THE PHILADELPHIA EAGLES WON THE SUPER BOWL!!!!!!!
Yeah, that’s a fun sentence to write. The Eagles had never won the Super Bowl, so this is pretty cool for life-long fans. They beat the New England Patriots, the current gold standard for football teams, and while it wasn’t the best New England team, it’s still New England, so beating them is still pretty sweet. I never cared much about the Patriots, but unless it’s my team, I get sick of dynasties, and since 2001, the Patriots have been as close to a lock to make the Super Bowl as any team in history, and I’m just sick of them. Their coach is great, sure, but I’m sick of his robotic press conferences and his hobo chic look. Tom Brady is a great quarterback, sure, but I’m sick of the slobbering over him by the media and the fact that he’s married to a rich person so his contract doesn’t break the Patriots and they can reload, which other teams can’t do (quarterback is the most expensive position in sports, and Brady is woefully underpaid by comparison to his peers, and it’s probably because he married a filthy rich supermodel). Rob Gronkowski is a Flintstones character come to life, and he’s just so punchable that I can barely watch him on television. So while I want the Patriots to lose pretty much all the time, it’s very nice that the Eagles were the team to do it, and it wasn’t a fluke – they were just the better team.
I wasn’t too worried about this game, even though I get nervous about every Eagles game (not to the point where I’m freaking out when they lose, just that my guts don’t feel great during the game and I can barely eat or drink), because I thought the Eagles were better in pretty much every aspect. The only places the Patriots had advantages were at quarterback and coaching, and even those weren’t as pronounced as people were making them out to be. Nick Foles is a back-up quarterback pressed into service when the Eagles’ starter and star, Carson Wentz, tore his ACL and LCL in December, but Foles has played really well in the past and, while he’s not terribly mobile and therefore can’t escape the rush as well as Wentz can, the Philadelphia offensive line is so good I wasn’t too worried about Foles getting hit, and in the Super Bowl, he wasn’t sacked and was barely hurried, so he had a great game, as he can. So while everyone was talking about Brady (and Brady had a monster game), I didn’t think the disparity between quarterbacks was so great that it would make a huge difference. I did think the Philadelpihia defensive line would get to Brady more often, and they didn’t, but they made a play at the end, sacking Brady and stripping the ball for the Patriots’ only turnover, so they did just enough. Meanwhile, Bill Belichick is regarded as one of the greatest coaches ever, so of course everyone was giving him the edge, but Doug Pederson of the Eagles is pretty great, too, it’s just that he didn’t have the pedigree of Belichick. If you’ve watched the Eagles over the past two years, you know that Pederson is a great play-caller, bold and aggressive, going for the jugular when too many NFL coaches play to hold on and end up losing. Yes, I thought Belichick was probably better, but I did not think the gap was as wide as everyone thought. After all, in 2001, everyone said Mike Martz of the Rams was a genius and the coach going up against him was an unknown quantity, and that coach – Bill Belichick – completely outcoached Martz and won his first Super Bowl. So why couldn’t Pederson outcoach Belichick?
Well, he did, and it was a huge factor in Philadelphia’s win. The Eagles punted only once (New England didn’t punt at all, one of the many staggering offensive statistics from this game) and New England intercepted a pass (which wasn’t Foles’s fault), but the Eagles scored on 8 of 10 possessions. The New England defense was even more non-existent than Philadelphia’s, and Pederson took advantage. The Eagles marched right down the field to start the game, and only a false start on their tight end, Zach Ertz, stopped them from scoring a touchdown (one of the few penalties called in the game; it was very clean). The Patriots responded with a field goal of their own, but then the Eagles took it down the field again, with Nick Foles throwing a beautiful pass to Alshon Jeffery for the game’s first touchdown. The Eagles scored again on a run by LaGarette Blount (who, along with Chris Long, won their second consecutive Super Bowl this year after playing for the Patriots last year) and went up 15-3. Their kicker missed the first point-after attempt (which he does occasionally, weirdly, because he’s good at long field goals) and then they went for two points after the second touchdown to try to make up for it. I would have kicked it after the second touchdown, but whatever.
