In sports, there is a clear objective – to score more points than your opponent. If you play a team sport, there are times when your individual performance may not be great, but if you score more points than your opponent, you still have exhibited success. If you partake in an individual sport like boxing, gymnastics, track or tennis, room for a less-than-average performance becomes considerably smaller, but you can still win. Art, on the other hand, is the complete opposite – there is no score. There are no statistics to determine greatness or lack thereof. Art is subjective. How does it make you feel? What does it say to you? If you’re not well versed in certain forms of music, visual art or architecture, the subjectivity of art could make you uncomfortable making a call of whether it’s “good” or not. But there are many parallels in sports and art, particularly in my field of art: music. There’s preparation, strategy, intellect, skill, the ability to improvise, most importantly, to capture the heart and mind of the spectator or listener.
There’s a concrete mantra that both athletes and musicians practice: Start strong, end strong. As a performing musician, the general rule is you start and end your concert with your strongest pieces in order to leave an impression. In sports, you must establish the tempo (there’s another music parallel) to determine the flow of the game. In both team sports and individual sports, towards the end of a period or round, it’s wise to end on a strong run. For 58 years, the Philadelphia Eagles have always run out of steam during the last song of the night. The Eagles have always been like a singer who accidentally coughs while holing their last note. Except, this year at Super Bowl LII, they finally took a lozenge and drank some hot tea.
Now using strictly football talk, here’s the story from a fan’s historical lens.
During the 1966-‘67 NFL season, it was decided that the winner of the NFL Championship Game would play the winner of the upstart, six-year-old AFL’s Championship Game. This “ultimate” championship game would be given a name: The Super Bowl. After Super Bowl IV, the AFL would merge with the NFL and two conferences were created, the NFC and the AFC. There are now 32 teams in the NFL. As of February 4th, 2018, there were 13 teams that had never won a Super Bowl – the Eagles, Lions, Vikings, Jaguars, Panthers, Texans, Browns, Bengals, Bills, Chargers, Falcons, Titans and Cardinals. For historic analysis, let’s eliminate the Panthers, Jaguars, Texans and Titans, as each of those teams are 25 years old or less. They’re babies. The Falcons, Vikings and Bengals were NFL expansion teams created in the 60’s. The Bills and Chargers are part of the original eight that made up the AFL in 1960. That leaves us with the granddaddy teams of the NFL, the Browns (73 years old), the Eagles (85 years old), the Lions (87 years old) and the Chicago/St. Louis/Arizona Cardinals, who played their first game a whopping 98 years ago. As of 11pm, Sunday, February 5th, the list of teams that have never won a Super Bowl shrunk to 12, as the Eagles beat the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LII, 41-33.
To understand why my beloved Eagles’ Super Bowl win is so hard to fathom, it’s all about history. Before the Super Bowl era, the Cleveland Browns won four championships. They were a dynasty in the 40’s and 50’s. Since the Super Bowl era began 51 years ago, the Browns have had only 17 winning seasons. Their last being in 2007. They are also the third team in NFL history to go winless in a regular season. Since their back to back heart-stopping (but heartbreaking) playoff losses to the Denver Broncos in 1986 and ‘87, the Browns have made only one playoff appearance. Let’s not even discuss Art Modell. Unlike the Eagles, the Browns have not been expected to win a Super Bowl for a long time. Browns fans CAN say three things:
1. Next to Philadelphia, they may have the most loyal fans in football.
2. Although it was long ago, they did once dominate an era.
3. The greatest running back who ever lived (some would say the greatest player, period) played for them: Jim Brown.
Before the Super Bowl era, the Detroit Lions also won four championships. Three of those four titles came in the 1950’s as players like Bobby Layne and Doak Walker were their stars. They cooled off in the 60’s as the Super Bowl era dawned. There wasn’t much to get excited about as a Lions fan, as they made only three playoff appearances between 1967 and 1991. The main reason for their early-90’s resurgence, came courtesy of the man who many would say became the next greatest NFL running back of all time, Barry Sanders. The Barry Sanders-era Lions were always good. Unfortunately, good was just never enough as the Lions made first-round exits in four out of five playoff appearances during Barry’s era (1989-1998). Since Barry, the Lions have again been eliminated in the first round of their four playoff appearances. Each time, as a #6 seed. Again, unlike the Eagles, the Lions have not been expected to win a Super Bowl for a long time.
