December 30, 2010

What will become of Michael Vick?

Conservative pundit Tucker Carlson made headlines this week by claiming that Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick "should have been executed" for maliciously murdering canines while running a dog-fighting ring.

Naturally, this drew a lot of uproar, and the bow-tie wearing buffoon has been appropriately castigated for his outrageous statement. But the incident, much like Nils Lofgren's equally pointless ESPN.com piece, should remind us all that Michael Vick, or "Michael Vick," has become something far beyond a human being.

To journalists, columnists, bloggers and political analysts, he's a talking point; a living, breathing cultural and moral debate waiting to re-explode at any second. To sports fans and sportswriters, he's an amazingly exciting quarterback, a once-and-future millionaire, an can't-miss athlete, a superstar-turned-felon-turned-superstar that sells newspapers and drives up ratings. Right now, he's more entity than man.

Countless eyes are on him, more than maybe any athlete ever. Supporters of rehabilitation are flocking to him as their poster boy. A eclectic collection of racists, dog lovers and hard-line reactionaries want nothing more than to see him fall. And if the Eagles make it to the Super Bowl, expect this all to be amplified tenfold.

I don't know if Michael Vick will continue his trend of good behavior. I like to think that he's matured and learned his lesson, that he values the love of his family, freedom, financial success and the adoration of millions of sports fans enough to avoid any future risky situations. But as time goes by, even for Michael Vick fans like myself, it's fair to wonder.

Several people, including Ray Didinger and my father, have noted that when Vick has faced adversity in the last few games, he's reverted back to his Falcons-era ways. Running and gunning, forcing passes, not looking at all like the quarterback that's revitalized the Eagles and the city. He's looked a lot like the free-wheeling Vick that got in so much trouble.

Can you analyze Vick's response to on-the-field struggles and compare that to how he'll deal with any real-life issues? Maybe. Then again, he was the sole catalyst behind the team's triumphant comeback in New York, and he might have done it again in Minnesota if not for a quad contusion. Maybe his frustrations are totally justified; maybe I'm reading too much into this. Like I said, I love and believe in Michael Vick. I think, so far, he's done everything possible to turn over a new leaf and reinvent himself as a new man.

But to respond to your proclamation, Tucker Carlson, we should not end Michael Vick's life for killing dogs. Nor should we end Donté Stallworth's or Leonard Little's for killing actual human beings. People deserve second chances, and Vick's made great strides in capitalizing on his.

And if he survives whatever happens in the playoffs, good or bad, maybe he'll start to quiet all this insane talk. Maybe he'll finally return to being just another athlete, one of a few dozen professional quarterbacks trying to win a championship. Living in the limelight, sure, but a much more limited set of pressures. For his sake, I hope that's the case.

December 29, 2010

The ante has been upped.

Whether the Philadelphia Eagles like it or not, they've upped the ante for 2010.

A few months ago, when Kevin Kolb's continued maturity was the season's main selling point, 8-8 would have been acceptable. LeSean McCoy was a question mark. The defense was relatively unknown. It was a young team that had a good chance of maturing into a championship contender over the next few years.

Five Pro Bowlers, one MVP-caliber quarterback and one Coach of the Year candidate later, that's no longer acceptable.

The talent is there, the ability is there. We've seen them win big games, we've seen them win close games, we've seen them win good games. A healthy, competitive Eagles team could, and should, compete for a Super Bowl. But they're not healthy, and minus the mind-exploding quarter in New York, they haven't been very competitive. So now is the time for the Eagles to decide how they want the season to end.

On my way home tonight, a radio caller mentioned that this time, we can't blame Donovan McNabb. It's been interesting to note the improvements in the two-minute drill, the comeback offense, the way they've finished out close wins with a bang. That wasn't what we'd come to expect with McNabb under center, especially near the end of his Eagles career, and it provided hope for the future.

But those October and November flashes of brilliance won't matter once January rolls around. As always, we'll lose all interest in regular season wins, Pro Bowl nominations, record-setting offenses and award ceremonies. Hell, even one or two playoff victories won't cut it. McNabb-led teams have been there, done that.

The bar has been returned to where it once was; nothing but a championship is acceptable. Granted, this is a young team; they could win next year, or the year after that, if these young players continue to gel. But the NFL might not be this wide open in 2011 and 2012. The New England Patriots are the prohibitive favorites, but they aren't the 2004 Patriots. Nor are they the 2007 Patriots.

Overall, it's a very lackluster league, shades of the 2002 season that produced a Tampa Bay/Oakland Super Bowl. Had the Eagles beaten Tampa in the NFC Championship Game, that one would have been theirs. This one might be just as within reach.

So what's derailing the Eagles' chances? Bad playcalling, weak defense, fatigue, inexperience, regression to the mean -- call it whatever you want. But it's inexcusable to lose to the Minnesota Vikings, and there's no reason they shouldn't compete with the Chicago Bears or Green Bay Packers come playoff time.

When Dallas comes to town on Sunday, the Eagles need to sit Michael Vick, sit DeSean Jackson, sit Asante Samuel, sit anyone that's good. Rest everyone up and take your shot at the Packers or the Giants in the first round. This will be your bye week; hopefully it's enough. It's been a great ride, but we've all seen those before. Fix what's ailing you and ride Vick to glory; you might not get another chance that's this good.

December 21, 2010

I don't wanna miss a thing.

Roughly two weeks ago, I realized my (very early) bus ride back to Philadelphia for Christmas directly clashed with the Eagles/Giants game, a match-up that would ostensibly decide the NFC East champion.

