Andy Reid runs a crisp practice. The tempo is high. The demand for execution is very obvious. As the Eagles prepare for the preseason finale, the coaching staff and personnel department are working on two separate agendas: The coaching staff has an eye on September 12 and the Green Bay Packers, while Howie Roseman leads the charge to put the finishing touches on the 53-man roster.
So while the starting offensive line won't play against the Jets on Thursday night, that group is very much on the minds of the coaches. The race is on to get it right for Green Bay, and to that end practice holds an extreme amount of importance.
Can Jamaal Jackson make it back for the opener? This is the question that seemed out of touch weeks ago as Jackson labored in the background recovering from surgery on his knee. Surely there was no chance that Jackson, who suffered a torn ACL in the win over Denver last December, would be healthy enough to play early in 2010. The Eagles, the thinking went, would need alternate plans for the center position.
But modern medicine -- plus an outstanding athletic training staff and diligent effort from Jackson -- has made the ACL a far different beast than it was years ago. Way back when, tearing an ACL meant a lost season ahead, at the very least. In many cases it was an injury that threatened a career. That remains the case to some degree, because every player recovers at a different pace and with different results.
In Jackson's case, it appears, the recovery has gone smoothly. There have been no setbacks to this point. Jackson feels great and has received clearance from his doctors to go all out. The surgical area is healed. The ligament is right.
The clock is ticking.
Jackson has practiced the last couple of weeks, usually taking part in the individual portion of practice, doing a little bit more every day, pushing his limit a touch more. Some days have been better than others, of course, but all of them have been positive. And every time Jackson was asked about his return, about whether he could make it under the wire and return for the opening game, he would reply, "Don't count me out."
Nobody is counting out Jackson now. He took first-team reps on Sunday during a practice in which the players wore helmets, shells (light shoulder pads) under their practice jerseys, and shorts. The tempo was high, but it was not game level. Jackson practiced and is looking for more now. The team has, approximately, two practices this week before Wednesday's walkthrough and Thursday's game against the Jets, and then has a full week of work ahead before the Packers come to town.
Is that enough time for Jackson to prove that he can go out and play 65 snaps of blinding-speed football against the Packers?
The Eagles are going to find out. They know they can use Mike McGlynn, who has done an admirable job at the center position in three preseason games and who likely will play a full game Thursday night against New York. They have Nick Cole, who returned to the practice field on Sunday and appears to be immediately challenging Stacy Andrews for playing time at right guard.
And they have Jackson, who under perfect circumstances would be the starting center, no questions asked. Neither McGlynn nor Cole has played to the level where Jackson's job, if he were healthy and right, would be threatened. No offense intended at either McGlynn or Cole, but Jackson is a very fine center. He is one of the best in the league in pass protection and his intelligence and game awareness rank among the best in the league, too. The Eagles missed Jackson dearly after his injury last season and getting him back will be a huge plus for the offense.
It is an interesting race, then. Time is precious here. The offensive line is unsettled. Certainly, the group has been up and down in the three preseason games. Continuity has always been a key piece of the line's success, and with Jackson out, with Todd Herremans out and Cole nursing injuries, there has been almost no continuity on the line all summer.
Hopefully, that is about to change. The pieces are coming back together on the line as the regular season nears. These practices are hugely important in the big picture, as is Thursday night's game. The hour glass has almost expired on the preseason, leading to the obvious question with 13 days to go before the regular season begins: Can the offensive line put its pieces together in such a short period of time?