THE FIRST seven games this year, Chris Clemons was a prime example of how the Eagles misfired on a number of offseason personnel decisions. No tackles, no sacks, no hurries; the defensive end the Birds brought in to shore up the pass rush opposite Trent Cole barely got on the field, except for some special teams work.
Clemons was in a category with since-cut "finds" such as tight end Kris Wilson, linebacker Rocky Boiman, fullback Luke Lawton, and uncut-but-disappointing running back Lorenzo Booker.
Clemons got to play a little defense in Seattle Nov. 2, in part because Juqua Parker was bothered by a sore knee, and Clemons sacked Seahawks quarterback Seneca Wallace. Since then, his reps have increased more or less steadily; he is far from a star, but he is much closer to being the decent role player the Eagles envisioned when they signed him from the Raiders as a free agent.
Along with second-year defensive end Victor Abiamiri, who missed the first five games after breaking his wrist in training camp, Clemons is giving defensive coordinator Jim Johnson the kind of rotational depth Johnson likes, especially late in the season, when starters tend to be bruised and banged-up.
"We've rotated quite a bit," Johnson said this week, as the 6-5-1 Eagles prepared for tomorrow's potential season-defining trip to the Meadowlands to play the 11-1 Giants. "When you have some good depth, especially at our defensive ends, we're getting Chris Clemons involved a lot more and Victor Abiamiri involved a lot more, and, of course, [rookie defensive tackle] Trevor Laws."
Johnson seemed really reluctant to use Clemons early, after Clemons missed some training-camp time with injuries and heat exhaustion.
"You get that chance, he got that chance, he did a good job, and he's keeping it up," Johnson said. "He's got good speed, he's doing a good job."
Clemons managed a hurry last week against Arizona's Kurt Warner (Abiamiri had three). Clemons added a sack in the Cincinnati game on Nov. 16.
"It's a big relief to be able to go out and play," said Clemons, who notched eight sacks last season for the Raiders after managing only five over his first two NFL seasons, both spent with the Redskins. "What they brought me in here for was to go out there and make plays on third down, help this team get off the field on third down."
Clemons said that he "was never frustrated," that he understood Johnson's rationale; Parker was the Eagles' most productive defensive lineman the first half of the season.
"One thing about me, I am a realist," Clemons said. "That was one of the things I learned very young, growing up, that you're never given anything and you're never guaranteed anything . . . Me not being able to be out there on the field in practices, or being able to go out there and execute it on game day during the preseason, Jim didn't feel comfortable in me going out there making plays . . . He hadn't actually seen me do the things he wanted me to do."
Brian Westbrook did not practice yesterday, and was listed as "questionable" for tomorrow.
Andy Reid said he held Westbrook out because he didn't want his franchise back subjecting his knee unnecessarily to artificial turf - the Birds worked out indoors. Reid said Westbrook "should be able to go" against the Giants.
Reporters wondered, though, given that Westbrook also sat out Thursday's practice, on grass, 1 day after declaring that he felt the best he'd felt since suffering a high-ankle sprain Week 3.
"He's fine," Reid said yesterday, dismissing the issue.
Westbrook has seen the Giants before and probably doesn't need to practice at this point in the season. But missing back-to-back prep days sure makes you wonder whether Westbrook still feels as great as he felt Wednesday morning.
Meanwhile, Reid said running back Correll Buckhalter is "doubtful" with a knee injury that kept him out of last week's Arizona game. Right guard Shawn Andrews, recovering from back surgery, is out. Look for the Eagles to activate both Kyle Eckel and Lorenzo Booker again at running back, assuming Buckhalter doesn't play.
As he does at just about every news conference, Andy Reid declared yesterday that he looked forward to the challenge of playing this week's opponent.
Maybe so, but he might not look forward to challenging.
One note from the Birds' amazing Thanksgiving victory over Arizona that got buried under more pressing concerns was that when Reid was denied on his challenge of a catch by Arizona tight end Leonard Pope. Referee Alberto Riveron decreed that the ball bouncing off the turf didn't matter, because Pope kept his hands on it the whole way. Reid fell to 0-for-6 this season on replay challenges, the Eagles said.
That might be relevant, seeing as how the Birds' last meeting with the Giants was seriously affected by replay challenges. The Eagles lost, 36-31, and Reid lost both his challenges, on Brandon Jacobs' fumbles occurring on back-to-back runs, the last one giving the Giants their final points, with 9 minutes, 30 seconds left.
The first time, it was obvious on replay Jacobs was down before he fumbled, as Reid acknowledged afterward. The second one, you could argue there was a chance the ball didn't reach the goalline before Brian Dawkins ripped it out, but the ruling on the field was that Jacobs scored, and it wasn't overturned.
Previously, New York coach Tom Coughlin had successfully challenged a ruling that Eli Manning stepped over the line of scrimmage before completing a third-down pass that kept a third-quarter touchdown drive alive, making it an especially frustrating red-flag session for the Birds.
"Well, 0-for-6 isn't good enough, so I can't go anywhere but up on that," Reid said yesterday.
Reid was asked about being challenge-challenged in his Wednesday news conference, as well. He said he appreciated being reminded of the stat.
"Obviously, we're not doing very well with it," he said.
The replay system is imperfect. Coaches in the press box don't see replays until the fans do; often TV analysts natter inanely about production meeting conversations with coach so-and-so, while cameras focus on reactions to what just happened, until it's time for the next snap, after which a challenge is impossible. TV replay angles often are inconclusive.
"I'm not going to get into all that," Reid said. "Some of them, I don't listen as well as I should, and other ones, we think we see something, and it's not quite [there]. Sometimes, according to the situation, if it's that close, you take that risk." *