Phil Sheridan: Eagles back in Arizona for first time since NFC title game loss

Donovan McNabb leaves the field after the Eagles loss to the Cardinals in the NFC title game in January 2009. File photograph
Donovan McNabb leaves the field after the Eagles loss to the Cardinals in the NFC title game in January 2009. File photograph
Posted: September 24, 2012

It holds a strange place in Eagles history, this silver spaceship in the desert.

It is called University of Phoenix Stadium. It is the site of the last game played by Brian Dawkins, among others, in an Eagles uniform. It is where Jim Johnson coached his final game. It is the place the Eagles' last deep playoff run ended as the four previous runs had - in disappointment and disbelief.

For all that, the place and that game don't stand out as sharply as you might expect for fans who take every Eagles win and loss personally.

On Sunday, the Eagles return to Glendale, Ariz., for the first time since losing the NFC championship game there on Jan. 18, 2009. They go in with a chance to go 3-0 on the young season, to try to resume their place among the NFL's postseason winners. It seems as good a time as any to take a look at the game that marked the end of their run as an elite team - even if no one could have imagined it at the time.

The Eagles were road favorites that day. They were still viewed as the team that had been to four consecutive NFC championship games in the first half of the decade. That's because, for the most part, they still were that team.

Donovan McNabb was the quarterback. Tra Thomas and Jon Runyan were the bookend offensive tackles. Brian Westbrook was the running back. Dawkins was the free safety and centerpiece of Johnson's aggressive defense.

The Eagles had finished just 9-6-1, winning four of their last five games and beating Minnesota and the Giants on the road in the playoffs. They were the veteran team with postseason experience. The Cardinals, winners of the NFC West at 9-7, were considered just lucky to be there.

So it was a shock when the Cardinals took a 24-6 lead going into halftime. The Eagles couldn't cover Larry Fitzgerald. They couldn't pressure Kurt Warner. Their offense just couldn't get started.

Somehow, McNabb led the team to a 25-24 lead with a fourth-quarter touchdown pass to rookie DeSean Jackson. Order was restored. The Eagles, who should have won those NFC title games at home against Tampa Bay (2002 season) and Carolina (2003), were going back to the Super Bowl.

But no. Warner engineered a touchdown drive that went 72 yards and lasted almost eight minutes. The Cards converted a fourth and inches to keep the drive alive. It ended with a Warner pass to the immortal Tim Hightower.

McNabb got the Eagles to midfield, but four consecutive incompletions ended the season. The last, which clanged off the hands of a stumbling Kevin Curtis, is the one play that really sticks in the mind.

It's hard to say why, but that game in Glendale ranks as the fourth most disappointing of the Eagles' five season-ending big-game losses - behind the Super Bowl and the losses to Tampa Bay and Carolina. The first NFC title game under Andy Reid, in St. Louis, was considered an achievement in and of itself.

Maybe it's because the Phillies had won the World Series just a few months earlier, ending the city's parade drought. Maybe it's because fans hadn't expected much when the Eagles were 5-5-1. Maybe it's because, after those other losses, the fans were simply too numb to take this one as hard.

The game had a bigger impact within the NovaCare Complex. Within months, Dawkins, Runyan, Thomas, Lito Sheppard, L.J. Smith, and others were ex-Eagles. Johnson, who coached despite great pain from what proved to be cancer, was unable to return and was replaced by Sean McDermott.

That game also turned out to be McNabb's last opportunity to rewrite his legacy in the clutch. He brought the Eagles back, but didn't have two fourth-quarter comebacks in him. After the previous championship game disappointments, Reid's faith in his quarterback remained steadfast. Not this time.

McNabb had fended off Kolb to hang onto the starting job and lead that late-season surge. The playoff run made him the obvious starter going into 2009. But Reid stunned everyone by signing Michael Vick that summer, setting a series of seismic dominos tumbling.

McNabb was traded away after a one-and-done playoff appearance in 2009. After Kolb was injured in the 2010 opener, Vick replaced him. A one-and-done playoff appearance earned him a big new contract. Kolb was traded.

The big silver spaceship won't trigger many memories in these Eagles. Only eight Eagles from that game will be on the field Sunday, and two of those - Kolb and Stewart Bradley - are with the Cardinals now.

All that matters to this group, as it should, is establishing itself as the team to catch in the NFC East. The only history that matters is its own, and that hasn't been made yet.


Contact Phil Sheridan at psheridan@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @Sheridanscribe. Read his blog, "Philabuster," at www.philly.com/philabuster. Read his columns at www.philly.com/philsheridan

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