But more important, it didn't look like the Eagles were ready. Donovan McNabb's first pass of the game, a floater from inside the Eagles' 5-yard line, was picked off and returned for a touchdown following a miscommunication between McNabb and receiver Greg Lewis. Then the Eagles got the ball back, promptly punted, and watched as Ricardo Colclough returned it more than 60 yards for a touchdown. Down by 14-0 in the first four minutes of the game, the Eagles got the ball back and scored, only to watch a Steelers rookie take the kick 100 yards in the opposite direction.
In short, this did not look like a team that, as some of the players have suggested, had brushed off the distractions of the Terrell Owens soap opera and taken care of its training camp business.
But the Eagles rebounded from handing the Steelers three early touchdowns on returns and outplayed them the rest of the way. The Birds made the game competitive in losing 38-31 and many of the players who fans and coaches are keeping their eye on played exceptionally well. Chief among them Ryan Moats, but first let's look at the Eagles' starters.
Once the the first-unit offense settled down, they looked really good. McNabb was sharp, Westbrook was his usual absurdly fast self, and all three starting receivers played well. The biggest revelation was Reggie Brown, who did not look like a rookie. Physically, he seems to be making a seamless transition to the pros, and he's obviously picked up Reid's offense quickly. Greg Lewis did what he always does, which is get open. Lewis seems to have a knack for the deep crossing route and for finding the open spots in zones. As for McMullen, his biggest problem is confidence, and the Eagles appeared to address that by deliberately running a short swing pass to get him into the flow of the game. He went on to make a number of catches. With his size, he'll help the Eagles a lot if he breaks through and realizes he can play in the NFL.
And what's up with this dude Todd Herremans? The Eagles' fourth-round pick out of "It took me four days to hitchhike from" Sagina Valley State, who is listed at 6'7" and 325, started at left tackle and, like Brown, also made a seamless transition, judging from the fact that no one sacked McNabb from his side and his name was never called, since you only tend to notice linemen when something goes wrong.
On the second unit, Ryan Moats was a full drooler. That is, any Eagles fan worth his or her salt began to drool unabashedly while watching this kid score two touchdowns and make it look easy. I may be jumping the gun, but he almost seems like he could have more talent than Westbrook. Blasphemy! I know. But I wonder whether Reid and co. are looking at Moats now and allowing their evaluation of him to affect their decision on the Westbrook contract negotiations. If Moats is as good as he looked last night, maybe they'd be more willing to let Westbrook play out his one-year deal this year and let him walk in '06.
Is Moats, a small but powerful back, the perfect storm? In other words, did his small size and the fact that he went to Louisiana Tech conspire in just the right way to drop a guy who could become a force in this league to into the third round? Barry Sanders, after all, is 5'8", and Marshall Faulk went to San Diego State. The best running backs, in fact, are rarely above 6-feet tall, yet durability is such a question for small backs that GMs are loathe to spend high picks on guys who might spend their carry on the IR (which will bring us to RB Bruce Perry in a moment.)
As for Moats' running style, he accelerates through the hole without hesitation, but has a Sanders-esque ability to hop and dart. And, looking at the highlights ESPN showed from his college days, an interesting thing happens when he gets into the open field. His legs kind of open up, splaying outward, allowing him to run with greater speed. A lot of backs his size have quickness but not top-end speed. He appears to have both.
And now Bruce Perry, the second-year back from Maryland whom Eagles fans like myself have heard a lot about but never really seen, because of his injuries. Last night he made only one play, but it was the play of the game, and it raises an interesting question about how the Eagles are going to deal with the RB position when the time comes for cuts. Just to set it up, Perry was the ACC player of the year when he was a sophomore I believe, rushing for 1200 yards and 10 TDs. You don't do that playing against the Florida States of the world as a sophomore unless you have major talent. But then injuries cost him his junior year and interrupted his senior year. The Eagles took him with a second-day draft pick in '04, but he got hurt and sat out the entire year. In training camp this year he suffered a concussion.
But don't go calling him a pussy. With 5 minutes or so left in the game, Perry took a delayed handoff at the Steelers 7-yard line or so, burst around the left end, showing his speed, and then lowered his helmet and absolutely devastated Ricardo Colclough, running him over and then spinning through another tackle into the end zone. He extracted a measure of revenge not only for Colclough's TD return but also for Pittsburgh WR Fred Gibson's decleating block of Eagles safety Corey Peoples, which up until that point had been the best hit of the game. And he also demonstrated that, when healthy, he is a far better back than Reno Mahe, the steady plugger who is currently the Eagles' third-string back, with Correll Buckhalter still out with a knee injury.
Mahe works hard and does his best, but he's barely an NFL running back. He's like a smaller, less gifted Duce Staley. But unlike Staley, who not only can juke defenders but also is strong enough never to go down on first contact, Mahe almost always goes down on first contact. The thing is, Mahe knows the system, he doesn't get injured, he plays special teams, and he is therefore versatile and dependable. So the if the Eagles keep only four tailbacks, they will be faced with a decision between a guy who has real talent, but hasn't been able to stay healthy, and a nondescript athlete who provides a measure of stability. I don't want to see Perry leave, but it's possible the Eagles will cut him. He made that a harder decision yesterday.