On The Edge Blog

Friday, August 29, 2008

Eagles' aerial attack will still fly

It seems so simple. A team that likes to pass the ball more than it runs should have top players who can catch those passes on a consistent basis.

Apparently, a thought like that doesn’t get you a job as a head coach in Philadelphia. In fact, just the opposite gets you into your tenth year as the coach of our beloved Philadelphia Eagles. But maybe, just this year, Andy Reid is right.

Now, I have always been a defender of Andy Reid. I accept that he isn’t a great second-half coach because he usually comes prepared with a fine game plan out of the shoot, which is evidenced by the 88-56 record he has compiled in his first nine seasons with the Birds. His eight playoff wins are the most in Eagles history, and his 13-5 record against the Cowboys doesn’t seem too shabby either, but at some point, I will admit, you would have to really question his stubbornness when it comes to the wide receiver position.

But not this season.

Any other season of Andy Reid’s tenure as head coach of the Eagles, I would be screaming for another wide receiver, because despite published timeframes, I honestly don’t expect to see Kevin Curtis on the field until the Thanksgiving game against Arizona. Except this season, I feel relatively calm about the Eagles’ wide receiver situation.

Of course I would love to see them trade some combination of Lito Sheppard and draft picks to Arizona for Anquan Boldin, but he’s not available because the Cardinals’ front office is more messed up than any group in the NFL.

So now the Eagles are probably going into the season with Reggie Brown, DeSean Jackson, Hank Baskett, and Jason Avant at wide receiver. But that isn’t where the story ends. The Eagles still have Brian Westbrook catching passes out of the backfield, along with L.J. Smith and Brent Celek spreading the field at tight end.

Not to invoke a Passover reference into a sports column, but why is this season different from all other seasons?

First, L.J. Smith is healthy and coming up on free agency, which means that we can expect to see the 2005/2006 L.J. Smith, who compiled nearly 1,300 yards in the two seasons. A healthy L.J. should open things up for Brown and Jackson on the outside because it is much tougher to double cover wide receivers when the safety has to worry about the tight end blowing by the linebacker. I still don’t like that he doesn’t tuck the ball away when he is running, but he should be quite effective in the passing game this season.

Looking at the receivers, the Eagles are finally going to utilize Hank Baskett’s size for something other than run blocking. Last year, when the Eagles couldn’t find the end zone with a GPS system, I was screaming for them to throw the fade pass to Baskett, and let the 6-4 high jumper go up and get the ball over a 5-9 cornerback. During training camp, Donovan McNabb and Baskett worked on the play numerous times, and it appears to be in the playbook. Also DeSean Jackson, with his speed, looks like a player born to thrive in the West Coast offense. He worked out Jerry Rice in the offseason, and when the best receiver in NFL history, who also thrived in the West Coast offense, has only good things to say about a player, I’m inclined to believe that he might just be the real deal.

Taking a look at the numbers, in McNabb’s most production season, 2004, he completed exactly 300 passes. Using that figure as the goal, and giving Westbrook his 80 catches, and the tight ends their 80 catches, the Eagles would only need 140 receptions from the receiving corps to reach that figure. Considering that Reggie Brown caught 61 passes in a down year last season, does anyone honestly believe that those four receivers can’t combine to reach 140 catches? Then add in Jackson, who looks like a steal in the middle of the second round of the draft, and McNabb could realistically approach his career high of 330 completions, which he set in 2000.
So why is everyone worried?

According to the majority of Eagles fans, or at least the most vocal, Kevin Curtis, and his 1,110 receiving yards last year, wasn’t a number one receiver anyway, so why would we miss him?

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Fightins drop a tough one

After Tuesday night's thriller, the Phillies had just enough left in the tank to chase Johan Santana from the game, but with a bullpen missing its key set up men -- Ryan Madson, Chad Durbin, J.C. Romero, and Clay Condrey -- the Phillies couldn't hold on to a 3-2 lead, and dropped back into second place, a half-game behind the Mets.

After the bullpen threw 10 innings the day before, it was pretty apparent that the Phillies needed an innings-eating start from Kyle Kendrick, but he fell about two innings short of what was necessary. Kendrick only lasted five innings, throwing 101 pitches while working his way in and out of trouble. Although he left with the lead, he did not provide the 7 innings necessary to bypass a tired bullpen and hand the ball over to Brad Lidge.

With the Mets off tonight, Cole Hamels has a chance to pull the Phillies tied for first place with the Mets tonight, as the Phils start a tough four game series in Chicago. The Fightins need to come up with at least a split in the Windy City, and with Hamels, Blanton, Myers, and Moyer going, 2-2 or 3-1 should be possible.

