On The Edge Blog

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Eagles make good with second chance

I can’t believe I am getting to write this column!

Not only did the Eagles make the playoffs, they embarrassed the Dallas Cowboys, and officially extended the Cowboys’ streak of seasons without a playoff victory to 12.

I woke up Sunday morning (it was really 12:30 in the afternoon because my three-month-old English bulldog actually allowed me to sleep in), and I planned to watch the key games of the afternoon, but I was not optimistic about the Eagles’ chances.

I believed the Eagles would beat the Cowboys, I just didn’t think that Tampa Bay and Chicago would lose to make the Eagles’ win mean something. It was just the latest in a long string of times this season where I left the Eagles for dead. In fact, it wasn’t even the last time of the day, as I audibly declared the season was over when the Buccaneers took a 24-14 lead over the Raiders in the fourth quarter of their game.

However, thanks to some late-game heroics by Raiders running back Michael Bush and Levittown-native Steve Slaton of the Texans, the Eagles were given a second chance to control their destiny, and they sure made the most of it.

As a team, the Eagles played the most complete game of their season when it mattered most, and Dallas played the sloppiest game of the season when it mattered most.

With a 44-6 beat-down of the Cowboys, the Eagles showed the type of heart and talent that we thought we would see all season. In fact, they played better than any of us could have imagined by scoring touchdowns each time they made it into the red zone, forcing five turnovers, and scoring twice on defense.

The key on Sunday was that the Eagles veteran leaders were not going to be sent home unhappy, while the Cowboys showed that they are a team with a ton of talent, but without a player who will step up to stop the bleeding.

For the Eagles, Brian Dawkins forced two fumbles, Donovan McNabb was a part of three touchdowns, and aging offensive tackles Jon Runyan and Tra Thomas held the Cowboys to just one sack. On the other side, Tony Romo turned the ball over three times, and Terrell Owens did almost nothing until the game was completely out of reach.

Looking ahead, I would not confidently pick the Eagles to win the Super Bowl. Can they do it? Most definitely. Will they do it? Probably not, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they did. The Eagles defense can shut down any team, and the offense can put up points in bunches, but we have yet to see them do it four games in a row.

The only team that I would feel confident picking to win it all is the Indianapolis Colts. The Colts have no real flaws, and have been unstoppable since starting the season 3-4. The other 11 teams all have serious flaws that could hold them back in the next five weeks, but only Atlanta or Minnesota winning it all would shock me at this point.

I guess that’s what makes the playoffs so much fun.

Prediction: Eagles beat the Vikings 27-17, and head to the Meadowlands for a second-round battle with the Giants.


Quick observations:

* Andy Reid is a forgiving coach. He will forgive dropped passes, but apparently, based on L.J. Smith’s vanishing act against the Cowboys, he does not forgive poor execution. DeSean Jackson, who dropped two key passes in the fourth quarter against the Washington Redskins, played his normal role against the Cowboys.However, Smith wasn’t even dressed for what will probably be his last game as an Eagle, and my guess is that his drops last week weren’t the culprit. I believe that his missed block near the goal line on the wide receiver screen to Brian Westbrook is the reason that Brent Celek saw serious playing time this week.

* The Eagles set a franchise record with 416 points scored this year, and Donovan McNabb broke his own franchise record for passing yards. The offense works, but it is inconsistent.

* Do you think Sav Rocca thought about setting up two yards further back on David Akers’ field goal to end the first half? After two blocks on field goals at the end of the first half of games this season, I would have set up further back to make sure this kick wasn’t blocked.

* Did Joselio Hanson mock the Cowboys by doing Deion Sanders’ touchdown dance after his 96-yard fumble return in the third quarter?

* Did you notice that Donovan McNabb did the Ronde Barber “point to the name on his back” after the touchdown pass to Correll Buckhalter? I did, and I loved it!

* Roy E. Williams averaged less than 20 yards per game since joining the Cowboys in a trade that cost them their first-, third- and sixth-round draft picks in the upcoming draft.

* All three members of the Andy Reid coaching tree are in the playoffs this year, as Brad Childress led the Vikings to the NFC North title, and John Harbaugh led the Baltimore Ravens to a wild card spot in the AFC.


