FOR A while there yesterday, this was going to be a much better story.

The Eagles, according to a source close to the situation, made a prolonged effort to sign free-agent wideout Randy Moss, who ultimately decided to stay with the New England Patriots for $27 million over 3 years, $15 million guaranteed. The Birds, who signed Pats corner Asante Samuel Friday, are said to have offered more total money and more of a guarantee. But apparently, they didn't offer enough to make Moss feel comfortable leaving the team that finally got him to the Super Bowl, in the 10th and most spectacular season of his career.

"I want to take time out to thank all of the fans for their support and for wishing me well in my return to New England," Moss, 31, wrote on his Web site. "I'm ready to get back. We have some unfinished business to take care of."

Agent Tim DiPiero confirmed to that Moss could have gotten more elsewhere. That elsewhere was Philadelphia, another source said, adding that Moss and coach Andy Reid held an extended conversation that led to an Eagles offer. Apparently, at one point, the Birds thought they were going to get Moss, who caught an NFL-record 23 touchdown passes last season.

Obviously, that would have been a strong answer to fans' pleas for a true No. 1 wideout, a need that has existed since another controversial, outspoken receiver left town nearly 2 1/2 years ago. Like Terrell Owens in 2004, Moss would have raised the offseason anticipation level sky high and guaranteed record crowds at Lehigh this summer.

The Eagles and other teams had seemed reluctant to get involved with Moss since free agency began at midnight last Thursday. For months, the word has been that he would stay with the Pats and potential suitors had to wonder if they would just be used to drive up the price for New England. That might have been exactly what happened.

The fact that just about every news outlet on the Eastern seaboard was able to eventually get confirmation of the Eagles' offer might lead one to believe that the Birds were eager for their fans to know they'd swung for the fences, even if they missed. But will this news satisfy the fan base, or only intensify the longing? And what do the Eagles do now?

At wideout, free agency is down to the D.J. Hackett level - the kinds of guys who might have some talent but haven't put it together. The Eagles already have a few of those. There's Javon Walker, with the much-scoped knee. Every day that goes by without the Birds bringing him in to at least have their doctors take a look makes it that much less likely they are seriously interested.

And, of course, there is the fan base's great white whale, Larry Fitzgerald, who still isn't being traded by the Cardinals, but might be, eventually, if the sides can't agree on restructuring his contract. Agent Eugene Parker reiterated to the Arizona Republic last night that Fitzgerald is not agitating for a trade. The Cards say they still expect to agree on restructuring, and that they won't trade the third player taken in the 2004 draft even if they can't agree. They say they will somehow take Fitzgerald's scheduled $16.5 million cap hit in 2008.

But most league observers figure the Cards won't go into the season with Fitzgerald eating up that much of their cap, and that they will trade him if the situation lingers.

Fitzgerald's father, Larry Fitzgerald Sr., is a sports radio reporter in Minneapolis. In response to an e-mail from the Daily News asking about his son's situation and Larry Jr.'s potential interest in the Eagles, Larry Sr. wrote: "Larry has a contract; he signed it in 2004 (six years $60 million). He was the third player taken in the 2004 draft (NYG-Eli Manning, Oakland-Robert Gallery, Arizona-Larry Fitzgerald) . . . Larry is the only one of that group to be All-Pro, play in two Pro Bowls, lead the NFL in receptions in 2005, and lead the NFC in receptions in 2007. Larry is a Cardinal that has reached all his escalators in his contract. The ball is in the Cardinals' court."

Nothing in there about the Eagles, you'll notice, but nothing particulary conciliatory about helping the Cards with their cap woes, either.

He isn't a wideout, but the Falcons released an interesting weapon yesterday in 33-year-old Warrick Dunn, a versatile running back the Birds tried to sign 6 years ago when he left Tampa Bay for Atlanta. Dunn certainly would make a decent complement to Brian Westbrook and provide insurance against a Westbrook injury, but his first visit was back to Tampa. Agent Jim Steiner said he had not heard from the Eagles. *