Eagles Fans, Are You Ready for Some Football?

The 5 biggest questions facing the Birds

Back in the old days, when the Phillies weren’t winning division titles and keeping us up late deep into October and even November, Philadelphia fans always knew that no matter how dreary the summer became, there was always Eagles training camp ahead and the start of a football season filled with hope and promise. Once the pads started popping, it didn’t matter if the Phils were on the cusp of mathematical elimination, because the Birds were ready to go.

This year, that is changed. One of the reasons fans are so distraught over the Phillies’ inconsistent ways is they know the Eagles aren’t loading up for a run at the NFC title. No matter how much green they bleed, they know deep down that the Birds have fallen in the NFC hierarchy and enter this transition year lacking the talent to be considered real contenders. Forget about the quarterback situation. (That’s a topic for another day.) This team has so many other questions and reasons for concern that even if Peyton Manning or Drew Brees were under center, the Eagles would still be considered on the periphery of NFC contention. [SIGNUP]

Each season brings its share of issues, but this one is unique because of the breadth of uncertainty. Here, in reverse order, are the five biggest challenges the Eagles face as training camp commences.

5. Backfield in Motion: For the first time in seven seasons, the Eagles do not open the year with Brian Westbrook as their featured ballcarrier. His injury-plagued 2009 campaign and old (by running backs’ standards) birth certificate earned Westbrook a trip out of town and a face-to-face with the harsh realities of NFL life. Second-year man LeSean McCoy and free agent pickup Mike Bell will try to replace Westbrook in an offense that relies heavily on the pass but still needs some magic out of the backfield. McCoy had a promising rookie season, rushing for 637 yards, scoring four times and averaging 4.1 yards a carry. Bell, meanwhile, gained 654 yards, scored five times and averaged 3.8 yards for the Saints. Put them together and you have a pretty good situation. It’s not Westbrook in his prime, because neither is a particularly good receiver, and neither showed breakaway speed. Still, McCoy is young and filled with potential — provided he learns to pass protect and hold onto the football. Bell can run between the tackles. Besides, the Eagles throw the ball 90 percent of the time anyway. And neither Indianapolis nor New Orleans had a robust ground attack last year, and they played in the Big Game.

4. They Knee-d Stewart: Don’t be surprised if middle linebacker Stewart Bradley contracts a cold or “flu-like symptoms” Aug. 5, when the Birds hold their “Flight Night” extravaganza at the Linc. He tore his ACL last year at the made-for-revenue event and probably isn’t interested in revisiting the scene, at least until they start playing for real. The Eagles would be smart to encase Bradley in bubble wrap until Sept. 13 anyway, because without him, the defense sagged terribly in ’09. Bradley says he is healthy and ready to go full-speed, and he had better be, or the linebacking corps will be pedestrian, at best.

3. Safety Net: Old Richie Kotite was ridiculed — for good reason — for sticking to his trusty chart when it came to deciding when to go for two points in games, and Reid has caught flak in the case of Brian Dawkins for adhering to the team’s strategy of jettisoning older players. What made it worse was the Eagles had no Plan B, unless you consider Quintin Demps, who proved during ’08 that he wasn’t ready to be a starting NFL free safety. So, last year, the Eagles used him, Macho Harris and Sean Jones at the position, and none played well. The 2010 strategy doesn’t inspire much more confidence, since short-term free-agent fix Marlin Jackson has already blown out a knee, and second-round pick Nate Allen has never played an NFL down. Meanwhile, Dawkins had a career-high 116 tackles last year in Denver and defended 11 passes. If Allen can’t deliver, this will be another danger zone in ’10.

2. In A Rush: Trent Cole had 12.5 sacks last year, reaffirming his status as a top-flight end. After that, not so much. So, the Eagles tried to fortify the position during the off-season, trading up to draft Michigan’s Brandon Graham and grabbing Daniel Te’o Nesheim in the third round and Ricky Sapp in the fifth. They traded for underachieving Seahawks end Darryl Tapp and held onto Juqua Parker. The Eagles hope that combination puts more pressure on opposing passers, because the more teams have to blitz in the pass-happy NFL, the more vulnerable they are to passing attacks that are more dangerous than ever.

1. Walk the Line: Eagles passers were sacked 38 times last year and were seen running from marauding defenders on numerous other equations. To say the offensive line was weak last year is like saying the Phillies promote their upcoming games just a little bit on TV broadcasts. What was supposed to be a strength (remember those pre-season shots of five smiling behemoths?) turned into a mess, thanks to injury and underachievement. If this area doesn’t improve, the Eagles have no chance for the post-season. On paper, it should be better. Guard Stacy Andrews is now 100 percent recovered from the torn ACL that torpedoed his ’09 efforts. Tackle Jason Peters ought to be more familiar with the team’s pass protection schemes and won’t struggle so much. Guard Todd Herremans and surprising right tackle Winston Justice are steady. But there is concern at center, where Jamaal Jackson won’t be back until after the season begins. Nick Cole can’t be counted on for a full season there, and no one knows what Mike McGlynn can do. It’s just another reason Eagles fans feel a bit uneasy as festivities at Lehigh commence.

• Yup, it was all Milt Thompson’s fault. Who’s next to go because the high-priced talent isn’t producing, the batboys?
• Au revoir, Simon Gagne. Best wishes in Tampa Bay. It’s too bad the financial realities of NHL life claimed the winger. Let’s hope his absence doesn’t hurt the Flyers too much.
• Now that Tony Battie’s on board, the Sixers are set in the middle. Not. Interior defense is shaping up as a major concern for next season.