Monday, September 24, 2007
McNabb and Westbrook: Dressed to kill but joined at the hip.
BEDROCK. The world of NFL football was quite the comedy yesterday. Perhaps most amazingly, the day's events provided Keith Olbermann with an opportunity to be right about something. He declared -- in the pity assignment he's been given on NBC's Sunday Night Football broadcast -- that "the Worst Person in the NFL" this week is the man or woman who picked out yesterday's blue and yellow nightmare of a retro uniform for the Philadelphia Eagles. What can we say? He was absolutely correct, which ended a streak of 0-for-8 years or so. That's more than you can say about all the experts and pundits who opined about the Eagles and their fans before, during, and after their game with the Detroit Lions.
The wizards of Fox's weekly pre-game circus -- Terry, Howie, Jimmy, and, uh, Frank -- all picked Detroit to win the game, and Terry Bradshaw also threw in a lecture to Donovan McNabb advising him to shut up and play football or get ready to be benched.
Then came the blowout: 42 Eagle points in the first half, 56 in the game, 500+ yards of offense, 4 touchdown passes, zero interceptions, and 8 sacks by the Eagle defense.
Of course, this didn't much change the views of the experts and pundits. Bradshaw not only refused to eat crow; he repeated his lecture to McNabb in the post game recap, conceding only that McNabb had bought himself another week.
In the NBC Sunday night game between the Cowboys and the Bears (excuse me, the Vaqueros and the Osos in honor of the NFL's "Let's Pander to Hispanics" month), Al Michaels made multiple snide references to McNabb's PR troubles of the past week. In fact, his final words before signing off were addressed to McNabb, inviting him to look at Chicago during the next seven days to see what criticism of a quarterback really looks like.
Of course, all the frowning on McNabb didn't stop any of the parties involved from also slamming Philadelphia fans, who are repeatedly singled out as the most obnoxious and unforgiving in the NFL. The sportscasters don't see any contradiction. McNabb is a spoiled whiner, and Eagles fans are nevertheless ungrateful louts who wouldn't know a good deal if it hit them in the face. It's kind of like being able to piss on your cake and throw it up, too.
The print press is equally quick to stomp on Philadelphia. My favorite of today's post-game reportage is Tom Monkovic of The New York Times, who transforms McNabb's ill-timed HBO interview into an indictment of both the team and the whole city. He builds on the foundation of this funny quote from The Onion to suggest that it's actually accurate reporting:
PHILADELPHIA — Frustrated with the Eagles’ last-second 16-13 loss to the Green Bay Packers last Sunday, and with quarterback Donovan McNabb’s failure to single-handedly score three touchdowns, prevent two of his teammates from muffing punts, or block any of Green Bay’s field goals, thousands of Philadelphia fans demanded that McNabb win an NFL championship for Philadelphia sometime within the next three weeks.
It's a great line. Thing is, Philadelphia fans would be the first to laugh and they'd laugh the hardest of anybody. Everybody else would somehow miss the joke because they're busy turning it into something else.
Consider the absurdities:
TV sportscasters were dissing Eagles fans for greeting McNabb with some boos among the cheers yesterday while they were broadcasting a Giants-Redskins game and a Bears-Cowboys game in which the home fans were booing their teams in the first and second quarters.
The fearless pundits and experts were criticizing McNabb for answering a direct question put to him a month ago, but they never mentioned the name of Michael Vick or the possible impacts his scandal might have had on black NFL players generally, let alone on black NFL quarterbacks. Not. One. Mention.
A New York Times reporter -- from New York, mind you -- had the nerve to look down on Philadelphia for being unfair to one if its star athletes???!!!
Phooey. None of these clowns understands anything about the City of Philadelphia and its relations with the Eagles and McNabb. They also don't understand much about McNabb, who is, despite any and all evidence to the contrary, beloved in Philadelphia. Why? Because he's such a perfect symbol of the city itself. I am so confident of this that I'll bet even McNabb's harshest critics would agree with me after reading this post.
Philadelphia is a complicated place. It's an incredibly long-running contradiction that feels deep pride in its history and a nagging inferiority complex (which it hates in itself) due to the proximity of New York and the superior self-promotional performance of Boston (and Virginia-cum-DC) in portraying themselves as the birthplace of the nation. If you did a nationwide survey, what percentage of Americans would correctly identify Philadelphia as the birthplace of the United States? 30 percent? 40 percent? 50 percent? It should be 100 percent. The poll results would never come close. It's a kind of Super Bowl they never get to win.
But in the truest sense of names, Philadelphia is the Eagles, and the Eagles are Philadelphia. At this deepest level, it's not even about winning and losing. It's a matter of being, pure and simple. The citizens, the fans, the team are truly one in this, with no sectarian divisions. The actuating principles are pride, the abiding need for respect, and family. But it's family in the broad, brawling, expansive sense, like an extended Italian family where there's bound to be lots of yelling and frightening outbursts and then hugs all around when the storm inevitably passes. The City of Philadelphia will never turn its back on this team, no matter what. The Eagles could go 0 and 16 for a decade, and the stands would still be full -- full of furious, booing, outraged cousins and aunts and grandfathers and sons and mothers demanding better.
