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After taking a break, Eagles try to regroup

WashPost: As rejuvenating as a vacation may have seemed and as invigorating as Monday's practice apparently was, the Eagles are nonetheless haunted by the strangest of seasons -- a year in which games seem to slip from their fingers.
Philadelphia Eagles quarterback McNabb throws against Green Bay Packers in Philadelphia
Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb has thrown for 2,312 yards this season, most in the NFL.Tim Shaffer / Reuters file
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The losing was becoming too much of a routine around here so the Philadelphia Eagles, left with a weekend free of football, were given an entire week off. Their coach, Andy Reid, sent them away last Monday after a long team meeting, perhaps figuring there was nothing to be gained by practicing through a bye week, unsure of what had led to three straight defeats.

"We'll see how that goes," he said then. "We'll wait and see."

On Monday, they returned to their team headquarters near Lincoln Financial Field and ran through a practice the players said was as crisp as any in a long time. They were so enthused that when the practice ended, quarterback Donovan McNabb called to the receivers and running backs and asked them to stay late. And for the next half hour he did nothing but throw passes, hoping to get the timing right again.

It may have been their most refreshing day together in weeks.

But as rejuvenating as a vacation may have seemed and as invigorating as Monday's practice apparently was, the Eagles are nonetheless haunted by the strangest of seasons -- a year in which games seem to slip from their fingers. They were pounding the Giants, only to lose in overtime. They were outplaying the Saints, only to keep falling behind. They had the Buccaneers beaten, only to watch in shock as Matt Bryant's 62-yard field goal sailed through the goal posts.

"That loss was just ridiculous," said cornerback Lito Sheppard. "A 62-yard field goal? Who's going to kick that? Who's going to make that?"

He laughed and then shook his head Monday. The day before, he spent the afternoon watching this week's opponent, the Washington Redskins, and was amused by the way the Dallas Cowboys kept imploding on the FedEx Field grass. When his former teammate Troy Vincent blocked the game-winning field goal, setting up an unfathomable string of events that led instead to Washington's game-winner with no time left, he was struck by the familiarity of the absurd ending.

"That's what it's been like for us," he said.

Much like the Cowboys on Sunday, the Eagles have been doing a lot to destroy themselves. In the loss to the Giants -- a game they led 24-7 in the fourth quarter -- defensive end Trent Cole kicked New York tackle Kareem McKenzie in the groin, earning a 15-yard penalty and setting up the game-tying field goal.

Against Tampa Bay a few weeks later, another defensive end, Jerome McDougle, was called for roughing Buccaneers quarterback Bruce Gradkowski and protested the penalty by kicking the officials' flag, which earned him another 15-yard penalty. This set up a field goal that could have been the difference between winning and losing.

They are 4-4 and tied for second place in the NFC East, a breath from the playoffs and a small stumble from last place. But what is galling, even beyond the three straight losses, is the fact that without a handful of mistakes they probably would be 6-2, in first place and thinking about the playoffs.

"It's not a 4-4 team," guard Shawn Andrews said. "I think we should be at least . . . "

His words trailed off and he smirked.

"It doesn't matter," he said.

The players talked about the mistakes they have made this year, some wondering if at times they have unraveled as a team, with some players pushing to do too much. Others, like wide receiver Donte Stallworth, beat themselves up for mistakes they made.

Stallworth went back to a home he keeps in Florida and spent a few days walking the beach, reading and contemplating a season that has yet to yield any great catches or big plays for him. Picked up late in the summer from the Saints, he was supposed to be someone who could fill part of the offensive void left by the departure of Terrell Owens. Instead, he has been slowed by injuries and confused as to why he hasn't done more.

When the thoughts weren't clear in Miami, he flew to Tennessee -- where he went to college -- and visited his former coach, Phil Fulmer. Two plays ate at him the most. One was a pass he dropped in overtime against the Giants that would have given the Eagles a first down and -- who knows? -- maybe the momentum to win the game. The other came in the last game, a loss to Jacksonville. He couldn't hold onto a third-down pass near the Jaguars 20-yard line, one he is just sure would have helped win the game. Instead he dropped it and they lost.

"I went home, took a hammer and pounded myself over the head," he joked.

Or, at least, he appeared to be joking.

The strange thing is that now that Owens is gone, the Eagles lead the NFL in offense with 3,147 total yards and have the second-most passing yards (2,185) in the league. But the defense -- once Philadelphia's great strength -- has struggled. It has given up too many big pass plays and has been hurt by penalties at the most inopportune times.

Before the bye week, Reid said he did not have the Eagles properly prepared for the Jacksonville game. He said this was his fault.

"I've got a football team that will work hard, I need to lead them in the right direction," he said that day.

When someone wondered if he was frustrated to have to motivate a team midway through the season, Reid shook his head.

"I have to get my side right first and then I will communicate with the players," he said.

Reid was not available on Monday. He won't speak publicly until Wednesday. But with a second-half schedule that includes three straight road games against division opponents, he and his players will have to find themselves fast.

Otherwise they will be replaying the Giants game and the Buccaneers game over and over through the winter.