October 19, 2010

2003: Punchless Eagles Beat Giants on Stunning Punt Return by Westbrook

The Philadelphia Eagles had been to the NFC Championship game in 2001 and ‘02, but Head Coach Andy Reid’s team was off to a slow start in 2003. They were embarrassed 17-0 by the reigning champions, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, in the opening game that was also their regular season debut at the new Lincoln Financial Field, and then lost badly to the Patriots the following week. QB Donovan McNabb had been struggling through the first five games due to a bruised right thumb and lingered at the bottom of the passing rankings. The team’s record stood at 2-3 as they traveled to Giants Stadium to take on the division rival New York Giants on October 19.

The Giants were also underachieving at 2-3 under Head Coach Jim Fassel. The club had scored a total of 16 points in the prior two games as QB Kerry Collins tossed seven interceptions and no touchdown passes.

Philadelphia got the early advantage in its second possession of the game, driving 89 yards in 11 plays and highlighted by McNabb throwing to TE L.J. Smith for a 25-yard gain. RB Brian Westbrook ran around end for the last six yards and a touchdown that gave the Eagles a 7-0 lead.

Neither team was able to move the ball effectively for the remainder of the half. A promising second quarter drive by the Giants ended with TE Jeremy Shockey fumbling the ball away at the Philadelphia 19 yard line after a nine-yard gain on a pass from Collins. However, three plays later McNabb was intercepted by CB Will Allen and the Giants had the ball at the Eagles’ 29 with 1:23 remaining in the half. Brett Conway kicked a 39-yard field goal to make the score 7-3 at the intermission.

New York went ahead 10-7 in the third quarter after a 12-play drive that went 62 yards and produced a one-yard TD pass from Collins to Shockey. It looked like that would be enough as the game moved through the fourth quarter and the Eagles offense remained stymied, ending five consecutive possessions with punts – all but one of them had been three-and-out.

Midway through the fourth quarter it appeared that the Giants would score again, but on a third-and-five play at the Philadelphia 10 yard line Collins fumbled after being hit by LB Mark Simoneau and DT Corey Simon recovered for the Eagles to end the threat.

With Philadelphia out of time outs and 1:34 remaining on the clock, the Giants entrusted their defense to finish the job and Jeff Feagles punted. Westbrook fielded the short, wobbly kick on the bounce and quickly blew through the wall of defenders. Running past the Giants’ bench, he flew past Feagles and then just stayed inbounds as he eluded one last tackler, TE Marcellus Rivers, before completing the 84-yard touchdown return (pictured at top).

78,883 fans sat in stunned silence as the play was reviewed by the officials, who ascertained that Westbrook had indeed not stepped out of bounds.

New York still had one last chance and, following the ensuing kickoff, Collins tossed a pass to WR Amani Toomer for a 20-yard gain to the Philadelphia 44 yard line with 1:12 now left to play. But four more passes netted just one more completion for six yards, and the last one on fourth-and-four was broken up by CB Bobby Taylor. The Eagles came away with a shocking 14-10 win.

The stunning nature of the victory was all the more evidenced by the statistics. The Eagles had gained just 134 total yards, to 339 for the Giants. A net of just 47 of those yards had come through the air (McNabb was sacked three times for a loss of 17 yards) while they had gained 87 yards on the ground. Philadelphia accumulated 9 first downs, while the Giants had 25.

Donovan McNabb completed only 9 of 23 passes for 64 yards with an interception. L.J. Smith’s one catch had made him the team’s receiving yardage leader with 25. Brian Westbrook led the team in rushing with 67 yards on 15 carries, caught three passes for another 11, and returned three kickoffs for 61 yards and the punt for 84 – the combined total came to 223 yards and included both of the team’s touchdowns.

In defeat, Kerry Collins was successful on 22 of 36 passes for 174 yards with one TD and none intercepted. RB Tiki Barber gained 79 yards on 19 carries and RB Dorsey Levens, playing in his first game for the Giants, contributed another 64 yards on 16 attempts. Barber and Jeremy Shockey each caught five passes (for 34 and 23 yards, respectively) while Amani Toomer was the receiving yardage leader with 54 yards on four catches.

For the Eagles, the dramatic result proved to be the turning point of the season as they proceeded to win nine straight and finished once again at the top of the NFC East with a 12-4 record. They made it to a third straight conference title game, but lost to Carolina. New York won its next two contests, but then lost the remaining eight to close out at 4-12 and at the bottom of the division. In the housecleaning that followed, both Coach Fassel and Collins were sent packing.

Donovan McNabb’s return to full health was a significant factor in Philadelphia’s second-half surge. He ended up passing for 3216 yards with 16 TDs and 11 interceptions and was named to his fourth of an eventual five straight Pro Bowls (six overall with the Eagles).

In his second season out of Villanova, Brian Westbrook (pictured at left) emerged as a major all-purpose talent. He returned a second punt for a touchdown during the season and ranked first in the NFC with a 15.3 average on 20 returns. Overall, he gained 1738 all-purpose yards with 613 rushing on 117 carries, 332 on 37 pass receptions, 487 on 23 kickoff returns, and 306 returning punts. While he would be used far less on punt returns in future seasons (and not at all on kickoff returns), his yards from rushing and pass receiving rose greatly.