One year after a lost season that saw the Eagles finish in the NFC East basement at 4-12, Chip Kelly's Eagles announced a new era with authority in 2013, finishing atop the division at 10-6. Even in the season-ending 26-24 loss to the New Orleans Saints on Saturday night, the Eagles showed the resolve that became characteristic throughout the race to the playoffs.
"There are plenty of situations in this game, plenty of situations throughout the year where things don't go as planned, things don't go your way," Evan Mathis said. "But everybody on this team is very, very resilient. There's a lot fight in everybody here. Everybody believes in each other, coaches and players. All we know is to keep going out and keep playing, that's all we've done."
It's hard to put things in perspective after a tough, heartbreaking playoff loss that ends a promising season, but Eagles fans should feel a sense of immense pride about their team after an exciting 2013 that renewed hope for the future of the franchise.
This team could have easily folded once the Saints scored their second touchdown of the third quarter to go up 20-7, following two straight three-and-outs by the Eagles offense. Instead, the Eagles pushed back even harder. An 11-yard run by LeSean McCoy got the ensuing drive started, then a 40-yard pass from Nick Foles to DeSean Jackson, who outmuscled the cornerback for a jump ball, got the Eagles down the Saints' 9-yard line. Four plays later, on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line, McCoy plowed forward into the end zone to make the score 20-14.
The defense then forced the Saints to go three-and-out to start the fourth quarter, and Jackson returned Tom Moorestead's punt 29 yards all the way to the Saints' 40-yard line. The Eagles were in business once again. This time, Foles carried the load, completing three-of-four passes for 27 yards, but Chip Kelly elected to kick a field goal on fourth-and-1 at the 7-yard line and make the score 20-17.
"I knew we were going to come back when we were down 20-7," said Jason Peters. "There was no quit. We went down and scored (a touchdown) and were down six. Then the defense stopped them and we went and put another score up (to trim the lead to three points)."
"That's who we are," Riley Cooper said. "We're not going to give up. We're going to take it play by play, drive by drive, game by game. That's just how we're built."
The Saints drove down the field on their next drive but had to settle for Shayne Graham's third field goal of the night, making the score 23-17. The Eagles offense got the ball back with just over eight minutes remaining in the game, needing a touchdown to take the lead. McCoy gained 13 yards on two carries on the first two plays. Then Foles completed two passes for 18 yards and McCoy converted a second-and-2. On first down, Foles went deep for Jackson, who was interfered with at the 3-yard line. The ref threw the flag for defensive pass interference, a 40-yard penalty that placed the ball at the spot of the foul. Two plays later, Foles rolled to his right and found Zach Ertz for a 3-yard touchdown to put the Eagles up 24-23 with just over five minutes left.
You know what happened next, and how the Saints were able to position themselves to chew up the rest of the clock and kick a short field goal to win the game as time expired. Though the sting of the loss is fresh, there is a larger success story to be told about the Eagles' 2013 season.
"There's a lot to be proud of," Trent Cole said. "There are a lot of guys who played different positions and had to learn schemes. Just for the whole team, guys had to step up. There was a lot of effort and hard work. You've got to give it to these guys, especially the coaches for coming in here and getting this team together and making it to the playoffs. This is a start for them, this is a start for a lot of young guys in here. Everybody has a little taste, and everybody knows when the time comes next year, wherever they are, what it is they have to build towards."
Waiting is the hardest part, but the future is bright, and this is just the first step in the building of a program that is going to be around for a long time.
"If you step back and take a look at everything, you have to have the mentality that this is just the beginning," Mathis said. "This coaching staff and this group of guys have all been here together for, in reality, a short period of time. We've all been the types of the guys, players and coaches, who have focused on growing with time, learning from our experiences, and we'll continue to do that. We'll look at this as our first step in the right direction."
Chairman and CEO Jeffrey Lurie feels the same way and believes that this is the start of something special for the Philadelphia Eagles.
"This is just the tip of the iceberg," Lurie said. "It's a very young team and, at the same time, they've already learned what it takes. I have no doubt that we will be back and that we are more confident than ever, now that we know what we can accomplish."