IT HAS BEEN his greatest strength and greatest weakness this season. J.R. Reed believes he can overcome anything, do just about everything, remake himself as a productive NFL football player, maybe even a starting safety someday.
He believes this because he has beat the odds already, returning to the playing field after an offseason injury forced him to skip the entire 2005 season - forcing him to decide between accepting a quarter-million insurance payout and never playing again, or trying to make it back into the league with a drop foot.
"I couldn't take failure," he was saying in the Eagles' locker room yesterday. "I didn't want to be 30 years old and look back like, 'Hey man, I might have been able to do something.' "
A quick recap: After wowing Eagles fans as a kickoff returner in his rookie season, Reed, 25, damaged the peroneal nerve behind his left knee trying to hop a fence in Tampa, his hometown. He rehabbed all of the following season, but still limped noticeably during training camp two summers ago and was cut by the Eagles.
He signed with St. Louis, was cut by the Rams, caught on with Atlanta, was let go there, too. Cut by the Giants in the final days of training camp this season, Reed was signed by the Eagles a week before their season opener against Green Bay.
Greg Lewis fumbled away a punt that was recovered for a touchdown, and later in the game Reed was back to receive punts for the first time in his NFL career, his team tied with the Packers at 13 in the final minutes. Instead of allowing the short punt to drop, Reed rushed forward and tried to return it. His muff teed up a game-winning field goal for the Packers, and set a torturous tone to this Eagles season of underachievement.
It was a foolish gamble, for sure, but since he already bypassed that lucrative insurance payout to play football again, not a surprising one. Reed's heart was in the right place - even if his brain had temporarily left the planet. The Eagles cut him the next day but injuries baptized him back into the fold a few days later.
He was insurance now, an end-of-the-bench guy. Use only in an emergency.
"I was so far from this at the start of the season," he said. "I was the fourth safety. Sean Considine, Brian Dawkins, Quintin Mikell. I don't think they believed in me . . . Well, I don't think they knew that I could still play to that level until they saw it themselves."
The emergency came midway through a Nov. 18 game against Miami when Mikell suffered an MCL sprain. Having already lost Considine for the season, the Eagles were forced to play Reed for the rest of that game and the following Sunday against New England.
That wasn't the only reason the Eagles were 24-point underdogs, but it surely pushed the line a few points. "But when you go in there as a starter, you bring yourself up to that level," Reed said. "Mentally. If you don't go in there with confidence you're going to play tentative, you're going to play soft."
He was, of course, anything but. His jarring hits loosened Patriots receivers from the ball all night long, singling him out for praise from the surprised "Sunday Night Football" announcing crew. Randy Moss, in particular, seemed neutralized. Reed was in on six tackles the following week against pass-happy Seattle, and has remained as part of certain packages as Mikell has returned to the lineup.
Yesterday, Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson was asked if he could have ever envisioned leaning on Reed this much back in September.
"No, I could not," he said. "But the guy's got a great heart. To do what he's doing after 2 years ago? I'd never thought he'd be able to walk right again. And to play football the way he's doing? And he's contributing. He's got a big heart, he really does. And he's fighting through some things that probably bother him with that foot. But he plays fast and he's been very productive."
"He turned a very, very negative thing into a very positive thing," Mikell said. "He's an amazing inspiration, he really is."
In a welcome contrast to our unforgiving image as fans, the guy who symbolically launched this hellish season has become one of its few saved souls. On any given day, a stack of letters lands on the stool of Reed's locker. Most, he said, echo Mikell's sentiments, and praise that heart of his, too.
"It's a big compliment to me," Reed said. "Because if you have heart that means it's beyond skill, beyond work ethic. Heart is something you can't teach. It's a determination and a hunger that's within a player to fight against all odds." *
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