Brian Dawkins didn't have time to think. It was all reaction as he laid a whopper of a hit on a Carolina wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad in the end zone of Thursday night's preseason game. Muhammad had beaten middle linebacker Stewart Bradley on a post route and appeared ready to catch the Jake Delhomme pass and put six Panthers points on the scoreboard.
Then Dawkins appeared, a scud missile aimed at Muhammad. A loud, violent collision ensued, and then the pass that Muhammad seemingly caught bounced off the grass field -- television replays showed it clearly -- and the throw was incomplete and Carolina settled for a field goal.
And B Dawk had one under his belt in the preseason.
"I need those types of plays. A lot of times I don't get a lot of work at camp as far as contact goes. Some of the live drills, the d-line does such a great job that I don't get a chance to have a lot of contact," said Dawkins. "I need as much contact as I can get through the preseason so when the first game comes around, I'm not gun-shy, so to speak."
Brian Dawkins, gun shy? Shudder at the thought. But this is a different time for Dawkins, coming off an injury-plagued 2007 season and in no way a sure thing this year. Age affects every athlete, and while Dawkins is a superbly-conditioned, incredibly-motivated player and man, he is flesh and bones and subject to the toll time exacts.
So, yeah, there are questions about Dawkins. Most specifically, can he be a great player again? The six-time Pro Bowl safety is a huge piece of the defensive puzzle, both for his intensity and the knack he has for coming up big at the right time. The Eagles need Dawkins. Dawkins needs the Eagles.
It's time for the veteran to peak for the regular season.
"In every game, for me, it's like you're revving up the engine a little more every game. First game, you're just cranking up the car and getting used to it again," said Dawkins. "This game, you kind of rev the engine up, and a little playing time this next game, so by the first game the engine is completely warm, and I'll be ready to roll."
It is vitally important that Dawkins shows he has the range and the burst to cover in space. Teams are going to go after him. That's a given. They want to stretch the field and force Dawkins to run. They want to push Dawkins and see how well he responds. Used to be, teams couldn't figure where Dawk would be, and they worried that Dawkins would appear at the line of scrimmage on a blitz, or double on a deep ball, or play center field so expertly that he could lay back, read the quarterback's eyes and then explode to the football and make a play.
When you are in your 13th NFL season, coming off a struggle of a season, the picture changes. You become the hunted.
That is where Dawkins is right now in his career. When he is on the field, he is going to be hunted. Until he proves he is back and capable and playing at a high level, Dawkins is going to have a bull's eye on that No. 20 jersey.
Staying fresh is key for Dawkins, who appreciated the 30-plus club as much as anybody in training camp.
"Definitely, no doubt. It was a tremendous advantage for us to be able to have that. To have those days off, to be able to rest up, to be able to get our legs back under us and stretch or whatever we need to do," said Dawkins. "Just to be able to take the day off to recover was a huge, huge thing for all of us, and I would say that I could speak for everybody in that respect."
So how close is Dawkins to being Brian Dawkins? He was on the field just about every day in training camp, a great sign for a player coming off injuries. In Pittsburgh, he whiffed on a hitch pass to wide receiver Santonio Holmes that went for a touchdown. Dawkins was not in the right position on the play. He was stuck in no-man's land, and Holmes darted right past Dawkins.
So it was especially good to see the blow delivered to Muhammad in the end zone on Thursday night. Dawkins has to be the guy to deliver the punishment and finish off the play in the Eagles' favor.
Every day, then, eyes are on Dawkins. Can he hold up? Can he be a Pro Bowl player again. For that matter, is the defense ready to take a leap up this season?
"I thought we did some good things out there. After that long drive – you want to take back; you don't want the opportunity to give up long drives. That's two weeks that we've given up a long drive," said Dawkins. "They didn't score this week, but Pittsburgh did last week. That's something that we can work on. All in all we did a pretty good job."
Ditto for Dawkins, who made an encouraging big play and step forward on Thursday night. He is good enough to change a play and change a defense in an instant. Here is to hoping to see some more of the season in a crucial 2008 season.