Reliving the Philadelphia Eagles' Past Chances at Super Bowl Glory

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistFebruary 2, 2018

Tedy Bruschi sacks Donovan McNabb in Super Bowl XXXIX.
Tedy Bruschi sacks Donovan McNabb in Super Bowl XXXIX.Associated Press

News flash: The Philadelphia Eagles have never won a Super Bowl.

Pretty shocking, right? I'll bet you hadn't heard that yet this week. 

But the Eagles have come close to Super Bowl glory on several notable occasions, and a loss Sunday to the New England Patriots in Minneapolis would make them one of just three teams with three-plus Super Bowl appearances and zero Vince Lombardi Trophies (the Minnesota Vikings and Buffalo Bills are both 0-of-4). 

It's also possible the Eagles pull off the upset in Super Bowl LII. The Pats are only 4.5-point favorites, and underdogs have won five of the last six Super Bowls. 

Before that does or doesn't happen, let's remind everyone—with help from legendary Eagles play-by-play voice Merrill Reese—what Eagles fans have endured over the last six decades by reliving five times Philly had a shot at Super Bowl success. 

      

1966: A mild flirtation

Video Play Button
Videos you might like

Running back Timmy Brown.
Running back Timmy Brown.Bill Ingraham/Associated Press

The Eagles actually had an outside shot at winning the first Super Bowl. Six years removed from their last NFL championship, they had their first winning season (9-5) since 1961. Only the Green Bay Packers (12-2) and Dallas Cowboys (10-3-1)—who would meet in a closely fought NFL Championship Game after winning their respective conferences—won more games. 

Had Philadelphia defeated Dallas on the road in Week 5, the Eagles would have represented the Eastern Conference in the NFL title game, which the Cowboys lost by a touchdown before Green Bay crushed the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl I. 

Led by quarterback Norm Snead and playmakers Timmy and Bob Brown, the Eagles got hot late, winning their final four games. But they were cold when they played in Dallas in October, and the Cowboys, clearly the better team, won 56-7. Although Philly did upset Dallas at home later in the season, it was too little, too late. 

The Eagles lost the NFL's third-place game (yes, that was a thing back then) 20-14 to the Baltimore Colts, but they were one of a handful of teams in the mix for the first Super Bowl. 

Many Eagles fans might not realize that, because that one competitive season was surrounded by nearly two decades' worth of inadequacy. 

"To me, the years between 1960 and the Dick Vermeil era all kind of run together as various forms of collapse," said the 75-year-old Reese, in a conversation with Bleacher Report. "Some teams were borderline and weren't completely futile, and others were out of it by Day 1. Those post-1960 years were difficult for a decade-and-a-half, and if there were any good ones here and there, they faded away."

       

1980: The year it was supposed to come together

Ron Jaworski quarterbacked the 1980 Eagles to their first Super Bowl appearance.
Ron Jaworski quarterbacked the 1980 Eagles to their first Super Bowl appearance.Nate Fine/Getty Images

Fourteen non-first-place years later, the Eagles had been building momentum under head coach Dick Vermeil and quarterback Ron Jaworski. With help from Pro Bowl running back Wilbert Montgomery, veteran receiver Harold Carmichael, emerging star nose tackle Charlie Johnson and sack maestro Claude Humphrey, they made the playoffs for the first time in modern NFL history in 1978, won their first playoff game in 1979 and then won their first NFC East title in 1980. 

Philly's 12-4 record was tied for tops in the league, while the defense surrendered a league-low 13.9 points per game. They easily disposed of the Vikings and the 12-win Cowboys to reach their first Super Bowl (XV). They were three-point favorites against the Oakland Raiders, a wild-card entry into the AFC playoffs. 

"The Eagles beat the Raiders during the regular season," recalled Reese, who has served as the voice of the Eagles in 1977. "A lot of people felt that the win over Dallas in the NFC Championship Game was the Eagles' Super Bowl, and that the Oakland game would be kind of anticlimactic. Unfortunately, the team also played that way."

Indeed, after Jim Plunkett's Raiders took a 14-0 first-quarter lead, the Eagles never cut the deficit to single digits. They fell 27-10 in a dud performance, becoming the first favorite to lose the Super Bowl in a decade.

The Eagles made the playoffs again in 1981 but weren't a major contender, losing to the New York Giants in the Wild Card Game. Jaworski never returned to his 1980 form, Vermeil retired (for the first time, anyway) after the 1982 season and the Eagles soon fell into another run of mediocrity. 

         

2001: Could've been greater than the 'Greatest Show on Turf'

Donovan McNabb and Rams QB Kurt Warner.
Donovan McNabb and Rams QB Kurt Warner.MORRY GASH/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press

Between 1981 and 1999, the Eagles won just two playoff games and only a single division title. Meanwhile, their division rivals, the Cowboys, Giants and Washington Redskins, won a combined eight Super Bowls. 

But the franchise experienced a turn-of-the-century revival under head coach Andy Reid, star quarterback Donovan McNabb and impact defenders Troy Vincent, Brian Dawkins, Hugh Douglas and Jeremiah Trotter. 

Thanks to dominant performances from that core, they easily won the NFC East in 2001 before handily defeating the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Chicago Bears in the playoffs. And while nobody expected them to beat the eventual 14-point Super Bowl favorite St. Louis Rams in the NFC Championship Game, the Eagles came pretty damn close. 

