The home-team locker room at Lincoln Financial Field was all but empty early Monday morning when Trent Cole appraised an Eagles season unlike any he had experienced before.
Cole has started for the Eagles defense since 2005. Selected in that year's draft, he and guard Todd Herremans are the longest-tenured Eagles on the 2013 roster. They arrived at an interesting moment in the team's history. Under Andy Reid, with Donovan McNabb at quarterback, the Eagles had reached four consecutive NFC championship games and lost to the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl. There was a belief within the organization then that, with Reid and McNabb as its dual fulcrums, a championship was inevitable.
It was not. Terrell Owens splintered the locker room. McNabb got hurt, played air guitar at inappropriate times, was traded. Jim Johnson, the respected and indispensable coordinator of the Eagles' defense, died of cancer. Reid lost his way, hired and promoted and signed the wrong coaches and players. Even in those years when the Eagles made unexpected late-season runs - in 2006 with Jeff Garcia, for instance, or that final appearance in the conference title game for Reid and McNabb in 2009 - the missed opportunities to win a Super Bowl still hung over the franchise. They dulled the sweetness of those later successes, no matter how pleasantly surprising they might have been.
So, yes, this year is something new. Chip Kelly, Nick Foles, a 9-6 record after a 4-12 season in 2012, a renaissance achieved without sweeping changes to the roster, a chance to win the NFC East by beating the Dallas Cowboys without Tony Romo on Sunday - this season hasn't featured the burdens of those before. The franchise needed a fresh, clean start, and regardless of what happens Sunday at AT&T Stadium, even if Kyle Orton and the shorthanded Cowboys somehow win, Kelly and the circumstances of this season have delivered one.
"This team's special," Cole said. "We came a long way. We improved, and we learned. You've got to give it to us.
"We started at the bottom, and now we're up there at the top, you know what I'm saying? Now, we've just got to stay there. We've got to keep playing good ball. We went through hard times, bumps in the road, and we managed to get through it. You've got to give it to my teammates. We've been in some bad situations, but we never fell apart, and we always kept battling. 'Put that behind us, and move on to the next.' "
The outlook Cole hinted at - that this Eagles team already has exceeded expectations, that any additional accomplishments are cherries and chocolate sauce and should just be enjoyed - is not an easy one for fans around here to adopt. Everyone walks around keeping one eye on the sky for the falling anvil. Disappointment is familiar, expected.
Once news broke Monday afternoon that Romo would not play Sunday because of a back injury, there surely were more than a few Eagles fans who shook their heads and said, Great. Now Kyle Orton's gonna keep us from reaching the playoffs. That sort of thinking seeped into the region's culture long ago, and for a city that's won one major pro sports championship in 30 years, the attitude is understandably difficult to shed.
But step back for a second and consider where the Eagles find themselves. They have won six of their last seven games. Their head coach, in his first season in the NFL, has the rest of the league desperate to decode his offensive system. Their quarterback has thrown 25 touchdowns and two interceptions and has compiled the third-best passer rating in NFL history - and he has started just nine games. Their defense held the conference's highest-scoring team to 11 points Sunday night. And now, standing between them and a division title is Orton, who in 2011 lost his starting job to Tim Tebow.
All those factors have turned the Eagles into big favorites against the Cowboys this Sunday, have made them the fashionable dark horse in the NFC, the team nobody wants to play in the postseason. Nothing is guaranteed here for them. Of course, nothing is guaranteed.
But as Cole said, you've got to give it to them. They've already demonstrated themselves to be a team on the rise, and they've positioned themselves for a regular season and a playoff push that just eight weeks ago no one would have seen coming.
After all the burdens of the recent past, this is new. This is different. For the Eagles, this is nothing except a good thing.