Since the Cardinals played their first football game in 1920, they have won just two championships. Their first one came shortly after their debut, 1927, and their second in 1947. With the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series in 2016, this means the Cardinals now own the longest championship drought in professional sports at 71 years. Since 1947, the Cardinals have made the playoffs only NINE times. Five of those nine have been in the last decade. They’ve also moved twice – from their original place of origin, Chicago, to St. Louis in 1960, then from St. Louis to their current home in Arizona in 1988. They technically have four players in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but considering two of those four are Emmitt Smith and Kurt Warner, who, let’s face it, will always be recognized as Cardinals second (or third), let’s say in all fairness, only two pure Cardinals are in the Hall of Fame – Roger Wherli and Aneas Williams. In their one Super Bowl appearance in 2009, they gave the Pittsburgh Steelers all they could muster, but a now-legendary, improbable circus touchdown catch by Santonio Holmes, heartbreakingly ended a Cinderella season for the Cardinals. There’s not much you can say if you’re a Cardinals fan. (if there is such a thing 😜) The Cardinals have two bright spots:
1. Over the last decade, they’ve become one of the more exciting teams in the NFL. Hopefully, they can sustain that.
2: They will undoubtedly have their third “pure” Cardinal in the Hall of Fame when the great Larry Fitzgerald calls it a career.
Now, the Eagles. Like most Philadelphia natives, I have invested a lot of time, love and energy into our beloved football team. So much so, that when I moved to New York City in 1989, I never once considered not rooting for them. For the last 29 years, I’ve often been the lone Eagles fan in a Giants or Jets bar. Dangerous? Indeed. Lunacy? Perhaps. But I’ve always bled Eagles green.
Our history compared to the three other non-Super-Bowl-Champion grandfather teams doesn’t differ too drastically. From the Eagles birth (1933) to the first Super Bowl (1967), the Eagles won three championships – 1948, 1949 and 1960. Through the 60’s and 70’s, the Eagles weren’t a very good team, going 113-160-9 from 1960-1979. I got lucky. I saw my first Eagles game in 1980, as they were rising to the top of the NFC under head coach Dick Vermeil. We went to the Super Bowl that year. (Just imagine, my first year watching football and the Eagles go to the Super Bowl!) Immediately after the Eagles beat the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC Championship game, my uncle Butch brought me with him to Veterans Stadium. I couldn’t figure out why we were going there AFTER the game. But I soon discovered he just wanted to go and watch all the crazy people celebrate as they tore up Broad Street. It was exhilarating. Everyone was so happy. I became an Eagles lifer. As for the Super Bowl, as all of us who were around remember, the Eagles were favored against the wildcard Oakland Raiders. There was no way we’d lose that game. Well, we did, and I discovered what it REALLY meant to be an Eagles fan. Those Eagles decayed quickly as Vermeil retired due to a newly minted word, “burnout”, after the strike-shortened 1982 season.
After stumbling for a couple of years, the Eagles were back on top, sort of. Buddy Ryan came to Philly after being a vital part of the 1985-86 Super Bowl Champion Chicago Bears. Owner Norman Braman and Ryan put together a team for the ages – Randall Cunningham, Reggie White (HOF), Jerome Brown, Keith Byars, Cris Carter (HOF), Clyde Simmons, Seth Joyner, Byron Evans, Andre Waters, Keith Jackson, Wes Hopkins, Eric Allen and more. This team was the team that was supposed to be a dynasty, destroying opponents at will, hoarding all the Lombardi trophies. Well, it didn’t quite workout that way, as we not only didn’t make it to the Super Bowl, we didn’t even win a PLAYOFF game under Buddy Ryan and this “dynasty” of a team. They certainly were one of the most popular, most entertaining teams of its era, but who needs to be popular and subpar?
