The Eagles remained a big crowd pleaser in the Philadelphia area well after the season was over. A basketball team featuring Reno Mahe, Sheldon Brown and Roderick Hood routinely filled high school gyms in the area for charity games. And the “E-A-G-L-E-S” chant was frequently heard at Phillies and Sixers games.
Paging Oliver Stone
It started when center Hank Fraley went on television and said that Donovan McNabb was sick in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl and Freddie Mitchell added that he’d been forced to call a play. For over a month after the loss to the Patriots, the talk of the town was whether McNabb’s condition explained the Eagles’ lack of a no-huddle offense. Conclusion: McNabb had the wind knocked out of him, struggled to call one play in the huddle but was otherwise fine.
Despite speculation that offensive coordinator Brad Childress could be in line for a head coaching job in Cleveland or Miami, Andy Reid’s staff remained untouched once again. Childress signed an extension through 2008.
Once again, the Eagles will get plenty of primetime exposure with four nationally televised night games. They open the season with a Monday night game against Atlanta, the team they beat in the NFC Championship Game.
The Prophecy: “The Eagles will break their string of NFC Championship game losses before falling to the Patriots in the Super Bowl.”
The Lie: “The presence of Terrell Owens should create space and opportunities for Todd Pinkston and Freddie Mitchell.”
— Athlon Sports Pro Football 2004
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If nothing else, the Eagles have plenty of experience getting over major postseason disappointments. Losing their first Super Bowl appearance in 24 years came on the heels of three consecutive losses in the NFC Championship Game.
Their history says they'll be able to bounce back and contend again. NFL history says the odds are against them. The losers of the past four Super Bowls -- Carolina, Oakland, St. Louis, N.Y. Giants -- failed to make the playoffs at all the next season.
For the Eagles, the biggest challenge may be internal. Many players, including Terrell Owens, Corey Simon and Brian Westbrook, were unhappy with their contracts. Coach Andy Reid, who basically stood pat with his roster, is counting on those players again. "I'm not going to lose sleep over (disgruntled players)," Reid says. "The players who are here are good football players. We'll win a few games with them."
The biggest question facing the Eagles is whether the rest of the NFC can catch them.
Donovan McNabb had the best season of his career, proved he could lead his team to the Super Bowl and still managed to leave more questions than answers when it was all over with.
Along with his three interceptions, McNabb's physical struggle in the final minutes of the 24-21 loss to New England had Eagles fans wondering if the quarterback will ever win the big game.
Despite the questions, including those raised by Owens and former teammate Freddie Mitchell, McNabb remains the Eagles' answer at quarterback. The 28-year-old McNabb figures to be at his peak for at least another five seasons.
The Eagles acquired former Detroit Lion Mike McMahon to challenge longtime backup Koy Detmer for the No. 2 spot.
Include Westbrook under this category, even though the Eagles' most versatile offensive weapon is as likely to be split wide as in the backfield. Reid uses Westbrook as a wild card, moving him all over the field to create matchup advantages. Because Westbrook is eligible for unrestricted free agency after this season, the Eagles drafted a similar player, Louisiana Tech's Ryan Moats, in the third round.
"If you can keep firing Westbrooks at 'em," Reid says, "you'll be OK."
What the Eagles did not add was the bigger, more powerful back their running game lacked last season. Correll Buckhalter will attempt to return from a second serious knee injury. The retirement of stopgap Dorsey Levens left the team with a one-dimensional run game.
Jon Ritchie, back from a season-ending knee injury, is the fullback.
Owens was nothing short of a phenomenon in his first season with the Eagles. Aside from his club-record 14 touchdowns and his 1,200 yards, Owens established himself as a huge fan favorite. His offseason demands for a new contract will put that popularity to the test.
Although the Eagles drafted Georgia's Reggie Brown high in the second round, expect Todd Pinkston to retain his starting position. Reid's track record suggests it will take a season or two for Brown to move into the starting lineup. The rookie will compete with Greg Lewis and Justin Jenkins for playing time.
