WELL, WE WOKE up yesterday morning and it was still true: Brian Dawkins plays for Denver.

And when Dawk called, responding to a text-messaged request to say something to Eagles fans, he didn't sound any happier about it than many of the folks who'd been venting all weekend on talk radio.

"I've just got to thank them," Dawkins told the Daily News. "For so many years, we obviously connected on a very deep basis. For so many years, they've allowed me to come into their living rooms, to laugh with them, to party with them, to celebrate with them, to cry with 'em through tough losses, to bleed with them. I just really appreciate the way they accepted me, a little safety from Clemson."

Asked about the fact that the Broncos are scheduled to visit the Eagles this season, at a yet-to-be-determined date, Dawkins, an Eagle for his first 13 NFL seasons, who left town as Philadelphia's longest-tenured pro athlete, was overcome with emotion.

"Whew," he said. "It's tough. This is not just business for me. I never thought that this would happen this way. I thought the only time I would shed tears in an interview would be because of my retirement from the Eagles, not like this."

The day after, it would not be stretching to say Dawk had regrets - buyer's remorse, at the very least.

"In a couple of weeks or a month, I'll be excited about this team," Dawkins said. "I've got to get used to saying that - I'm a Bronco." Then he paused. "I'll tell you one thing: I'll always be an Eagle."

Before I rant, I will make a couple of points in the Eagles' defense: A while back, when Dawkins and team officials were saying they expected they'd work out an agreement for him to stay, I don't think either side was thinking about 2 years and $9 million-plus, which is what reports say is the "real money" in the 5-year, $17 million free-agent contract the Broncos offered. Dawk even said something to a few of us, late in the season in a NovaCare hallway, about knowing his break-the-bank days were behind him.

It's an amazing contract, and if the history of aging Eagles who flee the nest is any indicator, the Broncos are likely to end up disappointed. Also, if you're going to take the team to task for not matching the Denver money, which I am about to do, you have to acknowledge something - that street runs both ways. Dawk could have just taken less money and stayed, without risking starvation.

OK, end of that spiel.

Here's the real gist of what I have to say: We are being instructed by the front office's apologists that this is just how the Eagles roll, and that, as I noted, they are almost always right about what an aging player has left in his tank.

That's so far beside the point you'll need to right-click about a thousand times to center it on your computer screen.

We are talking about Brian Dawkins here. Name the Top 10 all-time Eagles, in 76 seasons, and he has to be one of them. This is not Hugh Douglas or Carlos Emmons or Bobby Taylor or Duce Staley or Ike Reese or even Troy Vincent or Jeremiah Trotter. There are two jerseys you see worn most at Lincoln Financial Field when the Birds are playing: No. 5 and No. 20. And No. 5 is not the guy who carries with him the passionate soul of the fan base.

Late in the 2007 season, I was running (OK, chugging and shuffling) in a 10K race over the Ben Franklin Bridge from New Jersey and back, the morning of a late-afternoon Eagles game. Near the finish, I happened to be traveling through the Camden waterfront in a pack that included a runner wearing a Dawkins jersey. As we passed the Battleship New Jersey, we came up on a couple of people who had slowed to a walk. One of them wore a Dawkins jersey, as well. As we passed on the left, the Dawkins guy in my pack leaned over to the pedestrian No. 20. "Dawk don't walk," he said. Guy immediately started running again.

But never fear. I'm sure that even as you read this, the Eagles are assembling polling data that show I am wrong, that most of their fans support not bringing back Dawkins. I'm not sure, but I think they also have a poll that shows they won the last three Super Bowls.

Most of those previous decisions on aging players were explained by the constant need to massage the salary cap, which the Eagles were so good at, they kept telling us, and this constant vigilance, this dogged refusal to bow to sentiment, was going to pay benefits. They were going to rise in the standings behind their younger players, as other franchises sank beneath the weight of their overpaid veterans.

Except, the Eagles are currently so far under the cap ($40 million?) that team president Joe Banner admitted to me a little more than a week ago that they can't possibly spend to the limit. There is an excellent chance the cap will disappear entirely next year. And if they felt they needed to add a good, young safety in free agency or the draft, to hedge their bets, Sean Considine's roster spot was already open.

Dawkins would not address what the Birds offered to keep him here, why it wasn't enough.

"I want to do this the right way," he said.

So, apparently, they couldn't give out a "reward" contract to one of the most beloved figures in franchise history because . . . having him here, making a lot of money, will somehow impede the crucial development of Quintin Demps? Because paying Dawk would somehow strengthen Sheldon Brown's case for a salary bump? Because Banner's head would explode? Seriously, I would like to hear a compelling reason; I'd be happy to endorse it if it proved valid.

"Because that's not how they do business" is a bleep-poor reason. To embrace it, you have to embrace the attitude that the fans don't really matter, and that if the Eagles start out 5-0 with Demps playing free safety next season, nobody will much remember how Dawk left.

Maybe that's right, in one sense, but it isn't ever going to be "right." And you don't have to be a capologist to understand the difference. *

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