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Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Didinger's Year-Later Look at the Super Bowl Loss
Bitter moments turned into bitter months, as publicized rips and rumors crystallized into conclusions about last year's Super Bowl. Two are most often heard. At the end of the game, Donovan McNabb "got tired" / got sick / choked. And if only Andy Reid could manage the clock and timeouts, the Eagles might have won that game.

But do those judgments deserve to stand as history? I'd long had doubts. So I carefully watched the game again. And called Ray Didinger.

Didinger's perhaps the town's most respected football analyst. He's in the pro football hall of fame for his writing, mostly for the Daily News. He now works for NFL Films, producing documentaries. He coauthored the hot-selling Eagles Encyclopedia. And the radio show he cohosts with Glen Macnow Saturday mornings on WIP is lauded for being thoughtful and fair.

Didinger's diagnosis: The game was lost in the first half, not the last. And while it's fair to fault McNabb for interceptions (as McNabb himself did after the game), it's unfair to say he choked.

With about 5 minutes left, the Eagles get the ball, trailing 24-14. After completing five passes, McNabb gets chased and sacked (above), then gets whacked again after a premature snap (below left). Looking woozy, he takes his time to get off the next play. Completion, dropped pass, completion, long touchdown to Greg Lewis!

"I don't think it was nerves," Didinger said by phone yesterday. "That pass to Greg Lewis, if a guy's choking, he's not going to throw that pass."

The game-ending interception, it's worth noting, was a last-gasp pass that bounced off a receiver's hands.

McNabb got beaten up and worn down for two reasons, Didinger said: the lack of a commitment to the running game, and poor pass protection. "If you run the ball, your quarterback doesn't get sacked and hit and you don't turn the ball over as much," Didinger said, adding, "They got beaten badly in the middle of their offensive line." The Patriots had trouble running early, too, but stuck with it until it gained key chunks during second-half scoring drives.

As that was happening, Didinger recalls thinking the game was slipping away. "They're starting to look like New England again. ... They're throwing punches and you're counterpunching."

That's why Didinger felt the Eagles blew their best chance in the first half. "They had an opportunity to be up by 14 points or more pretty early in the game, and that would have forced New England to play differently. ... If you put them into a position where they had to play uphill, where they had to come after you, and put aside a lot of the game plan they had to prepare ... then you get a greater advantage."

In the first quarter, with both teams still scoreless, the Eagles had the ball at the New England 8, after a long Terrell Owens catch and run, plus penalty yards. Then McNabb was too-easily sacked, and the next two balls he threw up for grabs. A penalty erased one interception, but not the other. On the next drive, L.J. Smith fumbled after a catch. The Eagles still scored the first TD, but a bad punt and botched end-zone coverage by Lito Sheppard let New England tie the score before halftime. Poor execution cost crucial chances to build a lead, Didinger said.

During the season, the Eagles rarely turned the ball over and they usually held scoring threats to field goals. "The teams that win the Super Bowl are teams that play the game the way they played to get to the Super Bowl," he said. The Eagles didn't. New England did. "The better team won," said Didinger, who also praised New England's coaching adjustments, well-disguised alignments, and diversified offensive attack. "The Patriots were a better team."

Looking ahead, Didinger hopes the Eagles learned a lesson from this season. The division has better coaches and players now. And other teams have clearly figured out how to play the Birds tougher. "It's pretty obvious they have to upgrade their personnel. It's pretty obvious they have to rethink their strategy on both sides of the ball."

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