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Call them born-again Eagles

They are the renaissance men.

The Eagles have gone from 5-11 in 1999 to 11-5 in 2000, and it's largely because a number of players have been rejuvenated under coach Andy Reid.

Kicker David Akers was cut twice before catching on in Philadelphia. Linebacker Jeremiah Trotter was ticketed to be replaced before the start of this year. And Charles Johnson nearly doubled his receptions from 1999, going from 34 to 56.

Defensive end Hugh Douglas recovered from a debilitating 1999 torn biceps to record 15 sacks. Quarterback Donovan McNabb became an MVP candidate after joining Santa Claus on the list of celebrities to be unfairly booed by Eagles fans.

But the rebirth of tight end Chad Lewis may be the most impressive. Lewis was drafted by the Eagles in 1997 but survived only one season before being released in '98. The Rams picked him up late in '98, but he was unemployed again in 1999 after playing six games in St. Louis.

He returned to Philadelphia and closed out the season with a touchdown catch against the Rams, but as he entered the Eagles camp in 2000, he was simply considered a stopgap.

Now he's a Pro Bowler who recently signed a $6-million contract extension.

"I knew I could possibly make more money if I became a free agent," said Lewis, a four-year veteran who had 69 receptions this season. "I'm happy to be with Coach Reid. I'm happy to be with Donovan. My happiness here is worth what might have been more money."

No tight end in the NFC had more receptions than Lewis, who benefited when the Eagles had to throw more in the wake of a season-ending injury to running back Duce Staley. Against Cleveland earlier this month, Lewis had five receptions for 100 yards, becoming the first Eagles tight end to break the century mark in 11 years.

Last week, he had nine receptions for 66 yards against Cincinnati.

Lewis' story of overachievement is nothing new. He walked on at Brigham Young before starting 22 games in a collegiate career. He then spent two years in Taiwan on his mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"He's had to come a long ways now. That's a great story," Reid said. "He's persevered through it all and Donovan has a lot of trust in him. He's been very effective and he's a real good person on top of all that. He's very humble about the whole opportunity and situation. We're glad we were able to sign him for a few more years here."

FANATICS: Reid said he and Eagles fans are just alike. Of course, Reid does not have a notorious reputation for being unruly to visiting fans and merciless on Philadelphia sports stars, but he identifies with them.

"I think they're very honest and as a coach you're very critical of yourself and the players and how they perform," Reid said. "Really, I've always said that's one thing the fans have in common with us as coaches ... if you're not doing well they're going to boo you. They're going to let you know they're disappointed, but no more so than what you are.

"On the other hand, if you're doing well, they go out of their minds. So there's some similarities between our fans and myself that way. I understand them."

No word yet on whether Reid has ever booed Santa Claus. But he won't exactly discourage the Veterans Stadium crowd if it acknowledges the Bucs with an unruly greeting.

"It's loud and it stays loud," Reid said, a former Packers assistant. "In most stadiums you come in, fans can't maintain peak noise level. This group here, they can maintain it. It's an echo out there. The other teams are very aware of it.

"I've been on the other side of that where I came in here and it was something. When you come out, there are bodies hanging out over trying to rip your ears off. That can be a little intimidating. It's a different atmosphere."

SMALL WONDER: Eagles receiver and Tampa Jefferson graduate Torrance Small enters today's game with 342 career receptions for 4,573 yards. But Reid believes the nine-year veteran might have enjoyed more success if he could have been a part of a West Coast attack his entire career.

"I would have loved to have had Torrance when he first came out of college," Reid said. "I think he could have just been tremendous in this offense. I'm not saying he's not tremendous now, but I'm sure he could have set a lot of records in this thing. He's got a great feel for the game and he's a big receiver, a big player and he's made some big plays for us."

DINING DUO: McNabb and Bucs quarterback Shaun King, good friends, had plans to dine together Saturday night. But during the week, there was a question as to who was going to pay.

"Don definitely," King said when asked by reporters who was picking up the tab. "He was the second pick in the draft. Donovan's rich."

"I got something to tell him," McNabb retorted.

HEALTHY BIRDS: The Eagles have only three players on their injured reserve list, and if you don't count Staley and defensive end Greg Jefferson, a situational starter, Philadelphia starters have missed just six games this season.

Times wires were used in compiling this report.

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