WINSTON JUSTICE knows what Hugh Douglas thinks of him, knows what people less brazen than Douglas have been saying behind his back since last Sept. 30.
"If they don't bite when they're puppies, they're not going to bite when they're grown dogs,'' Douglas, the former Eagles Pro Bowl defensive end, said over the phone last night, repeating what he has said about Justice on WIP-610 AM's Morning Show. "It just doesn't look like he has any fight in him. If you look at his demeanor, it's like he's not even a football player.''
Justice said yesterday he has never spoken to Douglas about his opinion, and doesn't plan to speak to him about it. Douglas, by the way, said he plans to attend today's session of the Eagles' minicamp for rookies and select veterans, which this week includes Justice, the third-year offensive tackle.
"There's nothing I can really say,'' Justice said. "The only thing I can do is prove it [isn't true] by my actions . . . There's no need to say anything to him.
"He's not the only one who thinks that. This [season] is my chance to prove him wrong.''
In case the moving van just deposited you in Eagles Nation within the past few days or weeks, the controversy stems from Justice's first career start, last Sept. 30 at the Giants. It might have been the worst first career start ever, at any position, though the NFL doesn't keep that exact stat.
The Eagles gave up a team-record 12 sacks that night, six of them to Osi Umenyiora, who usually lined up opposite Justice. Donovan McNabb's early-season, post-ACL surgery immobility and a total meltdown by Justice created one of the most helpless, hapless evenings in the 75-year history of the franchise, a 16-3 loss that would have been worse if not for a valiant defensive effort.
Afterward, Eagles coach Andy Reid blamed himself for not scheming better in the absence of starting left tackle Tra Thomas. Film review showed Justice probably was directly responsible for "only'' four sacks. Teammates talked about spreading the blame.
But to a lot of people, it suddenly didn't seem such a puzzle that a 6-6, 320-pound offensive tackle from USC touted for the first round of the 2006 draft had slid all the way to the Birds in the second round, 39th overall. They were bothered by the numb, stricken look on Justice's face in the second half of that game, as again and again, he reacted late to the silent count, and was brushed aside, almost effortlessly.
"It's one thing to be out-talented by Osi Umenyiora,'' Douglas said last night. "Everybody gets beat. But do something, anything, to keep that guy away from your quarterback - grab him, bite him, something.''
Asked yesterday if this was the first time anyone ever questioned his competitiveness, his heart, Justice said: "He's the first one that did it out loud.''
"It does bother me,'' Justice continued. "But it would be stupid to talk back to him. Talk is nothing. The only thing I can do is prove it. I think that's the best thing to do.''
Justice, who has acknowledged that his "technique'' broke down that night, said he didn't think he quit or went into a shell.
"I thought I gave it my all that game,'' Justice said. "People might say you're not [giving it your all], but you know in your heart, if you are or you're not, and I am.''
Justice tried to begin the redemptive process in the season finale against Buffalo, when Jon Runyan had to leave after a few snaps. Justice made an emergency appearance at right tackle, where he'd hardly ever practiced. He took one penalty, and was otherwise unremarkable, good or bad, in a 17-9 Eagles win, a contest between two teams already eliminated from playoff contention.
It might be possible to read some sort of endorsement of Justice into the fact that the Birds didn't go for an offensive tackle early in last month's draft, even though Runyan turns 35 in November, a week after Thomas turns 34. Justice remains the team's highest-drafted offensive lineman since the Birds took Shawn Andrews in the first round in 2004.
Justice looks bigger in the shoulders this year. He said he remains at 320, but, "I think I gained a lot of muscle. I feel like I'm moving better.''
Justice said he spent much of the offseason at his home in Naples, Fla. - not because he felt he needed to get away from Philadelphia, he said, but because, "I knew that was the best place for me to get ready to play.''
For what it's worth, Eagles offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg recently told the team's Web site: "I think Winston Justice is going to be a fine player with experience. He's proven that he's a tough guy, that he's got great character. His work habits are excellent, he's an athletic player, and he's got good skill and ability.''
That last part, Douglas said he doesn't doubt. Watching Justice in practice, you see a large, fluid man who glides very naturally into a pass-block "set.'' But of course, that wasn't how he looked the night of Sept. 30.
"There's no doubt he can do it,'' Douglas said, when asked if he felt there was any way Justice could redeem himself. "I just don't think he has that mentality. You don't have to talk a lot out there, but you've got to play with a swagger, with a chip on your shoulder. I remember seeing that in Tra Thomas his rookie year . Shawn Andrews has that certain swagger. I don't think Winston has it.''
suffered what looked like a serious left ankle injury yesterday, when he and safety
collided while pursuing a pass. Sampy, hampered last season by a persistent quad injury, left the field on a cart . . . These workouts continue through tomorrow, then the whole team reassembles at NovaCare next Tuesday . . . Five Eagles cheerleaders are scheduled to leave Sunday for a tour to entertain U.S. troops in Iraq. *