Philly fans starving for title

Philadelphia's lengthy championship drought has Eagles fans on edge going into Sunday's NFC title game.

Updated: January 16, 2004, 5:04 PM ET
By Sal Paolantonio | Special to ESPN.com

PHILADELPHIA -- What will this town be like, what will the celebration be like if the Eagles finally prevail on Sunday and go to the Super Bowl?

That question was put to three veterans of the Eagles defense, three guys who are the hardcore fan favorites, who have toiled, literally, through the blood, sweat and tears of the last two years of ugly disappointment.

Troy Vincent, Bobby Taylor and Brian Dawkins all had the same one word answer:

"Sick."

As in flat-out, whacked-out, all-out crazy, mad jubilation.

"It'll be off the chain," said Dawkins, who plays safety, well, off the chain.

"It'll be a human tornado at the Linc," said Taylor, referring to Lincoln Financial Field, the site of Sunday's NFC championship game between Philadelphia and Carolina.

"I want that feeling so bad," said Vincent, who grew up 26 miles from downtown Philly.

Eagles fans
Another title game loss might be too much for Eagles fans to bear.
"Right now, Philadelphia is like a giant bottle of champagne that has been strapped to one of those paint can shakers at the hardware store for 40 years, and it's ready to blow," said Glen Macnow, co-author of a new book called The Great Philadelphia Fan Book (Middle Atlantic Press). "When it blows, the party will be like something you've never seen before."

And what happens if the cork remains in the bottle, if the Eagles don't win on Sunday, if they lose back-to-back-to-back NFC title games?

"I don't even want to be around here, it'll be ugly," said Phillies manager Larry Bowa. "It'll be like somebody died in the city. Some big official died. There'll be a mourning period."

"I don't even want to answer that question," said Dawkins.

A loss on Sunday would leave an indelible blemish on the Philadelphia Eagles franchise, because no team in NFL history has hosted back-to-back championship games and lost them both.

That historical fact includes all of the NFL, all the way back to when the Eagles were called the Frankford Yellowjackets, and all of the AFL. It would be a first. And making that kind of history would leave a horrible stain on a city that has already endured the worst that professional sports franchises have to offer.

Let's look at the history.

  • The Phillies: No professional sports franchise in North America in the 20th century lost more games. Only one World Series title in its history -- 1980.

  • The Flyers: Haven't won a Stanley Cup since kids wore Nehru jackets to their high school prom (mid-'70s).

  • The Sixers: The last Philly franchise to win a world title. It happened in 1983. That's 21 years ago. Indeed, no city with all four major pro sports teams -- baseball, football, basketball and hockey -- has gone longer without a championship than Philadelphia -- thus the often vile, outrageous frustration exhibited by some of the most passionate, yet disappointed sports fans on the planet.

    "The fans here -- wow -- they get a bad rep, but some of it is warranted," said Dawkins.

  • The Eagles: The last NFL title came in 1960, when their fans currently collecting Social Security were just teenagers. Their only trip to a Super Bowl came in 1981 in a lopsided loss to the Oakland Raiders, 27-10.

    And the recent team has been a big tease. Andy Reid's Eagles have lost the last two NFC championship games.

    Two years ago, they lost in St. Louis. N.D. Kalu missed a blocked punt by the length of his finger and, after leading at halftime, the Eagles fell short, 29-24.

    Last season was the killer. Last football game played at Veterans Stadium. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who had won just one game in their history when the temperature was below 40 degrees, came into Philadelphia heavy underdogs, but Jon Gruden said his team would play on the Walt Whitman Bridge if it had to.

    It didn't have to. Again, the Eagles had an early lead, but that quickly evaporated as the Bucs defense smothered Donovan McNabb and Philadelphia lost, 27-10.

    On Wednesday, McNabb said he was still "pissed" about the last two losses, and that he's "pretty much being a man about it." But, McNabb said, "it only adds fuel to the fire."

    The exact same thing can be said about this city -- pissed off, and that has added some serious fuel to the fire.

