Hofmann: Eagles must bring back Garcia

NEW ORLEANS - The din in the Superdome had finally died, along with the Eagles' season, and Jeff Garcia was talking. He looked good, standing there in a pinstriped suit. You would never have known of the relentless battering that he had absorbed if you had not seen it.

There was disappointment in his voice, yes - but it was transitory. Like with all of the hits

Garcia took on Saturday night, just wallop after wallop from the Saints' ever-blitzing defense, the quarterback quickly shook it off.

The end was rough, true enough. The 27-24 loss to the Saints was difficult because of the opportunities the Eagles had - as Garcia said, "I felt like we left some plays on the field today that could have made a difference.''

But this man would not forget the ride, which included a six-game winning streak and an unexpected minirun into the NFL playoffs after quarterback Donovan McNabb tore up a knee.

"My experience here has been incredible,'' Garcia said. "It's been just an outstanding last 2 months, but even from the

beginning of training camp I knew that this was going to be a positive experience just because of the people we have within this organization, within this team, the characters, the personalities, the togetherness.

"And then to have that opportunity to step out on the field and be able to help be a leader on this team and help lead these guys, it's been awesome for me. It's sad to see it end but now we just see what happens this off-season, and hopefully I can be back here to continue to contribute to this team.''

The current Eagles regime, Andy Reid Inc., is about to be tested here. It is a test that

cannot be failed. Garcia needs to be re-signed for next season as McNabb's backup, come hell or high drama. As the old hymn says, be not afraid.

That this is even a topic of conversation tells you all you need to know about Philadelphia in 2007, and about McNabb and his sensitive family, and about the very real notion that McNabb - despite all of the Pro Bowls and playoff wins and everything - is on a very short leash with the, uh, impatient fan base.

Everybody knows McNabb needs to be impeccable when he retakes the field or there will be a loud call to the bullpen. That is just the current reality. But since no one can be certain when McNabb will be back from his knee surgery, and since no one can be certain what he will look like when he does, a team like the Eagles - a team with aspirations - needs to keep its best backup option in place. It needs to

re-sign Garcia - who says he wants to stay unless some other team really blows him out of the water with an offer.

"It's not something I've really thought a lot about,'' he said, in the minutes after the game. "I know that it possibly will be something I'll have to deal with once free agency comes about. But to look at changing teams or changing situations, I really hope that something can be worked out because, like I said, this has been one of the more enjoyable experiences that I've had in my NFL career. I can just see this team continuing to go in the right direction. That's really what it's all about and that's really what I want to be a part of.''

The people who say that the Eagles should be afraid of Garcia, that his very presence will hinder McNabb and inflame his critics, are wrong. Because, guess what? If Garcia takes a hike, old friend A.J. Feeley will still be in place - and a singsong chant of "A-J . . . A-J'' will be just as hauntingly annoying as an insistent staccato of "We want Jeff . . . We want Jeff.''

So, what are the Eagles' options? They can't shoot all of the backup quarterbacks until we're left with Koy Detmer and some stranger. This isn't about the backups, anyway. It isn't about Garcia - it's about McNabb.

And Garcia handled the question head-on. He said his presence would not hurt McNabb.

"I don't think so,'' he said. "I think what I bring to the table is a lot of experience. I bring to the table a certain drive, a certain mentality, that I can be helpful more than detrimental. I think that the approach I had going

into the season would be the

exact same approach I would have going into the next season. Donovan is a great player. It was a pleasure to be a teammate of his. I hope that we could be in that same sort of situation come next season.''

If he comes back, everyone knows the issue. His presence will remind people that the whole tone of the Eagles' offense changed after McNabb was hurt. It changed for two reasons.

Mostly, it was about featuring running back Brian Westbrook. Some of it, though, was the

undeniable fire and energy that Garcia brought to the field.

Everyone saw it, felt it, almost from the start.

Listen to Westbrook:

"He brought that fire back, he brought that competitiveness back. He's a leader. The guys followed. Everybody has played better since Jeff has gotten in there. That's the real, true definition of a leader. When guys can rally around a guy and play better, you can't ask much more from Jeff. He had a great game.''

Westbrook in no way intended to knock McNabb, but it will be read that way by people who want to read it that way. For as long as Garcia is here, or until McNabb wins a Super Bowl, there will be the parsing of sentences and wondering aloud about who backs whom.

And, well, so be it. It happens at some point with almost every starting quarterback. What's the alternative? Given McNabb's injury history, given Garcia's demonstrated ability in this offense, it would be organizational malpractice not to bring him back. The rest, they just have to deal with.

"I want to win football games,'' Garcia said. "I don't think it's a situation where you completely close the door on what your other options may be, but it would have to be pretty special in order for me to want to walk away from what is going on here.

Because I think this is a special situation and I think this can only be a better situation come next year.''

Garcia is right.

Be not afraid. *

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