Ugly Night Football, or: Close Encounters of the Bird Kind

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This is kinda what “Monday Night Football” is like.

Once I found out I was fortunate enough to go to Eagles home games this season, a main goal was to learn something about the experience of being a fan. More specifically, to learn something about the 25 or so years I’ve spent on football — an experience until last month had never included attending a pro football game in Philadelphia.

We’re three games into the schedule now, and coincidentally each one has been at a different time. In Week 2 it was a 4:25 game against Dallas, followed in Week 5 by a 1 p.m. game versus New Orleans. And now this week we went prime time, against the division rival Giants. The forecast called for lows in the mid-40s.

One of the things about the NFL that you can’t appreciate as a TV spectator, but that becomes fully apparently going to games in person, is how much of a force it is in people’s lives. For example, my friend Justin and I pulled onto Packer Avenue, just north of the stadium complex, around 5:30 p.m. Monday — a full three hours before game time. That has to be the earliest I’ve ever shown up for anything sports-related in my life. And really, how many things would a reasonable person be willing to show up three hours early for?

Part of reason for the early arrival was that we didn’t want to get tangled in rush-hour traffic in the stretch of I-95 from the Delaware-Maryland line to Philly. Part of it also was that getting caught in gridlock for an hour-plus before the Dallas game caused us to miss the first couple of drives, and hell if we were going to let that happen again.

But as early as we were, we were far from the first to arrive in town for the game. We walked into Chickie’s and Pete’s for a bite to eat, and the two main bars were packed. The people wearing Eagles jerseys outnumbered those who were not.

Looking around Chickie’s and Pete’s, there seems to be a TV every few feet. Cliched songs like Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” blare through the speakers as the servers carry glasses of beer and plates of the restaurant’s famed crab fries. It is at the nexus of consumerism and escapism, which makes it a perfect match for the NFL.

We clean our plates and board the restaurant’s “Taxi Crab” shuttle — the only difference being this time we parked for free nearby instead of paying $25 for a space at the restaurant. Traffic on Broad Street is beginning to back up. Five minutes later we exit at Broad and Pattison and walk toward the glowing stadium. It reminds me of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” where thousands of people are converging on the spaceship at Devil’s Tower.

The scene at Chickie’s and Pete’s was just a warm-up for the ritual of consumerism at the stadium. On the way into the stadium we pass by several team store kiosks, and they are all crowded.

Buy. Buy Buy. Everything from $200 sweatshirts to $1 name placards for kids.

We walk around for a bit and talk to some friends before heading to our seats in Section 211. It’s 8:15 and it’s getting cold.

*********

The Eagles dance team is taking up the entire middle of field for a performance while the G-Men kickers boot footballs over their heads. This is a lawsuit waiting to happen. How does the NFL allow this to happen? All it takes is one dancer getting thwacked in the head with one of those cold footballs.

During the national anthem, an eagle spirals down from the upper deck to the arm of a handler on the playing field. One of the Giants writers jokes that the the bird is responsible for the pregame disappearance of a raccoon spotted on the field.

If you're around an animal long enough, you start to look like it.

If you’re around an animal long enough, you start to look like it.

The Eagles win the coin toss and defer. Maybe Chip has been watching Bill Belichick and taking notes.

The Giants take the ball 80 yards to the end zone and need just nine plays to do it. The grumbling begins.

Then the Eagles go three-and-out, with two wild throws by Sam Bradford following a 3-yard run.

“Get your head outta her ass!”

“Let’s go for it!”

But the Eagles punt, and moments later Manning has them at the Philly 23. I begin to send ominous texts to my friend Brandon.

But as I am typing a message complaining about pass coverage, on first down LB DeMeco Ryans wrestles the ball away from tight end Larry Donnell. The play startles me and the rest of crowd out of our brain freeze.

It’s the start of a decisive sequence. Incompletions on the next two plays put the Birds in 3rd-and-10, and Bradford waves the white flag with a soft pass to Darren Sproles for 3 yards. But wait, a flag — the video board shows Damontre Moore picking up Bradford and body-slamming him. One of the more obvious roughing-the-QB calls you’ll ever see.

That, of all things, gets the offense moving. Four plays later Riley Cooper streaks open on a corner route, and Bradford heaves a pass toward him …

One of the perks of watching a game in person is that you can see everything unfold in front of you. Whereas TV focuses on where the ball is, in person you’re able to see what’s going on everywhere. But it’s not like watching a game on TV at all; it takes a special kind of focus — the ability to kind of zoom out and look at everything in a peripheral kind of sense.

… And that’s how the entire building saw Cooper open before even Bradford did. Even though the QB’s pass was a yard or two short of hitting the wideout in stride, he catches it between the arms of two New York defenders, bobbles it against his chest and falls into the black turf of the end zone. A roar washes over the stadium like a cold wave. I don’t think the fans are cheering the touchdown as much as they’re cheering the fact that Bradford threw a pass that wasn’t picked.

