Call it an unintended consequence.

When Andy Reid benched Donovan McNabb for the second half against the Baltimore Ravens, he did so, he said, because sometimes a player needs to take a step backward to take two steps forward.

Apparently, sometimes a player needs to see the leader of the team stripped of his long-standing starting job in order to get his own act together.

Was that Reid's plan all along? Bench the quarterback to get the other guys in the locker room to elevate their game in support? It's doubtful. But to hear the players tell it, that is exactly what has happened. Everyone - on offense, defense, special teams - felt at least partially responsible for McNabb's public flogging, and when Reid renamed him the starter a day later, the players vowed to not let McNabb lose his job again.

The offensive line blocked a little better. Brian Westbrook ran a little harder. The defense locked down a little tighter. And voila, two team wins in two games.

If the Eagles continue this little run they're on and make the playoffs - still a big if, but certainly not unreasonable with only three teams ahead of them in the wild-card race - McNabb's benching will go down as the turning point of the season. At the time, it looked like a desperate act by a desperate coach, and maybe it was, but the move catapulted the Eagles to wins over two division champions and back into the playoff hunt with three games left.

Many of the players are growing beards in a hockey-esque show of solidarity, but even that doesn't appear all that necessary. McNabb won't admit that anything good came out of getting benched against the Ravens - clearly, he is still irked - but the move, in fact, brought this team together.

The question is, will it be enough?

"Everybody saw your leader on the field and your main piece on the offense get benched. Not just because of how he was playing, but because not everybody was producing," offensive guard Todd Herremans said. "So when we see that Coach is going to put Donovan back in, everybody realized: 'All right, step it up; it's not just him.'

"If Coach would've just kept with Kevin [Kolb], we would've said it was only Donovan, but it wasn't. And obviously, we can see that, because Donovan is playing good ball. When everybody else plays good, Donovan plays good."

Against Arizona and New York, everyone, including McNabb, played well. The Eagles have made 26 rushing first downs in the last two weeks, which is more than in the four previous games combined. Their third-down conversion percentage is .667 (22 of 33), by far the highest of the season. The defense limited the Cardinals and Giants to 26 first downs combined - the total it allowed New York in the earlier game this season - and it contained two of the league's more proficient offenses, holding Arizona to 260 offensive yards and New York to 211.

After struggling to move for much of the season, Westbrook has 55 carries in the last two games, including a career-high 33 against the Giants, plus 241 rushing yards and five touchdowns (three rushing, two receiving).

Westbrook hasn't seen a difference in McNabb - "I don't think he approaches the game any differently," he said - but he has in everyone else.

"I think, as a team, we have taken some of the pressure off him," Westbrook said. "He hasn't had to carry the team every single game. . . . I think Coach is taking some of the pressure off him. He's not throwing 50 passes a game. He's giving us an opportunity to run, and the offensive line is getting into it as well, other receivers and things like that. So I think just taking that pressure off him has kind of helped him out."

It is true the Eagles' offense has been atypically tilted toward the running game the last two weeks (81 rushing attempts, 69 pass attempts), while McNabb's completion percentage has soared into the mid-60s.

And Westbrook feels as if he is doing his part now as well.

"I just knew I needed to take my level of play to another level," he said. "I wasn't able to really help him out a lot getting a couple of carries, a couple of yards. I just wasn't helping him enough in order for him to be the effective quarterback that we all know he can be. He needs a running back that is going to help him, and I wasn't doing my job well enough at that time."

No one was, including the head coach and the quarterback. Before the last two games, there were too many silly plays called, too many passing plays on third and 1, too many missed receivers, too many shaky passes.

Now?

"We are still the same team," McNabb said. "We're just eliminating the mistakes we were making in the previous weeks, and focusing on what we need to do in order to be successful in these games we've been playing."

Asked if getting benched helped him, McNabb said flatly, "No."

He clearly doesn't buy into any of it.

"Like I said, sometimes you just need to take a step back and things kind of clear up for you," Reid said.

And sometimes the rest of the players need a wake-up call, which is what they got when Reid benched McNabb. How long it lasts will determine how far this team goes.

Contact staff writer Ashley Fox
at 215-854-5064 or afox@phillynews.com.