Terrell Owens played just 21 regular-season games for the Philadelphia Eagles, a span that was eventful and undeniably brief. The Owens Moment has expanded in retrospect, however, growing in the rearview mirror like a semi tractor-trailer with no brakes.

All of it will be revisited today in that decrepit little stadium on the freeway, scene of so many wonderful battles between the Eagles and Cowboys. This latest installment doesn't promise to be as interesting. The pre-production script indicates a one-sided loss for the visiting team, a final rending of its threadbare postseason hopes, and, perhaps, another celebratory faceful of popcorn for Owens.

It is true that things have gone somewhat better for the receiver than for his former team since they parted company. "I think I got the better end of the deal," Owens said.

The Eagles were 17-4 in those regular-season games with Owens in the lineup. They are 17-21 since. He, meanwhile, has helped the Cowboys to a 21-8 record since his arrival in Dallas. Better end of the deal? Apparently.

Regardless of popular belief, however, including his own, Terrell Owens is not the reason the Eagles are losing football games right now. Neither was he the reason they won football games when he was here.

Oh, he helped. There's no question about that. In the 2004 season, when the Eagles went to the Super Bowl, Owens and his league-leading 1,200 receiving yards helped a lot.

But attributing all the magic to Owens is wrong, no matter how popular it is to point at the current receivers and blame them for everything from the offense's sputtering to the disappearance of the Arctic ice shelf. The burgeoning success of the Cowboys fuels that view, as does the spotless season enjoyed by the Patriots after plunging deeply on their own receiving corps.

Very understandable. But the riddle that remains is this: How did the Eagles win all those games before Owens?

In the four seasons before he arrived, the Eagles were 46-18, with a pair of 11-5 seasons and a pair of 12-4 seasons. They went at least two rounds into the playoffs in each of those seasons, reaching the NFC championship game three straight times. Did they get to a Super Bowl? No. Were they a team far better than the one that takes the field today? Very much so.

In those four seasons, the two players with the most receptions were Chad Lewis and Duce Staley. Coming in behind them was an unremarkable bunch that included James Thrash, Todd Pinkston, Freddie Mitchell, Charles Johnson, Torrance Small and Antonio Freeman.

Compared to any set of receivers you can construct from those days, the current core group of Kevin Curtis, Reggie Brown, L.J. Smith, Brian Westbrook and Jason Avant at least measures up, and is probably better.

So there must be something else that is different now, something that has turned a winning team into a loser, something more than the absence of Owens (who also was absent when the Eagles went 10-6 last season).

As Andy Reid is fond of saying, there are enough pieces of the pie to go around. The defense is not creating turnovers as frequently as it once did, and the offense doesn't get good field position to start its drives as often. The defense is also allowing 20 points per game, while it gave up averages of 15, 13, 15 and 18 in the four years before the Super Bowl season. Some of that is because when the offense doesn't move, the

other

team gets better field position. Nevertheless, in a season in which five losses have come by four points or fewer, that is a factor right there.

And then there is the quarterback. The Donovan McNabb who made do with Thrash, Pinkston and the others, and the one who went to the Super Bowl with Owens, is not the same guy behind center today.

The McNabb of 2007 has been through two serious injuries since that time. He had the muscles of his lower abdominal wall surgically reattached to fix a significant sports hernia in 2005, and he ruptured the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in 2006. The greatest athlete on earth would not be able to sustain those injuries and be unchanged by them.

McNabb is still good, but, at least so far this season, he's good in a different way. He's good in a more cautious way that doesn't involve trying for 60-yard completions and quick strikes down the field. Perhaps it is the natural caution that comes from being 31 years old, instead of 26 or 27. Age - and the occasional knee surgery - can change one's sense of invincibility.

"There are chances to take shots, but also you have to be smart with the ball," McNabb said last week, sounding like a market analyst who won't recommend high-risk ventures.

It is the prudent course, but the current team isn't good enough to always check down to a safer option. That philosophy has put McNabb among the top five in the league for interception percentage and also earned the Eagles a 5-6 record in his starts. Congratulations.

It's not about Terrell Owens, no matter how much it may seem that way today, and this season. It's about throwing the ball as if he's out there, whether he is or not.

Contact columnist Bob Ford at 215-854-5842 or bford@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/bobford.