New England got a field goal and then a touchdown after their interception, which came when Alshon Jeffery bobbled a ball and flipped back into the air deep in Patriots’ territory. If he holds on, the Eagles probably score a touchdown to go up 22-6. Instead, Brady went right down the field and the Patriots scored … and then their kicker missed the extra point. He had already missed a field goal (which wasn’t his fault; the snap was bad), but it was still four points left on the field for New England. Everyone’s been talking about that, but they don’t mention the missed extra point for the Eagles or the two failed two-point conversions. In a perfect world, the Eagles would have scored 44 points and the Patriots would have scored 37, if we count the missed field goal. So those points that didn’t get scored weren’t as important as everyone seems to think.
The Eagles got the ball back with two minutes left in the half and went right down the field. With 30 seconds left, they had fourth down at the New England 1-yard line. They were leading 15-12, and a field goal would put them ahead 18-12, but as everyone knows, you don’t dance with the champion, you have to knock him out! So they went for it, and I’m not sure if it’s really hyperbole to call this the greatest play call in NFL history:
— BGN Radio (@BGN_Radio) February 5, 2018
I’ll allow it.
It turns out that Foles wanted to call the play, and it’s a measure of how much Pederson respects his players that he let him run it and how much the players respect Pederson that they know they can come to him with their own play calls:
— Inside the NFL (@insidetheNFL) February 6, 2018
The fun thing is, not too much earlier in the game, with the score 9-3, the Patriots had the ball at the Philadelphia 9-yard line, and the Eagles stopped them on third down. Instead of going for it on 4th-and-1 (which almost everyone who studies the game says is a no-brainer to go for, because the percentages of making it are so high), Belichick decided to kick a field goal … which the kicker missed thanks to the poor snap. So the Patriots got nothing, while on the other end of the field, the Eagles got a touchdown, a big momentum boost, and a bit of a cushion. Which they needed, because Brady was even better in the second half, taking New England right down the field (thanks to Brady finally figuring out that he should throw it to Gronkowski – I loathe Gronkowski, but the dude is an excellent football player) to score a touchdown. The Eagles, as they would do all day, responded with a touchdown of their own to go back up by 10 points. After New England scored another touchdown, the Eagles, unfortunately, could only add a field goal to go up 32-26. That, I thought, might come back to haunt them, especially when the Patriots scored again to take a one-point lead.
I wasn’t terribly worried, however, because there were 9 minutes left and the Eagles hadn’t been stopped, really, all day (New England, as I noted, didn’t punt, while the Eagles punted once). They went on an epic, 7-minute drive that included yet another conversion on 4th down, which Pederson decided to do both because it was short (only 1 yard to go) and because his defense hadn’t stopped anyone. There were 5½ minutes left, but if Tom Brady gets the ball back then, who knows if the Eagles ever get it back or if they get it back trailing 40-32 instead of 33-32. So the Eagles went for it, and three minutes later they scored the game-winning touchdown:
It wasn’t over yet, because the Patriots had over 2 minutes, one of the best quarterbacks ever, and essentially two time-outs (they had one, but the two-minute warning functions as another). They ran one play, and then on second down, Brandon Graham got past his blocker, hit Brady, forced the ball loose, and the Eagles recovered. The defense had FINALLY made a huge play. The Eagles kicked a field goal, Brady’s Hail Mary pass failed, and Philadelphia won the Super Bowl. HOLY SHIT!!!!!!
After the Eagles won the NFC Championship Game to advance to the Super Bowl, someone on the Atomic Junk Shop Slack called football “opaque.” I didn’t comment then, but I will now, because I don’t disagree, necessarily. I would say that almost every team sport is inscrutable if you didn’t grow up with it – I’ve actually been thinking about this since I read that, and I only came up with soccer as relatively easy to explain, as it’s basically “Don’t hit the ball with your hands, and put it in that net.” Sure, there are plenty of nuances, but that’s about all you need to explain to a layperson about soccer. Other team sports are tough to figure out if you come at them cold. Several years ago, we went to a baseball game with an English friend of mine, and at the end of the top of the first, she asked my wife why all the fielders were running away. In cricket, they don’t leave the field for a long, loooooong time, and I assume she was thinking of that. So when Americans say that football is hard to understand, I certainly get it. It’s not for me, though, because I’ve been a football fan all my life.
