September 29, 2008

Madam, I Pray You're Not Toying With Me

In the time I’ve spent interacting romantically with the opposite sex, I’ve discovered that there are girls with the tendency to put a halt to situations at key moments. These girls, usually acting either coy or pretentiously intelligent, seem to think that hesitating before taking this “significant” plunge will assuage any fears they may have about what might come next. Of course, this requires them to ignore the fact that they’ve already stated a rather obvious interest, along with having spent a decent amount of time or thought on getting the circumstances this far in the first place.

These actions either confuse or frustrate me. “Why would someone act this way,” I wonder, “when both desire and rational thought are clearly pointing them in the right direction?” Are they merely attempting to insure that I won’t hurt them emotionally, or do they take a certain pleasure in believing that they’ll always have the ability to pick and choose, believe or ignore? It usually seems like more trouble than it’s worth, and unless you consider it in another context, it can be borderline insane. That other context, though, is being a Philadelphia sports fan.

We, Philadelphia sports fans, can often be coy or pretentiously intelligent. We’re coy because we know what committing ourselves entirely can do; we’ve seen the failures of the past, so excuse us if we’re a bit disdainful or aloof when asked to believe in another overachieving bunch of rapscallions who probably won’t come through in the clutch. We’re pretentiously intelligent because many of us think we’re on a level above the common sports fan and his simpleton rooting styles. Anyone can show up with an empty head and cheer for 9 guys in baseball uniforms, but to be able to constantly critique, judge and malign these subpar superstars, well, therein lies the true joy of sports fandom. Being a sports fan in Philadelphia isn’t often easy, so if you choose to distance yourself for safety’s sake, or distance the game itself with constant mockeries, you can feel confident that you’ve made the right choice.

But you haven’t. The fact that you went to the effort to make an informed decision on how to deal with your fandom shows that you already care more than enough as it is. Desire and rational thought are telling you to care, and its just your fears that push you the opposite way. Fears that are usually unjustified, by the way. Just because you’ve watched teams come up short year after year has little bearing on what you’re now seeing; odds are, it’s an entirely different set of guys who just happen to wear the same jerseys. There’s no curses, no supernatural reason why you haven’t gotten to babysit a trophy for 12 months. There’s probably a lot of teams, usually 30, in your sport of choice, and a bunch of them probably spend more money or employ smarter management personnel than yours. This shouldn’t make you pull back anytime an opportunity arises to connect with them in a more intimate, engaging fashion.

I bring this up due to a polarizing weekend featuring the Philadelphia Phillies and the Philadelphia Eagles. The Phillies, long a black sheep in the foursome of Philadelphia sports, earned their second straight division title on Saturday. Meanwhile, the Eagles, considered to be one of the premier franchises in the NFL, lost a heartbreaker to the Chicago Bears on Sunday Night Football. The Phillies victory was exciting but unconvincing; for about a half-decade, this very talented team has made a habit of underachieving, and many local fans might still be hesitant to buy into them. The Eagles loss was crushing but expected; popular opinion remains that Donovan McNabb will never win the big game, and that Andy Reid might not coach another one. Two totally different outcomes, but two more opportunities to distance ourselves from a “projected” catastrophe that no one can adequately project.

This, it can be argued, is justified; I’ve done it myself. But it’s wrong. The Eagles have 12 regular season games left to play, most of whom will probably feature their currently injured star running back, Brian Westbrook. A week ago, most people probably would have considered them a Super Bowl-caliber football team. And the way the Phillies captured this second division title indicates a more mature, more responsible team, a team much more likely to achieve postseason success. The sight of familiar faces that arguably choked in last year’s NLDS against the Colorado Rockies should bring satisfaction as much as it causes concern, as these players now understand that there’s more to a winning season than just getting to the playoffs. It’s 2008, not 2007, and while that might seem simple, it’s not.

If more people adopted this philosophy, sports and life both would be better off. That sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach? It’s of your own creation. People are different, relationships are different, teams are different, seasons are different. To judge one based on the other is to deprive yourself of a new sensation for unjustifiable reasons. The 2008 Phillies might break my heart, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to break yours.

September 24, 2008

The Eagles Challenge Brian Urlacher to an Honor Du-el

Enjoy before reading.

Now that we've gotten that out of the way, enough cannot be said about the Eagles' defensive performance last Sunday. Anyone who has followed Brian Dawkins throughout his career should have seen an angry, dominating performance on the horizon after the shellacking he took in the media last week, but somehow, we all ended up surprised. Pleasantly surprised, of course, as Dawkins showed both fans and press that he's still got much more in the tank.

But really, I can't specifically remember a pass rush being that effective. Not only that, but Broderick Bunkley, Mike Patterson and company continued their quest to be recognized as the best run defense in the NFL, and right now, there's no competition. Statistically, they're the best in the whole league at 45.7 yards allowed per game, and that's after facing Steven Jackson, Marion Barber and Willie Parker. Few would argue that they're all among the top ten backs in football, and only Barber had anything close to a decent game. Jim Johnson has always been primarily known as a blitzing, pass-rushing defensive coordinator, but it looks like (whether he likes it or not) he's assembled the most stout rushing defense in recent Eagles history.

