If when December began, you assured Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie that his team would end its season with a win, he would have been a very happy man. At that time, with the Eagles appearing all but certain of qualifying for the postseason, the only scenario that would fit such an ending would be a win in the Super Bowl.
That's not quite how things turned out, however, and after three straight losses that eliminated them from the playoffs, the Eagles did win their last game, a minor-key 34-26 finale against the New York Giants. Afterward, Lurie stood at one end of the visitors' locker room, and the scene around him was a long way from champagne and confetti. The commissioner wasn't showing up to present him with the coveted "10-6 Cup," and it seemed like a very long time until the next real game.
"The hardest part is to go from good to great," Lurie said. "We're at the good, but we don't want that. We want to be great. I just look at what we could have accomplished this year. It's exciting. We're not sitting here 2-14 or 4-12 or whatever. . . . I think we're pretty close. We know exactly what we need to upgrade. We've got a great group of young players, a lot of up-and-coming stars in this league. It's all in front of us."
Lurie bought the team from Norman Braman in May 1994. He was 42 years old and certain that with the right work and the right people, he could transform an organization that had made the playoffs just 14 times in the previous 62 years.
His record has been pretty good by that standard. The Eagles have been in the postseason in 12 of the 21 seasons he has owned the team, but the big prize is still out there. Getting from good to great is still the challenge.
Lurie is 63 now, not the young whiz-kid owner any longer. He has gone through divorce, both personally and professionally. Not achieving a championship with his upstairs-downstairs tag team of Joe Banner and Andy Reid wasn't just a disappointment. In the end, it was a shock that took several seasons too long to recognize.
Now, he is all-in with Chip Kelly and the new culture of the Eagles. But culture is trumped by talent, and Lurie sees the same problems you do.
"It was three obvious things during the season," Lurie said. "Turnovers, number one. You can't be a Super Bowl team and lead the league in turnovers. Then, red-zone offense in the beginning, especially hearkening back to San Francisco and Arizona. We had a chance to have the best record in the NFL at that point, and it would have given us a cushion. Thirdly, giving up the big play on defense. We have a great front seven and outstanding overall improved defense, except giving up the big ball. You can't do it."
Kelly has a five-year contract with the team. Two of those are gone now, and while he has put the Eagles back in the conversation, the work that remains is the hardest. Lurie's assessment, broken down, is that the Eagles need an elite quarterback who won't turn over the ball, a running game that remains effective in the red zone, and a radical improvement in the defensive backfield.
Nick Foles and Mark Sanchez combined to account almost equally for 27 of the team's 36 turnovers. Was the drop-off for Foles from the previous season an aberration? Hard to say, but because of his injury, the team will probably have to spend another season while it finds out. That will be season three of five for Kelly, and, yes, it goes quickly.
As for the running game, LeSean McCoy gained 1,319 yards and gained a lot of them behind a patched-together offensive line. Near the goal line, however, McCoy's penchant for dancing around rather than dashing forward meant that Kelly rarely called his number there. He scored five touchdowns all season. Only his rookie season of 2009 produced fewer. If McCoy stays, he will account for nearly $10 million of the salary cap. It's not a certainty he will return.
The defensive backfield is an obvious weakness, and it wouldn't be surprising to see three new starters in 2015 among the four positions. Given the limitations of the players, defensive coordinator Bill Davis might have tried a split-safety alignment more often to give cornerbacks Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher additional help.
But as much as Lurie likes the front seven, Davis felt the help had to go there, especially to aid the outside linebackers in their pass coverage. That left the corners exposed and, man, did they get exposed. It was also a case of making the players match the scheme instead of the other way around, and that rarely works.
"We have a better picture now of exactly where we need to upgrade," Lurie said. "There's a clear path to improving the team and getting better, and it's an upward path."
Well, not this season it wasn't. This was a flat line compared to 2013, and a season that left as many questions as it answered. It didn't look that way when December began, and when the prospect of a win to cap off the season sounded like the most exciting, unbelievable of outcomes.
It turned out, however, that the Eagles had an even more unbelievable ending in store.