"I remember the fact that the Eagles actually stayed competitive until the very end," said Reese, who will call his third Super Bowl on Sunday. "They played that game a lot more competitively than most thought they would."

Philly led 17-13 at halftime, despite the fact McNabb was strip-sacked 17 seconds into the game (leading to a Rams touchdown). The Rams scored the game's next 16 points to take a 29-17 lead, but the Eagles didn't go away. McNabb ran for a touchdown with three minutes to play, the defense forces a three-and-out and Philly had the ball back near midfield down by five with 2:20 remaining. 

But four plays later, McNabb was intercepted by Aeneas Williams, and Philly's chances of pulling off the upset disappeared.

The following Sunday, the New England Patriots did in fact pull off the upset over St. Louis in Super Bowl XXXVI. 

          

2004: T.O.'s heroics, McNabb's dry heaves

The Eagles lost the next two NFC title games by double-digit margins before finally getting through in 2004. And, man, did that '04 team feel special: They won a franchise-record 13 games, and they were 13-1 before resting their starters for the final two weeks of the regular season. 

The only problem: All-Pro wide receiver Terrell Owens sprained his ankle and broke his fibula in Week 15. 

The Eagles still beat the Vikings and Atlanta Falcons sans Owens in their first two playoff games, but they were likely going to be in trouble against the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXIX without one of the league's most dangerous offensive weapons. Owens knew it, and he limped out there against doctors' orders. 

He caught nine passes for 122 yards, keeping Philly in the game.

They still trailed by 10 in the fourth quarter when McNabb led them on an excruciatingly slow-paced touchdown drive to bring the deficit to three. The highly criticized, albeit successful, 13-play drive took nearly four minutes off the clock, forcing the Eagles to attempt an onside kick inside the two-minute warning.

Later, it was widely speculated that McNabb was vomiting and/or dry-heaving during that possession, and former teammates Jon Ritchie and Lito Sheppard have both since stated that the quarterback got sick with the game on the line

The onside kick failed, and there wasn't much hope left when the offense got it back inside their own 5-yard line with no timeouts and 46 seconds left. A Rodney Harrison interception iced it, and the Eagles haven't played in a Super Bowl since. 

While McNabb still takes heat for his performance in crunch time that evening, Reese believes the loss had a lot more to do with how the Patriots dominated the Eagles in the trenches. 

"There's been a lot of focus on McNabb, who a lot of people think choked at the end of that game, but I think if you look carefully, you'll find that the Eagles were beaten on both sides of the line of scrimmage," said the league's longest-tenured play-by-play announcer. "Their offensive line was ravaged by the Patriots pass rush and gave McNabb very little time to get rid of the football. And conversely, the Eagles never really penetrated and Tom Brady could have read a book and still found time to go downfield to Deion Branch."

        

2008: Another title-game letdown 

David J. Phillip/Associated Press

The McNabb-led Eagles came within one game of the Super Bowl four years later. They grabbed a wild-card spot thanks to four wins in their final five games, beat the Vikings and Giants by double-digit margins in back-to-back road playoff games and then found themselves leading the Arizona Cardinals 25-24 in the fourth quarter of the NFC Championship Game. 

The Eagles had overcome a 24-6 halftime deficit with three unanswered touchdowns. But Cards quarterback Kurt Warner led a beautiful 14-play, eight-minute drive that culminated in a back-breaking Tim Hightower touchdown which gave Arizona a 32-25 lead with less than three minutes to play. 

McNabb and Co. once again found themselves with the ball and a chance to tie or win a championship game in the final minutes, but after driving just inside Arizona territory, they turned it over on downs on four consecutive McNabb incompletions. That was pretty much it

"It was a game that should have been won," recalled Reese. "They stumbled around in the first half, they did come back in the second half, but there were missed tackles on the Hightower touchdown that broke their backs, and when they tried to come back from that there was a very controversial non-call on a pass intended for Kevin Curtis.

"And that was against a team that they had beaten on Thanksgiving night. It's a game they should have won, but they didn't."

Had they held on in Arizona, the Eagles could have put up a fight against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII, just as the Cardinals did. That Philly team had a lot of momentum and was much better than its 9-6-1 record. In fact, according to Football Outsiders, the 2008 Eagles were the league's best team in terms of DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average).  

There's no trophy for that, however. And Eagles fans are left wondering what could have been in an all-Pennsylvania Super Bowl had their team been able to hold on in Arizona.

          

What about 2017?

Nick Foles throws to Alshon Jeffery.
Nick Foles throws to Alshon Jeffery.Eric Gay/Associated Press/Associated Press

Unfortunately for the Eagles and their fans, there's a strong chance this experience will be added to the list of "close but no cigar" moments in the franchise's long, painful history

But it could be years before we even have a chance to reflect on those flirtations again, because just getting close is hard enough. It took the Eagles 15 years to make their first Super Bowl, another quarter-century to participate in their second and another 13 to earn a spot in their third. 

Reese appreciates just how rare these chances are when reflecting on the team's mentality after the first Super Bowl loss in 1980.

"The next day, we flew back to Philadelphia, and I remember going onto the plane with the players and everybody was saying, 'Next year, we're going to go back and win this thing,'" he remembered. "Well, 'next year' didn't come for 24 more years.

"What that tells me is when you get to one of these things, as promising as your future may be, as deep and as young as your team may be, you have to take advantage, because you never know."

         

Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.