I'm taking the optimistic approach here. By the time this preseason is over, young offensive linemen like Winston Justice, Nick Cole, Max Jean-Gilles and King Dunlap are going to be infinitely better players and the Eagles will have enviable depth up front in 2009. Certainly, though, the realistic view persists, and that is understandable: It sure would be nice to know more about the starting offensive line with the regular season three and a half weeks away.
Let's hope the picture is starting to clear. Right tackle Shawn Andrews received good news from his visit with back specialist Dr. Robert Watkins in California, said head coach Andy Reid. There is no structural damage in Andrews' back, and the plan is to ramp up his conditioning and his football work with the hopes of getting him on the field against Carolina. Jason Peters is rehabbing a nagging quad injury, and won't play against the Colts. Some good time off should have Peters back fairly quickly. Left guard Todd Herremans is still a couple/few weeks from being ready to go after his stress reaction in his left foot and Stacy Andrews is still not quite ready for full-contact drills.
It is a worrisome situation, no question about it. It is fair to be concerned that the Eagles have four/fifths of their starting offensive line sidelined, and that there is a distinct possibility that they could play Carolina on September 13 with a line that has not had the benefit of being together for a single preseason game.
Or, for that matter, any practices of note.
"I want them to have an opportunity to play together and I think the more time they spend together the better things work," said Reid. "This is the hand we are dealt with here and we expect guys to step in and play well. We're fortunate enough to have Max and Nick, who have been in there and Jamaal (Jackson), who have played together. Then Winston has done a nice job and King has improved over this time.
"I expect those guys to take advantage of it, but to sit here and tell you that I wish they weren't playing together, the five offensive linemen, yeah, I do. I wish they were all in there working and getting better."
But they aren't, so the only thing the Eagles can do is work with what they have, develop their depth and hope for the day when everyone is healthy and on the field together.
It is, really, an interesting turn of focus. For years and years the Eagles had stability up front when the outside focus was always on the skill-position players and what many felt the Eagles didn't have. Now, the Eagles appear stacked with backs and receivers, so the concern is on an area that Reid has always handled: The guys up front.
After an off-season splurge netted Stacy Andrews in free agency and then Peters in a trade, many felt the Eagles had potentially the best offensive line in football. Shows you how much paper predictions matter ...
Shawn Andrews' back flared up on the first day of training camp. Peters suffered a quad strain during the team's conditioning run to start the veterans at training camp and he hasn't been the same. Herremans was fine until suffering a foot injury during the final days of camp.
Stacy Andrews is on the target the Eagles hoped he would follow, but he still hasn't been in full-contract drills in pads. When that exact next step comes, the Eagles aren't saying.
So ... the Eagles head to a dome with one of the best defensive ends in the league in Dwight Freeney preparing to play Dunlap and a very quick and aggressive scheme that will be quick off the ball looking to get to quarterback Donovan McNabb and disrupt the passing game. It is a tremendous challenge for line coach Juan Castillo, a kind of defining game for Dunlap and Justice, who starts at right tackle. The former second-round draft pick has had a resurgent spring and summer and a good game here would convince a lot of skeptics about his skills.
Dunlap, for his part, is saying and doing all the right things as he preps for Freeney, the hyperactive end who is a spinning ball of energy off the edge. Dunlap has great feet and a huge wingspan and he is an eager and intelligent young man, and he will battle Freeney. A good game by the tackles is going to go a long way toward providing the Eagles a great feeling about their depth.
They already know that both Cole and Jean-Gilles can start and play well in the league. They know that second-year man Mike McGlynn has a taste of experience at guard in the regular season, and that he has transitioned well to the center position. They know they have a few other young linemen who are coming along well in Castillo's program.
Ultimately, though, the Eagles know that while these reps are great for the backups and are going to pay off in the long haul, the team needs the starters back on the field as soon as possible. All of that time and money invested in the offensive line wasn't to see Dunlap play left tackle, and that is not meant as a lack of respect for Dunlap, who at times looks like a superb young tackle prospect.
The Eagles need Peters on the field and able to play 65 snaps each game. They need both Andrews brothers to forge an on-field bond and lead the way on the right side of the line. They need Herremans to Jackson's left to provide more strength and physical play in the trenches.
Soon, fingers crossed, the Eagles will have what they need up front, and the offense will really soar. This is the hard part of the preseason. There is still a lot of work to be done and everyone knows it, and at the same time we can glance to the regular season and see it waiting there, teasing us.
My recommendation: Stay positive. Be optimistic about the line. It is going to come together, and when it does -- hopefully much sooner than later -- this offense is going to be a force that will be very, very difficult to contain.