This, obviously, was not good. Unfortunately, due to time constraints (and the fact that I was traveling with Queen Myno), changing to another bus wasn't an option. Luckily, I have a generous (and handsome) friend with access to NFL Sunday Ticket, and he was happy to donate his password so that I could stream it to my iPhone. Success! It would be an entertaining bus ride after all.

But when I settled down at 1 PM and clicked over to the game, it refused to play. I had forgotten about the NFL's archaic blackout rules; it was the national game, so it had to be watched on FOX. I was in trouble.

I considered shelling out $25 for the NFL Audio Pass, but the form was too hard to navigate on my phone and the bus's Internet was down. And as I was fumbling around and cursing, I started getting texts. The Eagles couldn't move the ball, nor could they stop the Giants on third down. Mario Manningham was torching Dimitri Patterson, and before you knew it, New York had built a huge lead.

I certainly wasn't happy, but I have to admit, I wasn't that sad. It sounded like an awful game, the kind you consider turning off midway through the third quarter. Definitely not the kind you shell out money to watch, let alone just listen to. It looked like the only game of the 2010 season I'd miss would turn out to be the worst; I had gotten lucky.

So I contently sat on the bus with my girlfriend, reading the occasional text update and following fans and beat writers on Twitter. Everyone was frustrated, especially when Andy Reid chose not to challenge an obvious non-fumble by DeSean Jackson. That should have been the nail in the coffin. It was 31-10 with 8:17 left.

But then my phone starts buzzing. My friend Jon Cifuentes is bombarding me with updates. My ESPN ScoreCenter app is freaking out, constantly informing me of Eagles touchdowns. Even non-Eagles fans are texting me, saying either "Wow!" or the more popular "VIIIIIIICKKKK!" Michael Vick, the new face of the Eagles organization (and, coincidentally, of my fantasy football team), was taking over the game.

I'm going nuts in my seat, getting excited over a game I can't even see. I'm starting to believe that maybe they can come back. I'm picturing Tom Coughlin's head turning red and exploding, praying for the Eagles D to finally step up and make a few big stops, imagining this perfect-sounding onside kick falling into Riley Cooper's hands.

Finally, the dust settles. It's somehow 31-31 with about a minute left. If they hold the Giants here, it's overtime. I can't believe it; I've missed the best comeback in recent Eagles history. Even if the Giants win, those final few minutes were obviously incredible. "Man," I think, "I can't wait to watch this when I get back home."

And then, all at once, I receive 30 texts in giant capital letters. My Twitter feed goes nuts. It's all unintelligible gibberish, cheering and carrying on; all the bells and whistles that come with a game-changing, and maybe season-changing, play. The only constant word? "DeSean."

So I didn't see DeSean Jackson's life-altering punt return. I didn't see the Giants fans sobbing, the Eagles fans going insane, the suddenly wobbly 2010 playoff run being immediately righted by a player that most "experts" had bashed all last week for "showboating." Notice that you didn't hear many negative comments over his pre-TD sideline-to-sideline celebratory jog. Like I said, when you're a true game-changer, you can show all the swagger you want.

If I had pushed our bus back a day, to Monday, we'd have been caught in a big Boston snowstorm. If we had left on Saturday, we'd have skipped a party at my friend's house. Are these reasonable excuses? Not exactly; I'm still fuming about missing the game.

But regular season wins, no matter how thrilling, come and go. It's what happens in the game, not the win, that really matters. And what we should all take away is that this is a special team with an aura around it, one not felt since the early days of Donovan McNabb. They can do it all, and if they overcome a recent rash of defensive injuries, well, you can be sure I won't miss a snap of postseason football.

December 14, 2010

Welcome back, Cliff Lee.

When the Philadelphia Phillies essentially traded Cliff Lee for Roy Halladay, people mostly understood.

Yes, Lee was the hero of the 2009 World Series run. Hell, he was the only reason the Phillies even sniffed a championship. He came over from the Indians as a man possessed, dispatching National League hitters like they were cardboard cutouts. While Cole Hamels floundered after an exhausting 2008 season, Lee established himself as an elite playoff pitcher. Everything the Phillies needed him to do, he did.

But with only one year left on his contract, we also thought he'd chase the money. After a rocky 2007 in Cleveland that included a demotion to the minors, Lee had finally been christened a star on baseball's biggest stage. He was in line for a gigantic deal, and he deserved every cent of it.

Meanwhile, Roy Halladay, a Cy Young-winning arm who dreamed of pitching under the bright lights in Philadelphia, was ready to leave a boatload of money on the table for a shot at a championship. He took a three-year, $60 million extension, ensuring that the Phillies would still have a true ace on the roster. As hard as it was to believe, he made Lee expendable. If, for whatever reason, you could only have one, Roy was your guy.

But then, even after Cole Hamels got his mojo back and Ruben Amaro Jr. traded for Roy Oswalt, it still wasn't enough to lock down a third straight World Series appearance. Three aces. Not bad, but still not enough.

Lee hit the market, and the bidding started high. Far too high, we all assumed, for the budget-conscious Phillies. But then this afternoon, out of nowhere, rumors started to leak of a "mystery team" entering the Lee sweepstakes. Who was this team? Did they really have a shot at the left-hander? Unlikely, everyone said. Lee's getting his payday in New York or Texas, that's for sure.

