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Thursday, April 1, 2010

Can the Phillies get back to the World Series?

It has been five months since the Phillies fell to the Yankees in the World Series, and like most seasons, 2010 promises to be another reminder that pitching wins championships.

In 2007, the Phillies took advantage of the New York Mets’ historic collapse, but it was the trio of J.C. Romero, Tom Gordon and Brett Myers taking the ball nearly every day out of the bullpen for the entire month of September that willed the Phils into the playoffs for the first time since 1993.

In 2008, none of us will ever forget how brilliantly Cole Hamels pitched in the playoffs, going 4-0 with a 1.80 ERA, while Brad Lidge was as perfect as a closer could be, racking up 48 saves in 48 chances; a performance capped with a parade marching down Broad Street for the first time since 1983.

Then in 2009, despite the postseason dominance of Cliff Lee, the Phillies couldn’t come up with enough arms against the Yankees to make it a Philly repeat.

So in 2010, we all know that the Phils’ bats will keep them in the hunt, but do they have enough pitching to win in October?

I wish I could give a more definitive answer to this question, but in reality, I have no idea if they do, and I don’t think anyone could say “yes” or “no” with any certainty.

Right now, Roy Halladay is the undisputed ace of the starting rotation, but after Doc, the Phillies have some question marks.

Yes, Hamels, Joe Blanton (with Kyle Kendrick temporarily filling in due to injury), J.A. Happ and Jamie Moyer will round out the rotation, but other than Blanton’s league-average consistency, none of us can predict how the others will fare.

In the No. 2 spot in the rotation, the Phillies are counting on Hamels to shake off his disastrous 2009 campaign, in which he posted the worst ERA of his career during the regular season, and then an even worse 7.58 ERA in four playoff appearances.

It has been widely reported that Cole has been adding pitches to his repertoire, but will he actually use them during the season? I wondered last year why his curveball wasn’t used more when it was clear that his fastball was sitting at 90-mph instead of being the blazing 95-mph heater from 2008.

Hamels has always been about keeping hitters off balance with his devastating fastball-changeup combination, but when his fastball wasn’t there last year, his changeup no longer confused people, and he should have gone to his curveball to throw off hitters. Hopefully this year, Hamels will keep his composure and use some of Moyer’s teachings to get guys out when the going gets tough, instead of blaming fielders, umpires and the sun for his poor performance.

In the third spot in the rotation, we can pencil Blanton (after returning from the DL) in for an ERA of just north of 4.00, as he does seemingly every year.

Now it gets a little more dicey, as Happ, Moyer and Kendrick need to provide the Phillies with some consistency to make up for the potential of another down year from Hamels, but can they actually do it?

Since 2004, Moyer has turned in three seasons with ERAs over 4.50 and three seasons under 4.50, which means he could be awesome, as he was in 2008, or he could be bounced from the starting rotation for the second straight year.

Happ, who was very successful last season posting a 2.93 ERA, could solve the Phillies’ troubles by delivering a repeat performance and claiming the seat behind Halladay in the rotation, but like Kendrick from 2007 to 2008, he could be due for a sophomore slump if the National League’s hitters have figured out him out.

Moving to the bullpen, does anybody know if the Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde version will show up this year?

Due to injuries, Brad Lidge and J.C. Romero probably won’t head north with the Phillies. While I don’t worry about Romero’s ability to turn it on once he re-joins the big club, I am terrified to see what happens when Lidge walks through the bullpen door with a one-run lead in the bottom of the ninth.

Lidge was perfect in 2008, and had excellent seasons in 2004 and 2005, but in 2009 he was terrible, blowing 11 saves in 42 chances, posting a 7.21 ERA in the process. Last season, just like in 2006 and 2007, Lidge was not “lights out,” which is why I can’t chalk up his performance in 2009 to an injured knee. Combining the 11 blown saves and 11 homers allowed in 2009 with the 19 homers and 14 blown saves from 2006 and 2007, it would appear as though 2008 was anomaly, and not the norm.

So which bullpen will show up in 2010?