Like the “On the Edge” Blog? Hear more of my opinions about Philadelphia sports every Friday at 3:30 p.m. on WBCB 1490 AM during the Coffee with Kahuna show, where, this week, we will talk about the Eagles chances in the first round of the playoffs against the Minnesota Vikings.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Eagles drop the ball against Redskins

The trap was set, and the Philadelphia Eagles fell right in.

After seeing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers lose to the San Diego Chargers earlier in the afternoon, the Eagles were suddenly in complete control of their own destiny, and just needed wins over the Washington Redskins and the Dallas Cowboys to secure a spot in the playoffs.

However, the Eagles dropped the ball. Again. And again. And again. And by my count, five or six more times, including two deep passes to DeSean Jackson, one of which would have tied the game late in the fourth quarter.

The Eagles’ defense showed up and limited the Redskins to just 10 points and 249 yards on offense, but the Eagles’ recently high-powered offense left its swagger three hours north in Philadelphia.

Now, with their 10-3 loss to the Redskins, the Eagles once again find themselves on the outside looking in, and in need of an improbable win by the Oakland Raiders over Tampa Bay this weekend to even have a chance at making the playoffs.

With this loss, we can make the excuse that the Eagles’ offense was shorthanded, playing without Kevin Curtis and Hank Baskett, but missing those guys wasn’t the problem. The problem was that the wide receivers on the field couldn’t remember that they are paid to catch the ball, and not “wap it down!” like a defensive back on a deep ball.

I know that a lot of people are going to question Andy Reid’s play-calling, but that would be misplacing the blame. Yes, the Eagles should have run the ball a lot more than they did. In the Eagles’ last three wins, they ran the ball as much as they threw it, but for some reason, Reid only called seven rushing plays in the second half of the game, compared to 35 passes.

The only problem with that argument is that Brian Westbrook was clearly hurt, and the passing plays actually worked! The wide receivers got open! Donovan McNabb found them!

It really is a simple process, and if the wide receivers knew how to catch the ball, the Eagles would have rolled over the Redskins and we would be looking forward to a showdown with the Cowboys for the last playoff spot in the NFC.

On a side note, I do find it kind of ironic that Reggie Brown has wasted a career by never coming back to the ball, which gives the cornerback a chance to break up the play. However, with the season on the line, he finally learned one of the basic tenants of playing wide receiver, only he came back about a foot too far.

This game, like the loss to the Carolina Panthers in the 2003 NFC Championship game, proves that the West Coast offense works, but you need to have wide receivers, and a tight end, who will actually catch the ball.

Baskett, Curtis, Jackson, and Jason Avant are all nice wide receivers, but none of them are game-changers. Someday, Jackson might be, but his two drops in the fourth quarter prove that he is not there yet. Each one of them would be a fine number two or number three wide receiver, but Sunday’s game proved that the Eagles need a top wide receiver and someone better than Correll Buckhalter to back up Brian Westbrook.

I know everyone says those things after each loss, but if we can only expect a few fully healthy games each year out of B-West, the Eagles need other weapons. When Westbrook is completely healthy, like he was the last few games, the Eagles’ offense will work with anyone split out wide.But on days like Sunday when Westbrook is not at 100 percent, or even 75 percent, the offense will always stumble unless they have guys who can step up and carry the team.

Against the Redskins, McNabb threw the ball 46 times, which is far too many, and his wide receivers only came down with nine catches. That’s pathetic. McNabb is on pace to set a career high in passing yards this year, but unless he gets consistent playmakers on the outside, those will just be empty yards on the way to an unsuccessful season because the Eagles will always have days like this holding them back.


Like the “On the Edge” Blog? Hear more of my opinions about Philadelphia sports every Friday at 3:30 p.m. on WBCB 1490 AM during the Coffee with Kahuna show, where, this week, we will dissect how the Eagles blew their golden opportunity to make the playoffs.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Phillies and Mets make big offseason splashes

Baseball’s general managers spent a few days soaking in the sights and sounds of Las Vegas, and in the process, the powers in the National League East came home with a few new weapons.

As with most winters, the New York Mets have spent a ton of money to fill in the gaping holes in their roster, and like most winters, those holes needed a reasonable solution, not the most expensive.

However, the Phillies - the winners of the last two National League East battles - have taken a more practical approach to their offseason fine-tuning.

Since the Mets came into this offseason needing to improve their club to reach the heights that the Phillies did this season, I’ll start by analyzing their moves.

