Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Where Have You Gone, Chuck Bednarik ... ? (with Apologies to Paul Simon)

Chuck Bednarik celebrating over the unconscious Frank Gifford, 20 November 1960

53 years. That's how long it has now been since my beloved Philadelphia Eagles reigned supreme over the National Football League (As an aside, let one be reminded that, persistent ignorance by Philly detractors notwithstanding, the Eagles have indeed won three NFL championships, the league having existed prior to the founding of the upstart AFL and the inauguration of the so-called "Super Bowl" following the 1966 season). Sunday's home playoff loss to the New Orleans Saints was just the latest in a seemingly never-ending series of postseason disappointments that Philly die-hards have had to endure—and expect—over the decades.

Fortunately for my blood pressure, I was unable to watch the game due to my fortnightly 24-hour weekends (12 hour shifts Saturday and Sunday) at R. R. Donnelley. Be assured, however, that my attention was as directed to the pressman's computer screen, on which the game was being followed on ESPN's GameCast, as it was to the all-important catalogs I was being paid to pack. When the Eagles surged ahead on a Nick Foles TD pass to rookie Zach Ertz with 4:54 remaining in the 4th quarter, I was happy, but I had the nagging feeling, born of five decades of following the team, that it would all come to naught. They had left too much time on the clock, and in today's offense-happy, arena-league NFL, one is shocked when a team fails to score. Of course the Saints validated my fears, never relinquishing the ball and winning the game on a last-second chip-shot field goal. Indeed, to make matters worse, the winning margin of two points was less than that which the Eagles failed to get on a badly missed 2nd quarter Alex Henery field goal attempt. When I returned home after midnight I devoured reports and video footage of the game with an alacrity surpassing that which I have shown in reading N. T. Wright's brilliant new opus, Paul and the Faithfulness of God.

Being a Philadelphia sports fan is not for the faint of heart. There is a reason, after all, that the city's surly fans have earned the reputation of being America's answer to England's notorious Liverpool supporters. Many of the city's more "respectable" fans supposedly see a silver lining: under new coach Chip Kelly the Birds improved from last season's dismal 4-12 campaign to go 10-6, win the NFC East and host a playoff game. Second year quarterback Nick Foles had a historically good season (27 TDs, 2 INTs) and led the league in passing. All Pro LeSean McCoy led the league in rushing and yards from scrimmage, setting team records in those categories in the process. "We did far better than expected," sings the ever-growing chorus. "Wait till next year."

Hard as I try to accept such logic, and as compelling as it may appear on paper, once again I have a nagging feeling that tells me, "not so fast." Yes, the team performed better than I or anyone expected. Yes, Shady McCoy and the tiresome DeSean Jackson, who already is suggesting the team should renegotiate his 5-year, 48 million dollar contract extension, constitute possibly the most lethal one-two offensive punch in the league. Yes, Nick Foles will mature in his reading of defenses. Yes, even I, an inveterate pessimist, would consider the Birds to be the clear favorite to win the division next season. Nevertheless, the team still has some glaring deficiencies, mostly on defense (pass rushing specialist; large, run-stuffing interior lineman; cornerback; and especially free and strong safeties; I will personally escort Patrick Chung out of town if asked) and special teams. More significantly, this season's incarnation of the Eagles benefited from a last place schedule (aided and abetted by opponents' injuries and freakish weather—after all, they faced the Packers with Scott Tolzien instead of Aaron Rodgers at QB, and faced the Lions' lethal Stafford-Megatron tandem in a blinding, 8-inch snowstorm; next year, we will not be so lucky: Cam Newton, Russell Wilson, Andrew Luck, Colin Kaepernick, and Rodgers are all on the schedule, to go along with the NFC East's returning Romo, Eli Manning, and RGIII) and an extremely lucky lack of injuries. Theirs was the only team in the NFL whose offensive line was intact the entire season. But three of those linemen—All-Pros Jason Peters and Evan Mathis, along with Todd Herremans—are older than 30; remember the state of the Eagles' 2012 line and the team's resulting record. The Eagles may well duplicate this season's success. To do so, however, they will have to be a better football team.

Most importantly, however, is that history doesn't provide compelling support for blind optimism. Just last year the Washington Redskins, fueled by the otherworldly talent of rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III, improved from 5-11 in 2011 to 10-6 and the divisional championship in 2012. This season, due to RGIII's incomplete recovery from a devastating knee injury and general dysfunction caused by now-fired head coach Mike Shanahan, they regressed to an abysmal 3-13. The NFL's famous parity can be a real pain in the backside if things don't go one's way.

