UNDER A SEARING sun, an assemblage of good-hearted Eagles employees dripped with their effort as they transformed an asphalt lot in Kensington into a $300,000 playground, their annual mission to serve the city's schoolchildren.
All that was missing were Eagles.
At the same time, 5 miles away, the most famous and the most notorious Eagle, Michael Vick, held a press conference touting his involvement with a small equipment company, Unequal Technologies.
It is one of just two unremarkable endorsement deals for Vick. Both were made possible, in part, by the Eagles' faith in Vick's rehabilitation after his prison term for dogfighting and gambling. Last year, in his second season as an Eagle, Vick returned to stardom.
Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie yesterday made clear that he would not hesitate to show that sort of faith again once the NFL lockout of its players ends. That resonated especially loudly 2 days after the release from prison of Plaxico Burress. A former Giant, he served nearly 22 months on a gun charge after shooting himself in the leg in a New York City nightclub.
"We evaluate case by case. It involved a lot of research into Michael - what kind of teammate he was. What his motivations were. How much he cared for the game," Lurie said. "We've shown we'll take chances if it's warranted."
Lurie had a great deal of say in acquiring Vick and he played a large role in dampening the firestorm that followed. Adding Burress likely would invite criticism again.
"It would be similar," Lurie said. "Any player, if there's issues off the field, we have to ascertain . . . are they going to represent the Eagles and the community that we serve? Are they going to be part of events like this? Michael has shown this. If a player is not willing to be part of the culture we have, then I don't think it's a good fit."
Famously, Lurie sat face-to-face with Vick before the Eagles signed him. Any courtship of Burress likely would repeat that dance.
Any courtship will have to wait, since teams cannot contact players or their agents during the lockout.
"You can evaluate his talent. You can evaluate his age. But you can't evaluate where his heart and his head are at the moment," Lurie said. "Until you can do that . . . it's far from enough information."
The Eagles have never been impressed with Burress' intangibles.
He unwisely missed a meeting with Andy Reid and Reid's personnel staff before the 2000 draft, choosing instead to attend the NCAA Men's Final Four, where his classmates at Michigan State were playing. Indifferent practice and conditioning habits, imprecise execution on the field and illegal activities off it make Burress the new Vick.
But Vick changed.
Vick repeatedly has endorsed the possible addition of Burress to the Eagles' receiving corps. Eagles head coach and head decision-maker Reid yesterday did not discount the possibility that the Eagles could lead the league in Jail Birds.
Certainly, in addressing Burress' availability, Reid seemed undeterred by the firearms conviction and much more interested if Burress could still run.
"I know Plaxico. I haven't even looked at [his availability]. There's nothing you can do there," Reid said. "Plax hasn't played for a couple of years. We know what he was about when he played."
Not so subtly, Burress exited prison wearing a Phillies baseball cap. Did Reid get the hint?
"He must be a Phillies fan," Reid said. "If he'd had an Eagles hat on, then we'd talk."
Reid held a paintbrush and, not surprisingly, he was especially moist in the 95-degree heat, despite painting in the shade. In the background at the John Moffett Elementary School stood the Eagles' Book Mobile, their Eye Mobile, the new 3,500-square-foot artificial turf field placed on the asphalt and the big gym set erected in the corner of the lot.
For the 15th straight year, the Eagles Youth Partnership mobilized and created an oasis in the city. The site teemed with painters and assemblers and concrete pourers, but not one NFL player. Where Mike Mamula and Donovan McNabb once shined, employees from the ticket office and the coaches' offices and the front office - even Lurie - shined in their place.
"I guess it's a little odd. But this has always been about the kids," said Lurie. "It's never been about the players."
For the kids, it's always been about the players.
And the playground.
Poised to pounce?
Jeffrey Lurie gave every indication that the Eagles expect to be buyers when free agency resumes, and indicated that they are committed to moving backup quarterback Kevin Kolb.
"We're very excited about the opportunities for free agency and whatever other opportunities exist," Luire said. "We've been ready to roll for a while. We're going to be aggressive and make the right decisions.
"It's frustrating to be poised to make some of the moves we want to make and not be able to."
Notably, there is depth at the cornerback position in free agency, headlined by Denver's Champ Bailey and Oakland's Nnamdi Asomugha. The Eagles' cornerback play has faltered the past two seasons.
As to when the Eagles might pounce, Lurie sounded hopeful about an agreement and sympathetic to his fans' outrage.
"I think of it every day," he said. "It's frustrating for a fan, because you've got a very successful sport. You've got teams that are doing well. Players that are doing well. And you just want them to kind of . . . get this over with. I'm very optimistic."
Lurie is not on the NFL Management Council Executive Committee, which is involved in the negotiations.
Owner Jeffrey Lurie said the Eagles have no immediate plans to furlough employees, as other clubs have done, but he made it clear that furloughs could come about if the lockout drags on . . . Lurie thinks "it's great" that several Eagles have taken it upon themselves to work out together in lieu of regular, team-run offseason training programs.