I can already hear the fans of other cities bellowing in my ear about how their fidelity and their sense of identity with their teams are equally strong. I understand. But they're just wrong. The New England Patriots. Same thing. Not at all. I lived in Boston when they were the Boston Patriots and didn't even have a home. They played at Harvard Stadium, which was only full when a star like Namath was on hand. The Patriots have become a great football team, but they're just a football team. All the old AFL teams are johnny-come-latelys, and all the old NFL expansion teams, including the Dallas Cowboys, the same. Only a handful of the oldest NFL teams have any claim to stake in this regard, and in all but one case their claims are flawed.
The Cleveland Browns? They should be close, but the real Cleveland Browns are now playing in Baltimore under a fictitious coat of arms. The Dog-Pounders are cheering for a fraud. (It's also been said that Philadelphia has no respect for the Dog Pound because in Cleveland it's a section; in Philadelphia it's the whole stadium.) Baltimore may love the Browns-turned-Ravens, but the Colts of Johnny Unitas are playing in Indianapolis, who also love their Colts, the same way St. Louis loves their Rams, with the fierce denial of the jilted. Who's left? Detroit? Their loyalties are understandably more divided than Philadelphia's -- Tigers, Pistons, Red Wings -- not to mention a city that has itself devolved into exile neighborhoods, so that those who can afford tickets live in the suburban donut that grew up around the decaying cemetery of old Detroit. The Steelers? Another dead city repopulated by yuppies who cheer for a great football team which is exactly that and nothing more. The Redskins? The nation's most transient city. How many umpteenth generation fans at RFK every week? Count them on your fingers and toes.
Only two contenders, really. Chicago and New York. Of these, New York is easily disposed of. Sports in New York -- all sports in New York -- is more a function of media coverage than anything else. Too many words and images overwhelm fundamental truths. New Yorkers drive their teams away (Dodgers, baseball Giants), they can be manipulated into dividing their loyalties and creating brand new ones (Jets, Mets). They have more hunger for sensational stories about their teams than they have regard for the teams themselves (Yankees, football Giants). They are fundamentally inhospitable: the New York Giants play in New Jersey, and they are booed and derided even more than they think the Eagles are.
Which leaves only Da Bearz. I won't make a case against them. It's close. It really is. But here's my personal opinion. Philadelphia is older and more used to symbols that are alive in the heart. The Liberty Bell. Valley Forge. Independence Hall. William Penn's hat deterring for many generations the rise of skyscrapers. The past living on so concretely into the present. And so, I submit, also the Eagles.
How does Donovan McNabb fit into this picture as a symbol and adopted member of the family? He is the greatest black quarterback who has ever played in the NFL. You could look it up. He has demonstrated the ability to be a pure and deadly passer, to win championships, to overcome injuries and setbacks, to survive in the league as a superstar for a decade (or will, come next fall). He is therefore, like Philadelphia, a first, a milestone in his own right. And just like Philadelphia, he has always struggled to receive the respect that should be automatically due him. A first round draft choice, a good citizen with a lovely wife and parents and no personal scandals, a hardworking and usually charming but complex and sometimes contradictory figure, who is for these reasons just like the city he plays for. He has doubts, insecurities, and odd quirks, he frequently feels unloved and misunderstood, yet it is impossible to travel anywhere in the whole Delaware Valley without seeing the Number 5 McNabb jersey -- in green, white, black, pink, and now yellow and neon blue -- on toddlers, grandmas, dudes, chicks, accountants, and stevedores of every possible ethnic origin.
These are the same people who voted him the greatest Eagle quarterback in the team's 75-year history, a result announced Sunday at the same game he began to a smattering of boos mixed with a great many more cheers.
He has mixed feelings. The family understands that. The family also doesn't want him to mouth off to total strangers about it. We have enough problems getting any respect as it is. And I'm sure that's exactly how the McNabb family feel about any disagreements they have internally. But we'll get over it. Like all insecure people (and cities) Donovan thinks that if everyone doesn't love him all the time, maybe nobody loved him ever. Like the Italians of South Philly, he sounds off about such feelings when he has them. That doesn't mean he's going to quit being dutiful and hard-working and loyal himself. It just hurts, you know? Like when some shallow uppity city like New York trashes a whole other city because they happened to overhear a private argument.
Regardless of what the boos sound like, Donovan McNabb has as long as he needs in this city to play out his destiny. He's always had that. Philadelphians don't need to hear more than a few lines about his childhood experiences of racism to get it. Everybody else in Philadelphia has his own tale of woe to tell, and they'll scowl and carp at Donovan's right up to the moment when they see the next glimpse of that heart and that smile which they will never cease to recognize as their own.
All the other cities don't have this deep down, rough-hewn, well, love. The constant trashing of Philadelphia fans is actually a kind of envy. Unlike Terry Bradshaw, Donovan McNabb will not be alone when he is inducted into the Football Hall of Fame. In this city, once an Eagle, always an Eagle. Jaworski, Cunningham, Garcia, and so many others are family, regardless of what other uniforms they wore and regardless of how much they got booed. Period.
(Yes, there will be Philadelphians present even when T.O. goes into the Hall of Fame. You can see his jersey when you hit the road, too.)
In Philly, your own mother can boo you. She loves you enough to know you can do better. How else do you think those frozen, starving sons of the American Revolution stormed out of Valley Forge to beat the British at Trenton? They were so afraid they'd fail, humiliated and scorned, that they forced themselves to do the impossible.
Eagles 56. Lions 21. All the rest of you can go suck eggs.
But if anyone suggests wearing those retro uniforms again, there's going to be a fight. Yelling. Name-calling. Booing. The works.