BETHLEHEM, Pa. - It has begun with a loud grind, not a hum. Whether this is a maintenance issue that will smooth out as the Eagles work out the kinks this summer, or a case of too many hands on the stick shift, is not yet clear.

This is: Those Eagles who beefed up their leadership roles in Donovan

McNabb's

absence last year believe there is a

different dynamic to this team than in years past. A core group, if you will. A committee of leaders.

One problem.

No one bounced this off

McNabb.

"No, I'm still . . . I'm the leader of this team," he said when asked if there was a different

dynamic at work at Lehigh this summer.

This was after the defense had playfully tossed around the offense yesterday morning in the team's first full-pad drills, the morning after Brian Dawkins

delivered a spirited speech to the defense about its culpability in last season's playoff loss to New Orleans. This was after Dawkins spoke almost reverentially about the weight that Brian Westbrook's words carry on the team, and after he answered the same question about McNabb's place in the new world order this way:

"I think it takes a lot of pressure off of him," Dawkins said. "You have that one guy who has to be the athlete on the field, the megaphone in the locker room . . . that's a lot of drainage. That's drainage all the time.

"When you have a lot of different leaders that can step up at different times, then that one guy who's always doing it doesn't have to do it so he can now concentrate on his play.

Because [Jeremiah] Trotter's

already said something."

Or Westbrook. Or Jon Runyan. Or Dawkins. Or even newcomer Takeo Spikes, one of the locker-room leaders in Buffalo. The Eagles are flooded with character guys. Ken Hitchcock, the old

Flyers coach, used to pummel us with the importance of group leadership, about your team veterans taking "ownership" of the team. It's happening with the Phillies right now.

But it's a raw nerve for the knee-braced quarterback. And it's not hard to understand why. The success and popularity of the more expressive Jeff Garcia last year, the uproar over

Wilma's "bittersweet" blog, the drafting of a quarterback as the first draft choice - how would you feel?

"I mean, it's great that everybody kind of assumed the role I guess after I went out," McNabb said. "Because somebody has to do it. And in a lot of ways I handle the leadership role a little

differently than others. I'm not going to rah-rah, or slap you across the helmet, push you or anything. I'm going to talk to you. And I think that's the way I've handled it."

Yes, he has. Is it a style issue, or a weakness? So much was made of Garcia's enthusiasm, of the slaps on the helmets (and other places), of his energy transferring to his team.

And not just by fans and media. By Eagles players as well. Dawkins' fiery speech Tuesday night was aimed at the players on his side of the ball, and the defense was dominant yesterday.

That's not McNabb's way. And to hear him yesterday, it never will be.

"If you're not the rah-rah kind of guy and always yelling or slamming your helmet, then people think you're not in that role," he said. "There's ways of handling - I mean, we're all professionals. We're all men. You really don't need anyone to sit there and get in your head and tell

you what you need to do. When you're playing in this position and you're here at this job,

you've got to take it serious. If you want to be the best at what you do, then you need to be motivated to get out there and do it.

"If I can get you any inspiration or motivation by talking to you or pushing you, whatever it may be, I'll do that. But as far as me getting you to a spot where you need to be? That's not me."

No it's not. And it shouldn't have to be. He's a great talent, McNabb is, a fine man, good teammate, and good enough

leader.

Thing is, though, there are guys on both sides of the ball now who can cover some of what he's not good at - the helmet slapping, the rah-rah stuff -

provided he allows it.

So drop the "I" when talking leadership, Donovan. Because it's not just your knee that people are looking to see improve this year.

It's your knee-jerk, too. *

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