Rich Hofmann: Fans remain loyal to Eagles despite unfulfilled hopes

Unfulfilled expectations have haunted Jeff Lurie and Joe Banner. (Michael Perez/Staff file photo)

IN A DAILY NEWS poll, 54 percent of people said the Phillies were their favorite team and 30 percent said it was the Eagles. But 70 percent said that Philadelphia is a football town, only 27 percent a baseball town. If only one team could win a championship over the next decade, 47 percent said, in a followup survey, that they hoped it would be the Eagles, 37 percent the Phillies. And in my personal favorite question, a variation on the "who would you like to be stranded with on a desert island" question, people were asked in the followup if all four pro teams were going bankrupt or leaving town and only one could be saved, which would most Philadelphians choose. Fifty-three percent said the Eagles, 46 percent the Phillies.

When forced in late March to make a choice, this population of casual sports fans that was culled from the ranks of Daily News online readers chose the Phillies as their favorite. But the rest of the numbers speak of an underlying devotion to football and to the Eagles, and to the notion that they are generally happy about the team, just not thrilled.

After thinking about it for a minute, club president Joe Banner hit on something, and it seemed exactly right. He said, "It's because of the accumulation of almosts."

The Eagles are weighed down by expectations that have built over a decade, expectations that always have been unfulfilled at the end. The bar, set high, has remained unsurpassed - and that bar now casts a shadow over everything.

There are other things, too. You don't let a Brian Dawkins leave and watch him go to another Pro Bowl in Denver without feeling a backlash. You can't have a head coach who stiff-arms most attempts at inquisition - for more than a decade - without sometimes getting a stiff-arm in return.

But it really does seem to be those unfulfilled expectations most of all, those almosts.

The varying poll numbers, Banner said, "probably suggest that one answer doesn't fit all. I will say it's different than the market research that we have. I think it's a combination of the fact that the Phillies have experienced a tremendous amount of recent success about which there is tremendous justifiable enthusiasm and

appreciation. And although we have received a degree of success, the building expectations have left people feeling less positive, even with the degree of success that we've had.

"Our success over the last 4 or 5 years is not quite as good as the previous 4 or 5 years. But if you surveyed people 4 or 5 years ago, they would have felt much more positive about where we were than where we are now."

As Banner said, the Eagles - who have been polling since Jeffrey Lurie bought the team in the mid-'90s - have different numbers. They released some of them last year. In the case of Lurie, coach Andy Reid and then-quarterback Donovan McNabb, the Daily News numbers from casual fans were somewhat positive and the Eagles' numbers - described as coming from "avid" fans - were more positive.

"[The avids] are only a slice of the population and are highly skewed to the positive," said Dr. Aubrey Kent, director of Temple's Sport Industry Research Center, which conducted the DN survey. "Even in our data, if only looking at the 'avids,' it is a much more positive picture . . . 'Avid' fans are highly identified and take the team very personally. They are, therefore, very unlikely to view the team negatively; instead, choosing to blame any misfortune on other factors such as the officiating or bad luck, etc."

There is an eerie consistency in the Daily News numbers when you look at the combined dissatisfied numbers: 38 percent for Banner, 37 percent for Reid, 36 percent for McNabb. And the thing is, every one of us suspects that there would be a lot less dissatisfaction if they had won a Super Bowl.

"I would say it is overwhelmingly because we haven't won it all, but I don't think that's the only thing," Banner said. "The nature of the history of the Eagles and our fans is that they're intense and they're passionate. They're both complimentary and critical when warranted. When we do well, they're the loudest cheerers. When we do poorly, they're the loudest booers.

"In that context, when we make a mistake - which we do - it becomes big. Combining that with the fact that we haven't won it all, and the accumulation of frustration over that, I think that produces the results that you have."

Again, no one doubts that if the Eagles had won a Super Bowl and the Phillies had fallen short in the 2008 World Series, the results would likely have been flipped. It is the nature of sports, and of Philadelphia, and of humans. At the same time, though, there can be no disputing one aspect of the numbers: the overall scrutiny that these two franchises currently share.

"I think people care a lot about both teams," Banner said. "In a city with this kind of passion for sports, it is what you would expect. The reality is, when we came in and took over the Eagles and started doing our own survey, despite the fact that neither team was incredibly popular, our own work indicated the Phillies were more popular at that point. Then there was an extended period where that changed.

"Now the two teams are in a position at a much higher level of both being teams that the fans pay a lot of attention to, care deeply about, live and breathe every move we make, every game we win or lose. That probably is the clearest thing that comes out of those results,

regardless of who is in first or second - that there is a lot of passion about both teams."

That, and about how some of the passion remains so memorably unfulfilled.

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