After Buddy was fired in January 1991, offensive coordinator Rich Kotite took over as head coach. We showed flashes. Finally even won a playoff game (1992-93 wildcard against the Saints). Had one of the best 1-2 WR combinations in football with Fred Barnett and Calvin Williams. But this version of the Eagles would soon be eclipsed by the fast-rising, new dynasty of the NFL, the Dallas Cowboys. Let’s jump to the Andy Reid era. The soft-spoken, ample, nice-guy coach brought the Eagles back to dominance in the 2000’s, building a team, like Buddy Ryan, that should have been championship heavy. During the Reid era, he brought us McNabb, Westbrook, TO (HOF), Dawkins (HOF), Trotter, Vincent, Vick, Shady, DJax, Akers, four Championship games, one Super Bowl appearance, but most of all, fourteen years of “Wait ‘til next year”. Almost every year after Reid’s first year as head coach, the Eagles were always expected to “go far”, if not “all the way”. In my 38 years of watching the Eagles, we have, for the most part, been a strong organization. Perennial threats to the title. But then, take January 2003, when the Eagles played in their second of four consecutive NFC Championship games. This time, against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The stage was set so perfectly. Veterans Stadium, the Eagles home since 1971, was scheduled to be demolished at the conclusion of the Phillies baseball season, making this the final Eagles game ever played at the “Vet”. The Buccaneers were an unbelievable 0-20 in games below 40 degrees. That day, it was 29 degrees. Weather notwithstanding, the Eagles were heavy favorites. The Oakland Raiders would beat the Tennessee Titans in the AFC Championship game later that night. As dominant as they had been all season, the Eagles could have a chance to not only win their first Super Bowl, but they could have avenged their loss to the Raiders in Super Bowl XV. But alas, somehow we blew all of our lines in a perfectly written script as the Eagles lost 27-10. (Ironically, they lost by that same score in Super Bowl XV.) And THAT’S what it meant to be an Eagles fan. Heartbreak. There’s that singer running out of breath and coughing again!
With Chip Kelly at the helm from 2013-2015, the Eagles were completely gutted and dismantled. Every great player we had was either cut or traded. Fans watched in horror as DeSean Jackson was released, Jeremy Maclin was released, LeSean “Shady” McCoy was traded (I’m STILL pissed about that one!), Nick Foles was traded, Michael Vick was released. It was like watching a quack doctor do surgery on a body without anesthesia.
By the time Kelly was fired in week 15 of the 2015 season, it was clear that the Eagles were completely in rebuild mode. Our perennial superstars were replaced by players like Sam Bradford, Mark Sanchez, Ryan Mathews, Jordan Mathews and Kiko Alonzo.
When Andy Reid’s coaching protegé (and former backup QB to both Brett Favre and Donovan McNabb) Doug Pederson was hired as head coach in 2016, we took comfort in the fact that Chip Kelly was now off to destroy another team. We drafted a young quarterback from North Dakota State (where??) named Carson Wentz. We still had the man Chip Kelly called “The Swiss Army Knife” (because he was such an incredibly versatile tool), the ageless Darren Sproles. As always, the “Wall”, Jason Peters would be on the line protecting Wentz’s back. The defense didn’t change too much, but they seemed at the very least, decent, so maybe a move here, a move there, and we’d be good.
The 2016-17 Eagles finished with a happily surprising 7-9 record. Most fans and writers expected the Eagles to finish 4-12 or 5-11. To win seven games with a rookie coach and a new cast seemed like a small victory.
