OPPORTUNITY DOES not wait for the ready. This is true of any profession, but especially professional football, where factors both physiological and market reduce the measure of careers to something resembling dog years. I suppose most of us learned this in the not-so-distant past. It was only 15 years ago that a forlorn third-year quarterback stood amid a squall of confetti and watched the Rams celebrate a Super Bowl berth that, minutes earlier, the Eagles had been 52 yards away from securing for themselves. I remember sitting in the press box of what was then called the Dome at America's Center and thinking that this was only the beginning for Donovan McNabb. Time is like a shadow: The closer you are to the beginning, the longer it seems to stretch.
On Friday, the Eagles will board a plane bound for the Pacific Northwest, where on Sunday they will play a game in which they will either re-establish themselves as legitimate contenders for the NFC crown or confirm the suspicion most of the folks back east have harbored since the start of training camp. On Wednesday, they wrapped up their first official day of preparation for the 6-2-1 Seahawks, who will welcome them to a field where only two nondivision foes have escaped with a win since Russell Wilson took the reins at quarterback in 2012. They did so without entertaining any of the questions that confronted McNabb and his teammates with increasing intensity as the seasons piled up on the memory of that first NFC Championship Game loss. Nobody asked about the pressure, about the previous failures, about the magnitude of the moment.
And yet the question is worth asking: In a year that has yet to yield an undisputed favorite for King of the NFC, is it really that far-fetched to think the Eagles could be that team? Maybe the answer is as obvious as many assume, that it has been and will remain the Seahawks, regardless of the uncommon mortality they've shown at varying stretches this season. If so, we will find out shortly.
Until then, though, I can't find much of a reason why this might not just be one of those seasons, most recently witnessed in 2012, when a conference-wide power vacuum opens the door for the right team at the right time. That year, the Ravens faced the 49ers in a Super Bowl that was billed as an ascendance: of quarterbacks, of coaches, of rosters that had arrived. It might not have been the stuff of ballads, but it was certainly the stuff of McDonald's commercials.
Four years later, the 49ers and Ravens are back where they were before they ascended, struggling to find an identity, to rebuild. They are a combined 54-60 since that game, with a couple of quarterbacks who haven't come close to living up to the promise they established for themselves during that postseason.
The case for the Eagles is as strong as any. They've beaten the Falcons, who currently lead the NFC South. They've beaten the Vikings, who are tied with the Lions, whom the Eagles rallied to nearly beat in Detroit. They essentially beat themselves against the NFC East-leading Cowboys, who needed a fake punt and a late fumble to pull out an overtime win. Through nine games, the Eagles have faced six of the seven NFC teams that are with them above .500. The defending NFC champs are sitting at six losses, and the team the Panthers beat in that championship game, Arizona, enters Week 11 with four losses and a tie. The Packers don't look any closer to a return to glory than they did last season, and, in fact, as of late have looked much, much further away.
The Eagles have a defense that ranks in the top six in the league in points and yards allowed. Only two teams in the league have a better point differential than their plus-66, including a Patriots team that still won't go away. The other team is the Cowboys, who sit atop many power rankings but who certainly did not look significantly more powerful when the Eagles walked into their house and snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
Yet popular sentiment remains very much subdued. No doubt, a large part of that involves the circumstances in which they find themselves. The theoretical case in their favor pales in comparison to the concrete reality of where they sit in the standings: fourth in the NFC East, 0-3 in the division, in the midst of a hellish stretch that includes upcoming road games against the formidable if underachieving Bengals and the 5-4 Ravens. But I suspect there is also a reluctance on the part of folks like myself to embrace any serious talk of playoffs due to our oft-professed preseason beliefs about the aptitude of this team. The 2016 season was supposed to be the first step in a process, a prelude to the brighter days, a foundation that needed to be laid. A new coach, a rookie quarterback, the smoke still drifting from the wreckage of the previous regime.
The parallels to the McNabb era will be unavoidable as long as that spot in the trophy case remains blank. Yet when we detail the disappointment that decade bred, we often neglect that first one. For the Eagles, the opportunity might never have been greater than that January day in St. Louis, when they took the field at their own 45-yard line with 2:20 remaining and a five-point deficit to erase. The NFL was in the midst of a changing of the guard. The previous three years had seen future Hall of Famers Dan Marino, Steve Young, John Elway and Troy Aikman leave the game, all without any clear line of succession. At 25 years old, Peyton Manning had yet to win a playoff game. Brett Favre was 32, but the Rams' Kurt Warner was the only other potential Hall of Fame quarterback in or close to his prime. By the time the Eagles finally got their chance at the Patriots three years later, Tom Brady had blossomed from a game-managing, first-year starter into a bona fide star, and the era of the quarterback had arrived. Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning would all enter the league and continue the revolution that McNabb and Andy Reid had helped begin.
There is a remarkable degree of flux in the NFC this year. A void has emerged. For at least a few more days, the Eagles are in a position to wonder. Why not now?