Andy Reid used the term "diluted" as he described the six-man rotation the Eagles used at wide receiver once Kevin Curtis and Reggie Brown rounded into good health and joined the lineup after injuries marred their September availability. Coincidence or not, the passing game has had more ups and downs with all six receivers on the active roster and heavily in the game plan for the most recent six games, starting with Atlanta.
Curtis, with 26 receptions and 211 yards in those outings, is rounding into form after missing time with a sports hernia. Brown, with only 13 catches in his nine games, has been moved out of the primary mix as the result of the downsizing.
It is an interesting watch at a position that fascinates everyone, and that continues to be a daily debate among fans. Do the Eagles have enough at wide receiver to win a Super Bowl? By trimming the rotation from six players to four, Reid and the coaching staff are saying that, for now, less is more.
And in the game against Arizona, when the Eagles torched the Cardinals for 437 total net yards, the foursome of Curtis, DeSean Jackson, Jason Avant and Hank Baskett fit the pieces together perfectly. Jackson was an intermediate-area receiver who caught and ran his way to 76 yards and a touchdown on 6 receptions. Jackson found space and used his speed and quickness to tear up the Cardinals' hash-to-hash defense. Curtis was the water bug, finding creases in coverage as Donovan McNabb spread the ball around. McNabb tried to stretch the field with a long pass down the field to both Jackson and Curtis, just to keep the Cardinals from squatting on short routes.
Baskett was the go-to receiver to keep the chains moving. Four of his 5 receptions gained first downs, and Baskett did a little bit of everything -- catching and running for 20 yards, laying out and making a spectacular diving grab, running a quick slant for a catch in coverage and catching a dump in the flat for 2 yards and a first down.
Avant, usually the staple on third downs, did his damage in traffic with 4 catches for 25 yards and a touchdown.
Together, the group of four receivers combined for 20 catches, 2 touchdowns and 202 yards. The two other receivers, Brown and Greg Lewis, played sparingly but did not catch a pass.
The assumption, then, is that the Eagles will continue with the four-man rotation at wide receiver and that, while Brown and Lewis will dress and may see a few snaps here or there, they will not be much more involved in the picture. The challenge on Sunday against an excellent Giants defense is to, as Reid likes to say, put his receivers in position to make plays in the passing game. The Eagles will try to run the ball, yes, but they are looking at matchups here and, frankly, the Giants just don't give up much on the ground.
McNabb and the offense cobbled together 300 total net yards against the Giants in the 36-31 loss on November 9, striking for some big plays, taking advantage of turnovers and putting the ball in the end zone via the passing game. If the offensive line can play as well now as it did then and give McNabb time to set up and throw, the Eagles will try to gash the New York secondary with their receiver pieces.
This game, then, is a superb test for the receivers, for the passing game, for the philosophy of the offense. It is one thing to do it with such an authoritative and confident approach against Arizona. Hey, the Eagles deserved a good pat on the back for a job well done on Thursday night.
But this is different, and everyone knows it. You don't open gaping holes against New York's front seven. You don't deal aces from the first snap through the 60th minute when you are playing against players and a scheme who are this good. What you do is remain patient, stick to your approach, change on the go when the opportunities present themselves and play with a high level of efficiency and precision.
Curtis, Jackson, Avant and Baskett have to win the battles in the passing game, and then McNabb must have time to set up and throw accurately in a hostile environment. Curtis has to be quick, strong, and catch the ball in the 8-to-15-yard range, as well as make a play or two down the field. Jackson is going to get a lot of attention, of course, and he has to be an explosive presence who the Eagles can get into space and give him a chance to make big plays.
Baskett, who has improved as much as any player on this roster since the 2007 season, must play strong in traffic and use his size to create some favorable matchups. Avant has to control the inside area and make plays on third down and keep the chains moving.
It remains to be seen if the Eagles have enough at wide receiver to win big. There have been multiple problems at many times with this offense, and not one area is to blame. The receivers, as a group, have had too many drops and not enough touchdowns. Still, the Eagles believe they can be successful with this wide receiver corps, but they also recognize the need to be more consistent.
Brown, for one is not where the Eagles thought he would be at this stage of the season. He closed with a flourish last season and the Eagles hoped he would blossom into an every-week playmaker teaming with Curtis, with Jackson and with a good group of role receivers. But a hamstring injury and then a groin injury robbed Brown of his explosiveness through the first month of the season and he has been unable to claim his spot since.
Jackson has been better than advertised and leads the Eagles in receptions and yards. He is an extremely promising young receiver who figures only to gain strength and experience to go along with his tremendous natural skills.
Curtis' sports hernia injury has had an impact, clearly. After a 77-catch season in 2007, Curtis figured to be even more involved this year. Didn't happen. May still happen, but time is dwindling.
Both Baskett and Avant have put up better numbers than a year ago, and both fit their roles well. The Eagles can do a little bit of everything with this group. They have some versatility.
Sunday, they need to display more than that. They need all of their receivers to get open, to catch the ball, to defeat the physical and complicated scheme the Giants play.
This is another Sunday and another 60 minutes of questions for the wide receivers. Are they good enough? Is this team good enough? The challenge waits in the form of the defending Super Bowl champions, a Giants team that is 11-1 and the best team in the league.