Harmon's camp tour: Buffalo/New England | Cleveland/Philadelphia
I continue my reports from the road with the Cleveland Browns and Philadelphia Eagles. I added more miles to the Jeep, fired up hours of classic 80's hair band music and met some great fans along the fences.
It was interesting to watch the methodology of both Butch Davis and Andy Reid. The positional drills were crisp and focused. There is no idle time in either of these practices. Players kept moving and working. While the second-team offense was on the field in both cases, the starters were attentive to the action and actively helping to correct glitches
Even when the full practices broke, players remained to continue working on their footwork and touching up the errors of the day. Purpose was the word that ran through my head repeatedly during these stops on the tour.
Now, let's get to it.
Cleveland Browns at St. John Fisher College in Rochester, NY
All eyes on the sidelines were focused squarely on QB Jeff Garcia, brought in after the purge in San Francisco and looking for the respect that eluded him in the shadows of Joe Montana and Steve Young. He's working with a reconstructed offensive line and a trio of running backs who were mighty impressive running through their drills.
Garcia's passes were crisp on the short routes and he worked on stretching the field with receivers Dennis Northcutt and Andre Davis. The focal point of the seven-on-seven drills was to increase Garcia's comfort in the pocket. My initial thoughts were, "if it ain't broke ..." but if they're convinced that this strategy will up his average of 23 touchdowns per season, so be it.
Garcia also worked extensively with tight ends Aaron Shea, Steve Heiden and Darnell Sanders. The 6-foot-6, 270-pound Sanders showed great hands in this workout. The trio will now compete for a backup job behind newly signed Kellen Winslow.
With Garcia typically working a short passing game and needing playmakers, the signing of Winslow was an essential component of season preparations. He's instantly the top target and will be taking extra reps to get prepared for the opener against Baltimore.
Kelly Holcomb struggled to make a number of the deeper throws and his only consistency in this workout was that nary a spiral was thrown. He may lose the backup role to rookie Luke McCown before long. McCown made all of the proper reads and check-downs in seven-on-seven action and showed nice touch on the sideline routes.
William Green and Lee Suggs are the names everyone knows in the tailback position battle, but I came away impressed with the bull rush of former Syracuse standout Dee Brown. He hit the holes hard, kept his feet driving and would not be contained. In his third different camp (Carolina and Pittsburgh before joining the Browns), Brown impressed all of those who weren't wrapped up in the quarterbacks.
Suggs showed a tremendous second-gear after hitting the tackles. William Green was not to be outdone – mimicking Suggs' every move and showing great hands out of the backfield. He is running with purpose and comes to camp focused on fending off Suggs. Here's thinking that the dreaded platoon situation rears its head.
They'll be running behind a line that features Jeff Faine and Ross Verba. Verba is the most critical component to the attack, as he'll be charged with protecting Garcia's blindside. He looked strong in one-on-one drills and finally healthy.
Timing will be paramount with Garcia at the helm. Receivers Davis, Northcutt and Quincy Morgan worked on getting that timing down on short middle routes and slowly worked toward deeper crossing routes. Andre King and undrafted rookie C.J. Jones were playing the burner role in drills, running deep routes and showing big-play abilities. Jones will likely see time on special teams.
The defense will definitely be tested this year. Expectations are high for former Cowboys lineman Ebenezer Ekuban, and he dominated in drills. Gerard Warren looks quicker and more agile as he tries to get back to his rookie form. The linebacking corps is still young, but a year of experience in 2003 can't hurt. Daylon McCutcheon re-upped for five more years, so the cornerback position is solidified.
But there are still many questions in the defensive secondary. It could be a long year if Warren, Ekuban and company can't get a push up front.
First preseason game: Saturday, August 14 against Tennessee
Philadelphia Eagles at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA
I made the trip to Bethlehem last week and was positively flabbergasted by the number of fans arriving for a seemingly innocuous morning workout. I rolled into a parking lot that never seemed to end, finally settling into a nice spot on the soccer fields.
As I began my trek toward the practice field, I took stock in the number of jerseys bearing the numbers 81 and 93. When I finally made it to the field, I was engulfed in a crowd that security would later tell me approached 12,000. What was it they came to see? And just then the players hit the field. The chants of "T.O., T.O.!" by this mass of humanity was countered only with the echoes of "E-A-G-L-E-S. Eagles!" What a scene!
I started with the defensive line drills this time, trying to show some love to the guys in the trenches. N.D. Kalu showed great speed and push in one-on-one drills. Corey Simon was equally impressive in early workouts.
