- The Washington Times - Friday, November 4, 2005

PHILADELPHIA — Terrell Owens, the big-play receiver, has a sprained ankle and might be a no-play receiver against the Redskins this week. Donovan McNabb, the Pro Bowl quarterback, has added yet another injury to his growing list, but probably will give it a try. Other key players are hurt. The offense has sputtered, the defense turned porous, and some off-field issues have yet to be resolved.

Ladies and gentlemen, your defending NFC champion Philadelphia Eagles.

With the most regular-season wins in the NFL since 2000, four consecutive division titles and last season’s Super Bowl appearance, the Eagles were always there for their fans, rock-solid and consistent, at least until the playoffs. Not this year. They have decisively lost two of their last three games, and they needed a big break in the one win.

A 4-3 record would seem to be no cause for panic. In some NFL markets, it is something to cheer. But Cheesesteak Nation, hoping this is the year it finally gets to hoist a Super Bowl trophy, is frazzled and worried. A transit strike caused a bit of a traffic mess. Now the Eagles, who last season took the express lane to a seven-game margin in the NFC East, find themselves crawling with the 4-3 Redskins behind the tail lights of the New York Giants (5-2) and the Dallas Cowboys (5-3).

Worse than the losses, which equal last season’s total, is their ugliness. The Eagles were blown out in Dallas three weeks ago. Then, after needing a blocked punt touchdown return to squeak past San Diego, the Eagles last week managed 31 yards in their first six possessions and fell behind Denver 28-0 en route to a 49-21 defeat that shredded their defense, if not their confidence. All this has everyone, inside and outside the organization, searching for answers.

“It’s not an offensive/defensive thing, it’s not a coach/player thing, it’s all of us together, and we will come up with the answers,” Eagles coach Andy Reid said after the debacle in Denver. “We don’t necessarily need to share them with everybody, but we will come up with the answers.”

The next day, Reid said: “You find in this business you’re going to hit some ruts in the road. It’s been against some good football teams. We’ve got to work through that. There’s adversity in every season.”

Reid and the Eagles took another gulp of adversity Wednesday when it was revealed that the talented, temperamental Owens suffered a sprained right ankle against the Broncos. He told ESPN that he expects to miss Sunday night’s game against the Redskins at FedEx Field and perhaps the next game against Dallas. This was news to Reid. But after sitting out Wednesday’s practice, Owens practiced yesterday and his status was upgraded from doubtful to questionable.

The Eagles lost their No. 2 receiver, Todd Pinkston, before the season, and missing Owens would be huge. He is third in the league in receiving yards. After the Eagles offense got untracked against Denver, he finished with three receptions for 154 yards, including a 91-yard, pass-and-run play for a touchdown in which he embarrassed Denver cornerback Champ Bailey, who was playing hurt.

Rookie Reggie Brown, who has nine catches, would replace Owens, theoretically putting more emphasis on what so far has been a nonexistent running game. Running back Brian Westbrook, who has expressed frustration with his lingering contract uncertainty, has just 78 carries for 304 yards. The Eagles are last in the league in rushing, understandable considering they have passed on 72 percent of their plays.

A bigger mystery is the defense. Dallas pushed the Eagles around in a 33-10 victory. A week after Philadelphia held LaDainian Tomlinson to 17 yards, the Broncos gained nearly 600 yards in total offense as a quarterback (Jake Plummer) threw for more than 300 yards and two running backs (Mike Anderson and Tatum Bell) each had 100, the first time that happened in league history. The Eagles rank 25th in yards allowed and have just 15 sacks. Last year’s 47 sacks were No. 2 in the league.

“By looking at the film, we are in position to make plays,” safety Brian Dawkins said. “We just are not making them. That is the bottom line.”

Defensive end Jevon Kearse, the Eagle’s best pass-rusher, hurt his shoulder against Denver and had to come out of the game. He is listed as questionable. Defensive end N.D. Kalu and backup tackle Sam Rayburn also are banged up. None of this helps a defensive line thinned out after end Derrick Burgess signed with Oakland as a free agent, end Jerome McDougle was shot before training camp and tackle Corey Simon held out during camp before signing with Indianapolis as a free agent.

McNabb says he will try to tough it out, although he did not practice yesterday for a second straight day because of a bruised rib and was downgraded from probable to questionable. He got hurt on Sunday when he fell on guard Shawn Andrews’ cleats. McNabb has been playing with a painful “sports hernia” that will require surgery and earlier in the year dealt with a bruised chest and shin.

“With all of us kind of banged up, it’s tough,” McNabb said Wednesday, “but I think I’m definitely going to work myself back to getting back out there. … So if neither of us (McNabb nor Owens) is out there, or one of us is out there, I think it’s important for all of us as a team to just understand the situation.”

McNabb said he “loves this game too much” to sit out, although his sore midsection might dictate otherwise.

“As hard as it is with what we’re going through right now, it would be even harder sitting on that sideline and feeling like you’re not a part of it,” he said. “When you do that, it seems that you’re just throwing in the towel, and my towel is still folded up, sitting on the chair.”

Are the Eagles themselves folding? Is this the end of their run?

Given their talent and Reid’s track record, it might be silly, if not dangerous, to go in that direction. It’s way too early. The players clearly are frustrated and vow to take action.

“Things will change for the better,” McNabb said.

L.J. Smith added: “As much as people would like to say we’re down and say we’re not the same team — obviously, we’ve struggled a little bit — it’s still wide open, it’s a long season. And we’ve got some playmakers. We’re just gonna turn it up a notch and see how it goes. It’s a long season. We’ve got leaders who are not gonna allow anybody on this team to back down at all.”

The so-called distractions — Owens’ preseason theatrics related to his contract, the Westbrook and Simon disputes and anything else that happened off the field — are outwardly dismissed.

“Negotiations never should, or would, disrupt the flow of a team,” linebacker Dhani Jones said.

As for the Eagles’ suffering the same type of hangover that caused the previous four Super Bowl losers to miss the playoffs, “I could care less about that,” Dawkins said. “That has nothing to do with us.”

So that leaves everyone to wonder what the heck is going on. As a Swarthmore College student named Phil Katz noted in an open letter to Reid this week, “Anyone who calls himself an Eagles fan and said he is not concerned about his team is lying.”

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