"I'm not going to say it's going to take a lot of time, but it will take time. Those five guys up front have to be dancing the same dance. That's what training camp's for. By the time we get out of training camp, they'll be in sync."
- Eagles coach Andy Reid in early June on his offensive line
THERE WERE A few things Andy Reid didn't know that June day when he predicted a relatively short meshing process for his remodeled offensive line.
He didn't know that his projected right tackle, Shawn Andrews, would end up on injured reserve after hurting his back for the second straight year in a pretraining-camp conditioning run.
He didn't know that his left guard, Todd Herremans, would suffer a stress fracture in his left foot in the preseason and miss the first five games.
He didn't know that his projected right guard, Shawn's brother Stacy, would struggle coming back from January ACL surgery and end up starting just two games.
He didn't know that his projected left tackle, Jason Peters, who the Eagles acquired in an offseason trade, would miss all of one game and parts of three others with an assortment of injuries.
He didn't know that it would take more than half the season before his five offensive linemen finally were dancing the same dance. But better late than never.
Last Sunday, Reid's revamped line turned in its finest performance of the season in the Eagles' 45-38 win over the Giants. It allowed just one sack, gave quarterback Donovan McNabb the time to complete 17 of 26 passes for 275 yards and two touchdowns, and came up huge on a clock-eating 12-play, 91-yard fourth-quarter scoring drive.
"None of this [offensive success] is possible - whether we're talking about Donovan's stats or DeSean's [Jackson] big plays or [Leonard] Weaver's runs or LeSean's [McCoy] runs - none of it's possible without the offensive line," Reid said.
"They [McNabb, Jackson, et al] had a good game, but a lot of that is due to how the line played. They did a nice job against a defensive line that I consider one of the best in the NFL."
Trailing 31-30, the Eagles took the lead for good late in the third quarter on a 60-yard touchdown pass from McNabb to Jackson. But the protection McNabb got on the play was as critical as the pass he threw. Jackson ran a slow-developing route, coming all the way across the field from the right side. McNabb had the ball from snap to release for 4.2 seconds, which is a lifetime in a football game. Even then, there wasn't a Giant pass-rusher anywhere near him.
The Eagles' 12-play, 91-yard march, which ate up nearly 7 1/2 minutes off the clock, was their longest touchdown drive of the season in terms of both yards and clock time. It was just their third 12-play TD drive of the season.
"No penalties and good execution," Reid said. "That normally keeps drives going. We picked up a couple of blitzes in there, including their granddaddy blitz of them all [on a 20-yard McNabb completion to Jackson on the second play of the drive]. The players got bodies on bodies and Donovan moved around a little bit and found DeSean there."
Peters, Herremans and center Jamaal Jackson sprung Weaver for a 10-yard gain with big blocks two plays after that second-and-8 completion to Jackson. Peters and right tackle Winston Justice kept the Giants' Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck off of McNabb on a 10-yard second-and-7 completion to McCoy.
Peters, who turned in his best performance as an Eagle, opened the hole for Weaver's 1-yard touchdown run, sealing off Umenyiora.
"It takes time to come together," Herremans said. "Even when we were all back for the first Washington game [Week 7], it wasn't all that pretty. But everybody was finally healthy and we got the job done.
"For the first couple of weeks [after he returned], that's kind of the attitude we had to have. Then, as time goes on and you get used to each other, you start to gel a little more. With the exception of Jason getting banged up a couple of times, we've been able to keep pretty consistent up front. I think it's been helping out."
Justice, the '06 second-round pick who appeared to be a longshot to even make the team heading into training camp, replaced Shawn Andrews at right tackle and has been a surprisingly steady performer. Nick Cole, who started the final seven games last year at right guard, including all three of the Eagles' playoff games, has replaced Stacy Andrews, who has been a healthy game-day inactive for the last 4 weeks. Cole has a bad habit of giving up an occasional batted ball, but for the most part, has played very well.
The key up front is Peters' ability to stay on the field. He missed the Eagles' Week 10 loss to the Chargers and has missed chunks of three other games with ankle, knee and shoulder injuries. He left the Falcons game 2 weeks ago early in the second quarter after injuring his shoulder trying to cut-block a pass-rusher.
Because the Eagles don't have a competent backup left tackle, they've had to shuffle their line when Peters has gotten hurt, and move Herremans outside to left tackle, slide Cole from right guard to left guard and insert Max Jean-Gilles at right guard. Needless to say, they're much better off when Peters is able to play and Herremans and Cole are at their regular spots.
Since Herremans returned in Week 7, the Eagles' five starting linemen have played six games together, start to finish. They're 6-0 in those six games.
"I think they'll do nothing but get better the more they play together," Reid said.
The Eagles have given up just 10 sacks in the last five games. The run-blocking continues to improve. The Eagles have averaged 4.2 yards per carry in the last four games and have converted five of their last six goal-to-go situations into touchdowns and six of their last eight third-and-1 situations.
"It's never been a question for us [about being able to run-block]," Herremans said. "We know that we can run-block. It was just a matter of being given the opportunity and sticking with it."
The offensive line has been flagged for just three holding penalties the entire season (two on Herremans, one on Peters). The linemen have been called for just two false starts in the last five games (Peters vs. Bears, Justice vs. Redskins).
"We've faced our fair share of adversity this year," Herremans said. "Guys getting hurt or dinged up. Shuffling everybody around. Not getting everybody that they expected to play right away. Not getting some back at all. But our mindset from the beginning has been that whoever's going to be able to show up and play has to do the job."
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