|Sunday, September 9
Eagles' Pinkston puts best foot forward
By Len Pasquarelli
PHILADELPHIA -- Having spent much of the spring and summer signing and drafting wide receivers -- and scouring even some semi-pro leagues in pursuit of pass catchers who might upgrade an aerial attack that statistically ranked No. 20 a year ago -- it turns out the solution to the Philadelphia Eagles needs might have been right under their noses all along.
In a 20-17 overtime loss to the St. Louis Rams, second-year veteran Todd Pinkston demonstrated that he could be one of the NFL's most improved players this season. If that's indeed the case, the confident Pinkston will be the guy least surprised by his great leap forward.
"I've always heard that the biggest progress you make as a player is between your first and second year, and I hope that's the case," said Pinkston, a second-round choice in the 2000 draft, but a guy who caught just 10 passes as a rookie. "When I came to camp this year, I felt like I knew the ropes, and it was a big difference from last summer. I know I can play now, I know the offense, and things are coming more naturally to me."
The ball is coming more often to him as well.
The former Southern Mississippi star had seven receptions for 99 yards on Sunday. Just as important was the fact that, as the game wore on, it became increasingly obvious that quarterback Donovan McNabb was reaching a comfort zone with Pinkston, who made only his second career start.
Of his 48 pass attempts, McNabb unofficially threw 16 to wide receivers, and 10 of those attempts were for Pinkston, a gangly wideout with good speed and the ability to turn a short flip into a long gain. McNabb's first four passes all went to Pinkston. Of the wideout's seven catches, five were for first downs, and that included a 13-yard reception on a fourth-and-4 play in the third quarter.
Pinkston also had a pair of 27-yard grabs, and clearly, the solid performance earned him another start in next Sunday's critical matchup at Tampa Bay.
"He was definitely a bright spot," McNabb acknowledged. "But you could see in camp and the preseason that he was coming on. I think the sky is the limit for him."
Now that Pinkston's head is out of the clouds, after a rookie campaign in which he often drifted physically through practices and occasionally suffered lapses of concentration, it well could be. The Eagles' passing attack, which averaged a paltry 5.04 yards per play in 2000 and just 10.2 yards per completion, definitely needs a boost.
Philadelphia signed former Washington wide receiver James Thrash, a veteran who had never been more than a No. 3 wideout, to be its lead pass-catcher this year. And the club invested a first-round choice in former UCLA standout Freddie Mitchell. But on Sunday, Thrash had just one catch and Mitchell played sparingly. Word is that Mitchell has not progressed nearly as rapidly as the Philadelphia coaches hoped he would.
Fact is, the Eagles' best wide receiver tandem appears to be the gangly Pinkston and third-year veteran Na Brown.
"All I know," said Pinkston, "was that they kept calling plays for me, and I was getting open. I don't make the decisions about who plays and who doesn't. I'm just trying to get better every week and take care of myself, you know?"
St. Louis cornerbacks Aeneas Williams and Dexter McCleon both lauded the play of the second-year pro, however, and conceded he is tougher now than he appeared to be on the videotapes they watched from the Eagles' 2000 games. At 6-feet-2 and a reed-thin 170 pounds, Pinkston looks like an easy target for the jam at the line of scrimmage. Getting off the line and making a cleaner release is something he worked on in the offseason.
"It was probably the hardest thing to get used to, the way the (cornerbacks) use their hands on you," Pinkston said. "In college, you pretty much get a clean break. At this level, they are always trying to knock you off stride."
Philadelphia desperately needs Pinkston to carry his new stride through the season. The Eagles are not a team that stretches the field very well and the passing game tends to go sideways more than vertical at times. Pinkston adds a dimension the team needs to keep defenses from crowding the line of scrimmage.
After Sunday's overtime defeat, it's apparent the Eagles need more weapons in the arsenal. Some of the St. Louis defenders allowed that, as the game wore on, they worried only about McNabb beating them -- and with good reason.
From the point with 2:13 remaining in the third quarter through the end of the game, the Eagles' quarterback was the focal point on 35 of 37 snaps. There were two runs by Duce Staley in that stretch. Remarkably, every other play was a McNabb pass, a McNabb run or a McNabb sack.
The attack that was supposed to be more diversified with Staley's return to the lineup had a fatal case of tunnel vision.
"I thought we started kind of slow," Staley said. "We can't expect one man to do it all for us, even though he (McNabb) always did. Other guys have to step it up."
Pinkston feels he is one of the other guys who can help improve the supporting cast for the wondrously talented McNabb, but noted he doesn't want to put too much stock in one good performance.
"Do it one week and you're just a flash in the pan until you do it again," Pinkston said. "If I can come out strong again next week, I think I'm on my way."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.