In reality, it all depends on which Lidge shows up. If he lives up to his “Lights Out” nickname and pitches close to his 2008 form, then Danys Baez, Ryan Madson and Romero can fill out the low-pressure innings in front of Lidge. If Lidge blows up like he has in three of the last four years, then everyone’s role changes, and suddenly the Phillies will need big leads and 120-pitch outings from their starters.

As always, the Phillies need 92 to 95 wins to make the playoffs, and I know that 20 will come from Halladay.

Can the rest of the staff come up with 75 more?

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Pepper, Thomas and Sharper top free agency wish list

Now that Sydney Crosby has ended our national sports interest, we can all return to rooting for the team closest to where we live, which means focusing on the Philadelphia Eagles as they spend the next few weeks frustrating their fans by not upgrading their roster through free agency in the name of rebuilding through the NFL Draft.

Usually the draft and free agency are seen as two separate entities, but with labor strife on the horizon, the NFL is heading into an uncapped year, which means the majority of available players are “restricted free agents” (RFA). These players, who would normally be free to sign with any team, are essentially being handed one-year contracts by their current team at a greatly reduced rate, with draft pick compensation attached to them based on the salary at which their contract is tendered.

If another team chooses to offer that player a contract, the original team can retain the player by matching the offer sheet, or they could choose to take the draft pick compensation from the new team. There are some unrestricted free agents (UFA), such as Julius Peppers, Darren Sharper, LaDainian Tomlinson and Brian Westbrook, but most are restricted.

So unless NFL Players Association Union President DeMaurice Smith realizes by March 5 that 200 very angry free agents are about to miss out on their chance at a huge payday, and then works out a way to extend the collective bargaining agreement, this could be the quietest free agency period since its inception, as many teams will be hesitant to give up as much as a first rounder and a third rounder to sign a player.

Based on all of this, it would seem as though the Eagles’ normal behavior regarding draft picks would say that Andy Reid’s gang of tightwads will be silent for the next seven weeks, but that probably won’t be the case, as several players could be signed with minimal compensation.

At some point this offseason – either through free agency or the draft – the Eagles need to address their issues at defensive end, linebacker, safety and running back.

While that may sound like a lot, it really isn’t because one of those players will be selected with the 24th pick in the draft (hopefully, Taylor Mays from USC), so here is a breakdown of who the Eagles should be calling at midnight tonight.

Defensive end: This list starts and ends with Julius Peppers. The 6-7, 283-pound defensive end has racked up 25 sacks in the last two years, and has reached double digits in six of his eight seasons. As an unrestricted free agent, Peppers would only cost the Eagles a large amount of money, but would leave their draft picks intact.

While the Eagles registered 44 sacks last year – 38 by the defensive line – it was clear that the line was worn down at the end of the season, and Trent Cole, who had 12.5 sacks last season, was beaten up from constant double-teams. With Peppers on the opposite side as Cole, offenses would have to use a running back and a tight end to block, making things a lot easier on the linebackers and secondary. Or, they could just use five guys to block and give Cole and Peppers free shots at the quarterback. Either scenario works for me.

Lesser options: Ray Edwards (RFA), Derrick Burgess (UFA), Elvis Dumervil (RFA)

Linebacker: A few weeks ago, I wrote that the Eagles’ eight linebackers combined for just 4.5 sacks, four interceptions and three forced fumbles, which means that upgrades are desperately needed for this group. Assuming Will Witherspoon and Stewart Bradley are starters next year, that leaves one open spot. That spot could be at any of the three positions because of the versatility of Bradley and Witherspoon, so the Eagles should just find the best linebacker available, regardless of whether he is listed as middle, strongside or weakside.

I’m going to assume that the Eagles are not willing to give up a first round pick to get someone like DeMeco Ryans from the Texans, but then again, why wouldn’t they? If Ryan is better than any player the Birds could draft in the latter part of the first round, why not take a 25-year-old who has made 519 tackles in his first four seasons, including 123 in 2009?

I honestly don’t think the Eagles are going to address this position through free agency because they technically did it at the trade deadline by bringing in Witherspoon, but it is nice to dream that they would go after Ryans.

