(Hopefully) good sports essays and observations for good sports by a guy who tries (and can sometimes fail) to be a good sport.


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Monday, February 07, 2005

They Clean(ed) Up Good

During the Super Bowl's pre-game tribute to a variety of music genres that, in typical Super Bowl entertainment fashion, did not fit well together, country singer Gretchen Wilson had the stage to sing her hit single (as someone whose music knowledge is stuck in a 30-year time warp, I have no idea what the title was). There was one line that did stick with me, and it resonated with me as I watched the game -- "I may not be a ten, but I clean up real good."

Who knew she'd be writing the epitaph (whenever, that is, this dynasty is finally laid to rest) of the New England Patriots? They may not have had the Pro Bowlers the Philadelphia Eagles did, but they sure cleaned up good.

There are tons of places where you can get the post-mortem, including that of ESPN TV, where they all but discussed the types of liniment the teams used on their players and neglected to address why the Eagles weren't drinking pickle juice to help them avoid the cramps that both Todd Pinkston and Jevon Kearse suffered during the game (Eagle fans will recall a blitzkrieg of a victory over Dallas in a season-opener about 4 years ago, where the Cowboys wilted in Philadelphia's September heat and the Eagles played a strong game -- they were drinking pickle juice to avoid cramping). I won't make that many analytical points here except the following:

  • I had written that the Eagles needed to get into Tom Brady's grille in order to win the football game, and they just didn't do it enough. Yes, there were a few sacks, but the N.E. offensive line, an unsung bunch if there ever was one, did a fantastic job protecting Tom Brady. The Eagles' pass rush wasn't a factor.
  • Neither, really, was the Eagles' blitz, and again credit goes to the N.E. offensive line and the N.E. running backs. Corey Dillon ran well in the second half yesterday, but he did a fine job on pass protection too.
  • This is the "oh, duh" point, but the Eagles committed too many turnovers to win a championship game. That said, they played rather well, and they controlled most of the first half. The game might have had a different outcome if their defense could have stopped Brady at the end of the first half, but scores like that are what makes the Pats and Brady what they are -- champions.
  • The biggest games tend to point out a team's biggest weakness. The Eagles had a great season, but comparatively their lack of balance on offense hurt them in this game. They couldn't get a running game going all that well, and anyone who criticizes Donovan McNabb for throwing interceptions should realize that in stark contrast to his counterpart, Brady, McNabb at times was playing into a defense that really knew what was coming. And that's extremely hard to do against a top defensive team, in a Super Bowl no less. The reason: the Eagles just couldn't establish the run. Look for them to build a better running game with the return of G Shawn Andrews and some moves in the off-season. Still, even McNabb would admit that he would like to take a couple of those throws back.
  • Best adjustment was N.E.'s going to the screen pass late in the first half and early in the second half. For some reason, Jim Johnson's heralded defense had no answers for a time. Score: Charlie Weis 1, Jim Johnson 0.
  • The Eagles' clock management in the last 6 minutes resembled more the Rich Kotite era than the Andy Reid era.

Okay, so you can get that analysis anywhere. As an Eagles' fan, I was disappointed that the game wasn't a crisper show, but I was reasonably pleased with their showing. They fought hard against one of the best teams in the history of the NFL, and they gave it everything they had. Testimony to their ability and grit was the drive in the second half when they were down 24-14. They kept on coming at the Patriots, and they closed the gap to a three-point margin. The resounding rendition of the Eagles' fight song that almost drowned out the nails-on-the-blackboard voice of Cris Collinsworth was touching for those Eagles' fans who weren't in the stadium. (For what it's worth, I thought the announcers did a very good job in calling the game; the insights were good, and when you're a fan sometimes the truth hurts, but Collinsworth, Troy Aikman and Joe Buck did an excellent job in the booth).

I didn't wake up this morning with an empty feeling that you might associate with a blowout or with a loss that saw your team's victory slip right out of its hands (I also didn't take any glee that in my post yesterday, I predicted the right score -- 24-21, just the wrong outcome). The one thought that came to mind yesterday was the gratitude that everyone in the Philadelphia area must have for the Philadelphia Eagles. The last two weeks in the greater Philadelphia area were quite special for many people, as the shared experience of the Eagles' helped bring families and friendships closer. It's a town that's not known for being sentimental, but on the talk radio stations you could hear on the hour public testimony about emotions and interpersonal connections that you wouldn't have thought possible from a citizenry whose reputation is identified with a booing of Santa Claus or a snowball-throwing session aimed at the visiting Dallas Cowboys. In reflecting on the past two weeks, I wished that the city could have enjoyed an even bigger gap between the NFC Championship Game and the Super Bowl, so powerful was the concept that the Eagles were on the verge of the unthinkable and that a Philadelphia team once again was on the doorstep of a major championship. That two-week experience made the city and its surrounding suburbs a warmer place.

But the drought does continue. Philadelphia remains the city with four major sports teams that has gone without a championship the longest -- now its 22 years since the 76ers won the NBA Championship in 1983. Kids who graduated HS last year were the first in a while to go through school without having a local team win a title. People will go back to work today, or tomorrow for those who now will have to figure out a way back home from Jacksonville, down but not out. It's the legacy of the City of Philadelphia, the somewhat forgotten big town between the money of New York and the power of Washington, always picking itself up after some defeat (sometimes self-inflicted), some belt, some disappointment, thousands of lost jobs.

Now that they've gotten a taste of a Super Bowl, they'll want to go back next year. Not in 24 years, but next year.

And as difficult as this defeat will be for some to take, the team itself is a resilient group. They've been underestimated within the realm of the elite all season long, underestimated, perhaps, by everyone who is not close to them in heart or geography. There is no reason for them not to be back, not to get close to the Super Bowl again. They manage their cap well, they have an outstanding nucleus, and they have a creative group of coaches.

The Patriots, though, have the math major, and while the outstanding Belichick will lose his prized offensive and defensive coordinators to other teams, he'll still be conjuring up enough formulas to keep the Patriots in the thick of the championship hunt for as long as he is there. That enough should prove to be motivational and threatening for all comers, including the Eagles.

But the coaches in Philadelphia are prized alchemists and theorists in their own right, and rest assured that they'll be at their chalk boards drawing up schemes and creating formulas for next season, probably starting in a couple of weeks. Just as the mathematician who solved "Fermat's Last Theorem" took years to do so, the coaches in Philadelphia will need another year to perfect their proofs for the ultimate final exam.

The assignment? Coming up with the right answer that not only enables the Eagles to fly on the road to victory, but to snatch the trophy that comes along with the big win and soar to a height where all can see it.


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