Yet here we are, at 12:43 in the morning on Tuesday, December 14th, and the unthinkable has occurred. If you thought the Roy Halladay negotiations were generous, well, say "welcome back" to burgeoning humanitarian Clifton Phifer Lee.

The rumors say five years, $100 million; either way, it might be the most absurd turn of events in recent baseball history. Everyone said Lee loved playing in Philadelphia, but no one could put a price tag on that kind of speculation. Well, now we can; $38 million. That's how much Lee turned down, how much he valued happiness in Philadelphia over pitching somewhere else.

It will be tough to fall asleep after all this, but it might help to imagine Cliff Lee's powerful left arm gently rocking me to unconsciousness. The prodigal son, the man Philadelphians dreamed about reacquiring someday, is once again a member of Phillies. As Clark Griswold once said, "Hallelujah! Holy shit! Where's the Tylenol?"

December 13, 2010

DeSean Jackson can dance if he wants to.

"When you see antics like Sunday night's touchdown dive, it makes [DeSean] Jackson look like a me-first player."
-Jerome Bettis
When ex-players preach like this, busting out the "everything was sunshine and rainbows in my day" card, do they ever come off as anything but old and sad? I've come to expect it from aging sportswriters, most of whom act as if they've been given a heavenly mandate to judge the game and its players, but not former NFL stars who know the joy of a big play against a rival team.

DeSean Jackson's fall into the endzone came after a 91-yard touchdown, the longest play from scrimmage in the 2010 season and one that made every Eagles fan leap out of their seats. I was dancing around so wildly that my roommate tried in vain to whip his phone out and take a quick video of the whole embarrassing ordeal.

It put the Eagles up on a hated opponent, a team that Jackson has been extremely vocal about wanting to defeat for almost a year now. It was an adrenaline-fueled celebration of excitement, and the only thing it took away from the Eagles was 15 yards on the ensuing kickoff. It had nothing to do with "me-first" football and everything to do with winning the game for the Philadelphia Eagles.

Yes, DeSean Jackson has gotten a lot of publicity lately for wanting to be paid at a level proportional to his talents. And rightfully so; he's a top-10 NFL receiver in a sport where careers can be very short. But at the same time, he hasn't bitched and moaned in public like Terrell Owens, and he hasn't held out like Vincent Jackson. He's earning his money out there on the field, and most of the time, he makes his presence felt with a big, momentum-swinging play.

Has he recently come up short on a few balls across the middle? Yes, but he also did just return from a bone-crushing hit that could have ruined his career and crippled him for the rest of his life. He's not the first player to suffer from alligator arms, but he's also no Todd Pinkston. In fact, you could make the case that the Eagles need to do a better job of keeping him out of harm's way. Don't waste him on all these unnecessary reverses, Andy Reid; there are better ways to get three yards.

But of course, don't tell all this to The Bus. Bettis, taking the easy way out, also decides to play the "this is bad for the league" card. So a guy that hasn't committed any crimes, someone the NFL values enough to feature in its Sunday Night Football opening promo, gets dragged over the coals for celebrating a little after a huge, game-changing play.

Other NFL players, meanwhile, are raping, murdering and murdering some more, being far worse human beings and threatening the lives and livelihoods of people around them. My gut tells me these are the kind of guys Bettis needs to get up on his soapbox about, not DeSean Jackson.

Hell, I'd rather see people trash Michael Vick than DeSean. I'm MV7's number one fan, but the acts he's committed in the past were genuinely awful and illegal. Jackson is just a braggart and a show-off, and last time I checked, that wasn't against the rules.

People always say, "If DeSean Jackson wasn't an Eagle, Philly fans would hate him." Well, obviously. If Michael Irvin was an Eagle, we'd all love him. But he was a Cowboy, so we cheered when he got paralyzed. Philadelphia's often characterized as a "meat and potatoes" sports town, but when a guy brings the sizzle and the steak, you know even the old white people are gonna come around. We can recognize greatness.

Simply put, DeSean Jackson is an eccentric and electric talent. Andy Reid knows all this, and luckily, he seems to love it. Yes, there was that recent blowup, but I think that was more about reorienting DeSean's priorities than criticizing the guy's focus or his work ethic. We all remember the uncharacteristic chest bump; hell, Reid even said after yesterday's game that he "loved [DeSean's] enthusiasm."

When bad players make bad decisions or take stupid penalties -- Jorrick Calvin's idiotic unnecessary roughness call shockingly comes to mind -- they deserve whatever they get. But I get the sense that, as long as DeSean's using that unbelievable speed to haul in record-breaking touchdowns, he'll justifiably be allowed to show a little swagger. And if you think that's unfair, well, you must be a curiously loyal Jerome Bettis reader.

December 6, 2010

Werth his weight in gold.

Jayson Werth is no longer a member of the Philadelphia Phillies.

Most of us saw this coming, but a few tweets immediately afterward shocked me: people moaning about the good old days, when "baseball was about purity." Was it? I do remember hearing of an era where greedy owners and a crappy union meant players were trapped on the same teams their entire lives. Was that purity, or an modern take on indentured servitude? I prefer this era, where players are free to go elsewhere and get paid at market value.

This particular split was amicable enough, although Werth made it a bit more uncomfortable when he brought up "feeling unwanted" in Philadelphia. Give us a break, Jayson. You took the big deal elsewhere, as well you should have. Until Cliff Lee and Carl Crawford sign, Werth's contract is tied for the fourteenth-richest in baseball history: seven years and $126 million. Absolutely insane, and if history is any indicator, trouble for the team that dealt it out.

