Most NFL fans exhibit A Rooting Interest for one or more NFL teams.
In my case, not only do I root for certain teams, but I also root against several, a bit of Schadenfreude I allow myself after four decades of exposure to some of the league’s more malignant franchises and personalities. But since I’ve lived in the Philadelphia suburbs most of my adult life, I now actively root for the Eagles.
(I also root for the Minnesota Vikings as well as my original hometown team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, but that’s irrelevant to this story.)
These days, Philadelphia is playing winning football. Jalen Hurts runs an explosive offense capable of scoring at anytime from anywhere on the field. Unfortunately, the Eagles’ once-dominant defense is not nearly as dependable and/or threatening to opponents.
Despite their deficiencies, coming into last Sunday’s NFC Championship game rematch against the San Francisco 49ers, the 2023 Eagles had won 10 of their first 11 games. Their weekly winning formula—though difficult to endure—ultimately was proving to be quite successful:
Start slowly, fall behind in the first half by ten points or so, then dominate the final 30 minutes to win the game, often in last-second, dramatic fashion. It aged all of us who watched every game, every week. Yet it convinced those of us with a genuine and loyal rooting interest that this 2023 team was nothing less than invincible!
Last week, the poop hit the propellor.
After a 5-0 start, followed by an inexplicable three-game losing streak, the 49ers came to Philly riding a 3-game win streak while playing their best football of the season. Prior to kickoff last week, while attending an Eagles Party, a friend innocently asked me how I felt about Philly’s chances. I literally shook my head and said nothing. I was there to root for my adopted home team. But I told my wife on the way over that I expected San Francisco to win the game by 10-13 points.
Ever notice how diehard football fans watching their home team getting destroyed become very predictable as hope begins to fade and the unfavorable result becomes inevitable? The psychology of such moments fascinates me.
The Philadelphia Eagles, whose big-name players are well-known to most of the folks with whom I watched last Sunday’s game, do not know any of us. And yet, many of the folks in attendance felt personally betrayed by the Eagles’ poor performance.
Something about this level of identification with and reverence for these padded, helmeted professional warriors speaks to the phenomenon of “fans,” which derives from the old English word (circa 1550) “fanatik,” meaning “marked by excessive enthusiasm and often intense uncritical devotion.” The modern Latin “fanaticus” means “insanely but divinely inspired,” while the old Greek root “phantastikos,” means “belonging to a sect or party.”
To me, all these terms remind me of NFL hometown fans on gameday! I'm talking grown-ass adults huddled around a big-screen television , drinking alcoholic beverages, wearing official NFL garb to demonstrate their loyalty, then finally losing our collective minds over 22 grown-ass men waging a calculated physical war while running with, throwing, catching and occasionally kicking a leather ball.
Because when things don’t go well for the home team and disappoint reigns, many of these diehard fans suffer from Genuine NFL Grief—in its five familiar recognizable states:
Denial Anger Bargaining Depression Acceptance
Denial. In grief’s first phase, I hear: “They’re holding on every play!” And “That’s interference!!” And “These refs suck!!!” (BTW, NFL “refs” are called “officials,” not “refs.” Each officiating crew contains one referee: the guy wearing the white hat who announces penalties.) The bottom-line consensus last week: No way our team—the one we’re all rooting for—could possibly be playing this poorly on its own.
Anger. Next to take the heat are coaches, coordinators and broadcasters: “WTF kind of play call was that?” And “Run the f---ing ball!” And “Blitz him, asshole!” And, of course, “I can’t stand Collinsworth (or Aikman or Romo or whoever happens to be analyzing the events that committed fans, in the clutches of denial, can’t possibly acknowledge). And each new gripe becomes more personal.
Bargaining. At this point, the laments begin: “We needed touchdowns instead of field goals on those first two drives." And “They missed the f---ing sack!” Note the subtle difference in these two. In the first lament, “We” suggests the alliance between hometown fan and team remains intact, albeit on shakier ground. In the second, “They” implies that a boundary has been crossed, resulting in a violation of the fan/team agreement. In short: “If you expect my support, if you want me to maintain my rooting interest, don’t disappoint me.”
Depression. And then: “We’re just not as good as last year.” And “Is there another game on? And “Who needs another drink?” Reality settles in. Philadelphia’s streak of comeback wins ends today—and in rather embarrassing fashion, too: SF 42, PHL 19!
Acceptance. Ultimately (and hopefully), anger fades, emotions chill and better judgment prevails. And people remember that Brock Purdy’s regular-season record as the 49ers’ starting QB was 13-3 coming into this one. And that the Eagles’ linebackers and safeties aren’t playing very good pass defense these days. Or tackling opponents in the open field. And that San Francisco’s skill players are really f---ing good!
And if the 49ers debacle wasn’t bad enough, “we” have go on the road to Dallas next week. Yes, Genuine NFL Grief—the ancillary of having A Rooting Interest. And with a month left in the regular season, there’s plenty more to go around for everybody's diehard fans!