EVER SINCE Andy Reid's Eagles came up five points short in their first NFC Championship Game appearance against the St. Louis Rams in January 2002, the fans and the media have spent a good amount of time wondering aloud just how long the window of Super Bowl opportunity would remain open for this team.
With each close-but-no-cigar finish, with each departure of yet another popular player, there would be an offseason rush to declare the window closed, only to have the Eagles rack up another double-digit-win season, another division title, another shot at the ever-elusive grand prize.
But there will be no double-digit-win season or division title this year. And while the numbers say their playoff hopes aren't yet dead, it's only a matter of time.
After that, the fans and the media won't be the only ones asking the window question. The Eagles also will be wondering it.
Two years ago, when they slipped to 6-10, they viewed it as an aberration caused by a head-case wide receiver and an injured quarterback. Their fifth division title in 6 years last season proved them correct. This time around, well, they're not so sure.
Even with their quarterback still recovering from a serious knee injury, they went into this season thinking they had as talented a team as any in the Andy Reid era.
Once the season is over, whether they finish 6-10 or 7-9 or 8-8, they need to step back and honestly evaluate the caliber of team they have and figure out where they go from here; figure out whether the window is completely shut or still is open a crack.
They clearly have miscalculated the ability of some of their players. Free-agent defensive ends Jevon Kearse (8 years, $66 million, $16 million signing bonus) and Darren Howard (6 years, $25.1 million, $3.55 million signing bonus) both have been major disappointments. Neither will be back in '08. Too many high draft picks, such as defensive end Jerome McDougle (first round, '03), linebacker Matt McCoy (second round, '05) and cornerback Matt Ware (third round, '04) have been flops.
The lack of productivity from Kearse and Howard has put added pressure on ends Trent Cole and Juqua Thomas, who are good players, but aren't built to be 50-snap-a-game ends. Rookie second-rounder Victor Abiamiri will contribute a lot more next year than he has this year (inactive for eight of 12 games). But they need to find somebody to rotate with Cole on the right side.
The secondary is a major concern. Free safety Brian Dawkins is 34. Strong safety Sean Considine suffered his second major shoulder injury in 3 years last month and is on injured reserve. A safety with a history of shoulder injuries is a bigger risk than a race car driver with double vision. Quintin Mikell, who filled in for Dawkins when he was hurt earlier this season and replaced Considine after he went down, isn't really an ideal long-term answer at either safety spot.
Their best cornerback, Lito Sheppard, hasn't played a full season since 2003 and has missed 14 of the Eagles' last 36 games with injuries. Their other starting corner, Sheldon Brown, will be 29 in March.
Will James, who opened the season as the team's No. 3 corner and is their only cover guy with any size, has been a bust. He'll be a free agent and isn't expected to be re-signed. Their other corner, Joselio Hanson, also will be a free agent.
On offense, tight end L.J. Smith will be a free agent and isn't likely to be back unless the team puts the franchise tag on him. Smith is considered the top free-agent tight end on the '08 market, according to three different personnel people.
The Eagles' two dependable, longtime tackles, Jon Runyan and William Thomas, are nearing the end of their careers. Both have played pretty well this season, but Runyan is 34 and Thomas is 33. Both have another year left on their contracts and probably will be back, though Thomas' $5.45 million '08 salary will prompt the Eagles to consider going with '06 second-round pick Winston Justice next year, even if they haven't burned the film from the first Giants game.
And not to be a wet blanket with respect to running back Brian Westbrook, who is having an MVP-worthy season. But his biological clock is beginning to tick. He will turn 29 before the start of next season. There's also the matter of locating a real, live, can-take-it-to-the-house-every-time-he-touches-it return man.
And God knows what's going to happen with the quarterback situation. If the Eagles come to the conclusion that the Super Bowl window still is open, it seems incomprehensible that they would deal Donovan McNabb in the offseason and pencil in green Kevin Kolb as their season-opening starter.
Money wouldn't seem to be a motivation for getting rid of McNabb. His '07 salary-cap number, including his $5.5 million base salary, is $8.6 million, which is a bargain for a five-time Pro Bowler. Next year, his base and cap number only increase $800,000.
The good news is the Eagles have the ammunition to get back on track. Whether they can shoot bull's-eyes with that ammunition, well, that's another story for another day.
The salary cap will increase from $109 million to $116 million per team in 2008. The Eagles, who didn't have a lot of cap space during the '07 free- agency signing period, will have considerably more this time around. Enough to be a player.
Unloading Kearse and Howard will only increase that cap space. According to league sources, the Eagles will take a $5.7 million cap hit if/when they pull the plug on Kearse and Howard. But the pair are scheduled to receive a total of $8.96 million in salary in '08. So the Eagles actually will save $3.26 million in cap space by releasing them.
The bad news is this isn't going to be a great free-agent market. There are a lot of appetizing names out there right now, such as Patriots cornerback Asante Samuel and wide receiver Randy Moss, Raiders cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, Chiefs defensive end Jared Allen, and Colts tight end Dallas Clark and safety Bob Sanders. But almost all of the big names are expected to be re-signed by their current teams by the time the free-agency signing period kicks off in March.
The Eagles also will have a lot of draft picks, possibly as many as 12 or 13 depending on how many compensatory picks they receive in March for the free agents they lost after the '06 season. But again, they can't blow these picks on the Matt McCoys and Jerome McDougles of the world. They've got to find players who can step in and play.
Window open? Window closed? This much is clear: The balance of power has shifted this season in both the NFC and the NFC East. The road to the Super Bowl goes through Dallas this year and probably for at least a couple of more years to come.
Before the Eagles can dream the gold-standard dream again, they first need to get good enough to get past the Cowboys.