Tuesday, September 23, 2008 Updated: August 6, 5:23 PM ET
McNabb gaining trust in blossoming supporting cast
By Jeffri Chadiha ESPN.com
With players such as RB Correll Buckhalter (28) and WR DeSean Jackson providing key contributions, the Eagles' offense is boasting newfound depth and explosiveness.
The Philadelphia Eagles received the best possible news about the sprained ankle that star running back Brian Westbrook sustained in Sunday's win over Pittsburgh. He apparently didn't tear ligaments in the joint and that means he could be playing when the Eagles meet Chicago on Sunday.
But as vital as Westbrook's return is to that offense, the Eagles already had plenty to smile about on that side of the football. That much has been clear ever since this season began.
What's really impressive about the Eagles so far is the depth of their playmakers and the obvious trust quarterback Donovan McNabb has in using them. Although Westbrook and McNabb are unquestionably the foundation of that unit, an assortment of other players has stepped up to make this offense even more diverse. Yes, the Eagles still don't have a true No. 1 receiver, but they've been explosive under McNabb's direction this season. And as soon as he and Westbrook find their way back to good health, you can assume this offense will pick up right where it left off.
That's because more people are touching the football this season for an offense that ranks sixth in the NFL in both yardage (373.0 per game) and scoring (30 points per game). In Sunday's game alone, seven different players caught passes from McNabb, including eight by wide receiver Hank Baskett.
"We got away from that last year," McNabb said after Sunday's win. "We were focusing on running the offense instead of calling plays for certain people. But look at how we played [against Pittsburgh]. We got Hank going early. We got the ball to [running back Correll] Buckhalter. [Wide receiver] Jason Avant caught a couple balls. It's going to be big for us to do that every week."
McNabb was right to point to that Pittsburgh game as evidence of the Eagles' growth on offense. That's because it's an example of how much confidence he now has in his supporting cast, even though a fair share of those receivers are backups. He got rid of the ball quickly. He gave his targets plenty of opportunities to make plays instead of buying time with his scrambling. A year after Westbrook set a team record with 90 receptions -- which reveals how unwilling McNabb was to go downfield -- the quarterback is operating like a man who knows exactly what he has at his disposal.
Though that Steelers game may have turned into a defensive struggle in the second half, it's easy to forget how hot McNabb was in the first two quarters. He was so sharp that he completed a team-record 15 consecutive passes at the start of the contest. If not for a chest contusion he sustained in the first quarter, he would've done more damage.
"It left like when Bruce Lee got kicked in the chest by Kareem," said McNabb in a reference to a 1970s martial arts film. "It was tight. I felt like I couldn't open up. We did some things at halftime to help, but it really affected me a lot."
The good news for Eagles fans was that McNabb found a way to tough it out in the second half. After all, this is the same quarterback who hasn't played a complete season in three years. But if he can avoid the severe injuries that have plagued him in the recent past, there's no reason to think the Eagles can't make a run at the NFC East title. Remember, their only loss was a 41-37 thriller to the Dallas Cowboys -- the best team in the league at the moment -- and that game easily could've gone to the Eagles if not for a couple of a plays.
What also can't be ignored about this offense is the mix of new and old faces. There's no question rookie DeSean Jackson is going to be a major weapon in this system. He opened the year with two consecutive 100-yard receiving games, and he has the kind of deep speed this offense has lacked since McNabb came to town in 1999. Then there are the efforts of veterans like Buckhalter, whose entire career has been marred by severe knee injuries. When Westbrook went down Sunday, it was Buckhalter who jump-started the offense with an electric 20-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown.
It's that kind of depth that puts the Eagles smack in the middle of an NFC East race that requires major firepower. The New York Giants have their strong running attack and an effective play-action passing game. The Cowboys can overwhelm any opponent with a wave of big plays from a multitude of dangerous players. Even the Redskins have proved they can score points in a pinch. They've already beaten two teams -- Arizona and New Orleans -- that don't exactly lack for offensive weapons.
The Eagles are just as capable of holding their own with any of those teams. Sure, they're eventually going to need more from starting receivers Reggie Brown and Kevin Curtis, who have yet to be on the field together after sustaining preseason injuries of their own. But Philadelphia isn't lacking for options at the moment, not even with its best personnel banged up. That alone should let the rest of the NFC know that Philadelphia's offense is only going to get more dangerous.
Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.