Rare Birds

Behind a castoff quarterback and an underappreciated star running back, the Eagles have turned around a seemingly lost season with an inspiring display of perseverance
January 15, 2007

The season waslost, and the Eagles knew it. On Sunday, Nov. 19, in a home game against theTennessee Titans, Donovan McNabb, Philadelphia's franchise quarterback--thefranchise, period--was knocked out for the season with a torn ACL. Lifelongathletes all, NFL players abide by the unwritten code of the locker room inwhich no despair, however deeply felt, is voiced. Yet the Eagles understood."It was as big a hit as you can imagine," recalls guard Todd Herremans."We all felt this huge letdown." ¶ The Eagles lost that game and thenext, to fall to 5--6. A season and a half removed from a three-point SuperBowl loss to the New England Patriots, they were spiraling downward in thestandings, climbing in the draft and counting the weeks until minicamp. "Weneeded something to happen," says Pro Bowl guard Shawn Andrews. "And weneeded it right away."

Then came the NFL'sunlikeliest resurrection, driven by a quarterback seemingly past his prime,claimed off the NFL slag heap; and by a fifth-year back beloved by histeammates, respected by his peers, yet lacking the signature performance thatwould validate his stature.

On Sunday night theEagles beat the New York Giants 23--20 in an NFC wild-card playoff game. Thedeciding points came on David Akers's 38-yard field goal, kicked through asteady rain from the shredded Lincoln Financial Field turf as time expired; butthe game belonged to 36-year-old Jeff Garcia, now 6--1 as McNabb's replacement,and to 5'8", 203-pound Brian Westbrook, who ran for 141 yards and atouchdown on 20 carries. On the game-winning drive Westbrook, battling severestomach cramps from the second quarter on, rushed four times for 34yards--"He reminds me of myself when I was young," the Giants' retiringTiki Barber would say in defeat--while Garcia completed both of his passes for13 yards. Now the Eagles will face the New Orleans Saints on Saturday night inthe Superdome, two games from the Super Bowl.

The resurgencebegan at quarterback. Garcia's career was the stuff of epic poetry long beforehe signed with the Eagles last March. Unrecruited out of Gilroy (Calif.) High,he played a year at Gavilan College under his father, Bob, followed by threeseasons at San Jose State and five in the Canadian Football League before BillWalsh gave him a shot with the San Francisco 49ers in 1999. "Bill stuck hishead in my office one day after the '98 season and tossed a tape on mydesk," says Marty Mornhinweg, then the 49ers' offensive coordinator and nowthe Eagles' assistant head coach. "You could tell pretty quickly that Jeffwas very competitive and athletic."

Garcia played fiveyears in San Francisco, making the Pro Bowl in his last three, but left in 2003when he and the rebuilding Niners couldn't agree on contract terms. Soonthereafter he had controversy thrust upon him by former teammate Terrell Owens,who in an interview with Playboy, was asked, "Jeff Garcia has denied mediarumors that he's gay. What do you think?" replied, "If it looks like arat and smells like a rat, by golly, it is a rat." The comment came afterOwens had complained during their final season together that Garcia wasn'tthrowing him enough passes.

Garcia has seldomaddressed T.O.'s insinuation but told SI last week, "He created adiscomfort that I've had to deal with when I go into competitive environments,like visiting stadiums. I have to deal with that because of ignorance that cameout of somebody else's mouth. There's nothing wrong with anybody else'spersonal choices, but what he said, that's not me." (Garcia is engaged toCarmella DeCesare--Playboy's 2004 Playmate of the Year.)

Garcia became theCleveland Browns' starter in 2004, but his statistics and spirits bothsuffered. The following year he intended to sign with Denver or Seattle as thebackup to an established veteran on a solid franchise. Instead he went to thehapless Detroit Lions. "At the last minute I [thought], Maybe I can be astarter again," he says. "It was a mistake." Garcia broke hisfibula in the preseason and played in only six games for a 5--11 team.