Lesser Options: Keith Bulluck (UFA, but recovering from knee surgery), Scott Fujita (UFA)

Safety: Like at linebacker, the best players at safety received the top tenders, meaning the Eagles would have to abandon their draft plans to get someone like Nick Collins from the Packers, but if Darren Sharper remains unsigned by the New Orleans Saints, then the Eagles would be fools not to make a run at a player who actually could fill the shoes of Brian Dawkins. Sharper picked off nine passes last year (tying him for the NFL lead with Asante Samuel), and made 70 tackles for the Super Bowl champions. It will cost a lot of money in the short-term to snag the 34-year-old, but he clearly showed that he can still play, so it would be worth it to make a three-year commitment to add another playmaker to the defense.

Lesser Options: Antrel Rolle (soon-to-be released) Sean Jones (re-signing), Eric Smith (RFA)

Running Back: The Eagles obviously need to replace Brian Westbrook because Eldra Buckley is not going to be LeSean McCoy’s backup, however, running backs are easy to find in the middle rounds of the draft, so I wouldn’t expect a big splash at this position on March 5. However, if the Birds are seriously looking, then Pierre Thomas should be the focus.

The “PT Cruiser” would fit perfectly in the Birds’ offense, and would only cost the Eagles a second-round pick. At 210 pounds, Thomas would complement McCoy perfectly, just like he did in New Orleans with Reggie Bush. Thomas picked up 793 yards on the ground, averaging 5.4 yards-per-carry last year, but also hauled in 39 passes while excelling in the Saints’ screen plays.

Lesser Options: Thomas Jones (soon-to-be released), Jason Snelling (RFA), Michael Bush (trade with Oakland)

After breaking it down, the Eagles could be major players in free agency, but they will need to be aggressive to snatch up the unrestricted free agents, while saving their draft picks for a very talented crop of college players.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Leighton, salary cap could end Flyers' goalie carousel

I remember thinking way back in the summer (those warm days without snow) that this would finally be the season that the Flyers did not have a goaltender controversy.

Well, like my Super Bowl prediction, I could not have been more wrong!

Two years ago, I wrote a column stating that three things happen on the Flyers’ roster every year around this time: a concussion knocks a star out of the lineup, a superstar is underachieving, and the backup goalie is doing far better than the starter. Luckily (of course I probably just jinxed it), no Flyer is working his way back from a concussion, but sadly, we do have a superstar going through a season-long slump and, of course, we have upheaval in the crease.

Right now, only Simon Gagne is mired in a deep slump, although I would like to see some more production out of guys like Scott Hartnell, Claude Giroux and James VanRiemsdyk. Despite being the third-highest paid forward on the roster, Gagne has provided the Flyers with just seven goals, which breaks down to a cost of $750,000 per goal scored so far this season.

I don’t know why a guy who scored 34 goals last year suddenly can’t seem to find the back of the net, but with a salary cap number of $5.25 million per year through next season, he better start scoring soon or will be forced to take a massive paycut in 2012.

While Gagne’s contract is essentially unmovable, the Flyers’ goaltender situation certainly is in limbo, so I will now attempt to break down the Flyers’ umpteenth consecutive year of goalie drama, caused this year by Ray Emery’s potentially season-ending injury.

First, a little background information.

Since the 1994-95 season, the Flyers have had 19 different goalies set up shop in the crease, eight different netminders have started a playoff game, and five times, a goalie started in the playoffs despite not leading the team in games played that season.

Back in January 2008, when Martin Biron and Antero Niittymaki were battling for the temporary position of the Flyers’ top goalie, I compared those stunningly awful statistics to the New Jersey Devils, who won three Stanley Cups in the same time period while Martin Brodeur led the team in games played each year and was their only playoff goalie. In that same column, I wrote that the Flyers had the chance to end the “goalie carousel” by naming Niittymaki as the starter, and then sticking with him through the ups and downs.

Needless to say, Niittymaki did not get that chance, but is currently dominating for the Tampa Bay Lightning while Biron’s best work this year has come while playing for the Bridgeport Sound Tigers of the American Hockey League.

So now, in 2010, the Flyers have a chance to start fresh and end the carousel by naming Michael Leighton as the starting goalie for the rest of the year, and then for next season as well.

While former goalie coach Reggie Lemelin, who was fired after last season, ruined the form and confidence of every young goaltender the Flyers had during his 13 seasons with the club, new goalie coach Jeff Reese has actually fixed several flaws in Leighton’s style, turning him into the stonewall netminder that has led the Flyers to a 12-3-1 record as a starter in two stints as an injury replacement.

