Saturday, August 01, 2009

LFN's Eagles Training Camp Report

(Photo courtesy AP/Easton Express-Times)

My family and I went early to Eagles Training Camp at the Whitehead practice fields, along with what had to be 2,500 (at least) of our closest friends. As the afternoon wore on, it got very hot on the Mountain but it was plain to see why Eagles fans are looking forward to the NFL regular season already.

Even on a hot day these birds seemed like they had a spring in their steps. Routes were crisp as DeSean Jackson, Hank Baskett, Michael Avant and the other wideouts made a dazzling array of deep outs. This was a decided difference from last year, where the offensive mood was more workmanlike and many of the questions involved the receiving corps.

Last year, the Eagles seemed to have more questions than answers. This year - as long as RB Brian Westbrook does indeed come back from his surgery on time for the upcoming season - there seem to be more answers than questions. Last year, fans were wondering if it would be McNabb's last year; this year, McNabb showed more flashes that yes, he's the great quarterback with the evadability and the sweet touch passing. Last year, folks wondered if McNabb would have anybody decent to throw to; this year, it feels like there's an embarassment of riches at wideout.

In fact, this training camp was different since the fans seemed so damned happy. It's just not the same coming to an Eagles training camp and not hearing people share their pain about the foilbles of Izell Jenkins or how idiotic a first-round pick Mike Mamula was. You know its a good time to be an Eagles fan when Mike Mamula's name comes up in casual conversation less than three times.

Strangely, the optimism about a potential Super Bowl win might obscure some much larger questions that the Eagles have never had to deal with. Defensive coordinator Jim Johnson's death will undoubtedly cast a pall over this team over the early part of the season at a minimum, while Brian Dawkins' vacancy in the secondary was keenly seen by me, even in this short practice session. And the job of third-string RB Eldra Buckley aside (pictured, who made a nice run in practice today), running back is one Westbrook injury away from being a gaping hole in the Eagle offense. And that's assuming you think Kolb is ready to take over for McNabb on a moment's notice, too. This ain't the 1989 San Francisco 49ers: questions do exist.

But this day was a great one for me - not only because of the 85 degree weather on the mountain, not only because of K David Akers' booming FG kicks, not only because of the (against all odds) happy Eagles fans, and not only because my son absolutely loved the slides, passing drills and football obstacle course (he loved running over the offensive linemen - Ah! My son!). It was seeing my wife walking around all the football stuff smiling, buying stuff for me and my son. She's a true bleed-green Eagle fan, and it's hard to not be happy seeing her enjoy herself.

She always tells me how she enjoys seeing Eagles training camp every year - that she can see the players up close and make a connection to the team in a way that she would never have done otherwise. And I feel it, too. I didn't grow up an Eagles fan, and I wasn't one at Lehigh either as an undergrad. (I was a Saints fan - don't ask.) But when you live in the Philadelphia area, and you come see the Eagles train - at your alma mater, no less - it's hard not to let the Eagles creep in. For my wife, though, a Philly girl through and through - it's even more.

(The Express-Times' Nick Fierro also weighed in on training camp the same day I did: here's a link.)

*****

After training camp we went to the Goosey Gander and had a turkey Gander. It was as delicious as I remember it, though the rest of the block in no way resembles the block I used to walk to Goosey twenty years ago. While the Gander remains an institution, almost everything else has changed - much for the better, but some for the worse. Goosey remains the soul of Bethlehem, and it's heartwarming to be able to go there and still experience it.

(And, no, Goosey didn't pay me to say it either. Believe me, this isn't a shameless Hammertime/Pizza Hut plug situation.)

We then made our annual pilgrimage to Musikfest - catching Kinderplatz, listening to Polka, Island music, and lots of other things as well. It couldn't have been a better day to walk around Old Bethlehem and enjoy the Fest - perfect weather, a good crowd, and a lot of fun. Overall, it was a great day for all of us. (Even though we didn't stick around to see Chris Issak.)

