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SI: Eagles hope to break cycle of coming up short


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Eagles hope to break cycle of coming up short


PHILADELPHIA -- Exactly 103 days have passed since their latest soul-searching, heart-crushing January disappointment, and here they are, back again, ready to try again.

Like the NFL's version of Sisyphus, the Philadelphia Eagles seem destined to slave away at the task of pushing that boulder up the hill, only to have it painfully roll back over them time and time again, just one lousy step from the summit.

By now, it would be almost comical if it weren't so excruciating to watch. You can't even say the words "NFC title game'' in Philadelphia anymore without an entire city flinching. Small children in these parts are being raised believing that a monthlong mourning session that begins in late January is officially the fifth season of the year.

Ah, but hope, even in shell-shocked Philadelphia, springs eternal. And with the Eagles convening for mini-camp this weekend, as May dawns, there is that familiar stirring of anticipation. Maybe this year is the year. Maybe the stars are finally in alignment. Maybe the blockbuster additions of Jevon Kearse on defense and Terrell Owens on offense are the final two pieces of what has grown into a damn frustrating puzzle.

"The goal this year is to win the Super Bowl,'' said Eagles receiver Freddie Mitchell, when asked how he and his teammates begin to shake off the sting of a third consecutive NFC Championship Game defeat, the last two of which have come at home, an unprecedented development.

"That's the main thing, to get over that hump. Nothing shy of that will be acceptable. Nothing. Not just getting there, blah, blah, blah. We're going to win it this year.''

Not exactly a Broadway Joe-style guarantee, but let's call it a Broad Street boast and leave it at that. Mitchell, a fourth-year receiver who has ended each of his NFL seasons one win shy of the Super Bowl, is merely giving voice to the sense of urgency that prevails in Philadelphia in 2004. And why not? If not now, when?

Super Bowl windows of opportunity don't stay open indefinitely in the NFL's salary-cap era, and the Eagles, by landing Kearse and Owens, in essence slid their chips to the center of the table and bet almost everything on 2004.

"They made the changes they had to make,'' Mitchell said. "It showed us that this organization really wants it. A lot of teams set you up for failure, but this organization is doing everything they can to have success.

"That's why I say, 'Hey, no more excuses this year.' You know? They've made the moves, and they've answered everybody. It was, 'Oh, we need a receiver. OK, you got one. We need a pass rusher. You got one.' So it's up to us now. Now we've got to do it.''

That, of course, is where things have gotten dicey of late in the land of the cheesesteak. The "doing it'' part. The Eagles have done plenty in the past four seasons, but they haven't done enough. To wit:

• The Eagles are the fifth team in the Super Bowl era to suffer the frustration of three consecutive conference title game losses, joining Oakland (twice, in 1968-70, in 1973-75), the L.A. Rams (1974-76) and Dallas (1980-82). But Philadelphia is the only member of that ignominious bunch to lose more than one of those games at home.

• Philadelphia is the first team in league history to earn the No. 1 seed in its conference in consecutive years and fail to reach the Super Bowl. For the record, three of the Eagles' past 11 losses, dating from January 2002, have come in the NFC title game.

• Eagles head coach Andy Reid is the first NFL coach to win 11 or more games four seasons in a row but not get to a Super Bowl in that stretch. Making his pain a little worse, in the past 24 years, only four home teams have lost an NFC title game by more than 10 points. The Eagles own two of those, falling 27-10 to Tampa Bay in January 2003 and 14-3 to Carolina this year. (Philadelphia lost 26-21 at St. Louis in January 2002.)

The Eagles have been so close for so long that some of their veteran leaders can't really distinguish one offseason buildup from another. Kearse and Owens are the kind of big-money, headline names the Eagles had never added before during this current playoff run, but the Super Bowl expectations have become a near constant.

"Each year to me is a huge buildup, because we're always expected to do something,'' said Eagles safety Brian Dawkins, who is tied with offensive lineman Jermane Mayberry and defensive tackle Hollis Thomas as the senior most Eagles in terms of continuous service (they all arrived in 1996 and are entering their ninth season in Philadelphia).

