EAGLES DEFENSIVE coordinator Jim Johnson was telling reporters last week how excited he was about his defensive-end rotation. Johnson named six players who figure into the mix, as the Birds conclude their final workouts today and adjourn until training camp at Lehigh begins in July.
Jerome McDougle, the 15th selection in the 2003 draft, was not among the six D-ends Johnson named, which is kind of the way McDougle's career has gone, from the complicated hip, knee and ankle injury that ruined his rookie season so many years ago, to the 2005 gunshot wound that might have forever altered his football prospects, to the triceps tear that cost McDougle the 2007 season and probably wrote him out of the Eagles' plans for good.
And yet, McDougle endures. Yes, he is still here, entering the final season of his 6-year, $9.5 million rookie contract. His hair has flecks of gray now; he will be 30 in December. Only eight of his current teammates predate his arrival (not including A.J. Feeley, who left and came back). McDougle rehabbed after the triceps surgery, watching and waiting through yet another year; the Birds have played 80 regular-season games since trading up to draft the quick pass rusher from Miami. He has appeared in 33 of them. He has three career sacks.
"Maybe they're a little bit down on me, but I feel like I'm right there," McDougle said yesterday. "Just like last year, I had a pretty good training camp, but I've just got to stay healthy. That's been the consummate theme of this movie, not staying healthy . . . I'm a warrior. They know that I have it in me."
The fact is, the Eagles don't know that McDougle has it in him anymore. They once thought they knew that - Andy Reid recalled yesterday that McDougle looked great in minicamps and was scheduled to open training camp in 2005 as a starter, following the departure of Derrick Burgess through free agency. McDougle was shot in a robbery attempt in Miami July 28, the night before he was to fly to Philadelphia. McDougle fought back from a terrible stomach wound and was ready to start practicing again that October, only to undergo emergency surgery for an internal hernia caused by scar tissue, the night before he was scheduled to take the field.
The footlong scar down the middle of McDougle's belly, bisecting his navel, no longer looks fresh, but it cuts a deep furrow, below the tattoo McDougle chose to accent it, which reads "TRUE STORY."
The overall sense is that McDougle has never been quite the same player since his 2005 ordeal.
"That was a long rehab process," Johnson said yesterday. "You lose a whole year, with the weights, and the conditioning."
Johnson and Reid said they had never seen a player have to fight through more than McDougle has encountered.
"There's nobody that's been under the microscope more than him, or had the problems that he's had," Reid said. "It's hard. You come in as a first-round pick, see your starting job right there, and then, boom, it gets knocked down. And then you climb the ladder again, get yourself back to where you're competing for that starting job - boom, again. That can kind of wear you out.
"He came off just an unbelievable offseason through these minicamps [in 2005]. He was everything we thought he would be. Then he goes through that thing. Then they have to go in and [operate] again. Then he gets hurt after that."
McDougle was healthy for the 2006 season, the only time he has played a whole, uninterrupted year. He appeared in 14 games, started none, managed one sack. In limited playing time, he looked solid against the run, and pretty much did nothing against the pass. He has not figured seriously in the Eagles' plans since then. It would take a miraculous training camp for McDougle to earn real playing time this season, or even for him to make the roster.
"I have complete faith in God, first of all, and complete faith in myself," McDougle said. "It's all about opportunities. They've continued to give me an opportunity in spite of all the situations I've been through. I have gone through a lot of things, things where people have said I would probably never play football again. I've proven them wrong."
Watching McDougle, it's hard not to wonder when the next misfortune will befall him. This is a man who, in 2004, missed a game with an irregular heartbeat, was cleared to come back and sprained a knee 3 weeks later, causing him to miss four more games.
"If you start believing in that and thinking about that, it starts to manifest itself," McDougle said. "If something happens, then it just happens. I can't worry about it."
"That's a lot to go through, a lot of stress," teammate Trent Cole said. "He's a good-hearted person, very much a gentleman." As a fifth-round rookie defensive end in 2005, Cole got his chance partly because McDougle wasn't around. He established himself and now is a starter and returning Pro Bowler.
Surely, McDougle must think about the dreams he brought with him from Miami - winning the rookie of the year award was among them on an extensive list he once taped to the wall of his locker stall.
"I don't ever have no thoughts about the past, because I can't do nothing about it," McDougle said. "The past is the past. I'm still here, I'm healthy, and I'm just getting ready for the season."
Cole, his view perhaps colored by his affection for McDougle, believes his friend can still help the Eagles, after all these years.
"McDougle's a great player," Cole said. "McDougle could go start for any other NFL team."
The people making the roster decisions haven't said that, as much as they honor McDougle's grit.
"At least he's battling," Johnson said. "This is a big camp for him. A lot of good players out there, and he knows that. He looks healthy. He's moving well. We'll see with the pads on, but he seems fine. He's got a good attitude. We'll know more at camp."
reiterated yesterday he is not worried about
shoulder. Reid said an MRI exam showed no damage. "I'm good, I'm great," the quarterback said when approached by reporters . . .
spent his third day in a row at right guard . . .