SportsProf

(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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Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Thank You, Birds!

The buildup to the Super Bowl was excruciating.  Time moved so slowly in the Philadelphia for the two weeks leading up to the big game.  There were stories atop stories about each player's pathway to the game, the Philadelphia-area connections of Patriots' players, the Pats' mystique, whether Tom Brady would lead yet another comeback, the underdog status of the home team, the pundits' selections (75% of them picked New England).  Would Eagles' back-up QB continue with his hot hand or wilt under the pressure of the Super Bowl?  Could the Pats' offensive line protect Brady?  Questions upon questions, theories upon theories.


I think that most Philadelphia fans went into the contest with the belief that the Eagles could win the game.  I am not sure that most subscribe to any "team of destiny" theory, but the facts were that the team had suffered some staggering losses to its roster and healed them.  Losing  starting CB Ronald Darby on the first series of downs in the first game for more than half the season began a cascade of increasingly devastating losses.  Okay, so you might not thinking losing your kicker (Caleb Sturgis) or special teams captain (Chris Maragos) was a big deal, but then in the same game the Birds lost future Hall of Fame left tackle Jason Peters and starting middle linebacker Jordan Hicks, another star contributor.  And then, of course, the team lost starting QB Carson Wentz, who was on his way to an MVP season.  All of those losses aggregated; losing Wentz suggested that perhaps the Eagles' had run their course for the season, that despite some great play all of the injuries would be too much to overcome.


Coaches will tell you that if you give a team an excuse to lose, they'll take it.  Part of the brilliance of head coach Doug Pederson and the teams leaders (among them Malcolm Jenkins and Chris Long) was a refusal to offer or take excuses.  Pederson led a culture that was all about accountability and continuous improvement, topped off with a relentless ability and desire to adapt to changing circumstances.  This Eagles team did this time and time again.  They generated a vibe that said that they could run and hit with anybody, but that their true measure was not what they did when things were going well, but what they did when things were not.  And when things were not going well, they dusted themselves off, picked themselves off the canvas, and turned the disappointment into opportunity.


Naturally, all Eagles' fans were hoping for a win.  Desperately.  Deep down, all fans have their doubts.  Sometimes, teams just don't play well on a given day, or they do, only to lose their focus, take their foot off the gas pedal and lose a big lead.  Very much, all Eagles' fans were hoping for a valiant showing from their team, that if they were going to lose, it would be not because of falling asleep at the wheel, but with guns a-blazing.  The reasons for this have to do with much more than football.


The country treats Philadelphia like a poor, developmentally challenged stepchild at times.  Condescending, patronizing, scolding, demeaning, use whatever verb you want.  New Yorkers disdain Philadelphia because, well, it isn't New York, it isn't open 24-7 and it doesn't have all that New York has to offer.  Philadelphia once was home to the government and the financial world, but that was so far back in the day that the legislators used to have summer homes in what is now the Grays' Ferry part of the city, about a 15-minute ride from Independence Mall.  A series of maneuvers and compromises took the financial center to Manhattan and the government to swamp land south of Maryland that became the District of Columbia.  The city has been the butt of jokes, starting with the comedian W.C. Fields, who wanted emblazoned on his tombstone "On the whole, I'd rather be in Philadelphia." 


The city didn't do itself any favors, either.  Fans did boo Santa Claus (that the version of Santa in question was drunk and slovenly and an embarrassment to the trade gets no mention), throw snowballs at the Dallas Cowboys (led by a future mayor of the city, no less) and get put in a makeshift jail at the old Veterans Stadium (the showboat judge who established the court later got elected to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, only to later resign in disgrace because of a scandal involving the sharing of pornographic e-mails).  We had a tough-guy mayor show up to a riot with a night stick in the cumberbund of his tuxedo, and another mayor who infamously permitted the police department to drop a bomb on a row house to roust a violent disobedient movement from the confines, only to end up torching several blocks of the city.  Industry moved away, first down south and then overseas.  Take a train into Philadelphia from outside the city or from the suburbs and you might think that you are passing a former war zone, the empty, scavenged, dilapidated and graffiti-laden buildings testimony to a time when the city made a lot of things.  A famous writer, it might have been Veblen, once wrote, "Philadelphia, corrupt and contented." 


Put differently, I've never felt that the city and its residents felt as good about itself as they should.  Instead, they sometimes act like they don't belong or that someone else is judging them and that, as a result, they don't measure up.  It also didn't help that the records of the sports teams pale in comparison to the Yankees to the north and to all Boston teams and even to the Baltimore Orioles in comparison to the hometown Phillies.  And there have been some famous blown leads, notably by the Phillies in the 1977 National League Championship Series and the 76ers from the late 1960's through the late 1970's.  And then there were the Eagles, 1-5 in NFC championship games under Andy Reid and 0-2 in Super Bowls. 


Losers, chokers, poor drafters, soulless stadium (the Vet), hockey team with an antiquated way of doing things, basketball team that holds the NBA record for the worst record in a season, baseball team that was the first franchise to lose 10,000 games (we didn't know anyone was counting).  How many times have we heard it?  How many times have we had our faces rubbed in it? 


This game meant a lot more than just a Super Bowl.  It had to do with the overall identity of our home town.  Now, many of us aren't extreme idolators and realize what a good thing we have -- good houses and schools and communities without the taxes and prices of New England, New York and New Jersey.  We get that.  It's not that we don't think that we have a good thing -- locally.  But it's the national image that irks us.  Sure, we can fight with each other and have internal rivalries.  But pick on us, and we'll get our backs up and defend each other hard.  And fight back with you.  Even with that, though, there was this thing -- that we haven't always done our best on the national stage, and people look down on us -- and our city -- because of it.


The Eagles' victory over the Patriots changed all that.  The Birds played aggressively throughout, charged hard at the defending champs, the dynasty with the best QB ever and the best head coach over and outplayed them.  They even ran a trick play that people will be talking about forever, one that they ran on fourth down and one at the opponents' goal line right before the first half ended that increased the team's lead.  And they kept on coming and coming.  They did so without their starting QB, without their future HOF left tackle, without their starting middle linebacker.  They did so not because one person stepped up above all others, but because they all stepped up, did their jobs, helped each other and took the game away from the Patriots. 


They made a statement.  To be the best you have to beat the best, and they did. 


And, in so doing, they hit the re-set button for an entire region.  Yeah, you can pick on us and make fun of us and talk about how our area stinks.  Most of you who do that have never been here and don't understand what makes the place special in so many ways.  We have heard it all; there's not much more you can say that we haven't already heard, and what there is will not hurt us.  Why?  Because we've been slammed with it for years, and each and every time we shake it off, carry on, move on and stand up strong.  But what the Eagles' did -- overcoming the adversity that they did, staying together and holding true to a common belief that they could achieve what no Eagles' team had done in the prior 52 years -- makes a statement that blankets and elevates an entire region and entire group of people.


We can win the big one in the biggest sport on the biggest stage. 


We are winners.


We always thought we could do anything we set our minds to.


But now we have shown everyone we can.


And made believers out of them.


Thank you, Eagles, for this most special of victories. 


In flying proudly, you have elevated all of us to fly with you. 


And it feels really good.

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