FOR SOME Eagles, the end of the season tomorrow amounts to a sort of intermission, a break before getting down to the business of 2008. If you're Stewart Bradley or Brodrick Bunkley or Brent Celek, you can hardly wait to get back out there, to jump-start the future.
For others, the end of the season is the beginning of uncertainty, the end of the familiar. If you're Jevon Kearse or L.J. Smith, you know you're probably clearing out your locker for good on Monday, with no destination yet charted.
Kearse presumably will be in uniform tomorrow against Buffalo, as he was Sunday in New Orleans. But it has been quite a while since the man the Eagles once made the highest-paid defensive end in football has played more than a handful of snaps, and he is an expensive bench-warmer. Smith, it turns out, probably already played his last game as an Eagle, that 16-13 loss to the Giants 3 weeks ago in which he suffered a knee injury. In yesterday's injury report, the Birds listed the tight end as "out."
Kearse is scheduled to make $6.46 million next season, in the fifth year of the 8-year free-agent contract he signed in 2004. The most recent of his 3 1/2 sacks this season came back on Oct. 28, at Minnesota. The Eagles are expected to release him and carry a $4 million dead-money charge next season, which would be less than his salary.
"It did cross my mind," Kearse acknowledged yesterday, when asked whether he'd been thinking he was about to play his last game for the Eagles. "We've just got to wait and see. We have our last game Sunday, then our one-on-one meetings with coach [Andy] Reid [Monday]. After that, we'll just see how it goes. Right now, my main focus is really just to get healthy, and not give anybody else on any other team a reason, any kind of excuses or whatever."
Kearse said he would "love to" stay with the Eagles, given the option. He said his extensive 2006 knee surgery kept him at less-than-full strength when this season started, "but I still think I was doing some pretty good stuff out there. I guess it wasn't to the level they wanted me to be playing at."
No free agent has ever come to the Eagles with greater expectations and delivered less than Kearse, who managed 14 1/2 sacks as a Tennessee Titans rookie in 1999, but has only 22 in four seasons with the Eagles. Was too much expected of "The Freak," whose ankle and foot problems in Tennessee might already have dulled his amazing quickness, before he arrived here?
"I can't say it was unfair. It was sort of unfair, but then again, not really, because I am capable of doing stuff like that," Kearse said. "That's how it should have been, but for some reason, it didn't pan out like that. The cards didn't line up, or something. I don't know what it was."
Smith is headed into unrestricted free agency, unless the Birds franchise him, which seems unlikely. Injuries have made this the worst of his five seasons - only 22 catches for 236 yards and one touchdown - so there is a possibility Smith could end up coming back to the Eagles on a 1-year deal and trying free agency again in a year.
"It's definitely not the way you want to go out," Smith said this week. "You want to go out playing, you don't want to go out sitting on the sidelines."
Smith, a second-round draft choice in 2003, and the only good player the Eagles drafted that year, said that if he is leaving, it isn't with bitterness.
"I don't feel unappreciated," he said, when asked. "A decision is a decision, and you've just got to live with that. Unappreciated? No, I don't have a negative thing to say about a coach or a player or anyone that is associated with this franchise. I've been treated well."
Smith and his agent, Brian Mackler, will benefit from the lack of big-time tight ends expected to become free agents - Smith and the Colts' Dallas Clark are the only really recognizable names - and they will try to sell teams on the fact that Smith had missed only one game going into this season.
"The sports hernia [suffered in May] was just a freaky thing. I'll probably never have that again," Smith said. "The knee, it just happens. If this was the beginning of the season and I still had 13 more games to play, or whatever, it wouldn't be as big of a deal."
Smith estimated he enjoyed about a month of excellent health this season. "The games I finished, that I played four quarters in, I felt pretty good," he said.
The Eagles seem very high on rookie tight end Celek, a fifth-round pick from Cincinnati who has good hands and a big frame (6-4, 255). It's hard to know, from the action he has seen this season (13 catches, 160 yards, no touchdowns), whether Celek is ready to step in as a starter.
"It's been good to get Celek in here and get him some playing time," Reid said yesterday. "That's been a positive that we'll take out of this season. Matt [Schobel], when he's had an opportunity to get in there, has done a good job. L.J. is a good football player, likewise. He's been banged up a little bit, but that doesn't mean he's not a good football player. It's just been one of those years for him, but he's a very talented player."
With corner Lito Sheppard (knee) and free safety Brian Dawkins (foot) listed as doubtful, the Eagles will need continued strong play from corner Joselio Hanson and safety J.R. Reed tomorrow. Hanson and Reid, scheduled to become restricted free agents in the offseason, have moved from the fringes of the roster to become players the Eagles ought to be very interested in bringing back.
"I want to find a home," said Reed, who has twice been released by the Eagles, as he has slowly recovered from peroneal nerve damage suffered when he caught his leg on a fence just after Super Bowl XXXIX.
Reed went to the Rams and the Falcons, then made a brief training-camp appearance with the Giants last summer. He has shown steady improvement as a returner and has been a fierce hitter at safety since coming back for good on Sept. 19.
"I've been bouncing around every couple of months," Reed said. "Hopefully, this is it . . . I've never had an offseason [on a roster]. I won't have to go to L.A. Fitness by myself and train, get up in the morning and run by myself. I'll actually have somebody to talk to. It'll be a great offseason for me, if I'm here." *