Those numbers should look familiar to you Blue Jays fans out there; it's the same deal Toronto gave to Vernon Wells in 2008. Think J.P. Riccardi regrets that one? Barry Zito's serving out a carbon copy of that contract, too, and I think the defending champions Giants would love to celebrate their title by dropping a piano on his head.

I'm not saying Werth will bomb in Washington, D.C.; he's a talented player who would be a great complimentary piece to a Ryan Zimmerman/Bryce Harper/Stephen Strasburg core someday. But that remains more than a little uncertain; unless they all stay healthy and meet incredibly lofty expectations, the Nationals are nowhere near contenders.

Washington GM Mike Rizzo has been (understandably) talking up Werth nonstop, but everyone knows it's just that -- talk. Werth isn't a franchise player; he's outrageously overpaid before even playing a game. It's telling that his agent, Scott Boras, didn't even take the offer to other interested parties. He knew the jackpot had already been hit.

The Nationals paid the "crappy team tax," and they seemed happy to do it. I'm extremely glad that Jayson Werth's family is set for life, and I'm happy that such a key part of the 2008 championship squad is being rewarded for his contributions to baseball (and my personal happiness). But will I really miss him, or the giant, awful contract that would have kept him around? You bet I won't.

Unless they waste those bucks on shitty, shitty Jeff Francoeur, of course.

December 3, 2010

Go to hell, Nils Lofgren.

If you haven't noticed, I'm one of the biggest Bruce Springsteen fans ever. Best American band in existence, greatest live performers of all time, blah blah blah. But right now, I think Springsteen associate and E Street Band guitarist Nils Lofgren should shut the hell up.

Lofgren penned a diatribe against Michael Vick for ESPN.com, stating that he's "so disheartened and disappointed" by the sporting community's praise for the Philadelphia Eagles quarterback. It's possibly the worst article that site has ever run, which is saying something about a company that employs Rick Reilly.

First off, Lofgren is upset that Michael Vick didn't realize killing dogs was wrong. Hey, 59-year-old white millionaire musician: Not everyone grew up studying classical music in the suburbs. Things are different where Vick was from, and we have to take that into account. Whether we like it or not, that can be part of the culture in some areas of our country. And when you grow up surrounded by things like that, when all your role models do it, when no one slaps you on the wrist and tells you it's wrong, you might not realize just what you're doing until someone shackles you and throws you in a paddywagon.

How can we justify this to our children, Lofgren wails. Yes, the poor children. God forbid they come to understand the power of redemption, the idea of second and even third chances, the fact that people make mistakes, even horrific ones. I personally hope that my children aren't defined, that they don't define other people, by singular moments and situations. I hope they understand that human beings are nuanced and complex and you should delve beneath a catchy headline or an easy-to-grasp ideal to find out what they're actually all about.

Lofgren believes that Vick does not deserve "a lofty place in our culture." He feels the NFL should ban him permanently. Even though one of the supposed "goals" of imprisonment in this country is rehabilitation, Lofgren apparently doesn't buy into that claptrap. He thinks a man's entire future, the next 40-50 years of his life, should be torched because of something he did when he was young. It sounds to me like Lofgren wants Michael Vick locked up and the key thrown away, which I think is patently absurd.

Look, Michael Vick participated in the killing of dogs. He probably killed a few himself. Heinous? Yes. A crime worth punishing? Absolutely. But Vick served 23 months in federal prison and filed for bankruptcy. For a little while, he was despised by an overwhelming majority of the entire country. He was a shattered shell of a man. Even now, when he's achieving a great deal of success on the football field, he still owes millions of dollars to creditors. And he'll always be known as the athlete who killed dogs, even if he wins six straight Super Bowls. I'd say he's suffered appropriately for what he's done.

Donté Stallworth drunkenly ran a man over with his car and killed him. He served 24 days in prison and paid the family off to avoid further trouble. He's already returned to the NFL with minimal fanfare. Leonard Little drunkenly killed a woman with his car in 1999. He received four years of probation and played in the NFL until 2009, even though he received another DWI in 2004. Ray Lewis was involved in the murder of two people, yet he's become one of the most celebrated defensive players in the history of the league.

But because Michael Vick is a hot topic these days, because the success he's achieving bothers people, he doesn't get those chances. Even though he's saying and doing all the right things, even though he's had several years to examine his life and mature as a person, it's all bullshit to them. Some people aren't buying it, even though they've bought it so many times before from far less deserving athletes and celebrities.

Look, if Michael Vick goes out and kicks a cat in the face tomorrow, I'll be the first to admit that he's a piece of shit. And if he throws three interceptions in a playoff game and costs the Eagles a shot at the Super Bowl, I definitely won't be penning as many loving Vick-centric blog posts. But I think he's the definition of a man who has learned his lesson, who's been given another chance and has taken full advantage.

And he definitely, definitely, doesn't need to be called out by a grandstanding, aging musician. This is the first "hey you kids, get off my lawn" moment I've noticed from the mouth of an E Street Band member; I hope the rest of them learn from it and make it the last. Go sit on your hands and wait for Bruce to call you into the studio, Nils, and let the rehabilitated Mick Vick play football.

December 2, 2010

Remembering Leslie Nielsen.

I might have been the only 13-year-old boy that went to the movies specifically to see Wrongfully Accused. My brother was definitely the only 10-year-old. But, of course, we were laughing louder than anyone else in the building. Such was the power of Leslie Nielsen.

