Slammin’ Sammy, or: It’s Cold on the Mark Side of Philadelphia
It was a mistake few people noticed, but it typified the Eagles’ fate, and their season, on a blustery fall afternoon that began with warm smiles and ended with cold stares.
And really, it came it on a pretty harmless play. It happened midway through the third quarter at Lincoln Financial Field on Sunday afternoon, with the Birds leading the Miami Dolphins 16-13. Miami faced first-and-10 from its 21-yard line, on the far side of the field from where I sat. QB Ryan Tannehill, not known for having talent on the deep pass, nonetheless threw long down the left side, in the direction of wide receiver Kenny Stills. The pass fell out of reach.
The Eagles’ public address announcer called out the play over the booming speaker system at the Linc. “Ryan Tannehill’s pass to Kenny Stills is incomplete. The play was defended by Nolan Cromwell.”
I couldn’t believe what I had heard. Nolan Cromwell?!
There is no Nolan Cromwell on the Eagles. I thought maybe I had misheard, so I asked aloud: “Did he just say Nolan Cromwell??”
A fan in the seat in front of me — coincidentally, the only person in the section who I’ve seen at every Philadelphia home game this year — half-turned and replied, with a derisive nod, “Yeah.”
The player the announcer was referring to, of course, was Nolan Carroll, not Cromwell. (A former Terp and coincidentally a former Dolphin, Carroll uses the suffix “II,” which makes his name sound an awful lot like the tycoon who went on that three-hour tour.)
That’s the type of afternoon it was for the Iggles and their fans. The starting quarterback left the game — and will probably miss the next two — after he injured his left shoulder and got a concussion. The backup quarterback threw a fourth-quarter interception in the end zone and saw several plays short-circuited by miscommunications. The No. 2 running back also suffered a concussion and was forced to end his afternoon early. The second-tier kicker missed a field goal that was shorter than an extra point.
And, amid it all, the PA announcer misidentified a player on the home team. And not some third- or fourth-stringer; that would be a somewhat understandable gaffe. No, this was Nolan Carroll, one of the two starting cornerbacks.
This was a moment that makes you say “Huh?” in a season that makes you say the same thing. When I tried to find out the identity of the man behind the mic, I had no luck. I asked my friend Jim, a sports trivia savant who’s followed the Eagles a decade longer than I have; he didn’t know either — and couldn’t find the name in the team’s media guide.
What is clear is that before the 2014 season, the Eagles announced they were dismissing Dan Baker from the PA announcer job, a post he had held for 29 years. (He’s been the voice of the Phillies since 1972, their second season at the old Veterans Stadium.)
It pains me to say this, but the Mysterious Voice of the Linc and the PA announcer at AT&T Stadium outside Dallas (where I saw the Eagles scrape past the lowly Cowboys in overtime last week) sound a lot alike. They even exclaim “third down!” with same ominous intonation. I’m sure this is just a coincidence. I’m sure.
The Birds begin the afternoon with a 73 percent chance of beating the Dolphins, according to Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight.com, so I am justifiably feeling pretty good about things. The outlook helps make up for the fact that I got only about five hours of sleep because of unexplained insomnia.
It gets even better when Justin and I meet up with some of his friends in Lot G and score some pepper jack cheese and ring bologna. (I decline the Middleswarth potato chips — I know they’re a Central Pennsylvania original, but I always thought they tasted way too much like shortening and not very much like potato.)
I also get a glimpse in the parking lot, for the first time ever at a pro game, of a personal portable toilet. Which brought up the question: If you bring one of these travel toilets to a tailgate, how do you dispose of the end product (so to speak)? I guess it’ll remain a mystery for now …
After getting more than a few handfuls of cheese and bologna, we make our way to the seats with about five minutes to spare before kickoff. It’s the NFL’s “Salute to Service” day for military appreciation, so a giant U.S. flag is unfurled on field for the national anthem, and a moment of silence is held for the terrorist attacks in Paris two nights earlier.
That’s when I first notice a man sitting in the row behind me. I hadn’t heard him before (but I would end up hearing more than enough of him on this afternoon). As the final notes of the anthem sounded, he remarked, “Play that as we’re bombing their asses.” I don’t know who the “their” is, but I don’t think this guy was watching the presidential debate the previous night.
Then again, I don’t watch presidential debates, an event whose format was made obsolete by the arrival of the World Wide Web. But that’s a topic for another day.
It doesn’t take long for me to notice that even though I’m wearing three layers, I’m underdressed. The forecast called for highs in the 60s, and I figured the sun would keep things warm for a 1 p.m. kickoff. What I didn’t anticipate was that behind the west end zone at the Linc, the seats are in the shade in mid-November, even for an early start.
When your team is winning, everything feels better, and the Eagles take the lead almost halfway through the opening quarter on a pass from Sam Bradford to Josh Huff. It is recorded as only 2 yards, but it had a degree-of-difficulty score of 10 out of 10, with Bradford rolling far out to his right and throwing, just before he goes out of bounds at the 15, a pass across his body to a falling Josh Huff in the back of the end zone. It is the kind of play that has generally gone awry for the Eagles this season and resulted in interceptions. But this time it works. Maybe this is the afternoon their season finally turns the corner.
The cheers intensify on the ensuing kickoff when Miami returner Damien Williams can’t make his mind about whether to take a knee in the end zone or try his luck. He ends up half-sliding to a stop at the 1-yard line. On the next play, a blitzing Walter Thurmond hits Tannehill like a tackling dummy, crumpling his body for a safety.
Ryan Mathews plunges into the end zone just shy of four minutes later, and the Iggles are cruising. This looks like a blowout in the making for the Birds and — assuming a Giants loss to the Patriots later in the afternoon — sole possession of first place for the first time all season.
