When it happened way back when, as the reality of Brian Dawkins leaving the Eagles and signing with Denver sunk in, some believed the hurt would last forever and that, in a way, football would never be the same without No. 20 roaming the Eagles secondary. Dawkins, an Eagles institution for 13 seasons, a Denver Bronco? Shudder at the thought. Cue the hysterics. Sound the alarm that the Eagles could not move on without Dawkins.
It was, for many weeks, the deep wound for Eagles fans that would not go away. Dawkins, after negotiating with the Eagles as the deadline for unrestricted free agency approached, received an offer he couldn't refuse two days after free agency opened, and signed -- shockingly -- a two-year contract with Denver. The reaction from the fan base and from the media was swift and emotional and, in many cases, biting.
Now comes the week that we all knew would come. Dawkins returns to Lincoln Financial Field still wearing No. 20, but now in the colors of Denver's Broncos. Dawkins has enjoyed a strong season, has been hailed as a consummate leader and has done many of the things that made him the league's best safety and a sure-thing Hall of Fame player as he went sideline to sideline as an Eagle. Denver is 8-6, coming off a terrible loss to the Raiders, and the Broncos are in need of a win to make the playoffs and have a chance to reach the Super Bowl.
So I wonder how you feel about Dawkins' return, about the change at safety, about the prospect of seeing Dawkins in another uniform? It is an emotional time for the fans, and the media will be sure to ride the story all week, but from a pure football standpoint, and from this perspective, the return of Brian Dawkins (and running back Correll Buckhalter) is a mere blip on the much more important radar screen.
The Eagles need this football game. Truth be told, when reporters aren't asking about Dawkins, there isn't a whole lot of talk about him at the NovaCare Complex. We've been through former players returning to play in Philadelphia as members of the opposing team, and while I agree that Dawkins is in a different class than Terrell Owens (easily) and Jeremiah Trotter (yes, but comparable situations), the fact of the matter is the focus is on football and football only for this team.
I'm sure there will be the usual how-ya-doings from the players and from the coaches with Dawkins before the game. And when the game is over, yeah, anyone who can will go over and shake Dawkins' hand and wish him the best of luck for the rest of the season.
Really, though, the emotional side of the day, of the week, belongs to the fans. You are the ones who were so divided when Dawkins left. It was, no question about it, a shocking decision and it stung everyone. As is the way of things in this league, however, the Eagles continued on with an incredible off-season (and throughout the season, in fact) of moves and counter moves, and in due time they turned the page and re-configured the defense without their anchor, their staple, one of their emotional leaders and one of the greatest players ever in franchise history.
Do you want to debate whether the Eagles should have extended themselves and retained Dawkins at all costs? It's easy to do so in retrospect. Dawkins has played well in Denver and is a fantastic leader, but the Eagles have also picked up the pieces and have won five straight games and would not have been able to make all of the moves, perhaps, that they have made in this most remarkable last nine or 10 months.
Dawkins seems happy, the Eagles are winning and, well, maybe this was a case where both sides did OK in the end.
Of course, there are fans who will never feel that way. Dawkins was that inspirational to some fans and they will never, ever forget what he meant and what he means as a football player. I respect that emotion. I respect all of the emotions that raged the day Dawkins left and signed in Denver.
My personal perspective is not necessarily going to be popular here. I am one to root for the Eagles, not for individual players. It matters not to me which player scores the winning touchdown, or who replaces whom in the lineup. I want the Philadelphia Eagles to win, period. I feel privileged to have watched Dawkins become the player and the icon he became as an Eagle. He was certainly one of the greatest ever here. Seeing his every snap, and enjoying his emotional commitment to the game was certainly something I will never forget. There will come a day, I'm sure, when I will go to Canton, Ohio and cover Dawkins' induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and I will remember him as a greater-than-great Eagle.
And, certainly, no other player will wear No. 20 as long as Jeffrey Lurie owns this team, and maybe even beyond then. No. 20 is Dawkins -- then, now and forever.
But this week? This week I don't feel emotional. I feel only a sense of purpose to beat the Broncos, to reach 11-4, to keep the goal of winning the NFC East and accomplishing even more this season at the forefront. There will be no special ceremony for Dawkins before the game. Whether the Broncos are announced as a team -- as every visiting team has done this year -- or individually on defense is determined by the Broncos, not the Eagles. The Eagles aren't going to welcome Dawkins back with a special scoreboard message.
Dawkins knows how it works. He knows this is the NFL, and I'm sure his greater focus is to help Denver bounce back from the loss to Oakland and not to get caught up in the emotion of the afternoon. The worst thing Dawkins can have happen, and he understands, is that he allows his intensity overrule his football sensibility playing against many of the teammates he sided with for so many seasons.
Then again, there are so many new faces on the offensive side of the ball that Dawkins may not recognize too many of the names. He knows Donovan McNabb, of course, and some of the pieces are former football family members. But Jason Peters and LeSean McCoy and Leonard Weaver don't know much of Dawkins other than what they will see on tape this week. They know they have to keep an eye on Dawkins, because No. 20 is on the field to make big plays.
Don't think Andy Reid will allow the emotions to get the best of him, either. He has seen some of his "favorite" players leave and come back in opposing uniforms -- Duce Staley, Trotter, Troy Vincent, etc -- and it is never easy for a coach to say goodbye to one who has been in the same bunker for so long. Reid knows how important the game is, and he knows that Denver's defense is fast and talented and very, very aggressive. There are no Dawkins-centric game plans involved here.
Really, the occasion is for the fans to pay their respects, and everyone should properly welcome in Dawkins and show him the respect he deserves. Once the game begins, well, the goal is to beat Denver and win a sixth straight game.
How much has changed since the day Dawkins left? Plenty here, and then again, the Eagles are where they normally are in December: Charging hard for the playoffs, focused, urgent. Sunday won't be just another football game for the fans, no way, no how. For the team, however, it has to be. It is just another game the Eagles must win, and that is how the players and the coaches have to approach every minute of the week until the 60 minutes are played on Sunday.