BETHLEHEM - If Jim Johnson ends up starting Asante Samuel and Sheldon Brown at cornerback in tomorrow night's preseason game against Carolina at Lincoln Financial Field, as Johnson has hinted, Lito Sheppard will not fly into an immediate snit.
"Nah, I don't think so,'' Sheppard said, when asked yesterday if this would be a problem for him. "Not right now.''
So, flying into a delayed snit remains a possibility.
Maybe Sheppard is still thinking there is a chance for a trade before the Eagles' season starts, Sept. 7 at the Linc against St. Louis, and what happens before the real games start doesn't much matter. Or maybe, after last week pretty much telling Jeffrey Lurie to stick his YPA stat where the sun doesn't shine, Lito has decided the best way to handle the situation, at least for a while, is to do his best in practice and in games, in whatever role, show that he is healthy and productive, and see if that changes anything in terms of a trade or a starting role.
Sheppard has a sympathetic ear in, of all people, Samuel, the $57 million free agent the Birds signed to take Lito's starting job at left corner. A year ago, Samuel was home in Florida while the Patriots were in camp. After missing three of the four preseason games, he eventually signed the 1-year franchise tender for $7.79 million New England had offered, in exchange for the Patriots' promise not to franchise him again this year. Lito's situation probably is going to be tougher to resolve.
"Well, yeah,'' Samuel said yesterday, in his long-delayed first media session of training camp, when asked if he understood what Sheppard is going through. "We talk about it, being that I went through a situation last year, so I can give him my pointers and my opinion on the whole situation. We can relate to that, definitely."
Sheppard and Brown have emphasized that they get along fine with Samuel, who, after all, did not create the awkward situation they face.
"We have a real good relationship,'' Samuel said of Sheppard. "My first year up here, he kind of shows me the ropes, Sheldon [does] too. We're all pretty tight. It's a good relationship. It's no bad blood with anybody. A situation is a situation, and everybody goes through a situation, but that doesn't affect us. We go out there, we've got a job to do.''
Samuel's job right now is to get himself integrated into Johnson's defense, in a truncated timeframe, after missing more than 2 weeks of workouts because of a hamstring injury. He has been known as a durable player, missing only five games in 5 years. One of Sheppard's negatives is that he has missed 14 games the past 3 years.
"I'm a competitor at heart; I love to compete,'' Samuel said. "When I'm watching film and I see my teammates out there competing and getting after it and making plays, something just comes into me, makes me want to get out there. If my brothers are out there and I'm not out there, it's kind of frustrating, but I'm back and feeling good, so we'll see how I go.''
Sheppard and Brown made it clear that, like Johnson, they feel the new defensive backfield needs some time together to synchronize.
"I think he's learning it and picking it up as expected,'' Sheppard said of Samuel. "But we've still got a couple weeks before the season gets started. He's still got a lot to learn, and a lot of time to improve.''
Brown said he is "anxious to see us play for a whole game.''
"I think the more time you have together, the more comfortable and relaxed you are to play together,'' Brown said.
Johnson has talked of playing all three corners at the same time quite often. Brown said he isn't particularly anxious, or even curious, about how it will all work out.
"All that will take care of itself when it needs to be taken care of. That's irrelevant right now,'' he said. "This is not the regular season.''
When Samuel was asked how much time the defensive backfield needs to play together to get comfortable, he said: "As much as possible.'' He said he trusts the coaches to balance the healing of his hamstring against the need for familiarity.
Despite Sheppard's vocal displeasure, and Lito's hiring of agent Drew Rosenhaus to try to expedite his departure, Brown said he hasn't seen anything that makes him think the three corners can't work together effectively this season.
"He said what he had to say,'' Brown said of Sheppard, who last week was critical of team owner Lurie's contention that Lito needs to improve his YPA, or yards per pass attempt against him.
Samuel, who has two Patriots Super Bowl rings, looks at the Eagles and sees "a lot of unity out here, a lot of unity, a lot of love. Everybody's out there, everybody has each other's back, everybody's out there wanting to compete, everybody wants to get better. That's the main thing you look at in good teams, who wants to get better and how bad [they want it], and how focused everybody is.''
He has a take on the fan base, as well.
"I can feel the love, and I can feel excitement,'' he said. "You know, they're talking mess and talking [crud], I definitely feel that they want to see me out there and see what I can do for the team.''
Eagles fans haven't seen much of Samuel since he was introduced with a big splash in March. He is a reluctant participant in media interviews.
Asked what, specifically, he wants people to see in him, Samuel, who has 16 interceptions the past two seasons, said: "That I just love to go out and make plays. That's what I'm all about, making plays, helping my team win.'' *