As we near the end of 2011, the Year That Wasn't in Philadelphia sports, it is natural to look back and wonder just what hit us. How did we get from August, when the Phillies and Eagles had us dreaming of two parades, to today, when we can't wait to hang that new calendar on the wall?
The answer: Oct. 2.
No, neither of the teams actually was eliminated on that bleak day. But it was on that Sunday that the die was cast for both of them.
The Eagles played the San Francisco 49ers at Lincoln Financial Field in the afternoon. The Phillies played the St. Louis Cardinals at Citizens Bank Park in the evening.
The Eagles jumped out to a 23-3 lead. The Phillies jumped out to a 4-0 lead in Game 2 of their National League division series.
By midnight, both leads were blown, both games were lost, and both teams were on the way to disappointing finishes.
Now, as Philadelphia sports fans, we are not exactly shocked by defeat. Until the 2008 Phillies delivered an actual, honest-to-goodness parade, we had endured 25 years without a title in any of the four major sports. We had watched great players - Reggie White, Charles Barkley, Eric Lindros, Curt Schilling - pass through town without achieving their ultimate goals here.
Then we watched some of them - White in Green Bay, Schilling in Arizona and Boston, Darren Daulton in Florida - get their championships elsewhere.
So we know disappointment. We half expect it. Part of what made the '08 World Series so terrific was the release of decades of pent-up frustration. It gave us a taste of what winning was like, but it didn't completely change our DNA. We still recognize a half-empty glass when we see one.
But this was different. There was that day in July when the Eagles announced the signing of Nnamdi Asomugha, the premier free agent on the market after the NFL lockout ended. Within hours, the Phillies completed the trade-deadline deal that brought Hunter Pence in to fill the hole left in their lineup by Jayson Werth.
With that stellar pitching rotation and Pence energizing the offense, the Phillies were odds-on favorites to win the World Series. They won a franchise-record 102 regular-season games and seemed even better suited for the pressure-packed postseason.
The Eagles also had the look of a championship contender. With Michael Vick established as the new franchise quarterback and an infusion of defensive talent via free agency, maybe Andy Reid finally would check that last box on his impressive resume.
Monday afternoon, with his team officially eliminated from the postseason, Reid was asked whether there was one moment or one game that stuck in his craw.
"Right now," Reid said, "I think you would make a mistake by doing that. I think you wait until you finish up the season. And when the players are in here Wednesday, I'm going to ask them to do the same thing. There's nothing that's going to help you with the past."
Reid and his coaches and players have to compartmentalize that way. They have a game to play and then an offseason to try to fix what went wrong. But fans can't help thinking back to the handful of eminently winnable games the Eagles lost. Any one of them would have been enough to change the course of this miserable season.
But Oct. 2 really stands out.
The Eagles were 1-2 by then, having blown fourth-quarter leads in Atlanta and at home against the Giants. Those were tough losses against good teams. Matt Ryan and Eli Manning are pretty good quarterbacks. Vick was knocked out and missed the fourth quarter in Atlanta, leaving Mike Kafka to try to keep the Falcons offense off the field.
But Oct. 2 was Alex Smith and San Francisco. This was a team with a rookie head coach. When the 49ers scored three unanswered touchdowns, the pattern for the season was set. The Eagles went on to blow games against Buffalo, Arizona, and Seattle - none of which has a chance to finish with a winning record.
So fans turned their attention to the Phillies, who had won Game 1 and seemed to be on track to complete their half of the two-parade scenario. Ryan Howard hit a two-run single off Chris Carpenter in the first inning. The Phillies scored another run in the first and added a fourth in the second.
Cliff Lee, who had been reacquired for precisely this kind of moment, was on the mound. What could possibly go wrong?
We all found out the hard way. The Cardinals chipped away at Lee the way they would chip away at the Phillies, Brewers, and Rangers pitchers. The lead disappeared, the game was lost, and so eventually was the series.
After that one unbelievable day, 2011 was doomed to become the Year That Wasn't in Philadelphia.