Fourth in a six-part yearlong series about the best local teams that never won a championship. Today: 2002 Eagles. Coming in October: 1994 Penn State Nittany Lions.

A frenzied crowd had come prepared to say goodbye to Veterans Stadium, not to another Eagles season. So after the home team suffered one of its most ignominious postseason defeats, in its final game at one of sports’ most ignominious venues, the field-level tableau reflected Philadelphia’s overwhelming gloom.

Those among the 66,713 fans who hadn’t exited after Ronde Barber’s 92-yard interception return iced the Buccaneers’ 27-10, NFC championship game victory stood in dazed silence. Hugh Douglas buried his head deep into a teammate’s shoulder pads and sobbed as he and the Eagles slumped off the field. Meanwhile, Warren Sapp, Tampa Bay’s often insufferable defensive star, leaped atop a wall, faced the stands, and raised his arms in a silent but somehow deafening taunt.

What happened? A little more than three hours earlier, the 2002 Eagles, for many reasons, seemed bound for Super Bowl XXXVII, a game in which they’d almost certainly be favored.

They were determined to put an exclamation point on their 32-year history at the Vet, where they’d won seven of eight regular-season games that year and the previous week’s playoff matchup with Atlanta.

They were facing a team they’d defeated not just earlier that season but also in each of the two previous postseasons, outscoring the Bucs, 52-12, in those playoff wins.

They had the support of a city that had worked itself into a froth during a week filled with trash talk and boundless confidence.

They were playing in weather — windy and 26 degrees at game time — that they loved, and that Tampa Bay, which in its 26-year existence had yet to win in sub-40 temperatures, hated.

The Inquirer even had an Eagles-win cover ready for its day-after special section, a full-page photo of Donovan McNabb raising a ball beneath the words “NFC Champs!”

“You couldn’t have convinced anyone in the city, especially in that locker room, that we weren’t going to win,” recalled Ike Reese, then an Eagles linebacker, now a WIP talk-radio host. “In our mind, it was a foregone conclusion. They weren’t beating us.’”

But they did.

They did because McNabb exhibited rust he’d accumulated in missing six weeks with a broken ankle, because Jon Gruden’s offense outfoxed Jim Johnson’s defense, because Joe Jurevicius turned his only reception into a 71-yard back-breaker.

Though that Jan. 19, 2003 loss would be Philadelphia’s second of three straight in NFC championship games, it stung the most. The 2002 Eagles were not only the best of those three teams but perhaps the best also-ran in the franchise’s long history, too.

McNabb, 26, was mature, explosive, and, until a Game 10 injury, virtually unstoppable. The offense averaged 25.9 points, fourth best in the NFL. The defense allowed the second-fewest points (15.1) and forced 38 turnovers.

David Akers, Brian Mitchell, and rookie Brian Westbrook were special-teams standouts. Among 10 Pro Bowl representatives were three defensive backs (Brian Dawkins, Troy Vincent, and Bobby Taylor) and three offensive linemen (Jon Runyan, Jermane Mayberry, and Tra Thomas).

Even Andy Reid’s staff was noteworthy, featuring seven future head coaches (Brad Childress, Pat Shurmur, Ron Rivera, Steve Spagnuolo, Sean McDermott, John Harbaugh, and Leslie Frazier).

“We had the offense. We had the defense. We had special teams. We had everything going for us,” Eagles tight end Chad Lewis recalled. “That’s why the way it ended cut so deep.”

‘Off the merry-go-round at long last’

The 2001 season had concluded with a tantalizing image: McNabb as a spectator on the TWA Dome sideline watching the Rams celebrate their surprisingly close NFC championship game victory over the Eagles.

“I decided to go back out and watch because I felt confident we’d get back in that same spot again,” McNabb explained.

Eight months later, Reid’s Eagles looked ready to end the franchise’s Super Bowl drought, ready to, as Inquirer columnist Bill Lyon noted, “get off the merry-go-round at long last.”

The roster for the 2002 season opener in Tennessee had some tweaks, mostly on defense. Linebacker Jeremiah Trotter was gone, replaced by Levon Kirkland, and safety Blaine Bishop had been added.

Levon Kirkland was one of the additions to the 2002 Eagles.
Levon Kirkland was one of the additions to the 2002 Eagles.

But while talk-show callers pleaded for upgraded receivers, the Eagles starting offense was unchanged from 2001, though there were a few experienced new faces, notably Antonio Freeman and Dorsey Levins.

They blew an early lead to the Titans, whose persistent pass rush flustered McNabb in Tennessee’s 27-24 opening-game victory. The Eagles recovered and routed three straight opponents: Washington, 37-7; Dallas, 44-13; and Houston, 35-17.

That Monday night road win over Steve Spurrier’s Redskins, just five days after the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, included a frightening moment. When FedEx Field police employed pepper spray to quell a late-game fight in the stands, the noxious gas drifted onto the field.

“We had guys falling out there and throwing up and coughing,” said Reid, who ordered his team to the opposite sideline until Redskins trainers responded and the air had cleared.

After those impressive wins came another frustrating road loss to an AFC team — 28-25 at Jacksonville — followed by another three-game winning streak.

Optimism for the 6-2 Eagles grew sky high before plummeting in a dispiriting 35-13 home loss to Peyton Manning’s Colts. An angry Vet crowd booed McNabb.

