It was supposed to be another routine practice for the Eagles, another mundane minicamp workout without pads or real live action. And then Donovan McNabb pulled on his helmet.

Surprising teammates and onlookers, McNabb went from observer to participant yesterday, leading the first-team offense for a few short series for the first time since tearing a knee ligament in November.

Although the Eagles and McNabb have been saying for weeks that the quarterback's rehabilitation from knee surgery had been going well, no one ever suggested McNabb would participate in either of the Eagles' minicamps. It wasn't even a lock that McNabb would be ready for training camp, and so when he ducked under center yesterday, it was a shock.

"He looked great," a giddy Marty Mornhinweg, the team's offensive coordinator, said as he strolled off the practice field.

In news that was overshadowed by McNabb's return, offensive lineman William Thomas practiced yesterday for the first time since having off-season surgery on his knee.

Before yesterday, McNabb had spent this minicamp and a previous one talking with teammates and watching the action. But yesterday, he played, and, perhaps even more encouraging to his team, he looked sharp, strong, mobile and unafraid.

"He's where we hoped he would be," Eagles coach Andy Reid said after the session. "He worked very hard to get to this spot, so we let him test it out today. We didn't give him too much. We want to make sure he can move around tomorrow, if possible. So we gave him a few shots and got him back to the ice tub.

"I thought he did a nice job. He looked strong and, like I said, he has been working very hard to get to this point."

McNabb left the field at 12:03 p.m., less than an hour after the practice began. Reid said he jettisoned McNabb from practice for his own well-being. McNabb wanted to continue on with every snap, Reid said, but left the field with Eagles trainer Rick Burkholder.

Although he declined to speak with reporters, McNabb issued a short statement: "It felt great to get back out there on the field with all of the guys. It's just part of the rehab process, and hopefully good things will continue to come. It is important to continue to monitor my progress, but also be smart about the whole situation."

Wearing black leggings, a red jersey and green helmet - and no brace on his right knee - McNabb first worked with the Eagles' other three quarterbacks, A.J. Feeley, Kelly Holcomb and rookie Kevin Kolb. McNabb ran through the Eagles' route tree, practiced his three- and five-step drops, went through a few trick plays and even kept one ball, simulating a running play.

He threw only one incompletion - a deep ball that was just out of wide receiver Jason Avant's grasp.

During the first 11-on-11 drill that pit the Eagles' first-team offense against the first-team defense, McNabb took two snaps. He completed a 45-yard floating pass to wide receiver Reggie Brown on the first, and then handed off to running back Brian Westbrook on the second.

"He always throws those big, loopy passes," Brown said. "I think he still has the strength in his legs and his arms, so he's going to be all right."

Feeley and Holcomb then took two snaps apiece, and Kolb, who threw an incompletion on his second snap, got three snaps.

"We're used to seeing Don back there on every play," Brown said, "and just having him back, it kind of sets you on your way."

McNabb led the first-team offense on one other series before walking off the field. He threw an incompletion to Brown, who was being smothered by cornerback Sheldon Brown. Then McNabb hit Westbrook underneath. He found fullback Thomas Tapeh on the next play, threw an incompletion to Jeremy Bloom (who dropped the ball), dumped another pass to Westbrook after his first two options were covered, then completed a pass to tight end Lee Vickers.

And that was that.

Late last week, McNabb started to consider returning to practice, Reid said. He got a solid doctor's report, Reid said, then had an uneventful weekend. When everyone convened at the NovaCare Complex yesterday morning, the decision was made. McNabb was back.

He didn't appear to favor the leg at all, and his arm looked as strong as ever. It was hot, but McNabb completed all the drills. At one point, he took his helmet off and knelt on one knee while Feeley ran the offense.

Today will be important to see how McNabb bounces back from the increased work load, although Reid said that McNabb "has been working harder than what we did out here in the rehab process.

"But, again, you get out there and get your juices going and you start banging that thing a little bit harder into the ground on your drops than you normally would, so we'll see how he does there."

From here, McNabb will continue to take it "day by day," Reid said. And the team will wait. And hope.

"He looked like he hadn't missed a beat," wide receiver Hank Baskett said. "That's just his confidence right there. You're always going to have a good time with him on the field, and he especially made it look like today that he missed being out there with us."