When I think of the 2013 Eagles, my mind immediately goes back to the team of 1988. A quarter of a century ago the Eagles were coming off six straight losing seasons in the wake of Dick Vermeil's "burnout" and the uninspired leadership of the "Swamp Fox," Marion Campbell. But coach Buddy Ryan had an unusually keen eye for talent, and in '88 he assembled the first of 5 consecutive squads that would win 10 or more games. Indeed, in '88 the team was young and populated by 10 players who would garner Pro Bowl recognition in their careers, including the legendary Reggie White and electrifying quarterback Randall Cunningham. On the last day of the regular season the Eagles defeated their hated rivals, the Dallas Cowboys, 23-7, to win the division for the first time in 8 seasons and earn a right to play the Chicago Bears in the divisional round at storied Soldier Field. That game, which I watched with a raging ear infection at my in-laws' house in St. Petersburg, Florida, was one of the most surreal spectacles I have ever watched: 31 December 1988, the infamous "Fog Bowl." Cunningham lit up the Bears' vaunted defense for 407 yards. Eleven times the Eagles penetrated the Bears' 25 yard line. Five times they made it inside the Bear's 11 yard line. And all they ended up getting from such prodigious production was a measly 12 points: 4 Luis Zendejas field goals. A TD pass to the aptly-named Mike Quick was called back due to penalty. All-Pro tight end Keith Jackson dropped a would-be TD pass that hit him in the worst possible place: his hands. And so what could have and should have been an Eagles victory that day became a frustrating, excruciating loss that nonetheless suggested a bright future. Well, guess what? Ryan, despite fielding dominating teams, never won a single playoff game, dreadfully losing Wild Card games in each of the next two seasons at home as favorites. Losing, as they say, breeds losing. Sometimes, as Elvis sang, "tomorrow" never comes. That is why the opportunities "today" provides must be seized and occasions risen to.

Indeed, what I witnessed (metaphorically) on Sunday was a golden opportunity squandered. The Eagles had momentum. Winners of 7 of their previous 8 games, they were the hottest team in the league going into the game. They were at home, where they had won four straight, playing in 25 degree weather against a team from the deep South who plays their home games in a dome. Yes, the Saints are a good team with a sure-fire Hall of Famer in QB Drew Brees and a budding superstar in Jimmy Graham. Indeed, Philadelphia's own Pro Football Hall of Fame writer Ray Didinger even claimed after the game that the Saints were the best team the Birds had played all season. However, with all due respect to Didinger, whom I consider the most insightful football analyst in the land (along with Jon Gruden and—I hate to admit it—Troy Aikman), I must demur, considering the Eagles played Peyton Manning's Denver Broncos back in September. At home the Saints are as good as anybody, as their 8-0 record there attests. But the Saints were a mere 3-5 on the road, including embarrassing losses to the New York Jets and St. Louis Rams. Simply put, this was a winnable game, a game that teams with championship pretensions simply cannot afford to let slip from their grasp. Who knows? Maybe another opportunity like this will not come in the near, or even foreseeable, future.

Yet, alas, they did fumble their opportunity. Quarterback Foles, while unspectacular, was efficient and workmanlike (23-33/195 yards/2 TD/0 INT). But one youthful error on his part played a major role in the team's demise. In the second quarter, Chip Kelly eschewed an "easy" 41 yard field goal, opting to go for a first down on 4th and 1 from the 23. McCoy easily got the first down, taking the ball to the 15. But the following sequence was of the sort that seems only to happen to Philadelphia teams. Tight end Brent Celek was dropped for an 8 yard loss on a screen pass. Then, on second down, Foles's inexperience and indecision proved fatal, as he allowed himself to be sacked for an inexcusable 11 yard loss. After a short gain on 3rd down, Kelly trotted out placekicker Alex Henery, who proceeded to hook a 48-yard field goal attempt badly. Henery's lack of leg strength has been a problem for some time. And when such lack of range is wed to somewhat suspect accuracy, one's team is in trouble. One suspects Kelly will bring in a kicker or two next summer to challenge Henery for his job.

Championship teams are also not sloppy. Yet Riley Cooper dropped a perfectly-thrown pass on 3rd down in the 3rd quarter with acres of real estate open in front of him. The Saints, as expected, responded by scoring their second TD of the quarter, turning a 7-6 halftime deficit into a 20-7 lead. In the 4th quarter, after the Birds forged ahead 24-23 on Foles's pass to Ertz, the special teams responded by allowing a 39-yard kickoff return, punctuated by a personal foul on Cary Williams for a horse collar tackle. That put the ball in Eagles territory, and at that point the historically-minded Eagles fan already knew that defeat was a foregone conclusion.

