Monday, September 10, 2012

Cleveland Accomodates Football Guests

The Shooter Mom Is Relieved
I've been fortunate enough to take my mom to an Eagles game for the past few years, including road trips to Green Bay, St. Louis and Chicago, usually in conjunction with her early September birthday. Win or lose (and we're now 2-2 and on a 2-game winning streak, woo!), it's a great time, as we've found great restaurants, pleasant people (it helps that we're not obnoxious Road Fans) and the joy of getting away from everything and just obsessing over our laundry. Here's the travelogue from this year's game.

The weekend was going to be challenging from the start, because I screwed up my schedule big. The plan was to leave on Friday for Canton, sleep there on Friday night, then go see the Hall of Fame on Saturday morning, then drive up to Cleveland (just an hour away) and see the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame later in the day. We were also hosting the Five Tool Ninja and his mom, who are also huge Eagles fans, which meant the gas and tolls were being split 4 ways. Nice economics and company. But since I host a poker game every three weeks and had gotten the dates wrong, leaving on Friday wasn't an option. So at 4am on Saturday morning, the Shooter Mom came by the house, and we left to pick up the Ninja pair from his house, south of Philly. I'm still amazed that people put up with me for nonsense like this, but it worked out.

So around 1pm on Saturday, with an hour of napping sleep in the back of the car to sustain me, we roll into the Hall. That's detailed below, and after we wrapped up there, we drove up to the Cleveland area hotel, then to a local restaurant that was recommended by a hotel clerk with the poufiest hair you can imagine in suburban Cleveland. Say this for the elf, he knows his restaurants; we had a meal and service for the ages, and came back to the hotel to sleep for way too long.

We got to the game early enough to park very far away and very cheaply ($10), and got to our seats in time to watch much of the Eagles pre-game warm-ups. They looked sharp, and our seats were spectacular for the purpose. Cleveland amped up things for their introduction, introduced rookie RB Trent Richardson last (not, notably, QB Brandon Weeden), and we got to see a big 'ol flag to cover the field (and, it turned out, Weeden). Then the game started, and with it, the mistakes.

The first drive was highly indicative of the rest of the game. The Eagles moved the ball, crossed midfield, and then... shot themselves in the foot with a Shady McCoy fumble. Cleveland made just one play on the subsequent drive (a slant that went for 21), then settled for a field goal. Could have been worse.

One of the things to worry about in this game was that the replacement refs were going to go harder for the home team, and this game was going to get some of the worst guys, since it wasn't nationally televised, nor expected to be close. So the flags were frequent (Philly wound up with 12 for 110, 75 yards in the first half), late, inexplicable and unrelenting. If anyone thought that the NFL could just force the hand of the real guys with these scabs, they were sadly mistaken.

The Eagles' second drive featured a holding penalty, multiple first downs overcome to get to midfield, and then an unforgivable pick. The defense forced a 3-and-out, and Vick found DeSean Jackson for a deep ball to set up a 42-yard Alex Henery to tie the game. Cleveland drove into the red zone on a long reverse, but LB Mychal Kendricks tipped a ball that S Kurt Coleman picked off to stop the drive and save the tie. WR Jeremy Maclin then went off during a three and out, and we really started to get the sense that this was going to be a long slog of a day. Cleveland's three and out featured their highlight play of the day when Richardson took Coleman's helmet off on a 9-yard run, but when your best run of the day doesn't even get you a first down, you can kind of get the sense that your running game wasn't much to write home about. A long McCoy run came back on another hold, and voila, punt. Gahhh. Weeden's second pick of the day was a classic 40-yard arm punt, and a nice play by CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who had his best game as an Eagle, in my opinion.

More desultory football followed, without much of lasting merit until the Browns' final drive of the half. With their offense not doing much and a tie on the board, the Browns called two runs to burn the Eagles first two timeouts, then tried to convert the third down by throwing. The incomplete stopped the clock, and with 56 seconds left, the Eagles got the ball back at their own 26.

