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This should be a celebration for Mike Mamula. He's returning to play in front of the home folks as a member of the Philadelphia Eagles, for whom he missed all of last season because of a knee injury.

He's returning to the starting lineup. He's coming off a superb preseason with hopes of making the big-time impact the Eagles expected from him when they used the seventh pick in the 1995 draft on him.

All in all, things are looking up for the Lackawanna native. But he isn't saying so. Mamula no longer speaks to the media, so he will let his actions -- and his coaches -- speak for him.

"I like the way Mike plays the game," Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson said. "I like his toughness, his aggressiveness. I like his recklessness.

"I'm not worried at all about having Mike in there as a starter. He played enough in the preseason to have the stamina, and he came out and did a good job in the first two games of the regular season."

Mamula is starting only because Hugh Douglas is out four to six weeks with a partially torn medial collateral ligament in his left knee, an injury suffered last week in a 19-5 loss to Tampa Bay. Douglas is the Eagles' best defensive player, by far their most productive pass rusher, and an inspirational leader on and off the field.

The irony of the injury is hard to overlook: Douglas was hurt rushing Tampa Bay quarterback Trent Dilfer. Douglas' knee was struck by Mamula's helmet in the backfield. They missed the sack and KO'd Douglas for at least a month.

Mamula created huge expectations for himself when he wowed NFL personnel people during the Scouting Combine. He ran faster than anyone expected, jumped higher and was more explosive. He fit the prototype characteristics of the speed-rushing NFL defensive end.

Ray Rhodes, Eagles head coach at the time, fell in love with Mamula. Rhodes, in his first draft with the Eagles, traded up from the 12th pick to get into Tampa Bay's seventh slot and chose Mamula. Tampa Bay fell to 12th and took defensive tackle Warren Sapp.

The fickle Philly fans immediately made Mamula a whipping boy. When he didn't produce, they jumped all over him. Mamula's sack numbers went from 5 1/2 as a rookie to 8 in his second season to 4 in 1997 to zero during his sidelined year in 1998. And so Mamula became the poster child for the Rhodes years: a tease here and there but in the end, a disappointment.

Rhodes was fired after 1998's 3-13 season. Mamula stayed, as the Eagles signed him to a four-year contract worth a reported $16 million just before free agency was to begin, and new head coach Andy Reid figured that Mamula would be the perfect situational pass rusher.

The move looked like a stroke of genius in the preseason. Mamula led the team with four sacks in four games playing in a part-time role at both end positions. He even had an interception dropping back off the line of scrimmage. Mamula seemed to have found the perfect role.

"We like the rotation," said Reid late in training camp. "Mike rotates in with the starters and gives Hugh a blow here and there. He goes in on both sides. He goes in in nickel situations. As long as we have fresh bodies coming at you fast that's what we are trying to do. He gives us the flexibility to do that."

Three games into the year and that role has changed dramatically. There are no more fresh bodies. There is no more flexibility.

Mamula is back on the spot.

"It's a challenge for Mike, but I have confidence in him," Reid said. "He's used to being on the field for long stretches of time. I think he's played the run well so far and he's come close a couple of times in the passing game.

"Mike has to go out and do it. We have to pick up the slack for Hugh. It's not going to be easy. A little bit is going to have to come from a lot of people."

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