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EAGLES NOTEBOOK

Smith now in a tight spot

With Lewis out, he's the starter

PHILADELPHIA -- In the course of answering a question yesterday, L.J. Smith happened upon this statement: "I'm the starting tight end."

It's a realization that is just sinking in for Smith, Philadelphia's second-year tight end out of Rutgers. Smith, who usually gets a fair share of playing time in two-tight-end sets, will replace Chad Lewis as the Eagles' No. 1 tight end in the Super Bowl.

Lewis, a three-time Pro Bowl player, caught two touchdown passes against Atlanta in the NFC Championship game, but also broke his foot.

"I think you're going to see a little bit of a change," Smith said of the Eagles' offensive approach without Lewis. "But nothing surprises me anymore. I'm not thinking, just reacting."

Smith, who grew up just an hour outside Philadelphia in Highland Park, N.J., actually led Philadelphia tight ends in catches this season with 34, five for touchdowns, despite his status as a backup.

Lewis's performance Sunday was a bit of an outlier. He caught only three touchdown passes in the regular season among 29 receptions. But the absence of Lewis's rounded game will not go unnoticed, as much as coach Andy Reid says otherwise.

"It won't affect us," Reid said. "We'll still be able to do the same things we were doing."

Jeff Thomason, who was out of football the last two seasons until the Eagles signed him Tuesday, will serve as the second tight end. Former Patriot Mike Bartrum is the team's other tight end. Though he knows the offense better than Thomason, Bartrum's value to the team as a long snapper is too great to risk losing him to injury by employing him for many plays at tight end.

"I expect he can go in there and play and do a good job," Reid said of Thomason. "One thing he has done is he's kept himself in great shape. That won't be a problem."

Time to return?
Linebacker Mark Simoneau, the Eagles' leading tackler in 2003, has struggled with injuries this season. He sustained an ankle injury Oct. 17, a concussion Nov. 15, and an ankle strain Jan. 2. He's missed parts of three games and all of four other games, including both playoff games. He just recently returned to practice.

"We'll see how he continues," Reid said. "He's back in the swing of things. As of [yesterday], he's still not full speed. It comes down to practice time."

A first, sort of
Tom Brady has won two Super Bowls, while Donovan McNabb is playing in his first. But it's not as if McNabb lacks all championship-game experience. The athletic quarterback was a backup guard on the Syracuse University basketball team that lost the 1996 national championship game to Kentucky. McNabb said he can't draw much from that experience because he basically rode the bench. "In football and basketball, to win a championship it's important to eliminate turnovers and take advantage of the opportunity because you don't get too many opportunities," he said. . . . McNabb, when asked the quality he's come to admire most about Reid: "His healthy eating." McNabb went on to praise Reid's preparation and the confidence he instills in the team.

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