February 6, 2005, Jacksonville, Florida. It was a day that thrills and haunts to this day, and a Super Bowl game that I had never re-lived until now, until 10 years later with the pain still bubbling. Time now to watch the television broadcast of Super XXXIX for the first time.
So many vignettes of that Super Bowl season seem like yesterday. Wide receiver Terrell Owens and his impact remain high-definition moments in my memory. The way running back Brian Westbrook shredded defenses in every way. Quarterback Donovan McNabb's brilliance working for the first time with a star wide receiver to round out the great offense. A defense that was relentless under the guidance of coordinator Jim Johnson.
The playoff wins over Minnesota and Atlanta at the thunderdome that was Lincoln Financial Field and the euphoria that swept the city and Eagles fans everywhere when the Eagles finished off Atlanta and reached their first Super Bowl since the 1980 season.
In Jacksonville, the feeling was electric. Tons of work for everyone, but it was so worth it. Late nights, great camaraderie and the fans eating up every bit of it. Eagles fans lined the walkways of the team hotel and the streets of dreary Jacksonville that week and then, the night before the game, they showed up by the thousands at The Landing for a pep rally. I remember walking on stage with a camera to capture the moment and feeling the tingling from head to toe. I feel it again now, almost as powerfully.
We took the team buses into the stadium and saw Eagles fans two and three and four deep on the path waving their flags and clapping their hands and urging the Eagles on the road to victory. And I remember walking around the stadium hours before the game and celebrating with the fans and chanting E-A-G-L-E-S, EAGLES! with them and preparing for 60 minutes of football against a Patriots team that was already a dynasty. Quarterback Tom Brady was 8-0 in the postseason entering the game, was making his third Super Bowl start and had won Super Bowl MVP honors twice in his young career.
This wouldn't be easy.
And it wasn't. It was crushing, a 24-21 defeat that ended the dream. And until now I have chosen not to watch the broadcast. Too much hurt. Can't handle it. The depression of losing that game lingered long into the offseason for me and instead of looking back, I chose to look ahead.
So now I'm in my office at the NovaCare Complex watching the game on YouTube. No commercials. FOX's three-man broadcast team of Joe Buck, Troy Aikman and Cris Collinsworth are in the booth. It's kickoff time and I'm tingling again.
There are moments when I genuinely become upset again, like when the Patriots beat the Eagles early with the blitz and McNabb has nowhere to go and is sacked. Or when McNabb, clearly too hyped in the early going, misses open receivers. There were chances for the Eagles to jump out early and they didn't take advantage, and the teams are feeling each other out.
Johnson's defensive scheme is brilliant. He's bringing the blitz against Brady and New England is unable to get anything going offensively, with three three-and-out possessions the first four times it has the ball.
Finally, the Eagles put something together as McNabb goes to Owens – back from his ankle injury and a standout in the game, as he always was that season – for 30 yards and the Eagles have a first-and-goal at the New England 8-yard line. New England blitzes McNabb and sacks him for a 16-yard loss and on the next play he throws a horrible pass that's intercepted by safety Rodney Harrison. Awful. But a penalty nullifies the turnover and the Eagles have a first down again in the red zone. On the very next play, McNabb throws another poor pass to Westbrook at the goal line and Harrison makes the interception. It stands this time.
On February 6, 2005, the Eagles faced off with the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XXXIX in Jacksonville, Florida ...
Another turnover, this time an L.J. Smith fumble, gives New England the football and kills an Eagles chance to dominate field position.
I'm marveling at the Eagles' defense. End Derrick Burgess dominates. Tackle Darwin Walker is killing it. Linebacker Jeremiah Trotter is handling the running game between the tackles.
And finally the Eagles break through, putting together a beautiful drive that reminds me how great this team was, as McNabb throws a touchdown pass to a diving Smith in the back of the end zone. Goosebumps. The cameras show Eagles fans jumping up and down and going berserk. I'm about to cry. Honestly. Not sure I can watch the rest of this game. This hurts almost as much as it did 10 years ago.
Because the number that haunted me as I watched the game was this: That scoring pass to Smith was the Eagles' 12th play in New England territory, with only seven points to show for all the good work. New England had yet to reach the Philadelphia side of the 50-yard line.
It came back to cost the Eagles.