Make no mistake, the Mets’ bullpen is better right now than it was on the last day of the season, but is it that much better than at the start of 2008? And more importantly, how long will this improvement last?

First, looking at the Francisco Rodriguez signing, the Mets went out and signed the biggest name on the bullpen market, and wound up with what I think is going to be damaged goods, and a huge waste of money.

K-Rod, as those on the West Coast affectionately called him, will be just 27 years old on opening day, but is already on the decline. His 96-mph fastball helped earn him his nickname back in the 2002 playoffs, when he took the league by storm and won five games for the Anaheim Angels in their run to the World Series title. However, just six years later, his fastball sits at 91 mph, and his strikeouts per nine innings dropped by nearly two from the consistent rate of the last three seasons, and his other peripheral numbers are on a consistent decline. Since 2004, his batting average against has jumped from .172 to .216, while his on base percentage against jumped from .258 to .316, and his OPS against has gone from .482 to .629.

In addition, if you compare his statistics to the Mets’ previous closer, Billy Wagner, you’ll see that K-Rod had a similar ERA, but his WHIP (walks plus hits, divided by innings pitched) was a far worse 1.29 compared to Wagner’s 0.89.

The more telling statistic from K-Rod’s 2008 season is that he blew seven saves, and six more back in 2007. Combine that with the eight saves that their other acquisition, J.J. Putz, blew in just 23 chances with the Seattle Mariners last season, and you get a team with a terrible bullpen adding 15 blown saves to their roster at great expenses to their budget and their farm system.

Looking at how their two new acquisitions match up with the Phillies, the Mets lost a closer who threw a 97 mph fastball out of his left hand, which baffled lefty hitters Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, and replaced him with a righty tossing just 91 mph. That has to make a Phillies fan feel good.

For the Phillies, signing Raul Ibanez to play left field is a slight upgrade over Pat Burrell, but mainly saves the team a few dollars to help satisfy the raises coming to Cole Hamels, Ryan Howard, Jayson Werth, Brad Lidge, and the other young players who helped carry the Phillies to their first world championship since 1980.

Comparing their numbers, Ibanez should hit for a higher average, but provides less power than Burrell did. The key statistic for Ibanez is that he has hit at least 30 doubles each season since 2002, which in Citizens Bank Park, could lead to more homers, but more importantly will lead to more runs scored. Those doubles will do far more to help the Phillies score runs than a walk by Pat Burrell. Ibanez, who will probably bat sixth in the lineup behind Jayson Werth, has driven in more than 100 runs each of his last three seasons, and with Utley, Howard and Werth in front of him, he should have plenty of opportunities to continue that streak.

These signings were pretty good starts to the offseason for both teams, but with just two months left until Spring Training, they each still have some work to do. The Phillies just signed Jamie Moyer for another two years, and added Chan Ho Park to be a reliever or the fifth starter, so they just need to determine who will play second base while Utley recovers from hip surgery. However, up in Queens, the Mets still need two more starting pitchers, a few more arms in the bullpen, and an infusion of heart, because as Cole Hamels said, until they prove otherwise, the Mets are a bunch of “choke artists.”

Like the “On the Edge” Blog? Hear more of my opinions about Philadelphia sports every Friday at 3:30 p.m. on WBCB 1490 AM during the Coffee with Kahuna show, where, this week, we will look at the playoff ramifications of this week’s NFL games, while also looking ahead to the Eagles’ divisional battle with the fading Washington Redskins.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Eagles getting back to basics

With their backs against the wall, the Philadelphia Eagles have gone from a disgraceful mess to a team that nearly controls their own destiny after defeating the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants, 20-14 at the Meadowlands.

Amazingly, after losses by Atlanta, Dallas and Washington on Sunday, the Eagles are in a position where if they can win their remaining games, they need just one loss by the Falcons to complete an improbable run to the playoffs. If the Eagles can make the playoffs, this victory over the Giants will go down as the equivalent of the Phillies sweeping the Brewers in September to go from on the verge of being knocked out of contention to turning their season around.

So after an ugly tie to the lowly Cincinnati Bengals and that pathetic 29-point loss to the Ravens, how have the Eagles won consecutive games over teams that have already won their divisions?
Their phoenix-like rise from the ashes has involved them going back to basics. For the most part, to win in the NFL, you need to run the ball, stop the run and not turn the ball over. In their wins over the Cardinals and the Giants, they have done all three perfectly.

