THE PHILADELPHIA EAGLES cafeteria was mostly silent on Friday afternoon until a stocky man with a booming voice strolled in and announced his presence. Hugh Douglas retired after Philadelphia cut him during training camp, but the boisterous three-time Pro Bowl defensive end still knows how to keep the team loose. Standing in the middle of the room, he blared that he had just been hired as the Eagles' official ambassador. "I'm the type of ambassador who will be out in the parking lot with the fans," Douglas proclaimed. "I'll be the ambassador of King Cobra and Courvoisier."
As Douglas proceeded to bounce around the room, slapping hands with old friends and introducing himself to stunned strangers, free safety Brian Dawkins sat in the corner, laughing. He loves the vibe Douglas brings to the team when he visits, the levity that helps ease tense moments. But even without the affable Douglas, Dawkins and his teammates have shown a knack for dealing with stress. Two weeks into the 2005 season, it's clear nothing can rattle the Eagles.
Though Philadelphia was supposed to be reeling after a 14-10 defeat at Atlanta in the Monday-night opener, there were no hints of that when the Eagles hosted San Francisco at Lincoln Financial Field on Sunday. The final score read 42-3 Philadelphia, but it wasn't that close. In dismantling the 49ers, the Eagles displayed all the qualities that made them so dangerous last season.
Donovan McNabb threw for 342 yards and five touchdowns. Terrell Owens caught five passes for 143 yards and two scores. And the defense--a unit that too often gets overlooked in the media free-for-all surrounding the team--flattened San Francisco. Philadelphia allowed the 49ers just 142 total yards while sacking the 49ers quarterback Tim Rattay three times and making three interceptions. "We were looking to make a statement with this game," said cornerback Lito Sheppard. "We had a lot of people who were looking to jump off our bandwagon after last week, but this game lets everybody know that we're back on track."
You really can't blame the doubters. The Eagles have encountered so much adversity over the last few months that it's hard to remember what's been going right. They've had to deal with season-ending injuries at the skill positions. (Running back Correll Buckhalter and wide receiver Todd Pinkston are done for the year.) One defensive lineman was shot during the off-season (end Jerome McDougle, who is out until at least Week 6) and another cut after a long run with the team (defensive tackle Corey Simon, now with the Colts). There have also been public squabbles over contracts involving defensive tackle Hollis Thomas, Pro Bowl running back Brian Westbrook and, most notably, the maelstrom known as T.O.
Such problems would debilitate most contenders, but the Eagles take adversity in stride--as if their season wouldn't be interesting enough without some major hurdles to clear. "A lot of the things that have happened around here have been outside our control," Dawkins says. "Injuries happen. The business issues [Thomas, Owens and Westbrook] take care of themselves. You can't worry about those things. All we've been focused on is making another run. I'm not saying this to be cocky, but I believe we'll be back in the Super Bowl."
Dawkins can be so confident because he understands how Philadelphia--a team that lost three straight NFC Championship Games before dropping the Super Bowl last February--responds to challenges. No team in the NFL has been better able to overcome distraction and disappointment. Consider the week leading up to the San Francisco game.
Though middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter had been ejected for his role in a fracas before the Atlanta game, he joked about the scuffle on his radio show the next day and to reporters in the days afterward. "I hope the commissioner takes pity on me," Trotter said in the locker room before receiving his punishment from the NFL last Thursday--a $5,000 fine. "I hope he sees that I didn't throw a punch."
Across the room Owens was conducting his own kind of media session. He stopped talking to the Philadelphia press months ago, but his first game against his former team had attracted a smattering of Bay Area writers. On Thursday, Owens became so tired of avoiding eye contact with the reporters that he covered his ears, turned his back to the media and hunched down in a locker, singing "la-la-la" over and over.
None of Owens's teammates acted as if anything strange was happening. This is what their world has become, and they've adapted to it. When the problems between Owens and McNabb festered this summer, Dawkins, a 10-year Philly veteran, reached out to both men to offer support. He didn't choose sides or judge. He simply made an offer: If either one wanted to talk about his problems, Dawkins was willing to listen.
