On The Edge Blog

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Flyers look dangerous as April approaches

It’s the end of March, and that means baseball season is still more than a week away, and the NFL Draft is a month away. It also means that it is time for the first Flyers column of the year!

I know it has been nearly six months since the season started, but I’ll be honest with you, if you weren’t paying attention, you didn’t miss anything you haven’t already seen out of every Flyers team since Bernie Parent was between the pipes.

Last year, I wrote that every Flyers season includes a major injury, a star in a huge slump, and a goalie controversy, and while this season was no different, as the calendar turns to April, the Flyers are suddenly in position to be a very dangerous team.

Danny Briere filled the role of the injured star, the entire defense went through a nice slump, and the winter months were filled to the brim with goalie controversy, but that’s just par for the course in Philadelphia.

However, those problems are long gone, as the Flyers gear up for what hopefully will be another deep playoff run.

Starting in net, Martin Biron has won 10 of his last 14 starts since being yanked out of a mid-February game against the Eastern Conference-leading Boston Bruins. His performance down the stretch has cemented (at least temporarily) his status as the starting goalie.

Going into that game against the Bruins, Biron had lost four starts in a row, and Antero Niittymaki was riding a hot streak, but since then they have switched streaks as Biron is flying high while Niitty looks behind him for the puck.

While solid goaltending is obviously a vital part of a playoff run, the most important development for this year’s Flyers came last week when coach John Stevens shuffled the Flyers’ lines to give them three very potent scoring lines.

In the playoffs last year, the Flyers were able to beat the Washington Capitals and Montreal Canadiens because their lines were very top-heavy from a scoring standpoint. It was only when they faced the Pittsburgh Penguins, who could score goals no matter which line was on the ice, did the Flyers struggle.

Using that same model, the Flyers now have two 20-goal scorers on each of the their top three lines, and that doesn’t even include Briere, who would surely have at least 30 goals if he hadn’t missed more than 50 games this season, and uber-prospect Claude Giroux.

The best part of this new lineup is that a guy like Mike Richards, who leads the Flyers in points, assists and plus/minus rating, is the center on the third line. If an opponent has to worry about your third line because that’s where your leading scorer is, they are in for a long night on defense. It also means that their offense won’t be able to get going because their players will be on constant alert for the odd-man rush the other way.

While the Flyers are now a threat to score from each of their top three lines thanks to Stevens’ shuffle, this is only possible because of the huge steps forward taken by guys like Jeff Carter and Scott Hartnell.While Hartnell just needed to focus on his game and not let the other team get under his skin to become a 30-goal scorer, Carter’s case was a little different.

Carter always has had the potential to be a star, but didn’t really step up until late last season, after being involved in more trade rumors than he could count.This season, he has reached 40 goals for the first time in his career, and is playing with a fire that seemed to be missing in previous seasons.
Perhaps the most important part of his growth has been the increase in his shooting accuracy. Before this season, Carter was about as accurate as Donovan McNabb on a crossing route, but through a lot of hard work, his shots now find the back of the net more often than they hit the netting above the glass.

Right now, the Flyers are in fourth place in the tightly jumbled Eastern Conference, but with a surprising amount of depth on defense to go with their suddenly potent offense, the Flyers are poised to make some noise in the playoffs.

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 Phillies as they head into the final days of spring training, as well as Villanova’s run in the NCAA Tournament.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Clearwater clearing things up for the Phils

After five days in the warm Florida sun (while it was very cold in Philadelphia!), I am more convinced than ever that the Phillies are gearing up for another title run.

Now, the final scores of the four games I saw, which I just had to look up because I had no idea what they were, are not important because these games took place in March. Apparently, the Phillies lost three of the four games I attended.

However, what is important is how the youngsters are developing, how healthy the veterans are, and who will fill out the starting rotation.

Let’s start with the most important two events of the week. Chase Utley and Pedro Feliz, who are both rebounding from offseason surgeries, made their Grapefruit League debuts.While both looked quite rusty at the plate, they both moved fluidly in the field, and were able to run hard out of the batter’s box, which is a good sign that they will be on the field for the season opener.

Staying in the infield, before my trip, I was convinced that Jason Donald could easily make the switch from a middle infield prospect to a Major League third baseman, but after seeing him taking ground balls at the hot corner, I’ll admit that I was dead wrong.

Donald was eaten alive on multiple grounders during batting practice, and didn’t display the arm strength necessary to make quick and accurate throws across the diamond.This means that Donald will probably start the season in Lehigh Valley, with the Triple-A Iron Pigs, instead of pushing Pedro Feliz for a starting job with the big club. With this information, it also means that Donald becomes the Phillies’ top trading chip at midseason, because he won’t be the third baseman of the future, and Utley and Jimmy Rollins aren’t going anywhere.

The final spot in the infield belongs to the big fella, Ryan Howard, and he looks like a man who is tired of hearing about his slow starts each spring. Against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Howard squared off against some random righty who only has a chance to play in the majors because the Pirates are so terrible. Down 3-1 in the game, Howard tied the game with a massive two-run homer—his fifth since spring training began.

In the last two seasons, Howard has batted just .192 in April with a homer every 21 at bats, but this spring, he’s batting .273, and hitting a homer every 6.6 at bats (as of Monday). Howard is hitting for a higher average and crushing the ball more, which combined with the fact that he is actually in playing shape before May for the first time since his MVP season in 2006, means that Howard could be in for the best season of his career.

Moving to pitching, the only battle that hasn’t gotten any clearer this spring is the fight for the fifth spot in the starting rotation. While Kyle Kendrick has cried his way to a double-digit ERA, all but eliminating himself from the contest, Chan Ho Park and J.A. Happ are in a real duel. Unlike most years, in which one scrub pitcher is rewarded for not being as awful as the guys he is competing against, this year, the Phillies actually have two guys who deserve the spot! Park and Happ have combined to allow just five runs in 22 2/3 innings this spring, while striking out 20 batters and walking just two.

