On The Edge Blog

Thursday, May 28, 2009

NBA Playoffs are finally "must see"

If you have been paying attention for the last two years, you will notice that I have not written a single column about the NBA. It’s not because there haven’t been potential topics to write about, it’s because the league generally bores me more than any other professional sport.

I love playing basketball, and I am a die-hard Maryland Terrapins college basketball fan, but there is something about the NBA that makes me change the channel.

When I was younger, I used to love the Sixers, and lived and died with every blown lottery pick. I didn’t care that Philly kept choosing worthless stiffs like Sharone Wright or Shawn Bradley, I liked watching professional basketball.But then came the 1999 playoffs.

With the knowledge that Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls were not going to win the NBA title, I was more excited than ever for the 1998-99 season. However, that season was a display of some of the worst basketball I had ever seen in my life.

Somehow, Jordan retired and everyone forgot how to score!

In the finals that year, the San Antonio Spurs beat the New York Knicks in five games, neither team managed to top 100 points in the series. In fact, the losing team didn’t even break 80 points in three of the five games, and neither team reached 80 points in the deciding game of the series!

I was so disgusted with the league that I really just stopped watching. I wasn’t even that interested when Allen Iverson was leading the Sixers on an improbable run to the NBA finals in 2001.

Maybe it is because the Flyers bowed out early from the NHL playoffs, or the fact that the Phillies are defending—instead of chasing—the World Series trophy, but for the first time in a decade, I am actually watching the NBA playoffs. And I could not have picked a better time to come back into the fold.

While watching TV, I randomly flipped to game two of the first round series between Boston and Chicago, and I haven’t been able to look away since. Boston was playing without superstar Kevin Garnett, and the Bulls were playing with a bunch of future superstars, including Ben Gordon and rookie point guard Derrick Rose.

With Ray Allen and Ben Gordon exchanging clutch shots back and forth, and Rajon Rondo and Derrick Rose showing that they are destined to become the best point guards in the league, I was hooked for the rest of that spectacular series, which included seven overtime periods.

Now, in the conference finals, LeBron James, Dwight Howard, Carmelo Anthony and Kobe Bryant are slugging it out for the right to play for the NBA title. These are four of the best players in the game, and they are coming up as clutch as possible when it matters most.

Between the Magic battling back from a 15-point halftime deficit to win game one, and James’ game-winning buzzer-beating fadeaway three-pointer in game two, the Eastern Conference Finals has drama and intrigue written all over it. Over in the Western Conference, Bryant and Anthony are exchanging 30-point nights as Denver and L.A. are playing one of the roughest, yet highest scoring playoffs series in recent memory.

Don’t get me wrong, I still wish that traveling was called every so often, and that referees actually watched the play unfold before assuming that a foul occurred, and that NBA Commissioner David Stern wasn’t the cockiest and most oblivious person on the planet, but I’m not ashamed to admit that the last six weeks of basketball has turned me back into a fan.

Of course, now that the NBA has finally gotten my attention, the finals are bound to be a boring sweep.

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.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Youngsters need to step up on defense for the Birds

I want to start out by writing that I wish Jim Johnson the best in his battle against cancer, but because this is a sports column (and I get queasy just by talking about medical issues), I’m going to focus on the football side of Johnson’s indefinite leave of absence from the Eagles.

As productive as this offseason has been for the Eagles, the one part of the team that has been largely neglected is the defense. The Eagles have upgraded their offense with the additions of Jason Peters, Stacey Andrews, Leonard Weaver, Jeremy Maclin, LeSean McCoy and Cornelius Ingram, but other than the draft day trade for Ellis Hobbs, the defense has gone mostly ignored.

Now with the defensive coordinator on an indefinite leave, the worst case scenario for the third-ranked unit from last season is unfolding.

Despite the very lofty ranking in 2008, the Eagles’ defense is mostly devoid of difference-making talent in the front seven. The unit only succeeded in registering 48 sacks, 15 interceptions and 22 forced fumbles because of Johnson’s creativity and a talented secondary that knew how to cover for an underwhelming group of linemen and linebackers.

Unfortunately for the Eagles, neither of those two keys to the defense’s success will be at the organized team activities this week, which could spell doom for the 2009 season.

