Sun, Dec 28, 2003 - Page 23 News List

New stadiums may be spooking ghosts of years gone by

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , DENVER COLORADO

In Philly, they fretted. Did a plush, new stadium called "The Linc" knock the nasty out of those famously feisty fans?

In Green Bay, they're cheesed. Has Lambeau Field's pretty face-lift warmed the frozen tundra, turning the Packers into fresh meat in their own park?

And in Denver, the debate drags on. Why does Invesco Field at Mile High seem so much meeker than manic Mile High Stadium?

Across the NFL, new digs or stadium makeovers often are blamed for chasing away the old ghosts and dousing throaty passions. Creaky, cranky gridiron houses begat gleaming malls packed with restaurants, retail and ritzy sky boxes. They're sleek and swank, but something is missing, fans complain.

The home-field edge has been sanded, spackled and repainted into a soft slope of corporate ticket-holders -- football newbies who are too cool to cheer, too busy to stay for the whole game. Or so the thinking goes.

Of course, that story is more inflated than Joe Horn's cell phone bill.

"When you get beat at home, people always look for excuses," said retired Green Bay safety LeRoy Butler. "I'll break it down this way: 90 percent of it is what you put on the field. The stadium, the uniform, the intangibles are worth 10 percent."

Simply put: Talent, preparation and play calls win and lose games. Not the glorious history of a football field. Not the playing surface. Not even the acoustics.

Of course, that hasn't stopped the sporadic witch hunts in Philadelphia, Green Bay and Denver, where fans sought easy answers for occasionally anemic home showings.

In many cases, the new (or upgraded) stadium wrongly took the blame.

Opening night in Philadelphia lured John Madden and ABC's cameras for the nation's first glimpse at Lincoln Financial Field. The cold, concrete realities of "The Vet" were dead and buried. "The Linc" was a key link in a plan to boost the Eagles into an elite franchise and Super Bowl winner, according to team owner Jeffrey Lurie.

The words sounded good. And the place looked good. Problem was, Philly flopped in its home opener, losing 17-0 to Tampa Bay. The next Sunday, the Eagles bombed again at home, embarrassed 31-10 by New England.

Fingers were pointed, some at quarterback Donovan McNabb's sloppy throws. (Rush Limbaugh may have shared an opinion.) But Lincoln Financial Field was catching flak, too. Was the place just too cushy compared to rough-and-tumble Veterans Stadium? Were the ornery Philly fans -- who once booed Santa Claus -- being lulled into complacency by the pretty surroundings?

"There was a lot of that early in the season," said Merrill Reese, the Eagles' radio voice since 1977. "People were saying that maybe it's not as loud, maybe it's not as intimidating to the opponents, doesn't have the character."

Then the Eagles ripped through five straight home wins en route to an 11-4 record.

"They don't say those things anymore," Reese said. "And they are the same old Philadelphia fans. There was a fear they would become too corporate. But they are all there. They are there in force. If they're unhappy, they boo. If they're happy, they cheer.

"The Philadelphia fans have not changed."

But have they mellowed in Denver?

That's been the talk since September 2001, when the Broncos moved to Invesco Field -- a place sometimes described as hushed, clean and lacking grit. During the past two seasons, the Broncos are 17-7 at home. Not bad.

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