’08 Preview: Eagles have Super goals

Two words define this year’s objective: Super Bowl. The Eagles are gearing up for another championship run, their first legitimate one since 2004 and maybe the final one of quarterback Donovan McNabb’s Philadelphia career.

That intention was made clear on the first day of free agency, when the club signed All-Pro cornerback Asante Samuel, widely regarded as the top talent on the market. The Eagles also brought in pass-rushing specialist Chris Clemons to join Pro Bowl right defensive end Trent Cole and give the team another weapon to “throw fastballs at the quarterback,” as coach Andy Reid likes to say.

The offense will again center on All-Pro running back Brian Westbrook, whose transformation from blossoming talent to superstar is complete. With McNabb and Westbrook, the Eagles have a couple of multidimensional weapons to carry the offense. Question is: Are they enough?

2008 TEAM PREVIEWS

AFC EAST: BUF | MIA | NE | NYJ

AFC NORTH: BAL | CIN | CLE | PIT

AFC SOUTH: HOU | IND | JAC | TEN

AFC WEST: DEN | KC | OAK | SD

NFC EAST: DAL | NYG | PHI | WAS

NFC NORTH: CHI | DET | GB | MIN

NFC SOUTH: ATL | CAR | NO | TB

NFC WEST: ARI | SEA | SF | STL

To make the leap from last season’s 8-8 mark to Super Bowl contender, the Eagles must improve in three critical areas: red-zone offense, turnover creation and explosiveness in the return game. If they fix those problems, the Eagles can contend with anyone. But if not, it will be another year of Super Bowl drought in Philadelphia.

Offense

The club’s variation of the West Coast offense is predicated on creating mismatches in the passing game, starting with the versatile Westbrook, one of the NFL’s most electrifying weapons and top pass-catching halfbacks.

The matchup problems Westbrook creates against linebackers and defensive backs afford Reid and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg flexibility and creativity.

Philadelphia’s offense is designed to throw at a 65-percent clip, with McNabb’s scrambling ability an X-factor under an intense pass rush.

Defense

Defensive coordinator Jim Johnson emphasizes pressure and turnovers. He wants his unit to attack the quarterback and capitalize on mistakes. Despite fielding a top-10 defense that ranked among the NFL’s best against the run last season, Johnson wasn’t pleased with his unit’s league-low 19 takeaways and pedestrian 37 sacks.

The remedy, he hopes, is the addition of Samuel and Clemons. Both are expected to upgrade a young, fast defense that took a step forward last year.

Breakout candidate

Defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley: After a disappointing rookie season, Bunkley took a gigantic step forward his sophomore year and appears primed for a big 2008. The former 19th overall pick out of Florida State helped the club shore up its run defense and showed signs of generating a solid pass rush from the interior with three sacks.

Bottom line

The Eagles threw a bundle of cash at Samuel to upgrade the defense, stayed committed to McNabb after a so-so season and addressed some depth concerns during the draft in an effort to gear up for a Super Bowl run. However, Philadelphia also missed its opportunity to bring in the game-changing wide receiver for which McNabb publicly lobbied.

Health will be a key factor in determining the Eagles’ fate in 2008. If McNabb can regain his pre-knee injury form and still make plays on his feet when the pocket collapses, the offense has a better chance to succeed. And if safety/leader Brian Dawkins can stay on the field, the defense is likewise better off. But injuries to either could turn a Super Bowl run into another last-place finish in the NFC East.

SN prediction: 7-9, 3rd in NFC East.

Geoff Mosher covers the Eagles for the Wilmington (Del.) News-Journal and Sporting News.


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Updated Thursday, Jul 17, 2008