We saw it with our grandma in West Chester, Pennsylvania; I bet she didn't enjoy it at all. Honestly, there's not a lot to laugh at...unless you're a fan of the comedy stylings of Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker. They're the men behind Hot Shots!, BASEketball, Mafia! and the final two installments in the Scary Movie series. And, of course, they turned Leslie Nielsen into one of the most beloved comedic actors of his generation.

It started in Airplane!, which seems dated now only because every spoof movie of the last 30 years has stolen from it. That's where Nielsen became beloved, developing a comedic persona that made him legendary for the next 15 years and at least very rich for 15 more. He provided most of the movie's really memorable quotes; I can't imagine being in an unexpecting Airplane! audience, seeing this stoic man delivering ridiculously out-of-place lines with an stone-like poker face.



It's even crazier that, before Airplane!, Nielsen was a dramatic actor. He screen-tested for Ben Hur and apparently appeared on every television show of his era, so most audiences had seen him before. That must have made it even more jarring when he dropped deadpan responses to comments like "Well, we had a choice of steak or fish," with "Yes, yes, I remember, I had lasagna."

Actors don't usually do that. They don't transition from straight drama to pure comedy, especially not Zucker/Abrahams comedy. But Nielsen, along with the equally memorable Lloyd Bridges in Hot Shots! and Mafia!, did just that. They took lifelong serious personas and made themselves into legendary comedic actors, icons for people of my generation that like their jokes fast, silly and surprisingly witty. They looked like normal actors, and they used it to their advantage. Maybe it was aging that gave them the freedom to do so, to realize that they could take what they've built up over 30 years of acting and use it to really make people laugh.

Nielsen is probably even more well known for his work in the Naked Gun movies, where his Lt. Frank Drebin bumbles around with OJ Simpson's Nordberg and drops lines like "Cheer up, Ed. This is not goodbye. It's just I won't ever see you again." Lots of people swear off his later work, Spy Hard and the aforementioned Wrongfully Accused, but I find them to be just as funny in their own way. The jokes are a bit stupider, the plots a bit more lazy and hackneyed, but in the end, there were still a bunch of great moments where Nielsen worked his magic. This spoof of The Fugitive's escape scene is as funny as anything in the Naked Gun movies:



And this Spy Hard scene, although horribly out-of-context, is just a little sampling of the movie's understated cleverness (for a post-Naked Gun Nielsen film, anyway). Plus, it has Robert Guillaume!



Nielsen also popped up in the very forgettable Scary Movie 3 and Scary Movie 4, probably as a "thank you" to director David Zucker, or maybe the other way around. Regardless, it was great to see him on screen in one more prominent role, even if the movies weren't that funny and most younger people probably didn't understand who this weird white-haired man was. But if one kid in each audience took a liking to his jokes and ended up stumbling upon Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult in the process, that's all worth it right there.

Leslie Nielsen died on Sunday, November 28th at the age of 84. He taught me that being funny isn't all about mugging for laughs or belting out a big obvious punchline. It's also in delivery, in a subtle glance or brief pause, in taking basic language and situations and pushing them slightly over the line into absurdity. Like a midget at a urinal, he kept us all on our toes. He will be missed.

November 28, 2010

Dissecting Andy Reid.

Early in the third quarter of today's Philadelphia Eagles/Chicago Bears showdown, the Eagles faced 3rd and 10 from their own 31-yard line. As the play clock neared zero, Andy Reid called a timeout to avoid a five-yard false start penalty. However, his subsequent playcall, a ho-hum LeSean McCoy run, brought the offense nowhere near the first-down marker.

Much later, the team was looking at 4th and goal from the Chicago Bears' 18-yard line. Trailing by 15 points with only roughly five minutes left in the fourth quarter, the Eagles needed two touchdowns and a two-point conversion to tie. However, Reid decided to kick a field goal rather than go for seven, a call that the coach could barely defend in his post-game press conference.

We all know what happened next. Before I go any further, let the record show that I think defensive miscues (poor tackling in particular) cost the Eagles today's game, not these two coaching decisions. When ne'er-do-well quarterback Jay Cutler torches your defense for his best game in a Bears uniform, complete with a hard-to-believe zero interceptions, it's hard to put the blame anywhere but there.

But the question remains, one that has bogged Andy Reid and his staff for the entirety of his 12-year stay as Eagles head coach: Why does he make decisions like these?

Are they emotional in nature? If the Eagles fail to convert on a lengthy 4th and goal, the game's basically over. The field goal inspires a bit of hope; you're three points closer, even if those points really don't matter. Maybe he found this option more uplifting than potentially walking away with nothing.

Same for the wasted timeout; accepting an avoidable penalty might be seen as a sign of weakness. The Bears had just driven down the field and scored; an Eagles delay of game would have whipped their fans into even more of a frenzy. Plus, what if McCoy breaks that run for a touchdown? Reid might argue that a well-executed play can be as important as a timeout.

Of course, I'm just playing devil's advocate. I have no idea what runs through Andy Reid's head. Maybe moves like these are an inescapable flaw in his coaching strategy. Is it a knee-jerk reaction to burn a timeout rather than take a penalty? As Ray Didinger just said on "Eagles Postgame Live," timeouts are precious commodities, although Reid doesn't always seem to agree.

But a more telling comment from "Postgame Live" came from Vaughn Hebron and Ed Rendell, who mentioned that Reid should consider hiring a quality control coach to monitor his timeout usage, clock management and other areas of weakness. Basically, someone authorized to meet with Reid and explain alternatives to past actions, pointing out where the coach went wrong and how to improve.

