ASANTE SAMUEL, the Punxsutawney Phil of Eagles practice, ducked out the door of the indoor facility with an assistant athletic trainer, just a few minutes into the team's workout yesterday.
Along the sideline, a row of reporters lowered their heads, peered at screens and began tweeting the unhappy news.
Samuel isn't officially sidelined for tomorrow night's visit to the Cowboys. But the fact that the NFL's interception leader got all dressed up yesterday, then managed only a light 50-yard jog before cutting short his workout, makes Andy Reid's assessment of Samuel as "questionable" seem optimistic.
Reid said he wanted to see how Samuel (and fellow nonpracticing knee victim Winston Justice) did overnight before deciding whether they would accompany the team to Dallas today. Reid said Samuel "didn't feel very good" when he practiced on Wednesday, "so we backed off of him. We're giving him treatment, and we'll just see how things go."
Samuel eventually consented to talk at his locker.
"Y'all going to put more pressure on me than Andy," he grumbled as reporters ringed his dressing space. "It's a day-to-day thing. Every day, progress is being made. We just gotta see."
Samuel said he wouldn't call his Wednesday practice experience a setback, but "it was uncomfortable."
Asked whether he thought he'd be going to Dallas, Samuel said: "We'll see. We'll see how it goes."
In case you're just tuning in, Samuel suffered an MCL sprain late in the Eagles' victory over the Giants on Nov. 21. He has missed the last two games. When he sat out against Houston, a week ago Thursday, the premise was that a 9-day break before Dallas would get Samuel ready for the stretch drive. But after being a limited practice participant Wednesday, Samuel didn't practice again this week.
The Eagles' defense without Samuel was fatally vulnerable to big plays in Chicago, a little less so against Houston, but still far from as dangerous to throw on as it is with him.
"The last couple of games, I was proud of what they did," Reid said. "But, again, you're talking about Asante. He's a great player. Would you like him to be in there? Yeah, absolutely. But the other guys sure did a nice job. Thus, if Asante can go, he'll go in this game. And if he can't, then I have full trust in the other guys."
Joselio Hanson has started while Samuel has been out. In nickel situations, Hanson moves inside, where he plays when Samuel is healthy, and rookie Trevard Lindley takes Samuel's spot.
"I get more comfortable with every rep," Hanson said yesterday. "I expect a very solid game from me."
Hanson, listed at 5-9, 185 pounds, seems a couple of inches shorter than Samuel, who is listed at 5-10, 185. Dallas starts 6-2 Miles Austin and 6-3 Roy Williams at wideout, supplemented by 6-3 Sam Hurd and 6-1 Kevin Ogletree. Asked about the Dallas matchups yesterday, Hanson said: "They've got big receivers. Which team out there doesn't? They go up and get the ball when it's in the air, and they got speed, too. They have the same weapons every other team has - big receivers and speed."
Strongside linebacker Moise Fokou said the prospect of Samuel not playing doesn't shake the defense's confidence.
"We haven't had him for 2 weeks right now, and we've found ways to win," Fokou said, neatly sidestepping the fact that the Eagles did not win in Chicago. "The train's gonna keep on moving, no matter who's on it. When he's on the field, quarterbacks definitely respect that side of the field, but this is the business we're in; people get hurt week-in and week-out. We've just got to ride, keep going without them."
Justice, meanwhile, was injured in the victory over the Texans. He felt earlier in the week that he would be able to practice by now, and was confident he would able to play. He did not practice. King Dunlap, who exceeded expectations in two starts in place of now-healthy left tackle Jason Peters, took all the practice reps and will start at right tackle if Justice can't play.
"Some things didn't work out the way you wanted them to," Justice conceded. "I still got some individual reps and all that, to see how it feels. It's feeling better . . . We'll see how it feels [today]."
Dunlap was not available for comment. Reid said Dunlap "is probably more comfortable on the right side than the left," Dunlap having spent training camp at right tackle.
Reid acknowledged that Dunlap faces "a big challenge" in Cowboys left end Stephen Bowen and linebacker DeMarcus Ware. Justice said he talks to Dunlap every day, about the Dallas pass rushers and what to expect.
The Eagles are 4-0 in prime-time games this season . . . Jon Kitna was 29-for-46 for 446 yards, two touchdowns, an interception and a 100.5 passer rating the last time he faced the Eagles, on Sept. 23, 2007. The performance kinda got overlooked because the Birds beat Kitna's Lions 56-21, on the day of the powder-blue uniforms . . . Eagles defensive end Juqua Parker returns to the lineup tomorrow night after missing two games with a hip flexor problem. "Everything felt great" in practice, Parker said yesterday. "Hopefully, it stays the same" . . . Andy Reid is 14-8 against Dallas in the regular season, 6-5 at Dallas.
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