THE EAGLES have banned the R-word: rebuilding. You cannot say it, or hint at it, or insinuate it without being corrected by someone on the team, even as they make the change from Donovan McNabb at quarterback to Kevin Kolb. They are very sensitive about the subject, and the word, from coach Andy Reid on down. But they need not be.

Because they are going to compete for a wild card this season, which is what they did last year and the year before that. They were not ready to win a championship then and they are not ready to win a championship now. But with Kolb at quarterback, with whatever other changes they have made, the Eagles are going to compete for the exact same prize that they competed for in McNabb's last several years.

Because Kolb is ready.

And because the rest of this has been overblown.

Yes, yes, Brian Westbrook is gone. And Sheldon Brown is gone. And Kevin Curtis is gone. And Shawn Andrews is gone. And Chris Gocong is gone. And Sean Jones, Darren Howard, Chris Clemons and Jason Babin are gone.

But, well, there are two ways we can deal with this: the size of the headline type or the reality on the field.

The headlines were rightly big.

The impact on the field will be smaller.

"This team has always been built around draft picks and that's always been the center of the core of building a team here in Philadelphia under Andy," Kolb said. "It's not a surprise to me that we're trying to do that. The only reason that it wasn't that way in the past was because we had great veteran players: Brian Dawkins, Donovan, Westbrook. Those were unbelievable franchise players, so there was a reason they held on to those guys for so long and they made great runs and did great things.

"I don't want the sense of the team to ever be that it's a rebuilding thing because it's not in our minds. It never needs to be that way. They're choosing to go in this direction for a reason because they have confidence in our talents. We need to prove that on the field and be ready to win a lot of ballgames and make a playoff run."

When you get rid of somebody like Westbrook, it is big and emotional news for a franchise and its fan base. There is no pretending about that or denying that. The headlines were deserved, as was the accompanying discussion. But as an on-the-field reality, it is much more of a blip. The changeover already had been made. Westbrook was still here in the second half of last season, but he was already gone - or did you not watch the playoff game against Dallas? They had given the job responsibilities to LeSean McCoy and Leonard Weaver. It was over - and the same thing with Kevin Curtis being replaced by Jeremy Maclin, albeit on a smaller scale.

The release of Shawn Andrews also generated a ton of talk for very understandable reasons. But on the field? That ship sailed last summer. For better or worse, the Eagles had operated without Shawn for the better part of 2 calendar years. To release Andrews is not an acknowledgement of rebuilding. It is an acknowledgement that it has been 2 years.

Gocong? He had been replaced during the season last year and had clearly lost the confidence of the staff. The page was turned in the fall, not when they traded Gocong to Cleveland last week. There will be no on-the-field impact in 2010 because he wasn't on the field a whole lot in 2009.

Jones? Howard? Clemons? Babin? So what? So what? So what? So what? The Eagles make those kinds of moves every year, as does everyone else in the NFL. They are saving a ton of cash - made easier because there are no salary-cap implications in an uncapped NFL - but we really are mostly talking about an acknowledgement of stuff that already happened.

If you are going to make your rebuilding case, you hang it on two names: McNabb and cornerback Sheldon Brown. They are the only two starters being replaced amid all of this change. (Oh, wait: Linebacker Will Witherspoon is out, replaced by the returning Stewart Bradley. That's hardly rebuilding. Jeremiah Trotter, brought in when it became clear that Witherspoon was a terrible player against the run, is also gone. Again, Bradley-for-Witherspoon/Trotter does not fit the rebuilding case at all.)

Brown's absence will be meaningful for this team. He played hurt and he played tough and he did it for years. Unless Ellis Hobbs shows a lot more this season than he did last season before his neck injury, the fact that they need another starting-caliber cornerback goes without saying. That drafting a kid to replace Brown suggests a trade of now for later is a fair reading of the situation.

Which brings us to Kolb-for-McNabb.

That the Eagles are turning a significant page here is obvious. That they have consigned themselves to a big step backward, though, is wrong. Kolb is ready and he will give the Eagles a much more West Coast/yards-after-the-catch offense. The Eagles have been a very vertical team the last few seasons under McNabb. He was never a great West Coast fit - but his arm and his legs created another dynamic entirely. It will be interesting to see if the offense evolves, or returns to its roots, under Kolb.

There are things we obviously don't know about him. We don't know how he plays when he is physically beat up. We don't know how he will react to a two-game losing streak. We don't know what his demeanor will be when they get to the elimination games, be they at the end of December or sometime into January.

But Kolb can play the position, and if the Eagles can get things pulled together on the offensive line - specifically at center - he will be working with exactly what McNabb was working with in the second half of last season. We already saw what Kolb can do - admittedly with a small sample of two starts in 2009 - but the Eagles see him every day. Repeat: Kolb can play. McNabb would still be here if the Eagles didn't believe that to be true.

There are clear questions on defense, but there were clear questions on defense last season, too. And, well, put it this way: If the Eagles miss the playoffs in 2010, it will not be because of Kevin Kolb. It will be because of a defense the Eagles have not managed to rebuild enough. *

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