With Musikfest, though, comes the sign that the real push to Lehigh's 2009 football season is upon us. Kickoff against Central Connecticut State is only a month away now. Eagles Training Camp and Musikfest - to me, anyway - is tha beginning to the most wonderful time of the year.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Eagles Training Camp And Lehigh: "A Win/Win"

(Photo courtesy CK0712 Blog)

For those of you in the Bethlehem/Philadelphia area that might have recently emerged from a cryogenic sleep pod, the Eagles have officially returned to Lehigh for their annual preseason training camp. Sunday marked the first day for rookies and selected veterans to report to Lehigh's campus, while it's today when training camp begins in earnest for the rest of the team.

Eagle head coach Andy Reid was seen the other day ready to go - or at least, ready to hit the links on the John C. Whitehead practice fields. (Nice shorts.)

(And are those really flip-flops, Andy? I've got to believe that Roger Goodell has some sort of rule against an NFL head coach being caught on film in non-regulation footwear. They are Nikes, right? Shouldn't they be taped?)

Lehigh has hosted Eagles training camp since 1995, and it's a ten year relationship that has been greatly beneficial to both the Eagles and Lehigh over the years. Both Nick Fierro of the Easton Express-Times and Frank Fitzpatrick from the Philadelphia Inquirer talk about that relationship in Fierro's interview with Andy Reid and Fitzpatrick's talk with Lehigh athletic director Joe Sterrett and Eagles president Joe Banner:

"It's just the excitement that's in the air at the beginning of each season," Reid said. "It all starts at Lehigh and with the community and with the people at the university and the support that we have there and camaraderie of the team coming together. From a head-coaching standpoint, those are exciting things to be a part of."

"It's unbelievable, it's a great experience for the coaches and the players," Reid said. "The support is phenomenal, the people that work at Lehigh are second to none -- from the administration on up to the ladies that take care of our rooms. It's just top-notch from head to toe."

Reid even loves the occasional wisecracks from the gallery, which seemingly is on top of the players at every practice. Stoic as he normally is, he'll chuckle and shake his head from time to time.

"They have some good chubby guy jokes," Reid said. "I haven't taken note of all of them, but I've heard them all."

...

"It's win-win," Sterrett said. "The level of awareness in our area about the Eagles has definitely grown, as has the awareness of Lehigh in the Philadelphia area. We're mentioned on the TV newscasts every night. Lehigh has become an extension of the Philadelphia area."

According to Banner, the chief reason the Eagles have opted to stay at Lehigh is Andy Reid.

"Andy is someone who recognizes value in the togetherness and focus a training camp can bring," said Banner. "Lehigh works so well because while it's away from our headquarters, it's still within an hour of the city and it's an easy back-and-forth."

To this day I find it bit odd that the opening of Eagles training camp can still bump the world-champion Phillies off the front of the sports page. But they do - and it seems like every year there is some sort of soap-opera story that emerges from the Lehigh campus and takes over the sports pages. (And, no, I don't mean the return of Todd Pinkston to the Eagles as a coaching intern, though there was an Inquirer piece and an entire blog posting devoted to that.)

Drama
Some of the greatest drama in the past involved the two T.O. years, where more than 25,000 fans invaded Bethlehem to get autographs in 2004 ("We were not set up to accommodate that many people," Lehigh assistant VP of community affairs Dale Kochard said) and the drama in 2005 ("Next question" - as everyone wondered if he would even show up to camp.) Last year didn't have that much drama - most of the talk centered around RB Brian Westbrook's health and the annual "will this be Andy Reid's last year as head coach?" (which, oddly enough, continued all the way through Week 16 and stopped at, oh, about halftime of the season-ending Cowboys game last year.)

This year the quick retirement of beloved defensive coordinator Jim Johnson - and his sudden death after a recurrence of melanoma - put a pall over the early days of training camp. His longtime assistant Sean McDermott has taken over the defense in his absence, but he admits that he "misses [Johnson's] presence". Undoubtedly that will mean that one of the big storylines in the next two weeks will be how McDermott handles the defense - and to see if he has a firm control over that unit, and to see if he will be the same sort of straight shooter that Jim Johnson was, by all accounts, in life.