Quick Thoughts: Lefty reliever Scott Eyre has been another amazing August find for Pat Gillick. He threw 2 scoreless innings last night, after throwing 1 2/3 scoreless innings on Tuesday night...Johan Santana, the Mets prize offseason acquisition is just 1-1 with 2 no decisions against the Phillies. Wasn't Santana brought to New York to shut down the Phillies lefty-heavy lineup? The Mets and Phils have split his four starts, each going 2-2 this season when Santana takes the hill.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Fightins back in first!

Last night's 8-7 victory over the Mets, which included coming back from down 7-0, showed the difference between the two teams. That difference has been apparent since last August when the Phils swept the Mets and planted the seeds of doubt into the minds of the Mets players. When the Phillies hand the ball over to the bullpen, the game is over. When the Mets' bullpen starts loosening up, the game is just beginning.

The Phillies' bullpen tossed 10 innings of relief, surrendering just one run, and didn't allow a Met to cross the plate after the 5th inning. The Mets bullpen gave up runs in the eighth, ninth, and 13th innings, blowing a two run lead, and handing the Fightins first place in the National League East.

How many times since last August have we seen the Mets jump out to a big lead, only to have their bullpen hand the game over to the Phillies?

Down the stretch, can the Mets feel that any lead is safe? Will their starting pitchers be overworked by Jerry Manuel because he's afraid of handing the ball over to his bullpen, which ranks 23rd in the Majors in ERA, and is missing closer Billy Wagner?

On the flip side, how confident must Charlie Manuel feel about turning to his bullpen? With Brad Lidge closing the door on every save opportunity, and leading the National League's best bullpen (3.05 ERA), Charlie has to feel good no matter who appears when the bullpen door swings open.

Another game tonight versus the Mets, with Kyle Kendrick drawing the daunting task of dueling with Johan Santana. Santana, who has been brilliant this season going 12-7 with a 2.64 ERA, is well aware of the struggles that the Mets bullpen has faced this year, especially against the Phillies. Santana watched from the bench as his bullpen let a 5-2 lead slip away in the ninth inning, and ended up with a no decision in the Mets 8-6 loss to the Phillies on July 22. He also received a no decision on 3-2 loss in June when Shane Victorino hit a walk off single to win it for the Phils.

On a side note, how hilarious was Brett Myers' at bat in the 13th inning? Everyone knew he wasn't going to swing, but he was dancing around and jumping out of the way of the pitches, hoping to draw a walk-off walk.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Eagles’ defense is ready to carry the load

The one consistent thing from the 24 years of Eagles football that I have been alive to see is that if the Eagles are posting double-digit wins, it usually means that the defense is at the top of its game.

Back in the days of Buddy Ryan, the Eagles, despite having Randall Cunningham in his prime, were known for their defense, led by the pair of gone-too-soon defensive linemen, Reggie White and Jerome Brown, along with Clyde Simmons, Eric Allen, and Seth Joyner.

Then in the early part of this decade, the Eagles rose to prominence on the backs of their standout secondary, which included current free safety Brian Dawkins, and cornerbacks Bobby Taylor and Troy Vincent.

After recent seasons of suffering through sub-par defensive efforts, which included an injured secondary, aging linebackers, and a porous defensive line, the Birds defense finally looks a unit that could carry the team into the playoffs, regardless of who is throwing and catching passes on offense.

While the Eagles’ pass rush still lacks a consistent threat other than Pro Bowl defensive end Trent Cole, the secondary is once again primed to lead Defensive Coordinator Jim Johnson’s defense to the top of the pack in the NFL.

The Eagles’ secondary is stacked with three top ranked cornerbacks—Asante Samuel, Sheldon Brown and Lito Sheppard, assuming Sheppard focuses on having a big year and parlaying that into the type of big-money contract that he is looking for next offseason.

With this much talent in the secondary, the Eagles defense will work in the exact opposite manner of Andy Reid’s approach to building a football team. The head coach has always said that the best football teams are built from the trenches out, meaning that you start with the big guys on the line and then work your way out to the speedy guys near the sidelines.However, for Johnson, having three top cornerbacks will give him the ability to play man-to-man defense, which means that he will be free to send more blitzers after the quarterback. This will be a stark change in strategy compared to the last few seasons, in which he had to rush the front four and drop six or seven guys into coverage to make up for having to rely on players like Joselio Hanson and Will James.

Suddenly, an undersized defensive line will look a lot stronger going after the quarterback because it will include the linebackers on the blitz, who are the hidden strength of the Eagles defense.

