Brent Celek caught 19 passes in the playoffs, including 10 in the NFC Championship Game, then had the pleasure of spending the next 3 months listening to Eagles fans beat the drum for a tight end in the first round of the April draft.
The Eagles didn't take one in the first round, passing on Brandon Pettigrew and trading up two spots for wide receiver Jeremy Maclin. But they did snatch up Cornelius Ingram in the fifth. And even Ingram, who missed all of last season at Florida with a knee injury but drew regular oohs and aahs at the recent spring minicamps with his athleticism and 4.6 speed, is running ahead of Celek in the opinion polls, though not on Andy Reid's depth chart.
"I'm just going to keep preparing the way I've been preparing," said Celek, who started 10 games last season, including all three of the Eagles' postseason contests. "I know there are people out there that still doubt me to this day. That's fine. I love that. Because it makes me work even harder. I just hope I can play good and help this team win football games."
Celek, a fifth-round pick out of Cincinnati in 2007, became one of quarterback Donovan McNabb's go-to receivers after replacing injured L.J. Smith in the second half of the 2008 season. He caught three passes, including one for a touchdown, in the Eagles' playoff-clinching, 44-6 win over the Dallas Cowboys in Week 17.
Caught six passes in the 26-14 wild-card win over the Vikings, had a game-clinching, fourth-quarter touchdown catch in their 23-11 divisional playoff win over the Giants, then had the game of his life in their heartbreaking, 32-25 loss to the Cardinals in the NFC title game.
His two third-quarter scoring grabs helped the Eagles erase an 18-point halftime deficit and grab a temporary lead at 25-24 before Kurt Warner and the Cardinals went on an 8-minute march to take back the lead and crush the Eagles' Super Bowl hopes.
"Man, I really thought we were going to the Super Bowl," Celek said. "When we took the lead, I was like, this is it. I never won a championship at any level. I was never in the playoffs in high school. I went to the worst bowl games in college. They didn't even mean anything. To be able to play in the Super Bowl, that would have been a dream come true. Hopefully it's going to happen this year."
Celek is doing everything he can to make sure he's up to the task. He has spent much of the offseason in the weight room and the film room, and will be joining McNabb and the other receivers in Arizona for their pre-training-camp passing camp.
"I've lowered my body fat," he said. "I've put on some weight. I got stronger. I'm around the weight I want to be [about 260] and I'm going to keep working to get stronger."
In the film room, Celek has watched hours of tape of some of the league's top tight ends, particularly the Cowboys' Jason Witten and the Redskins' Chris Cooley.
"I mainly watch guys, like Witten, that I can emulate," he said. "I can't watch a guy like [Kellen] Winslow and try to get something from him because he's a totally different athlete. But I can watch guys like Witten and Cooley, and learn things. And that's what I try to do. Learn some of the things they do when they run certain routes and how they run them against certain defenses."
While Reid was pretty happy with the job Celek did as a receiver last season, he made it clear to Celek that he needs to improve his blocking.
"I expect him to get better in the blocking area," Reid said before the draft. "But he's not far off there and he's very willing. We'll get that part taken care of."
Celek attributed much of his blocking struggles last season to offseason shoulder surgery.
"Honestly, I didn't feel that great at the beginning of last year," he said. "Even during the season to some degree. This year, I feel like my shoulder is back to normal."
Celek is confident his blocking will improve this season. Unlike Ingram, who played in a spread offense at Florida and has zero experience as an in-line blocker, Celek got plenty of blocking experience at Cincinnati.
"I think I was one of the best blocking tight ends coming out [of college]," Celek said. "The offense we ran at Cincinnati was more like the Steelers' offense. My rookie year, I had a carry-over from my senior year in college and was a better blocker [than last year]. I just need to stay with it and get back to that this year."
Celek understands why so many people have fallen in love with Ingram. But he warned that the kid is going to have some growing pains.
"He's a good player, but he's got a lot to learn," he said. "There's a lot to playing tight end in this league. He hasn't blocked very much. It will take some time for him to do it. It's not something you can get overnight, especially when you didn't do it in college. But he's doing a good job of working."
Celek hopes the trust McNabb developed in him late last season will continue into this season.
"If you catch the ball when Don throws it to you, he's going to keep coming back to you," he said. "That's human nature. You've got to be consistent with Don. You've got to catch it when he throws it to you. I think that's what I did last year, and I need to continue to do that." *