When the Eagles' season started, the dressing stall at the far left end of the NovaCare Complex locker room belonged to some guy named Jeremy Leman, a linebacker on the practice squad who has since been released.

It was noteworthy because Leman was dressing in the same space that had been occupied for so long by Jeremiah Trotter, a four-time Pro Bowler forced into involuntary retirement after spending the 2007 season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

At the time, the idea that Trotter would again wear an Eagles uniform seemed about as likely as Santa Claus paying your American Express bill.

But here we are, with just eight shopping days left until Christmas, and Trotter is not only back at that familiar locker, but also playing a prominent role in the Eagles' defense again as the starting middle linebacker.

A member of the Eagles' front office was asked earlier this week what he would have thought if someone told him in training camp that his team would be 9-4 with Trotter as the starting middle linebacker.

"I'd have believed the 9-4 part," he said.

Linebacker Takeo Spikes, who will be in town with the San Francisco 49ers for Sunday's game against the Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field, admitted that he, too, was in disbelief when he first heard the news that Trotter was returning to Philadelphia.

"At first, I was surprised to see him back with Philly," Spikes said, "but knowing the history and everything he's been through . . . it doesn't really surprise me."

Spikes and Trotter never played together in the regular season. Spikes was traded to the Eagles in 2007 from Buffalo and anticipated joining Trotter as part of the linebacker corps. Before they reached the starting gate, however, Trotter and his surgically repaired knees were released after a teary-eyed meeting with coach Andy Reid.

"The fire still was in him and it was burning hard, too," Spikes said. "I knew he still had some plays left in him."

After another knee operation and a year away from the game, Trotter convinced Reid, through a series of phone calls and workouts, that he had both the fire and the knees to return to the game. The Eagles signed him Sept. 29.

Only recently, however, has he begun to resemble the Pro Bowl player who slashed and crashed into offensive-line gaps as a disruptive force against the run.

"It has been so much fun, man," Trotter said. "When you sit at home for a whole year . . . sometimes I just take a minute and kind of soak it in. I'm having so much fun with my teammates, a lot of young guys, and it just makes everything so much better that I'm getting playing time."

Trotter, 32, is coming off his best game since returning, having compiled 11 tackles Sunday in the 45-38 win over the New York Giants, but he thinks he can get better.

"I'm getting there," he said. "I'm always my toughest critic. I left some plays out there, but there were a couple plays in the running game where I expect more out of myself.

"It's like day and night when I first got here. Before, I could see things but my body wasn't reacting to them. Now my body is able to react to what I'm seeing."

Although Trotter excelled, the defense overall is coming off its worst performance of the season, having surrendered a season high of 512 yards to the Giants. Trotter said defensive coordinator Sean McDermott provided a positive message before the players went to work yesterday.

"Like Coach Sean said, 'One bad game doesn't make you a bad defense,' " Trotter said. "We know we're not going to keep winning giving up 38 points a game. We have to make sure we come out this week and set a statement."

Trotter has been a part of Eagles defenses that have rebounded before. The last time the Eagles won the NFC East title, in 2006, the defense was left for dead after being abused by Indianapolis and rebounded to help the team win six straight games.

Perhaps the best thing about having Trotter back in that familiar locker at the far left end of the room is his perspective. Questions about the 2004 Super Bowl team were popular yesterday, and Trotter was one of the few men who could offer any perspective.

"We have a potent offense here," Trotter said. "We have so much talent. We have a lot of talent on defense, too. We just have to put it together. We have a young defense and a young coordinator, and we're all learning as we go along.

"I think Sean is doing a really good job, but we have to do a better job of helping him out. I really don't believe we've even come close to how well we can play."