    "Their expectations are just as high as ours are -- they want results now," said Vincent.

    Why are the fans here so tough?

    They have been starving for a winner, they have been starving for so long. And the patience is running thin. I can feel it. This is my eighth year here and we've been through some tough times. But these people are ready now for us to win.
    Eagles S Brian Dawkins

    "They work for every dollar they earn," said Bowa, who was on the only Phillies team to win a World Championship. "Nothing is given to these people. They're blue-collar workers. They love to see people get their uniform dirty. They love to see people put in time at their job. They love to see passion, emotion."

    Said Macnow, who is now a talk show host on WIP all-sports radio: "Here in Philadelphia, sports isn't a diversion. It's not entertainment. It's religion."

    But it goes deeper than that. Historically, Philadelphia has always felt left out, and has been left out in the cold. In size and stature, Philadelphia is a city of first rank. Always in the top five in population. Biggest in land mass. But Philadelphia has never been put on the "A" list of America's vibrant, thriving dynamic urban cultures.

    Los Angeles is movies. Chicago, big industry. New York is the home of breathtaking skyscrapers and breathtaking athletic achievement. New York had The Babe and the Mick and all those World Series. Philadelphia gave away the pennant and the city fathers, until just a few years ago, never allowed a building to be built taller than the hat atop Billy Penn's head at City Hall.

    Philadelphia was once the hub of America's national government, from 1790-1800, what renowned city historian E. Digby Baltzell called the "Silver Decade." But then the nation's capital was moved to a swamp located between Virginia and Maryland. The District of Columbia was created and Philadelphia missed its first opportunity to be the nation's center of power.

    Three decades later, it missed its second chance. President Andrew Jackson closed the U.S. Bank, which was located in Philadelphia, and the center of the young nation's high finance migrated to New York.

    Indeed, for generations, Philadelphia was not considered a destination. When the federal government built I-95 running north and south to connect Florida and Boston, Philadelphia was a detour. In fact, a Russian journalist visiting the Philadelphia Inquirer editorial board years ago marveled at the fact there was no highway linking Philadelphia to New York directly, non-stop. There still isn't one.

    All this history has been a constant reminder that Philadelphia did not measure up, was not included in the discussion of what was important in the Northeast Corridor, where the money and decisions are made.

    Some local politicians have tried to change that image. Former Mayor Frank L. Rizzo puffed out his chest for the city, but his methods often overreached and he failed. The current governor of Pennsylvania, Edward G. Rendell, who was mayor of Philadelphia from 1992-2000, tried admirably to clean up the city's image. And he did, from a political standpoint.

    But during Rendell's reign, the city's sports fans -- Rendell chief among them -- still suffered.

    And the Eagles, despite their spectacular success, have been major contributors to that disappointment. Under Reid, the team has had its chances. Reid has reached the 50-win plateau faster than any coach in franchise history (81 games). He has the most playoff wins in team history (five).

    Among all NFL coaches, Reid has the most regular season wins since 2000 (46). He has been coach of the year twice (2000 and 2002), and McNabb has been voted to four straight Pro Bowls.

    But they have fallen short of capturing the Lombardi Trophy, just short the last two seasons.

    "They have been starving for a winner, they have been starving for so long," said Dawkins. "And the patience is running thin. I can feel it. This is my eighth year here and we've been through some tough times. But these people are ready now for us to win."

    So, when the Eagles line up on Sunday, they will face the optimum brew of historical, franchise and fan pressure -- a perfect storm, if you will, of the highest possible expectation of probable victory colliding with the angry anticipation of possible defeat.

    Winning is the only way out.

    Sal Paolantonio, who covers the NFL for ESPN, wrote about the Eagles for the Philadelphia Inquirer from 1993-94.

    Sal Paolantonio

    SportsCenter correspondent / NFL reporter
    Sal Paolantonio joined ESPN as a SportsCenter correspondent in August 1995, primarily reporting on the NFL. Beginning in 2004, he also served as host of NFL Match-Up, a weekly "Xs and Os" football show produced by NFL Films.
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