Image via Wikimedia Commons/roniannacone.
Image via Wikimedia Commons/roniannacone.
I came home ready for it. It being ignorance, and rage, and columnist-spittle and everything else that defines the experience of being a Philadelphia sports fan. But when I visited my birth city prior to the Eagles closing out a lost and emotionally vertiginous season against the Redskins, I had to wonder if Snoop had come through and crushed the Art Museum or the Liberty Bell or whatever buildings Philadelphia considers iconic. After immersing myself in the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Daily News calmly taking inventory of the most galling 8-8 season in Eagles history, I couldn’t help thinking: Since when did we get so fucking soft?
Soft is maybe not the right word, here. The old hardcore goonery is still there—the most recent big sports story out of Philadelphia involves a couple of local hotheads getting stomp-y (and some other local goon being a total idiot about it on the internet) on an unsuspecting Rangers fan at Geno’s Steaks. But for all that, the trademark atomic hatefulness of the Philly sports discourse was missing in action when it came to the (fucking) Eagles, even after a hugely disappointing season.
And this was disappointing to me, as a fan who'd suffered through that season. I had hoped—and expected—to get some good old-fashioned Philly-hothead indignation to counteract the played-out shtick of the Los Angeles Times, the paper of repute in my current city, which offers the Family Circus-style comedy (and possibly latent right-wing agenda) and carriage-return abuse of Chris Dufresne and Bill Plaschke.
Who are writing like this.
Instead, there was an unusual and unnatural chill in the old blast furnaces of overreaction. That and a strange sense of deflation and a peculiarly Zen-like acceptance that would be incredibly admirable in most other walks of life. Mind you, there was still the daily allotment of something like five different articles dissecting the mechanics of the Eagles’ failure to go 25-0 this year from Monday to Friday. But it all felt technocratic, distanced—un-Philadelphia, for sure. Where was the bile and rage about this season that came so easily to sports hacks outside of Philly?
After spending the entire offseason toasting the Eagles’ front office for recognizing a quickly closing window and taking advantage of a pool of free agents that wanted nothing more than to play with Michael Vick, ESPN and other squawking heads in the national media were quick to call karma the twelfth man when shit (more or less immediately) started going pear-shaped for the Eagles.
But here in Philly, there was no puffed-chest shit-talking to counter, nothing about the Eagles late-season surge, or how the Packers and Saints would’ve been shook to the nth degree about a playoff date had the Eagles not blown fourth quarters against the godbody likes of Ryan Fitzpatrick and John Skelton. On the other hand, there weren’t any columnists demanding that Jeffrey Lurie nuke the entire Andy Reid administration by trading Michael Vick, DeSean Jackson and Nnamdi Asomugha to the Colts for the first pick in the draft solely for the purpose of obtaining caucasian tackle monster Luke Kuechly and his next-level hustle/lack of measurables. Maybe throw in a cross-sport transplant of Tyler Hansborough’s grittiness tossed in from the Pacers, if possible. You know, the usual rational armchair GM routine I’ve come to expect. Instead, there was the tacit and weirdly placid recognition that we’re stuck with this team—with thisin general—for a while. And so we shrugged, after all that, when Lurie announced Andy Reid’s return for the 2012 season. Of course Reid was coming back; he always does.
Self-pity, admittedly, was not an option—the Eagles are not suffering from financial hardship, geographic disadvantage or a dearth of top-tier talent. Nor was there the capacity to claim a “curse” like the Cubs, Vikings, Trail Blazers or Bills. Not when your team’s history is marked by straightforward failure to rise to the occasion and your fans are locked in a loud and high-risk game of chicken with karma, never mind that Michael Irvin and Santa deserved exactly what they got from us. Nor is there the ability to flip the bird at haters like the omnipresent Red Sox or Yankees or Lakers, if only because the Eagles haven’t won a game of consequence in the lifespan of most of the people reading these words.
Instead, there was analysis stuck somewhere between that of the Phillies and the Sixers’ respective inertias, and which was staid and almost respectful. The ramifications of having an explosive offense that wasn’t built for red zone execution were explored lightly. There was some mundane suggestion that promoting the offensive line coach to defensive coordinator was the sort of thing that not even Swarthmore ever had to do.
But as depressing as it was throughout the year, Philly’s sports media seemed weirdly capable of understanding what the Gregg Easterbrooks and Merril Hoges didn’t—namely, that Eagles fans were perfectly fine with a quick fix after a decade and a half of savvy, patient front office maneuvering and zero Super Bowls. And so we, like Lurie and them, were willing to roll the dice on cold getting dumb. A stacked cornerback depth chart got more stacked; free agents were retained for exorbitant amounts of money and brought into the fold for equally exorbitant amounts. Recognizable names were tacked onto the deep end of the depth chart, just in case.
