Smith healthy and ready for big season

PHILADELPHIA -- In this city, where everybody is a sports fan, and all sports fans voice their opinions (loudly), neither Freddie Mitchell nor Todd Pinkston was ever warmly embraced by the rowdy denizens of Lincoln Financial Field.

But when the Philadelphia Eagles released the loquacious Mitchell in the spring, and then watched Pinkston suffer a season-ending ruptured Achilles in the opening week of camp, it meant the team would be without two of the top three players from its wide receiver depth chart of 2004. And it also meant that the Philadelphia offense, which statistically ranked No. 7 in passing a year ago, would have to compensate for the loss of a couple receivers who accounted for nearly 40 percent of the catches by Eagles wideouts in '04.

How will the team make up for the absences of Pinkston and Mitchell and, more important, for their aggregate production?

Well, the Eagles are counting on a pair of third-year wide receivers, Greg Lewis and Billy McMullen, to help fill the void. And coaches also are relying on another third-year veteran, tight end L.J. Smith, to take up some of the slack.

Nearly six months after back surgery to repair a herniated lumbar disc, a painful injury that severely limited his progress in 2004, Smith is more than ready to take up the load. Literally and figuratively. Now that he can walk straight again, Smith said he feels he can run through opposition secondaries and become a more significant component in a passing design that spreads the ball around.

"Just to be pain-free again, yeah, that makes a huge difference," said Smith, a second-round choice in 2003 and entering his first season as the Eagles' starter. "Unless you've had a back problem, you might not realize how it affects everything you do, and I mean everything. Even away from football, you're in so much pain, it affects your mood, how you treat people, you name it. There was one point last year where it was so bad, I woke up and thought, 'There is no way I can go to work today.' I almost called our trainer to come to our house and help me get out of bed. Now, I don't even think about my back. But, looking back, man, I don't know how I even played one game, let alone a season with that kind of pain."

With his back repaired, thanks to noted Manhattan specialist Dr. Frank Cammisa Jr., the athletic Smith has a fresh outlook. Offensive coordinator Brad Childress noted after Thursday's practice that the tight end "has a big smile on his face" these days. Any pain during the '05 season, Smith suggested, will be inflicted by him as he assumes a new role and new responsibilities in the offense.

In two seasons, Smith, a Rutgers player the Eagles unabashedly coveted in the '03 draft, has 61 catches for 698 yards and six touchdowns. Solid enough numbers, for sure, for a youngster who has started just a dozen contests and who shared time with veteran Chad Lewis during those two years. Lewis remains unsigned as he attempts to rehabilitate from the foot injury he suffered in the NFC championship game and it means that Smith is without his veteran mentor.

But given his natural skills as a receiver, and a passing blueprint designed by coach Andy Reid and Childress that emphasizes wide distribution, Smith should be a better player in the long-term than Lewis was during his career. And there is little doubt that, with his back problem rectified, Smith's numbers should really jump this season.

In the three seasons in which Childress has been the coordinator, the Eagles' cumulative pass-game distribution has featured 48.5 percent of the completions to wide receivers, 33.2 percent to running backs and 18.3 percent to the tight ends. But the percentage of receptions by tight ends in the Eagles' version of the West Coast offense has increased annually: from 16.7 percent in 2002, to 18.0 percent in '03, to 20.2 percent last season.

Not since 2000, when Childress was the quarterbacks coach here and Lewis snagged 69 passes, has a Philadelphia tight end recorded more than 42 catches in a season. That is, it would seem, about to change. In fact, a change is all but imperative if the passing game is to achieve the heights it has reached in recent seasons.

In addition to Terrell Owens, there are 11 wide receivers on the Philadelphia camp roster. Six are rookies and three others have never appeared in a regular-season game. That leaves Lewis and McMullen, whose combined two-year total is 27 receptions for 304 yards and no touchdowns. Lewis had a great three-game playoff stretch last season, with at least one reception of 30-plus yards in each outing. But the injury to Pinkston forced the team to accelerate his learning curve and, while everyone raves about Lewis' potential, the truth is, no one really knows how he will handle the additional pressure.

"I don't see it as pressure because we've all got to step up now and contribute," noted Lewis, a player so well liked by the Eagles, they rewarded him with a contract extension last year, less than two seasons into his career. "Sooner or later, they were going to be counting on me, right? So now it's sooner."

That kind of confidence aside, the player for whom the release of Mitchell and loss of Pinkston probably opens up more opportunities is Smith.

There is no rigid formula for distribution of wealth in the Philadelphia offense. But the three coaches with the most input into the design -- Reid, Childress and assistant head coach Marty Mornhinweg -- are well steeped in the West Coast offense, an attack that places great emphasis on having a tight end control the middle portion of the field. The presence of tailback Brian Westbrook, the NFL's top receiver among running backs in 2004, will always cut into the tight end's receptions total. But Childress conceded there is no reason Smith shouldn't catch 50 balls.

"And even that's not a ceiling," Childress said. "With as gifted a receiver as he is, with the flexibility he gives us to play him [flexed out] away from the formation, you don't want to put limits on what L.J. can do."

How good might Smith be? Well, Childress isn't into comparisons, but he did note that many of the staple plays the San Diego Chargers use to get to ball to Antonio Gates, the former basketball power forward turned Pro Bowl tight end, are basically derived from the Eagles' playbook. Smith might never catch 81 passes in a season, as Gates did in '04, but he clearly possesses playmaker skills.

And in 2005, he expects to make plays, including those of the vertical variety. Last year, Smith had only two catches for 20-plus yards, after notching a half-dozen "explosive" plays as a rookie in '03. The dropoff was directly attributable to his back woes. If you can barely get out of bed, after all, it's pretty tough to beat the safety up the deep seam.

Smith, 25, said that the pain was so intolerable last year that, just to be comfortable even standing around, he often had to lean awkwardly to his right. Childress agreed that there were times when the staff was watching tape in 2004 that Smith's body was so contorted, as he sought to simply function, it was painful to watch. "You would think to yourself, 'What's up with his [running] gait?' That's how [pronounced] it was," Childress said.

Physically whole again, Smith, who had to have painkiller injections nearly every week in the second half the season just get onto the field on Sunday, isn't leaning right or left anymore. His stance, his outlook and his demeanor are decidedly forward looking.

"In this offense, and with T.O. here, there are always going to be a lot of different guys catching passes," Smith said. "It's a little bit of 'Get in where you fit in,' you know? But I know it's an offense in which I can succeed. I'm not one of those big tight ends who is going to be blocking [in-line] most of the time. This is an offense where a tight end can make a lot of plays. And after last year, I've got some making up to do."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.