By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 26, 2005
PHILADELPHIA -- Recent history wasn't on their side. But the Philadelphia Eagles say that if someone had told them just after their loss in the Super Bowl in February that they wouldn't be right back in the running to make another appearance on the sport's biggest stage as this season wound down, they wouldn't have believed it.
"Not in a million years," defensive end Jevon Kearse said.
Said cornerback Sheldon Brown, "No way, not with the chemistry and the talent we had."
Despite losing in the Super Bowl to the New England Patriots, the Eagles looked primed to end the run of four straight Super Bowl losers following up by having losing seasons and missing the playoffs. They had one of the most stable organizations in all of pro sports. The core of their team was intact, and they had lapped the field in the NFC last season. How could anyone catch up?
But the Eagles, as it has turned out, have suffered a fall far more spectacular than those of the New York Giants in 2001, the St. Louis Rams in 2002, the Oakland Raiders in 2003 and the Carolina Panthers last year. These Eagles have been a high-profile case study in how to go from good to bad in the NFL practically overnight.
The sports-viewing nation watched their team unity dissolve, chronicled in blaring headlines and breathless television updates, as wide receiver Terrell Owens's contract dispute with the club led him to turn on the organization and quarterback Donovan McNabb. McNabb's painful season ended on national TV, as he limped off the field -- barely able to walk, thanks to the sports hernia with which he had tried to play -- during the excruciating loss on "Monday Night Football" last month that did the Eagles in.
All of it made for a good melodrama, but not for a good football team. The Eagles -- minus the deactivated Owens, the injured McNabb and other ailing top players -- were reduced weeks ago to playing for their dignity, for a somewhat-respectable record and for next season's jobs. Their emotionally wearying season comes to an end with Sunday's game against the Washington Redskins at Lincoln Financial Field.
"I wouldn't have believed you if you had told me before the season this is what our record would be," middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter said here last week. "But if you had told me we'd have half the team hurt and we'd go through all the adversity that we went through, I may have."
The Eagles dropped to 6-9 with a loss Saturday at Arizona that ensures their second losing season in Coach Andy Reid's seven-year tenure (the first was in 1999, his initial season) and leaving them with little motivation this week other than spoiling the Redskins' playoff chances and maintaining their professionalism.
"As a football player, you go out and play hard no matter what the circumstances are," tight end Chad Lewis said. "That's what you do your whole life. You go out and practice. You go to the game and it doesn't matter if the chips are up or the chips are down. You have to go to work."
The Eagles began to crumble when Owens, unhappy about his seven-year, nearly $49 million contract only one season into the deal, spent the offseason attacking McNabb publicly and threatening to hold out from training camp. He showed up at camp on time but wasn't speaking to McNabb or assistant coaches. He skipped mandatory autograph sessions and finally was sent home for a week by Reid.
Still, Reid and the Eagles held things together for a while. Owens returned and was productive, and the Eagles followed an opening Monday night loss at Atlanta by winning three straight and four of five games. According to Brown, both Owens and McNabb were showing up when Eagles players gathered to socialize and watch football games on Monday nights. McNabb had been told he had a sports hernia and would need surgery at some point, but he was hoping to put off that procedure until the offseason.
"You didn't know what was going to happen with the T.O. thing," Brown said. "But if our quarterback would have stayed healthy, we could have kept it together. If we could have even had him at 85 or 90 percent, I think we still have enough talent and enough veteran leadership to get it done and be in the playoffs."
It all fell apart in November, when Owens again criticized the organization and McNabb in a televised interview and initially refused to apologize to McNabb. The Eagles suspended Owens for four games without pay and announced plans to deactivate him for the remainder of the season after his suspension ended, sanctions that were upheld by arbitrator Richard Bloch after the NFL Players Association filed a grievance on Owens's behalf.
The Eagles steeled themselves to try to prove they could win without Owens, and were in control for most of a Monday night game at home against the Dallas Cowboys on Nov. 14. But they squandered a 13-point lead in the final four minutes and lost, 21-20, when McNabb threw a pass directly to Roy Williams for an interception that the Dallas safety returned for a touchdown. McNabb aggravated his injury trying to make a tackle on the play, leading to him undergoing season-ending surgery.
"We dominated that whole game," Brown said, "and then that play happened and you started saying to yourself, 'This may not be the year.' You've done everything right. You've prepared, and then it's taken away at the end. And we're normally the team that is taking away games, not having them taken away from us."
The Eagles now barely resemble the team that won four straight NFC East titles. McNabb has been joined on the injured reserve list by three other players who reached the Pro Bowl last season -- tailback Brian Westbrook, left tackle Tra Thomas and cornerback Lito Sheppard. Thomas's replacement at left tackle, rookie Todd Herremans, also suffered a season-ending injury, leading the club to shift guard Artis Hicks to the position. Kearse sprained a knee ligament against the Cardinals, putting his status for this week in doubt. Mike McMahon has been playing quarterback, and has had as many interceptions returned for touchdowns (three) as touchdown passes. Rookie tailback Ryan Moats has become the primary ballcarrier.
The veteran locker-room leaders, such as Trotter and safety Brian Dawkins, spent the season trying to hold things together, but the task was just too immense.
"You've got to try to have hope," Kearse said. "You're telling each other, 'Hey, man, don't listen to that. Hey, man, don't read that. We're going to do it. You've got to believe.' But it just didn't happen for us. There was too much."
Owens almost certainly will be released in the offseason, and the Eagles will start over next season. But McNabb and Westbrook will be coming back from injuries, and McNabb will need to reclaim the locker room; 19 Eagles players reportedly attended a birthday party for Owens earlier this month in Atlantic City. The club will need to find a wide receiver in the offseason to fill the void that Owens's departure will create. Even so, several players said they're optimistic the team will return to contender status.
"The same goals we had this year," Trotter said, "we're going to take into next year."
Lewis said: "I'm confident because the organization is good. I'm confident because the guys are still here. Half of them are hurt, but they're going to be healthy. I'm confident because everything is still in place."
The locker room filled with laughter one afternoon last week when Kearse, tired of hearing hunting stories from rookie defensive end Trent Cole, pulled a coat over his head, used plastic hangers as antlers and pretended to be a deer attacking Cole. But it's been a season with little to smile about for the Eagles, and Lewis said a big lesson has been learned.
"When you get to the Super Bowl," he said, "you've got to win it. That's very apparent."