I don’t know who is going to win this battle, but I would rather see Happ in the rotation and Park in the bullpen, because Park’s history as a starter is filled with high ERAs, but he was able to revive his career last year with the Dodgers as a middle reliever. We know Happ can be a starter, but no one knows how he would perform in 60 or 70 appearances out of the bullpen.

As great as it was to see how the Phillies’ roster is shaping up, above all, Spring Training is about having fun, and there was no cooler moment than when Darren Daulton stopped mid-stride to gush with honor over my friend Rogo’s retro Daulton jersey. And because we were sitting between Daulton’s seat and the concessions during the final game of our trip, Daulton stopped to comment on the jersey every time he walked passed us.

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, when, this week, we will talk about the Phillies spring training, as well as the start of the NCAA Tournament.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Somebody else wanted Greg Lewis?

Apparently, Andy Reid isn't the only person who thinks Greg Lewis belongs on an NFL roster. New England head coach Bill Belichick just gave the Eagles a fifth round pick for the roster space filler known as G-Lew.

Maybe something is wrong with Belichick if he is jettisoning Matt Cassell and Mike Vrabel for just a second round pick, and then actually going out of his way to bring in Greg Lewis, who only plays well against the Patriots, scoring a TD in the Super Bowl, and then two more in the Eagles' near upset of the undefeated Patriots in 2007.

The Eagles seem to be on a path of getting rid of fan-favorites, but making up for it by shipping off some of the most hated players on the team this offseason. The fans loved Brian Dawkins and Jon Runyan, but good riddance to Greg Lewis, Sean Considine and, most of all, L.J. Smith.

At this rate, there won't be a single Eagle that I despise next year, unless Reno Mahe comes back to be Brian Westbrook's back up.

Just for the record, I do NOT believe that the Eagles made this trade because Terrell Owens is coming back. However, I would not be surprised if Torry Holt became an Eagle once he is released by the Rams, which will happen before March 17, when he is due a $1.25-million roster bonus.

The Eagles would be smart to send this pick to the Rams for Holt so that another team doesn't swoop in and trade for the man who had his string of eight consecutive 1,000-yard seasons snapped in 2008.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Weapon X becomes an ex-Eagle

When I was younger, I didn’t understand free agency or the offseason, or what went into building a team.

I can still remember when Reggie White signed the Green Bay Packers. I was in the car with my dad, and we were listening to WMMR and the DJ said that Reggie White was no longer an Eagle. I even remember the radio station playing a song that someone wrote about number 92. I was only seven years old at the time, and I asked my dad why White wasn’t playing for the Eagles anymore, and he told me that either the Eagles didn’t think he was good enough or that another team paid him a lot of money to play somewhere else.

When the rumors about Brian Dawkins visiting the Denver Broncos began to circulate, I figured that the only way that Weapon X would leave town is if someone was willing to throw an obscene amount of money at a 35-year-old safety who can’t cover a tight end anymore.

Well, the Denver Broncos filled that role, offering Dawkins more money than the Giants gave a 26-year-old running back – Brandon Jacobs – coming off of back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons.

Yes, the Eagles could have matched the Broncos’ offer for sentimental reasons, but that wouldn’t help the Eagles win a Super Bowl. Despite how much I wish Dawkins would be back in Philadelphia next year, this is not the same as when Reggie White signed with the Packers. The difference here is that White still had a lot of football left in him, putting up four more double-digit sack seasons with the Packers, and a Super Bowl victory.

Dawkins doesn’t have anything close to that left in him. This was a fact that the Eagles knew, and if we really think about it, it was something the fans – myself included – knew all too well.

Back in September, we all watched as Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten torched Dawkins in a 41-37 loss for the Eagles. The following week, and for much of the season, Dawkins became a fourth linebacker, instead of being one of the Eagles four defensive backs.

Moving into the role of a fourth linebacker allowed Dawkins to extend his career, and have a great statistical season, but it wasn’t what the Eagles needed. While Dawkins led the Eagles’ defense with his heart, too many times last season, the Eagles needed a free safety who could play like the Brian Dawkins of ten years ago. The Eagles needed a safety that could hit like a linebacker, but could also cover a slot receiver or a tight end or a running back.

Enter Quintin Demps.

I don’t believe that Demps will be better than Dawkins this season, and neither did the Eagles, which is why they were willing to offer him a one-year deal. However, in 2010 and beyond, or perhaps even sooner, Demps will be better than Dawkins. It’s not often that you can find a free safety who can hit a truck, but is also talented enough as a rookie to surpass a former Pro Bowler (Lito Sheppard) and play the dime cornerback spot for the third best defense in the NFL.

With that in mind, I would rather see Dawkins play in Denver than watch Demps’ developing talent force Jim Johnson to bench number 20 for the good of the team.

In the end, this will happen to all of our favorite players. One day, Chase Utley will hit .230. One day, Jimmy Rollins won’t be able to gun down a runner from deep in the hole. One day, there will be fewer homers between Ryan Howard’s strikeouts. When those days come, a new group of infielders will take the field, and they will either make us cheer our hearts out or boo until our throats are sore.

As fans, we have to remember that as much as we idolize a certain group of players, we were fans of the team first. I liked the Eagles long before a certain safety was wearing Clemson University’s orange and purple, and I’ll like the Eagles long after that safety signs a one-day contract to retire in Eagle-green.

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 react to the first week of the NFL free agency period, and give you the latest in rumors and signings.
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Name: Matthew Fleishman, Yardley News Editor
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