Is it realistic that an NFL head coach with five NFC Championship Games, one Super Bowl visit and several coach of the year awards on his resume would consider this? Probably not. Would it even make a difference? Given that few people, even Eagles analysts like Didinger and Hebron, know the dynamics of the team's coaching staff, that's also a big fat unknown.

This terrific Eagles midseason run has masked the fact that they remain a flawed team. The defense played way over its head for a few weeks, but Cutler and his rag-tag gang of no-names carved them up. The offensive line may have gelled a bit, but Vick's still gonna take his share of heavy hits. The whole house of cards would probably tumble, in fact, if any prominent player suffered a serious injury.

So when you add a dash of "questionable basic coaching decisions" to a recipe that includes a young offense, a questionable defense, a recently incarcerated quarterback and iffy special teams, odds are you won't cook up a Super Bowl winner. The Eagles could certainly buck that trend, but not with performances like today's.

November 17, 2010

Vicktory.

Two weeks ago, I wrote, "For better or worse, it's all about Michael Vick now." Turns out it was for better.

America has been diagnosed with a lethal case of Michael Vick fever. After picking apart the Washington Redskins in what has been called "one of the best quarterback performances of all time" by every single blogger and journalist on Earth, there's suddenly no escaping him. Vick is everywhere.

And the stories about him! Oh, the stories. Nothing drives up page views like a good Michael Vick piece. What if he had been drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles? What kind of contract will Vick get after the season? Will he remain a Philadelphia Eagle? What of donuts?! For the love of God, tell me!

To all the contract talk, I say this: Whatever. If Vick stays healthy and continues to perform at an MVP level, he'll be an Eagle in 2011. If he gets seriously injured, his play falters or he resumes a life of animal cruelty, he won't be. He still has roughly half a season to go before he meets his end of the bargain, which is "be spectacular on and off the football field," but if and when he does, he'll be rewarded with a truckload of Philadelphia dollars.

There's really nothing to worry about. The Eagles always seem to have a surplus of cap space; that won't be a concern. And if Vick is as changed a man as he seems, he won't walk away from his picture-perfect redemption story. A young team, a coach who's finally taught him the finer points of the game, the adoring love of a football-crazy city. And let's not kid ourselves, he's not gonna find a better group of weapons than LeSean McCoy, DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin. After a lifetime of playing with the Brian Finnerans of the world, he must be in heaven right now.

But if Vick, for some outrageous reason, would rather be a Buffalo Bill or an Oakland Raider, there's always the franchise tag (or whatever the franchise tag will be called under the new collective bargaining agreement). More or less, he's trapped, albeit it in the best possible situation for both sides. Vick can't fool himself into abandoning the perfect football environment, and the Eagles can't lose out on their resurgent superstar quarterback.

So let's focus on this year, and the wide-open National Football League. At best, the Eagles are currently the number one team in football. At worst, they're fourth, behind the Giants, Patriots and Jets. They've already beaten the Falcons and Colts, two other top teams, and they've lost hard-fought games to the Packers and the Titans. They're absolutely in the discussion.

But you don't make the playoffs based on arbitrary polls; this isn't college football. You make it based on wins and losses, and that's what makes this week so very important. If the Eagles beat the Giants at home, they'll move into sole possession of the NFC East lead. Then they'll travel to Soldier Field for a showdown with a "couldn't be more fraudulent" Chicago team, followed by the sieve-like Houston defense at home and the "not entirely dead but close" Dallas Cowboys on the road.

As crazy as it sounds, there's no reason they can't win four straight. Dimitri Patterson has strengthened the secondary, the offensive line has been reasonable and the offense in general looks truly unstoppable. I don't expect a repeat of Monday night, but nothing gels a team like destroying a hated opponent. They won't be that good, but they can be close. And after their embarrassing loss to the Cowboys, the Giants are even more of an enigma than the Eagles. Should Andy Reid and company be nervous about them, or is it actually the other way around?

My only concern? Vick will buy into the hype and believe he can take on the Giants by himself, only to be disemboweled by their quarterback-killing defense. They've already injured Tony Romo, Jay Cutler and Shaun Hill this season, and you know they're already drooling over Vick's refusal to slide. All it takes is one wrong move, one freak collision, and we're watching Kevin Kolb man a ho-hum playoff contender for the final six weeks.

So I guess we're about to get a glimpse at how mature the new Michael Vick really is. Does he recognize the Giants as a true threat? Does he understand that he's now the leader of a Super Bowl-caliber team, that his long-term existence is more important than gaining a few extra yards on a meaningless run? Can he play both hard and smart against a team light-years ahead of the guys he just fustigated?

I believe Vick when he says he's got his priorities straight, that he understands both life and football better than he ever has before. And I truly believe, after Monday night, that the Eagles are championship-ready. It feels like we're all in the middle of one of those scenes on every Super Bowl DVD, when either a player or a coach notes that this particular moment was when it all came together. Was Monday's "Vicktory" that moment? We'll have our answer Sunday night.

November 13, 2010

Just chillin'.

From Sam Carchidi's Philadelphia Flyers weekend recap:
Sergei Bobrovsky, the Flyers' unflappable Russian goalie, is starting to pick up English. When public-relations manager Joe Siville asked him, "What's up?" Bobrovsky replied, "Not much. Just chillin'."
Awesome. And as the early front-runner for not only the Calder Trophy but the Vezina as well, Bobrovsky has my permission to chill all the hell he wants.