Dawkins won't divulge the specifics of the conversations he had with the two--and neither McNabb nor Owens would agree to talk about their own relationship--but Dawkins says, "I care about both those guys, and I just wanted them to know they could talk about anything with me. I don't know if that made a difference, or if they just reached a point where they decided to talk about things. You can mediate all you want, but it takes two people to resolve their differences, and that's what they did."
Whatever happened over the last few weeks has clearly worked. On Sunday, Owens and McNabb--who was playing with a bruised sternum that had threatened to sideline him--displayed impeccable chemistry. The Eagles' first touchdown came when McNabb scrambled and found Owens running free behind the 49ers' secondary. The quarterback gracefully lobbed a pass that Owens snatched at the San Francisco 40-yard line and carried into the end zone for a 68-yard score. On their second touchdown McNabb hit Owens on a corner route. Once again McNabb laid the ball in a spot where only Owens could catch it--right between two defensive backs--and Owens sprinted off for a 42-yard touchdown.
But the best news of the day for Philadelphia fans came from the sideline. McNabb slapped hands with Owens after the first touchdown, and by the end of the game they were smiling and laughing together. "Whatever has happened, hopefully, is in the past," McNabb said afterward. "But what we're doing now obviously feels good."
The Eagles' defense had reason to feel good as well. After surrendering 200 rushing yards to Atlanta, Philadelphia didn't allow the 49ers to cross midfield in the first half. Dawkins, as usual, was in the thick of the action, with a team-high five tackles and a pass deflection. His performance was less spectacular than the one he delivered against the Falcons (six tackles, two sacks, one interception and a forced fumble) but was exactly what the Eagles have come to expect from him.
For most of his career, Dawkins has been the best safety in football, but he's so low-key and consistent that it has been easy to overlook him. "They can say what they want about the offense," says San Francisco running backs coach Bishop Harris, "but when push comes to shove, you can see that Dawkins is the guy that team follows."
When Philadelphia's young defensive backs--Sheppard, fellow corner Sheldon Brown and strong safety Michael Lewis--talk about how they've blossomed, they mention Dawkins's guidance. Other teammates marvel at how easily he morphs from a mild-mannered family man in the locker room into a disruptive force on the field. Offensive players have had a chance to spend quality time with Dawkins as well. In July he traveled to Arizona to work out with McNabb and some younger receivers and running backs. Dawkins was so committed that he trained wearing jogging pants in temperatures that ranged between 110° and 115°.
During the Atlanta game, Dawkins must have thought he was back in Arizona. He was so drained by halftime that he needed intravenous fluids in the locker room. That was only the beginning of his ordeal. When his toes and fingers curled up midway through the third quarter because of dehydration, Dawkins raced back inside for another IV. As he jogged back through the tunnel on the way to the field, spasms erupted in his back, and he returned to the locker room.
Early in the fourth quarter, after a third IV, Dawkins walked into the defensive huddle, where he felt the cramps building again. At that point, with the Falcons ahead 14-7 and holding the ball at Philadelphia's 15-yard line, Dawkins closed his eyes and prayed for strength. "I literally had nothing left in me," he says.
On the next play he batted away a potential touchdown pass. The play after that, he sacked Michael Vick, forcing a fumble that Lewis recovered. "That's how Brian has always played," says Buffalo Bills defensive back Troy Vincent, Dawkins's Eagles teammate from 1996 to 2003. "He completely empties his tank."
It was the kind of effort that Philadelphia, which this week hosts the Oakland Raiders, will likely need more than once from Dawkins this season. The Eagles still have glaring weaknesses. They lack an established running game. McNabb's bruised sternum will need more time to heal. Opposing teams can use the blueprint that Atlanta's defense used--blitz like crazy--to fluster the offense.
But these aren't new worries for Philadelphia. And after what they've already been through in 2005, the Eagles are confident they can get back to the Super Bowl--and win it. "For the last four years we've had to pull ourselves up and dust ourselves off after a tough end to the season," says Dawkins. "And every year it wasn't easy to hear the critics talk about what we couldn't do. But we also kept finding a way to keep winning, and we'll keep finding a way this year."