THE EAGLES' offensive line is staying on the field for extra work this week, trying to accomplish what didn't get done in training camp - meshing, drilling as a unit, working out the lines of communication and contingency.
If you want to put your finger on the most likely problem area heading into the opener, Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field against the favored Green Bay Packers, this would be it. Center Jamaal Jackson and right guard Nick Cole didn't play in the preseason, Jackson recovering from ACL surgery a little more than 8 months ago, Cole because of "knee soreness." Left guard Todd Herremans, trying not to overtax his problematic left foot, played just a quarter in the preseason. If Cole had played, it would have been at center, because Stacy Andrews was the right guard until the Eagles traded him to Seattle last week.
People who have been watching the Eagles through those sun-blasted days at Lehigh up through yesterday, when a chilly wind at NovaCare brought sweaters and jackets to mind, seem less concerned about Kevin Kolb, embarking on his first season as the starting QB, than about what's in front of Kolb.
"That's what we're working for right now," right tackle Winston Justice said yesterday, when asked if the unit was ready to play well together, opening the season against the NFL's second-ranked defense from a year ago. "That's what we're striving for, we're striving for that perfection. Sometimes you don't attain it, but I think eventually, we'll get there."
Offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg was asked about getting the o-line up to speed.
"Well, I think that's the key," Mornhinweg said. "They've played a lot of winning snaps together and now they're standing, so we'll keep a close eye on that. Other than that, they're very good in their preparation and they're putting their hard work in. With their recent past history and then this week, I would expect them to play at a high level."
That didn't happen with the various permutations the Eagles fielded in the preseason. Opponents got pass-rush pressure up the middle, forcing Kolb to backpedal. Blitzers swooped in untouched; the o-line, the tight ends and running backs didn't seem to be sure who was blocking whom.
"We're going to handle our business," fullback Leonard Weaver said. "We're going to do the blitz pickup like we're supposed to. We're ready for it, we're expecting it."
Herremans said the line wants to block better in short yardage than it did in 2009, but "the big thing that hit us last year was we made some 'mentals,' quite a few 'mentals' along the way, where there was one person coming through unblocked," Herremans said. "Staying focused on our tasks and knowing what each other is doing - I think that was our weak spot last year."
The meshing part, "knowing what each other is doing" is one thing. Another is whether these guys are physically up to a full regular-season game on a warm day, against a talented, relentless opponent. Jackson, as you've been reading all week, is the biggest unknown. Mornhinweg said swing center-guard Mike McGlynn will be ready to step in should anyone falter.
"I'm taking it as I'm going to be playing, and preparing myself for that. We'll see what happens," McGlynn said. "It's kind of a situation that doesn't often happen. You've got a couple guys that really didn't play at all in the preseason, then they're playing the first game. It's kind of uncharted waters for everybody."
"We'll see what happens with Jamaal," Mornhinweg said. "I do believe that Jamaal is in excellent physical condition, maybe the best that he's been in. However, there are different kinds of physical condition in football . . . We play our five best right there. Play your five best until - there's some possibilities there."
Given some of the ACL recoveries the Eagles have experienced in recent years, Jackson playing real well this soon seems unlikely. But such things have happened. Mornhinweg recalled that when he was a San Francisco assistant, Jerry Rice tore his left ACL in the season opener, and returned 3 1/2 months later for a Dec. 15 game against Denver. (Mornhinweg didn't mention that on Rice's final catch of that game, a touchdown pass, he fractured his left kneecap.)
The Eagles are hanging their hats (kelly-green hats this week, by the way) on the fact that they are 13-3 in the last 16 games started by Herremans, Jackson and Cole together. Of course, as we mentioned yesterday, Jackson wasn't coming off an ACL tear in any of those games.
But the overall point is that these guys aren't terrible, shouldn't be terrible.
"I think this group has an opportunity to be one of the very best lines, as a group, in this league," Mornhinweg said.
Herremans and Justice downplayed the extra work. "We're always working extra," Herremans said. "Juan [Castillo]'s our coach. I don't really see it as us not being able to work together that much. We've worked plenty together, us three in the middle, over the past 2 years . . . The only thing is maybe we might get a little gassed, but we've got people ready to step in if something happens like that."
The o-linemen have been asked about taking special care, given Kolb's inexperience, trying to make sure he has enough time. As Herremans pointed out, that's silly - you don't let the guy you're blocking through any earlier because one quarterback is playing and another isn't, or vice versa.
"We're trying to protect for as long as we can," Herremans said. "I think everybody on the field needs to elevate their play, not just because Kevin is the quarterback and it's his first game and stuff like that, just because of what we want to do this year."
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