In the offseason, the new cast got even newer. The Eagles acquired LeGarrette Blount, fresh off a Super Bowl win with the Patriots, as their number one RB. We also acquired all-star WRs, Alshon Jeffrey & Torrey Smith. There was also Ronald Darby, CB of the Buffalo Bills, who we acquired in a trade with WR Jordan Matthews. During the regular season in week 8, there was quite the surprise acquisition of Miami Dolphins RB Jay Ajayi. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that as LeGarrette Blount seemed to be doing a fine job by himself. But the more RBs, the merrier, I suppose. How much success could this team possibly have with so many newbies? I had to remind myself that this was rebuilding time. During the season, things got challenging as we lost many of our major players to major injuries. Darren Sproles, our swiss army knife, went down for the season with a devastating broken arm and leg in week three. There was Jordan Hicks, Jason Peters, Ronald Darby, and, of all people, Carson Wentz, making a run for league MVP, who tore his ACL in week 14.
Despite the injuries, the Eagles were still winning game after game. The season was almost feeling surreal. But after the injury to Wentz, us Eagles fans couldn’t help but feel impending doom. This wasn’t surreal, this was FO’ real! 😜 So much for the rebuild. Now what do we do this late into the season?
Nick Foles, who the Eagles had reacquired in the off-season, came off the bench. We figured there was no way the rusty Nick Foles could keep this train running smoothly. As he replaced the injured Wentz in the 3rd quarter of that high scoring shootout against the Rams, it seemed we’d be alright as he, in fact, did keep the train running smoothly as we won, 43-35. In the next game against the lowly Giants, the Eagles started off a shade slow, but Foles put up 2013-like numbers, as he went 24/38, 237, 4TD, 0 INT. We were good to go, it seemed.
Up next was a Monday night home game against the Raiders and their 26th-ranked pass defense. This should have been a redux against the Giants – a gimme. But games like this are why cynicism is at the core of every Eagles fan.
Let’s go back to 2010.
The Eagles pulled off one of the greatest comebacks in NFL history, beating the Giants 38-31, in the game called “The New Miracle of the Meadowlands”, as DeSean Jackson ran back that famous punt as time ran out. The Eagles had built immeasurable momentum with that win, as we were fighting to win the NFC East and keep the hated Dallas Cowboys at bay. Their next game after that was a Monday night home game (Because of a snowstorm, it was actually a Tuesday night game) against the Vikings. The Vikings finished last in the NFC North that year. In this game, Joe Webb was starting at QB for an injured Brett Favre. Facing a bad team with a backup QB, this should have been a gimme. So much for the momentum of the Meadowlands Miracle as the Eagles not only lost 24-14, but they lost their next and final regular season game to the Cowboys, 14-13. It seemed as if the Giants comeback didn’t mean a damn thing. It didn’t, as the Eagles also lost to the Packers in the first round of the playoffs, 21-16. Three straight losses after the most amazing comeback in our history. That’s what it means to be an Eagles fan: “Cough! Cough!”
Now, back to the 2017 Monday night game against the Raiders.
The game was indeed a nail biter, but for reasons you wouldn’t suspect. Our running game was good and the defense held David Carr and Marshawn Lynch relatively in check. The problem was with Nick Foles. All of a sudden, he looked clueless. He over and underthrew receivers, couldn’t scramble, couldn’t make anything happen on the fly. We won 19-10, but that was mostly because of our defense making plays and our special teams stepping up. There was deep concern over the play of Foles, who finished with a line of 19/38, 163, 1 TD, 1 INT. The cynicism was flaring badly. We had one game left in the regular season. The opponent? The hated Dallas Cowboys. With the Eagles having locked up home field advantage in the playoffs, the plan was to only play the starters in the first quarter of this game. Foles had 15 minutes (or less) to prove to us that the Raiders game was a stumble, not the norm. Unbelievably, Foles looked as bad, if not worse, than he did in the Raiders game. For Eagles fans, there was a collective “We are so screwed” sentiment amiss.
As the #1 seed Eagles stumbled into the playoffs, doubt was stronger than ever. We’d heard this familiar song way too many times. In our divisional playoff game against the defending NFC Champion Atlanta Falcons, the Eagles were underdogs in their own house. That dubious designation seemed justified as the Falcons entered the playoffs winning four of their last five games, including a wildcard win on the road against the favored Rams. They were looking like the defending champs that they were. The game was eerily similar to the Raiders game. Foles looked tentative as we again won…barely. It took a goal line stand by the defense on the last play of the game to secure the 15-10 win. As we awaited the winner of the Saints-Vikings game, we could only wonder when Foles’s luck would run out. The Vikings, who won in their own miracle, came to Philly favored.