And yes, I am placing the blame for the last 13 years of goaltender instability on Lemelin’s shoulders, as we have watched Brian Boucher, Robert Esche, and Niittymaki all look like the goalie of the future, only to see them flame out soon after they began to take the lion’s share of the work in practice under Lemelin’s tutelage.

Despite all that, this could finally be the year that the Flyers begin to develop some consistency in the blue paint by sticking with Leighton instead of making a desperation move once the NHL’s roster freeze ends after the Winter Olympics.

It seems as though every other team nurtures their young goalie, giving them time to grow and develop without the fear of an overpriced, under-skilled veteran taking their job. If you don’t believe me, just sort this year’s goaltenders by save percentage and you will find that all of the top guys followed this path, including youngsters Tuukka Rask, Jimmy Howard and Antti Nemi, along with veterans Ryan Miller, Henrik Lundqvist, Evgeni Nabakov, and Miikka Kirpusoff.

Thankfully, I don’t think the Flyers have a choice in the matter this year, or surely General Manager Paul Holmgren would screw it up.

In Leighton’s 18 games this year with the Flyers, he has a 2.19 goals-against average and a .925 save percentage, which would both rank in the top six in the NHL for the season. However, based on nearly two decades of impulsive bad decisions, he will be the starting goalie for the rest of the season only because the Flyers don’t have the room under the salary cap to trade for Marty Turco (2.63/.915), Tim Thomas (2.52/.915), or J.S. Giguere (2.90/.907), who has already been traded to Toronto.

All season, Flyers fans (including me) have been groaning that a bunch of overpaid mistakes made by Holmgren have left the team with no cap space, but this year, that might be a blessing as it hopefully will result in the phones staying silent in the offices at the Wachovia Center and Leighton in net the rest of the season.

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.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Eagles defense needs more consistency

After watching the first three rounds of the playoffs, it is pretty clear that the Eagles’ defense ranked near the bottom among the 12 playoff teams. In fact, out of those teams, the Birds were 11th in points allowed.

Of the teams that made it to the NFL’s version of the Final Four, the Eagles’ defense would have been shredded by all four of them, as Philadelphia struggled to stop the run, and showed throughout the season that they were susceptible to essentially all passing plays.

I understand that Defensive Coordinator Sean McDermott was thrown into a very tough position this year, replacing the late Jim Johnson, but he was certainly not up to the task of leading the defense for a Super Bowl contender.

Too many times this year, McDermott went into a game with a bad plan, which was especially clear against New Orleans, San Diego, Dallas and even Oakland.

Going by Jim Johnson’s belief that 17 points is the magic number for a defense, McDermott failed 11 out of 17 times this year. Johnson always said that if the defense surrenders 17 points or more, the blame should fall on the ‘D’ in a loss. Based on that premise, the Eagles’ offense bailed out the defense six times this year, while failing to back up a strong defensive effort just once (Oakland).

Based on those numbers, the Birds will need to improve both the roster and the game plans drastically, because in 2008, the defense failed only eight of 19 times, and in the process, the Eagles made it within a few minutes of the Super Bowl.

Here are my predictions and thoughts on the Eagles’ roster by position:

Defensive Line: This is one part of the defense that I thought pulled its weight, as linemen accounted for 38 of the 44 sacks this season. Trent Cole and Juqua Parker combined for 20.5 sacks this season off the edge, and Mike Patterson and Brodrick Bunkley were forces up the middle. I really don’t have any complaints about this group, and I would love to see the same nine or 10 guys come back next year, which could happen. I imagine the Eagles will use a few late-round picks to push for the final spot in the rotation, but I wouldn’t expect big changes here.

Linebackers: Remember that statistic I just gave you about the Eagles’ linemen registering all but six sacks this year? That’s a good thing for the guys in the trenches, but it’s a terrible sign for the linebackers, who came up with just 4.5 sacks this season, and 1.5 of those sacks came in the first game of the season.