(I'm certain this will overshadow some of the silly talk about convicted dog murderer Michael Vick somehow coming to the Eagles. Only Eagles fans would think of throwing class act Donovan McNabb under the bus - who delivered four NFC Championship games and one NFC championship, lest we forget - in favor of Vick, who was won exactly nothing with the Falcons and would frustrate even his biggest supporters by disappearing for entire games. Um, really? While we're at it, why don't we "unload" Brian Westbrook for Ricky Williams?)

There's more too: with president Joe banner saying that this year's group is the "best in the NFL on paper", there's more drama as Reid and McNabb start things out by tamping down Super Bowl expectations a bit. There's also rookie TE Cornelius Ingram from Florida, who looks to be a very promising rookie that might challenge for playing time, and first-round pick WR Jeremy Macklin, who's still a no-show.

What is it about the Eagles and drama?

Win for Eagles, Win for Bethlehem
One of the interesting pieces of information in the pieces that came out was the story of how Eagles training camp came to South Mountain:

The relationship began when, in the early 1990s, Sterrett and then Eagles president Harry Gamble shared a dais at a local sports banquet.

Having coached at Lafayette, Gamble was familiar with Lehigh's campus. But Sterrett told him much had changed, that new athletic facilities had recently been installed on the other side of South Mountain. He suggested, half-jokingly, that perhaps the Eagles ought to think about moving training camp there.

"You know," Gamble said, "that's not a bad idea."

The Eagles began analyzing a possible move from West Chester, but before it was complete, the team was sold.

"A year or so went by and I wrote a letter to Joe Banner," recalled Sterrett. "He called and said he'd be coming up for a look. Once he got here, he was very interested."

Lehigh's relationship with the Eagles has made a great difference as well to the Lehigh football program, and not just monetarily. Lehigh has also benefitted through facilities improvements and maintenance on facilities that are used by both the Eagles and the Mountain Hawks - for example the practice fields and Lehigh's weight-training facility. (Though not having the practice fields for a couple of weeks sometimes makes training a bit less fun for the football players - rather than the soft grass, they have to train instead on artificial turf or inside Rauch field house.)

The economic inpact on Eagles training camp is a subject of debate, since many folks come to camp and leave the same day since it's so close to Philadelphia or the northeast suburbs. (It's an easy trip up the Northeast extension for most people, or you can make it a more lesuirely scenic drive up 413/611/412, my favorite.) But it has to have some sort of positive impact economically, too - not least because hungry athletes who are looking to make an NFL roster like late-night pizza as much as the next guy. But visitors heading to Bethlehem for an early morning practice leave just before lunch - and the best places to eat a decent lunch are all in the town of Bethlehem.

My NFL Experience
For me and my family, Eagles training camp is an annual rite. It's free, it's at Lehigh, and my son loves the "NFL Experience" stuff that surrounds some of the practice fields. In past years there's been miniature golf, bouncers, and all sort of inflatable football stuff to allow your kid to be active. There's even a craft tent for kids, too. Furthermore, my wife loves training camp. She's a huge Eagles fan for sure, but she starts talking about it to me in May. Last year we were abuzz about WR DeSean Jackson, who looked like a budding star when he was running around the practice fields - and it turned out to be true.

I've found it's worth it to get there early: the morning sessions start at 8:15 AM or 8:30 AM, and they are the ones that tend to have the best action.We tend to time it with Musikfest and make an entire day of it: watching Eagles training in the morning, then heading over to the Fest in the afternoon and grabbing some food and enjoying some live music.

I'll be there early on Saturday, and I'll be filing my own report on the Eagles' proceedings. For those that are interested in attending training camp, the Eagles have posted their schedule. And if you go this Sunday to get WR DeSean Jackson's autograph, get there early!
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