It’s pretty much taken for granted that, if the Eagles lose Sunday to the Rams, Philadelphia will fall into a collective civic panic that the city and its surrounding region haven’t experienced since September 2015. The cause then was Pope Francis’ visit as part of the World Meeting of Families Congress, and the prospect of his arrival led to a series of security measures – the shutdown of roads, highways, and a five-square-mile section of Center City – comparable to those that would have been implemented if a giant aquatic dinosaur had emerged from the Schuylkill and started stomping Boathouse Row. This time, the Eagles would be 10-3 and no longer in position for a first-round bye, so we might be talking about just a few bridge closings. But still …
Some people might wonder why Eagles fans would have any reason to panic at all, why they would begin chewing their fingernails and sweating if the team were to lose Sunday. After all, the Eagles would still be comfortably ahead in the NFC East and, in the worst-case scenario, would likely host a playoff game on wild-card weekend.
Some people aren’t from Philadelphia. Some people don’t have any idea what “worst-case scenario” actually means. Consider the following seven “worst-case scenarios” from just the last 36 years of Eagles history, since they went to their first Super Bowl. The collapses are listed in increasing order based on the damage they inflicted on the fan base’s psyche, and if you’re familiar with them, you’ll understand the apprehension in the air around here.
After losing their opening game, to the Giants, the Eagles ripped off seven wins in their next eight games, including a stunning and memorable 40-8 rout of the 49ers at Candlestick Park. (The 49ers were so inspired/embarrassed by the loss that they won 13 of their subsequent 14 games, including Super Bowl XXIX.) In an anecdote that sounds apocryphal, then-Daily News columnist Ray Didinger told colleague Mike Kern that he believed the 7-2 Eagles would lose their final seven games. Didinger’s prediction turned out to be right, though considering that Rich Kotite was the Eagles’ head coach at the time, nobody should have been that surprised.
Another 7-2 start – this time under a different head coach, Ray Rhodes, and with the hope that the Eagles had uncovered a diamond-in-the-rough quarterback in wee, little Ty Detmer. No such luck. The team lost its next three games, finishing 10-6 and getting shut out by the 49ers, 14-0, in a wild-card game.
It was the apex of Chip Kelly’s tenure with the Eagles. They were 9-3, coming off a lopsided victory over the Cowboys on Thanksgiving, and all things seemed possible, even a Super Bowl victory with Mark Sanchez at quarterback. Then, the rapid fall: They couldn’t match the physical play of the Seahawks, and they couldn’t cover Dez Bryant, and they lost back-to-back home games to relinquish the divisional lead to Dallas. A third straight loss – on the road to the Redskins, thanks in part to a late Sanchez interception – eliminated them from postseason eligibility.
Having lost the Super Bowl in January, the Eagles won their first six games the following season. One can only imagine the fever that would have come over Philadelphia if social media and talk radio had existed in the fall of ’81. But those six victories weren’t a beginning. In truth, they marked the end of coach Dick Vermeil’s run of success with the Eagles, who lost four of their final five regular-season games and were upset by the Giants in the playoffs. “We come out 6-0,” Vermeil said in a recent interview, “and I kept working them so hard, trying to make somebody better, that they had nothing else to give.”
This year seemed a Faustian bargain for the Eagles and their fans. In exchange for two of the most electrifying victories in franchise history – Michael Vick’s six touchdowns on a Monday night against the Redskins, the “Miracle at the Meadowlands II” against the Giants – the season had to end with a whimper. Joe Webb and the Vikings beat the Eagles on a Tuesday night, in a game rescheduled because of a snowstorm, and less than two weeks later, Aaron Rodgers and the Packers bounced the Eagles out of the playoffs. But hey, at least Ed Rendell got a book deal out of it.
From the Fog Bowl to Randall Cunningham’s knee injury, there was so much unfulfilled hope for the Eagles during this period that it’s impossible to isolate just one season as particularly disappointing. The cold summation of that four-year stretch: one division title and zero playoff victories for a team that could have, and perhaps should have, won a championship. As Richie Ashburn once remarked about the 1950 “Whiz Kids” Phillies, “It’s funny that people still talk about that team, because it didn’t do that much.”
Really, this is about just one day: Jan. 19, 2003. The NFC championship game against the Buccaneers. The final game at Veterans Stadium. Joe Jurevicius. Simeon Rice. Ronde Barber. Jon Gruden. No need to go into detail. Happy to spare everyone a relapse of the post-traumatic stress.