When you look back at seasons past, many of the NFL champions had a feeling of inevitability to them. You can remember the greatest of champions putting their stamp on the season as they started to separate from other contenders. The inadequacies that kept them from winning it all before, had seemingly been swept away.
Yet when that team runs into a brick wall on the way to what was supposed to be their championship. It becomes the expiration date on their being a legitimate contender and you’re left with…what if??? Enter the 2004 Philadelphia Eagles.
Head Coach Andy Reid was hired in ’99 from the Green Bay Packers and the Mike Holmgren coaching tree. As Quarterback Coach he oversaw Brett Favre as he accumulated 3 straight NFL MVP trophies, 2 Super Bowl visits, and 1 championship in their final 3 seasons together. By drafting McNabb in year 1 for Reid to develop, the future looked bright.
As the 2000’s began, your Philadelphia Eagles were developing a young Donovan McNabb at quarterback. He was the shining member of the quarterback class of 1999, and he had become a dynamic play maker in Head Coach Andy Reid’s “West Coast Offense”. Although he was developing as a passer, he would take off on serpentine runs when plays broke down. They ran the ball by committee at RB and relied on a gambling blitzing defense run by the late Jim Johnson.
Philadelphia became a wildcard entrant in 2000, where they gained confidence with a 21-3 hammering of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The following week they lost a 20-10 slugfest in the divisional round v the Giants. New York went on to play in Super Bowl XXXV and did so based on 3 wins over Philly. So the die was cast, a little improvement and the Eagles could play in the Super Bowl.
No one knew beginning with the 2001 NFC Championship a new odyssey would begin. Three consecutive losses in the championship game left the Eagles and the city of Philadelphia mired in despair. They lost a tough game in ’01 to The Greatest Show on Turf St Louis Rams 29-24, although they were underdogs on the road. This was nothing compared to what happened next.
The 2002 NFC Championship had the Eagles hosting in the last game ever in Veterans Stadium. A title starved city was raucous in anticipation as the Buccaneers were making the trip to The City of Brotherly Love for a 3rd consecutive postseason. The ’00 Wildcard win established the Eagles as the up and coming team in the NFC and not the Bucs. The ’01 Wildcard solidified the notion and Tampa fired Head Coach Tony Dungy.
The Eagles were planning an NFC Championship coronation with an outdoor trophy presentation. The field was surrounded by police mounted on horseback. One small problem…the Bucs won the game 27-10 thanks to new Coach Jon Gruden’s offense. Tampa was motivated by those previous playoff losses. They went on to win Super Bowl XXXVII 48-21 over Oakland.
After another NFC Championship flame-out against Carolina in ’03, and it appeared the Eagles had let their championship window close.
Speculation rained down over the organization. Had the Eagles put enough offensive talent around McNabb to become a champion?? Rush Limbaugh was fired by ESPN over comments “the NFL was desirous of a black quarterback doing well.” Donovan McNabb had thrown for 1 TD & 5 interceptions in the 3 NFC Title losses. Was McNabb given a pass for his poor performances?? Everyone had an opinion…until
The front office struck a blow in Free agency when they signed DE Jevon Kearse then traded for WR Terrell Owens. These were the two big fish available in the 2004 off-season and Philly nabbed them both. Gone was the attitude the Eagles didn’t need to sign blue chip talent to make it to the Super Bowl. It was all or nothing for 2004.
A perennial top 10 defense returned to form after sliding to 20th in the 2003 season. With Kearse (7.5 sacks) the Eagles returned to form as they garnered 45 sacks and 17 ints in 2014. Up from 35 sacks and 13 picks the season before. Defensive Coordinator Jim Johnson didn’t blitz as often with a dominant presence like Kearse in the lineup.
McNabb, now with the league’s best receiver in T.O., had the best season of his career. In his previous 3 complete seasons he averaged 57% completion rate, 3,272 yards, 22 TDs and 11 interceptions. In ’04 he completed 64% of his passes for 3,758 yards, 31 touchdowns to just 8 picks. He set several club records and Owens was on his way to when he suffered a fractured ankle in week 15 after a dirty horse collar tackle by Roy Williams in a 12-7 win over Dallas.
Before that Owens, and his endzone antics, had shredded the league with 77 receptions for 1,200 yards and 14 scores. He had made a pact with Coach Reid to score 15 TDs and if he did so Reid would have to don a pair of tights. Damn he came close but the real story became what would the 13-3 Eagles do in the upcoming playoffs without their #1 playmaker??
They would have to rely on the receivers from previous years who weren’t thought of as making enough plays to get the Eagles over the top. Freddie Mitchell, Todd Pinkston, and Greg Lewis. It was Mitchell who scored twice in the 24-14 NFC Divisional playoff win over the Minnesota Vikings. Running back Brian Westbrook (1,515 yards from scrimmage) would be relied upon heavily. Although there was speculation T.O. might make it back if the team made it to the Super Bowl. To do so they would have to make it past their albatross… the NFC Championship Game.
Leading up to Super Bowl XXXIX, the lead story had been would Terrell Owens play in the title games. With several surgical screws in his ankle, and after signing an injury waiver, he was available on center stage.
The Eagles 24-21 loss was a valiant effort. Just 6 weeks after fracturing his ankle, Terrell Owens 9 rec for 122 yards was a sight to behold. They were beaten by the defending champion New England Patriots who were just a step better. McNabb had thrown for over 300 yards but had 3 costly interceptions that were the difference in a close, close Super Bowl. The Eagles were primed to make it back to the big dance in ’05.
However the expiration date had come and gone on the Eagles as a personality conflict between T.O. and Donovan McNabb tore at the fabric of the team. Owens would eventually be released for conduct detrimental to the team. After a 3-1 start, the ’05 Eagles fell to a 6-10 record which included a 42-0 road loss to the eventual NFC Champion Seahawks. . The run was over.
Andy Reid coached on through the 2012 campaign with several playoff seasons but none where the Eagles were considered elite. McNabb played on through 2009 before leaving for Washington. He was replaced by Michael Vick, the quarterback he beat for the 2004 NFC Championship.
Donovan McNabb, Terrell Owens and their … “irreconcilable differences” derailed a promising team and the City of Brotherly Love had to wait another 13 years before capturing a title.
Did Donovan McNabb lose his chance at the Pro Football Hall of Fame because of this rift?? Something to ponder…
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