"Yeah, we've added some big-time players to help us get to our goal, but the goal still remains the same. To me, the pressure's always been on us to win it all, because we've gotten close so many times. I don't think having Kearse and T.O. add any more pressure than what is already on us.''

Which is not the same as saying that Dawkins and Co. aren't energized by the commitment that the Eagles' front office made to upgrade the roster this spring. Players throughout the locker room this weekend lauded both acquisitions as bold but necessary steps to help the franchise break free of its NFC title game hex.

"I made the analogy a little while ago that we're like an old phonograph record that gets to a certain point and it skips and skips and skips,'' Dawkins said, one of six holdover Eagles who predates the Reid/Donovan McNabb era, which began in 1999. "So sometimes you need to put a quarter on top of the needle to help you get past that skip. We added a couple quarters and added a little more weight, and those were huge additions.

"Because I think they did recognize that if you get to a certain point every year and you can't win it, then you need to add something. You have to change something. There was something that we didn't have, that we needed. You hate to lose the guys we lost. We'd love to have done this last year and still had those guys here, but that wasn't my call.''

In a shakeup as significant as any in Reid's six years, the Eagles shed their roster of such well-known and productive veterans as Troy Vincent, Bobby Taylor, Duce Staley, James Thrash, Carlos Emmons, John Welbourn and Brandon Whiting. Kearse, Owens and outside linebacker Dhani Jones were the key veteran pickups, and last weekend Philadelphia traded up in the first round to land Arkansas offensive lineman Shawn Andrews at No. 16.

The message the Eagles sent this spring came through loud and clear: Philadelphia was seeking difference makers, and previous standards of competency no longer applied. The question that looms, however, is whether the moves exhibited desperation or determination, or a bit of both?

In other offseasons, McNabb, the team's franchise quarterback and unquestioned leader, has complained about the talent drain and loss of locker-room leadership. This year, he set a different tone, beginning his comments to the media on Friday with a blessing of sorts of the team's high-profile signings.

"I guess it's the start of something special,'' said McNabb of the 2004 season, which unofficially opened with mini-camp. "I mean, this is a special year for us. Obviously going to the three NFC championships and bringing in some big acquisitions, this is sort of a new chapter to the book that we started in 1999. ... To bring in some big names to help us out, this is a new chapter for us. We're excited about the goals we've set out for ourselves and the way we're moving in the direction we need to achieve those goals.''

The Eagles still look like the class of the NFC East, but Washington and the Giants both have reason to believe they'll be improved under new head coaches, and Dallas, with miracle man Bill Parcells, is coming off a 10-win, playoff season. But Philadelphia's biggest challenge may be more mental than anything else. After so many near-misses, can the Eagles break their disheartening habit of playoff defeat and finally rise to the occasion?

"You just have to turn the page,'' McNabb said. "It's tough knowing what has happened in the past and how close we've been, but you can't dwell on the past. This is the time to rewrite a new chapter for the future. Hopefully we ... can put ourselves in a position where we'll all be happy.''

In Philadelphia, which wants to give its heart and soul back to the Eagles but is a little bit afraid to, the long, hard climb back to January started this weekend in the relaxed setting of a three-day mini-camp. After this, the terrain only gets tougher.

"That's the hard part that people don't realize,'' Dawkins said. "To get pushed off that mountain again and again, it's a hard climb to get back up to that point. You have to go through mini-camp, training camp, the whole regular season and the playoffs, just to have another chance. We've got confidence that we can get it done, but it's rough. It's a hard climb. A very hard climb.''

But what else are the Eagles to do but get busy covering that familiar ground, a step at a time? It's just that once again this year in Philadelphia, it's only the last step that really matters.

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Philly will be a VERY interesting team to watch this year. They FINALLY went and got McNabb a viable weapon in T.O., but do they need more than that?

Last year was especially brutal on them. After the 4th-down miracle vs. GB they were all positive it was a "destiny" year. To lose to what they all considered an inferior Carolina team was simply devastating. I have to wohder if they'll be hungover from that.

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