I remember when the Flyers signed Bobrovsky in May. My dad, a huge Flyers fan and season-ticket holder, sent out a family email wondering who this young kid was and speculating that he might be involved in this year's goalie rotation. Since "Flyers goalie" is the second-most debated position in Philadelphia sports, behind only "Eagles quarterback," I was intrigued.

But at the same time, Michael Leighton was coming off a resurgent season where he led the Flyers to the Stanley Cup Finals. It seemed likely that he and Brian Boucher would handle goaltending duties in 2010-2011. They might not be a lockdown duo, but with the additions of Andrej Meszaros and Sean O'Donnell to a top-heavy defense, it should be enough to get the job done.

But then Leighton went down with a back injury that had been bothering him for quite some time. And then Bobrovsky impressed in training camp. By the time he'd won a few games and established himself as, at the very least, a legitimate NHL goalie, the writing was on the wall. Bobrovsky was here to stay.

I don't think anyone, however, expected this. The numbers say it all: Second in the NHL in wins (nine), sixth in save percentage (.931), and seventh in goals-against average (2.09). Those are Luongo/Brodeur numbers, not what we've come to expect from a Flyers goalie.

But every night Laviolette throws Bob out there, and every night he seems to win games. He's not overly acrobatic, but he's steady as can be; as Carchidi said, he's unflappable, and he's terrific at squaring up his body for every single shot. I read somewhere that goaltending coach Jeff Reese, who worked wonders with Leighton, is teaching Bob to come out of his net more and challenge skaters, something we've already seen him do earlier this week.

Of course, Flyers fans have seen flash-in-the-pan goalies before. Roman Cechmanek had some amazing years before he went totally insane, and even Boucher played like a franchise goalie in the making throughout the 2000 playoffs.

But as of right now, Bob looks like the real deal. And the fans love him. "Bob" chants echo throughout the Wells Fargo Center (ugh, I hate that name) and even the mysterious Zoo With Roy has started selling Bob t-shirts.

The "Bob" nickname might be a little lazy, but then again, how often do goalies have nicknames? It just shows how ready this city is to invest in a skilled backstop, someone they can count on after years of Jeff Hacketts and John Vanbiesbroucks. Maybe Bob won't turn out to be that guy, but so far he's passed every test. So far, he's done nothing but dominate for a team that might end up being the best in the NHL.

November 10, 2010

What about Ben Francisco?

For many people, the Philadelphia Phillies' most glaring need in 2011 is in right field.

I've seen names like Magglio Ordonez, Aaron Rowand, Matt Diaz and Jeff Francoeur thrown around already. All of these guys have upsides. Ordonez had an OPS+ of 130 last year, his best since 2007 and second-highest in seven years. Rowand would come cheap (San Francisco would have to eat most of his contract to move him) and he'd bring some well-known fire and leadership to the clubhouse. Diaz has a .907 lifetime OPS versus left-handers, perfect for a platoon. And Francoeur...well, he hit 29 homers once!

There are also many negatives. Ordonez will be 37 in January and probably command a relatively substantial salary. Rowand's best year as a Giant was .271 with 13 homers...three years ago. Diaz's OPS+ the last four seasons: 123, 50, 132, 99 (although he does appear to be the best fit of the bunch). And Francoeur is terrible.

And then there's Ben Francisco.

In 2009, Francisco's last full-ish season, he put up a .257/.332/.447 line. Not particularly impressive, but against left-handed pitching, he's .267/.347/.460 lifetime. That's in no way Jayson Werth-ian (who actually had a lower OPS versus lefties in 2010, .881, as compared to .937 vs. RHP) but it's reasonable for a hitter in the six/seven hole. A career OPS+ of 105 can be made to work in right field.

But no one seems to consider him a realistic option. Everyone wants to swap him out for a new name, a shiny toy packed with unknown potential. I see the allure in that. But when people are suggesting Jeff Francoeur, JEFF FRANCOEUR, a player we've seen devolve before our very eyes in the NL East, a man with a career .310 OBP, it's time to take a step back and reassess.

This isn't an offensive team anymore. It's a team built around three aces -- Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels -- designed to win games 4-2, not 7-5. That doesn't mean offense should be ignored, but it should be addressed appropriately. Jayson Werth's numbers won't be replaced, at least not by conventional means. It'll take either a gigantic move or some creative thinking to get "acceptable" offense out of right field. I think that kind of production could be quietly, but effectively, produced with Francisco on the right side of a strict platoon.

If Ruben Amaro Jr. finds the means to make a big splash, either in free agency or through a trade, more power to him. I know Francisco is a middling choice, a stopgap until a better player can be found. I also think he's A) under team control and B) a reasonable hitter and baseball player, certainly able to fill one-half of a platoon, either with Raul Ibanez or Domonic Brown. Wouldn't the team be better served by taking that money previously earmarked for right field and using it to pursue another top bullpen arm, a strong lefty to replace JC Romero's oft-shaky work in later innings?

If the Phils are set on upgrading, or rearranging in the outfield, what would I prefer Amaro to do? Well, my dream is a trade for Andrew McCutchen. He's the centerfielder in Pittsburgh, a budding superstar who the Pirates might not be able to pay. CSNPhilly.com's Jim Salisbury has batted around the idea of a Dom Brown and prospects for Cutch swap, which might be too much for either team to handle. But Cutch is a great leadoff hitter, a right-handed bat, a dynamic player and a sure thing, unlike the still-developing Brown. If he couldn't ignite what some people are calling a stagnating offense, I don't know what could.