That means Chris Gocong, Akeem Jordan, Omar Gaither, Moise Fokou, Tracy White, Will Witherspoon, Jeremiah Trotter and Joe Mays combined for just three sacks in the final 15 games of the season! By the way, 22 linebackers had at least 4.5 sacks this season on their own in the NFL.

The lousy numbers don’t stop there. The linebackers combined for just three forced fumbles and four interceptions this year, giving the ever-changing middle group a total of 11.5 big plays this season. That’s less than three plays per month!

I know that people will point to Stewart Bradley’s injury as an excuse for this unit, but while he was a tackling machine in 2008, he only accounted for one interception, one sack and one forced fumble last year, so his presence would not have greatly altered those statistics.

It is pretty obvious the Eagles need to improve at the linebacker position. Hopefully, the front office will resist the urge to go with a combination of Bradley, Jordan, Witherspoon and Gocong, but I have a terrible feeling that is what will be on the field in September.

If I had my way, the Eagles would send Gocong and Gaither packing, replacing them with actual edge-rushers. It’s astounding that the Eagles can’t find someone to simply run around the edge on Cole’s side, forcing a left tackle to choose between allowing a defensive end or a linebacker to crush his quarterback.

The Eagles should spend their first round pick on a superstar outside linebacker like Navorro Bowman from Penn State or possibly wait until the second round and grab someone like Sean Weatherspoon or Eric Norwood if they decide that free safety is the top priority.

Honestly, I don’t really care who the Eagles draft at linebacker, just don’t give me a mid-round project pick from a small school like Gocong, Brian Smith or Matt McCoy.

Secondary: The Eagles obviously need a free safety to replace Brian Dawkins, as Macho Harris, Quintin Demps and Sean Jones did not adequately fill in for Weapon X in 2009. They need to draft a do-it-all safety, instead of playing mix-and-match with three guys.

Jones did a great job against the run, but was too slow in pass coverage. Demps can cover a slot receiver, but is too small to handle the run. Harris can’t do either, but does a superb job of picking up unnecessary roughness penalties.

The goal here should be to draft Taylor Mays out of USC in the first round. At 6-3, 236 pounds, Mays is described to have “top-end speed” by Scouts, Inc., and would certainly make a difference on run defense when the Eagles drop into their nickel package, unlike Harris or Demps. Mays played all four years at USC, registering 268 tackles, including 88 as a senior, and would immediately make this unit better.

At cornerback, we will have to accept that Asante Samuel will never tackle a player, but his NFL-leading nine interceptions do make up for his lack of physicality. Joselio Hanson is an excellent nickel corner, but Sheldon Brown needs to be replaced. He has never had good speed, but always had good instincts. For whatever reason, this year, Brown seemed susceptible to the double-move, so without “make up” speed, he was burned repeatedly, especially down the stretch.

My guess is that the Eagles will keep Brown because of his low salary, but bring in an Ellis Hobbs-type corner to play dime and occasionally on the outside.

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.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Will Eagles' offense look different next year?

It has been more than a week since the Eagles’ season ended with back-to-back losses at the hands of the hated Dallas Cowboys, and while it was tough to even watch football last weekend, it did make me feel good to see the Cowboys get crushed.

After Dallas lost to Minnesota, I realized that the Eagles are not as far away from being an elite team as I had thought after losing by a combined 58-14 to the Cowboys. I think Dallas, and its 3-4 defense, along with its rare combination of having Pro Bowlers at tight end and wide receiver, gave the Eagles fits, but there is no way the Birds are 50 points worse than the Vikings.

But, just because the Eagles aren’t as bad as I thought, it doesn’t mean they don’t need to make some roster adjustments in the next three months.

This week, I will look at the moves needed to make the Eagles’ offense, which put up a franchise-record 429 points in 2009, a unit that cannot be stopped by simply blitzing and then bracketing the wide receivers after playing press coverage.

Here are my predictions and thoughts on the Eagles’ offense by position:

Quarterback: This is obviously the most contentious part of the roster, but it is pretty simple actually. Both Donovan McNabb, who will be in the Pro Bowl because either Brett Favre or Drew Brees will be playing in Super Bowl, and Kevin Kolb each have one year remaining on their contracts. Because of the franchise tag, the Eagles should not be in a rush to extend either player, and simply let McNabb prove he deserves an extension, or hand the keys over to Kolb if McNabb gets injured or shows that the offense isn’t working with him at the helm.