Which should prove handy this weekend against the Chicago Bears. Kyle Orton may have once had a terrific beard, but he's now just a subpar quarterback. If Big Ben could not handle the Eagles' pressure, who knows what will happen to Orton if the Birds send six or seven guys consistently? Orton's biggest "threats" at wideout are retread Marty Booker and out-of-place kick returner Devin Hester, who may not even play on Sunday. The only player I'd be nervous about is tight end Greg Olsen, as TEs have been the Eagles' Achilles heel thus far. Even Steelers TE Heath Miller had 4 catches for 63 yards, by far the most impressive offensive output produced by Pittsburgh. If coach Lovie Smith sticks to a gameplan centered around Olsen and other short pass plays, they may keep Orton upright long enough to put some points on the board.

But, if they decide to try and dominate the ground game with rookie sensation Matt Forte, well, we've seen how that works out for opposing teams. Right now, the down tackles look big, the ends look athletic, and the linebackers look like the perfect combination of both. That's a dangerous situation to go to war against, and I'm sure Jim Johnson would love to stuff Forte early, allow the offense to build an early lead and force Orton to put the ball in the air. Orton makes mistakes, and unlike last year's team, this Eagles defense has shown a nose for the ball in the first few weeks.

And then there's the vaunted Bears defense. Despite a lot of hype (and the genuinely scary Brian Urlacher of the previously mentioned commercial), the Bears recorded zero sacks on 67 Tampa Bay pass attempts last week. 67! Now, my knowledge of the Tampa offensive line is subpar at best, but if you can't get to the quarterback once in that many tries, it speaks as much about your pass rush as anything else. So far, the Bears are allowing 321 yards per game, good for only 18th in the NFL, and they've recorded just five sacks. For an Eagles team who would like to keep Donovan McNabb as healthy and untouched as possible, that is a good sign.

The real question this week is: Play Brian Westbrook? Despite how anemic the offense looked without him, I think if a weekend off is medically confirmed to do him some good, there is no reason to play him. The Bears will not be a pushover, but the Eagles look like a genuine playoff team, and with a healthy Westbrook (and everyone else, of course), there's no reason they can't compete for a Super Bowl berth. It is a little early to be looking that far ahead, but when you're talking about arguably the most talented player in the whole National Football League, his continued health is the number one priority. As exciting as last week was, seeing both McNabb and Westbrook injured as enough to ruin even the most satisfying defensive trouncing.

The Bears are a decent team, but they are beatable in almost any circumstance. In the past, the Eagles have won, despite frequent McNabb injuries, with a combination of Westbrook and defense. This year, they could be lucky enough to keep the old no. 5 around and have a trifecta of overwhelming positives, but the key element in this whole brew is no. 36. The honorable thing to do in this week's du-el is give Brian a week to rest his weary bones and pound Kyle Orton and Matt Forte like their names are Roethlisberger and Parker. Urlacher might be on the opposing sideline, but I think he'd still understand.

September 16, 2008

Out with the Old

Can you blame the starting quarterback, he of the "25 for 37, 281 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT" gem that kept the Philadelphia Eagles from being blown out of the water by the Dallas Cowboys, can you blame him for ultimately losing the game, 41-37?

Absolutely. If you're a Philadelphia sports fan, you've got a PhD in spreading blame, and Donovan McNabb earned his fair share.

Of course, so did Brian Dawkins, so did the entire Eagles secondary, so did the offensive line in the second half and the defensive line throughout the game. Surprisingly enough, for a game as competitive and entertaining as last night's Monday night showdown turned out to be, as my friend Walt put it, "the blood was on everyone's hands."

And partly on Donovan's. Yes, he looked like the quarterback of old - scrambling, evading tacklers, pulling miraculous plays out of nowhere, even breaking an old-fashioned run here and there. But at the same time, he really looked like the Donovan of old. The Donovan who has never been much for fourth-quarter comebacks, the Donovan who often seems to tighten up in a tough situation. Both he and Andy Reid have shown a tendency in the past to abandon what has been working when a game gets close, and last night, there was McNabb, forcing balls into double-coverage, into the ground, into the open air a solid foot above Brian Westbrook.

And then there's the fumble, something I still haven't had explained to me by the various Eagles sites I frequent day after day. I'm not sure which lines were crossed between Westbrook and McNabb, but I do know that it was a key error, perhaps even more damaging than Romo's earlier fumble in the endzone. Romo's blunder was painful, but the Eagles' fumble was in the waning moments of a shootout, and the Cowboys received an extra bullet in their chamber. The way Romo, Barber, Witten and Co. had been playing up to that point, one more shot was all they really needed.

Did McNabb lose the game, either with the fumble or the failed final drive? Technically, yes, but you can't pin the bulk of it on him. Dallas might be the best team in the NFL, and a more optimistic human being might note that we gave an elite team all it could handle, in their own arena, on football's biggest stage. But the NFL doesn't offer a column on the division standings for "Good Efforts." A loss is a loss, and this ended up being a telling loss, indeed.

On one hand, it told us that the Eagles can probably play with anyone. It told us that our offense has the potential to be tremendous, even without Kevin Curtis and "That Other Guy Who Used to Start Before We Got DeSean Jackson." It told us that our defense is still a work in progress, and our special teams, even more so. Most of all, though, it told us that our quarterback is as close to back as he's going to get. If he stays healthy, he's going to win a lot of games this year. But, at the same time, he's still the Donovan we remember throwing up in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl. He had his first real test in three years, and he came a little short of acing it. Last night, I remembered how much I appreciate Donovan McNabb, but I also remembered why his fingers are still ring-less.