Birds & fans ready to move on

RON CORTES / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Riley Cooper had six catches for 68 yards and this second-quarter TD, but he had a critical drop.
RON CORTES / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Riley Cooper had six catches for 68 yards and this second-quarter TD, but he had a critical drop.
Posted: January 07, 2014

IT WAS 25 DEGREES with biting winds in the highest reaches of Lincoln Financial Field at 11 p.m. Saturday.

Still, they stayed.

Along with 20,000 others, the members of the Holmes family remained at their seats long after the games ended. They stood, and they clapped for their unlikely Eagles. The major exodus by less-allegiant fans and perhaps saner fans began at the 2-minute warning, when Drew Brees snuck up the middle (again) for the first down that essentially assured his Saints a win via short field goal.

But the Holmes men stayed and applauded a worst-to-first turnaround in the NFC East. They waited until Chip Kelly and Riley Cooper and Nick Foles and, yes, even put-upon owner Jeffrey Lurie, walked into the tunnel, waving their thanks at their supporters. Only then did the Holmes clan descend to head back to the western suburbs.

The Holmes men were better outfitted for the indulgence of their appreciation: long hunting coats; mittens over gloves; even a real beaver hat, trapped and skinned last year by the eldest, 59-year-old Patrick Holmes.

Already, they were speaking of next season.

Already, they were moving on.

"I never thought we'd be here for this game," said Michael Holmes, the little brother at 53. "And we were in this game. Just think about how good we're going to be next year!"

Even the fans of this Eagles team look forward, not backward. They left pleased with progress, not bitter about Cooper's drop or Foles' bad sack or the lousy kick coverage that paved the Saints' way to Seattle next weekend.

They moved on; just like Kelly's team did, all year, every single time. That was how the Eagles turned a 3-5 start into a 10-6 finish; how they overcame injury and insult; bad losses, big wins. They looked to the next practice, the next game; now, the next season.

For the players, the next season arrives after just a few wintry weeks, when offseason workouts begin. Saturday night, as he combed the ice from his beard, center Jason Kelce was talking about strengthening his legs.

Next season begins today for the rest of the organization, as the coaches and the front office review this season's work and prepare to bolster the roster and tweak the regimen.

"This team proved so much to all of us," Lurie said. "Incredible effort. Very competitive. So many great young players. They all know the future is very bright. Just come back with the same incredible effort and attitude. Just build off this. For most of these guys, this is just the tip of the iceberg."

That iceberg's tip set records for touchdowns, yards and points. It turned one of the league's worst defenses over the first 4 weeks into something that limited the dangerous Saints to 26 points; two too many, but something, anyway.

"We were in this game!" said Patrick Holmes, his voice booming from his bushy, gray beard.

"Yeah," said cousin Matt Gozzardo, a Limerick kid returned for the holidays from Seattle. "Anything's better than what happened to Kansas City."

Yes, the KC Collapse resonated through the Linc. The team that hired Andy Reid just days after the Eagles fired him blew a 28-point lead in the second half Saturday and lost to the Colts, their sixth loss in eight games after a 9-0 start.

The loss resonated particularly sharply at the Linc because, this season, the Chiefs could not move on. They lost two top defenders against the Chargers and began their season's slide. They lost their star running back early Saturday and could not hold on to their lead late.

Meanwhile, nothing seemed to faze the team Kelly took from Reid.

The Eagles lost Jeremy Maclin, their top young receiver, in training camp . . . and actually seemed eager to have little-used understudy Riley Cooper replace him. A video then surfaced in which Cooper used a vile racial slur at a concert, which threatened to poison the season. However, after a few days of reflection and remorse, Cooper was re-absorbed, and he put together a fine season.

The Eagles needed high-investment, veteran ends Trent Cole and Brandon Graham to convert from defensive end to outside linebacker to make their new, 3-4 scheme work; both did, ably, and improved each week.

The Eagles lost three straight games to Kansas City, Denver and San Diego . . . then won at the Giants and Tampa Bay. They essentially lost starting quarterback Michael Vick for the season in that Giants game, but, after a couple of hiccups, Foles went on an eight-game run that made him an MVP candidate and answered the Eagles' future quarterback questions.

They made hay in the snow against a dangerous Lions team. They were trapped by a game in Minnesota, when reigning MVP Adrian Peterson did not play. They shook off that loss and beat the Bears in a virtually meaningless game for the Eagles, but what would have been a playoff-clincher for Chicago.

"The Chicago game was my favorite," Patrick Holmes said. "It felt like the old days."

In the old days, Eagles teams that made the playoffs usually had the depth and the defense to advance past wild-card weekend. This bunch of Birds didn't have a signature win; still, beating the mediocre and the miserable proved, if nothing else, they are better than mediocre.

"This was a weak division," said Michael Holmes, "so I thought there actually was a possibility we'd get here."

He wasn't so sure when the team started 1-3, or when it lost its first four home games. Truly good teams start as fast as they finish.

"We have to get off to a better start to the season, but they were just finding out how good they are," Lurie said. "You want to get a bye in the first round."

Cooper was virtually invisible in those first four games (five actually; eight catches, 93 yards, one touchdown). He caught 39 passes for 742 yards and seven TDs in the final 11 games.

He led the team Saturday with six catches for 68 yards and a touchdown, but he had a crucial drop, a drop that will haunt . . . who?

The amnesiac teammates? The forgiving coaches? The resilient fans?

It was midway through the third quarter. The Saints had just taken the lead, 13-7. Brees had found himself. The Eagles needed to answer.

Cooper dropped a short, third-down pass in the flat. There was no defender close to him. What might have been a 20-yard gain became a punt. The Saints scored a touchdown on that possession and took a 20-6 lead.

It was the kind of moment that defeats all but the indefatigable.

Foles approached Cooper on the sideline:

"We're going to keep coming to you."

Indeed, when Foles needed to strike hard in the fourth quarter after a big punt return, he twice found Cooper on the sideline for a total of 22 yards that set up the field goal that cut the Saints' lead to three.

"It's how we're wired, man," Cooper said. "We're going to keep fighting. Keep going. It's how we're built."

The building process is incomplete.

"We're learning," receiver Jason Avant said.

"We always believed in the process," said offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, a West Coast expert who quickly assimilated to Kelly's machine-gun spread.

Shurmur's capacity to learn and his deference to Kelly - Shurmur was Cleveland's head coach the previous two seasons - was as big a factor in making 2013 a success as, say, having Vick and Foles slip into the scheme; as having the ends become linebackers; as moving Todd Herremens to right guard, where he never before played.

"Building this sort of chemistry can take years," Lurie said. "They did it all in about 6 months. I have no doubt these guys will be back. They will do anything to train and be better. We're zero-and-zero now."

And, as ever, looking ahead.


On Twitter: @inkstainedretch


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