As the Eagles fought in overtime to escape Cleveland with their undefeated record intact on Sunday, quarterback Donovan McNabb handed the ball four times to well-traveled, 34-year-old running back Dorsey Levens, who just a few months ago figured he was all but retired. McNabb also threw two crucial screen passes to a punt-return specialist, Reno Mahe, who was in the lineup only because running back Brian Westbrook was sidelined in the fourth quarter with a bruised sternum. Levens slashed for 32 yards on his four carries, and Mahe added 18 yards with his receptions. They were aided by the blocking of fullback Josh Parry, who was playing because starter Jon Ritchie went on injured reserve in September with a torn ACL in his left knee.
After being released on the final preseason cut this year, Levens was re-signed on Sept. 14. Mahe signed as an undrafted free agent in 2003, while Parry has been on and off the roster since '01. Against a Browns team that hadn't lost at home this year and in front of 73,394 fans screaming so loudly that McNabb had to go with a silent snap count in overtime, this trio was key in Philadelphia's 34--31 win, which came on David Akers's 50-yard field goal with 5:07 left in overtime.
At 6--0 the Eagles and the Patriots are the only undefeated teams left in the NFL and are alike in at least one significant way: Neither team is shy about using every player on its 45-man active roster to get a victory.
"That is so true," says Philadelphia tight end Chad Lewis, who has gone from being a Pro Bowl player to splitting time with L.J. Smith, a 2003 second-round draft pick. But Lewis isn't complaining. "We not only play a lot of guys but also get them all involved when they come into the game," he says. "When [long-snapper and seldom-used tight end] Mike Bartum came into the huddle a couple of weeks ago, Donovan looked at him and said something like, 'Get yourself open. I'm coming to you.' And he threw him a touchdown pass right away."
There's a lesson for other teams here. In an era when so many free agents look for the lucrative contract first, Eagles coach Andy Reid and his counterpart with the Patriots, Bill Belichick, have succeeded in building strong rosters top to bottom while also paying mind to team chemistry. "The word that best sums up our team is sacrifice," says Philly defensive end Hugh Douglas. "I know you hear that and wonder if it's true, but look at the receivers: Terrell [Owens] comes here, and [the other wideouts] know their numbers will be going down. Not one guy complains."
Douglas, 33, has made a similar sacrifice. After the 2002 season he left the Eagles to sign one of those big-money, free-agent deals with the Jaguars, then had a disappointing season and was waived in August. Without waiting for other offers, Douglas signed with Philadelphia even though he had to take a contract loaded with incentives that would be hard to achieve as a player who would be on the field only about 20 snaps a game.
As for Levens, last year he rusted on the Giants bench, getting 68 carries in 11 games. And though he continued to work out in the off-season with the faint hope that some team would want him, he admits, "I thought my career was over. I mean, you're 33, you're coming off a year you don't play. But the Eagles needed me." Philadelphia needed him after Correll Buckhalter tore his patellar tendon in a preseason game. Levens had played under Reid for five years when Reid was an assistant in Green Bay; they were reunited with the Eagles in 2002. It was no surprise when the coach reached out to Levens once more. Against the Browns, he carried seven times for 48 yards.
A wideout at BYU, the 5'10" Mahe signed with the Eagles in April 2003 and was informed he would be moved to running back. "My agent told me the Eagles liked me a little," he says, "so even though I was going to be maybe the fifth back on the depth chart, I thought it was my best shot." Mahe made the roster as a kamikaze special-teamer and a return man, and he assumed a receiver's role out of the backfield this year after Buckhalter and then Westbrook went down. With two catches on Sunday, Mahe doubled his 2004 reception total.
With bottom-of-the-roster types helping to keep Philadelphia undefeated, visions of a very big showdown in Super Bowl XXXIX are dancing in the heads of at least a few Eagles. "New England--Philadelphia," Levens says. "It'd be great, wouldn't it? Two undefeated teams playing in the Super Bowl. How much fun would that be?"