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The Church of the Holy Receiver, a.k.a. the NFL, opens its doors tonight with a matchup of Peyton Manning against the ghosts of bad big-game decisions past and a musical show that should have fans begging for a sound malfunction. Expect a ratings bonanza for ABC and certainly more intelligent sideline reporting, now that Michele Tafoya has replaced Lisa GuERRORo.
In Philadelphia, however, there won't be too much excitement. That comes Sunday, when the Eagles host the Giants in the annual IQ challenge for New York fans considering whether to wear their Tiki Barber jerseys into the terrordome. In Philly, the rest of the NFL doesn't matter, unless you happen to play in five different fantasy leagues. It's all Eagles, all the time. And that includes during most of baseball, basketball and hockey seasons. The Birds rule.
Well, almost. They may hold complete sway in Philadelphia, but they haven't exercised autonomy over the NFL since 1960, when Chuck Bednarik was mauling opposing backs with his gnarled hands. Things have become so bad for Eagles fans that the past three seasons are considered epic failures, even though each has featured an (unsuccessful) trip to the NFC title game. That's saying something in a city which boasts a team (the Phillies) with the most losses in the history of organized sport. But that's the way it is in Philadelphia. Eagles supporters want more. They don't care about regular-season success. They aren't interested in brief playoff runs.
No, Philadelphia fans believe they deserve a world championship. Decades of frustration have convinced them that professional sports are not a struggle between elite athletes, rather a quest for civic validation. That if a city's fans "suffer" enough, they should be rewarded with a title. This petulant attitude is reinforced daily in Philadelphia by local commentators and columnists who curry favor with the masses by refusing to let them know that they have but a limited stake in all of this. Eagles fans may buy tickets and cheer. But their roar is merely a soundtrack for the athletes who pursue their own agendas (some competitive and others purely financial) and owners who chase the almighty buck. Professional sports -- and especially the NFL -- are not about the fan but about the customer. And even if they weren't, who says that a 44-year championship drought is grounds for redemption, any more than an 85-year baseball dry spell is worthy of a title? That's why they play the games.
This yen for a crown (the last Philadelphia team to win it all in any major sport was the 1983 76ers) has fed nicely into the city's already raging inferiority complex. It's bad enough to be situated between the world's financial capital and the seat of the planet's strongest government. It's worse to watch in horror while nouveau markets like Tampa Bay win two crowns in 18 months. Philly fans are so absolutely thirsting for a title, particularly on the football field, that they have abandoned all joy associated with the sporting experience in the hopes of finally basking in the Machiavellian glow of a championship. Win it all or don't play at all.
Well, let the drought continue. Despite the arrivals of Terrell Owens and Jevon Kearse, despite the excellence of Donovan McNabb, despite continued solid salary cap maintenance and raging profiteering by owner Jeffrey Lurie, the Eagles aren't winning the Super Bowl this year. No way. In fact, this year's terminus won't even be the NFC title tilt, which is almost good news, because one more loss in that game could spawn a city-wide depression that would require a Hindenburg-sized dose of Prozac in the water supply.
The Eagles' ground game is a wreck. The corners are manned by a pair of third-year players best suited for nickel work. The front four has already begun its annual injury parade. And that doesn't even factor in what happens when Me-O pitches his first tantrum. Nope, no championship this year. No glorious parade down Broad Street. The Eagles will probably win 10-11 games. They could capture a playoff contest or two. But no Super Bowl title.
Let the suffering begin.
Replay for all
Tuesday night's televised larceny at the U.S. National Tennis Center drove home the point that every major sporting event and league needs to implement and fund an instant replay system. NOW. Say what you want about the delays that occur during NFL replay challenges, but that league is committed to getting calls right -- or at least trying. Watching chair umpire Mariana Alves blow call after call during Jennifer Capriati's quarterfinal "win" over Serena Williams was agonizing, especially since many of the mistakes were obvious to the naked eye. And when USA Network's groovy computer animation showed yet another Alves gaffe, it became clear that someone or something had to overrule the overmatched arbiter.
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But the rescue never occurred, and Williams paid dearly. Although the most egregious mistake, on a second-set backhand that was so obviously on the line that even an Olympic gymnastics official could have gotten the call right, was not at a particularly key point in the match -- and spawned Williams' classic, "That ball was so in!" Mean Girls response -- Alves was at her worst in the last set. She blew two shots in the final game, at a time when it appeared as if Williams was gathering momentum and might well have blown past Capriati. Even though Alves was suspended and won't officiate again at the Open, the damage has been done. Williams is gone.
It's not just tennis that needs replay. Just about every major-league baseball game features an umpire's miscue. NBA games could certainly benefit from instant replay, although exposing the referees' obviously-biased calls in favor of the league's stars might prove a little embarrassing. When the NHL is the only other big-time sport (and lately that's up for debate) that uses instant replay -- to verify disputed goals -- you know it's time for a change. Kudos to the Big Ten for trying to get its football calls right, especially since its refs have resembled the inhabitants of a Lasik clinic waiting room in recent years.
If next year's tennis majors invest in a strong replay system, Williams' loss will not be in vain. But if we're back to seeing repeated errors committed from the umpire's chair, then she -- and every other tennis player -- should lash out. Tennis -- and baseball, college sports and the NBA -- needs to get it right, before Mariana Alves and her optically challenged cronies strike again.
EL HOMBRE SEZ: The Houston Rockets acquired Dikembe Mutombo from the Bulls Wednesday and now await results of carbon dating of the antediluvian center to see whether they qualify for a senior citizen's discount on his contract. ... It hasn't been a good week for Tiger Woods. First, he lost his No. 1 ranking to Vijay Singh. Now, there are reports that his engagement to nannylicious Elin Nordegren is on the rocks. Rumor has it that Elin balked at wearing that Nike wedding gown. She was afraid it would slice open.
AND ANOTHER THING: Texas heads to Fayetteville Saturday to take on Arkansas, still angry about last year's loss to the Hogs and the subsequent post-game celebration that featured the planting of a UA flag in the Memorial Stadium turf and the snapping of a joyous team picture. Get over it, Steers. When you win, you celebrate, and Texas should have been more concerned about its awful play, rather than the Razorbacks' early spring break party. UT is also miffed that last week's 65-0 win over North Texas wasn't given tremendous national exposure. All of this feeds into one thing: Nobody expects the Longhorns to win the big ones. Beating Arkansas this week would be a good start, although nobody confuses the Hogs with a powerhouse. But Texas isn't going to get any respect until it beats Oklahoma. Or at least loses to the Sooners by less than 50.