Regardless of what people say about McNabb, the Eagles did score the most points in franchise history, so he couldn’t have been that bad!

Regarding Michael Vick, the roster bonus he is set to receive in March should not force the Birds to trade him before they get what they are hoping for, and I would expect to see either the Raiders or Rams give the Eagles a second round pick for taking the one-year public relations hit attached to signing Vick during the preseason.

Running Back: Despite a case of fumblitis in the first round of the playoffs, Leonard Weaver was the best offseason pickup for the Birds, and deservedly made the Pro Bowl this year. More importantly, his 85 touches showed the Eagles that a big back can really move the chains. With Brian Westbrook looking into retirement (and probably wouldn’t be back anyway at a cost of more than $7 million), the Eagles will have an opening in the backfield.

While very explosive, LeSean McCoy is not a running back who can handle 20 carries per game, but then again, only three running backs in the NFL topped 20 carries per game (320 carries) this season, and only 12 running backs even topped 240 carries (15 per game).

That means the Eagles, who finally saw the benefits of having a powerful running back, will use Westbrook’s roster spot to sign or draft their first 230-pounder since Duce Staley for the tailback position.

We all saw how effective Weaver was this season, averaging 4.6 yards per carry, which was better than McCoy or Westbrook, but all of those yards occurred without a fullback in front of him because he was the fullback. Now imagine what would happen if the Eagles drafted a certain Heisman candidate from Stanford, and then put him behind Weaver. The Eagles would finally have a true running game.

I don’t actually know where the Eagles are going to get this power back because of the uncertainty regarding an uncapped season in 2010, which would cause numerous players to become restricted free agents, instead of unrestricted, but I would bet they get one to run behind Weaver.

Wide Receiver: I like the Eagles’ group of receivers, and so does the front office. The only change that I could see being made is replacing the oft-injured Kevin Curtis with a bigger target.

I can’t remember the last time the Eagles had four pass catchers – DeSean Jackson, Brent Celek, Jeremy Maclin and Jason Avant – who could top 100 yards in any game. That group combined for 10 100-yard games in 2009 and will only get better, as Avant is the old man of the group at just 26 years old.

Offensive Line: The offensive line was simply offensive this season. Last year, McNabb was sacked 23 times in 16 games, while this year, the “revamped” line allowed 38 sacks and was clearly a feast-or-famine unit.

It seemed like the line either played like garbage (see: Oakland, Dallas) or gave McNabb all the time in the world to throw a touchdown pass (see: New York, Atlanta, Tampa Bay).

In the offseason, the Eagles threw big-money deals at Stacy Andrews and Jason Peters, but neither player worked out. Both Andrews brothers saw about as much time as I did on the offensive line this year, and while Peters helped the ground game, he whiffed on defensive ends far too often to justify his mind-boggling Pro Bowl selection this season.

I don’t think the Eagles are going to cut either Andrews brother or Peters, but it was simply irresponsible to think that Stacy could be effective just nine months after tearing two ligaments in his knee. However, with another year of rehab and practice, Stacy could once again become the physical run blocker the Eagles hoped they were getting last February.

Now to the other Andrews. I can’t imagine the Eagles would cut Shawn after holding onto him all season, but they won’t count on him being one of the 10 linemen they plan to keep heading into the 2010 season. If he is healthy and wants to play, he could be an All-Pro tackle or guard on the right side, but anything they get out of him should be considered a bonus at this point.

It is obvious that improvements need to be made to the Eagles offensive line, but I would not expect the front office to make any moves except to bring in a few big bodies for depth purposes. My guess is that the front office hopes the rash of injuries that plagued the line will not occur in 2010, allowing the talented unit to develop some real chemistry.

Predictions for Sunday’s conference championship games: New Orleans erases years of “Aints” memories with a 37-24 win over the Vikings, while Peyton Manning continues to make his case for being called the greatest quarterback in NFL history as the Colts end the Jets’ Cinderella run with a 24-13 victory.

