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Phil Sheridan | Wait till last year: 2005 hasn't been kind to Birds


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By Phil Sheridan


Inquirer Columnist

There's only one thing every Eagles fan really wants, and it's not for Andy Reid to call more running plays.

What you really want is for it to be last year again, to run that 2004 regular season on an endless loop.

Last year was the party. This year is cleaning up the mess with a wicked hangover.

Last year was wondering how much the Eagles would win by every week. This year is wondering whether Donovan McNabb will be in one piece by January.

Last year was debating whether Terrell Owens or Brian Westbrook was more important to the Eagles' offense. This year is arguing over whose contract crisis is the bigger distraction.

Last year: dream. This year: nightmare.

Most of all, it now seems painfully clear, last year was The Year. Everything was aligned for the Eagles. Owens was everything he was advertised to be (except a jerk). He and McNabb were electric, Westbrook was superb, the defense was energized by the return of Jeremiah Trotter, and the special teams were ruthlessly efficient.

This year is just the year after The Year.

It started going wrong the minute Owens, suffering from a suffocating lack of attention, set fire to the off-season. Westbrook's simmering discontent, the folly of franchise-tagging and then untagging Corey Simon, the snapping of Todd Pinkston's Achilles tendon, and the shooting of Jerome McDougle followed - mojo-busters all.

And then the phrase you never heard before but was suddenly everywhere you looked.

Sports hernia.

Nobody even knows what it is. All anyone knows for sure is that it turned McNabb into a statue of himself and cast a pall over an Eagles season that already felt all wrong.

So here we are. The Eagles are 4-3 and coming off the most embarrassing all-around performance of the Reid era. That 49-21 debacle in Denver landed just as the stench of an appalling, 33-10 loss in Dallas had begun to clear.

Something is very, very wrong with this football team. Actually, a lot of things are very, very wrong.

The Eagles' recent history says it would be a mistake to bury them so soon. Reid's record in November and December is outstanding for a reason. His teams get better as the season goes on. That's a result of coaching and the team's cohering and the competitive nature of players like McNabb and Trotter and Brian Dawkins.

There is a chance, too, that there's a method behind the apparent madness in Reid's offensive approach. With his quarterback vulnerable and playing in pain, Reid has all but ignored the running game that might take some of the pressure off McNabb.

Could it be that he went into the season planning to preserve Westbrook by using him as sparingly as possible in the early going? Could it be that he planned to spring rookie Ryan Moats late in the season, or even in the postseason? Could it be that Reid calculated he could win enough early games on McNabb's arm and then diversify later?

It is possible. And it is possible that McNabb's medical chart threw the calculations off. And it is certain that Reid has failed to adjust his thinking accordingly.

If that was the plan, then there is still time, still hope for the coach to move on to phase two. Now, with the heart of the NFC East schedule looming, would be a very good time to show his hand.

So there's your ray of hope. It isn't much, not with the defense banged up and getting burned for 33 points here and 49 points there. Not with the special teams still wobbly. And especially not with McNabb unlikely to improve physically until he has that surgery he needs.

Two years ago, he played through a terrible slump with that thumb injury. But the thumb healed as time went by. That's not happening this year.

Reid could, of course, decide to make the big move and sit McNabb for a while. Play Koy Detmer or Mike McMahon and hope the offense is efficient enough to win some games. Even if the hernia isn't healed, McNabb could still benefit from a few weeks out of the fire.

But you get the feeling Reid will stick with his quarterback no matter what. It is their unspoken agreement. If McNabb can play, he plays. He is the man. End of discussion.

All the rest of us can do is accept the reality. Last year is gone. The Eagles had their best team and their best chance so far to win a Super Bowl under Reid. They fell short.

We expected this to be The Year Redux. It isn't. The magic belonged to 2004, and no matter how much you will it to change, the calendar still says 2005.

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