My guess is that head coach Doug Pederson smartly realized that Foles was the ONLY bright spot during the Chip Kelly years. Pederson put Foles in a time capsule, let him turn back the clock and seemingly busted out the 2013 playbook. Foles’ play mixed in with Pederson’s aggressive playcalling turned Foles into a madman. He torched the Vikings! All of a sudden, it seemed like that evil football ghost was dead. Foles and the Eagles crushed the Vikings, 38-7. Foles finished with a line of 26/33, 352, 3 TDS, 0 INT. Up next, the SUPER BOWL!
It absolutely had to be against the greatest sports dynasty since the Chicago Bulls of the 90’s – Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots. None of this meant anything unless we were going up against the best. Lack of defense by either team notwithstanding, the Eagles looked confident and played like they expected to win. In Super Bowl XV, they looked scattered and unprepared. In Super Bowl XXXIX, they looked overwhelmed and a bit nervous. (Not to mention, Andy Reid’s questionable clock management.) But in this game, they collectively stared down the mighty Patriots and beat them, not without drama, 41-33. The 2017-18 Eagles got the monkey off our back. We were finally World Champions. Years of heartbreak finally turned into victorious bliss. That metaphorical last note was given its full value and sung fortissimo!! If only my grandfather and my uncle Butch were alive to see this. They withstood way more heartbreak than I did.
So why isn’t this win sinking in? Maybe because I still don’t know this team well. I feel like I’m just getting to know these cats. Jake Elliot? Ronald Darby? Jay Ajayi? Tim Jernigan? Chris Long? Rodney McLeod? These guys have been Eagles less than a year. Some less than six months! We just met you and go and win it all? Whuuuuut? Eagles, traditionally you’re supposed to gravely disappoint us many times before you go winning a Suoer Bowl!
I suppose that since the ‘80, ‘81, ‘88, ‘89, ‘90, ‘95, ‘01, ‘02, ‘03, ‘04, ‘06, ‘08, ‘09, ‘10, ‘13 teams – all great Eagle teams that had perennial Pro Bowlers who had grown together and picked to go far in the playoffs – couldn’t win a Lombardi Trophy, how could this ‘17-18 team be the one that does it? Those previous teams gave us unyielding hope every year for many years. We haven’t had a chance to marinate in our customary loyal and loving disappointment with this particular squad. But seriously, I think about how many times the great Brian Dawkins left it all out on the field in Midnight Green and never won a ring. To think about how many games Donovan McNabb, Brian Westbrook, Jeremiah Trotter, Hugh Douglas and David Akers played in an Eagles uniform – not to mention the late Jim Johnson….I wish they could have gotten a ring. The Buddy Ryan squad – Randall Cunningham, Jerome Brown, Seth Joyner, Cris Carter, Clyde Simmons, Keith Jackson, Keith Byars, Andre Waters. From the “Body Bag Game” to the “Bounty Hunt Game”, what great memories you gave us. 😄 The Dick Vermeil gang – Ron Jaworski, Wilbert Montgomery, Harold Carmichael, Herman Edwards, Bill Bergey, Frank LeMaster….these were the players that were with the Eagles during the lean years of the mid and late 70’s that quickly turned the club around. I think it’s safe to say that this trophy was won for all of them. Eagles, you finally sang that last note like Maria Callas in Carmen! Thank you Jeffrey Lurie, Howie Roseman, Doug Pederson, and all the great players on our 2017-18 Super Bowl team. And of course, the voice of the Eagles for the last 41 years, Merrill Reese (who worked with my uncle Butch at WHAT-AM in the late 60’s and early 70’s.) 😄
Fly, Eagles, Fly.