Monday, October 09, 2006

Closing an Old Wound
Sometimes, sports eases the pain. Sometimes, sports makes things much worse.

I experienced the latter on the first Sunday of December, 1994, watching the Eagles-Cowboys game in the basement of the house where I lived my senior year in college. My personal life was a mess: I'd just been diagnosed with ulcerative colitis about three weeks earlier, and a couple days after that my girlfriend of more than two years had dumped my ass. I felt physically sick and emotionally beaten. In the outside world, meanwhile, the Republicans had just taken over Congress and the baseball strike was entering its fourth month. So there I was, watching the Eagles, who had gotten off to a 7-2 start through early November but then lost three straight games to the Browns, Cardinals and Falcons. (It's distressing how well I remember all this.) If they couldn't right the ship against the Cowboys--the team they, and I, hated above all others--they'd probably miss the playoffs.

It was a back-and-forth game most of the way, but late in the second half, down by less than a touchdown, the Eagles had the ball inside the Dallas 10-yard line. Randall Cunningham looked unstoppable, and the Vet was rocking. Then Cunningham misfired into the end zone, Cowboys safety Darren Woodson intercepted the ball, and he ran the length of the field for what was essentially a game-icing touchdown. The Eagles lost their final three games to finish 7-9, and my very bad groove continued until March or so.

Not quite 12 years later, married, sort of fat and reasonably happy, I was thinking of this yesterday when Lito Sheppard returned the favor in the final seconds of the Eagles' thrilling 38-24 win over Dallas. The win was huge for the team, breaking a seven-game division losing streak and finally, I think, burying the awful experience that was their 2005 season, but for me it also put to rest the ache of that Woodson pick and return: the sense that, just as you were prepared for maximum joy, the fates would instead deliver maximum pain. Yesterday, with Sheppard's heroics coming two plays after a 57-yard pass interference penalty on a 4th-and-forever for Dallas, the trick was perfectly reversed.

A few other thoughts from the best game of the season:

  • It's amazing how much having the better QB can make up for. Donovan McNabb made a series of near-perfect passes in the second half, while Bledsoe compounded his lack of mobility and the ferocious Eagles pass rush with bad decision-making.

  • Somebody on Philliesphans reported that the FOX broadcast including 61 shots of a mostly sulking Terrell Owens on the sidelines. For myself, I just kept yelling at the TV to the effect of "NOBODY CARES ABOUT HIM EXCEPT YOU MEDIA DIMWITS!" (actual quote modified for content)

  • The Dallas coaches did not call a good game. On their first scoring drive, they had something sustainable going: give excellent running back Julius Jones the ball, and throw short passes. The Eagles couldn't stop it. But they didn't stay with this; they kept dropping Bledsoe back, and Dallas couldn't handle the relentless blitzes in addition to stellar play from the Eagles' defensive line.

  • The Eagles secondary didn't have a good game--they had a great game. To go single-coverage and hold Terry Glenn and TO to what they got is just superb. Joselio Hanson is a better DB than I'd thought, certainly good enough to play in the nickel.

  • Given how solidly they won most of the battles on both lines--there were two series in the first half when the Cowboys got to McNabb, but otherwise he generally had more than enough time to throw--the Eagles probably shouldn't have needed the pick and return at the end to win the game. But Andy Reid's play-calling is still goofy: at some point he needs to commit to the running game at least enough so that when he needs to pick up a first down on third and inches, he can call it with confidence. Facing that exact situation in the third quarter, he called a pass--which fell incomplete. Infuriating, though ultimately it didn't hurt. If I had to choose, I'd rather have the quick-strike offensive capability the Eagles possess than a grind-it-out ball-control scheme where one mistake--a missed block, a holding penalty--can stall out a drive. But the Birds' offensive line is big enough and strong enough that they shouldn't necessarily have to choose.

Next week should be another good test for them in New Orleans. The Saints are 4-1, though (like the Eagles before yesterday) you could argue they haven't beaten anyone. More worrisome might be whether the Eagles can avoid a hangover after yesterday, when they were playing with more emotion than I've seen in years--maybe in Reid's whole tenure. Pretty sweet, whether or not it was worth a 12-year wait.

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