by Mike Tanier
This Walkthrough is being written with Albert Pujols on second base and a Mister Softee truck outside, which I hope will explain any incoherence, distractedness, or insanity.
Pujols is now out, having grounded to Ryan Howard 3-1. The ice cream truck is also gone, but its appearance in the first place was mysterious. It is October. It is maybe 60 degrees. This is not ice cream truck weather. I can still hear the song around the corner. The Mister Softee theme in October is like "I’ll Be Home for Christmas" on April 15th.
Distraction. Confusion. Incoherence. Lack of sleep. You start noticing the craziest things.
I was flipping between the Monday Night Football game and the Rangers-Rays baseball game the other night. The football game was boring. The baseball game was a baseball game. For some reason, I felt compelled to read the little blue capsule that appears when you press the “info” button on a digital cable remote control. Here is what it said about the Buccaneers-Colts game:
“The Colts’ 11-3 MNF record with now-injured quarterback Peyton Manning includes an epic 2003 OT win here in which they rallied for 3 TDs in the last four minutes. Dwight Freeney and Bucs rookie Adrian Clayborn are the top DEs.”
What transcendent incoherence. To summarize, a quarterback who is not playing tonight led an "epic" comeback eight years ago, and there exist humans with the job description "defensive end," including such examples as Dwight Freeney and Adrian Clayborn. It sounds like the introduction of a Japanese video game that has not been properly localized into English.
Let me write one of those for next Monday night: "The Lions and Bears’ epic MNF matchups include a 13-point fourth quarter Bears comeback in 1986, with Doug Flutie throwing for 130 yards. Current Bears players include Dane Sanzenbacher."
Now, to be fair to the poor person who writes these capsules, he or she is expected to churn out dozens per day, receives no credit, does not expect anyone to read them, and probably is not a football fan. Ask me to write a hockey capsule about the Detroit Red Wings, and you will probably get some clunky "Pavel Datsyuck is among top forward skating persons" level sentences.
What is striking about the MNF capsule is that looks like the work of a random thought generator. It takes research to determine that the Colts rallied for three touchdowns in four minutes against the Buccaneers eight years ago. If you are not a Colts or Bucs fan, you probably cannot recall the game, so someone had to look that up, even if it meant scanning a pregame press release. Similarly, it takes a little digging for a non-football fan to unearth the existence of Adrian Clayborn.
What I guess happened is that the writer, looking for something to say about a Buccaneers player, tried to find some exciting new player to mention. When none appeared on the roster, he grabbed the top draft pick and tried to say something nice about him. He hoped bundling Clayborn with Dwight Freeney and mentioning the “top DEs” added insight to the game, just as I hope Pavel Datsyuck is a decent hockey player and is not famous for strangling parakeets now that I casually mentioned him.
So a lot of work went into making something utterly illogical that no one would read. My wife must encounter this all of the time as an English teacher.
It is never a good idea to flip through the ESPN tier on limited sleep, anyway. ESPN2 promised something called the “CrossFit Games” on Monday night but was showing auto racing instead. Out of curiosity, I loaded up an internet video of CrossFit. Sure enough, it consists of people exercising in front of an audience. In a way, that is what all sports are, but CrossFit does more to remove the illusion that anything is going on but simple exercise than anything I have ever seen on television, including the Combine. Contestants don’t lift beer kegs or climb through ninja training obstacle courses. They use rowing machines, outdoors, in the sunshine.
Now, I have a high tolerance for goofball sports, but if you really want to demonstrate your rowing fitness on a sunny day with television cameras watching, perhaps you should consider, I don’t know, getting in a boat? This is what ESPN2 airs to make Curtis Painter and American League baseball interesting. And Dwight Freeney and Adrian Clayborn are the top DEs.
Meanwhile ESPNU ran Palmer and Pollack, in which Jim Palmer dabbles in splatter painting and alcoholism. Kidding! "Former SEC rivals Jesse Palmer and David Pollack break down college football action." That capsule is taken more-or-less verbatim from the digital cable "info" box, so you can tell that the copywriter got his A-game back.
Palmer and Pollack is amazing, because the two hosts are forced to watch highlights on the same screen that viewers at home watch, so their backs are turned to the camera for much of the show. It is like watching an old Latin mass. Palmer and Pollack are also denied laser pointers, or yardsticks, or whittled tree branches with which to point out what is going on during their tape breakdowns. That means they must often stand directly in front of the screen while commenting about what is happening. "Check out this pulling guard hitting the hole," Pollack might say, but he is standing in front of the pulling guard, so only he can see him. This, sadly, is what a television show would look like if Football Outsiders produced one.
