One player was all that was missing.
When Ike Reese heard the news in early 2004 that the Philadelphia Eagles were pursuing All-Pro wide receiver Terrell Owens, Reese called his Eagles teammate Brian Dawkins. "He and I both agreed if we get this guy there was no doubt about it. We were going to the Super Bowl," said Reese, the Eagles' special teams leader and third-down linebacker.
One player can make a difference. And Owens did.
The 2004 Eagles were one of the most dynamic, confident, explosive and dominant teams of this century. They were a team without a weakness. Andy Reid had spent five seasons building the foundation, smartly drafting talented players and plugging holes through free agency.
He had a mastermind in defensive coordinator Jim Johnson. He had a staff that included four assistants -- offensive coordinator Brad Childress, linebackers coach Steve Spagnuolo, special teams coordinator John Harbaugh and quarterbacks coach Pat Shurmur -- who would become head coaches.
Reid had a quarterback in Donovan McNabb who was in his prime; a running back in Brian Westbrook who was on the verge of emerging as a multifaceted threat out of the backfield; a defense that was loaded with effective pass-rushers; a stout middle linebacker in Jeremiah Trotter; and defensive backs who could cover and hit.
The Eagles had been to the NFC Championship Game following the 2001, 2002 and 2003 seasons, but had lost each time, first to a more talented St. Louis Rams team and then at home to Tampa Bay and Carolina. The Panthers loss, in particular, had devastated the Eagles, who were favorites playing in their new stadium.
After that 14-3 defeat, Philadelphia had been branded a team that didn't have a killer instinct and couldn't get to the biggest stage, in part because for all of his strengths, Reid had not given McNabb a big-play threat at wide receiver.
Freddie Mitchell, Todd Pinkston and James Thrash were just guys. But Owens, he was the man. Along with the Eagles' other big offseason acquisition in 2004, defensive end Jevon Kearse, Owens gave Philadelphia a swagger that had been lacking.
"When we stepped on the field from OTAs to the first game against the New York Giants, we felt no team could beat us," Reese said. "We were hunting for the St. Louis Rams and the New England Patriots and the Indianapolis Colts. That's who we had to beat. I just remember the level of confidence was at an all-time high for a team coming off three NFC Championship Games. It took us to an almost invincible feeling."
The buzz around the Eagles was palpable. Fans flocked to their training camp at Lehigh University in quaint Bethlehem, Pa. Every time Owens caught a pass, fans serenaded him with chants of "T.O., T.O., T.O." One practice drew more than 25,000 fans.
Games were raucous celebrations. Owens and McNabb had a chemistry Reid first noticed when they were NFC teammates at the Pro Bowl that January.
"He and Donovan just had this trust in each other on the football field that was incredible," Reid said. "So you felt like in any situation, T.O. could make a play and Donovan could get him the football. It didn't matter the coverage, he was going to win and Donovan was going to get it to him. It was fun to watch."
Philadelphia won its first seven games of the season -- a franchise first -- before stumbling against a Pittsburgh team that ended up 15-1. After that game, Johnson installed Trotter, a veteran and vocal leader, as the starting middle linebacker, a move that was applauded in the locker room and gave the Eagles a legitimate run-stuffer.
After a Week 12 win at the Giants, Philadelphia clinched the NFC East faster than any team ever had won a division race. In Week 13 at home against the 7-4 Green Bay Packers, the Eagles had a 28-point second quarter to to build a 35-0 lead. McNabb threw five touchdowns in the first half. The defense sacked Brett Favre five times and held the Packers' first-string offense to three points en route to a 47-17 victory.
But in Week 15 against Dallas, disaster struck. The Eagles were 12-1 and playing to clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. On Philadelphia's opening drive of the third quarter, McNabb threw a completion to Owens. Cowboys safety Roy Williams grabbed Owens from behind with a horse-collar tackle, breaking Owens' fibula and damaging two ligaments in his ankle.
The Eagles won the game, 12-7, but Owens' prognosis was not good. He needed surgery and would miss the rest of the regular season. Maybe he could return if the team made the Super Bowl. Maybe.
"Everybody was like, 'Damn, here we go again,'" defensive end Hugh Douglas said. "But we fought through it."
Reid rested his starters for the final two games of the regular season. Both were losses, giving Philadelphia a 13-3 record. But the starters were 13-1 with an average margin of victory of 14.7 points. In those 13 wins, the Eagles averaged 28.2 points per game and held opponents to 13.5 points per game. They finished with the second-ranked defense in the NFL in points allowed (16.2) and sacks (47). McNabb completed 64 percent of his passes for 3,875 yards, with 31 touchdowns and just eight interceptions. In 14 games, Owens caught 77 passes for 1,200 yards and 14 touchdowns.
But there was still work to be done.
In the playoffs without Owens, the Eagles rolled over a Minnesota team they had beaten in Week 2. Then, they hosted Atlanta in their fourth straight NFC title game. Johnson devised a game plan to make Falcons quarterback Michael Vick run to his right. The Eagles limited Vick to 11 completions and just 26 rushing yards and no touchdowns. The Eagles won 27-10. Finally, confetti fell on Lincoln Financial Field.
"That was the greatest feeling in the world," Reese said. "It had to be 30 below zero out there, but it felt like 80 degrees that day when the clock ran down."
The New England Patriots and Super Bowl XXXIX awaited in Jacksonville. The story of the week leading up to the game was Owens' health. He told his teammates after his injury that he would play in the game if they got him there. He slept in a hyperbaric chamber and rehabilitated following surgery to implant two screws and a plate in his ankle. And play Owens did.
The Eagles were seven-point underdogs but played the Patriots tight in the first half. The defense held New England to seven points, but the Eagles committed two turnovers and went into halftime tied, 7-7. The Patriots scored on the opening possession of the third quarter, and after the Eagles answered to tie the game at 14, New England opened up a 24-14 lead in the fourth quarter.
Philadelphia got the ball with 5 minutes, 40 seconds left but took nearly four minutes to score a touchdown in a drive that lacked urgency or an acknowledgement of the clock. The defense then forced a three-and-out, but New England pinned the Eagles at their 4-yard line. McNabb's third interception of the day effectively ended the game.
"It really came back to that last drive, as those games do," Reid said. "We had too many turnovers, four turnovers. You can't do that. I was calling the plays. I take responsibility for that."
Owens finished with nine catches for 122 yards while essentially playing on one leg. He did his job. And then it all fell apart. One player intimated that McNabb had thrown up in the huddle during the second-to-last drive. Owens said he wasn't the one who was winded. He fired his agent and hired Drew Rosenhaus to try to negotiate a new deal with Philadelphia. The Eagles had no intention of ripping up Owens' deal after one season. The situation spiraled downward from there.
In 2005, with essentially the same team, Philadelphia went 6-10, including 0-6 in the NFC East. McNabb ended up on injured reserve with a sports hernia and Owens ended up jettisoned from the team.
A team that had the talent to return to the Super Bowl suffered a colossal fall.
Nevertheless, Reid said the gamble on Owens ultimately was worth it.
"Yeah, I think it was," Reid said. "I like Terrell. All of us could've handled it a little different. I take a little of the blame for that. Everybody I know wants to come after Terrell. I take some of the blame, too. There were things we could've done better after the way it worked out. But was it worth it? Yes. I would do it over again. I would. I wish things could've worked out better during the Super Bowl. Philadelphia deserved to have a championship there, but it didn't pan out that way."
No, it didn't. But Owens gave the Eagles a chance they otherwise might not have ever had. He proved one player could make that much of a difference.