PHILADELPHIA LOVED the three-headed monster. It loved the first Terrell Owens year more, true enough, but Eagles fans couldn't get enough of the three-headed monster, of Duce Staley, Correll Buckhalter and a kid named Brian Westbrook.

It was 2003. You have to remember back to how that season started, with two consecutive losses in which quarterback Donovan McNabb really didn't play very well. Soon after came all of the Rush Limbaugh controversy, again placing McNabb squarely in the middle of it all.

Publicly, McNabb handled things very well. On the field, though, he continued to struggle. He wasn't terrible but he wasn't himself. And that year, Eagles coach Andy

Reid made a decision that he had never made before and has never made since. He made the decision - never announcing it or even acknowledging it, by the way - to take some of the pressure off McNabb by running the ball more often. You know, like a normal team.

Thus the three-headed monster was born. The Eagles rode it through a great second-half run, and all the way to another NFC Championship Game loss - this time to Carolina. The receivers were manhandled so badly in that game that two things happened: 1) The NFL changed the rules about how much contact was allowed by defensive backs and, 2) The Eagles went out and got T.O. That's when the monster died.

Five years later, though, you wonder. Could the personnel be in place for its return? Could the wideout aches and injuries - Reggie Brown, hamstring ache; Kevin Curtis, sports hernia injury - maybe convince Reid that this is the year to bring it back?

Questions like this are way above the pay grade of Lorenzo Booker, the running back acquired from Miami who joins Westbrook and Buckhalter in this season's backfield. But it is his presence that prompts the questions. And it is the show-nothing philosophy of the Eagles (and all NFL teams) during the exhibition season that permits a person's mind to wander.

"You're not going to come out in preseason and start showing all the things you're going to do in the regular season," Booker said. "I'm a competitor. We're all competitors. You want to go out there and you really want to put your foot on somebody's throat. At the same time, that's not what you're doing in the preseason. You're not going to show your hand."

So, the mind wanders instead. Booker isn't big but he adds a significant speed element to what the Eagles have a chance to do on offense. You easily can imagine the consternation it might cause a defense when Westbrook and Booker are breaking the same huddle. One is likely to be a receiver in that case, one a back. But how do you cover it? Do you dare cover it with just a safety on the receiver?

Short of that, Booker does have breakaway speed. Whether he has elite ability is yet to be proven, but the raw tools are in place.

"Of course I'm excited that the regular season is here," Booker said, "because all of the things that we did in camp, that I felt I was successful with, we can start doing now . . .

"Everything we did in camp worked, for the most part. I was brought here for that purpose. But at the same time, all I can do is go out there and play hard and let the cards fall where they may. It's not my job to coach - it's my job to play.

"All of those things excite me," he said, adding that he really can't let his mind wander, that it really is - repeat after Andy - one game at a time.

"I know that, getting an opportunity to play, I've really never disappointed myself. I'm always going to be the hardest person to please in terms of my effort and my production. There will never be a person harder on myself than I am."

With that, we wait. You have to know that there are possibilities here. You have to see it. But what might we all be saying by midseason? Will we see a major contribution here from a running back besides Westbrook? Will we be talking about this new tandem weapon, and about the inventiveness with which the Eagles are employing it?

"I don't have a crystal ball," Lorenzo Booker said.

Only one of those here.

Belongs to Andy Reid. *

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