(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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Sunday, March 15, 2009

Defending the Philadelphia Eagles, Part II

Reuben Frank's column in today's Bucks County Courier Times is a must read for Eagles fans, particularly if you've counted yourselves among those who are angry at, or frustrated with, Andy Reid and the front office for letting Brian Dawkins and Tra Thomas go.

It's been said that of among the major sports, football is the hardest to figure out, in terms of who has played well and who has not. In contrast, in baseball you can tell from the numbers (and from watching) who has fared well and who hasn't -- in pretty transparent terms. Jamie Moyer of the Phillies had a good year in 2008, while Brett Myers had an up-and-down year. That was pretty easy to tell, as it was that catcher Carlos Ruiz a) had trouble hitting above the Mendoza line and b) transformed himself into a take-charge, leader-like catcher by season's end. You could tell the former by statistics and the latter by watching the team in September and reading the quotes from manager Charlie Manuel and pitching coach Rich Dubee. Basketball and hockey are not as transparent, but you can tell by the numbers in basketball who is making wise decisions (it's the assist-to-turnover ratio for a point guard), who is defending well as a team, and who is shooting the ball well. I'm less versed in hockey, but you aren't playing 11 guys at a time, so it's easier to see which Flyers' defenseman has played like a statue and which one can cover mobile offensive players better.

The previous paragraph is by now means complete, as I'm trying to paint the picture that outside egregious situations (such as Winston Justice's ill-fated start against the Giants' two years ago, in which the young offensive tackle yielded six sacks), it's hard for the average fan to tell whether a free safety is getting to the ball as quickly as the average free safety in the league or whether a center is doing what he's supposed to be doing. Most fans cannot tell that, but what they can see is their team's won-lost record and the frequency of playoff appearances. Frank makes the excellent point in his column that Washington and Dallas have favored expense veterans over the past decade, and neither has been successful. While the Cowboys have gotten significant ink, they haven't won a playoff game in about 10 years, T.O. or no T.O., and with Tony Romo, Pac-Man Jones and Tank Johnson.

So, before you tee off on the Eagles, pick why you want to tee off. Most of us cannot tell whether their personnel decisions (at the time made) are good or bad. We can tell, years later, from retrospectively addressing how well draft picks fared, how well free agents fared, and how well people that the team let go performed. What we can tell, right now, is that the Eagles seem stuck in a mode that fans in Detroit and Kansas City would take -- perenially having a chance to make the playoffs and win a few games. On the face of it, that doesn't sound so bad.

Unless you're an Eagles' fan, because, if you are, you've gotten so close that you want the title, can taste it, and won't accept anything less. Making matters worse is that the Phillies, usually regarded as an inferior organization that couldn't get out of its own way, won the World Series. So now Eagles' fans are left with reviewing the past 10 years and trying to figure out why the team cannot win the Super Bowl, seeing the last game of last season -- a game most figured them to win -- become a microcosm of the fans' frustrations (the inability to finish the job), and seeing some tried and true performers depart for other teams. They're tired of hearing how well the Eagles manage the salary cap, how great it is to have reached the conference championship game 5 times in the past 10 years, and how good, overall, a judge of talent Andy Reid is (Frank's article is testimony, to some degree, to the latter point).

A wise person once told me that the complaint isn't usually the problem, and, in this case, I think she'd be onto something. While Eagles' fans complain about the recent personnel decisions, what they're really frustrated with is a lack of progress -- in their minds -- to a solution that leads to a Super Bowl victory. So, when they vent about losing warriors like Dawkins and Thomas, what they're really saying is "what's the plan to win a Super Bowl?" And what they're most worried about is whether the Donovan McNabb-Andy Reid partnership will ever get them there.

As Reuben Frank points out, stars have come and gone, and the departure of none of them sank the team. Name a name -- Hugh Douglas, Troy Vincent, Bobby Taylor, Jeremiah Trotter (when he left for the Redskins) -- and the team rebounded just fine. What's frustrating for the fans, however, is that while they know that Andy Reid and Joe Banner can put together a nucleus for 10 wins and a first-round playoff victory, is whether they can finally break through and win it all.

And it's not clear from past history -- despite the overall won-loss record -- that they can.


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