In typically deadpan fashion, Reid told the media the loss was “a breakdown in all facets.” He was more emotional addressing his players.

“We didn’t even watch that film,” said Lewis, now an assistant athletic director at BYU. “It was like, ‘OK, that’s not us. Let’s wipe the slate and go back to work.’ Andy said, 'Hey, we’ve got a great team. We’re going to reload, and we’re going after people.’ ”

Donovan McNabb (lower right) suffered a broken ankle on this play against the Arizona Cardinals.
Donovan McNabb (lower right) suffered a broken ankle on this play against the Arizona Cardinals.

Quarterback carousel

A 38-14 thrashing of Arizona the next week included one notable breakdown: McNabb’s right ankle.

It happened on the game’s third play, when he was sacked by LeVar Woods and Adrian Wilson. McNabb stayed in and threw four touchdown passes, but postgame X-rays revealed the damage. He would be gone six to eight weeks.

The Eagles had been criticized for relying too heavily on their young quarterback, who in the giddiness after the Week 3 Dallas blowout had signed a 12-year, $125 million contract extension. In addition to his 17 TD passes, McNabb was the team’s second-leading rusher through 10 games with 460 yards.

The next two games were against 7-3 San Francisco and the defending NFC-champion Rams. How would Philadelphia fare with Koy Detmer at quarterback?

“That Monday, Andy called a meeting,” Reese recalled. “He told us we were going to move on. He was strong and confident and never wavered. Panic didn’t spread around the locker room because the coach didn’t look like he was panicking.

“Even when he spoke to the media later, he sounded confident. We took a cue from that. We decided that defense and special teams were going to have to step up.”

On a Monday night in San Francisco, the Eagles led, 28-10, late in the third quarter when Detmer was hit while passing. After releasing the ball, a 24-yard completion to Jeff Thomason, he tumbled to the turf, bracing himself with his left arm. The arm buckled grotesquely beneath him, dislocating the elbow.

“We had this team we knew was talented,” Reese said. “We felt like we were right there. Then, man, back-to-back weeks, we lost our starting QB.”

Suddenly, A.J. Feeley, a second-year quarterback who’d thrown 14 NFL passes, was entrusted with the team’s Super Bowl hopes. In a preview of what was to come, he completed that first drive by hitting Lewis for a touchdown.

Troy Vincent intercepting a pass intended for the Rams' Isaac Bruce on Dec. 1, 2002.
DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Troy Vincent intercepting a pass intended for the Rams' Isaac Bruce on Dec. 1, 2002.

Remarkably, relying on Duce Staley, Westbrook, Feeley’s controlled passing, and a fired-up defense, the Eagles not only routed the 49ers, 38-17, but they also stifled the high-flying Rams, 10-3. They won five of their last six without McNabb.

“The Rams game really propelled us,” Reese said. “We had a third-string QB. How were we going to beat the Greatest Show on Turf with Kurt Warner, Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt?

“Well, we held them to three points.”

For all of McNabb’s influence, the heart of the 2002 Eagles was a veteran defense that featured such vocal leaders as Douglas, Dawkins, and Vincent.

“In our minds, that was a defensive team,” Reese said. “We felt like we set the personality; we set the tone. We felt like the maturity and talent on the team was on that side of the football.”

In six games without McNabb, the Eagles allowed fewer than 12 points a game. In their NFC divisional playoff win at home, they limited Michael Vick and the Falcons to two field goals.

Verbal warfare

McNabb returned for that 20-6 playoff win and played reasonably well, completing 20 of 30 passes for 247 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions.

“He was shaking off rust and wasn’t that great,” Reese said, “but he was good enough for us to win.”

The week preceding the NFC title game was noisy. Bucs and Eagles took turns firing verbal shots at each other.

“We were quite familiar with each other,” Reese said. “Tampa had talkers, and we had our share too. Both teams were defensive-oriented, so it was all about machismo and intimidation. Part of that is big hits, and part is talking. They were going to try to do it, and so were we. You knew whatever team won wasn’t going to be humble. That’s why we hated losing to those guys.”

Reese thought the Eagles might have been overconfident for the Bucs game. Gruden shifted some personnel packages from the earlier losses to Philadelphia. In some, Bucs receivers were matched up with bigger, slower Eagles linebackers such as Kirkland and Barry Gardner. That’s what happened on the game-changing pass to Jurevicius.

Philadelphia led, 7-3, late in the first quarter when on a third-and-2 from their own 24, Brad Johnson hit the former Penn State receiver. Seventy-one yards later, the Bucs had a first down on Philadelphia’s 5.

“That turned everything around,” Dawkins said. “That was a killer.”

The time of death for the 2002 Eagles came at 6:27 that evening. For the players, while the franchise’s first Super Bowl victory 15 years later helped a little, that pain lingers.

Lewis sighed audibly when contemplating the disappointment. Reese ruefully recalled leaving the Vet for a last time that night, the old stadium soon to be demolished as thoroughly as the 2002 Eagles’ dreams.

“It felt like we let the city down,” Reese said. “The people that filled the stadium were what gave it the mystique, and we wanted to win a Super Bowl for them that last year. That hurt for a lot of us. I know I had tears leaving that stadium.

“History wasn’t going to be written the way it should have been written.”