- Phil Sheridan, ESPN Staff Writer
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When Robert Griffin III threw that off-balance, back-foot wobbler, it carried three seasons’ worth of dread and frustration with it. The fans at Lincoln Financial Field hadn’t witnessed a victory in person since Sept. 30, 2012 -- a franchise-record 10 games in a row. They hadn’t witnessed many victories, period, during the two-year winding-down of the Andy Reid era.
When the ball came down into the waiting hands of Boykin, all of that blew away in the collective sigh of relief. The Washington Redskins’ desperate comeback attempt was over. The Eagles’ 24-16 victory was over. The home losing streak was over. The Eagles had a winning record, at 6-5, just 11 months after finishing last season at 4-12.
And, oh yes, the Eagles were in sole possession of first place in the NFC East. They are, as unbelievable as it might have seemed when they were 1-3, a legitimate contender to win the division title.
After their bye this week, the Eagles come back for a five-game playoff push, ending with a Dec. 29 showdown with the second-place Cowboys in Dallas. Three of the next four games will be at the Linc. Instead of dread and frustration, there will be excitement and anticipation.
“We put ourselves in a situation where those five games in December are meaningful,” Eagles coach Chip Kelly said. “It’s all for naught if we don’t continue to build from here.”
Kelly was the rock-star coaching hire last offseason, the wizard of Oregon about whom everyone had an opinion. He would revolutionize the NFL with his offbeat approach and offensive innovation. Or he would flame out the way hotshot college coaches such as Steve Spurrier and Bobby Petrino did before him.
When the Eagles ran their fast-break offense to perfection in the Monday night opener at Washington, it looked like Kelly’s fans were right. When the offense stalled for two touchdown-less weeks, Kelly’s detractors were sure the NFL had already solved the riddles posed by his scheme.
The Eagles are 3-0 since then. Nick Foles has emerged as a smart, poised quarterback, operating an offense that has gotten the most from stars LeSean McCoy (NFL-leading 1,009 yards rushing) and DeSean Jackson (985 receiving yards). The defense has steadily progressed from fire-drill disorder to competent to imposing.
It turns out both extremes were wrong about Kelly. He may not revolutionize the game or fail spectacularly. He may just be a very good, very smart coach who is building a program to win over the long term.
“When he first walked through the door on April 1,” Jackson said, “just off what he established at Oregon, a lot of guys respected him and were very excited. It was interesting. For a group of men who had gone through a tough year last year, we were able to come in and almost erase everything. We had a new coach, a new guy calling the shots. We had to kind of start from scratch.”
“Everybody bought in,” said veteran Trent Cole, who had two sacks Sunday in his new role as an outside linebacker.
Foles’ 4-yard touchdown run gave the Eagles a 7-0 first-quarter lead. More important, it kept the crowd cheering instead of booing. The cheering crescendoed after McCoy’s second touchdown run gave the Eagles a 24-0 lead in the third quarter.
“They were into it the entire game,” Kelly said. “It was an awesome feeling. There was a lot of energy in that stadium and we needed every ounce of it.”
That’s because things got a little shaky there in the fourth quarter. Griffin found fullback Darrel Young standing alone on the left sideline for a 62-yard touchdown. With just under six minutes left, Griffin threw a 41-yard touchdown to Aldrick Robinson. Washington made two-point conversions after both touchdowns, so it was a one-score game when Donnie Jones’ 70-yard punt rolled out of bounds at the Washington 4-yard line.
“We thought we would shut them out,” defensive end Fletcher Cox said. “But things happened. They made a few plays in the second half that they shouldn’t have made.”
The clock showed 3:26 left. Griffin went to work, and the Eagles' defense started backing up.
“We were expecting something good to happen,” inside linebacker DeMeco Ryans said. “In the past, it would have gone the other way for us. It got very interesting there at the end.”
Griffin drove his team 78 yards, all the way to the Eagles’ 18. It was third-and-1. Every one of those 10 home losses was rattling its chains.
“That’s fun,” linebacker Connor Barwin said. “You want to be out there and thrive in those situations.”
“Either we were going to make a play or Washington was going to make a play,” defensive coordinator Bill Davis said. “We stepped up and made it.”
Cox broke through the line. As he bore down on Griffin, the quarterback tried to back away. He made the ill-advised decision to throw the ball. He couldn’t get enough on it to get it out of the back of the end zone.
Boykin was the only player there.
“When I saw the ball floating in the air,” Boykin said, “I was like, 'Is this real life? Like, wow.' It was really slow. It looked like a high school pass. A lot of thoughts went through my head.”
The same thoughts went through 70,000 other heads as 70,000 people held their breath. Ten home losses in a row. Blown leads and busted coverages. There was always something bad, an injury or a penalty or a turnover, waiting to happen.
But this time the ball fell into Boykin’s hands, and all the rest of it fell away.
The Eagles were in first place and proud owners of a one-game home winning streak. Kelly’s first season is no longer about smoothies and loud music at practice and quirky formations. It’s about contending for the NFC East title and maybe hosting a playoff game.
"I don’t know where I expected to be," Kelly said. "I have seen us improve. We’re going to pick our heads up on December 29 to figure out where we are."