- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 2, 2001

PHILADELPHIA W.C. Fields once said that he would like his epitaph to read: "All things considered, I'd rather be in Philadelphia."

In the last decade many NFL players may not have shared Fields' sentiment.

From 1997 to 1999, the Eagles compiled a 14-33-1 record, just a half-game better than the league-worst mark shared by Chicago and Cincinnati. And while the Bears moved into their shining new practice facility in 1997 and the Bengals opened Paul Brown Stadium last fall, the Eagles still practiced and played in grungy, 30-year-old Veterans Stadium home of the NFL's worst playing surface and most vicious fans.

But that was then, and this is now.

The Eagles, led by the second-year duo of coach Andy Reid and quarterback Donovan McNabb, soared to an 11-5 record and a playoff victory last season and are picked by many to win their first NFC East title in 13 years. What's more, the team moved into its gorgeous, 108,000 square-foot practice facility earlier this year and its new stadium complete with grass field is scheduled to open in 2003.

"This place is unbelievable, to finally have a place that you enjoy coming," sixth-year safety Brian Dawkins said in the spacious locker room after a morning practice. "You like coming to work every day. It even smells nice."

Said fifth-year halfback Duce Staley: "A great building like this shows the commitment this organization has to succeed and doing things right."

Said defensive end N.D. Kalu, who left the Eagles in August 1998 and returned this March: "I feel like I'm with a whole different organization. The only thing that's similar is that we're in Philadelphia and we have green uniforms."

Veteran players sounded cautionary notes.

"I don't think the place makes that much of a difference," said 12th-year halfback/kick returner Brian Mitchell. "We moved into the new place in Washington the year after we won the Super Bowl [1992]. We made the playoffs that year, and then we didn't for the next six years. It's not the place; it's the people inside the place."

Added the 43-year-old Reid: "We have to make sure that we bring the same work ethic we had at the Vet over here and that we don't get caught up in being in the new facility."

On paper, the Eagles certainly aren't a powerhouse, although the return of Staley from a foot injury that ended his season in Week 5 should make a big difference.

Staley accounted for 41 percent of Philadelphia's offense in 1999 the most by a non-quarterback in the NFL. With Staley gone most of last season, McNabb produced 75 percent of the offense, third among quarterbacks. In his first year as a starter, McNabb was 11th in the league in passing yards, and he outgained the leading rusher (all running backs) for five teams.

"I don't think we played over our heads last year," Dawkins said. "We just really saw what Donovan can do when he's pushed up against the wall. Now Duce is looking good again, so instead of Donovan running so often, he can just give it to Duce and let him run."

Still, the offense whose only new starters besides Staley are unproven receivers James Thrash, an ex-Redskin, and Todd Pinkston, a 2000 second-round draft choice was 17th in total yards, 20th in passing yards and 22nd in sacks allowed.

The defense whose lone new starter is third-year weak side linebacker Ike Reese was 20th against the run. If the Eagles hadn't rallied to beat Dallas and Pittsburgh on overtime field goals on Nov. 5 and 12, they would have missed the playoffs.

"We're not going to sneak up on anybody this year, so we have to play a lot harder," said defensive end Hugh Douglas, who at 30 is the oldest starter along with cornerback Troy Vincent, a fellow 2000 Pro Bowl pick. "The air around here is a lot different. Everyone's a little more serious, a little more focused. If we're going to do anything this year, we have to go through some really tough teams."

Philadelphia opens against 1999 Super Bowl champion St. Louis and 1999 NFC finalist Tampa Bay, and also plays 2000 AFC runner-up Oakland and defending NFC Central champion Minnesota. Looming are the two games with the New York Giants, who have beaten the Eagles nine straight times, including 20-10 in the second round of the playoffs in January.

"The Giants are going to haunt us until we beat them," Mitchell said. "But we can't determine our season on the Giants. Suppose we go 14-2 and win the division but we lose twice to the Giants? … This is a young, talented and confident team. The success we had last year showed guys what they're capable of doing, but I haven't sensed people walking around like 'We've got it made.' "

Perhaps, but McNabb senses "a different vibe. We're very confident in what we do. We know how to prepare. There's a feeling that what we have around here can be special."

Or as Kalu put it, "Our attitude is 'Super Bowl or bust.' "

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