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The thrilling rise and heartbreaking fall of the Donovan McNabb-Terrell Owens Eagles

Oh, what could have been...

I am a child of the Andy Reid era. Born in 1994, I learned the hard way that the Eagles would promise you the world only to leave you with your head in your hands come January.

I spent my youngest years confused as to why it was illegal for the organization to give their franchise quarterback Donovan McNabb a competent receiving corps. After three consecutive heartbreaking NFC Championship Game losses, the Birds wised up in 2004. They got McNabb the type of receiver he’d never had, and the type of personality the Eagles never had in their history: Terrell Owens.

Foreshadowing the downfall of the McNabb-Owens pairing, the path toward getting Owens to Philly was just as bumpy as the Hall of Fame receiver’s departure. If we were doing one of those “if you could pick one sports event for Twitter to be around for...” hypotheticals, I might choose the wacky end of Owens’ time with the 49ers.

In a weird turn of events, Owens missed the deadline to void the final years of his contract with San Francisco. The 49ers dealt him to the Ravens for a second-round pick in March. I found out watching the six o’clock news. Imagine the meltdown that would have happened on Twitter when that Adam Schefter tweet hit the timeline. The NFLPA filed a grievance on Owens’ behalf, and compensation was worked out between San Fran, Baltimore and Philadelphia that made Owens an Eagle.

It would’ve been like the Twitter night the Phillies got Cliff Lee back times infinity.

From the first time TO lined up wide at Lincoln Financial Field for a preseason game, McNabb and Owens seemed destined for greatness.

TO’s first real game as an Eagle was what every fan dreamed of: He caught three touchdowns in a 31-17 home win against the Giants. He was a touchdown machine in a way that no Eagles fan of my generation could fathom. There was no looking back. For a second, it felt as if the crushing disappointment of the last three postseasons had been lifted off Philadelphians’ shoulders, as we were on the cusp on an offensive explosion for years to come in this city.

We were wrong. It was glorious while it lasted, but, man, we were wrong.

When the things were going well, and they certainly were for the Birds in 2004, Owens’ persona was so electric. He was built for this city. He was beloved on an Allen Iverson-like level. The Birds started the season 13-1. 13-1! Before 2017, that Eagles campaign was the peak of the franchise during the Super Bowl era.

Owens was (and still is) built like a Greek god. He’d prowl around the field before games in skin-tight workout clothes at the dawn of the Under Armour era as kids across the Delaware Valley wore those cold-weather turtlenecks under their black Owens jerseys. Reid made a bet with Owens that if the receiver had 15 touchdowns in 2004, Big Red himself would don workout tights. Owens finished just short with 14 in 14 games played before that fateful injury against the Cowboys in Week 15.

It’s a damn shame we never got Andy wearing a full unitard at Eagles practice.

The tuddy celebrations from Owens were iconic. He did calisthenics. He flapped his wings. He parodied Ray Lewis. He desecrated the disgusting Dallas Cowboys star. He ripped down fans’ signs. He leapt into our hearts.

For as much as I’m getting nostalgic about Owens, McNabb was at his absolute best with Owens and enjoyed the finest season of his career in 2004. No. 5 was the first quarterback in NFL history to throw for over 30 touchdowns and fewer than 10 interceptions in a single season. McNabb finished with 3,875 passing yards, 31 passing TDs, just eight interceptions and three rushing tuddies to boot.

Friction between McNabb and Owens began during the Eagles’ first loss of the season to the Steelers in Pittsburgh, culminating in a much-discussed sideline argument that had the quarterback pacing back and forth as his star wideout barked at him.

Winning cures all, of course, so the egos of the Eagles’ two most important players subsided for a bit. The ultimate what-if before this duo’s messy divorce was Super Bowl XXXIX. Owens returned from a broken leg and a torn ligament in his right ankle in a Herculean effort with 122 receiving yards on nine catches in a 24-21 loss.

If the Birds had won that night, Owens wins Super Bowl MVP and the history of Philadelphia is forever changed. McNabb and Owens probably enjoy a few more beautiful, prolific seasons together. Well, as Eagles fans know, things exploded in the worst possible way from there.

That ensuing offseason, Owens wanted a new contract after the seven-year deal worth $49 million he inked when he first came to Philly. The Eagles weren’t about it. Owens was a hold-out from training camp, doing push-ups in his driveway in Moorestown, New Jersey, creating a media circus that would’ve fueled today’s 24-hour social media sports talk cycle.

McNabb grew jealous of the attention Owens received. Owens deserved his money, but it came at the detriment of the locker room’s culture. Eagles players took sides. Owens and Hugh Douglas legit fought each other. Before we even got fully used to the Eagles having a receiver like Owens, he was deactivated and sent home from the team seven games into the 2005 season.

McNabb was able to lead the Eagles to the NFC Championship Game one last time in 2008, but Owens’ demise essentially shut the door on the Birds being consistent Super Bowl contenders that decade. I’m sick to my stomach writing this.

Owens’ numbers in his 21 games in midnight green were undeniably phenomenal: 124 catches, 1,963 receiving yards and 20 touchdowns. He was a beast. He was at the top of his game in his Canton-bound career. It was magnificent. It was infuriating. It was as entertaining as anything I have ever encountered in Philadelphia sports, and it was depressing. The Terrell Owens era was a Shakespearean tragedy.

Before Nick Foles became a GOAT slayer, McNabb throwing bombs to Owens represented the most amazing time I had as an Eagles fan. The promised land was yet to come, but for a brief moment, it felt like two of the greatest Eagles players these two eyes have ever seen were bringing us there.