By: Bob George/BosSports.net
August 12, 2004

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FOXBOROUGH -- If this were Boy Scouts, it's starting at the top.

Patriots/Eagles
Close-Up
Where: Gillette Stadium
Foxborough, Mass.
When: Friday 8/13/04
8:00 PM EDT
TV National:
TV Local:
None
WCVB-TV 5
DSS: DirecTV
Channel 931
2003 Team
Records:
Patriots 17-2
Eagles 13-5
Latest Line: Patriots by 3 1/2
Which is exactly what the Patriots are as they head towards a Friday night date with the Philadelphia Eagles in the preseason opener for both teams at Gillette Stadium. The Super Bowl champs take on the NFC runner-up, but the game won't in any way resemble a "Super Bowl preview". But the game does mark the official "beginning of the title defense", as the champs get to do their thing against another NFL team for a change, instead of against each other, as has been the case for the past two weeks.

For those who abhor the preseason, it is the beginning of perhaps the most treacherous part of the campaign. The worst thing that can happen, of course, is for key players to go down with injuries in games that don't count. The 1989 Patriot season was torpedoed in the final preseason game, when three key starters (Andre Tippett, Garin Veris, Ronnie Lippett) were lost for the season in that one game (the Patriots finished 5-11). This is perhaps the most extreme example of why there should be no preseason games, but many other football people think that these games simply aren't necessary, all danger aside.

Still, you'll be hard pressed to find coaches who want to put a lid on these "friendly matches" (for all you soccer buffs out there). The games serve two noble purposes, irrespective of what you may think of the games themselves. Coaches want to see how offenses and defenses run in vanilla formations, and find out how much tweaking needs to happen when practices resume. Coaches also need the games to see how the bubble players are doing, players who will make up roster spots 40-53, assuming there are no major battles for starting jobs in the offing.

These two purposes are usually carried out, especially in the preseason opener, in separate halves. The starters will play much of the first half, and the bubble players will get their moment in the spotlight in the second half. The first half will feature plays that are as bland as plain tap water and as simple as the directions from the practice fields to the stadium. The top units will go at it, just getting their timing down while not showing anything that might be remembered on February 6th in Jacksonville. The second half is when you need to keep your numerical roster handy, as you'll find yourself saying "Who's he?" more often than "Honey, get me another beer!"

That said, here are some guidelines for watching Friday night's walk along the Eagle Trail.

One of the most momentous free agent signings of the offseason was Philadelphia's acquisition of wide receiver Terrell Owens. T-O, who makes Corey Dillon look like Pat Boone, figures to give Donovan McNabb the big offensive weapon he has been lacking, a weapon which might have averted three straight NFC Championship game losses. Since these are the Patriots the Eagles are playing and not the Ravens or the 49ers, don't expect a lot of fireworks from Owens. All he will do at the most is to work on his timing with McNabb. Ty Law, who likely will draw Owens, won't give him anything to remember if the two teams should meet in the Super Bowl later on. Owens may play a few series, then retire. His roster spot is rock solid, and Andy Reid will focus on protecting his new toy.

Rohan Davey will undergo the beginning of the rest of his life in the second half, if not earlier. The backup QB job is his to lose, and it is time for him to step up and show everyone that Tom Brady's health is not the team's Achilles heel. He is coming off a championship over in Europe, but this theater is decidedly different. Watching Bill Belichick bring in Jim Miller and Kurt Kittner (the latter has since been released) cannot sit well with Davey. Preseason games don't really put a premium on winning or huge numbers, but Davey needs to come up with some delicious numbers, and he needs to win the quarter as well (Kliff Kingsbury is slated to play the fourth).

For those of you who cannot wait for the Vince Wilfork era to begin, you may be disappointed. All reports indicate that Keith Traylor will begin the year at nose tackle, though it is the first time the 35-year-old behemoth tackle will play that position. Dana Stubblefield was brought in for help in the 4-3 tackle formations, but much has been made of the "tutor for Wilfork" angle. Make of that what you will, but no indications have been given that Wilfork is ready to step in and take over Ted Washington's former office. Wilfork will likely be given extensive playing time in the second half.

It would be folly if you see Dillon and expect him to explode on the scene like you would like him to. Even if Dillon weren't facing guys like Corey Simon, Darwin Walker and Mark Simoneau, Dillon is still learning the playbook and Charlie Weis isn't likely to show off any snazzy blocking schemes just yet. Again, timing is the operative word for the preseason opener, and if Dillon breaks anything it likely will be because the defense messed up. Besides, just like the regular season, the offense goes through Brady, and he will need plenty of time in the first half to work on his own timing issues.

Something to keep your eye on is the first half matchup between Tom Ashworth and Jevon Kearse. "The Freak" came over here from Tennessee, and these two guys knocked heads as recently as a frigid night back in January in Foxborough. You might see something more than two men going through the motions here, especially if Kearse looks at Ashworth with a feeling of "Who the heck are you and what right did you have to play as well as you did last year?" If Kearse's pride matters, this little battle may be something interesting to watch.

If Stephen Neal and Bob Hallen (still not yet retired at press time) get lots of playing time at the guard position, pay close attention. Some folks are not convinced that Russ Hochstein is the real deal (Warren Sapp sure isn't, but what does Kris Jenkins think?), and you have to wonder if Joe Andruzzi can keep playing at his past levels (Andruzzi and Hallen are roughly the same age). If Hochstein falters, Hallen may be next in line to slide in. But if Neal is anywhere close to fulfilling his awesome potential, the former wrestler just might win himself a starting job.

The second half will feature a spirited battle for the last wide receiver spots, which will help Davey and Kingsbury a great deal. Look for Chas Gessner, rookie P.K. Sam and veterans J.J. Stokes and David Patten to put on a show. Reports thus far are that Patten is showing off his pre-injury form, and is making it tough for the Patriots to cast him off. Sam may wind up determining whether Belichick takes five or six wideouts into the regular season.

Fans get seduced by these preseason games, getting into a "beat "em, bust "em, that's our custom" mood at the outset. Disappointment then sets in when the bubble guys come in and winning is obviously not at all a focus. Team ownership wants you to think it's like the real thing, so that you'll spend big bucks to see a pretend game at real game prices. With this being the first game, spend more time looking at basic execution position battles and not so much about beating the Philadelphia Eagles. Worry about that in February.

That's when the long Eagle trail comes to an end, hopefully a happy one at that.


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