It’s both easy and hard to describe sports fandom to someone who isn’t one, and both easy and hard to explain Philadelphia sports fandom to someone who isn’t. People are fans of all sorts of things, which is why it’s easy to explain, but sports – especially the organized sports of a city or region – are harder to get into. People don’t understand why fans would endure years of suffering or why they wouldn’t just root for a team that’s, you know, good. Accidents of birth explain the vast majority of sports fandom – you just happen to be born within the geographic footprint of a certain franchise, and that’s the way it is. I was born in the northern suburbs of Philadelphia, so I grew up a fan of Philadelphia sports teams. It’s ridiculous, but so are a lot of things in life. Explaining that to someone who’s not a sports fan is difficult, because it is so ridiculous, yet fans take it very, very seriously. As for Philadelphia sports fans … well, they have a reputation. Sure, it’s deserved, but every fan base has bad apples, and no one brings up the fact that Dodgers fans almost killed a Giants fan a few years ago or that Browns fans threw bottles at referees a few years ago. The instant the Eagles are any good, everyone brings up the Santa Claus incident1 or the Michael Irvin incident,2 and it’s annoying. But it’s part of the nature of Philadelphia fandom, which is even harder to explain. Despite being a beautiful, large city with both the importance of being a historical touchstone in America and a fairly strong economic player (these days), the city’s inhabitants suffer from a massive inferiority complex. The city was once the capital of the country before having that wrested away. It saw its economic dominance stolen by New York, and even its historical importance taken by Boston, to a certain degree. Its baseball team, the Phillies, were (and are still) the losingest team in baseball history, and it took them 97 years to win their first World Series, but no obnoxious cult of “lovable losers” attached itself to the team like it did the Cubs, and not many celebrities showed up to serenade terrible Phillies teams over the years like they did in Chicago. There wasn’t even a mystical “curse of Babe Ruth” to explain why the team sucked for so many years, like there was with the Boston Red Sox. Philadelphia loves its sports, but they love the Eagles the most. And the fact that the Eagles had never won a Super Bowl even though the Phillies have won two World Series (in 1980 and 2008), the Flyers have won two Stanley Cups (in 1974 and 1975), and the 76ers have won two NBA Championships (in 1967 and 1983) gnawed at the guts of Philadelphia fans.
1 In case you don’t know, in 1968 the Eagles pelted Santa Claus with snowballs. They were a bit inebriated, true, but the team was terrible in 1968, but had inexplicably won its previous two games, moving them out of the #1 draft position so they couldn’t take O.J. Simpson, who was a pretty damned good football player before he decided to start killing people. Plus, the Santa was a replacement, and while he says he did a good job, how well could he really have done with no practice? The field was a mess, too, so he walked on the field rather than riding a sleigh. It was just the perfect storm for Eagles fans, but let’s be honest – it happened 50 years ago! Time to let it go.
2 In 1999, Michael Irvin sustained a career-ending injury in Philadelphia, and the fans cheered. Now, I’ve heard different stories about this, including one from someone who was at the game. According to him, they were jeering and screaming at Deion Sanders, who, while Irvin was lying on the ground, was dancing around on the sideline, taunting the fans, and they were responding to that. I’ve never seen any confirmation of that, but it’s worth noting that Irvin thinks it’s complimentary that they were cheering, because they were so relieved that he wouldn’t be killing the Eagles anymore. Michael Irvin used to torch the Eagles, so that’s possible.
The Eagles were established in 1933 after the city’s original team, the Frankford Yellow Jackets,3 went bankrupt. The team struggled for years until 1948 and 1949, when they won consecutive NFL Championships behind one of the greatest running backs in NFL history, Steve van Buren, who set a record in 1949 of 196 rushing yards in a postseason game that stood for decades. In 1950, they were the Goliath in one of the most underrated upsets in NFL history, as the upstart Cleveland Browns, who had dominated the short-lived All-American Football Conference and were scheduled against the two-time defending NFL champs in the opening game, destroyed the Eagles, 35-10, announcing that the Browns were a force to be reckoned with (yes, the Browns, who played in six consecutive NFL Championship Games in 1950-1955, winning three of them). The Eagles floundered in the 1950s, but in 1960 they were back in the Championship Game, and they defeated Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers – the only loss Lombardi ever suffered in the postseason – 17-13 to win their last (until now) NFL Championship. That Eagles teams was a great one, embodied by Chuck Bednarik,4 the last player in NFL history to play significantly on offense and defense, tackling Jim Taylor on the final play of the game and sitting on him as time ran out. Then the Eagles went into another state of hibernation for two decades.
