Last year, there was no choice. Injuries pared down the Eagles' wide receiver corps, and rookie DeSean Jackson was forced into a starting role. So Donovan McNabb was in sync with Jackson from the very start of the season, which was a blessing for a variety of reasons. Jackson showed right off the bat that he was something special, and McNabb showed that he could trust a first-year player at a position that demands great timing.
Jackson was explosive from the jump, gaining more than 100 yards in each of his first two NFL games, displaying strong, confident hands, reading coverages and getting to the spots at the right time. By season's end, it was clear that Jackson was no usual rookie, that he was, instead, the go-to wide receiver in the Eagles' offense.
As the Eagles mull the next step in this off-season -- a rookie camp is only a week-plus away -- they know that they can grow significantly if their rookie class steps in and contributes to some degree. Maybe none of the rookies will start, but the Eagles think that wide receiver Jeremy Maclin, running back LeSean McCoy and tight end Cornelius Ingram have a chance to step in right away and play well.
All of the time McNabb spends with the rookies means so much, and if it ends up that McNabb hosts all three rookies at his home in Arizona prior to training camp, the process will be accelerated. Timing, chemistry and understanding the player and the person is so important to how the offense plays early in the season. And make no mistake, the Eagles must start quickly in 2009. No more of this listless performances until December rolls around. The Eagles need to win right away.
For McNabb, and for the offense, it's more than just the rookies. The Eagles figure to have two new starting offensive linemen in Jason Peters and Stacy Andrews. They have a new starting fullback, Leonard Weaver.
Those players need to know McNabb just as much as he needs to know them. Peters, the left tackle, has a quarterback more mobile than the one he had in Buffalo. Peters has to understand where McNabb is when he takes his five- and seven-step drops, and he has to understand where McNabb can end up as he scrambles around and buys time. McNabb is far different than anything Peters had in Buffalo and that ability to keep a play alive with his legs requires an offensive lineman to adjust his mentality.
It's never over with McNabb, so both Peters and Andrews have to learn that they must hold their blocks longer and keep looking around to maybe spring McNabb for a run. This isn't like adjusting to Randall Cunningham, who actually used to go off script so much that he drove linemen crazy and, in fact, probably accounted for far more than his share of those infamous 100-plus sacks in the late 1980s. Offensive linemen never knew where Cunningham was, because he bailed out of the progression so quickly as he looked to make big plays running the football.
McNabb is a far more disciplined quarterback, but he is different than J.P. Losman and Trent Edwards and -- gasp! -- Kelly Holcomb that Peters played with in Buffalo. McNabb is far more mobile than Carson Palmer, who was the quarterback as Andrews blossomed at right tackle in Cincinnati. The more those guys understand McNabb's cadence and his tempo in the pocket, the more cohesive that offensive line will be.
As for Weaver, everything is new for him. He is being taught a new way to play the position in terms of his pass protection, his run blocking, his route running and the demands of the offense. Weaver has to develop his own football relationship with McNabb from the very basics of a handoff to the subtleties of catching his passes and being integrated into the scheme.
There is plenty of time for all of that, and McNabb has been through the routine before. Last year was a good proving ground, though, and it could very well pay off for the Eagles this season. There are a bunch of new faces in new places in the offense, and each and every one of them has to get on the same page with the X's and the O's, the man playing beside him, and the quarterback who is going to have the ball in his hands on every play.