New England's in-game adjustments won this Super Bowl. The Patriots limited the effectiveness of the Johnson blitz game by calling screen passes and quick routes. Brady, after a slow start, completes 11 of his next 12 passes at one point in the game. The momentum of the game changes as the Patriots tie things up late in the first half. J.R. Reed returns the ensuing kickoff to the 41-yard line with under a minute left in the half, but a very, very, very questionable holding call on Jeff Thomason brings possession back to the 19-yard line and, well, so much for that potential scoring opportunity.
"I think that if you're the Philadelphia Eagles you have to feel pretty good about the way this first half has gone," said Aikman.
I never felt that way. I left the press box to watch Paul McCartney's halftime show and I was sick to my stomach. The Eagles turned the ball over twice in the first half (New England had one turnover, a Brady fumble in the red zone that Walker recovered). They left points on the field. McNabb was off his game. The running game had nothing.
Brady was going to get hot. I just knew it.
And it happened. New England scored on its first drive of the third quarter as Deion Branch grabbed a pass to convert a third-and-10 play and then beat cornerback Matt Ware (in because Rod Hood had cramps, one of several Eagles who cramped during the game) on a catch at the 2-yard line and took a 14-7 lead.
McNabb and Westbrook teamed up on a 74-yard drive later in the quarter – Westbrook accounted for 40 of those yards – and punctuated the drive on a McNabb bullet throw between two defenders as he fell away from the line of scrimmage right into the soft hands of Westbrook for a touchdown and a David Akers PAT to tie the game, 14-14, with 3:55 to go in the quarter.
I wanted to turn it off right then. I knew what was coming. I paused for a day, and then came back to watch the rest.
The fourth quarter was ugly. New England was winning both sides of the line of scrimmage. McNabb was still off his game. Brady and the screen game continued to work, and New England's running game had success on the edges.
New England took a 21-14 lead the next time it had the ball after Westbrook's touchdown, mixing the run and pass and eventually scoring on a Corey Dillon run, but there was still 13:44 left on the clock and the Eagles had a chance.
A terrible three-and-out series by the offense – an incomplete pass to running back Dorsey Levens, a run for minus yardage by Westbrook and an incomplete pass down the field for Greg Lewis - and a punt and 14-yard return from Bethel Johnson gave New England possession in Eagles territory at the 47. Branch stole a pass away from cornerback Sheldon Brown for a 19-yard gain on second-and-13 and defensive tackle Corey Simon was penalized for roughing Brady on the play and New England had a first down at the Philadelphia 16-yard line.
New England ran some clock and kicked a field goal and led, 24-14 with 8:40 to go. And then the Eagles stumbled again, a dagger kind of mistake.
In two plays the Eagles moved from their 26 to the New England 36, the big play an Owens catch and run for 36 yards, but McNabb threw an awful pass over the middle that linebacker Tedy Bruschi intercepted.
Philadelphia got the ball back with 5:40 remaining and used 13 plays to cover 79 yards for a touchdown. I remember the outrage in Philadelphia about the lack of "hurry-up" offense. It was sparked by the broadcasters questioning the decision to huddle. Truth is, when you watch the game again, the Eagles got the ball snapped quickly, usually with 13 or more seconds left on the clock. One time the clock dipped under 10 seconds. The Eagles needed 13 plays and they used 3 minutes, 52 seconds off the clock.
The Eagles did not lose the game here. They scored on a touchdown pass to Greg Lewis and had hope, but David Akers' onside kick bounced high in the air and New England's Christian Fauria caught it and fell down.
McNabb got the ball back once more, with 46 seconds left and no timeouts remaining, at his 4-yard line. No chance. His last pass was intercepted - his third of the game and the fourth turnover from the Eagles - by Harrison, and the game was over.
I did note, after that Lewis touchdown catch, the loud chant from Eagles fans, and it resonated with me as I fought back the loneliness and the tears again. E-A-G-L-E-S, EAGLES! Loud and clear for the entire world to hear. The fans weren't giving in and the team wasn't giving up.
It was a glorious day and a heartbreaking day all at once, and I remember thinking though the sadness that the Eagles would be back, much sooner than later, that this team had something special and the character and foundation to build from loss.
Here we are, 10 years later and the wait continues and the hope builds and In Chip We Trust and the never-die fans continue to believe. We'll get there again, sooner than later, and this time the Eagles will win the Super Bowl and the pain that I feel now, with the clock at 0:00 once again in Super Bowl XXIX, will erupt into unbridled joy.