There was a feeling from the very first day of Training Camp that the Eagles' 2004 season would be memorable.
Everyone felt it - the front office, the coaches, the players and the fans. There were 25,000 people at Lehigh University at one practice, which was thought to be an NFL record then for largest Training Camp attendance at a non-stadium site. The roads leading to the athletic complex were so jammed on that Friday, August 6 morning that head coach Andy Reid needed a police escort to get to the field.
The Eagles had been to the NFC Championship Game three years in a row and while each of those games ended in disappointment, everyone knew this was a talented team and in the offseason it had added a dynamic receiver in Terrell Owens and a Pro Bowl pass rusher in Jevon Kearse. The standing-room only crowd at Lehigh was chanting Owens' name from the moment he jogged onto the practice field.
"We knew we were good, real good," said Ike Reese, the linebacker and special teams captain. "We had a core group of guys - Five (quarterback Donovan McNabb), Dawk (safety Brian Dawkins), Tra (Thomas, tackle), Jon (Runyan, tackle), B-West (running back Brian Westbrook), Trot (linebacker Jeremiah Trotter) - who had been so close those other years and now we just felt it was our time. We didn't talk about it, it was more of an unspoken thing, but we all felt it. Adding T.O. was like that last piece."
Super Bowl participants Brian Dawkins, Lito Sheppard, Harold Carmichael and Jabar Gaffney, present Golden Footballs to William M. Raines High School as part of the 50th anniversary celebration of the Super Bowl...
The 2004 Eagles set a club record with 13 regular season wins and most were not even close. Nine of the victories were by 10 points or more. Five were by 20 points or more. They opened the season with seven consecutive wins and after their first loss in Pittsburgh, they crushed their next four opponents - Dallas, Washington, the New York Giants and Green Bay -- by scores of 49-21, 28-6, 27-6 and 47-17.
The Green Bay rout was particularly stunning because the Packers came into Lincoln Financial Field on a six-game winning streak and vowing revenge for the heartbreaking 20-17 loss they suffered in Philadelphia in the previous year's Wild Card playoff game. The Eagles buried the Packers under an avalanche of big plays with McNabb passing for 464 yards, a club record, including five touchdown passes en route to a 35-3 halftime lead.
At intermission, Ron Jaworski, the quarterback who led the Eagles to their first Super Bowl appearance in the 1980 season, stood in the rear of the press box shaking his head. "That's the best half of offensive football I've ever seen the Eagles play," Jaworski said, including his own years playing under Dick Vermeil.
"We were clicking on all cylinders," said McNabb, who extended his streak of consecutive completions to 24, breaking the NFL record of 22 previously held by Hall of Famer Joe Montana. "It was one of those games where you want to send out a message. I think we sent that message today. Week in and week out, we come ready to play."
"I just think we played the game at another level," said Westbrook, who caught 11 passes in the game for 156 yards and three touchdowns. "We were so focused, it was sort of scary. When you look at the scoreboard and it's 35-3 against a team as good as the Packers, you're in a little bit of shock."
The win was the 67th regular season victory for Reid making him the winningest coach in Eagles history, surpassing Earle "Greasy" Neale. In the same game, Owens caught his 14th touchdown pass of the reason, breaking the club record shared by Hall of Famer Tommy McDonald (who did it twice, 1960-61) and Mike Quick (1983).
The 2004 Eagles were the most explosive team in the league with McNabb enjoying a career year. He set career highs in touchdown passes (31), passing yardage (3,875), completion percentage (64.0) and efficiency rating (104.7). He became the first quarterback in NFL history to throw more than 30 touchdown passes and fewer than 10 interceptions (he threw eight) in the same season.
That season, McNabb played more within the design of Reid's offense which meant he ran the ball just 41 times. That was 30 fewer rushing attempts than the previous year and a 50 percent drop from 2001. But he still could use his legs if necessary which he demonstrated on the most spectacular play of the season when he scrambled away from a Dallas rush and threw a strike to Freddie Mitchell 60 yards down the field leaving a Monday Night Football audience slack-jawed in disbelief. He kept the play alive for a ridiculous this-can't-really-be-happening 14 seconds.
"This was the escape of all escapes, Houdini raised to a higher power," wrote Rich Hofmann in the Philadelphia Daily News. "It wasn't merely an athletic play. This was a great thinking play. This is what McNabb does best now, using his mobility to buy time to hit the big one downfield. He does it multiple times every week, escaping and scheming and turning garbage into gold."
McNabb's success was due in large part to the addition of Owens, who came to the Eagles in a trade with Baltimore. Owens was everything the Eagles hoped he would be and more. He scored three touchdowns in the opener against the Giants and didn't slow down until late in the season when he suffered a fractured fibula in a win over Dallas. Owens missed the final two games of the regular season and the postseason wins over Minnesota and Atlanta, but he came back for the Super Bowl and played brilliantly.
"When we had everything working together, we were hard to stop," said Westbrook, the Villanova product who took over as the No. 1 running back in 2004, accounting for 1,515 yards from scrimmage and nine touchdowns. He led all NFL running backs with 73 receptions.
"We had a lot of weapons and Donovan had really developed into a great quarterback. Andy liked to throw the ball and we threw it a lot, but we could run it when we had to."
The 2004 Eagles also had a solid defense orchestrated by coordinator Jim Johnson. They allowed an average of just 16.3 points per game (second in the league) and recorded 47 sacks led by Kearse who had 7.5. Trotter, who had rejoined the Eagles after two unhappy seasons in Washington, stepped in at middle linebacker and stiffened the run defense. He was one of 10 Eagles named to the Pro Bowl that season. Others were Dawkins, McNabb, Reese, Thomas, Westbrook, Owens, kicker David Akers, cornerback Lito Sheppard and safety Michael Lewis.
The Eagles were 13-1 at one point, but with Owens injured and Reid opting to rest many of his star players, they dropped the final two games of the regular season to finish 13-3. Reid's decision was questioned by some who felt losing the two games would send the Eagles into the postseason with no momentum. They dispelled that theory by easily disposing of Minnesota, 27-14, in the NFC Divisional Playoff then finally clearing the NFC title game hurdle by defeating Atlanta, 27-10, in a frigid Lincoln Financial Field.
"There was so much talk about the three (championship) games we had lost and the pressure of getting over the hump," McNabb said, "but we had a lot of confidence in ourselves. It is funny but it snowed the day before the game and it was freezing cold and it was one of those days where you could find all kinds of things to worry about but we never doubted ourselves. We had worked all year for that opportunity and we weren't going to let it get away."
McNabb threw two touchdown passes to tight end Chad Lewis, Westbrook ran for 96 yards on 16 carries and caught five passes for another 39 yards and the defense shut down Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick. As the final seconds counted down, Reese and defensive tackle Corey Simon showered Reid with Gatorade while the fans rocked the Linc with chants of "Super Bowl, Super Bowl."
As the confetti flew, McNabb held the NFC Championship trophy aloft and saluted the fans.
"It's just a great feeling for the City of Philadelphia," he said.
A decade later, that feeling remains.
An award-winning writer and producer, Ray Didinger was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1995. He has also won six Emmy Awards for his work as a writer and producer at NFL Films. The five-time Pennsylvania Sportswriter of the Year is a writer and analyst for Comcast SportsNet. Didinger will provide Eagles fans a unique historical perspective on the team throughout the year for PhiladelphiaEagles.com. You can read all of his Eagles History columns here. He is also the author of The New Eagles Encyclopedia.