When Winston Justice lined up as the first-team right tackle for the Eagles' initial full-squad practice of training camp 24 days ago, it seemed unlikely that he would still be in that spot with just three weeks left until the regular-season opener.
Now, the most likely scenario appears to be that Justice will make his second career start in that Sept. 13 road game against the Carolina Panthers.
"Right now, Winston Justice is doing a good job, so right now Winston Justice is the guy," Eagles coach Andy Reid said when asked if he was preparing for the start of the season without Shawn Andrews, the projected starter at right tackle. "That's how I look at it until [Andrews] gets back in there."
The mystery of when Andrews will return was not solved by the two-time Pro Bowler's visit to Dr. Robert Watkins in Southern California last week. Andrews, who hasn't participated in a practice since the start of training camp, said he received two injections to relieve pain in his surgically repaired back and that he feels like he's "headed in the right direction."
Andrews said he "thinks there's a great chance I can be out there," for the season opener, but he couldn't say when he would be back on the practice field.
"I'm not exactly sure, but right now I'm starting to feel better and I'm starting to push this thing, so we'll see what happens and, hopefully [the back] holds up," Andrews said.
Exactly how much practice time Andrews would need before being ready to play in a game will be decided by Reid and the Eagles' medical staff. Reid didn't have an answer to that question before practice yesterday.
"Once he's able to get himself back to work and do football things, I'll have to make a judgment on that and where he's at condition-wise," Reid said. "Right now, I have no idea where or when he'll be ready."
Reid said Seattle left tackle Walter Jones, a perennial Pro Bowler, is well known for missing training camps and the preseason over contract disputes, then playing at a high level as soon as the season begins. Andrews has also missed the preseason in the past, and then been ready for the opener. He has played in just one preseason game in the last three years. Reid, however, said that this situation is different because Andrews is coming off back surgery and he hasn't even practiced.
If Andrews can't play in the opener, Justice welcomes the opportunity to be a starter for just the second time in his four-year career. The idea that the Eagles will sign free agent Jon Runyan to replace Andrews for the opener is not going to happen, according to a league source. If Justice can't produce and Andrews can't return, the Eagles would more likely move Todd Herremans to right tackle and let Nick Cole start at left guard. That assumes Herremans recovers from his foot injury.
Few people have forgotten the first and only time Justice started a game, which is why some Eagles fans probably have trepidation about him replacing Andrews. Justice admitted it was "really hard" for him to put his disastrous NFL debut at the Meadowlands behind him, but his focus is not on that game two seasons ago when he was abused by a New York Giants defensive scheme that sacked Donovan McNabb a dozen times.
"There are people still bringing it up, but that game is behind me," Justice said. "I'm not paying attention to that game. I'm not really concerned what the fans have to say about that game. I can't be worried about something that happened two years ago. It's ridiculous. I have Jacksonville coming up this week . . . and I'm just thinking about becoming a better tackle."
Justice said he is a far more confident player now than he has been in the past and he appears to have also gained the confidence of his teammates and coaching staff. McNabb recently cited Justice as having the best training camp among the offensive linemen and Reid is committed to the Eagles' 2006 second-round pick.
"I think you have maturity both mentally and physically," Reid said. "Technique-wise, I think he's better fundamentally than he was in the past. I think he's stronger physically. We've left him at one spot, where we kind of were bouncing him back and forth from left to right tackle and we played him some at guard. Now we've left him at the right tackle position where he played in college. That looks like it has helped also."
Few people have talked about Justice's second chance during this preseason and the former Southern Cal star admits he wondered if this moment would ever come.
"As an NFL competitor, you have to always stay positive and I have," he said. "There might always be ups and downs, but I'm looking forward. I have things I need to accomplish, and I'm going to accomplish them this year."