Instead, Booker proved fatally undersized and easily overpowered. The Birds ended up wringing every possible yard out of their badly dinged franchise back. In the postseason, Westbrook was not anything close to full speed, with knee swelling, a high ankle sprain that lingered from Week 3, and who knows what else they never told us about. As usual, when the season bled away, it happened with Donovan McNabb trying to keep hope alive pretty much by himself, flinging the ball this way and that, mostly to guys who are never going to see a Pro Bowl unless they stumble across it while channel-surfing.
Buried in McNabb's postgame remarks was yet another plea for weapons. Maybe somebody will listen this time. Yeah, DeSean Jackson is going to be really good, but you had to notice that other teams - like, say, Arizona - had more than one standout wideout. And many other teams have two significant running backs, including one with some size and power. That was 224-pound Tim Hightower, not Edgerrin James, lugging Stewart Bradley over the goal line for the game-winning touchdown.
Nothing against Correll Buckhalter, a true warrior who ought to remain on the roster, but a running back needs to be a huge priority for the Eagles this offseason, if for no other reason than Westbrook's knee is a chronic problem. He is 29, at a position where stars seem to age overnight. We don't know how much magic he has left.
And yes, the Eagles need a big, strong, talented wideout, somehow, someway. Larry Fitzgeralds don't grow on trees, but if you administered a polygraph to McNabb, he would say that if you gave him Fitzgerald for Sunday's game and gave Kurt Warner Hank Baskett, the Eagles would be Super Bowl-bound, and nobody would be questioning why Donovan can't win these sorts of games.
That really is what McNabb is thinking, whether he says it publicly or not. He's had such thoughts quite a bit over the past several years; he really chafes at labels he feels have been unfairly attached to him, as he has struggled to win with a substandard arsenal. At some point, McNabb is going to tire of trying to do it.
We could be at that point. The much-foreshadowed offseason sitdown between the quarterback and the front office really is going to be fascinating. His contract is the thorniest issue - do the Eagles want to make the financial commitment McNabb seeks, that will install him as the starter indefinitely? - but rest assured, McNabb will want to talk about weapons, as well. If the response on either front is less than what he wants to hear, he very well could request a trade.
Do you really want to start the Kevin Kolb era the year after playing in the NFC Championship Game? How'd that dynamic work out for Green Bay?
It is absolutely fair to debate at this point whether the Birds will ever win the Super Bowl with McNabb as their quarterback and Reid as their head coach who also has dominion over player personnel. It's fair to speculate whether one of them could do it if freed of the other, or whether they both could do it if someone other than Reid were choosing the players.
Something still could happen in the personnel-choosing area, but otherwise, for now, the debate seems moot. McNabb, who stayed healthy and broke his own franchise season record for passing yards in 2008, is better than any quarterbacking alternative the Eagles have for 2009, shortcomings and all. Reid got to the postseason for the seventh time in the last 9 years, and won two games when he got there. He will be the coach, shortcomings, throat-clearings and all.
Whether training camp will open 6 months from now in an atmosphere of hope, or one of "sigh, here we go again," is harder to call.
I was talking with another writer after Sunday's game about how hard this season was to evaluate. It didn't feel like the start of an exciting journey, as it might have with a younger cast of key players. But it didn't have that ominous, end-of-an-era feel, either. That was the atmosphere after the Baltimore game Nov. 23; it changed quite a bit in 2 months.
How do you know when eras begin and end right now, in this league? Hey, the 9-7 Arizona Cardinals are headed to the Super Bowl with 37-year-old Kurt Warner as their quarterback. The Dolphins went from 1-15 to the playoffs in a year. This is an NFL where anything can happen, and frequently does.
The Eagles need offensive-line help - a healthy, together Shawn Andrews, maybe an upgrade at center, probably a tackle to replace Jon Runyan. They definitely need another really good running back and another significant receiver. They could probably use another big defensive tackle in their rotation.Take care of those needs, bring back Brian Dawkins, whose leadership is crucial, and they ought to be right back in the mix, along with nearly everyone else in the league except the Lions.
So: Add a couple of weapons, try to make McNabb happy, get stronger up front, take another shot. There's your rallying cry, whether it thrills you with hope and promise or not. *
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