Led by Stewart Bradley, a third round pick last year, this year’s group of linebackers has the potential to develop into one of the best trios in recent memory. Bradley, along with Omar Gaither, and Chris Gocong, were thrown into the fire last year and came out more experienced and ready to perform. Each of these players can blitz, stop the run, and cover a running back or tight end in the open field, which is a skill-set that some previous linebackers—Jeremiah Trotter, Mark Simoneau, Carlos Emmons, Levon Kirkland, Barry Gardner, to name a few—were lacking.

The end result of all of these changes on defense should be more turnovers and negative-yardage plays for a team that struggled to win the turnover battle last year and create good field position for the offense. After all, Samuel has 16 interceptions in his last two seasons, Lito will be roaming around covering overmatched slot receivers, and the Eagles will be able to run their overload blitzes without being afraid of giving up a big play to the offense.

And when the Giants defeated the Patriots by shutting down their high-powered offense in the Super Bowl, we were given one more piece of evidence to the fact that defense wins championships, and this defense, as it is presently constructed, looks capable of making the big plays that are needed to win games in January and February.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Rollins and Howard need to step up their games

Well these Philadelphia Phillies sure are full of surprises.

The bullpen has been among the best in majors, ranking third in ERA, and their starters have come around nicely since Brett Myers returned to the rotation (2-0, 2.10 ERA since July 23) and Joe Blanton was brought aboard (3.27 ERA as a Phillie).

If I said that the Phillies would have the third best overall ERA in the National League and eighth best ERA in the majors, wouldn’t you expect them to have the best record in baseball with their hitting prowess? I sure would have!

But they don’t.

And the problem lies squarely on the shoulders of the reigning National League MVP, Jimmy Rollins. That’s right, I’m calling out J-Roll.

The Phillies offense, which shouldn’t go scoreless for three innings, was shut out for 23 straight innings last week, and Jimmy Rollins couldn’t bother running hard on a groundball in the ninth inning of Thursday’s shutout loss to the Marlins. During that same game, Florida’s outfielder Josh Willingham almost (and probably did) beat out an infield grounder.

So if the Marlins’ 215-pound catcher/left fielder can run hard on every play, why can’t our speedy little MVP, who actually has a realistic chance of legging out a few infield hits?

Now I’m not saying that if Jimmy Rollins starts running out a few groundballs then suddenly Carlos Ruiz is going to stop hitting lifeless grounders each time he comes to the plate, or that Eric Bruntlett will suddenly turn into Mike Schmidt, but it certainly could help the big bats behind him in the order.

You are probably reading this and wondering what’s the big deal? So what if Rollins is on base one or two extra times each week?

Sometimes it could be completely worthless, but maybe it could start a rally that wins a game or force the opposing manager to make an earlier call to the bullpen. More importantly, what if it helps Chase Utley or Ryan Howard break out of a slump? I’m not a hitting instructor or anything, but couldn’t Utley, who has suffered through hitless streaks of 12, 17 and 24 at bats this year, benefit from having Rollins dancing around at first base and distracting the pitcher? It’s pretty common knowledge that having a speedy guy on first base causes the pitcher to throw more fastballs and miss his spots more often, all to the benefit of the batter.

I like a lot of the things that J-Roll does, but I want to see him run as fast for grounders as he did last year when he legged out his 20th triple of the season in the last game of the year.

Sadly though, it’s not just the 2007 National League MVP that is dragging the team down. The 2006 National League MVP, Ryan Howard, is doing his part to keep the Mets and Marlins on the Fightins’ heels.

I’m not even talking about his .240 batting average, because he is really crushing the ball with runners in scoring position, hitting .321 and driving in 67 runs. I’m talking about his 14 errors at first base.

First base is the easiest position on the diamond, and Howard can’t even be called average at the position. His problem is that he can’t make the throw across his body to the shortstop covering second base. And it’s not just the 14 errors, because many times his throw to Rollins after a successful pick-off move by the pitcher is off target or late, and a baserunner who should have been picked off is now in scoring position.

I’m not saying that I expect these guys to be perfect, but at least give us consistent play. I know that Rollins is going to strikeout a few times by chasing a high fastball, and that Howard is going to strikeout on pretty much any pitch in or out of the zone, but that doesn’t mean they can’t do the little things right. Rollins should want to be legging out infield grounders so that he can raise his average and make more money in his next contract, which is up after the 2010 season by the way, and Howard could show up 10 minutes early for some extra infield practice, and no longer be a liability in the field.

