Paul Domowitch | Offseason might sting, Birds fans

THREE PIECES of advice for Eagles fans as they prepare for an offseason not expected to bubble over with Super Bowl-here-we-come news: 1) stay away from the knife drawer; 2) keep the acid-reflux medicine close by; and

3) focus on the Phillies until the rookies report to Lehigh.

Between now and then, not much that will happen at One Nova-Care Way likely will bring much of a smile to your face, other than possibly the long-overdue pink slips

expected to be given to Dhani Jones and Jerome McDougle.

The free-agent market is anorexic, but even if it weren't, and even if the Eagles actually were inclined to gobble up veterans, which they're not, they don't have their usual 1,000 acres of salary-cap space. After signing several young players to long-term extensions in 2006, they will head into free agency less than $13 million under the projected $109 million cap.

Free-agent quarterback Jeff Garcia, who helped resurrect the Eagles after Donovan McNabb's season-ending knee injury, probably won't be back. While the Eagles have said they want to re-sign him to back up McNabb again, at least three teams - Minnesota, Tampa Bay and Green Bay (if Brett Favre retires) - appear to be interested in the soon-to-be- 37-year-old Garcia as a possible short-term starter.

Wide receiver Donté Stallworth also probably is going bye-bye. The free-agent crop of wideouts is extremely lean, and Stallworth, who averaged 19.1 yards per catch this season, is expected to draw quite a bit of interest.

As with Garcia, the Eagles have said they wouldn't be averse to re-signing Stallworth. But they're not interested in a bidding war. General manager Tom Heckert is on record as saying he and coach Andy Reid would be content playing with a four-man receiving corps of Reggie Brown, Hank Baskett, Jason Avant and Greg Lewis. Wonder how Todd Pinkston's footsies are doing?

Two other free agents, nickel corner Rod Hood and former starting strong safety Mike Lewis, are history. Middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter's future also is uncertain. Defensive coordinator Jim Johnson acknowledged after the Eagles' playoff loss to the Saints that Trotter, who didn't have a very good season and whose knees have begun to betray him, "can't play too many plays" anymore.

Trotter's salary jumps from $1.7 million in '06 to $2.63 million in '07. He could be released or asked to take a pay cut. What kind of adrenaline rush would an '07 starting linebacking corps of untested Chris Gocong, Omar Gaither (at Trotter's spot in the middle) and Matt McCoy give you? Thought so.

If you're hoping against hope that the Eagles will go after a linebacker or a big power back to complement Brian Westbrook in the first round of the draft, you probably will be disappointed there, too. Best bet right now is a safety or cornerback or, gulp, another defensive lineman.

Contract talk

The Eagles' smaller-than-usual salary-cap space is the result of two things: 1) contract extensions handed out last year to such young players as Shawn Andrews, Jamaal Jackson, Todd Herremans, Reggie Brown, Mike Patterson and Trent Cole; and 2) salary escalations of a number of vets.

Defensive end Jevon Kearse's base salary will jump from $2.1 million in '06 to $5.2 million in '07. Tackle Jon Runyan's increases from $1.15 million to $2.9 million. Westbrook, who signed an extension in November '05, will see his base salary jump from $585,000 to $2 million. Defensive end Darren Howard's doubles from $1 million to $2 million. Tackle William Thomas, who earned $3.65 million in '06, will make $4.55 million next season. Safety Brian Dawkins' salary, on the other hand, actually drops, from $3 million last season to $1.2 million on '07.

McNabb's salary and cap number stay flat. He earned $5.5 million in salary in '06 and will make the same in '07. His '07 cap number, which includes prorated bonuses, will be $8.6 million. McNabb's current deal runs through 2013. His base salaries and cap numbers for the final 6 years of his

contract: 2008, $6.3 million ($9.4 million cap cost); 2009, $9.2 million ($10.4 million, one of two prorated bonuses expires);

2010, $10 million ($10 million, second prorated bonus expires); 2011, $12.1 million ($12.1 million); 2012, $14.1 million ($14.1 million); 2013, $16.2 million ($16.2 million).

Around the league

* Brett Favre still hasn't decided on his future. The Packers quarterback said he won't let it drag on as long as it did last year, when he didn't make up his mind until early April. But he doesn't have a timetable. "I said after the last game that I'd decide within 2 weeks, but I probably jumped the gun when I said that," he said. "I'm just trying to get as far away from it as I can right now. I don't know if I'll ever know for sure [whether it's time to retire]." The Packers want a decision no later than the start of free agency on March 1, because they are expected to bring in a veteran to compete against former No. 1 pick Aaron Rodgers if Favre retires.

* Bears president Ted Phillips looks like an idiot for refusing to offer coach Lovie Smith a contract extension last year after he guided the Bears to the playoffs and was named NFL coach of the year. Smith, whose team will face the Colts in Super Bowl XLI, is the league's lowest-paid coach, making only $1.35 million this year. More than a dozen NFL assistant coaches make at least that much. Smith is under contract to the Bears through '07. "I'm not embarrassed at all," Phillips said of Smith's low salary. "It was a market-valued contract for a coach who had not been a head coach in the NFL. It was a fair deal." And his refusal to give Smith an extension last year? "I needed to see another year," he said. "I wanted to see how we would bounce back [from a playoff loss to Carolina]."

* It wasn't a very good week for Bills running back Willis McGahee. First, he drew the wrath of Buffalonians when he suggested in a Penthouse interview that there's nothing to do in the city and that the league should move the team across the border to Toronto. Then, a Miami woman filed a paternity suit against him. That makes the third in 15 months against Mr. Fertility, by three women. He's already been declared the biological father in the other two cases and is paying child support. In related news, McGahee and his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, are seeking a contract

extension from the Bills. If he doesn't soon learn the value of a condom, even Rosenhaus won't be able to help him.

* Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio has expressed interest in the Cowboys' vacant coaching job. But he doesn't appear to be a serious candidate. Del Rio still has 2 years left on his deal in Jacksonville, and Jones hasn't asked the Jags for permission to talk to him. The Jags finished 8-8 and missed the playoffs this season. Del Rio is in a win-or-else situation going into 2007. Six of his 2006 assistants have either been fired or left to take other jobs. He has only four coaches left from his original '03 staff. *

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