The Philadelphia Eagles and slow starts: A 20-year retrospective

As an Eagles fan, I know a thing or two about disappointing starts to a season, and here we are once again. The Birds began 1-3, and even after a lopsided win over the Saints last weekend, they are tied for last in the most bunched-up division in the NFL — and one-fourth of the season is gone.

The inscrutable Giants are coming to town Monday night. Before the season, I had this game as a solid W, but given how the Eagles played for most of the first four weeks (and in two notorious instances last weekend) it’s still impossible to divine how good they are and where they’ll be in two-and-a-half months.

A look through the archives shows the Eagles have been particularly susceptible to slow starts, but time and again, under the past three head coaches, they often have been able to regroup and get back into contention for the stretch run. Here’s my look back at some of the most disappointing starts to a season in the past 20 years.

1995: The Ray Rhodes era in Philadelphia began with one of the most infamous moments in Eagles history: Ricky Watters’ “For who? For what?” diatribe after a 21-6 loss to Tampa Bay.

You never get a second chance to make a first impression, and Watters’ was one of the worst in Philadelphia sports history.

The Eagles’ signing of Watters, who had scored three touchdowns for the victorious 49ers in the Super Bowl the previous season, was a surprising boost of excitement for a fan base that had been subjected to one of the worst season-ending collapses in history — a seven-game slide that dropped the Eagles from 7-2 to fourth place in the five-team NFC East.

With the Eagles favored by seven points in his first game in green (a game blacked out on Philly TV), Watters gave up on a couple of passes over the middle from Randall Cunningham. He was afraid of taking a big hit and getting hurt, and in a blue-collar town like Philadelphia, the “alligator arms” label is one he would never shake.

After a road win over a very bad Cardinals team the next week, the Birds then lost two in a row to AFC West teams to fall to 1-3. What was eerie about those two games was how similarly they played out. Against the Chargers at the Vet, the Eagles took a 14-0 lead in the second quarter before giving up 27 straight points in a 27-21 loss. The next week they went out to face Jeff Hostetler and the Raiders, who had moved back to Oakland for that season. The Birds took a 17-0 lead in the first quarter, and I felt pretty good about the Eagles’ chances at evening up at 2-2. Little did I know they would give up 48 unanswered points over the next three quarters. I still remember listening to the end of that game on the radio, which is what I usually did when games got ugly. The headline in the next day’s Inquirer was: “Eagles In Jokeland; They’re Punchline In Raiders’ 48-point Comeback; Randall’s Starting Job Uncertain.”

Few would’ve predicted the Birds would win seven of their next eight games, the first of which came on the strength of five Gary Anderson field goals in the Superdome. And no one — no one — would have predicted that they’d win a playoff game in which they gave up 37 points (they scored 58).

For me, 1994 and 1995 were an early crash course in the unpredictability of a football season.

For who? For Watters.

Ricky Watters found a way to make money off one of the most notorious quotes in Philadelphia sports history.

2002: Donovan McNabb and the Eagles led in the season opener at Tennessee 24-10, then got shut out in the second half and lost 27-24. They won their next three games — gimmes against the Redskins, Cowboys and Texans, but then lost at Jacksonville. Jacksonville. Not only did they lose, but they essentially got blown out, and only two late touchdowns (the latter one coming on a reception with no time left) made the score look close at 28-25.

It will forever be debated whether McNabb vomited in the Super Bowl, but there’s no denying that he barfed in that game against the Jaguars: It was broadcast on live TV. McNabb was under center at the time, about to take the snap, and he stepped away from the line and splattered all over his cleats. Thankfully HDTV hadn’t come around yet in sportscasting, but even then, it was a shocking thing to see. As Jaguars cornerback Fernando Bryant said, “It was the strangest thing I’ve ever seen.”

Thankfully, that was the end of the slow start — the Eagles won nine of their next 10 games, the only loss coming to Peyton Manning and the Colts, who has always shredded the Iggles.

2003: If the start to 2002 was slow, what happened the first two weeks of the following season was glacial. Not only did the Birds lay a massive bald eagle egg in the first game at the Linc, losing 17-0 to the hated Tampa Bay Bucs, but the following week they got blown out 31-10 by the Patriots. This is how dismal things were in that game for the Birds: When David Akers set a team record with a 57-yard field goal in the fourth quarter, I thought they were going to interrupt the game and have a parade.

The team looked like a train wreck at the point, and with the loss to Tampa the previous January in the final game at the Vet still fresh in people’s minds, the outlook was bleak. I can’t think of two straight losses that were as disastrous as those two, given that the Eagles were one of the most talented teams in the league and were widely picked to go to the Super Bowl.

It’s hard to believe that anything could make that 0-2 start worse, but from the fans’ perspective, there was one more thing: The schedule-maker had given the Birds a Week 3 bye that season, so we had to stew on those two debacles for two whole weeks.

The next game was at Buffalo, which had caught the whole league’s attention when it blanked Brady and Co. 31-0 in the season opener, a game that stands as one of Brady’s worst losses as a pro. The Bills were 2-1 when the Eagles came to town — which happened to be the same day as the Phillies’ last game at Veterans Stadium. My friend Liam gave me a ticket to that saddest of days in South Philadelphia, so I didn’t see even a second of the Iggles-Bills game, but there were murmurings in the crowd about the score, and one person in our section was watching that game on one of those old portable hand-held TVs.