Because of the talent level on defense, the Eagles already would have had an uphill battle repeating the success of 2008, and that was before the loss of Dawkins, and the contract dispute involving Sheldon Brown, but what happens if Johnson’s leave of absence extends into training camp and the regular season?

Looking at the personnel on the roster, which player in the front seven can take over a game or strike fear into the heart of an offensive coordinator if the secondary is sub-par and Johnson isn’t coming up with brilliant schemes from week to week? The answer is none of them, with Trent Cole having the ability to cause minor indigestion, but certainly not fear. The front seven is full of solid players that were able to excel as a unit only because Johnson had the ability to get the most out of them. He had the ability to devise a scheme that played to their strengths and almost always put them in position to make a play.

While Dawkins’ departure for Denver is not a huge loss in terms of Xs and Os, he did call out the assignments for the secondary, and was the emotional leader on the sidelines. When he signed with the Broncos, I didn’t think the loss would be that devastating, but that was when Sheldon Brown was happy and Johnson wasn’t expected to miss any time.

If Johnson isn’t healthy enough to coach during the season, how far will the defense fall in 2009, and more importantly, who will step up and lead the group onto the field when a big stop is needed?

Right now, the longest tenured players on defense are guys like Quentin Mikell, Trent Cole and Mike Patterson. Are these guys ready to become vocal leaders and make sure the offense gets the ball back in its hands to win the game?

What about Stewart Bradley and the rest of the young linebackers? What will happen to their growth process if they are suddenly forced to be playmakers and don’t have the comfort of Johnson’s schemes to protect their shortcomings?

It’s only May, but the third-ranked defense from 2008 already has a lot of question marks. I guess it’s a good thing that the offense received some serious upgrades because the Eagles will be engaged in quite a few USFL-style shootouts in 2009.

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.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Gridiron trash talk starts early

What is it with New York players trying to be like Jimmy Rollins?

It seems like New York Giants running back Brandon Jacobs is taking a page out of Carlos Beltran’s and Francisco Rodriguez’s books. Those two New York Mets made Rollins-esque predictions the last two offseasons—Beltran was wrong in 2008, and K-Rod will be wrong in 2009—and now Jacobs is predicting 13 wins for his team in 2009.

J-Roll was dead on about his Phillies being the team to beat in the National League East in 2007, and then again in 2008 when he predicted 100 wins for our Fightins.

So for those keeping score, Rollins has been right twice, Beltran has been wrong once, and we have two predictions coming from New York players that are incomplete.

I’ve written before that K-Rod will be wrong about his “team to beat” prediction, and I’m sure I will address it again later this season, but what about Jacobs’ very optimistic prediction?

For starters, the Giants did finish 12-4 last year, so Jacobs is really only predicting one extra win in 2009, which means that on the surface, he’s not making a completely outlandish claim.

When we delve a little deeper into his premonition though, Jacobs is probably three games off, as his Giants are, at best, a 10-6 team, which would leave the NFC East wide open for the Eagles and the always-awesome-from-September-through Thanksgiving Dallas Cowboys.

So why do I take a far different view than the 1,000-yard rusher? Simply put, the Giants lost two very key pieces from last year’s team, and neither were adequately replaced.

Starting with the obvious offseason loss, the Giants finally cut loose star wide receiver and terrible marksman Plaxico Burress.In 2008, Burress missed a total of seven games, including a 23-11 loss in the playoffs to the Eagles. The Giants won just three of those seven games, and in the process, Eli Manning tossed just five touchdowns and five interceptions, struggling to move the ball, as he had zero 200-yard passing days in December or January.

Without Burress, Manning loses his top red zone target, and the man who draws double coverage and extra eyes on most plays, leaving him with Steve Smith, Domenik Hixon and Hakeem Nicks as his only targets.

While losing Burress is a big blow to Manning and the passing game, the move that I think will really hurt the Giants this year is not re-signing Derrick Ward.

Going into the offseason, I would have guessed that if Burress wasn’t coming back, the Giants would have done everything possible to maintain their top-notch rushing attack, but they chose to let a 228-pound, 1,000-yard rusher walk away.

In addition to rushing for 1,028 yards in 2008, Ward played the role of keeping Jacobs fresh and filling in for the bruising back when his annual injury occurs, but Ward’s most important role was catching passes out of the backfield. With 41 catches and 384 yards in 2008, Ward was more productive in the passing game than Jacobs has been in his entire four-year career.

