Thanksgiving is a time for reflection and giving thanks for the good in your life (thus the name, I'm told). 2008 has not been the best year for the Eagles or their fans. Still, there is plenty to be thankful for. Here are some things for which I am grateful …
DeSean Jackson – The Eagles finally got it right at wide receiver. After Na Brown, Todd Pinkston, Freddie Mitchell and Billy McMullen, the team finally spent an early pick on a pick who is a clear home run. We don't know if Jackson will develop into an elite player, but he's played better than I ever expected. His combination of athletic ability, positional skills, and confidence is the best the Eagles have had since Terrell Owens was here.
Jackson should be even better next season when he really knows what he's doing and has gotten stronger. The sky is the limit for him.
The Defensive Line – The group isn't exactly like Buddy's Boys from the late 80s and early 90s, but it is pretty darn good. Trent Cole is one of the best pass rushers in the entire league. Victor Abiamiri is coming off his best game as a pro and looks like he could be a good left defensive end. Juqua Parker is an overachiever who just keeps getting the job done. Backup Chris Clemons has played better of late and the coaches are figuring out just how to use him. Darren Howard leads the entire league in sacks by a backup player.
The tackles aren't big-time playmakers, but Mike Patterson is solid and Brodrick Bunkley has shown flashes of becoming a very good player. If they can just make a few more plays, this duo could become one of the best in the league. Rookie Trevor Laws has been solid off the bench. He should get better with time.
The defensive line has big-time potential. If Abiamiri pans out as expected and one of the tackles can make more plays, this bunch could be in the mix to be the best in the league. Rookie Bryan Smith looked good over the summer and could be a good situational rusher next year. There is a lot of depth and talent.
The Linebackers – Stewart Bradley looks like he could be a stud in the middle. He's only in his first year as a starter and needs to get better, but Bradley has definitely impressed. He has Pro Bowl potential. Chris Gocong has gotten better each season as the starter on the strong side. He has a couple of sacks this year and is being used more aggressively, which suits his talents. Two players have manned the weakside spot. Omar Gaither has been solid this year. Apparently the coaches were disappointed in his recent play and started Akeem Jordan in his place on Sunday. Jordan took advantage of the opportunity. He led the team in tackles according to the press box stats and looked good in his first extensive action of the year. Jordan showed enough he is penciled in ahead of Gaither on the depth chart. Rookie Joe Mays had a great summer. I'm not sure where he fits into the long-term plans, but at the very least he is a good backup and should be a good special teams player.
Todd Herremans – His play was up and down in 2007. I hoped that was due to a lingering knee injury, but you never know with young players. Herremans has played pretty well this year. The Eagles do have a choice with him. He could slide out and play tackle. Herremans started at left tackle as a rookie and also got time there over the summer in a preseason game against Julius Peppers. Herremans acquitted himself nicely. He's young, talented and versatile.
A Good Return Game – Punt and kickoff returns were not much fun to watch from 2004 through last year. That all changed with the arrival of DeSean Jackson and Quintin Demps. The two rookie returners both have the speed and return skills to produce big plays. Each guy has taken a return all the way back for a touchdown. That isn't rookie luck or bad competition. This is a very talented duo that should give the Eagles a strong return game for a long time. Demps' touchdown on Sunday was a great example of what speed can do. Had Reno Mahe gotten the same kickoff, he'd have been tackled around the 40-yard line. That would have been a good return. Demps' ability to accelerate allowed him to exploit a seam and run through the middle of four defenders. You can't coach speed. Players have it or they don't. To use one of my favorite sports clichés from the 1980s, Jackson and Demps have speed to burn.
THE CARDINALS ARE COMING TO TOWN
Cardinals at Eagles. That doesn't bring up great memories. Andy Reid lost his first game as the Eagles head coach to the Cards. The team blew a lead in the game, actually. A bobbled pass basically cost Brian Finneran his job (and us a talented young receiver). The 2001 team lost to Jake Plummer on a late touchdown pass. In 2002, McNabb broke his leg against Arizona and then missed the next six weeks.
The 2008 game should be interesting. Arizona is coming off a tough loss to the Giants. That is now the second week in a row that the Eagles have faced a team trying to rebound from a loss to New York. Let's hope this week's result is better than the debacle down in Baltimore.
Arizona is a great passing team on offense. They gain a lot of yards and score a lot of points. Kurt Warner is having an MVP-type of season. Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin are great receivers. The Cardinals defense is very creative and aggressive. Ten different players have a sack. Five different guys have at least three sacks. Expect to see a lot of blitzing.
I have no idea how the Eagles will react to last week's poor showing. I thought the team would make a strong recovery last week after the tie to the Bengals. Oops, I was only off by a mile or two. The road to the playoffs is long at this point, but I hope to see the players and coaches show some sense of desperation.
Donovan McNabb is coming off the first benching of his NFL career. How will he handle that? I think the fact he's a high-character individual and veteran player will help him to recover nicely, but you never know. Players are human beings (except Peyton Manning – I'm pretty sure he was sent from the future to save the Earth). Players have feelings and egos. You never know how a player will react to a situation. McNabb has shown thick skin in the past, but getting benched is a first for him.
To make matters as challenging as possible, the team is banged up in some key areas. Correll Buckhalter is doubtful for the game. That would potentially leave Brian Westbrook and Lorenzo Booker as the running backs. Westbrook is less than 100 percent and that could put Booker on the field quite a bit. I guess it could be sink or swim time for him. One of the reasons running back is key in this game is the Cardinals' blitz attack. They will send guys off the edge and up the middle. Whoever plays running back must be able to help out in pass protection. You may remember a 2005 game between Philly and Arizona when Adrian Wilson threw Ryan Moats around like a rag doll when he blitzed up the middle. I'm sure Mike McMahon still has nightmares where he watches Wilson run over Moats to come pound on him.
Asante Samuel is also doubtful for the game. You don't want to play without your best cornerback when facing the best duo of wide receivers in the league. Lito Sheppard needs to step up his game and help the team out.
The game may be decided by the Eagles defensive line. They must pressure Warner and keep him off-balance. If he is able to drop back and find his receivers, Eagles fans will leave Lincoln Financial Field with a major case of heartache (to go along with Thanksgiving heartburn). If the line can get to Warner and create some turnovers, the game takes on a whole different look.