A few weeks ago I stated that Andy Reid needed to go back to the offense’s most productive years to get this offense moving, and the play-calling from the last two weeks has been straight out of 2003.

In the last two games, Brian Westbrook has carried the ball 55 times for 241 yards. In the three prior games - two losses and a tie - he had just 41 carries for 125 yards.

However, with Westbrook, just giving him carries is not enough. On Sunday, when the Eagles weren’t running the ball, Westbrook was being moved all over the field to create mismatches. The biggest sign that 2003 is returning was when Reid sent both Westbrook and Lorenzo Booker out there, and then moved Booker to the wide receiver position. Reid hasn’t consistently used multiple running backs on the field at the same time since Duce Staley was the featured back.

Most importantly, Donovan McNabb has protected the ball, not committing a turnover since being benched against the Ravens. McNabb has been consistently among the all-time leaders in throwing the lowest percentage of interceptions, but this year, he has tossed double-digit interceptions for the first time since 2003. In the last two games, he has thrown 69 passes without throwing a pick, and hasn’t lost a fumble in either game.

On the defensive side of ball, the Eagles haven’t played poorly this year, with the exception of the game against Dallas and the first game against the Giants. The one constant among the Eagles throughout the last decade has been their defense. Usually they will have two or three bad games each season, but most of the time, they will put the Eagles in a position to win. Each year, they will be gashed once by the run and once by the pass, and it is quite rare for the same team to embarrass Jim Johnson, the Eagles’ defensive coordinator, twice.

In the last two weeks, the defense has faced the best passing attack and the best rushing attack in the NFL, and both times won the battle.

On Thanksgiving night, the Eagles forced five turnovers, while holding the Cardinals’ high-powered aerial attack to just 235 yards. In the previous post, I bought into the theory that Johnson’s defense would not be ripped apart twice by the same team, and predicted that the Eagles would hold the Giants’ rushing attack to less than 125 yards. On Sunday, they limited the Giants’ “Earth, Wind and Fire” trio of Brandon Jacobs, Ahmad Bradshaw and Derrick Ward to exactly 100 yards, and held the Giants to three yards or less on 13 of their 24 rushing plays.

A few weeks ago, I would never have guessed that I would be writing about the Eagles’ playoff chances, but if they can keep running the ball, continue to covert on third downs (67 percent against the Giants), and not turn the ball over, I like their chances.

By no means will winning the next three games be easy, but with the Browns not having a quarterback, the Redskins in disarray, and the Cowboys potentially coming off of three straight losses, the Eagles could sneak into the playoffs at 10-5-1.

I don’t know if they will make it, but at least they are playing meaningful games right now.

Like the “On the Edge” Blog? Hear more of my opinions about Philadelphia sports every Friday at 3:30 p.m. on WBCB 1490 AM during the Coffee with Kahuna show, where, this week, we will recap the Eagles upset of the Giants, and look ahead to the potential trap game on Monday Night Football against the lowly Cleveland Browns.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Calling an upset!

I'm calling the upset.

Yesterday on 1490 WBCB's Coffee with Kahuna show, I said that Eagles would beat the Giants 24-20. However, the Kahuna wasn't nearly as confident as I am, saying that the Giants would pound the Eagles on the ground all game and beat our Birds 37-24.

To actually pull off the upset, I think the Eagles are going to slow down the Giants' rushing attack. By no means do I think they will shut down the Giants' trio, but I think that Jim Johnson's defense, which was completely dominated a few weeks ago, will hold them to less than 125 yards. To do that, the Eagles' linebackers will need to attack the Giants' backs, instead of waiting for them to attack. It's tough enough to bring down Brandon Jacobs, but when the linebackers are letting Jacobs hit them, instead of them hitting him, it's downright impossible, and we all saw what happened last month when Jacobs was hitting our linebackers.

The Eagles played an awful game on both sides of the ball when these two teams met last month, yet they only lost by 5 points. This time, the Giants will not have Plaxico Burress, who while he did not have a very productive game, his presence did open things up for Kevin Boss and Amani Toomer. Losing Burress will help the Eagles contain the Giants' rushing attack because their secondary will handle the Giants' depleted receiver corps with less help from the linebackers, putting them in better position to stop the run. More importantly, I just don't see Jim Johnson getting embarrassed by the same team twice in a month.

