Posted on Thu, Jul. 22, 2004 http://www.philly.com/mld/dailynews/sports/9212378.htm?1c John Smallwood | All or nothing for Birds SUCCESS WILL BE JUDGED BY SUPER BOWL BERTH IT'S ALMOST here. On Tuesday, the rookies report and by next Friday night, the entire roster of the Eagles should be at Lehigh University for the start of training camp. Soon, very soon now, the daily caravans will jam up the Northeast Extension on the way to Bethlehem to watch the Birds prepare for the 2004 season. Before you know it, it will be Aug. 13 and the Eagles will be in New England to face the Super Bowl champion Patriots in their first preseason game. There is enthusiasm. There is hope. There is even optimism - perhaps the most in a generation from Eagles fans. And dare I even test the wrath of the great football gods by saying it is all justified? The beginning of what could be the strangest season ever for Eagles fans is just around the corner. It will be the ultimate test of emotional perseverance for Eagles fans - a weekly roller-coaster ride where the highs will be very high and the lows will be oh so low. It will be a season where everything and nothing will matter before Sunday, Jan. 23, 2005, when the NFC Championship Game is played and a berth to Super Bowl XXXIX will go to the winner. That's the dichotomy that is created when a team has lost three straight NFC Championship Games but then has one of its all-time greatest offseasons in trying to remedy that situation. It won't be a one-game season because it can't be. To win the NFC championship and erase 3 straight years of crushing disappointment, the Birds have to first reach the NFC Championship Game. That alone makes each of the 20 weeks from the start of the regular season on Sept. 12 against the New York Giants to the Divisional Playoff weekend (Jan. 15-16) important. Despite the fact that they lost the last two NFC title games in South Philadelphia, the Eagles' best chance still lies in having the best conference record and having the NFC playoffs go through Lincoln Financial Field. Of course, I'm not sure how this team could possibly survive the intense scrutiny and pressure that would come with having a third title game at home after having lost the previous two. But that just magnifies the single-minded nature of this season. Every game, every victory, every loss will be viewed in relation to the NFC Championship Game. And when it's done, nothing, absolutely nothing, will be good enough, nothing will be considered successful unless the Eagles are victorious on Jan. 23, 2005. Without question, the Eagles' management deserves praise for finally having that aggressive offseason it has been promising fans for years. The signing of free-agent defensive end Jevon "The Freak" Kearse from the Tennessee Titans, the trade for talented but controversial wide receiver Terrell Owens (San Francisco 49ers), and even the recent re-signing of prodigal son middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter show that head coach and football grand pooh-bah Andy Reid has accepted the need to lose some of his stubbornness and think a little more outside of the box. But if the Eagles don't win the NFC Championship Game, none of it will matter. If the Birds come up short of the Super Bowl again, Reid quickly will go from enlightened guru back to a coach who can't win the big one. Quarterback Donovan McNabb could win the MVP award and have the greatest statistical season ever, but if he again fails to lead the Eagles to the Super Bowl, he will be standing right behind Reid in line for goat horns. Kearse could win the NFL sack title; Owens could catch 100 balls for 1,500 yards with 20 touchdowns; but if there is no Super Bowl berth at the end of the rainbow, the belief will be that the Birds acted a year too late. The bottom line is that the Eagles could go 17-1, but if that one loss comes in the NFC Championship Game, they might as well have gone 1-17. Oh, yes, it's almost here. In less than a week, the Eagles will open training camp. Six months from now, on Jan. 23, 2005, their season will officially begin. -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. For recent columns, go to http://go.philly.com/smallwood.