One pass to McCoy got a first, and with 30 seconds left in the half, Vick found Maclin for 46 yards on a perfect throw on a go route; timeout #3, the one that Cleveland could have forced with another run, killed the clock. The next play was an 18 yard bullet post to Maclin for the score, and hey presto, it's 10-3 Eagles at the half. Surely the second half will have fewer mistakes and the ability to put this game out of reach, right?

Well, um, no. Not even a little bit.

The third started with another solid effort by the defense, who nearly forced a turnover on a strip sack before the punt and inevitable penalty pushed things back to the Eagle 21. The possession to set the tone for the second half was this: incomplete on a play that looked like it could have been a fumble or pick, stuffed run as the Eagles rush the snap before a possible challenge, and then a near pick incomplete on a play where holding was declined with Vick in the end zone. Should have been a safety, in other words. Yeesh.

All looked fine when DRC picked off another pass, but even on good plays, we get 15 yard flags (Philip Hunt, post possession) to take the joy out of things. Two first downs were followed by another We Have No Idea Vick pick, and I started to wonder if QB Nick Foles could be summoned without an injury. A rare Browns first and a not very rare Eagle penalty put them in the red zone, but the defense stiffened, and the figgie made it 10-6 Eagles.

The teams traded three and outs, with the Browns blowing a couple of timeouts on offense and a sad special teams fumble challenge. Vick threw another pick on a deep ball, then chased down the corner to save the touchdown; well, at least we know he cared about the impact of such things. A defensive hold gives the Browns another first, but nothing more, and the Browns' third figgie of the day makes it 10-9. Torturous. And then, after a false start, Vick throws his *fourth* pick of the day, adding even more fuel to the fire with LB D'Qwell Jackson catapulting into the end zone for the score. The Browns decide to kick the extra point to make it 16-10 with 14 minutes left to somehow avoid the full nightmare.

An 11-play drive with copious amounts of McCoy (remember him? The best player in the game? The Eagles' skill player that isn't filling his box score with turnovers?) gets them into figgie position, but the drive stalls and Henery missed from 45. Nine minutes left, Cleveland with the chance to put it out of reach. They get one first down but no more, and after the punt, the Eagles have the ball 91 yards from paydirt with 6:25 to play.

Even on this, the game-winning drive, they made me want to hurt Coach For Life Reid and his gaggle of Soo Per Genius. They discover WR Jason Avant for the first time all day, since it's important to put the game in the hands of a stone-cold WR. Cleveland roughs Vick for a gift 15. Jackson, McCoy and Avant get it closer, and then Vick gets all kinds of lucky on a 9-yard run on 3rd-and-10, both from his ribs still being intact and much more so from the scab refs who blow a fumble call to the increasingly hyper-lobbying Browns players and fans. On fourth, McCoy saves the game on a carry, and Vick finds TE Brent Celek gets it to the 3 at the 2-minute warning.

So the team has four plays to go three yards, and every possible play in the book to run. Do we give it to McCoy, the best player on the team, who has 110 yards on 20 carries, on first down? No; that play has to go to rookie RB Bryce Brown on a fast counter that never works, because every Eagle opponent knows that Reid has the hots for this kind of fifth-class chicanery. Do we give it to him on second down, when he's presumably fresh? Nah, that play's all about Vick, who forces a ball in the general vicinity of Jackson, and the road team is incredibly fortunate to avoid the game-ending pick. On third down, we split McCoy out wide as I start to lose my mind with disbelieving hatred toward Reid, and the fact that Vick finds reserve TE Clay Harbor for the go-ahead score barely mitigates it. It's as if Reid has to out-trick the opponent in the red zone, rather than, well, trusting his best players to finish things off. Maddening.

Against a good opponent at home and holding a one point lead, you'd be worried about the collapse, but Weeden gets pick for his own 4th grad of the day, and that's that. Phew. Nine hours later, I was home.

The weather was great, the seats were great, we got a win, Cleveland's stadium is nice and their fans deserve better. And for everyone who thinks that the Eagles have to keep Vick healthy to had a chance to win big things... um, it really depends on which Vick we're getting, really...

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