If all goes according to plan, and Kevin Curtis opens up next week and shows the final teeny part of his recovery that he has yet to show, the road to the lineup should be cleared and Curtis will be back on the field for this Eagles offense. This is no small thing, for Curtis caught 77 passes for 1,100 yards last season in his first as an Eagle and figured to be even more productive in 2008 before he suffered a sports hernia injury and underwent surgery.
At his best, Curtis is a speedy, quick and resourceful receiver who has excellent hands and route-running ability. He is awfully difficult to cover one on one and he clearly has the confidence of quarterback Donovan McNabb. Curtis is equally adept at catching a quick hitch and diving for the first-down sticks as he is at running a "go" route and blowing past a cornerback as the Eagles go for the home run.
Adding Curtis, then, is a significant plus for the Eagles, who are looking for more consistency, more touchdowns, more everything in the final 10 games of the season.
His presence also makes for some tough decision-making moves by this coaching staff.
You see, the Eagles fared pretty well at wide receiver without Curtis and, for that matter, Reggie Brown, who has played, really, in just two games. Without their starting receivers from a year ago, the Eagles have learned a little bit about the rest of their players at the position.
They've come to the conclusion -- drawn way back in the summer -- that rookie DeSean Jackson is the most talented receiver they have, and that he is best suited to be on the field as much as possible, that he is a game-breaking player who changes the dynamic of the offense and who did a pretty nice job as the "go-to" receiver through six games.
They have re-discovered the talents of Hank Baskett, who worked so hard in the off-season to lose weight -- 13 pounds -- and add quickness and the result is that Baskett is a much-improved player from a year ago. He is physical, sure-handed and is a weapon in the red zone, where the Eagles need their most help offensively.
The coaching staff has also gained an even deeper trust in slot receiver Jason Avant now that he is healthy after playing last season with a groin injury. Avant has strong hands, superb moves in and out of his routes and a toughness to go over the middle and into traffic that makes him a prime target on third downs. Plus, Avant -- and Baskett -- help the running game with selfless blocking.
Veteran Greg Lewis became, in the first six games, a more stable part of the offense after his disappearance (along with Baskett) last season. Lewis has given the Eagles a mid-range to deep threat who has run his routes perfectly and caught just about everything in his area. He has made big plays among his 14 receptions and he responds positively to just about every opportunity he is given.
Add Curtis and Brown to that foursome and the Eagles have some options at wide receiver. But they have to get the hierarchy sorted out, for a number of reasons.
First, the Eagles can't dress six wide receivers. They can't adequately fit in six receivers on a game-day active list that needs depth across the board and an ample supply of special-teams performers. Somebody has to sit. Who that is, well, I'm not going to hazard a guess right now. A lot depends on whether the Eagles plan to give Curtis a full complement of action against Atlanta, and whether Brown is set to go full till. I think they are both going to be ready for the Falcons, but until they go through a week of practice, full practice, nobody really knows.
I think a lot depends on the team the Eagles are playing, too. Do their cornerbacks play man coverage? Are those cornerbacks going to try to press the Eagles receivers? Are they big cornerbacks, or are they shorter guys who rely on quickness?
Certainly, there are some "musts" in the equation, at least from the way I see things.
No. 1, Jackson has to stay on the field. I don't care which position he is playing, where he lines up or how many reps he is getting as a punt returner. Jackson is the game-breaking receiver here. He is an exciting player who has shown an innate knowledge of the game and of situations that far exceed his youth. If the Eagles can get Jackson, Curtis and Brian Westbrook out in the passing game at one time, well, we'll start to see the offense the Eagles imagined back in the spring when they put this offense together. Those three players offer devastating speed and pass-catching skills. So, Jackson deserves to very much remain a huge part of this mix.
No. 2, Avant has to continue to play. He does too many things well -- he is the most accomplished slot player the Eagles have -- to vanish from the offense. At some point, the Eagles have to better use Avant in the red zone, because he is the kind of receiver who can really be a weapon in tight spaces.
No. 3, Baskett deserves a role. He may not catch eight passes a game, like he did against Pittsburgh, but Baskett's size and strength provide a different look to defenses from the rest of the receivers. Having Baskett on the field when the offense is inside the 10-yard line at the very least gives defenses something to think about. One successful fade pass that went for a touchdown against the 49ers opened a whole new world for the red-zone offense. Hopefully, the Eagles will have the confidence to call that play again.
Truth be told, I'm not sure what to do with the fifth receiver spot. Brown's injury problems this season are a concern. He missed most of the preseason with a hamstring injury and has followed up with a couple of more injuries in the regular season that have kept him on the sidelines more often than not. In the two games Brown has played, he did well enough -- 10 catches, 163 yards and some explosiveness after the catch -- but what is it with the injuries? This was the year when Brown needed to deliver consistency, and he worked so hard in the off-season to achieve that goal. Since then he has been beset by injury, and you wonder if he is going to hit his stride in time to make a meaningful contribution the rest of the way.
Lewis, hey, I respect what he does. I think he is a valuable piece of the passing game by the way he finds openings in coverage and makes himself an open target. He has good hands. He has speed to stretch defenses, and he plays well on special teams.
The wide receiver picture is, of course, one that bears watching. Getting Curtis back -- hoping that he is the Kevin Curtis from last year, with even more knowledge and timing in the offense -- is a huge boost for the offense. Don't minimize the impact. The Eagles may not have traded for a wide receiver last week, but they are going to add a wide receiver they haven't had all season, and that is a nice thing to look forward to. The Eagles have played all of their season without Curtis and most of it without Brown and Westbrook, so it is definitely a good thing that all three are coming back.
But this isn't just a matter of getting good players back on the field. To make it work, Andy Reid and Marty Mornhinweg have to manage the personnel and dial up the right X's and O's and maximize the weapons that are here. There is a good bit of talent to work with. The Eagles offense has every right to expect more in the coming weeks and games. The offense is a tough matchup with all of the speed and the versatility on the field.
True, though, that there are some "ifs" associated here. It isn't as simple as inserting Curtis and Brown right back into the starting lineup. Six games of a season have allowed other players to emerge, other matchups to consider. The wide receiver picture has changed for the better, if the steps taken in the next week -- health, practice performance and use of personnel -- are the right ones.