It was easy in the spring. The defense wasn't allowed to hit, the pads weren't on, and the offense looked like a collection of superstars running routes and throwing the football against, basicaly, air.
In training camp, the picture changed quite a bit. The contact was real. The receivers were challenged on every pass. Running backs were targets as they darted toward the line of scrimmage. Only the quarterbacks, the lords of the red jerseys, were spared from the defense's rage. And the offense, after a couple of days during which the D dominated, played well. Donovan McNabb found receivers open and made plays down the field. Running backs Brian Westbrook, Correll Buckhalter and Lorenzo Booker were productive running and catching the football.
There were days in camp when the offense executed exactly as the Xs and Os were drawn: The Eagles spread the ball around, found holes in the defense underneath and went vertical in the passing game.
The Eagles, then, emerge from this first phase of training camp feeling really confident about the state of the offense, about the personnel, about the scheme and the direction the group is taking.
Friday night marks a new phase, a new test. McNabb is going to be a target. He is going to be just like everyone else: A target for a Steelers defense that has historically blitzed a lot in the preseason.
Talk to a coach and ask him about this player or that player and the answer you get is generally along the lines of: "So far. We'll see how he does in games."
See, I'm sky-high on the skill players in the offense. I see how the team is using Booker to team with Westbrook and Buckhalter, and in the end I think Booker will get more touches as a receiver than as a running back. He is a weapon in "space," as they say. I see the tremendous leap in this training camp from Jason Avant, healthy and breaking cornerbacks' ankles with his razor-sharp breaks in and out of routes. I see how Hank Baskett has re-emerged in the offense after a slumber in 2007, and I wonder how much of what happens now will carry over to the regular season.
I see Kevin Curtis making big plays every day in the last week of this camp, and I see how Reggie Brown has harnesessed his explosiveness and seems to be open on just about every route. I see Greg Lewis catch everything when called upon, and I see the X-factor that is DeSean Jackson earning more of a niche as the summer grows long.
More than anything, I see McNabb at the top of his game. He is able to improvise and buy time again with his legs, and is again the multi-dimensional quarterback who helped re-build this franchise in the last decade.
The offensive line is experienced and strong in front of McNabb, capable of grinding out a drive with the running game or providing strong pass protection to give the Eagles the ability to spread the ball around in the passing game.
But this is the training camp view. This is the perspective gained from watching every day in the spring and now every day at Lehigh.
What lies ahead is the unknown, and it is the next phase of testing for the offense. The coaches are right, then. They can be encouraged by what they've seen, and they are. But what has happened has happened, and what awaits on Friday is an entirely different dimension. The Eagles aren't going to open up the playbook against the Steelers, but the coaches need the players to make it work. Vanilla, or not. Make it work. Get into the end zone.
Training camp is in its teaching phase still. The practices now are not geared toward the Steelers; they are geared toward installing more of the offense and testing the players to see what they know. The roster battles remain fluid.
Come Friday, though, the players are graded on a different scale. A game scale, albeit the preseason. It is an important next step for an offense that has been impressive so far.