Worst of all, however—from the perspective of a dinosaur who still fervently believes that games are won and lost in the trenches—is that the Eagles lost the battle of the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. Conventional wisdom assumed that, if the Saints were to win, they would have to do it on the back of their legendary quarterback. Yet Brees, despite throwing for 250 yards, was intercepted twice, and on the decisive final drive only threw one pass, a six yarder to Harrisburg, Pa. native Marques Colston. No. They won largely due to two factors: they stymied the Eagles' vaunted rushing attack and unexpectedly ran roughshod over the Eagles rushing defense.

The Eagles, possessors of two All-Pro offensive linemen and the league's leading rusher, easily led the NFL in rushing this year, averaging 160.4 yards/game and 5.1 yards/carry. The Saints, meanwhile, ranked 21st in the league in rushing defense, allowing an average of 111.6 rushing yards per game and 4.6 yards per carry. McCoy, however, managed only 77 yards on 21 carries, for 3.7 yards/carry. The team's vaunted linemen simply failed to play to their reputation, not to mention failing, for whatever reason, to rise to the occasion against a decidedly mediocre run defense.

More than anything, however, it was the Eagles' inept rushing defense that sticks in the craw of any old-school Philadelphia fan. The Birds' rushing defense was surprisingly good this season, allowing 104.3 yards per game and only 3.8 yards per rush. Only the week before, they had limited Dallas's formidable Demarco Murray to 51 yards on 17 carries. The Saints, meanwhile, ranked 25th in the league in rushing at only 92.1 per game and 3.8 per rush. And they were without the services of their leading rusher, Pierre Thomas. Yet the underachieving former Heisman Trophy winner, Mark Ingram Jr., stepped in and promptly torched the Eagles for 97 yards on 18 carries. Even worse, Drew Brees—Drew Brees!—easily got first downs on two QB sneaks on the final drive, on one of which he managed to gain three yards behind the surging line. That is simply unacceptable.

Philadelphia, as all Americans are aware, is a hard-nosed city whose football persona was forged in the context of its being the erstwhile "Workshop of the World" from the Industrial Revolution until after World War II. Long time fans continue to long for the days of Buddy Ryan's "Gang Green" defense, even though they failed to win a single playoff game while he was coach. Of the team's all-time greatest football players, all but running back Steve Van Buren have been devastatingly tough defensive players: Reggie White, Brian Dawkins, and, above all, Hall of Famer "Concrete Charlie" Bednarik, the Bethlehem, Pa. and University of Pennsylvania (!) product who is famous for two things: being the last of the "60 minute men" in the NFL (as both center and linebacker) and for his devastating hit of Frank Gifford on 20 November 1960 that propelled the Eagles to the Eastern Division title and knocked the Giants star out of football for more than a year.

As the Saints kept marching inexorably down the field on that final drive on Sunday night, all I could think was, "Concrete Charlie would never have let this happen." Indeed, he would not have done. Bednarik was the Eagles' unquestioned leader in their last championship season 53 years ago. On 26 December 1960 the NFL championship game was played at Penn's venerable Franklin Field between the Eagles and Vince Lombardi's Green Bay Packers. In the see-saw game the Eagles' Ted Dean had given the Birds a 17-13 lead in the 4th quarter with a 5-yard TD run. But the great Bart Starr, as was his wont, marched the Pack methodically down the field in the game's final minutes, helped immeasurably by the presence of two other Hall of Famers in his backfield, halfback Paul Hornung and fullback Jim Taylor, the latter of whom rushed for 105 yards and caught 6 passes for 46 more that day. But, on the game's final play, it was the 35 year old Bednarik who, despite having played the entire contest on both offense and defense, clinched the victory by tackling and sitting on Taylor at the 8 yard line. This remains the only Eagles championship of my lifetime.

Seeing the middling Saints' rushing attack making mincemeat of the Eagles defense made me long for the days of Concrete Charlie. And it brought to my mind the last verse of Simon and Garfunkel's classic 1968 song, "Mrs. Robinson," where Simon gives a nod to the virtuously heroic Joe DiMaggio (for Simon's reflection on the song's meaning and his encounter with Joltin' Joe, see here). Like Simon, I too yearn for a past with larger-than-life heroes who embody all I consider virtuous. I am not naive, of course, and know enough of Bednarik's warts not to apotheosize him. Nevertheless, as a sportsman he embodied many of the traits I see in such short supply in today's game. And he certainly embodies the type of play that the Eagles lacked in Sunday's loss. Thus I offer this adaptation of Simon's lines to honor him and hope against hope that another Concrete Charlie can make his way to Lincoln Financial Field and propel the Birds to the championship that has eluded them for more than 5 decades:

Where have you gone, Chuck Bednarik

Our city turns its weary eyes to you (Woo, woo, woo)
What's that you say, Dr. Snapper
Concrete Charlie has left and gone away 
(Hey, hey, hey...hey, hey, hey) 

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