We drove up in a cavalcade of buses on Saturday afternoon, up the busy New Jersey Turnpike on a gloomy mission to beat the Giants and end the year with a tidy bow, a smile and the sense that much brighter days are ahead for the Philadelphia Eagles.
Is it really over already?
I think back to the spring, when the momentum of four straight wins to end 2011 spilled into the hallways of the NovaCare Complex and the Eagles went about following through on their offseason blueprint for 2012:
- Sign their own: Check. They re-upped defensive end Trent Cole, offensive lineman Todd Herremans, wide receiver DeSean Jackson and running back LeSean McCoy. They retained offensive guard Evan Mathis after his dip into the free-agent market.
- Find a leader for a defense lacking identity: Check. A trade that sent a sixth-round draft pick to Houston for linebacker DeMeco Ryans seemed like the coup of the decade and, indeed, it worked out for the Eagles as Ryans stepped in at middle linebacker and played good football and provided a voice in the locker room and in the pre-game breakdowns and wherever else veterans lend their voices. Ryans played well for the Eagles but, as we learned, it required more than one veteran to give this defense an "identity."
- Draft smartly and stay true to the best players on the board: Check. The Eagles added immediate-contribution players in April, selecting rookie starters at defensive tackle (Fletcher Cox) and linebacker (Mychal Kendricks). A handful of other draft picks played extensively, including quarterback Nick Foles, who may or may not be the face of the team's future at the position.
- Build on the momentum from the four wins to end 2011: Check. The Eagles opened this season 3-1, led the NFC East at the quarter mark of the season and showed some Made In Philadelphia toughness with three strong fourth quarters to win those games.
So why is this over so soon? What went wrong? Well, we've been through this many times over the course of the last 12 weeks, 11 games and 10 losses. The offense turned the ball over too many times and blew too many red-zone chances, the defense was rattled by the chaos on the coaching staff and the inability to get pressure on the quarterback and create takeaways for much of the season and the special teams have been unable to get much going at all in the return game to set up the offense in favorable field position.
Add to that a spate of injuries, particularly to the offense and an inability to sustain any kind of momentum in the heat of the moment and the Eagles sit here at 4-11, 60 minutes away from an offseason as critical as any in Jeffrey Lurie's time as the franchise's steward.
It just flew by so quickly, didn't it? I remember the heat of training camp and the excitement at Lehigh University. The fans came from all corners of the United States and beyond for a peek at their Eagles, and they came away impressed. You could see the young talent pushing the veterans. The football was crisp. The energy level was off the charts.
There was the feeling that something special was in store for the 2012 Eagles.
Then the preseason arrived and some challenges bubbled to the surface. Michael Vick threw only seven passes as he sustained some injuries. The offensive line struggled, particularly at the left tackle position.
But, overall, the expectations were Super Bowl-high after a 4-0 preseason. The defense looked like it was going to have the depth and talent to dominate the line of scrimmage. A couple of young return men, Brandon Boykin on kickoffs and Damaris Johnson on punts, figured to re-invigorate the return game.
And the offense would figure it all out, right? There was just too much firepower, too much talent, to keep this group down for long.
The best-laid plans did not come through for the Eagles in 2012.
"Momentum is a powerful thing," said cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha earlier this week in the locker room at the NovaCare Complex. "It's gone the other for us this year and we haven't been able to reverse it. You see it happen so often in the NFL. It happened to us this season. We started out pretty well, winning three of our first four games. Then we lost two tough games (in Pittsburgh and against Detroit) and then it just continued from there. It's been tough."
Tough? How about gut wrenching? How about agonizing?
How about … how did it come to this?
It's all I keep asking myself, and I know it's a dumb thing to do. I truly believe the Eagles can turn this around in 2013, but there is a lot of work to do. And it is such a long time between now and then. All of the emotion and the high hopes and the effort we have all put into 2012 … we're 60 minutes from the offseason.
Melancholy, indeed. I can't believe the final game of a season that I wanted now to just start getting jacked up to enjoy is already here.
Beat the Giants, please. I don't care about the draft position, as many fans do. There are good players in every round of the draft, and having the fourth pick in the first round instead of, say, the eighth pick, is no guarantee.
I want to win this finale and enjoy the bus ride back to Philadelphia on Sunday evening and look forward to a successful new year for the Eagles.