A free agent againin 2006, he jumped at the chance to join the Eagles, drawn, he says, by"stability and the chance to be a part of a winning organization."

Mornhinwegevaluated Garcia--again--before Philadelphia signed him. "It looked like hehad some juice left," says Mornhinweg. With McNabb healthy, however, Garciawas scarcely used, even in practice. "Before the game when Donovan gothurt," says Herremans, "I think Jeff took one snap all week, and thatwas in the walk-through."

On his own, though,Garcia prepared. He lives in a town house two minutes from the Eagles' facilityand keeps his 200-pound body solid with four days of weightlifting a week.After losing to the Colts in his first start, he led Philadelphia to fiveconsecutive wins and the NFC East title. In those five games Garcia threw seventouchdown passes and two interceptions. And his passion has inspired theEagles. In one memorable sequence, on Dec. 17 against the Giants, he ran for afirst down, then spiked the ball, drawing a 15-yard penalty that more than paidfor itself in emotional currency. "Personally, I loved it," saysAndrews.

With McNabb out,Philly also got a bigger spark from its rushing attack. In their first 10 gamesthe Eagles passed on 58% of their snaps. Since Garcia took over, that numberhas dropped to 52%. Throw out a meaningless season-ending win over Atlanta, andthe pass-run mix was almost even after McNabb went down: 177 runs, 173passes.

The offensiveline--tackles Jon Runyan and William Thomas, guards Andrews and Herremans, andcenter Jamaal Jackson--has developed into one of the league's most punishingunits. "Repetition," explains Runyan. "We're running the ballenough to get better. Why? Maybe to take a little bit of heat off Jeff. Inreturn, he's doing the things he's capable of, taking care of the ball and notturning it over, which is a huge factor."

Westbrook, whodidn't make the Pro Bowl despite rushing for 1,217 yards and scoring 11touchdowns, has benefited most from the emphasis on the ground game. In thefirst 10 games he averaged 15.7 carries and 5.0 yards per carry. Since then(excluding the Atlanta game), it's been 19.6 and 5.4. On Sunday he broke off aspectacular 49-yard TD run that tied the game at 7 in the second quarter."Our game plan was to stop him," said Giants linebacker Antonio Pierce."He's a Pro Bowl player. He didn't make it, but he's well-deserving. Heshowed he's one of the elite backs in the league."

Garcia, meanwhile,completed 17 of 31 passes for 153 yards, an efficient performance that includeda 28-yard second-quarter touchdown toss to Donte' Stallworth, made possiblewhen Garcia looked safety Will Demps onto a seam route and away from thereceiver. "Just a nice little drop and throw," Garcia said afterward,standing in a quiet hallway, dressed in a business suit and holding abriefcase.

For Garcia and theEagles this has become a season--a postseason, now--of second chances embraced.They are in a place they could not have imagined in November, playing withhouse money. "Right now," said Garcia, "I feel like there's a lotof good energy around. I feel like I'm playing as free as I've ever played inmy life." That can be a dangerous attitude. For opponents.


Scouts' Take

Get a breakdown of the four division-round games fromthe experts



In September, Philly was using eight defensive linemeninterchangeably, keeping everybody fresh. Well, against the Giants on Sunday, Icounted only five. The Eagles are a tired team, and with a short week I wonderif they'll be ready to face the high-powered attack of the Saints (who enjoyedtheir bye). New Orleans showed in October that it can sustain drives againstPhilly, holding the ball for the last 8:24. The Eagles will hang in for awhile, but fatigue will eventually set in. SAINTS 27, EAGLES 20

PHOTOPhotograph by Simon Bruty MIXMASTERS The tough-it-out rushing of Westbrook (36) and mistake-free passing byGarcia (opposite) keyed Philly's second-half run and Sunday's victory over theGiants. PHOTOAL TIELEMANS PHOTOHOWARD SMITH/US PRESSWIRENEED A LIFT? There were no problems with the hold when Akers booted New York out of the playoffs with a 38-yard field goal.