The season was
lost, and the Eagles knew it. On Sunday, Nov. 19, in a home game against the
Tennessee Titans, Donovan McNabb, Philadelphia's franchise quarterback--the
franchise, period--was knocked out for the season with a torn ACL. Lifelong
athletes all, NFL players abide by the unwritten code of the locker room in
which no despair, however deeply felt, is voiced. Yet the Eagles understood.
"It was as big a hit as you can imagine," recalls guard Todd Herremans.
"We all felt this huge letdown." � The Eagles lost that game and the
next, to fall to 5--6. A season and a half removed from a three-point Super
Bowl loss to the New England Patriots, they were spiraling downward in the
standings, climbing in the draft and counting the weeks until minicamp. "We
needed something to happen," says Pro Bowl guard Shawn Andrews. "And we
needed it right away."
Then came the NFL's
unlikeliest resurrection, driven by a quarterback seemingly past his prime,
claimed off the NFL slag heap; and by a fifth-year back beloved by his
teammates, respected by his peers, yet lacking the signature performance that
would validate his stature.
On Sunday night the
Eagles beat the New York Giants 23--20 in an NFC wild-card playoff game. The
deciding points came on David Akers's 38-yard field goal, kicked through a
steady rain from the shredded Lincoln Financial Field turf as time expired; but
the game belonged to 36-year-old Jeff Garcia, now 6--1 as McNabb's replacement,
and to 5'8", 203-pound Brian Westbrook, who ran for 141 yards and a
touchdown on 20 carries. On the game-winning drive Westbrook, battling severe
stomach cramps from the second quarter on, rushed four times for 34
yards--"He reminds me of myself when I was young," the Giants' retiring
Tiki Barber would say in defeat--while Garcia completed both of his passes for
13 yards. Now the Eagles will face the New Orleans Saints on Saturday night in
the Superdome, two games from the Super Bowl.
began at quarterback. Garcia's career was the stuff of epic poetry long before
he signed with the Eagles last March. Unrecruited out of Gilroy ( Calif.) High,
he played a year at Gavilan College under his father, Bob, followed by three
seasons at San Jose State and five in the Canadian Football League before Bill
Walsh gave him a shot with the San Francisco 49ers in 1999. "Bill stuck his
head in my office one day after the '98 season and tossed a tape on my
desk," says Marty Mornhinweg, then the 49ers' offensive coordinator and now
the Eagles' assistant head coach. "You could tell pretty quickly that Jeff
was very competitive and athletic."
Garcia played five
years in San Francisco, making the Pro Bowl in his last three, but left in 2003
when he and the rebuilding Niners couldn't agree on contract terms. Soon
thereafter he had controversy thrust upon him by former teammate Terrell Owens,
who in an interview with Playboy, was asked, " Jeff Garcia has denied media
rumors that he's gay. What do you think?" replied, "If it looks like a
rat and smells like a rat, by golly, it is a rat." The comment came after
Owens had complained during their final season together that Garcia wasn't
throwing him enough passes.
Garcia has seldom
addressed T.O.'s insinuation but told SI last week, "He created a
discomfort that I've had to deal with when I go into competitive environments,
like visiting stadiums. I have to deal with that because of ignorance that came
out of somebody else's mouth. There's nothing wrong with anybody else's
personal choices, but what he said, that's not me." ( Garcia is engaged to
Carmella DeCesare--Playboy's 2004 Playmate of the Year.)
Garcia became the
Cleveland Browns' starter in 2004, but his statistics and spirits both
suffered. The following year he intended to sign with Denver or Seattle as the
backup to an established veteran on a solid franchise. Instead he went to the
hapless Detroit Lions. "At the last minute I [thought], Maybe I can be a
starter again," he says. "It was a mistake." Garcia broke his
fibula in the preseason and played in only six games for a 5--11 team.
A free agent again
in 2006, he jumped at the chance to join the Eagles, drawn, he says, by
"stability and the chance to be a part of a winning organization."
evaluated Garcia--again--before Philadelphia signed him. "It looked like he
had some juice left," says Mornhinweg. With McNabb healthy, however, Garcia
was scarcely used, even in practice. "Before the game when Donovan got
hurt," says Herremans, "I think Jeff took one snap all week, and that
was in the walk-through."
On his own, though,
Garcia prepared. He lives in a town house two minutes from the Eagles' facility
and keeps his 200-pound body solid with four days of weightlifting a week.
After losing to the Colts in his first start, he led Philadelphia to five
consecutive wins and the NFC East title. In those five games Garcia threw seven
touchdown passes and two interceptions. And his passion has inspired the
Eagles. In one memorable sequence, on Dec. 17 against the Giants, he ran for a
first down, then spiked the ball, drawing a 15-yard penalty that more than paid
for itself in emotional currency. "Personally, I loved it," says