There is something genuinely insane about watching a television program in which two hosts are forced to almost always have their backs turned, just as it is either nutty or creepy to watch someone on a rowing machine. But this stuff no longer registers. A car drove into a house next to my kids’ school the other day. The driver stopped at a stop sign, then somehow suddenly blacked out and jammed his foot on the accelerator. He hopped a curb, climbed a hill, eluded two cherry trees, a No Parking sign, and Colin Baxter, rolled over the railroad tracks, through a fence, and right into the family room of a house. The driver was not hurt. A passed out guy with his foot on the gas, causing unintentional but still terrible damage, probably has great metaphor value. But Juan Castillo has suffered enough, as have we at his hands.
A few hours after the accident, I stopped at 7-11, where a four-year-old girl was begging her mom for a treat. "Please mommy, please: I want this!" It was a bag of jalapeno beef jerky. Her mother told her she could not have it. "No, no, no," mom said. "That is not the kind you like." She then handed the preschooler a different brand of jalapeno beef jerky. This is what passes for normal in the Philadelphia area these days.
But back to MNF. Painter hit Pierre Garcon for a long touchdown in the second quarter, and the cameras showed Peyton Manning clapping in the coach’s booth. Manning claps funny. I know, I know, focusing on Manning’s every move and criticizing his body language is someone else’s shtick. Heck, it is everyone else’s shtick. But the man claps funny. I rewound and went frame-by-frame, mesmerized by the difficulty he had generating noise through the collision of one hand with another. There was too much space between the fingers. He clasped palm to palm, but his fingers were splayed and limp, and they kind of fluttered, like they were made of felt and pinned to his knuckles. At one point, he missed: he threw one palm against another and missed completely, with one index finger crashing into the top of the other wrist and fingers toppling over each other like they were trying to escape a car driving over railroad tracks and into someone’s house.
My wife tried to explain the ridiculous clap technique. "Maybe it is because he is hurt," she said.
Maybe. And maybe the guy who writes the digital cable capsules is Adrian Clayborn’s cousin. Maybe I live in the ice cream and beef jerky capital of America. Or maybe we have all been driven to distraction, incoherence, and insanity.
If so, I blame Juan Castillo.
There is a difference between a bad team and a frustrating team. The Chiefs are a bad team. The 1998 Eagles were a bad team. There is nothing worse than rooting for a bad team, because bad teams cause a deep-tissue despair that ruins your week and makes you dread Sundays.
The 2011 Eagles are a frustrating team. They have talent and expectations, but they lose, causing the kind of insanity that leads to rambling Walkthrough intros. Frustrating teams are more memorable than truly bad teams, and they usually inspire a riper variety of griping.
The Eagles have rarely been truly bad during my lifetime, but they have almost always been frustrating. So far, the 2011 team is on pace to be the Most Frustrating Eagles Team Ever, a true accomplishment. In honor of that, and as a form of therapy, I assembled this Top Five list of the most frustrating Eagles teams ever.
5. The 2008 Eagles: 9-6-1. This was the infamous "Donovan McNabb does not know the overtime rules" team. It was also the Eagles team overshadowed by the Phillies World Series win, which was great, because most people in the Delaware Valley could chuckle about the tie and the following week’s ugly loss to the Ravens while thinking happy thoughts about the Phillies parade.
One of the worst things about that 2008 team was that the Eagles were on their fourth year of wobbling along with Andy Reid and late-era McNabb. Four years of Jeff Garcia stories, injuries, and repetitive complaints: the whole routine had grown incredibly stale. As much as I criticize fans and writers for lapsing into "Fire the Coach" or "Bench the Quarterback" mode after every loss, fatigue does set in, especially after four solid years of watching the same storyline unfold in the same way every year.
Of course, the Eagles rebounded late in that season to make the playoffs, win two games, and almost beat the Cardinals to reach the Super Bowl, which guaranteed another year of McNabb and several more of Reid. It was one of the least "fun" playoff runs ever: it felt undeserved, the postseason wins were not very convincing, and Reid-McNabb hatred had grown so virulent that there was a push-pull element to the rooting, even in the NFC Championship game. It was not how being a football fan was supposed to feel.
4. The 1990 Eagles: 10-6. Late-era Buddy Ryan football felt a little like the lap dance you get just before closing time from the girl who already gave 75 of them. It was so exhausted and perfunctory that it went beyond going through the motions. I think Jets fans are about to experience the same feeling. The "pillaging pirate" thing wears off very quickly when your team’s weaknesses never improve but the coach and players keep crowing on and on about toughness and grudge matches.
Randall Cunningham had his best statistical season in 1990, but the Eagles opened the season 1-3, losing to the awful Cardinals in what felt like an annual tradition during Ryan’s tenure. They followed a mid-season five-game winning streak with two losses, and it was hard to muster enthusiasm for what had become the same old Eagles: they had no running game other than Cunningham scrambles, and even the great defense couldn’t register as many sacks as the offense allowed. Late in the year, the Eagles beat the Packers with Anthony Dilweg at quarterback and the Cowboys with Babe Laufenberg at quarterback, so it was off to the playoffs again. Unfortunately, Joe Gibbs did not oblige Ryan by putting some obscure backup under center for the Redskins in the playoffs.
