- The Washington Times - Friday, January 17, 2003

PHILADELPHIA The Philadelphia Eagles are a throwback team.
In the days before New England, Baltimore, St. Louis and Atlanta rose from the NFL's trash heap to the Super Bowl seemingly overnight, teams gradually improved from loser to .500 to playoff contender to winning a postseason game or two before finally getting their hands on the Lombardi Trophy.
That's the path the Eagles have followed to play host to Tampa Bay in Sunday's NFC Championship game and become the first team since the 1997-1998 Denver Broncos to reach consecutive conference title games.
Coach Andy Reid took over a 3-13 team and recorded modest improvement with a 5-11 record in 1999. The Eagles soared to a wild-card berth and a first-round playoff victory in 2000 and took matters a step further last season by winning the NFC East and losing the conference title game at St. Louis.
This season's team secured homefield advantage in the playoffs by equaling the 12-4 record of Philadelphia's last NFC champions, in 1980. And after beating visiting Atlanta 20-6 on Saturday, the Eagles can get back to the Super Bowl by beating the Buccaneers on Sunday for the fifth time in three seasons.
"When I bought the team [in 1995], the culture was heading in the wrong direction," Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie said. "The facilities were horrendous and the relationships with the players, the fans and the city were not ideal. The blueprint has worked, taking it step by step by step: facilities [the Eagles switched their headquarters from grungy Veterans Stadium to the gorgeous NovaCare complex in 2001 and will play in new Lincoln Financial Field next season], players, camaraderie, culture, approach to players, approach to fans and wanting to win championships. It's all in place."
Cornerback Bobby Taylor, the senior Eagle after eight seasons, hasn't forgotten the bad old days symbolized by the banner at the Vet that read "May The Worst Team Lose" before the October 1998 game against equally winless Washington.
"We were probably the worst team, in the league and people looked forward to playing us," Taylor recalled. "To be able to be part of that rebuilding process is great. I'm proud to be an Eagle right now."
No one doubts that Coach of the Year Reid has done a marvelous rebuilding job, but it's curious to note that six of Philadelphia's seven Pro Bowl players Taylor, safety Brian Dawkins, defensive end Hugh Douglas, guard Jermane Mayberry, offensive tackle Tra Thomas and cornerback Troy Vincent were on the roster that he inherited from Ray Rhodes in 1999. Only kicker David Akers has been acquired during the Reid era.
"We have a collection of free agents who have emerged as terrific players [led by Vincent], but our nucleus is outstanding young players who have a lot of tread on the tires," Lurie said. "We have built for sustainability. Of all the teams out there we are in the greatest shape possible in terms of the most players under long-term contracts [when] they are hitting their peaks. And we have a very special franchise quarterback [Donovan McNabb] who is only going to get better. That's the trump card."
McNabb is one of 11 starters who were drafted by Philadelphia. Three others were signed off waivers. Douglas was acquired from the New York Jets in a trade. Seven were free agents. And while the Eagles have just five starters in their 30s, they don't have any in their first or second seasons. In fact, only two rookies are among their 11 top reserves.
"We were able to keep the nucleus together," Dawkins said. "We don't have a lot of young guys who have to step in and play early. That has helped us. We've been through the playoff wars. We know there will be ups and downs [during postseason]. We know momentum will change during games. But we know if we stay the course, we can come out with victories."
The Eagles have won eight of their nine games at the Vet this season. Having Sunday's game in that inhospitable environment for opponents is what this season has been all about.
"We learned last year how important it was to have homefield, and we have it and we have to take care of business," tight end Chad Lewis said.
And as their league-best 38-16 record over the last three years shows, no team takes care of business better than the Eagles.

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