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. This week we will break down the NFL’s conference title games, and further our discussion on what the Eagles need to do this spring to improve their roster.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Loss shows Westbrook is gone, McDermott should be


That was the sound of the Eagles’ season crashing to halt at the hands of the Dallas Cowboys.

It was also the sound of Brian Westbrook’s time in Philadelphia coming to an abrupt end.

However, it apparently is not the sound of Donovan McNabb’s time in Philadelphia coming to an end.

While Andy Reid said that McNabb would be back as the starting quarterback of the Eagles, Westbrook received just one touch against the Cowboys on Saturday night, despite Leonard Weaver putting the ball on the ground twice in the second quarter. That should be a clear sign that Westbrook is not going to be back next year.

While Westbrook wasn’t able to make a difference in his final game for the Birds, Sean McDermott made the case that this should be his first and last playoff game as a defensive coordinator.

For the second week in a row, McDermott’s defense disappeared when they were needed most.

Last week, the Eagles rushed four linemen, yet played a completely passive pass defense. This week was a little different, as they blitzed far more often, yet at no point did McDermott realize that the Cowboys might make a few adjustments to slow down the amped-up pass rush.

How many times did the Cowboys run a simple screen pass or a draw play to pick up big yardage as the Eagles blitzed six or seven rushers? More importantly, why didn’t the Eagles think to do that as the Cowboys’ defenders surrounded McNabb on nearly every key play of the game?

I can’t believe I am writing this, but Wade Phillips out-coached Andy Reid, Sean McDermott and Marty Mornhinweg two weeks in a row. The Eagles did not have an answer for the Cowboys’ pass rush, ground game, or aerial attack, so the more complete team will be playing in the second round of the playoffs this weekend.

In the next few weeks, I will outline what steps I believe the Eagles need to take this offseason to improve this young roster, and make it the type of team that could beat any team in the NFL, not just the ones that were .500 or worse this year.

By the way, I am not sure if anyone noticed, but in a crazy coincidence, hockey season began in Philadelphia on the very same day that the Eagles’ season ended. The Flyers even won their “season opener,” 4-1, with the shockingly solid Michael Leighton between the pipes.

Quick thoughts and observations:

* Why can’t the Eagles run the ball? I doubt that the Birds will ever be a team that focuses on the run, but they have to at least make it easier for the passing game. After watching the first round of the playoffs, it is pretty clear that a team needs to be able to run the football to succeed, as the New York Jets, Baltimore Ravens and Cowboys all had rushers top 130 yards. Arizona was the only team to win last weekend without a running back reaching triple digits on the ground, but Beanie Wells came close, rushing for 93 yards on 14 carries.

However, in the last two weeks against the Cowboys, the Eagles’ running backs have combined for less than 70 yards total! That is simply unacceptable regardless of how talented DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin are at wide receiver.

* What happened to Sheldon Brown this season? We all know that he picked off five passes, which is a new career high, but he played like a Pop Warner kid the last few weeks of the season. Not only did he get repeatedly burned for touchdown passes since the game against Denver three weeks ago, the Cowboys must have seen something in their film sessions that showed them a weakness in his ability, because Miles Austin and Patrick Crayton had absolutely no problem making him look old and slow in the last two games.

In addition to being one of the main reasons the Eagles’ season ended, Brown practically handed Andy Reid and Joe Banner videotape evidence that he doesn’t deserve a new big-money deal this offseason, which he has craved for nearly a year. In the same three-week span, he also showed the NFL that switching to safety – the same career path that Troy Vincent took – was not an option, as Miles Austin blew right by Brown when he lined up at safety to help Asante Samuel contain Tony Romo’s new favorite wide receiver.

* How awesome was Arizona’s 51-45 overtime victory over Green Bay? That game could go down as the most exciting playoff game in history. Aaron Rodgers and Kurt Warner combined for 801 passing yards and 10 total touchdowns, but it took a defensive touchdown to decide the game, and catapult it passed the Eagles’ 58-37 victory over the Lions in 1995 for the most combined points in playoff history.

Predictions: Saints, Vikings, Ravens and Chargers advance.

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. This week we will discuss why the Eagles couldn’t solve the Cowboys this season, and take an early look at where the Eagles need to improve this spring.
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Name: Matthew Fleishman, Yardley News Editor
Location: United States

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