Sometime in the middle of last week I had a dream about the then-upcoming Eagles-Cowboys rematch in the NFC Wild Card game. In it, the Eagles went up on their first drive with a field goal; then, after being pinned deep on the ensuing kickoff, Tony Romo fumbled, and the Eagles recovered in the end zone for a 10-0 lead and all the momentum in the world. Things got a little loopy after that- at one point, I think I was playing cornerback- but the message to me was clear: subconsciously at least, I still had hope.
It was, in retrospect, a false hope. In the end, we ended up suffering through the worst week in Eagles history, with two losses to our most hated rival by an aggregate score of 58-14. What makes it even harder to swallow is just the week before the Eagles had the look of the Super Bowl favorite: the Saints and Vikings, the favorites all year, had faltered down the stretch; the Eagles, riding a six game winning streak, had not only overtaken the Cowboys for first place in the NFC East but had even caught the Vikings for the second seed in the playoffs, and the first-round bye that accompanies that distinction. But in four quarters on Sunday all that hard work in getting from 5-4 to 11-4 was squandered; and then, next Saturday, it actually got worse.
I honestly don't know how much I have to say about this; I'm just going to type for a while and try to get it all out of my system and move on with my life. Cynics will tell you that the real key to the NFL's success is gambling, and while I am a cynic, I fully believe that the reason football is so captivating is because each team plays one game a week, no more. Each game is like a new episode of an ongoing series, with the goal to avoid cancellation until the big finale airs. We spend the first few days of the week going over what we've just seen before turning to the installment to come. The NFL banks on anticipation, and this Eagles season my expectation level had gone to eleven.
Yes, despite it all. Despite the five NFC Championship game losses, and the Super Bowl loss, I'm that rarest of beasts: the optimistic Eagles fan. Why? Because I still believe that Andy Reid and Donovan McNabb have been too darn good, too darn successful, to not finally get the job done. Of course, that's the thing that separates sports from all other forms of entertainment: failure is always an option, even for the elite. Fran Tarkenton and Bud Grant went to four Super Bowls and lost them all; so did Jim Kelly and Marv Levy.
And now I, finally, am left wondering if this isn't the end, if this isn't as far as this era can go, or should go. Because, really, there's no excuse for what we saw the last two weeks. There's no excuse for getting smoked by a team that you know so well, in the last game of the season, where everything you worked for is up for grabs. And there's really no excuse for coming back out the next week against the same team and playing the same lousy game, as if not one adjustment had been made, and the whole thing was just one long, eight-quarter nightmare.
So where do they go from here? Well, one thing we have to remember is that the Eagles were a very young team this year. The Eagles have always been cruelly efficient in turning over positions, letting valued veterans go when it looks like they might be slipping. This last offseason saw John Runyan and Tra Thomas, whom had anchored the offensive line for the entire Andy Reid era, be allowed to leave, and once-promising players like Lito Sheppard and L.J. Smith were sent packing. Oh, and Brian Dawkins left.
I say that flippantly, because Dawkins is quite possibly the greatest player in franchise history-he's on the short list, at least- and his being allowed to leave as a free agent was a cloud over the Eagles that they never quite overcame. Ultimately, I think his absence made a big difference; his veteran wisdom and leadership might have made the difference in steadying a young defense when they ran into trouble the last few weeks (not to mention that he still played at a Pro Bowl- level this year). We'll never know, just like we'll never know if Jerimiah Trotter, the All-Pro linebacker released suddenly before the 2002 season, would have made the difference against Tampa Bay in that year's NFC championship game that I always suspect he would. The loss of Dawkins leadership, I think, played a big factor in bringing Trotter out of retirement this year at midseason, but even the Axe Man was unable to steady a defense in flux.
But the offense was a different story. This was the best Eagles offense I've ever seen, even better then the 2004 Super Bowl team led by Terrel Owens, varied and deep and explosive. Brian Westbrook missed half the season, which in the past would have doomed the team, but he was hardly missed. Kevin Curtis, quitely productive over the last two years, missed almost the whole year and no one seemed to notice (I guess that's what you get for being "quietly productive"). The offensive line, rebuilt in the offseason, was in flux all year, but it never seemed to make much of a difference on the field. And then there was the Michael Vick experiment, which I still think is more about getting a draft pick from someone desperate for a starter then whatever Vick brought to the field (which was probably just enough for said draft pick).
McNabb, as he has been for much of the decade, was the rock that held it all together. McNabb gets pissed on by Eagles fans all the time, and it's grossly unfair. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: anyone that doesn't appreciate Donovan McNabb as the greatest quarterback in the history of the Eagles is a stone-cold moron. What people fail to realize about McNabb is that he's spent his career in a system that doesn't really match his skill set; the so-called west coast offense that Reid runs relies on timing and accuracy, two things that have never been among McNabb's strengths. It wasn't until T.O. arrived and the team began going downfield regularly that McNabb really began to shine. Yet he's persevered and built himself into a borderline Hall of Fame candidate.
I wonder, though, if we have in fact seen the last of McNabb in an Eagles uniform. This has been the talk going into the offseason for several years now, but this year feels different. For one thing, young backup Kevin Kolb, who just this preseason looked like a wasted draft pick, proved himself a quarterback with a future in two starts for McNabb this year. It would fit the Eagles' modus operendi of moving out veterans for young players, and would allow Kolb to develop with DeSean Jackson, LeSean McCoy and the other young players on the offense. If it is the end of the McNabb era, it's a shame that it ended the way that it did. I almost wish for one more chance for Donovan, so that he can go out the right way, but how many more chances should he get?
I also wonder if it isn't time for Reid to step down as head coach. Again, unlike most Eagles fans, I've always been a supporter of the coach, who has long since proven himself an excellent head coach with over 100 wins and a winning record in the post season. But, year after year, the same problems persist: the Eagles can't run the ball with any kind of consistent success, and are always quick to abandon the run at the slightest sign of ineffectiveness; the clock management is baffling; gadget plays are called at awful times, killing promising drives. That Reid has never been able to correct these and other problems has been a sore spot among critics and fans alike. But the man wins, sets the right tone, and has a great eye for talent. I would not be at all surprised to see Reid give up the coaching reigns to someone like Marty Mornhingwig and moving to the front office full time.
Jesus, that's a lot of stuff, isn't it? Guess I did have a lot to say. Anyway, I'm done thinking about the Eagles until the end of this season, and most likely done watching football for the rest of the year. At the very least, I won't be watching any more games with the !@#$ing Dallas Cowboys and !@#$ing Tony Romo.