The Geeee-Men have the ball on the far side of the field, deep in their own territory. Here’s a long, floating out pass by Manning to the far sideline — AND IT’S INTERCEPTED! We can’t tell who it is but it doesn’t matter because a player in black is prancing into the end zone and spiking the ball and oh my god a touchdown and the offense didn’t have to do ANYTHING and Sam Bradford couldn’t throw it to the other team!

One of the only two Giants fans I can see in our section has his head buried in his hands. I look over a minute later, after the PAT, and he hasn’t moved.

*******

Four plays after the pick-6 (which was by Nolan Carroll III) Rashad Jennings fumbles and Ryans comes out of the pile with the ball.

The Eagles move past midfield. Bradford takes the first-down snap, gives a ho-hum play-action fake and lofts a ball — right to a New York cornerback. Horrible, horrible overthrow. Missed Riley Cooper by several yards.

The teams trade five punts after that. The officials pick up another flag against the Giants. I’ve seen a half-dozen flags picked up this season — and that’s just in the three games I’ve been to. You never used to see flags picked up, but now it’s an every-game thing. Each time a yellow hankie comes out and officials get together for an extended conference, I get the feeling it will be stricken from the record. Which leaves us all wondering about NFL officials: Why throw the flag in the first place if you were that unsure of its legitimacy?     

Caleb Sturgis puts a 36-yard field goal down the middle in the final seconds of the first half. My levels of confidence in Sturgis and Bradford are comparable to Lincoln Chaffee’s poll numbers.

******

Where have you gone, Brian Westbrook? Oh, you're right there.

Where have you gone, Brian Westbrook? Oh, you’re right there.

Halftime begins, and hundreds of people are trooped onto the field as Maxie Baughan and Brian Westbrook are announced as the newest members of the Eagles Hall of Fame. Baughan — it appears Maxie was his given name and not a nickname — gets the equivalent of a golf clap; I don’t think anyone in the stadium knows who he is. Westbrook receives a legitimate roar. I’m probably the only person here who thinks that’s ironic, since Baughan is the one who won a league championship, not Westbrook. Not that it was his fault. We all know it was Donovan McNabb’s fault.

Part of the ceremony is the on-field unfurling of gigantic photo banners of Baughan and Westbrook. There’s also a gigantic Eagles logo banner — an odd choice considering the same logo is already painted onto the field.

The whole ceremony is over in less than 10 minutes.

How many Eagle heads can you spot?

How many Eagle heads can you spot?

An announcement on the video board honors a man named Jim Dolan who, were are informed, has been an season-ticket holder since the 1950s, when the team played at Shibe Park. The last year the Eagles played at Shibe Park (officially Connie Mack Stadium in its later years) was 1957, which would mean this Mr. Dolan has been a ticket holder for almost 60 years. It’s amazing that someone could be an Iggles fan and live that long.

Justin: “Next year they’re going to honor me as a season-ticket holder for … eight games.”

The Eagles get another gigantic break when Nikita Whitlock, the only player named Nikita in NFL history, runs into the punter. The Giants would’ve had the ball at their own 26, but instead the Birds get a first down. The five or so biggest plays of the night have all been Giants mistakes.  Moments later the Iggles are down on our end of the field, and DeMarco Murray stiff-arms a defender on his way to the end zone.

The defense gives Bradford great field position at the Philly 43. On the first play, the QB throws what looks like a deep jump ball in the direction of Cooper — but way over Cooper’s head. Brandon Meriweather easily snags it.

I make a run for the bathroom before the wait gets insane. One of the greatest things about the Linc, in addition to the fact that there are TV’s everywhere in the concourses, is that the WIP radio feed plays on speakers in the bathrooms. I’ve never seen anything like that; MLB could take a lesson. As we all wait in line, the people around me are clapping on the walls and yelling as the Birds force a punt. There’s something nostalgic about hearing Merrill and Mike through muffled speakers. It sounds like childhood.

As Bradford jogs back onto the field, Merrill Reese observes: “This has not been offense by the book.” Merrill is a master at understatement.

******

Bradford directs the offense to the Giants 23 … but throws another interception in the end zone, his third in the past two games. No harm, though. There’s not much more to see here, and the crowd knows it, so most are heading out after a field goal bumps the lead to 27-7 with 8 ½ minutes left.

Along with the audio in the bathroom, another one of the major differences between watching a game at the Linc and, say, an MLB stadium is that the ushers are more like traffic cops. Once the game has begun, one of their jobs is to prevent fans from going to their seats during game action — which would be distracting. So they stand guard with big stop signs in their hand. And unlike MLB ushers, who typically leave the posts in the sixth or seventh inning, these employees stay till the end of the game.

“You gotta smile, man — we won!” the usher says as a chunk of Section 211 gets up to leave with the clock under four minutes.

There’s no sticking around to savor the win tonight. It’s too cold, and the walk back to the car is more than a mile. But did I mention the parking was free??

Two weeks ago, the Eagles had just lost to the Redskins and were one more defeat away from being a lost cause. Now they’re 3-3 and tied for first place. Their defense is dominating. And barring a tie, either the Giants or Cowboys will lose this Sunday.

NFL team, like casinos, depends on their patrons having, at minimum, a shred of optimism that it could be their lucky day. And the Eagles have done that.

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