3 Frankford is a neighborhood in northeast Philadelphia that was first settled in 1682. It’s a measure of how disorganized and provincial professional football was in the 1920s (yes, even more provincial than today) that a neighborhood in Philadelphia could have its own team.
4 Bednarik died in 2015 at the age of 89, but even at the end of his life, he still looked like he could kick your ass.
I was born in 1971 but I lived for a few years in Germany in the middle 1970s, so I didn’t get a taste of Philadelphia fandom until 1980 (I’m not sure what I was doing in 1979, when we moved back to the suburbs of Philly). 1980 was a good year – the Phillies finally won a World Series and the Eagles went to the Super Bowl. The 1980 playoffs were fun, too, especially the NFC Championship Game, in which the Eagles ran roughshod over the hated Dallas Cowboys, 20-7, and their star running back, Wilbert Montgomery, ran for 194 yards … second to van Buren in postseason history for several years. They were favored against the Oakland Raiders in the Super Bowl, but their quarterback, Ron Jaworski, was intercepted three times, and they went down to defeat. But I was hooked!
Football resonates with so many people in the country and with Philadelphia fans, I think, because it’s so simple and primal. In any other sport, you need more equipment and, I would argue, more skill. With football, if you can find a football, you can play. In baseball you need bats and gloves, in basketball you need a net, in hockey you need sticks and a net. All of those take a certain particular skill, too. If you can throw a little and catch a little, if you like hitting other people and don’t mind getting hit, you can play football. I used to go down to Kemper Park all the time with a bunch of friends to play football, and while I don’t mind playing the other sports, I still love football. We would throw the ball around for hours, counting to 7-Mississippi before we could rush the quarterback, hitting each other as hard as we could before walking home, exhausted, probably limping, and covered with mud (hey, moms do the laundry, right, so what the hell did we care?). For Philadelphia fans, it’s a way to express their inferiority complex without really acknowledging it – the Eagles are usually perpetual losers (they’ve had periods of success, and in the 21st century, they’re actually one of the more successful franchises, but they’d never won the Super Bowl), but the fans come out to cheer them on. If the people feel like losers compared to New Yorkers and Bostonians and Chicagoans and Pittsburghers (Super Bowls won by the Steelers: 6), and the Eagles are losers, then they’re made for each other, and much like a family, we can insult them all we want, but woe betide any outsider who does so. A lot of cities feel this way, of course, but Philadelphia is a unique case. As I noted, the city gets lost in the shuffle a lot, and the people notice. Its most famous movies are about a boxing slob and a crazy dude who takes dance lessons. The most famous quote about it is an insult (although W.C. Fields never insulted Philadelphia, either in his epitaph or during his life in general, but most people believe he did). The Great Northeast Exodus hit it hard, and the city has always had corrupt politicians and racists in power, and it’s weirdly not as famous as I thought it would be for a city on which its own mayor once dropped bombs. The city has experienced a renaissance like many cities over the past few decades, but the bad decades – the late 1960s, the 1970s, and into the 1980s – coincided with the Eagles being terrible (except for those few years around 1980), and it felt like just one more nail in the coffin. Philadelphians internalized this all, and they take it out in their sports fandom. It makes them coarse, rude, occasionally violent, but also fiercely protective of the team and ready to ride or die with them. It’s counter-intuitive and even silly, but that’s what tribalism is, and sports fandom, especially in places that have experienced plenty of bad times or just don’t enjoy good weather all year, is ritualistically and totemically tribal. Buffalo fans, Cleveland fans – they know what I’m talking about.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter that the Eagles won the Super Bowl. Of course it doesn’t. But sports are still an important part of the community, and bonding over sports is powerful and enjoyable. Millions of fans care about their football teams, and for a long-suffering fan base like Philadelphia’s, the victory can, for a little while, make up for so much else they have to endure in their lives. They can share in their society and, for a little while, it doesn’t matter who you voted for or how much money you make or where you went to college or where you live or whether you have a job or run a business or are unemployed. You can join together in a brief paroxysm of joy, because you’ve invested so much of your time and your hope in a team. Sports are nothing and everything, and that’s why so many people love them. It’s one of the last things you can’t predict – as much as I enjoy television and movies and enjoy the thrills that come with them, I can predict what happens almost all the time – and therefore it’s like life, but with fewer stakes and more emotional turmoil.
Now they just have to do it again. No pressure!