Eagles' Sour Season Has a Fitting End

By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 2, 2006

PHILADELPHIA, Jan. 1 -- In a sense it was the moment that showed how bleak things had become around here. At the most significant instant of their last chance to salvage a wreck of a season, the Philadelphia Eagles inserted at quarterback Koy Detmer, a player known more for his light travel bag -- a toothbrush and nothing else -- rather than his ability to throw a football.

The announcement of Detmer's name on the loudspeakers drew a thunderous roar of approval from a collection of fans known to be the most cynical in American sports.

And with his team trailing by four points with less than three minutes left in the game, Detmer pushed himself up to the line, barked out his calls, then watched helplessly as the ball trickled out of his hand and rolled into the arms of the Redskins' Sean Taylor, who ran untouched into the end zone.

Then as if that weren't enough, Detmer gave one last desperate try, a heave toward tight end L.J. Smith, who looked wide open until Washington's Ryan Clark suddenly appeared in the space between Detmer and Smith for an easy interception.

"As soon as I let it go I knew," Detmer said with a sad shake of his head. "I see L.J., throw the ball, and [Clark] pops up out of nowhere."

He gave a dry laugh.

What else was there to say?

If anything, one of the NFL's most disappointing teams will have to look at Sunday afternoon as a symbol of this season. For a half of Sunday's game, the Eagles used bruising defense and relied on starting quarterback Mike McMahon, who served this year as a poor imitation of the regular quarterback, Donovan McNabb.

For a half, anything seemed possible. The Eagles took a 17-7 lead. Bruce Perry, a former star running back at Maryland, given up for forgotten after four years of injuries, stormed through his first significant NFL minutes. There was hope bursting in the place that had seemed so dark in the weeks after McNabb went down and Terrell Owens was suspended and deactivated.

Then it ended. And in the moments after Washington's 31-20 victory, as the Eagles tried to assess what had gone wrong, they seemed at a loss for any explanation other the obvious. And they had long decided as a team not to talk about the ghosts of their injured quarterback and fired wide receiver.

"We came up short, obviously," Philadelphia Coach Andy Reid said. "It wasn't from a lack of trying. Too many mistakes."

The coach looked around a half-empty interview room, a place that in the old years of NFC East championships and playoff games, always was filled.

"We had six turnovers," he said. "You aren't going to beat a lot of people in the NFL with six turnovers."

Back in the locker room, Detmer shrugged. He was asked how a team could own a first half, then generate 120 yards, 7 first downs and 3 points in the second half.

"I feel like [the Redskins] kept the same game plan from the first half to the second half. We just made too many unforced errors," he said.

As he said this, he stood at his locker, which is located right next to McNabb's empty locker. In the post-McNabb/Owens world, what the Eagles had left was players who were there simply to finish out a season drained of its promise.

"I wish it wasn't over," linebacker Jeremiah Trotter said. "I wish this game meant something, like we were playing to get into the playoffs or something like that. But the way the season has gone, at some point you want to stop the bleeding. Now we can just get away from the game. Coach Reid and the scouting department will do a great job of getting guys in here to make the team better."

Because it can't get much worse. There were questions that lingered around the Eagles' locker room, legitimate questions that were much bigger than a second-half collapse. Free safety Brian Dawkins was asked if McNabb was still the leader of the team. ("Absolutely" was Dawkins's reply.) Someone wondered to Trotter if the window to win a Super Bowl had closed. ("We're not worried about that," he said.) And tackle Jon Runyan, a free agent, was forced to contemplate his chances of returning. ("It's probably going to turn into a bidding war," he said.)

In the end, it was hard to know what they had become and what they will turn out to be. The year finished with such a thud, the optimism has to be squelched no matter how strong McNabb returns.

For until things are fixed, it is the team where visions of Koy Detmer warmed Philadelphia's heart. And that realization left this a very sad place.

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