PHILADELPHIA - A year ago, the Philadelphia Eagles' passing game was little more than a series of quick screens and short flares. Running backs, not wide receivers, were usually the intended targets.
Yesterday, quarterback Donovan McNabb showed how far that scheme has evolved. With the help of a little trickery and two long McNabb scrambles, the Eagles crushed the Dallas Cowboys under the weight of four touchdown passes, 44-13, at Veterans Stadium.
McNabb completed five passes of 25 yards or more, three of which went for touchdowns. Altogether, he went to his wide receivers for 17 of 24 completions.
But what really knocked the Cowboys back on their heels was aggressive play-calling by Eagles coach Andy Reid in the first quarter. On the Eagles' second series alone, Reid called a double reverse to wide receiver James Thrash that went for 32 yards, lined Thrash up in the backfield for a toss that gained just 1 yard, and got a first down out of a fake field goal from the Dallas 26.
It didn't matter that Thrash ultimately fumbled to snuff the drive. Or that the Eagles (2-1) trailed 10-3 after the first quarter. They so outclassed the Cowboys (1-2) that they scored 31 unanswered points in the second and third quarters to make the game a rout.
This was Reid at his imaginative best.
"You want to stay aggressive is what you want to do," he said of the early trick plays. "Sometimes those things can give you a little lift when things are not going the way you want them to. We have situations where we thought they had a chance to be successful."
The trick plays and two McNabb ad-lib runs totaling 51 yards softened up the Cowboys for the passing parade that was to follow. In a sequence of six consecutive scoring drives, McNabb threw for touchdowns of 35 yards to Thrash, 59 yards to Antonio Freeman and 2 yards to Todd Pinkston.
The Eagles finished off another scoring drive with a halfback pass from Brian Westbrook to Pinkston that went for a 25-yard touchdown.
"What it shows," McNabb said, "is once we get rolling and are able to establish the tempo early, we're able to do some of those things."
The only change in the Eagles' passing game from a year ago is Freeman, the eight-year veteran who was released by the Green Bay Packers in the off-season as a salary-cap measure. He led the Eagles yesterday with six receptions worth 118 yards as the slot receiver.
"He brings a lot of pressure on the defenses in the middle," McNabb said. "He softens things up in the middle when people try to run a cover-two [deep zone]."
Freeman, a former Poly and Virginia Tech standout, chose the Eagles because of McNabb and the fact they went to the NFC championship game last season. He had brief talks with the Ravens before signing late in training camp with Philadelphia.
"I wanted to go to a more established quarterback," Freeman said. "Donovan McNabb was my pick. Being in Baltimore would have been entirely too much pressure on me, being from there and having to account for all those people."
Freeman was ridiculously open in the middle of a deep Dallas zone at the start of the second half for the 59-yard touchdown that broke the game open at 27-10. McNabb sent his wide receivers deep, then found Freeman running free underneath.
McNabb passed for 287 yards and led the team with 67 rushing yards, including a 2-yard touchdown run to give the Eagles a 17-10 lead.
"If we go five wides and spread it out, and you throw in the threat of his feet, that's a tough job [for the defense]," Freeman said.
Dallas coach Dave Campo had that tough job yesterday.
"Every time [McNabb] got into a situation where he got in trouble, he ran and made plays," Campo said. "In the second half, it was a game of big plays, and they just overwhelmed us."