The much-heralded acquisition of Jevon Kearse can only serve to make these guys more dominant, provided he can stay on the field. He would pull up and out of a couple drills on this day, starting the trend that has continued this week and has Eagles fans concerned.
Young defensive backs Lito Sheppard and Sheldon Brown looked solid in early drills, but shone in the later full-contact drills going against the first-string wideouts. Brown laid out on one deep ball intended for Freddie Mitchell and garnered a rousing ovation from the crowd. I was at a perfect vantage point for this throw and if this is a sign of things to come, Brown will be a pleasant surprise for the Birds. Sheppard was able to hold his own against WR Todd Pinkston and occasionally against Owens.
How did Owens look, you ask? Where do I start? Let me begin by stating the obvious: Donovan McNabb is clearly ecstatic to have the freakish talent that is Owens in the mix, and he showed more bounce and confidence in throwing the ball to the spot.
For his part, Owens is running through routes and practicing taking his licks from Dhani Jones and Ike Reese across the middle. After one catch across the middle that gave the offense a first-down in the 50-yard drill, T.O. got up and egged on the fans to cheer louder. Make no mistake; the man knows how to work a crowd. Fantasy owners will be thrilled by the fruits of this marriage.
McNabb was throwing the deep ball with great accuracy and catching receivers in stride. Koy Detmer looked a bit rattled, throwing wobbly balls and short-arming a number of efforts. (Note: Detmer will undergo minor surgery on his knee and will miss the next several weeks.)
Third-string QB and cagey veteran Jeff Blake joins his sixth team and looked sharp in the full contact drills. His arm is certainly game in this offense and he is a capable backup. Andy Hall, the rookie out of Delaware, looked lost and his unit rarely got a play off.
Brian Westbrook thrilled the crowd with several tough runs between the tackles and showed great elusiveness on the corners. He also was back in punt return coverage during the latter part of the practice.
Correll Buckhalter did not practice on this day and has been hampered by a knee contusion. It is not serious enough to keep him out come game time, but still needs to be monitored as the season approaches. Meanwhile, rookie Bruce Perry picked up his reps and looked solid, albeit undersized. He will likely spend time on special teams.
The wideout competition behind Owens and Pinkston was the most fun to watch. I know you've been burned in the past by Freddie Mitchell, and I have too, but I have to sing his praises. He went up for balls over the middle, laid out on the sidelines and made a series of spectacular catches in stride.
Another player who stands to be in the mix come the season opener against the New York Giants is Billy McMullen. He's another huge target at 6-foot-4, and has the speed to stretch the field. He was impressive in lob drills, and can go up top over shorter defensive backs.
Finally, L.J. Smith is a tight end to put on the radar. He catches balls in traffic and is explosive after the grab. As demonstrated in this workout, the attention required on T.O. will open the middle of the field for Smith to make plays. For those unwilling to spend their third or fourth pick on Tony Gonzalez or rolling the dice on Kellen Winslow, Smith is a nice sleeper at tight end.
First preseason game: Friday, August 13 vs. New England
After workouts ended, I was able to hear a small snippet of Donovan McNabb's press conference. He seemed quite happy about where the offense is in such a short amount of time and was laying on the praise for his new wide receiver.
Two men clad in face paint and Owens jerseys holding a sign that read "Marry Me T.O." received a lot of attention from the crowd, and the points and guffaws of Philly players. McNabb was asked about the sign and laughed. "It was awesome. We ragged on him for awhile about that one, but it just showed the love that they have for him. He's got a lot of supporters."
Talking to the attendants at the onsite Eagles Shop, sales of Owens jerseys had been brisk, with new shipments arriving each afternoon. I estimated that roughly 5% of the morning crowd (about 600) had either a home or road T.O. jersey on. I lost count on the number of McNabb, Westbrook and Kearse jerseys in the crowd. Sadly, I did not witness a single Wilbert Montgomery.
Another quote from McNabb addressed the size of the crowd for that morning's workout (from talking to a security official, crowds have averaged somewhere in the neighborhood of 6,000 per practice).
McNabb: "You're feeding off the adrenaline of the crowd, and you're back in the huddle fired up to make plays. It definitely makes it exciting to come out and practice."
I can attest to that electricity. And Eagles fans don't go half-way; they booed dropped passes and gave standing ovations for big plays. The players fed off of the energy and worked hard for a full two and a half hours. The unofficial slogan for this campaign is "Super Bowl or bust in '04," and the fans are already in midseason form.
I'll end my camp series with the New York Jets and Giants. See you then.