It was just one play in a practice that some day may mean nothing at all. But when Donovan McNabb dropped back three steps and lofted a fade pass into the left corner of the end zone to Hank Baskett, who leaped high and made the catch for the touchdown, well, it felt different. It felt new. It felt like the Eagles offense as it is being sculpted for 2008 is going to have more zig and zag to it than in past seasons.
"I'm just glad they have the confidence in me to call that play and to keep giving me a chance to make the catch," said Baskett, who enjoyed a week of making catches up, up and over defensive backs. "It's there if we want to use it this year."
Two weeks into training camp and it seems a lot of things are there if the Eagles want to use them. Every day the offense shows something new, a different twist to a playbook that has been in place since Andy Reid's hiring in 1999.
The scrutiny of the offense is going to continue until the team gets back to its dominating ways of the early to mid 2000s, when the Eagles attacked defenses by run or by pass, by short move-the-chains completions and by down-the-field bombs. The prevailing question for many is this: Do the Eagles have enough weapons offensively to win the Super Bowl?
Only the season can answer that question. But to this point in training camp, the coaches like what they have seen. The offense has shown the kind of X's and O's flexibility that creates favorable matchups all over the field. The additions of running back/receiver Lorenzo Booker and wide receiver DeSean Jackson give the offense much, much more speed, and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg is excited to find out how much he can utilize the two in the variety of personnel packages the team runs on the field.
"We're still learning here. We have a lot of hard work to do, but it's encouraging what we've seen," said Mornhinweg. "The guys understand what kind of group we can have here."
What kind of group is it? What is the personality of the offense going to be?
Donovan McNabb and Brian Westbrook are still the dominating personalities and talents in the scheme, but the early returns say the surrounding cast has been vastly improved, both by the additions of Booker and Jackson and by the return to good health of McNabb and tight end L.J. Smith, plus the steps forward taken by Reggie Brown and Jason Avant at wide receiver and by Brent Celek at tight end.
What the Eagles are doing offensively now is moving the pieces all over the chess board, lining up Westbrook and Booker and moving one out to a receiver position and keeping the other in the backfield. They are spreading the field and having fun out there chucking the ball around or turning around and handing off and watching the speed of Westbrook and Booker and the power and slashing of Correll Buckhalter gain chunks of yardage.
It has been really fun to watch every day in practice. The wide receivers have, for the most part, been excellent down the field. Brown has been more of a big-play receiver now than at any time in his previous training camps. You would like him to catch every ball, but he is better than in the past. Kevin Curtis is all speed and moves and hands and toughness and is primed for a big year. Avant is breaking ankles out of the slot. Greg Lewis dazzled on Friday working the seams. Hank Baskett has been leaping over defensive backs and making plays, and Jackson is showing more and more that he can help this year as a receiver, not to mention the high expectations the team has for him as a return man.
What have the Eagles used that is different, or at least more noticeable than in the past? The fade pass, for one. Whether this is an experiment or not, McNabb is throwing it and throwing it well. Baskett is a perfect target with his world-class leaping ability and he is instilling confidence in the coaching staff with his performance. Some of the formations have been different as the Eagles look to spread the field and use their speed. Having two halfbacks in a fair amount of time is something the Eagles have wanted to do for years, and now they can with Booker on board.
McNabb's mobility, which looks like it is every bit as good as it was way back when, is also helping. He can move the pocket and buy time, or get to the edge and take off and run. Just having the threat of McNabb taking off and running adds a dimension to the offense that wasn't there for much of last season.
The playbook is wide open, it seems. Most of these players have been in the system so long that they know the scheme backwards and forwards, up and down. The natural next step is to expand and push the limits of the Reid version of the West Coast offense. Remember, there are many personalities touching this offense, including Reid, Mornhinweg, quarterbacks coach Pat Shurmur and offensive assistant Mark Whipple. The offense should change some every season. Evolution is a good thing.
And plays like that fade route, one that sent the nearly 10,000 fans crammed into the stands at the Goodman Campus of Lehigh University into a huge cheer, make me wonder about the offense. All of these end arounds, the big throws down the field, the differences in the formations ... it's exciting stuff. It's promising. It makes me wonder what is next as the Eagles look to take the ball and put it into the end zone on the road to the Super Bowl.