Seasons come and go, fortunes rise and fall, coaches make their marks or slowly erase them. When the end finally arrives, always with a bitter suddenness, the players look ahead and speak of better days ahead.
The scene that played out in the Eagles locker room near midnight Saturday was painfully familiar, even if everything else about the team's season had been refreshingly different to that point. Every year since 1960, the Eagles have finished with either a postseason loss or no opportunity to even have one. After all the change and all the renewed hope, you can add 2013 to that list and turn the page.
"I just think we didn't play well enough to win, and that's on all of us," coach Chip Kelly said after the Eagles lost, 26-24, to New Orleans on a last-second field goal in the wild-card round of the playoffs.
It really was that simple. The Eagles are a good team, good enough to beat almost any team in the league if they play their best game. Against the Saints, a flawed team that had lost three of its previous five games, all on the road, the Eagles didn't come close to playing their best.
"It's surprising to have a letdown at this point in time in the season when we needed to step up the most," linebacker DeMeco Ryans said.
Not much separated the teams throughout, so the bigger individual mistakes were magnified. Riley Cooper dropped a wide-open pass, Alex Henery shanked a 48-yard field-goal attempt, Nick Foles took a bad sack to set up that miss, Cary Williams was flagged for a horse-collar tackle that put the Saints near midfield to begin their final drive. The Saints also got field goals on drives that were aided greatly by a holding call against Fletcher Cox and by the biggest New Orleans play of the night, a 40-yard completion to Robert Meachem that found safety Patrick Chung flailing unsuccessfully to keep up.
Those individual failings, bad as they were, are part of the game, and were balanced out by mistakes on the other side of the field. Drew Brees threw two interceptions, the Saints were penalized seven times for 85 yards, their defense failed to stop the Eagles on a pair of fourth-down tries, and on and on. Both teams missed opportunities on offense and tackles on defense.
The surprise, and the determining factor, was that the Eagles couldn't run the ball and the Saints, without top rusher Pierre Thomas, ran it very well. Defensive coordinator Bill Davis, worried about big completions by Brees, stole men from the line of scrimmage to aid in coverage. He dared the Saints to run, and they did.
"It came down to them making one more play than we did," Davis said.
That play arrived on second and 11 at the Eagles' 49 on the final drive. Without a first down, the Saints were going to lose. Davis figured the Saints had to throw the ball on that play, but they gave it instead to rookie Khiry Robinson. He gained 13 yards, and the Saints were on their way to the win.
Saints coach Sean Payton is often criticized for his play calling. His critics think he gets too cute and tries to be too smart. The run call to Robinson was unbelievably audacious. You absolutely need a first down, and you have Drew Brees at quarterback. Payton handed off the ball to a rookie. Impressive, but only because it worked, naturally.
On the other sideline, Chip Kelly didn't get a chance to outthink this game. The Eagles ran just 57 plays, and the offense was held to fewer than 300 yards for the first time since October.
It was a flat ending to an exciting, unexpected season, but Kelly can still get away with talking about the building process and the better things to come. By the end of Andy Reid's tenure, that didn't fly anymore. If the Eagles had better luck with injuries last season, hovered close to the playoffs, and Reid had been allowed one more shot, Saturday's loss to the Saints would be viewed a lot differently. (And, oh, my, what if Reid ever lost one as he did Saturday in Indianapolis, blowing a 28-point lead and pulling off the difficult trick of calling his final timeout coming out of the two-minute warning?) A loss is still a loss, regardless of the coach, but Kelly has more than a few mulligans left here.
"I've got to put him in better position calling plays," Kelly said after the game in defense of Foles.
We've heard that before. Coaches say it when there is nothing else to say that really means anything. Kelly hasn't had to use it too much yet, and time is still on his side. But seasons come and seasons go, and one of his is gone.