Among the conservatives who run the NFL discourse, all this was viewed as some sort of affront to the “right” way to build a championship team, as if the NFL isn’t designed for every team to be conceivable Super Bowl contenders any single year. The idea that every team is working with the same set of tools makes it abundantly clear that the NFL is at least philosophically the most effective political party in existence today. It cherry-picks from the cuddlier side of socialism—a hard salary cap, high draft picks and easier schedules for poorly performing teams—as a means of creating at least the façade of an even playing field on which fans and viewers can indulge in the most satisfying of conservative impulses. Those who aren't successful have only themselves to blame. That or they have shitty parents. A villainy is created of the underclass; Roger Goodell is Herman Cain.
The very real and very obvious faults of teams are shifted from the corporeal to the metaphysical, and thus become self-fulfilling prophecy. The Jets aren’t limited by an erratic quarterback, a mediocre receiving corps and an indifferent running attack—it’s because they wish they never had to find out what Rex Ryan handles business in the boudoir. The Cowboys can’t take the next step because Tony Romo wifed up someone who was declared stupendously attractive by state mandate and because Dez Bryant was deemed suspect by the morally upstanding likes of Warren Moon. While the Chargers endure key injuries, uninspiring drafts and a complete lack of defensive playmakers, it’s all because apocryphal stories about Norv Turner’s demeanor in a casino leads you to believe he doesn’t make the team want it enough.
That’s where the Eagles fucked up. Suspicions that the team was trying to win “the wrong way” got transmuted into the belief that Vince Young’s throws would fly with the graceful arc of a condor, that Ronnie Brown could time-travel his lower body back in order to pick up a third-and-short for once, that Dominique Rogers-Cromartie wouldn’t be a human turnstile. If only they just wanted it enough, and went about getting it in the approved NFL fashion.
In actuality, of course, this is bullshit. Yes,DeSean Jackson could have acted more like 2010’s drops leader Wes Welker on the field, but the front office played hardball when he was trying to play Diana Ross with his contract demands and now he’s willing to be franchised. Yes, they spent a lot of money on free agents, but Jason Babin became a Pro Bowl player (a real one, not the kind that eventually gets subbed in once everyone opts out). Even the bad decisions have context on their side—if the Eagles hadn’t signed Asomugha, the Cowboys probably would’ve. This isn’t the conspicuous consumption of Daniel Snyder, and this team is a lot better than the Redskins. Yes, casual fans and desperate fantasy owners alike are now well aware of the respective shortcomings of Steve Smith, Ronnie Brown and Vince Young, but those three were signed as backups, and to extremely team-friendly one-year contracts. Likewise, would the Kevin Kolb trade still be considered a steal if the Eagles managed a fourth-round pick rather than a deuce and a functional cornerback in a passing league?
Oh, u mad because the backup quarterback called it a “Dream Team?” Considering the frequency with which the word “nightmare” has been used to describe the Eagles’ 2011, it sure as hell would seem so, although all that huffiness overlooks the fact that Vince Young was probably just excited to be on any team. (That in itself seems unfair. Young in many respects seems like a superior version of Tim Tebow, but it’s abundantly clear that teams would rather gamble on Jake Delhomme playing like his son just got kidnapped than a guy who plays David Banner on the practice field and acts like Z-Ro off it) Anyway, breaking down the X’s and O’s of why this particular season failed—the complete inability to stop a remotely competent running attack, Michael Vick’s fragility, you know the rest—just leads back to the conclusion that these are the same exact problems the team had in 2010. The DJ Khaled cavalcade-of-stars/yelling approach didn’t work to solve those problems, because the NFL’s conservatism extends to something along the lines of rockism, in which a single display of clusterfuck dazzle is deemed less worthy than a humble body of work—the Eagles were “I’m On One,” but Black Up wins Super Bowls.
Quick fixes—and hasty fixes—are tricky like that, but in a lot of ways, the Eagles were just unlucky. The offensive line suffered a rash of injuries and as a result, Michael Vick did as well. They turned the ball over way too often, and while that particular problem has the reputation of being the most easily manifest result of poor coaching and lackadaisical preparation, it’s also such a fickle statistic (odd bounces on fumbles, defensive backs dropping interceptions, so randomly on) that turnovers are often used as a predictor of which over-performing team is due for a faceplant.
If you're really feeling like embracing that Philly fatalism, there's the chance that all that bad fortune is just proof that God hates the Eagles, even if the Ronnie Brown signing did lead to Jerome Harrison’s life being saved in a roundabout way. Having that proof of God’s wrath is a poor consolation prize next to a Lombardi Trophy, but it is a satisfying conclusion to 2011 for Eagles diehards who entered the season being treated like Red Sox fans despite decades of Cubs-y results. If we can’t get the gift, we’ll take the curse.