The first time they stepped into Cowboys Stadium, wide-eyed at the wonder of the larger-than-life video board and the loud music and the Showtime spectacle of the building. By the time the Eagles exited after their second visit, one week later, a game plan for changing a team was about to be put in motion.
Two losses in Arlington, TX changed the entire course of this Eagles franchise. Riding high at 11-4 before the teams met to close the regular season in 2009, the Eagles limped home after losing twice and being outscored 58-14 in the two games. Dallas dominated the Eagles at the line of scrimmage, played with far more team speed and confidence and simply looked physically superior in just about every way to end very abruptly what had been a promising Eagles campaign.
The goal heading home from the Wild Card playoff loss was, then, to catch up to the Cowboys. The Eagles ripped apart the roster, dealt quarterback Donovan McNabb to Washington, devoted 9 of 13 draft picks to the defense and transitioned to a new era. The results have been outstanding, as the Eagles sit 8-4, led by quarterback Michael Vick, with a roster that averages 25 years of age.
No doubt the Eagles are in a better place than they were in January after the second consecutive loss to Dallas. They are younger, more talented, better served for the long haul. The future of this football team is, indeed, bright.
But how much of a how-far-have-we-come? game is Sunday night when the Eagles play at Dallas, the first of two meetings in four games between the teams? Are the Cowboys the measuring stick for the Eagles?
"Our goal," said general manager Howie Roseman in the spring, "is to be as good a team as we can become, not to match up against any particular team. Those losses were significant. They pointed out weaknesses that we had, no question. We want to improve the roster in those areas, and in every area, as much as we can. Not just to beat Dallas, but to become a championship team."
Despite a 4-8 record, the Cowboys are playing as well as any team in the division and maybe in the entire NFC. Dallas has rallied behind veteran quarterback Jon Kitna and interim head coach Jason Garrett to win three of its last four games. The Cowboys have a powerful offense that has become more balanced since Garrett became the head coach. The receiving weapons -- Miles Austin and Roy Williams and tight end Jason Witten-- are the same that gave the Eagles fits last year.
Dallas' defense struggled for much of the year but has been a takeaway machine of late and returned two interceptions for touchdowns against Peyton Manning on Sunday in the win over Indianapolis.
And while the Cowboys aren't going to the playoffs, they will help determine who goes in the NFC. In many ways, then, how the Eagles perform against Dallas will say a lot about how successful, to date, the revamping of the roster has been. This has been a season of unexpected positives -- Michael Vick, example No. 1 -- and the Eagles sit atop the NFC East after 12 games for a reason. This is an explosive team with great coaching and a wealth of young, hungry talent.
There won't be any "Ghosts of Cowboys Stadium" stories that have any validity this week simply because the roster has turned over so dramatically that only about half of the team played against Dallas last year. There may be some on the offense who remember that Cowboys linebacker Keith Brooking said the play-calling was "predictable," and there is no doubt that wide receivers DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin recall the trash talking that went on with the Cowboys' secondary. That is all ancient history. Dallas whipped up on the Eagles twice last season. The Eagles had their hats handed to them.
And then they went into the off-season and did something about it. They made bold moves. They were aggressive in the draft. They turned the team over to youth and then, as fortune would have it, to Vick early in the regular season.
The area to focus on is the defensive front. Dallas had too much success running the football last year, so the Eagles went out and traded for Darryl Tapp and drafted Brandon Graham and Daniel Te'o-Nesheim in April. There is a need here to gain some consistency in the four-man pass rush. Trent Cole has 9 quarterback sacks and Juqua Parker has been a consistent contributor when healthy, but the Eagles need more. Tapp has come on of late. Graham has shown flashes, but he has not put it all together. Maybe he is ready to go on a run ... Te'o-Nesheim has played sparingly as a reserve end.
There is no question the linebackers are improved over last year's version, with Stewart Bradley playing well now that he is back in the lineup, and with Ernie Sims pressuring the line of scrimmage and with Moise Fokou adding a positive, physical presence on the strong side.
Comparing the secondary from last year and this group is interesting. Sheldon Brown was a veteran player, a reliable guy. He never missed a game and he supported the run well. But it would be a stretch to say he played well in coverage in the games against Dallas. I'm not sure anybody in the secondary did, and whether that was because the pressure up front wasn't there or whatever, the coverage just wasn't good. Dimitri Patterson, then, has a tall challenge on Sunday night. He has played well so far. He has battled. He has been a productive player.
At the other corner, the expectation is that Asante Samuel will play against Dallas after missing two games with a knee injury. When healthy, Samuel of this year has been heads and shoulders over Samuel of last year. Still, don't you want to see how he plays when Dallas throws those quick screens to the wide receivers, the ones that gave the Eagles -- Samuel, in particular -- so much trouble last season?
The Eagles are better now than they were at safety last year. Nate Allen is exponentially better than the combination of Sean Jones/Macho Harris, and because of that, Quintin Mikell is improved, too.
Playing Dallas, though, in a way sums up everything the Eagles have put together for this season. Twice in the next four games the teams meet, and there is a measuring-stick kind of feeling for some. All I know is that the Eagles have four tough games ahead, and all four need to be played with the urgency that must-win games bring.
A lot changed around here after two losses to Dallas last season. The growth chart of a football team changed, so maybe in a way it is appropriate to see the Cowboys twice late in this year just to see how much those changes mean to the Eagles.