The bigger questions are at tight end. After making two terrific touchdown catches in the NFC Championship Game, popular tight end Chad Lewis left the game with a serious foot injury. L.J. Smith had surgery to correct a chronic back problem. Neither is a lock to return to full speed, and the team did not address the position in free agency or the draft.
The first major change in the Eagles' remarkably stable line came when guard Jermane Mayberry left via free agency. More changes are likely on the way, but probably not until after this season.
Right tackle Jon Runyan agreed to restructure his contract and will be back. Bookend Tra Thomas hired a new agent in hopes for a contract renegotiation, but he figures to return to protect McNabb's blind side. Center Hank Fraley, who was targeted by the Patriots in the Super Bowl, should return, as should left guard Artis Hicks.
Shawn Andrews, the 2004 first-round pick who sustained a season-ending injury in his first NFL game, should claim the right guard spot vacated by Mayberry.
Reid is planning an eventual overhaul of the offensive line. He drafted three linemen this year, adding to a group of developing young players. Next year's line could look very different. "You can never have enough offensive or defensive linemen," Reid says.
Since taking Corey Simon with the sixth pick in the 2000 NFL draft, the Eagles have been happy to add defensive tackles via the waiver wire (Darwin Walker) and by signing undrafted rookies (Sam Rayburn). That changed this year, when the team selected USC's Mike Patterson in the first round of the draft.
Fittingly, the main reason was Simon, who carries the team's franchise tag in what figures to be his final season in Philadelphia. Though undersized at barely six feet tall, Patterson anchored the national champion Trojans' excellent defensive line.
"This guy is a special guy," vice president of player personnel Tom Heckert says. "He's a move guy. I think his height helps him a little bit with his leverage. The guy plays a million miles an hour."
Because the Eagles constantly rotate their defensive linemen, Patterson should see plenty of playing time as a rookie.
There is change at the ends, too. Oft-injured Derrick Burgess turned a strong postseason into a good contract offer from the Oakland Raiders. N.D. Kalu will attempt to return from injury, and veteran Hugh Douglas is back for another season.
Last year's big addition, Jevon Kearse, had a great year despite a relatively low (7.5) sack total. It's boom-or-bust time for former first-round pick Jerome McDougle. "All he has to do is stay healthy," Reid says.
The departure of Jeremiah Trotter led to three years of uncertainty at middle linebacker. Now the Eagles have certainty there in the form of, well, Trotter. He returned last season, reclaiming his starting job from Mark Simoneau midway through the year and improving the team's run defense. Trotter, who earned a Pro Bowl berth despite starting only eight games, signed a long-term contract after the season.
Simoneau should return as the weak-side linebacker, although he'll get competition from Keith Adams and rookie Matt McCoy. Dhani Jones came on strong in his first season as the strong-side backer and is expected to be more of a playmaker.
The two question marks, cornerbacks Lito Sheppard and Sheldon Brown, became exclamation points in their first full season as starters. Sheppard went to the Pro Bowl, and most close observers felt that Brown had a better all-around season.
Meanwhile, nickel back Rod Hood developed into a player the Eagles trusted to cover Randy Moss man-for-man in the divisional playoff round.
That trio, plus Pro Bowl safeties Brian Dawkins and Michael Lewis, will return to give the Eagles perhaps the best secondary in the NFL. Defensive coordinator Jim Johnson will no doubt find new ways to take advantage of this emerging group.
Kicker David Akers has a standing reservation for Honolulu. Punter Dirk Johnson had an outstanding season in the tough conditions at Lincoln Financial Field.
The Eagles' most pressing special teams concern is a freak offseason injury to promising kickoff returner J.R. Reed. After a terrific rookie season, Reed sustained nerve damage in his leg while trying to jump a fence. His career is in jeopardy.
Hood, Dexter Wynn and backup running back Reno Mahe will compete for the chance to replace Reed.
Until the other NFC East teams prove otherwise, the Eagles remain the class of their division. That makes it very likely that they'll return to the playoffs. Their experience there should make them contenders to get back to the Super Bowl.
That's the level Reid has this organization operating on. The Eagles' run of success should continue this year. The only question left is whether it will end with at least one championship.