FOR THE first time in his 12-year NFL career, Brian Dawkins missed minicamp.

He didn't feel the least bit guilty.

While the Eagles convened this spring, Dawkins was home in Orlando, Fla., caring for the one thing in the world that always will mean more to him than football.

His family.

On April 26, Dawkins and his wife, Connie, welcomed twin daughters.

The girls were due in June.

Born 2 months early, each weighed only 3 pounds at birth.

"Under the circumstances, I didn't even hesitate [to ask to be excused]," said Dawkins, who only returned to the area on Tuesday. "Family comes first. Anything that is as detrimental as that situation could have been, I don't even think twice. I'm always going to be with my family."

Declining to go into detail about the girls' early health, Dawkins - who also has a son, Brian Jr. (10), and a daughter, Brionni (7) - is happy to report that both are growing and thriving now. Though the proud papa isn't getting a whole lot of sleep, he is ready to head back to work.

He acknowledged: "I'm not much of a training-camp cat. I think you need two games with the pads on to remember what it's like to hit. Those other two, I don't need them.'' Nonetheless, Dawkins eagerly will report to Lehigh next week.

Juiced about the Eagles' newest acquisitions and the return of the injured pieces from a year ago, Dawkins also is eager to reconnect with his teammates. As much as begging out of minicamp was a no-brainer, Dawkins felt out of sorts being away.

"Football players are creatures of habit; that had been part of my routine for 12 years, so not being there was tough," Dawkins said. "I just missed being around the guys. It wasn't the practice or the drills. It was just not being together, seeing their faces, seeing how they practice, the bonding.''

Lest anyone thinks his biceps have turned into bat wings, Dawkins spent his missed time working with his own trainer. Pushing himself upward of 3 hours three times a week, Dawkins worked on building muscle as well as increasing his endurance.

He also kept his ears tuned in to what was happening in Philly.

On a scale of 1 to T.O., this offseason hardly registered on the Eagles' drama scale. There were ripples - drafting Kevin Kolb and Donovan McNabb's non-front office-sanctioned interviews afterward, the Jim Johnson-Sheldon Brown he-said-he-said dance - but compared with some of the pig slop Dawkins has waded through lately, really, this doesn't even make a blip.

The Johnson-Brown imbroglio - defensive coordinator Johnson implying Brown would have to fight for his cornerback job because of William James' presence and Brown saying that was news to him - Dawkins writes off as a game of semantics. Competition at this time of the year, he said, is par for the course. In 12 seasons Dawkins said he's never walked into a training camp presuming his starting safety job is his, nor does he suspect Brown has since taking over his position in 2004.

"Look, we could sit here until we're blue in the face and say Jevon Kearse's job isn't his, but we all know that's not true,'' Dawkins said. "But when there are guys with talent at your position, guys who are coming on, then naturally there's going to be competition. If we didn't have talent at the corner, there would be no competition there for anybody, but that's not the case. That doesn't mean Sheldon won't win the job, it just means there are good players at that position.''

This time of year, of course, everything looks good. Dawkins is excited about the additions the Eagles have made, particularly Takeo Spikes at linebacker.

But the veteran also knows that what looks good now can look like a mess in a matter of weeks. Last season taught him that. One by one, he saw talented teammates picked off like ducks at a shooting gallery: Todd Pinkston immobile in training camp and much-anticipated return man Jeremy Bloom sidelined in August; Chris Gocong out before Game 1; Kearse gone after not even a full two games; Donté Stallworth hobbled; McNabb out in November; and Lito Sheppard sandwiching the mess with a sprained ankle in September and a dislocated elbow in January.

Out of the mire, Dawkins believes some good emerged. Brian Westbrook finally put to bed the questions of his own durability and value as a running back - "He went from a star to a superstar,'' Dawkins said. Young players got valuable experience and, best of all, Dawkins believes, there are a lot of players on this roster who recognize the fragility of opportunity.

"You've got an interesting mix,'' he said. "You've got young guys who don't know what to expect. You've got guys who have been there, who have been through the wars, the failures and successes. You've got guys coming in from championship-caliber teams and some others who haven't been to the playoffs or won. There's an energy to this team, I think.''

It's a familiar vibe.

Dawkins remembers feeling the same way about his team not too long ago, back around this time in 2004, before the T.O. experiment hadn't gone Frankenstein bad, when it was viewed roundly as a smart risk to take.

"Absolutely, this is how I felt about our team prior to that Super Bowl run,'' he said. "You always feel good about your team this time of year, though some years you just know this isn't the one. Last year I felt good and the year after the Super Bowl, naturally, I felt really good.

"But this team, I think, can go far. It could be the last one standing.''

And Dawkins, his family now happy and healthy, is ready to stand with it. *