Not too long ago, the Eagles thought that wide receiver Reggie Brown had the kind of tools that would translate to huge success: Size, speed, strength, a great work ethic. Times have changed. The question with Brown is, now that he has been knocked down, can he get up and get his career back on track and help this football team in 2009?
That Brown was inactive for the NFC Championship Game in Arizona was a surprise at the time, but after some thought it clearly didn't come out of nowhere. Brown's season was, well, lousy for him. Brown had just 18 receptions as he battled nagging injuries and was bypassed in the rotation by rookie DeSean Jackson, Jason Avant and Hank Baskett. Once Kevin Curtis recovered from a sports hernia injury, Brown dropped even deeper into the wide receiver picture and at the end of the regular season he had played in just 10 games, with only 3 starts.
Eighteen catches. What a dramatic fall from a steady rise statistically in his career. Brown caught 43 passes as a rookie and then had 46 catches and 8 touchdowns during a season when he signed a sweet long-term contract. The Eagles saw so many good things in Brown, enough that they invested in his future and expected him to continue to progress, to continue to work hard and become a more consistent pass catcher and maybe even take the next step to become a go-to receiver.
Brown started slowly in 2007, but by the end of the season he had a career-high 61 receptions that went for 780 yards and 4 touchdowns. Not great, and the Eagles were concerned that Brown wasn't in the offense as much as they wanted early in the year. But they also recognized that his last month was encouraging, so much so that it made sense that Brown was a project in the spring and the summer. The Eagles fed him football. He ate them voraciously, on the field and off the field. He caught hundreds of balls at a time, worked tirelessly on his own time and reported for training camp in the best shape of his life, ready for a huge season.
And then, at the end, he was on the sidelines in an Eagles warmup suit, watching two plays run for Greg Lewis. One of the plays was a stutter-step move down the left sideline. Donovan McNabb rolled right, stopped and threw back to Lewis, who had a step on the defense. The ball came over his outside shoulder as Lewis looked inside and then had to adjust and then, finally, reached up and couldn't hold onto the pass. There was another play for Lewis, a step-back throw from McNabb in the red zone that lost 3 yards and ended up hurting a drive on which the Eagles settled for a field goal.
Those were plays that could have been sent in for Brown, not Lewis. But Lewis was the one on the field. Brown watched, wondered, and in the end, expressed his disappointment that he wasn't playing.
"It was tough," said Brown after the game.
The whole year was tough. Brown had his ups and downs in training camp as the Eagles tried to get him going right away. They threw him a lot of passes in those practices, and Brown -- while he had his drops -- responded favorably. Maybe, just maybe, he would start in September where he let off in December.
It was not to be, obviously, Brown's first significant setback was a hamstring injury he suffered against Carolina in the preseason. That injury lingered for weeks, to the point where Brown missed the first two games of the regular season.
By that time, Jackson had a pair of 100-yard receiving games under his talented belt, Avant had become a reliable threat in the slot and Baskett had moved, along with Lewis. Brown tried to fit back in, and he played well in losses to Chicago (6 catches, 79 yards) and Washington (4 catches, 84 yards).
Then the injury bug bit again. This time it was a groin injury, and a season was shot. Gone. Oh, Brown played here and there, caught a touchdown pass in Seattle, grabbed 4 passes in the loss at Washington and was six inches short in that defeat of becoming significant again in the passing game.
What is important for Brown now is, well, now. And the future. What do the Eagles think of Brown? Obviously, they didn't think enough of him to put him on the field in the most important game of the season. The starters at wide receiver down the stretch, Jackson and Curtis, played extremely well. Avant improved every week during the season.
If Brown can't start here, how does he help the Eagles?
I'm sure it is one of the many questions the Eagles are pondering. Brown is a talented player who works very hard, and that presents a fascinating paradox. If Brown were a malcontent, or a lazy player off the field, it would be easy to dismiss him here. But that isn't the case. Brown is a popular player in the locker room, and he works as hard as anybody.
Brown, though, is in a large hole here. If each off-season brought a fresh start and each receiver's name could be put in a jar and drawn at random, it might be different. But Brown has to make his way up a talented ladder. Jackson is the No. 1 guy here, with a bullet. Curtis came back from the sports hernia injury and can now move ahead without that injury woe in his way. Avant and the rest of the crew have their roles, and have played them well.
And there is no telling how active the Eagles might be in free agency and the draft addressing the wide receiver positions.
All of the above leave Brown in an extremely tenuous spot. Does he fit in? Can he climb back to the top of the ladder here? What happened to the receiver who, not too long ago, had the gold star next to his future?