BRODRICK BUNKLEY, who would turn out to be the last player to leave the Eagles' locker room yesterday, didn't really want to believe the 2007 season was over.
"It's tough, it's ending early," Bunkley said, after the Birds closed the books at 8-8, with a thoroughly unexciting, 17-9 victory over Buffalo. "We're still going to be watching football games from here on out. Being a football player, being a part of this Philadelphia Eagles team, it's going to be very tough.''
Yes, it certainly did end early. It seems like only a few weeks ago that Greg Lewis and J.R. Reed were standing in the visitors' locker room at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, explaining how two punts slithered through their hands, accounting for 10 Packers points in a 16-13, season-opening loss. That game, which most everyone in both locker rooms agreed the Eagles should have won, turned out to be the season in a nutshell; 2007 slipped through the Eagles' hands.
"We missed on a lot of opportunities . . . that's why we're sitting here with the season over with,'' quarterback Donovan McNabb said yesterday, after absorbing perhaps the most thorough public battering his image has ever taken. McNabb (291-for-473, 61.5 percent, 3,324 yards, 19 touchdowns, 7 interceptions, 44 sacks) finished a season healthy for the first time in 3 years, but he was hesitant, immobile and inconsistent deep into the season, in his comeback from ACL surgery.
If McNabb had been a little sharper a little sooner, if his receivers had been good enough to bail him out when he was struggling, if the defense could have ever scored a touchdown or come up with the ball at a key moment, the Eagles would be playing next week. They should be playing next week. They went into the final weekend of the season ranked in the top 10 in the league in both offense and defense; they finished with eight more touchdowns and 44 more first downs than their opponents. Stat geeks of the future will puzzle over how this team wasn't any better than 8-8, with Brian Westbrook leading the NFL in yards from scrimmage ( a franchise-record 2,104 - 1,333 rushing on 278 carries, 771 receiving on a team-record 90 catches).
"We were able to overcome adversity, just not quickly enough to get ourselves in position to make the playoffs,'' McNabb said after the Birds won their third game in a row for the first time this season. But they lost their final shot at the postseason the night after completing the first of those final three wins. A lot of the good stuff they did at the end didn't really matter.
The Eagles would just as soon you not obsess over that, though. They'd prefer you turn your attention quickly to next season, and the promise offered by a young defense, a superstar running back in his prime, and a fully healed, confident quarterback.
"We will be a contender again,'' vowed Eagles coach Andy Reid.
Yesterday, as he has on several occasions lately, Reid stressed the role of injuries in his team's plight. Again he drew puzzled looks from his audience. The Eagles have key injuries every year; most teams do. You can say that they might have managed more game-changing turnovers if Lito Sheppard hadn't struggled most of this season with a knee problem, or that they might have beaten the Giants at the Meadowlands if William "Tra'' Thomas and Westbrook hadn't been sidelined that day by knee woes, but really, injuries? This ultimately was about injuries?
"This year was an extreme,'' Reid said. "There was a point where we had a few good players out. I just think it's important that guys have a good offseason and that they come back ready to go . . . it just throws a little bit of the continuity off, if you get the number [of injuries] that we had this year.''
Reid's injury focus makes sense, perhaps, if he is really talking about McNabb's recovery. The Eagles researched ACL injuries and knew very well that McNabb wouldn't be at his best until late this season, yet they gameplanned early on as if it were 2004. It seems likely Reid and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg thought McNabb would be able to manage better without full mobility than he actually did. That miscalculation might have been the difference between the 10-6, 11-5-type team many observers thought the Eagles would be and the 8-8 team they became.
As the losses mounted, a significant portion of the fan base seemed to lose whatever remaining faith it had in McNabb, and became eager to turn the page to rookie Kevin Kolb. At one point, people close to McNabb even assumed he would be traded after the season. But that talk has cooled, and it now seems likely the Eagles feel their best chance to win next season is with No. 5, coming back for season No. 10.
Reid made Kolb the backup quarterback yesterday, hoping to get far enough ahead to put him in for a few series late. That didn't happen, mostly because Reid gave Westbrook the fourth quarter off, making it impossible for the Eagles to pull away. Reid felt he needed McNabb in the game when it mattered, even if it ultimately didn't matter. Clearly, Reid felt McNabb and his teammates needed the boost from seeing him look solid and strong these last few weeks.
"It definitely says a lot'' that McNabb played well toward the end, right guard Shawn Andrews said. "It goes to show that he wants to play, he wants to be here, he wants to win. He's a team guy . . . I definitely hope he's here. There's going to be a big, missing piece of the puzzle if he's not.''
Yesterday, McNabb gave the Eagles a 7-0, first-quarter lead on a 2-yard touchdown pass to rookie tight end Brent Celek, the first NFL TD for Celek, who could end up as the starter next season. The Birds finished the first half with a 38-yard David Akers field goal, then were both good and lucky in scoring their final points of the year. McNabb hit Reggie Brown in stride inside the Bills' 10, on second and 6 from the 33 late in the third quarter, but Brown was hit and fumbled the ball into the end zone. For the second week in a row, wideout Kevin Curtis swooped in and gathered a teammate's fumble for a touchdown - he'd done the same thing on a McNabb fumble in New Orleans.
The Bills never quite managed the task of scoring a touchdown, the Eagles' defense as dominant in the red zone as it has been all year.
The Eagles said Curtis became the first player in NFL history to recover a teammate's fumble in the end zone in back-to-back games. Curtis definitely was the bright spot of 2007 Eagles free agency, finishing with 77 catches for 1,110 yards. His total receptions were the fourth-highest in franchise history, and he became the second wideout in the Reid era, after Terrell Owens, to surpass 1,000 receiving yards.
Nonetheless, many people around the team believe the Eagles must add a significant weapon to be able to crack really good defenses. McNabb would seem to be one of those people, even if he didn't quite say so yesterday.
"I think this is going to be an important offseason for us,'' McNabb said. "No matter how you look at it, it's got to be an important offseason.''
Asked what he meant, exactly, McNabb said: "Nice try. You know what I mean. It's important with the draft and free agency. Nice try.''
Asked about the need to bring in a wideout, McNabb said he didn't want to pinpoint a specific position.
"Whatever position it may be, I think the draft and free agency are going to be key,'' McNabb said. "Just kind of bringing more weapons on both sides of the ball and special teams - if it's a receiver, running back, quarterback, something to help this team out.''
Someone asked Westbrook how far he felt the Birds were from having the kind of dominant offense that took them to the Super Bowl 3 years ago.
"We're not very far off,'' Westbrook said. "We made some mistakes. Even today, we made some mistakes. Penalties, turnovers, things like that definitely hurt us.''
Maybe the Eagles' most telling 2007 stat was minus-8, their turnover margin. Yesterday they were minus-2, with a red-zone interception cutting short what should have been a scoring drive. Even though they won, they failed to reach the 20-point mark for the 10th time; as good as the defense was, it operated with little margin for error in most games, and at times players seemed to tighten up.
"Some guys, when they make a bad play, they're thinking about that play for the rest of the game,'' cornerback Sheldon Brown said. Brown's paltry three interceptions led the team. "It's a game, you never thought about that play in high school, or even in college. Don't think about it now. Just play ball. When you get older, you understand that, but when you're young, it's hard. You're thinking, 'They're going to get rid of me tomorrow.' It's hard to play like that.'' *