Rich Hofmann | In this corner, McNabb's still the man

Greg Lewis scores his second touchdown on pass from A.J. Feeley against Patriots' Randall Gay.

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. - History having eluded their grasp, reality was what the Eagles were left with in the end, and A.J. Feeley seemed to be taking that reality pretty hard. The backup quarterback had led the Eagles to four scores and a fourth-quarter lead against the undefeated, seemingly invincible New England Patriots, but he had also thrown three interceptions.

And Feeley said, his voice cracking slightly, "I take full responsibility for the whole deal. I take it on my back because those guys played their hearts out for me. I've got to do a better job to put us in a situation to win the game rather than lose it."

Feeley had stood tall, very tall, in a very big spot. He withstood the pressure thrown at him by the presumptive world champions and threw three touchdown passes, two to Greg Lewis. Even given the 31-28 defeat, he very well might have played better than Donovan McNabb would have played in the same position.

But it still should be McNabb's job. Feeley knows it and everyone should know it.

"No, the situation is that I'm the backup quarterback," he said. "It's Don's team. When Don is ready to go, he's the quarterback. Until then, I kind of lead the ship. But for right now, I know my role. It's a little bitter with this loss . . . I know Don wants to play and he wants to get back out there so I expect him to come back healthy and be ready to go. It's just going to be tough for me . . . for a while."

After the game, Eagles coach Andy Reid made it as clear as he possibly could: that he expected McNabb to continue to make progress with his ankle and thumb injuries, and that he expects him to practice at some point this week - but maybe not Wednesday - and that if McNabb is healthy, it will be his job again. Period.

It is how a real team acts.

There is a protocol here and it is simple: No man should lose his job because of an injury, and especially not this man - the very face of your franchise for the last 9 years. It is simply how you treat people. It is bedrock. Reid is absolutely correct.

This is not to diminish Feeley or what he did last night, nearly shocking the world. With the whole country watching, anticipating slaughter, Feeley played dynamically. To start the game, he threw an interception that Asante Samuel returned for a touchdown, but then managed to pull himself together. His final numbers: 27-for-42 for 345 yards.

Late in the fourth quarter, on a pass intended for Kevin Curtis, he threw another interception that effectively ended the game. It is the one throw that Feeley seemed to be beating himself up about the most. Way, way too self-critical, he said, "We put ourselves in position to win and, basically, I lost it for us."

Still, in between, he very clearly sparked this offense - something you could see and something his teammates could feel.

Listen to tight end L.J. Smith:

"I think the biggest thing he did was make smart decisions," Smith said. "He was great with the ball. He put it in spots where only the receiver could get it . . .

He threw one [interception] early but he recovered quite well. He kept his head and he was cool the whole game. He was methodical, and slow and steady, and you've got to like his fire. He has a great attitude out there. Everybody just kind of fed off of that."

If you closed your eyes, you could see Jeff Garcia out there, circa 2006. It was that kind of a game. Feeley brought the Eagles that kind of energy. An offense that had spent the season trudging along, only occasionally looking like it had the potential to carry the team, operated with a quicker step and with more purpose. It was more precise because the throws were more consistent.

Feeley was far from perfect, certainly. And they did lose in the end. As Feeley said, "A win would have been great but we can't talk about that . . . The loss is tough to take."

But the play of the backup, the underdog, was infectious. Everybody had to sense it. It really was Garcia all over again, at least for this one night. That really is the most accessible analogy.

And what was the word Mama McNabb blogged last year? Bittersweet. Yes, bittersweet.

Because it is obvious what last night pointed out - the same thing that the end of last season pointed out with Garcia; the same thing people who root for McNabb have feared for a while. That is, that time and the injuries have robbed him of . . . something. We can debate what that is, that missing ingredient, but there seems little doubt that it is missing. After a night like this one, it is really hard to argue the other side.

But McNabb needs to play again. He needs to be given that opportunity when he is healthy. If the leash is short in this next game, so be it - but he needs to be out there again. He needs that chance. He deserves that chance. If it goes badly, they can then make the hard call - a historic call for this franchise. But they owe him that chance. *

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