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Len Pasquarelli: Eagles can't afford to come up short again


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Eagles can't afford to come up short again

By Len Pasquarelli

ESPN.com

http://insider.espn.go.com/insider/story?id=1600167

PHILADELPHIA -- Over the past three years, the Philadelphia Eagles have won 34 regular-season games and claimed two division titles. The franchise is one of just three in the league to have advanced to postseason play for the last three consecutive years. The young quarterback has played well, and the aggressive defense has been even better.

So such continued success in 2003 would be just fine, right, folks? Uh, not quite.

In perhaps the easiest best-case/worst-case rundown on any of the camps we visited, it doesn't take a genius -- a title we have neither claimed nor earned -- to discern the upside and downside possibilities for the Eagles this season. Simply put: Nothing short of the franchise's first Super Bowl title will be tolerated.

Wayne

"I'm one of the new guys around here, but let me tell you, it's clear this team feels like it has to win this year," said weakside linebacker Nate Wayne, signed as a free agent after the Green Bay Packers released him. "I mean, I have been in situations where there were high expectations. But nothing like this."

It isn't as if another season that concludes shy of owner Jeffrey Lurie clutching the Vince Lombardi will force a breakup of the Philadelphia roster. This team, more than any other viable Super Bowl contender, is built for the long haul. The crafty cap management of club president Joe Banner has all but ensured success for several more seasons. But what it hasn't ensured is a championship.

And nobody needs to remind the veterans here that they have lost the last two conference championship games. If the failures aren't dredged up daily, the players feel the pain and don't mind acknowledging it.

So if the third time isn't a charm, the Eagles aren't likely to be leading charmed lives in 2004, because some alterations will have to be made. The formula has been in place now for two years. But falling short of a goal tends to mandate change, almost dictates some sort of shakeup to rearrange the status quo, so this is probably the last opportunity for the roster as it is currently configured.

McNabb

Fans here felt, at least a year ago, the worst-case scenario that could befall their beloved Eagles was to have quarterback Donovan McNabb sidelined for an extended period. But they found out the team could tread water without its biggest star. Not advancing to the Super Bowl this year, however, would reduce McNabb's fractured ankle of a year ago to a hairline afterthought.

So, herewith, the rather easily identifiable best- and worst-case scenarios for 2003:

Best case

Following the NFL title game defeat of 2001 in St. Louis, the rallying cry for the Eagles was to win homefield advantage through the playoffs, and they accomplished that in 2002.

Of course, the Veterans Stadium magic failed them, and they were obliterated by the more passionate Bucs. About the only thing that could make up for that is to again grab the homefield edge, this time at Lincoln Financial Field, to conclude the stadium's debut season with an NFC title, and then to cap the year with a Super Bowl win.

The Eagles continue to believe the Super Bowl is their destiny. What they have to realize is that it's not a birthright.

Worst case

Easy. Anything short of the above. It would mean that, for another season, the Master Plan had failed. And it would have to mean some change as well.

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If you think about it, being realistic, the Eagles probably won't win the Supe. They are one of the elite teams right now but there are probably 4 or so teams that have equal chances. Plus the Bucs still look good, unfortunately. Plus you need luck to win the Super Bowl and the Eagles are cursed. Plus, teams seem to come out of nowhere and catch fire and win. So we'll see.

But as far as 'anything less than a Super Bowl is a failure', big deal. We're used to failure. After last year's loss, I think we're numb to pain.

As to whether we're better than last year - I think we're a little better on offense and a little worse on defense. Which is fine, except defense wins championships and the Bucs have a nice defense. We didn't do enough to overtake last year's Bucs, but we could be better than a fat, happy, and content Buc team, if that's what they field this year.

The good thing is that we're built for the long haul as the article says, so we get to experience the extreme disappointment of losing in the playoffs on an annual basis.

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well, for Eagles fans, the bright light has to be that the Bucs themselves were considered somewhat of a cursed team in the playoffs before 2002. they lost consecutive ugly games to the Eagles and changes in QB and WR and OC didn't seem to help them.

until last season. when they got the performance of their lives in the postseason out of a questionable offensive line. and also out of capable but not spectacular talent in Brad Johnson, Michael Pittman and the two wideouts.

so, Philly is not out of it by any means.

what complicates things for them, though, is that right now the NFC is shaping up to be a better race this year than last.

The Rams may be back to being a 10-12 win team. The Giants look to be better in the NFC East. The Bucs return their core and New Orleans may finally start to put something together.

And then there are the teams driven by their quarterbacks. Green Bay, San Francisco and Atlanta goes as far as their franchise qbs take them.

But even the poor teams from a couple of years ago such as Carolina and Detroit look to be better.

So, getting back to 12 or 13 wins for the Eagles may be difficult.

The one saving grace for them in the East is that while they did not acquire a franchise WR in the offseason, the Giants stood pat and didn't upgrade their CB position from 2002.

Peterson and Allen are vulnerable at CB as the 49ers showed.

That puts added pressure on Collins, Barber, Shockey et al to keep the points coming.

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The Eagles are going to be hard pressed to win their division. The Giants will put up a good fight, and the 'Skins shouldn't be a pushover either. The Eagles are favored, but have generally maintained the same talent level whereas the 'Skins and the Giants have improved. Even Dallas should be improved insofar as they have a coach emphasizing discipline, toughness and fundamentals, which counts for something.

I'm just wondering how well they'll hold together if they don't get to the Super Bowl this year. Will they fire Reid?

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Bulldog, good points; the Rams will be especially interesting to watch this year. Like you said, the Giants didn't upgrade too much either, but they give the Eagles fits - they were doing it even during our mini (3-game) win streak. I think they improved markedly when Fassel took over the playcalling. Go figure.

Redman, don't know if they'll fire Reid if they fall short of the Super Bowl this year. Take it for what it's worth, but a few months ago Profootballtalk mentioned that sources said that Reid had to do something this year, and that Banner (the owner's right-hand man) was distancing himself from Reid. They both came out with a statement that this was completely false, and I haven't heard any further gossip since.

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