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LET'S GET this out of the way:

Right now, DeMeco Ryans is not a great football player; but then, he always will be a great football mind.

He essentially cost the Eagles the first three points the Cowboys scored Sunday . . . and, by dint of will and wit, he twice saved a touchdown.

Early in the drive, he should have tackled Joseph Randle for a loss on second-and-4. He was torched on a second-and-7 play that put the Cowboys at the 1. Then, he got burned in the end zone.

Still, the Cowboys had to settle for three.

Of course, Ryans should not be a great football player right now. It's been only 10 1/2 months since he ruptured his right Achilles' tendon. He was listed as a starter on the depth chart in the first two games, but that was a ceremonial title; Kiko Alonso and Mychal Kendricks are the workhorses. Ryans was scheduled to play less than half of the game.

Instead, when they were hurt, he played more than 70 percent, more than any other linebacker. They haven't practiced yet, so Ryans will play a lot again Sunday at the Jets.

The Eagles can only hope he plays as well; they know he'll play as hard.

"That's who he is," defensive coordinator Bill Davis said. "DeMeco steps up. All the time. And he's coming off a major second Achilles' injury. He shouldn't be ready to play all the snaps. I want him for 16 games, not the first three and lose him for the rest of the year.

"But we need him now. You just can't say enough about him."

Sure you can:

"It's amazing."

That came from left tackle and Achilles' expert Jason Peters, who blew his out twice in the offseason of 2012. Peters realizes how incredible it is that an inside linebacker can come back and play so hard, so soon.

It's amazing because an injury like Ryans' usually takes at least a calendar year for a full recovery. At age 31, with his high mileage, Ryans probably will need a full season of play to fully regain the strength, range of motion and confident athleticism that have made him one of the game's more versatile of its elite defenders.

Also, it should take a few more weeks to build the required endurance.

Ryans and the Eagles did not have months, or weeks. What Ryans had was resolve. Coach Chip Kelly calls Ryans "Mufasa," after "The Lion King."

He certainly has a lion's heart.

Not everyone did.

You know what Ryans did not say after he played 60 snaps?

"We were on the field all day. I couldn't really explode . . . You're a human being. You're going to get tired as the game goes on."

That came from new, $63 million cornerback Byron Maxwell; a painfully honest assessment that will serve as Maxwell's "For who? For what?" epitaph unless he somehow transforms into Lester Hayes in the next three days.

Ryans' review of Sunday's required effort:

"You suck it up and go. Felt like a regular game to me. I was fine."

Then again, Ryans is used to playing mindlessly exhausted. He missed only three snaps in his first 37 games as an Eagle.

Not 3 percent.

Three snaps.

That was typical Ryans; and this is, now, too.

This is why the Eagles reworked his deal and committed $7.5 million over the next two seasons to a 31-year-old with balding tires.

Because, in his worst moments, Ryans played every play to its finish.

When Randle got past him, Ryans made sure to force him outside, where teammates and the sideline limited the gain to 5 yards.

When Escobar made his catch, Ryans recovered and, at the last second, dragged him down millimeters short of the goal line.

When Witten then clearly beat Ryans along the back of the end zone on third down, he ran free by 8 yards. Ryans had one chance: to run, all-out, and hope to reach Witten before Tony Romo's lazy pass got there. He made it. Any less effort, any less commitment to perfect execution, and Witten would have made an easy catch.

Instead of a deflating touchdown, Ryans - beaten twice - willed the Cowboys to only a field goal.

"You know what the great part about that is? The technique," Davis said. "When young Hicks had that vertical route run on him , the biggest mistake was looking back for the ball. You can't catch a guy looking back at the ball. The ball is going to the receiver. The receiver is telling you where the ball is.

"What did Hicks do? Hicks looked back and the guy got farther away.

"What did DeMeco do? He knew he was beat, so he kept running, knowing, 'I have one shot, if that ball comes back to me.' The ball came back. He played through the hands. Hell of a play."

Maybe in a few weeks, he'll be able to keep the opponents off the board altogether.

"It's all a process," said Ryans, who knows; he ruptured his left Achilles' in 2010, with the Texans. "I can't put a percentage on it, but each week, it's moving forward."

He will move forward with third-round rookie Hicks at his hip, likely spelled by undersized preseason playmaker Najee Goode, whom the Birds cut out of camp, then re-signed this week.

If anyone is looking for a silver lining after two Eagles losses that featured four interceptions, eight dropped passes, a laughable running attack, epically poor offensive line play, the undressing of Maxwell and injuries to four frontline players, look to Mufasa. He will give you all he has to give.

For the time being, just don't expect too much.


Email: hayesm@phillynews.com

On Twitter: @inkstainedretch

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