ARLINGTON, Texas - You get embarrassed twice in 6 days by the same team and you are shaken as a franchise. That was where the Eagles were when they walked out of Cowboys Stadium 11 months ago.
Manhandled, just physically whipped by the Cowboys in consecutive games, they went about the business of self-assessment - and their process was brutally honest. They did some underrated things, like reworking their strength program, and they did some publicly seismic things, like trading away their franchise quarterback.
Half of the defense changed, the average age of the entire team plummeted, and while there are remaining issues - especially on that defense - the organizational belief was that, with Michael Vick leading them, they had reached the why-not-us? stage of the conversation.
But they needed this one.
They needed to prove that it was true.
Which they did, with an emphatic flourish: Eagles 30, Cowboys 27. On a night when Vick was again physically clobbered by the opposing defense, a night when the defense again turned a halftime lead into a third-quarter deficit, DeSean Jackson absolutely exploded. He caught a 60-yard pass on the first play of the game and broke a 20-20 tie in the fourth quarter with a 91-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown.
If he ended it by showing up the Cowboys and showboating into the end zone with an unnecessary backward splashdown - which he did, and for which he was penalized - Jackson nevertheless took this game and made it his. The histrionics remain a part of the total package, and it is a flawed-but-special package.
In the process, with a phenomenal 210 yards on only four catches, he turned a page that needed turning for this franchise.
"A blessing and an honor," is what Jackson called it, this opportunity to dispense with the bad taste of last January. And while they all downplayed it - as Shady McCoy said, "It's hard to forget about it, but it's a whole new year and we have a lot at stake" - even Eagles coach Andy Reid would acknowledge the special nature of this turnaround.
Last year, the night began with Donovan McNabb playing a silly air-guitar riff during introductions in a bogus attempt to display confidence. This year, the night ended with Cowboys running back Tashard Choice actually asking Vick for an autograph on the field - and Vick consenting.
Again, a stunning transformation.
"If you play the Dallas Cowboys, and if you're good enough to win the game, that's a beautiful thing," Reid said. "I'm proud of these guys. We've had a lot of changeover on this football team. These guys put the pedal to the metal here. That's a nice thing. I'm enjoying it because it's an NFC East victory. I'm going to enjoy it until we land, and then we've got to get ready for the Giants.
"But . . . it's the Dallas Cowboys," Reid said. He was unable to wipe the smile from his face.
Yes, yes, it is true: Next Sunday at the New Meadowlands Stadium will determine who holds first place in the NFC East with two games left to play. That is true whatever happens tonight in the snow-delayed, geographically relocated game between the New York Giants and Minnesota Vikings at Detroit's Ford Field. That is true regardless of whatever happened here last night.
But this one was symbolic.
This one was for affirmation.
And in the process, and as this season digs into its climactic final month, all manner of emotions have begun to surface.
Over the years, we have seen Reid act smart at times and clumsy at others. We have seen him be smug, silent, protective, wistful, exultant, sarcastic and monosyllabic, depending upon his mood.
In a dozen seasons, though, we might never have seen irate like we saw it last night. Pure, unadulterated fury: that was Reid, the man who has so successfully hidden his personality over the years.
Barking, gesticulating, raging at the officials after a borderline hit on Vick was not flagged for a penalty in the second quarter,
Reid erupted in a manner that mimicked what was happening in front of hundreds of thousands of Philadelphia television sets at the exact same moment.
He is letting it show more. After the Eagles' loss 2 weeks ago at Chicago, Reid could not hide his anger at a postgame press conference in which he bit off every response to every manner of inquiry. Now, this.
Why the change? Why the public displays of irritation?
It might be because, after all of this time, after all of the close calls, after all of the years of the never-let-them-see-you-sweat mind meld concocted by Reid and McNabb, that the coach knows he has something special going on this season, something different, something that is equal parts precious and tenuous.
The wrong hit on Vick could spell disaster. One unfocused loss in a highly competitive conference could change everything. Reid knows it and he seems to want everyone else to know it, especially the young players on this roster.
With that, and with this page now turned, it is on to the game of the year.
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