I was at college when the Ryan era fizzled out, living a surprisingly low-football lifestyle, by my standards anyway. It was easy to ignore these Eagles when there was always another coming-of-age adventure to be had. Many friends my age lionize the whole Buddy Ryan experience. I believe that they: a) get some of the big events from the early Rich Kotite years, like the "House of Pain" game against the Oilers, mixed up in their Ryan vault, or b) equate these years with being 23 years old and having the world by the package, so they just forget all of those games when Heath Sherman and Robert Drummond were the running backs.
3. The 1994 Eagles: 7-9. If the late Ryan era was like 3:00 a.m. in a strip joint, the late Rich Kotite era was like the wee hours at a turnpike off-ramp convenience store, with drunks shuffling around buying microwave hotdogs and spilling things. It was depressing without that faint afterglow of sexiness. The 1994 Eagles raced out to 4-1, beating what looked like an unbeatable Niners team in the process, then built their record to 7-2 before losing seven straight games to end the season. Charlie Garner arrived on the scene with a 111-yard game against the Niners, then a 100-yarder against the Redskins, then was alternately injured or misused by Kotite, whose only plan for the man who would become a dynamic runner-receiver in better hands was to feed him to the line from the I-formation. Cunningham got progressively worse, grew nuttier and nuttier, and got benched in favor of Bubby Brister. Kotite was not a joke before this season: he took the Eagles to the playoffs twice. He became a joke during that last losing streak.
2. The 1981 Eagles: 10-6. One year after reaching the Super Bowl, Dick Vermeil’s Eagles started the season 9-2, winning games by margins like 36-13 and 52-10. They then lost four of their last five games, in increasingly ugly ways, before a sloppy 27-21 Wild Card loss to the Giants which was not nearly as close as the score. Ron Jaworski endured an awful late-season slump, which really marked the beginning of his second career as a guy who got sacked a dozen times per game.
Years later, a retired Eagles player admitted that he sold cocaine to several members of the 1981 team –- not Jaws and the guys, but second-tier players, some of whom visibly regressed as the 1981 season wore on -- and there were rumors of out-of-control parties before the Wild Card loss. Cocaine was big in football back then, and the Giants probably partook as much or more than the Eagles, but I have always wondered just how much of that 1981 collapse –- and Vemeil’s impending burnout –- was caused by a few snowblind players. It at least gives them a plausible excuse, which is more than what we have now.
1. The 2005 Eagles: 6-10. This was the sit-ups-in-the-driveway team. Like the 1981 Eagles, they were coming off a Super Bowl appearance with most of the roster intact. Terrell Owens went into shenanigans mode during camp, then deftly turned his contract dispute into an anti-McNabb crusade. The Eagles lost the season opener to the Falcons. They then beat the Niners 42-3 in a win that protested too much: it felt a lot like the season-opening Rams win this year, as if they were saying "so what if we hate each other and make stupid mistakes, look how talented we are when we are destroying an awful team." They had to come back from a 24-6 deficit to beat the Chiefs, then lost 33-10 to the Cowboys, and then everything really started to unravel, with Owens suspended and McNabb hurt and the team going 2-8 down the stretch.
The best thing the 2005 team did was disappear, getting so bad down the stretch that the world was ignoring them and I could watch their games for giggles, or even better, get lots of out-of-town games in the bar even when the Eagles are on. That answers a likely complaint about this frustration list: that some fans would kill for a season like 1990 or even 2008, because it was better than watching a team go 4-12. Sometimes, that 4-12 season is a favor –- not if it happens for several years in a row, like it did for the Lions or the Rams, but if it happens with a dull, satisfying thud that tells you to make other plans for Sunday afternoons. It’s better to be bored than infuriated, sometimes at least. And as the list above shows, it’s easy to get too much of a somewhat good, but maddeningly frustrating, thing.
Thanks to everyone who came out to the Collingswood Book Festival! I got to sit on a sportswriter murderer’s row between Les Bowen, who had some extra time on his hands, and Allen Barra. We talked to readers and each other about football history and other topics, though mostly we teased Bowen. (He’s a great guy!) I nearly sold out of copies of The Philly Fan's Code, but there are plenty more on Amazon. My mother asked me after the book festival if I sold any copies to people I did not personally know. Prove my mom wrong! Buy a book!
Diagram fans and people who want their Walkthrough more technical, don’t despair! Two diagram-heavy articles are dropping on the NBC family of websites this week, and I will be sure to XP them. Also, my work on the Bats blog for the New York Times continues. Walkthrough may get a little loopy at times over the next few weeks, but keep the faith.
Now, for all of you Lions fans and Cowboys bashers out there, a moment of Zen:
|Figure 1: Life Is A Series Of Compromises|