But the slow start for the 2003 Eagles didn’t end there. The following week, they let Washington stay in a game that should’ve been a blowout, and they nearly paid for it when Patrick Ramsey began to play out of his mind in the waning minutes. An 11-point Iggles lead evaporated as Washington recovered an onside kick and then Ramsey hit Darnerien McCants for a TD with 13 seconds left. But the Iggles denied the 2-point try.

The next week, Billy Cundiff’s chip-shot field goal with 1:11 left gave the Cowboys a 23-21 win, dropping the Birds to 2-3 and lifting the Cowboys to 4-1 and seemingly in control of the NFC East. No one in his right mind would’ve predicted what happened next: The Eagles won their next nine games in a row, the first four of which came by seven points or fewer.

2007: In some seasons, slow starts have presaged doom. A prime example was 2007, when the Birds lost a 16-13 squeaker at Lambeau on a late field goal by Mason Crosby, then managed only four David Akers field goals in a 20-12 home loss to Washington the following week. They eventually rebounded to 5-5 with a win over the Dolphins in one of the most mind-numbing games I can remember, but McNabb sprained an ankle that day. Three losses followed, and the Eagles rebounded to finish 8-8.

What was especially frustrating was that the NFC was especially weak that year; only six teams finished above .500, and Washington locked in the final wild-card berth at 9-7. Had the Eagles won one of those first two games, they might’ve been the ones who sneaked into the playoffs. I’m not saying they would’ve knocked off the juggernaut of Eli Manning and N.Y., but who knows?

2008: If you have repressed memories from this season, I cannot fault you. I have as well. But the start the Eagles got off to this season was torturous. They went into “Monday Night Football” at Texas Stadium with a 1-0 record after a drubbing of the Rams, and that night was the DeSean Jacksonest of nights. With Iggles hate-target T.O. having caught an early 72-yard TD, the rookie caught a 60-yard bomb and flew toward the end zone — but tossed away the ball before he had actually crossed the goal line. Only a boneheaded move by the officials, who said the play had been blown dead, allowed the Eagles to retain possession and score on the next snap. But in the end they went cold in the second half and lost by four.

After a grind-it-out win over the Steelers in which they sacked Ben Roethlisberger nine times (I can still hear Merrill Reese screaming, “THEY SACKED HIM AGAIN!” on WYSP), losses at Chicago and at home against Washington left the Eagles at 2-3.

For the Eagles, that season was the strangest I’ve seen. Not only did they start cold, but they had a three-game slump in the middle of the season. It was famous for the double embarrassment of tying the Bengals — who finished 4-11-1 that year — and then McNabb admitting he didn’t know ties were possible in the NFL.

Yet that team, which entered Week 17 needing a win and major help — including a Raiders victory — just to make the playoffs, got within one drive of going to the Super Bowl.

No. 5 is looking forward to double overtime

Classic Donovan: “I’ve never been a part of a tie. Never even knew that was in the rulebook.”

2009: Speaking of repressed memories, there’s this season. Eagles fans have seen a lot of gut-punch endings to seasons, and this one had that, in the form of two straight losses to the Cowboys at Jerry World.

But it also had a signature slow start, including a 48-22 hammering at the hands of Drew Brees and the Saints in the home opener in Week 2, a 13-9 loss at Oakland (!) in Week 6 and back-to-back defeats against Dallas and the Chargers in weeks 9-10. At that point, the Birds were 5-4. So of course, they won their next six in a row to set up the Dallas Debacle. Of course.

2010: Kevin Kolb was the Great White Hope of Eagles QBs, and if you don’t think that race was a consideration in the amount of fan support he received, you’re kidding yourself. Kolb began the 2010 season as the starting QB, and it took him only one half of poor play against the Packers to lose the job. This performance was so poor that I turned off the game and walked away — in Week 1.

Losing to the eventual Super Bowl champion Packers was one thing, but the Iggles proceeded to fall to a pair of 6-10 teams — Washington and Tennessee — to fall to 4-3. The loss to Washington was unforgivable simply because McNabb was the opposing QB, and he finished 8-for-19 for 125 yards passing — and still won! Are you kidding?!

2011: If there were a season with echoes of 2015, the “Dream Team” season is it. The Iggles won the offseason Super Bowl by signing free agents Nnamdi Asomugha, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Jason Babin, Cullen Jenkins and probably some other people I’ve thankfully forgotten. Vince Young dropped the term “dream team” to reporters … in July … and that was pretty much the high point of the season.

In the opener, against a very bad St. Louis team, the Eagles didn’t get past their own 20 on the first drive, then watched as Steven Jackson blew past the defense for a 47-yard TD on the Rams very first play.

The Eagles did recover to win that game easily, but then things went to hell with four straight losses, three of which were by a combined 12 points. This was when the wheels really began to fall off the Andy Reid bus.

That horrible start dogged the Eagles for the rest of what turned out to be an 8-8 season — more interesting when you consider that the Giants won the division with a meager 9-7 mark. But again, they were on a magical Super Bowl run, so maybe nothing would’ve stopped them.

2013: The first game of the Chip Kelly era, a close win over Washington at FedEx, is remembered because it happened in prime time, and also because his hurry-up offense had garnered a lot of media hype.

But what gets forgotten is that the Iggles lost their next three games, all against AFC West teams (including Andy Reid’s return to Philadelphia as coach of the Chiefs). The last game of that sequence was a 52-20 rout in Denver in which the Birds got (James) thrashed by Peyton Manning.

They did recover to win their next two and pull back to 3-3. But then they lost consecutive home games to the Cowboys and Giants, managing only 3 points on offense in the process.

After the first eight games of the Kelly era, the Eagles were 3-5. They had major questions at QB and appeared headed for a .500 season at best.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

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