July 19 -- Training camp draws closer and closer, and with it come the questions the team will have to face at Lehigh University. On the list of 1 to 10, here's the fourth:
His face was the picture of dejection, of failure. Donovan McNabb knew the opportunity to advance to the Super Bowl had ended hard, and he understood his role in the disappointment.
"I played poorly," McNabb said after the NFC Championship game loss to Tampa Bay. "I'll accept that responsibility."
In truth, the loss wasn't all on McNabb's shoulders, but he didn't have a McNabb-like game. He turned the ball over three times -- two as the result of well-schemed Tampa Bay blitzes and once when his late-game pass was intercepted by Tampa Bay cornerback Ronde Barber and taken for a touchdown -- and he never got the offense going after an early Duce Staley touchdown.
Clearly, McNabb wasn't himself. The speed of Tampa Bay's defense had something to do with it. So did the lingering fibula injury that kept McNabb out of six games.
The page is turned for McNabb, but there are some differences heading into this training camp. One, he's entering fifth season and is a well-established veteran. He's one of the best quarterbacks among a group that is young and upcoming.
But McNabb has also been to a pair of NFC Championship games and have some tantalizingly close to reaching the Super Bowl, only to fall short.
The expectation for 2003 is that a healthy McNabb will ascend to the next level. That next level means big wins in big games, outstanding performances by the quarterback, a well-run game from the position.
So what does McNabb need to do mentally to shake off last year's loss? Its appears he's over it, but again there are differences. McNabb made sure to speak out in the spring when asked about the team's departures in free agency. It was an uncommon remark from a player normally very guarded in his comments.
McNabb also understood the importance of making his health a priority after his first long-term injury. He reported to the spring camps in outstanding shape. He assumed the role of team leader -- as usual -- and mixed in his good humor with the serious side.
And he knows that the next step for him, for the Eagles, is the Super Bowl. It's the only frontier remaining.
Is McNabb up to the challenge? From this perspective, yes. He has parts of his game that need to be refined, and he knows it. The completion percentage must creep up. The touch on short passes needs to be smoothed. Dropping back and throwing the ball to spots and trusting his receivers to get there is part of the developmental phase.
With 10 starters returning, continuity should be at an all-time high for the offense. McNabb and his crew should absolutely be on the same page. There's a trust, a relationship there.
There are also some key players who are new to the equation. Fullback Jon Ritchie is an improved blocker over Cecil Martin. At least, that's the league-wide scouting report. Ritchie is also more of a threat in the passing game, which should help McNabb's completion percentage.
Rookie tight end L.J. Smith looked great in the spring and will be a target in training camp. A fast development from him would be a great aid to an offense always looking for more big-play players.
Rookie wide receiver Billy McMullen may not start, but his 6 feet 4 frame could give the Eagles a big, strong target in the red zone right away. It won't be easy for cornerbacks to out-jump McMullen.
So McNabb, theoretically, will have the best of both worlds. He's got the familiarity of knowing the offense and the players in the offense. He's got some new talent to work with -- don't forget that running back Correll Buckhalter counts as a "new face" to work with from last year's team.
What is the next level for a quarterback like McNabb? The Big Game, of course. Superstardom. A parade.
The pressure is obvious. The pressure is here, like always. McNabb's performance in training camp will be evaluated very closely, as it always is.