Eleven months ago the Philadelphia Eagles’ future seemed limitless. They had climbed the ladder from wild card to division champion to conference runner-up to the Super Bowl. Seventeen of their 22 starters still would be younger than 30 when the 2005 season began.
But ever since a 24-21 loss to the New England Patriots in last season’s Super Bowl, the Philadelphia story has been a nightmare.
“I never thought in a million years that the season would go as bad as it has, especially with the high expectations that we had, the amount of talent that we felt we had and with the way that we played last year,” said linebacker Jeremiah Trotter, the only Pro Bowl player on the Eagles (6-9). Philadelphia concludes its first playoff-less season since 1999 tomorrow at home against the Washington Redskins (9-6).
“It’s been a shock,” Trotter said. “It’s just been one thing after another.”
Reserve safety J.R. Reed’s career ended after a grisly run-in with a fence. Backup defensive end Jerome McDougle’s season ended before it began after he was shot.
Defensive end Derrick Burgess, former Pro Bowl guard Jermane Mayberry and special teams captain Ike Reese departed as free agents, and standout defensive tackle Corey Simon was cut just before training camp in a salary cap dispute.
Terrell Owens blasted quarterback Donovan McNabb and the superstar receiver virtually challenged Andy Reid to suspend him — a dare the coach took him up on in November.
Despite the losses of Simon, Burgess, Mayberry and Reese, Trotter said he didn’t see any signs of a collapse coming last summer. But he was nervous even as the Eagles got off to a 4-2 start.
“Even in games we won, we weren’t comfortable, with the exception of the [lowly San Francisco] 49ers,” Trotter explained. “We beat Kansas City at their place, but we had to come back from  points down. [Against] San Diego, we had to block a field goal and return it for a touchdown to win. You take a win any way you can get it, but you’ re not going to get lucky breaks like that week in and week out.”
Just the opposite. Injuries soon cut short the seasons of McNabb, running back Brian Westbrook, offensive tackle Tra Thomas and cornerback Lito Sheppard — all Pro Bowl-caliber performers. Even Pro Bowl kicker David Akers missed four games with a partially torn hamstring.
The Eagles are so depleted that five of their 11 offensive starters tomorrow — including the entire interior of the line — had never played in an NFL game before this season. Of course, the injury that really crippled the Eagles was the sports hernia that at first limited and then sidelined team leader McNabb midway through the ninth game.
Philadelphia is 2-4 without McNabb, edging inept Green Bay and St. Louis while losing to mediocre Arizona and getting crushed by new NFC kingpin Seattle 42-0 in its most one-sided defeat in 33 years. New starting quarterback Mike McMahon has thrown as many interceptions for touchdowns (three) as he has touchdown passes.
“As Donovan goes, we go,” Trotter said. “Not only does he make everyone on the offense better, he makes the defense better by scoring points and [keeping us out of] tough situations.”
But no situation was tougher for the Eagles to deal with than that of Owens, the mercurial receiver whose acquisition helped get them to the Super Bowl last season but whose selfishness helped destroy them this year.
Trotter admitted the lingering controversy from Owens’ outlandish behavior was a locker room distraction, but Reid took the high road on the touchy topic.
“If people are saying that [the Eagles’ collapse] is his fault, then it’s probably my fault more than his,” Reid said. “You have to keep things rolling when things happen. The head coach needs to take care of that.”
The only business of note the Eagles can take care of now is spoiling the Redskins’ playoff hopes, but Trotter isn’t thinking that way.
“We just want to play hard and try to get a win,” he said. “We want to end the season on a good note.”
Make that a rare good note in a sour-sounding season.