Missing Rings – 2004 Philadelphia Eagles

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.

McNabb to Owens made the 2004 Eagles.

McNabb to Owens made the 2004 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.

McNabb eludes Michael Strahan in the 2000 divisional playoff.

McNabb eludes Michael Strahan in the 2000 divisional playoff.

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.

Ronde Barber sails 95 yards with the game clinching touchdown.

Ronde Barber sails 95 yards with the game clinching touchdown.

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

Jevon Kearse was one of the league's best quarterback trackers.

Jevon Kearse was one of the league’s best quarterback trackers.

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…

Thanks for reading and please share the article.

chancellor.reid

Met Reid at the Gold Jacket Dinner in Canton 2018. Eagles Safety Brian Dawkins had received his Gold Jacket earlier.

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2011 NFC North Previews & Predictions

We are marching toward the 2011 NFL season and the anticipation has gotten to many a football fan. We are no different. As we look forward to an exciting 2011, it’s hard to believe we are just 7 months removed from the most important NFC North game ever. The rumble for the NFC Championship Game between the Chicago Bears, and the Green Bay Packers.

The NFC North, formerly the NFC Central, had it’s first NFL champion in 15 years and ironically both times it was the Green Bay Packers. So how much has changed?? Does this division still hold the NFC’s best two teams?? Did the Chicago Bears let a golden opportunity get away from them by not capitalizing in the 2010 NFC Championship Game??  Will Donovan McNabb solidify the Vikings and give them another chance to get to the Super Bowl as Favre did for them two years ago?? What about the Lions?? Have they made enough of the right moves to chase down their heated rivals in Chicago and Green Bay?? Huh, ….oh and what about the Lions??

2011 NFC NORTH PREDICTIONS

Green Bay Packers 13-3*

Detroit Lions   11-5#

Chicago Bears 7-9

Minnesota Vikings 5-11

We were the first to speak of the champion Packers having won the Super Bowl with their second string. Aaron Rodgers ascended to the upper echelon of quarterbacks who are playing this game and at 28 has a ton of time left to become an all time great. Accurate, mobile, and fearless he stands to wrest the mantle of NFL’s best QB from Tom Brady and Peyton Manning with an excellent 2011.  Think about it.  Of the 3 Super Bowl seasons Tom Brady had the best statistically in 2004, where he threw for 3,690 yards 28TDs, and 14 interceptions.  Last year despite missing 2 games with injury, Rodgers threw for 3,922 yards 28 TDs and only 11 interceptions for the Packers. That’s before we get into last year’s magnificent playoff run.

The Packer offense will see some transition with RB James Starks fighting it out with injured incumbent Ryan Grant returning. Jordy Nelson nearly broke Jerry Rice’s Super Bowl record for receiving yards so he will take some time away from aging Donald Driver. As for the defense, gone is longtime Packer Nick Barnett who was admirably replaced by new ILB starter Desmond Bishop. Clay Matthews has entered the realm of NFL super star. He is a complete defender and an excellent pass rusher with 10.5 sacks last year who is only going to get better in his 3rd year.

The new safety tandem is Morgan Burnett and Nick Collins, with Atari Bigby having moved on to  Seattle. The Packers young secondary is still anchored by All Pro Charles Woodson who has had a positive influence on the growth of fellow corners Tramon Williams and Sam Shields.  All told, this secondary was responsible for 24 interceptions (2nd in the NFL) and should improve in 2011. No chance they are unseated as NFC North champion, they are just too well equipped.

Yet there is a storm brewing to Green Bay’s southeast. Dormant for more than an NFL decade, has been the moribund Detroit Lions. Draft busts of the Matt Millen regime behind them, his former Washinton Redskin teammate Martin Mayhew is putting together a championship caliber squad. One that will see great gains this year if Matthew Stafford can stay healthy. Its paramount he matures with his team onfield this season.  The Lions also brought in Titus Young from Boise St. to give them another deep threat alongside Calvin Johnson.

There was a setback when they lost draft pick RB Mikel Leshoure, fomerly of Illinois, for the season. This team still has quick striking Jahvid Best out of the backfield and signed Jerome Harrison and Maurice Morris to pick up the slack.

However it was the selection of DT Nick Fairley in the 1st round that sent shockwaves throughout the league.  He is joining a Motown defensive line that had 44 sacks last year. Fairley should terrorize NFC North quarterbacks with Ndamokung Suh for years to come. He should be fully recovered and ready to roll when the regular season will get under way.  After a four game winning streak to conclude last season, this team was bolstered by a solid beating handed to the Patriots in last week’s pre-season game.  Never underestimate what it means for a team to learn how to win and see themselves as winners.

Sadly, the great Devin Hester (The U)  is being legislated out of the game.

Now lets be fair… the new kickoff moving to the 35 yard line, was a bullshit move by rule makers to negate the special teams advantage the Chicago Bears have enjoyed with Devin Hester. The NFL’s greatest kick returner. It’s backlash for his turning close games into Bear victories over favored opponents.

There is no other way to see it.  There in lies the problem.  It’s not a television show of who’s to be voted off of the island, it’s a sporting endeavor. The Bears play smashmouth, close to the vest  football in cold weather and rely on stout defense and superior special teams. Last year they had improved play from the quarterback position as Cutler trimmed his interception totals and showed more command of the offense.

Team brass finally brought in some help with the signing of Marion Barber and Roy E. Williams, fomerly of Dallas to help with the running game and the receiving corps. With the shortened off season, most teams will struggle to find their offensive rhythm early and the Bears could be one of those offenses. Yet they have drafted several young offensive linemen and should be ready to roll in 2012. Problem is they should have a few growing pains in ’11.

When will the Vikings learn to bite the bullet and develop a quarterback?? They have run retread after retread at this position and haven’t come up with a championship yet. There was magic in the first year with Favre, however reality set in once he was injured and Sage Rosenfels had been released.

The Donovan McNabb experience should only be one year, unless he has an outstanding season. Which is the two fold problem. When do you take the reigns from an elder quarterback and take the lumps with a young and growing one?? From Sean Salisbury to Jim McMahon, to Warren Moon, to Randall Cunningham, to Jeff George…they’ve been doing this since 1992 at the expense of developing a young signal caller. The one exception was to allow Daunte Culpepper to develop and he gave the Vikings some great seasons.  So if the season goes well, McNabb could retard Christian Ponder’s growth.

With McNabb, we see a quarterback going through the motions, not one with a chip on his shoulder to prove himself. That won’t bode well for the Vikings if they look to him for leadership. They have a strong running game in Adrian Peterson and Toby Gerhart yet are suspect at receiver. Right now the strength of this team would be to run the football and keep their aging defense off the field.

If it doesn’t go well this year, be ready to move in another direction and build with your young quarterbacks. At this point we see a fading legend hanging on with a mediocre receiving corp and a defense that last year started to give up  yards on the ground toward the end of the season. Donovan takes a look at the tapes of last year’s offensive line performance and the hits on Favre, he may audible to all rollouts. Add to that LT Bryant McKinnie (The U) gets cut for coming into camp out of shape?? Donovan could be in for a long year. As Donovan goes, so go the Vikings. A tough year indeed