Thursday, January 15, 2009
All regal Eagles need is elusive crown
By Greg Garber ESPN.com
PHILADELPHIA -- The media, sniffing for championship stories, flowed into the Philadelphia Eagles' narrow, sun-lit locker room Wednesday, where the players faced a repeated question.
In each locker there was a photo of Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., replete with the famous pirate ship and the logo of Super Bowl XLIII. And this challenge, in the form of a "Jeopardy!" question:
"Will you be here?"
It's difficult to fathom, but these Eagles find themselves a single victory from the season's ultimate game. All they have to do is travel across the country to the desert and take down the host Arizona Cardinals in the NFC Championship Game on Sunday.
"They seem high-spirited right now," coach Andy Reid said. "They came in and took care of business the last couple of days in the training room. Everyone is banged up. Everyone that is still playing has a sore body.
Best Overall Records Since 2000
According to ESPN research, the Eagles own the NFL's fourth-best record this decade (including regular-season and postseason play).
"But the mind takes over, and they're all excited to be in this position."
As well they should be. Two months ago, this would have been a preposterous thought. Philadelphia had produced a now-infamous tie with the Cincinnati Bengals and, worse, a dispiriting 36-7 loss to the Baltimore Ravens in which quarterback Donovan McNabb was benched for Kevin Kolb at halftime. The Eagles' record was 5-5-1, and the futures of McNabb and Reid in Philadelphia suddenly seemed to be in play.
But after winning six of their past seven games (including the playoffs), the Eagles' culture has changed dramatically -- from oppressive to impressive. Now that owner Jeffrey Lurie is saying the franchise will do its best to keep the team of McNabb and Reid intact, it's time to celebrate these Eagles for their consistency.
In the past decade, the Eagles and the New England Patriots are the only teams to reach five conference championship games. The Pittsburgh Steelers are next with four appearances. Of course, the Patriots won three Super Bowls, and the Steelers continued on to take home the Vince Lombardi Trophy after their most recent appearance in a conference championship game. In the Eagles' most recent Super Bowl, XXXIX, they fell to the Patriots 24-21 in Jacksonville, Fla.
Reid and McNabb have been together for 10 seasons now, and since 2000 they have produced a stout record of 102-57-1. But McNabb is 32 years old, and running mates safety Brian Dawkins (35) and running back Brian Westbrook (29) are racking up the miles, too.
"As a player, I think that you understand that the window of opportunity is not going to stay open forever," Westbrook said. "But if you have a very good team, you could go back year after year and, hopefully, have the opportunity to achieve your goal."
To reach and win the Super Bowl, the Eagles will need two more clean games from McNabb. While he denies the benching made him a better quarterback, teammates concede the entire franchise took it as a wake-up call.
In retrospect, it's clear McNabb suffered a two-game slump, throwing five interceptions and one touchdown pass against Baltimore and Cincinnati. In the seven games since, he's tossed 11 touchdown passes and only four interceptions. He finished the regular season with franchise records for completions (345) and passing yards (3,916).
On Wednesday, McNabb was asked whether the past seven games have changed Eagles fans' perception of him.
"That really doesn't concern me, and it never really has," McNabb said. "Given an opportunity, at some point, you will begin to flourish."
During this resurgence, McNabb has been focused and effective on third down. In the regular season, his passer rating on third down was 72.1. After the benching, it was an astonishing 146.1.
Lately, it seems that when the pressure is on, McNabb is at his best. The Eagles' 23-11 NFC divisional playoff victory over the New York Giants on Sunday was the season in a microcosm. Through three quarters, he had completed only about half of his passes and thrown two interceptions. With the game on the line in the fourth quarter, McNabb completed four of five passes, including a touchdown.
His teammates insist he's playing at the same high level that took them to the Super Bowl at the end of the 2004 season.
"He's been carrying this team," Westbrook said. "He's done those things we expect him to do. He has not turned the ball over very many times. He continues to lead this offense."
There is an exuberance in his game that feels like 2004, the Eagles' last Super Bowl season. In the fourth quarter of the win over the Giants, McNabb was forced out of bounds and stopped in front of a phone on the enemy sideline. In comic fashion, he picked it up and said a few words before hanging up. After he drew a 15-yard penalty for taunting, Fox announcers Troy Aikman ("silly") and Joe Buck ("unnecessary") hammered him.
Really? It was a nice YouTube moment that saw McNabb, the crisis of the regular season passed, answering his critics.
"Fine like wine, baby," McNabb said when asked whether he was getting better with age. "I think the cop-out at times is people saying, 'He's getting too old' or 'He's not able to do the things he was able to do back five years ago.' None of us can do the things we did five years ago, including you guys."
McNabb went on to gently mock the attending writers for their slowly written sentences and questionable apparel choices.
"It's really the position that you're in," McNabb said. "Thirty-two years old is really not old. That's almost the prime of your career. Some of you guys sitting in here wish you were 32.
"I'll tell you about it. It's fun."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com