, and mark Trotter as a guy who can never again be put in a position to play a ton of pass coverage. And, so, you see the remaking of the linebacking corps.

There are other things, too - maybe even including the arrival of Australian punter Saverio Rocca to compete with Dirk Johnson. That Saints game really does loom large around here, be it as Exhibit A or as a window to the Eagles' soul.


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