There are times I think that my not living in Philadelphia might give me a little more perspective regarding the doings and decisions of the sports teams there than fans immersed in a rabid media culture that's particularly obsessive on the subject of the Eagles. This weekend is probably one of those times, as the team said goodbye to safety Brian Dawkins when the free agent signed a contract with Denver. On BackSheGoes, they're tearing their hair out; the comment threads to articles on philly.com are full up with "that team is dead to me" invective.
I get it. Dawkins is probably my all-time favorite Eagle too; I've told Annie for years that if we had a son, he'd be named Dawkins Westbrook Fischer. The team has more salary cap money than they knew what to do with, and Dawk did get a trip to Hawaii for his seventh Pro Bowl after the 2008 season. After an awful early-season performance in a Monday Night Football loss to Dallas, Dawkins turned in one of his superhuman efforts six days later in beating the eventual Super Bowl champion Steelers, and his trademark ferocity and leadership were on display for the rest of the season as an otherwise young defense grew up week by week to drag the team into the playoffs and two big wins once there.
On the other hand, the Eagles have been down this road before. They're unsentimental about their aging stars, and thus far they haven't been burned when those guys--Troy Vincent, Hugh Douglas, Jeremiah Trotter the second time--have moved on. At age 35--my age--Dawkins might or might not have one great season left; he probably doesn't have two, and there's no earthly way he has five, the ostensible length of the contract. (NFL contracts are not guaranteed, however, and essentially this is a two-year deal when factoring in the money that is guaranteed.) The Eagles have a player they like on hand to replace him, second-year defensive back Quentin Demps, and/or could move veteran corner Sheldon Brown to safety--though that's less likely now that former Pro Bowl corner Lito Sheppard has been traded to the Jets. So they created a hole, but have options to fill it that might be more palatable, if much less emotionally appealing, than Dawkins at age 36. And as Inquirer columnist Bob Ford points out, the Eagles did make an offer; the Broncos made a much more generous one, and Dawkins did what most of us probably would do in that situation. Just business on both sides.
The real criticism, though, is that the team has lost its heart--or, worse, knowingly cut it out. This is a tougher argument to refute. Dawkins was the unquestioned leader of that defense and the most popular player on the team, maybe the most beloved athlete in Philadelphia. It's dubious that the team would have made that 4-1 closing push to the playoffs without his contributions on the field or in the locker room. And Dawk's evident passion and bottomless commitment contrasts with fans' perceptions of the flaky and self-exonerating quarterback Donovan McNabb, the stolid coach Andy Reid, the insincere owner Jeffrey Lurie, and the heartless money man Joe Banner.
But ultimately this move will be forgotten if they succeed next season and held up as a moral, even karmic indicator if they fail. For myself, the push at the end of the year bought the Eagles back a good bit of credibility: they've now made the playoffs in seven of the last nine seasons, including five NFC Championship Game appearances. They do piss off the fans--but they also sell out every game and generate more attention at the end of February than the defending World F'in Champions of Baseball, who have just begun play. Much as I loved watching Dawk play all those years and much as I know it will bother me to see him in a Broncos uniform, in considering that track record I can't just immediately conclude they were wrong on this one.