As an Eagles fan, I know the importance of having a guy who can catch passes out of the backfield, and it is even more important when the wide receivers only require single coverage. Without Burress, defenses were already going to play closer to the line of scrimmage against the Giants, and now without Ward, Manning won’t have his go-to-guy out of the backfield to pick up positive yardage when the pressure comes.

Heading into this season, Giants fans better hope that rookie Hakeem Nicks is an immediate Pro Bowl wideout, or else Manning will be the below average quarterback that we saw in December and January, and he won’t even have his safety valve in Ward out of the backfield. That means the New York offense will be riddled with stalled drives and field goal attempts instead of touchdowns, and even more of the load will be placed on the oft-injured Jacobs.

Of course, I predicted the Giants would go 8-8 last season, and they still could trade for Braylon Edwards or Anquan Boldin, so maybe Jacobs is on to something. But then again, Edwards and Boldin don’t look like they are going anywhere, so unless Osi Umenyiora comes back from his knee injury and catches touchdown passes, Jacobs will be eating his words, just like Beltran did.

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 discuss what is wrong with Jimmy Rollins, along with some NBA and NHL playoff talk.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Superfight coming?

The Flyers lost to the Penguins, the Sixers lost to the Magic, and the Phillies still have five months until the season ends.

That means, I could write about the Eagles’ first post-draft minicamp, or I could write about the most important event of the weekend, which was Manny “PacMan” Pacquiao’s complete destruction of junior welterweight champion Ricky Hatton on Saturday night.

The first “On the Edge” column I ever wrote was about how “Pretty Boy” Floyd Mayweather’s victory over Oscar De La Hoya wasn’t enough to save boxing from the Mixed Martial Arts juggernaut that is the UFC.

However, two years later, boxing is full of life, thanks to PacMan’s willingness to fight the best fighters in the world, no matter what weight class they happen to be ruling at the time. In the process, he has tied Oscar De La Hoya’s all-time record by winning titles in six different weight classes.

Part of the reason for Pacquiao’s rise to stardom is who he was fighting, but a lot of it has to do with how he fights. Many champions choose to coast through their fights and let the judges decide the winner of a boring contest, but Pacquiao always puts on a good show, going for the knockout at all times.

In the past two years alone, PacMan has won six fights in four different weight classes, with four of the victories coming by way of knockout or technical knockout. Among those six fights are victories over a who’s who of the boxing world, including knockouts of Ricky Hatton and David Diaz, both of which won Pacquiao new title belts.

He also stopped De La Hoya and won decisions over Juan Manuel Marquez and Marco Antonio Barrera.And now that he has vanquished all comers, Pacquiao, who is the undisputed pound-for-pound king of boxing, has new challenge before him in the name of Floyd Mayweather, who unretired the day before Pacquiao dismantled Hatton with a second round KO.

This sets up what could possibly be the most important fight since the Thrilla in Manilla, and the most action in a bout since the late Diego Corrales’ stunning 10th round TKO of Jose Luis Castillo (I’ve recommended finding the 10th round of their first fight on YouTube before, and if you haven’t, then you definitely should).

A Pacquiao/Mayweather battle would pit the current pound-for-pound king against the undefeated former pound-for-pound king. It would be a battle between two boxers with blazing fist speed, the ability to end a fight at any moment, and the intelligence to change styles mid-fight to pull off a comeback victory.

It would be a fight between a soft-spoken man who lets his fists do the talking and a man who delivers a beat-down with his words, and then his fists. It would be the fight that officially put boxing back on top in its battle with mixed martial arts.

The only thing standing in the way of the biggest fight in decades is an upcoming battle between Mayweather and Juan Manuel Marquez. Marquez took Pacquiao to the limit in both bouts between the fighters, scoring a draw in 2004, and dropping a split decision last year. Some people, including me, say that Marquez was robbed in at least one of the two fights with Pacquiao, so a win over Mayweather would not be a shock.

While a win by Marquez would set up a thrilling rubber match with Pacquiao, it would not even come close to being the biggest fight of a generation, so let’s hope Mayweather doesn’t show any rust this July, and we get a PacMan/Pretty Boy battle in the fall.

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 discuss the first month of the Phillies’ season, along with the first minicamp of the 2009 Eagles’ season.
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Name: Matthew Fleishman, Yardley News Editor
Location: United States

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