On offense, Brian Westbrook managed just 26 yards on 13 carries, but this week, I expect a much more balanced attack from Andy Reid, and a far more productive day out of Brian Westbrook. Once Westbrook gets going, both on the ground and through the air, it will open things up more for Donovan McNabb and wide receivers.

Truthfully, I wouldn't bet the house on the Eagles, but they are desperation mode, because they need to win out if they want to make a run at the playoffs. I just have a hunch that a desperate Eagles team is going to beat a distracted Giants team.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

All quiet on the free agency front

Free agency is upon us, and seeing how the World Champion Philadelphia Phillies were built, I am prepared for a quiet three months, and I couldn’t be happier.

When the Phillies took the field for the game 5 of the World Series (which they won!), six of the nine starters were drafted by the Phillies, and another, Carlos Ruiz, was signed out of Panama as a teenager.

Looking further, Brett Myers and Ryan Madson were also drafted by the Phillies, while Brad Lidge, Jamie Moyer, and Joe Blanton were acquired for prospects that were drafted by the Phillies. Going even deeper, Jayson Werth, Greg Dobbs, J.C. Romero, and Scott Eyre were waiver-wire pickups that retiring General Manager Pat Gillick brought home from scrap heap. It is pretty clear that free agency is not where the Phillies will find the players necessary to lead them back to the World Series next year.

Unlike the New York Yankees, who are attempting to purchase an entire pitching staff through free agency, the Phillies head into the offseason just looking to fine tune their roster. Even Chase Utley’s hip surgery, which is expected to keep him from playing cold-weather baseball, will not change those plans, as prospect Jason Donald will probably get a chance to shine in Utley’s place.

With Scott Eyre already re-signed as the second lefty in the bullpen, the Phillies can complete their pitching staff by re-signing Jamie Moyer and adding a righty to pitch the middle innings. If Moyer returns, the rotation’s fifth starter will come from inside the organization, with J.A. Happ as the front-runner for the job, but he will have to earn it because there are several other options including top prospect Carlos Carrasco, along with Kyle Kendrick and his new changeup.

On offense, the Phillies have to make one decision, and that is whether or not their longest tenured player comes back for more. Other than Manny Ramirez, Pat Burrell is the best right-handed outfielder on the market.So does Pat come back? Honestly, I don’t think the Phillies have a choice in this situation. They have to bring him back because they can’t go into the season thinking that Geoff Jenkins, Greg Dobbs, and Matt Stairs can replace his production, because none of them can hit a lefty to save their life.

Obviously, Burrell is a liability on defense, but his lack of desire to become a designated hitter limits his options and increases the Phillies’ chances of bringing him back.So how does he come back and why would he go? If Burrell, who turned 32 during the playoffs, wants a five-year contract like Aaron Rowand did last offseason, new General Manager Ruben Amaro should thank him for his service and show him the door. Like Rowand, the loss might sting a little for the first year, but we’re already laughing at the Giants about the four years they have left on Rowand’s deal, and we’ll laugh at the last three or four years of any five-year deal Burrell signs.

At that point, Amaro should focus on signing someone like Milton Bradley or Casey Blake. Jayson Werth won’t be in a platoon to start 2009, so his numbers should jump to Pat Burrell territory, so whoever the Phillies sign to replace Burrell just has to provide Werth’s output, not Burrell’s output.

However, if Burrell wants to sign for three years to stay in Philadelphia, sign him up! The key to Burrell’s game is hitting homers and drawing walks. At this point, his bat speed is still at the point that he can turn on a fastball. He can also foul off pitch after pitch until he gets his fastball or draws a walk, but how long can that last?

At some point, his bat speed is going to slow down, and he will start swinging through pitches with two strikes instead of fouling them off, and then a lot of those walks will turn into strikeouts. Five years is too long, but three should be just right.

That is all of the decisions the new general manager needs to make. Isn’t it wonderful to go into free agency as the World Series champions, and watch everyone else scramble to figure out how to get their hands on what you just won?

Like the “On the Edge” column? Hear more of my opinions about Philadelphia sports every Friday at 3:30 p.m. on WBCB 1490 AM during the Coffee with Kahuna show, where, this week, we will look ahead to the Eagles battle with the Giants. The Kahuna and I will also analyze all of baseball’s offseason wheelings, dealings and rumors.
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Name: Matthew Fleishman, Yardley News Editor
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