Eagles are still mourning their lost opportunity

Posted: January 30, 2003

HONOLULU — For many, watching Super Bowl XXXVII wasn't as much fun as they thought it would be.

Those would be Eagles fans or NFL fans who believed that the Eagles put the best team in the league on the field this season - and, of course, the Eagles themselves.

The Super Bowl wasn't on the Eagles' must-see list. It was, and is, on their must-play list.

"I was a little sick that I wasn't playing," said Hugh Douglas, a backup defensive end for the NFC team that will play the AFC squad in Sunday's Pro Bowl. "The little bit of the game I did see, the [Tampa Bay] defense played great. They just harassed the quarterback all day long.

"You could really tell that they really wanted it. That's what oozed through the television."

The same could be said for the NFC championship game at the Vet, where the Buccaneers upset the Eagles, 27-10, to advance to the Super Bowl.

Bucs head coach Jon Gruden had his team on a mission. It didn't appear to be a matter of the Eagles not wanting a victory badly enough as much as Tampa Bay wanted it more.

"We lost," said Donovan McNabb, who was added to the NFC team, along with Bucs quarterback Brad Johnson, because injuries caused Atlanta's Michael Vick and Green Bay's Brett Favre to pull out. "We didn't play well as a collective group and we have to learn from that."

The Eagles should have plenty of knowledge to take forth since they've now lost two straight NFC title games.

The Birds fell to St. Louis last January in a game that was a lot more competitive than the loss to the Bucs.

Against the Bucs, McNabb wasn't sharp. He completed 26 of 49 passes for 243 yards with no touchdowns and one very costly interception. He missed some open receivers badly.

"No matter how you look at it - if you played your best and you lost - you still lost," McNabb said. "I just didn't play well. I don't make excuses."

McNabb said he's looking to the future and not dwelling on the past.

The Eagles have a nucleus of talented players. Although Douglas heads a list of several unrestricted free agents, there seems to be a desire among the core performers to keep the team together and make yet another run at the Super Bowl.

"To be a team that really hasn't changed that much and went to the NFC championship two years in a row, I don't know," said Douglas, pondering whether any major personnel changes are called for. "Hopefully, we can get back to that point and this time get over the hump."

That's much easier said than done. Bucs wideout Keenan McCardell got a Super Bowl ring as a rookie with the Washington Redskins. Even though he was in two AFC title games with the Jacksonville Jaguars, it was 12 years before he got back to the Super Bowl.

Some never get back. Some never even get there.

"It's hard to get to that point," Douglas continued. "To be in that situation and have that heartbreak year in and year out . . . . Hopefully, it'll be like Donovan said, the third time will be the charm."

Eagles head coach and vice president of football operations Andy Reid shares that optimism as he also shares the pain of losing two times while a game short of the ultimate goal.

Reid didn't try to duck the issue or hide his response in coachspeak.

"We came up a little short [of] going to the Super Bowl," said the coach, who is minding the NFC squad. "We need to do a little better job once we're [in the NFC title game].

"It's a great tribute to the players, the things they had to overcome this year to get to that game. Ten weeks ago, nobody would've thought it. Now, we've got to take that next step."

The way the Bucs dismembered the Oakland Raiders, 48-21, one could say that the real Super Bowl took place the week before at the Vet.

The Eagles and the Bucs, it could be argued, were truly the two best teams in 2002.

"We're excited about what happened as far as the Bucs winning the whole deal," McNabb said.

Eagles safety Brian Dawkins was analytical about the way the Bucs handled the Raiders.

"The thing that I saw was the confidence level of those guys," Dawkins said. "They came out on fire. I could see the difference even in how they took the field. Tampa Bay did pretty much what I figured they would: get some points, run the ball and let the defense take it over."

Douglas added, "We did put up a little bit better fight than they [the Raiders] did, but the outcome was still the same."

That's the part that won't go away. No matter how much they focus on the future and accentuate the positive, nerves will be exposed on this issue until the Eagles close the deal.

Contact staff writer Mike Bruton at 215-854-2739 or mbruton@phillynews.com.

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