Just remember, if the Phillies fall short by a game or two, I’m not going to sit around blaming guys like Ruiz and Geoff Jenkins for not exceeding expectations, I’m going to place the blame squarely on the MVPs who couldn’t give the extra effort and put the team over the top.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Eagles getting ready to take flight...hopefully

I know that the Phillies are in the thick of a pennant race, and that the first meaningful Eagles game is still more than a month away, but I’m really starting to get excited for football season. And also worried.

The Eagles, who rarely have non-Terrell Owens induced commotion, have already seen more training camp drama than in any of the Andy Reid years combined (not including 2005).

So far, three Pro Bowl players are either missing or unhappy, and the prize free agent acquisition, Asante Samuel is already hobbled with a hamstring injury.

While Donovan McNabb is looking healthy and sharp, Brian Westbrook, Lito Sheppard and Shawn Andrews are giving me headaches, and making it a lot harder to defend the Eagles’ Super Bowl chances to my friends from Washington, D.C. and New York.

Starting with the best player/drama queen, running back Brian Westbrook is going to get his money. I don’t think anyone can deny that he deserves every penny that he can get for carrying this team for the last two seasons, including making Jeff Garcia look like a Pro Bowl quarterback in 2006. The only holdup is that there are salary cap issues with re-negotiating his contract, but considering the fact that McNabb said he needs him, and Andy Reid and Joe Banner both know that Westbrook is Kevin Kolb’s only chance for success in 2009 or 2010, it’s almost a certainty that a pile of money will be headed down Route 36 West later this month.

But just in case, the Eagles did trade for Lorenzo Booker, who with a similar, yet inferior skill set, can run the same plays as Westbrook. The Eagles did the same thing the last time Westbrook was having a contract issue, but Ryan Moats turned out to be a bust.

On the defensive side of the ball, Lito Sheppard, who has missed nearly a full season of games since 2005, wants a new contract, and a little of the R-E-S-P-E-C-T that Aretha Franklin sings about. Lito needs to realize that with four years left on his contract, he needs to start picking off passes, instead of whining about his spot on the depth chart. The only thing that will get him a new contract or a ticket out of Philadelphia is solid play.

If Lito were smart, he would realize that being the nickel cornerback means covering an average receiver, instead of the Chad Johnsons and Plaxico Burresses of the NFL. A weaker receiver across from him means more interceptions for Lito, and then the big bucks from some other team.

I also don’t see Lito’s new agent, Drew Rosenhaus, causing any public trouble because his dog and pony show is wearing thin on many people around the league. Look for Lito to have a very productive season, and then be thrown into another sticky situation next year.

The final bit of drama regards guard Shawn Andrews. As of this writing, Andrews is working out “personal issues” far away from Lehigh. I don’t know what that means, and I won’t even venture a guess, but Max Jean-Gilles, who I have been very high on since the Eagles drafted him out of Georgia, is looking great in his place.

If Andrews comes back in shape, it is great for the Eagles to have gotten an extended look at Jean-Gilles, but if he doesn’t, the offensive line will be worse, but should still get the job done.After the first week, how much would you give to trade all of this for a simple McNabb/Kolb controversy?


Quick observations from the first few days of training camp:

* The Eagles have far too many below average receivers. Greg Lewis, Jason Avant, Hank Baskett, and a bunch of guys who don’t really matter, are all fighting for two spots. My guess is that Jason Avant, for his route running, and Hank Baskett, because he’s the only wide receiver taller than 6-feet on the team, fill out the roster behind Reggie Brown, Kevin Curtis and DeSean Jackson.

* If Brian Westbrook and Lorenzo Booker are on the field at the same time, they are too quick for any team to cover with linebackers. Hopefully, Andy Reid is creative enough to develop passing plays for the dual running back set when teams leave their linebackers on the field. More importantly, hopefully he is smart enough, and not too stubborn, to run the ball with one of the backs or call a quarterback draw when teams switch to the dime package to counter the Eagles’ speed in the backfield. Hopefully teams will be forced to stack the box to contain their speed, which will make it easier for Brown, Curtis and Jackson to get open downfield for some big gains.

* Eventually, the Eagles need to cut bait on some of the young players who are taking up roster spots but not performing. Ryan Moats (who I thought would be great when he was drafted), Jerome McDougle, Scott Young, Sean Considine, Jason Avant, Hank Baskett, and Nick Cole should all be given a chance to shine during preseason or be released. The Eagles can’t keep drafting eight or nine players each year and letting them rot behind average starters and subpar backups. Either trade groups of draft picks for higher picks and better players, or release the ones who haven’t made an impact by their third year and let the rookies get a chance instead of sitting on the practice squad.

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Name: Matthew Fleishman, Yardley News Editor
Location: United States

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