It is fall along the Mississippi Flyway, that great avian highway taken by thousands of birds on their annual migration from Canada to as far as South America.
Some follow the river all the way to its source and beyond. Some, like weary travelers in the club car of the City of New Orleans, get off at one of the many station stops along the route.
Unfortunately, however, many of them don’t fly farther than 401 Chicago Ave. in downtown Minneapolis, five blocks from the river, where their journey is interrupted by U.S. Bank Stadium and its 200,000 square feet of mirror-like glass. Each morning, it is someone’s unhappy duty to sweep up the little feathered carcasses and hopefully dispose of them in a respectful manner.
The stadium, which the Minnesota Vikings began to occupy for the 2016 season, cost $1.061 billion to construct. If the price tag had been $1.071 billion instead, the exterior could have employed patterned, bird-safe glass, but the builders said “nah” on that one, preferring the pristine reflection provided by the original design.
The Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority, which owns and operates the stadium, is looking into a solution to the problem, but hasn’t yet reached a conclusion. Meanwhile, it is October and a dangerous time to be a white-throated sparrow heading through town.
For their part, the Eagles, the ones who play football and fly only inside airplanes, have no quarrel with the place so far. In fact, U.S. Bank Stadium has been pretty good to them, although their lone appearance there, on Feb. 4, 2018, was well outside the migratory season. They beat the New England Patriots that day to record their only Super Bowl championship and their first NFL title since 1960.
The Eagles will return for another go this Sunday against the Vikings, and maybe this whole dangerous-to-birds thing is a bit of a stretch, even for a midweek column, but there’s no denying the game, if not the stadium itself, is perilous to their season.
Thanks to Bryce Harper, the Eagles are entering a series of three straight road games against teams with winning records. It is possible they will exit those games with a 6-2 record, and possible they will exit with a 3-5 record. Obviously, in terms of having a successful season, it’s hard to overstate the importance of coming closer to the former than the latter.
In their wisdom, the NFL schedule-makers put what is called a “stadium hold” on Lincoln Financial Field for most of the month of October. This was done in anticipation of the Phillies’ playing across the street much of that time. Apparently, the schedule-makers were wowed by the Phils’ gaudy offseason signings and had more faith in Vince Velasquez and Nick Pivetta than was warranted. Hey, nobody’s perfect.
The league doesn’t like to put a team on the road for three straight weeks — and teams like it even less — but a team or two has to take a schedule hit every season. (Consider the favor the NFL did this season for the Raiders, who don’t have a game in Oakland between Sept. 15 and Nov. 3. That stretch for the Raiders is: at Minnesota, at Indianapolis, vs. Chicago in London, bye, at Green Bay, and at Houston.)
Starting off against the Vikings is going to be tough for the Eagles, and not just because they prepped for it against the North Jersey Jayvees. Since starting play at U.S. Bank Stadium, including the postseason, the Vikes are 20-7 at home. In that same time, they are 13-14-1 on the road.
The stadium is very loud and is a difficult place for opposing offenses to operate. In their three full seasons at the stadium, the Vikings have been ranked third, first, and fourth in total defense. This season, they are fourth.
Teams that beat the Vikings at home have generally been those that also rely on defense, even if they have only so-so offenses. If nothing else, Sunday’s game might be a chance to see what the Eagles are actually good at. In the first five games, that hasn’t been made clear.
The Eagles defense might not be as dominant as the Jets made it look, but they need it to be solid against a Vikings team that pounds the ball. Minnesota is third in rushing yards per game, and 29th in passing yards, with quarterback Kirk Cousins throwing the fewest passes this season of any every-game starter.
At home, the Vikings beat you by not making mistakes, not giving up anything easy, and forcing opponents to construct long scoring drives in a hostile atmosphere. The enclosed stadium looks perfect for a track meet, but that rarely happens there.
Are the Eagles up for the test? The answer to that question might be the answer to the larger questions about the season.