I notice the couple sitting to the right of me has been sitting silent and motionless the whole time. “I think they’re Dolphins fans,” Justin says in a low voice. He heads out to get something to drink.
I ask the woman sitting next to me whether she and her companion are Miami fans, because I’ve noticed they’ve been so quiet. “She is; I’m not,” the man says. “I don’t wanna ruffle any feathers,” she adds.
I say I was in Dallas last weekend, so I know what it’s like to be in enemy territory. Turns out this guy also was there.
Bradford finds Celek over the middle, and it looks for a moment as though he might take it to the end zone. But he’s a tight end with a lot of wear on his tires, so he’s tackled at the 12 after a gain of 40 yards. The Iggles look poised to go up by 20 points, a lead that would feel safe to even the most green-bleeding paranoiac.
But the next three plays bring a net loss of 2 yards, and Caleb Sturgis lines up a kick from 32. Under the new rules, that’s a yard closer than an extra point. The ball starts out true, then veers crazily off to the right like a duffer’s tee shot on the first hole.
“He sucks,” I say. I turn to the woman next to me. “But he used to be a Dolphin, so I guess you know that.”
“He’s your problem now,” she retorts.
What a comeback.
And then her team begins an impressive comeback of its own with a field goal.
An older man walks by wearing mesh shorts. Meanwhile Justin and I are lamenting the fact we didn’t bring hand warmers. We’re both shivering, and it’s only midway through the second quarter. I pull the hood up on my sweatshirt. On next play, Miami gets a jailbreak and blocks the Eagles’ punt to set up possession at their 12. Two plays later they’re in the end zone and it’s 16-13.
The Iggles get the ball with 27 seconds left in the first half at their own 19-yard line. Seems obvious to take a knee, especially given that the Eagles will get the ball to open the second half. But Chip Kelly is too smart for that. He sends in a pass play, and Bradford is pummeled and intercepted. But wait — roughing the passer is called.
Kelly can’t seem to figure out what to do in the final possession of a half. Last week at Dallas, the Birds had the ball at their 34 with 1:12 on the clock, and Kelly inexplicably dialed back his hurry-up offense and let the clock run down to four seconds. The last play of that first half was a punt, which you rarely see. Even the Cowboys radio announcers said they didn’t know what Kelly was thinking.
This week, with the Eagles in much worse field position and with much less time on the clock, Kelly puts Bradford in a position where he takes a hit. Only a bad penalty cleans up Kelly’s mess.
During halftime, I get back from the bathroom just in time to see Dave Spadaro close his halftime update with “Let’s go, Eagles!” This is the partisan world of watching pro sports live in 2015. I remember, sometime in my childhood, seeing Spadaro on TV and thinking he was a legitimate journalist. But as with Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, it was a notion that I grew out of pretty quickly.
Moments after Bradford is knocked out the game and replaced by Mark Sanchez, there is a break in the action. A military montage comes on the video board, accompanied by the Foo Fighters’ “My Hero.”
That irritating voice behind me pipes up: “They better not show Bradford while playing this song.”
Miami forces a punt and moves 87 yards in seven plays, scoring a touchdown on a pass deflected high into the air just shy of the goal line. For the Eagles secondary, it’s a pathetic follow-up to the debacle that was the Matt Cassel-to-Dez Bryant Hail Mary touchdown a week earlier.
Without Bradford and Mathews, the Iggles use a lot of short runs and passes to get into field goal range, and Sturgis cuts the deficit to one with 10:23 left. It’s chilly and it looks like some fans are leaving.
The Eagles take over at the 50 after a punt with 6-and-a-half minutes left. The thought creeps into my mind: I’ve seen this too many times before; the Birds aren’t going to win. But Sanchez completes three straight passes to get them inside the Miami 10. A run by DeMarco Murray on first down loses a yard. Lined up in the shotgun on second down, Sanchez fakes a handoff to Murray. He throws toward Miles Austin in the end zone, which is a questionable decision for many reasons. One, Austin hasn’t caught a pass all day, has been targeted only twice in the game and has 12 catches all season. Two, Austin is double covered; there are four Dolphins defenders within 5 yards. Three, it’s Miles Austin. Four, he’s Mark Sanchez.
The throw comes in high and wide, and safety Reshad Jones locks on to it. Jones makes a wrong decision to bring it out of the end zone and run out of bounds at the 4-yard line, but the Dolphins get a couple of first downs and the error becomes inconsequential.
It’s a good thing I had that ring bologna and cheese before the game, because what I’ve seen on the field has killed my appetite. After a win, I want to feast. After a loss, especially one like this, I just slink back to the car and go home.
A couple of days after the game, the Eagles announce that Bradford has a separated shoulder and a concussion, and will miss at least the next two games, which occur in a five-day span.
The Iggles are 4-5, a half-game out of the division lead with seven games left. It looks a lot like last year, when the onetime “Sanchize” took over after Nick Foles broke his collarbone in the eighth game of the season. Those Iggles were 6-2 and alone in first place after a win in Houston, yet with Sanchize they stumbled to the finish and missed the playoffs. These Iggles have two fewer wins, and the division is much more competitive than in 2014.
But one thing is for sure: Sunday’s game against Tampa Bay at the Linc will be sold out. It would be so even if Thad Lewis (he’s the third-string QB) were starting. The Phillies are the worst team in MLB, the Sixers are 0-12 and the Flyers appear to be headed toward some late April tee times for the second year in a row.
The Iggles are the only show in town.
The forecast high is in the 40s for Sunday, but this time I’ll be wearing another layer, as well as a hat and gloves I picked up in New Zealand.
And knowing who’s at quarterback, I’ll bring a blindfold, too.