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NFL PLAYOFFS | Xs AND O's

Unflappable Eagle

Former Pro Bowl quarterback Jeff Garcia is expertly running Philadelphia's West Coast offense in the absence of the injured Donovan McNabb

January 04, 2007|Lonnie White | Times Staff Writer

Nearly every year, a quarterback emerges from seemingly nowhere to become an instant hero by leading his team deep into the NFL playoffs.

Last season, it was the Pittsburgh Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger. Before him, there was Tampa Bay's Brad Johnson, New England's Tom Brady and St. Louis' Kurt Warner, just to name a few.

Philadelphia's Jeff Garcia is a prime candidate for that role this year.

In many ways, backup Garcia may be a better fit for Coach Andy Reid's West Coast offense than injured starter Donovan McNabb.

Although McNabb is more athletic and has a stronger arm than Garcia, at times he has struggled to run an Eagles' offense built around getting first downs and ball control.

McNabb is a big-time playmaker who has abilities few quarterbacks can match. Before he suffered a season-ending knee injury, McNabb had a great season going, having passed for 2,647 yards and 18 touchdowns.

Yet, with McNabb starting, the Eagles only had a 5-5 record and their offense lacked consistency. With all his yards and touchdowns, McNabb had completed only 57% of his passes -- the lowest percentage since 1999, his rookie season -- and had six passes intercepted. Enter Garcia, a 36-year-old former Pro Bowl starter who joined the Eagles this season after consecutive disappointing years with Cleveland and Detroit.

Garcia may not have a cannon arm or tremendous speed, but he's a master at operating the West Coast offense, especially when surrounded by a supporting cast such as the Eagles offer.

Proof positive: The Eagles are 5-1 since he has been the starter.

Starting with how quickly he gets the offense in and out of the huddle and ending with his low number of interceptions, Garcia plays the quarterback position to its fullest. It's rare that the Eagles get caught in a negative play under Garcia, who has been sacked only six times and has only two interceptions.

When Reid's West Coast offense is executed with efficiency, the running game is a key component and this is where Garcia excels.

His ability to read a defensive front and then audible to the correct running play has kept numerous drives alive for the Eagles, and helped make running backs Brian Westbrook and Correll Buckhalter dangerous threats.

Westbrook rushed for 1,217 yards and seven touchdowns and caught 77 passes for 699 yards and four scores. Buckhalter rushed for 345 yards, averaging 4.2 yards per carry.

Guiding a strong running attack is nothing new for Garcia, who started at quarterback for San Francisco when the 49ers led the NFC in rushing in 1999 and 2001.

As a passer, Garcia is at his best completing underneath crossing patterns and curls. He's a perfect fit for the Eagles, who in Donte' Stallworth and Reggie Brown have receivers who are especially good gaining yards after the catch.

Stallworth is averaging 19.1 yards per catch with five touchdowns; Brown is at 17.7 yards per catch with eight touchdowns.

Garcia, who's not afraid to throw deep when he reads single coverage, also has made tight ends L.J. Smith (50 catches, 611 yards, five touchdowns) and Matt Schobel (14 for 214 and two touchdowns) regular contributors, which is a strength in the West Coast offense.

Philadelphia can only hope that when McNabb returns his consistency will match his talent. But right now, that's not a concern.

Garcia has the look of a quarterback ready for a playoff run.

lonnie.white@latimes.com

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Matchups for wild-card weekend

Kansas City at Indianapolis

Saturday, 1:30 p.m., Channel 4

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Dallas at Seattle

Saturday, 5 p.m., Channel 4

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New York Jets at New England

Sunday, 10 a.m., Channel 2

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New York Giants at Philadelphia

Sunday, 1:30 p.m., Channel 11

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