McCutchen, Polanco, Utley, Howard, Rollins, Ibanez, Victorino (in right), Ruiz. If there's a better 1-8 in baseball, I haven't seen it. So, Ruben Amaro, rather than negotiating dollars and cents with Matt Diaz, give Neal Huntington a few calls. An "upgrade" over Francisco won't make or break the 2011 season.

November 6, 2010

A look back at WrestleMania: The Album.

When I was a kid, I wasn't really into music. I remember owning the Jurassic Park soundtrack, the Living in the 90's compilation set...and WrestleMania: The Album.

It's not a stretch to say that this was the defining musical influence on my childhood. I loved professional wrestling when I was a kid, probably more than I've ever loved anything non-human. I used to put together fake pay-per-view events in my little plastic ring, starring my wrestling action figures. My friends and I would get almost every real pay-per-view, back when there were only five or six a year. I had T-shirts, I had VHS tapes, I had everything. And I had this cassette.

The entity that used to be the World Wrestling Federation has released numerous records featuring superstar entrance music, but I think this was the only one to feature awful songs sung by actual wrestlers with horrific singing voices (and to be produced by Simon Cowell!). Some of the tunes (Tatanka, The Undertaker, The Nasty Boys, all linked here for your listening pleasure) are less memorable and therefore shall not be discussed in detail, although I just listened to the Nasty Boys song and the Undertaker song about five minutes ago and they're both pretty sweet. But here are a couple choice cuts from the best wrestling-themed original music album of all time.



"USA" by Hacksaw Jim Duggan. Not much of Hacksaw singing here; its mostly him talking about his ring entrance over a beat, but there is a creepy deep voice repeating "A POWERFUL NEW FORCE." At the time, Hacksaw Jim Duggan was 39 years old. Not exactly a new force. And he never held a single WWF championship in his career, so I don't know how powerful he really was. But it's catchy as all hell, and it's sad that Hacksaw was overshadowed by Hulk Hogan as the WWF's 90's patriot. He was the William Dawes to Hogan's Paul Revere.



"Never Been A Right Time To Say Goodbye" by Bret Hart. After reading Hitman, Bret's book about his wrestling career, I can only assume this song was recorded while Vince McMahon held a gun to Bret's head. Otherwise, I see no way the overly prideful Hart could have been talked into participating. Again, it's unbelievably catchy, or maybe I just have no taste in music and enjoy shit. But honestly, listening to this album requires an open mind in the first place. It's wrestlers singing songs! If you aren't ready to buy into it fully, don't waste your time.

Bret Hart later spit in McMahon's face, suffered a debilitating stroke and participated in the worst match ever at WrestleMania XXVI.



"Speaking From The Heart" by Macho Man Randy Savage. This song is actually the reason I wrote this post; I was getting into the shower a few days ago and found myself saying, "The tower of power, too sweet to be sour, funky like a monkey, ooooooh yeahhhhh." That's how deeply this album is ingrained in my brain; I'm 25 years old and I'm singing lines from the Macho Man track. This one has by far the most absurd lyrics; Macho Man promises to help us "find the light at the end of the tunnel" and says that we'll "climb that mountain together and we are together forever." Did Vince let them write their own lyrics, or is someone else this insane? Viewed in the context of Savage's 2003 rap album, this song becomes even more intriguing.



"WrestleMania" by all the WWF Superstars. This is the album's opener, although it should probably be the closer. It's the classic WrestleMania theme, although it opens with someone screaming "I SAID ARE YOU READY, FOR THE SURVIVOR SERIES?!" Not a lot on this album makes sense. Big Boss Man is featured heavily on this track, which is good because his song "Hard Times" is pretty terrible. It's funny how seriously he takes his character, talking about how he took a vow to protect and serve. He later tricked Al Snow into eating his own dog, stole The Big Show's father's casket and was hung, and presumably murdered, by The Undertaker after their Hell in a Cell match at WrestleMania 15. I attended that event, and it was terrible. Looking back, wrestling angles were all pretty fucked up.

And if you're interested in the other tracks ("The Summer Slam Jam" is particularly incredible, although it's almost exactly the same thing as "WrestleMania"), please consult YouTube. I may have lost this cassette years ago, but thanks to the Internet, these songs will never die. If only wrestling could be this cool in 2010...but that's a whole other blog post.

November 5, 2010

Return of the mack.

It's been a long, lonely start to the fall, but business is about to pick up. Philadelphia Eagles fans have awoken from their Kevin Kolb-induced slumbers, ready and willing to watch their team run roughshod over the National Football League. The Michael Vick Experience is greased up and ready to roll.

When Vick got hurt in Week 4, the media had a field day.

"How will Kolb respond in his return to the starting role?"

"After relying on Vick so heavily this year, can the Eagles survive without him?"

"If Kolb plays well, will Vick even have a starting job to return to?"

But that's all out the window now. Kolb played well, but not well enough to win his job back. At 4-3, the Eagles have a very legitimate shot at the playoffs. And Vick and Kolb are apparently best friends forever.

All that's left now is to win games.

Vick returns at an interesting time in the season. Five NFC East games remain, including two each against the New York Giants and the Dallas Cowboys. The offensive line has congealed a bit and the run defense has been spectacular, but teams have been passing on the Eagles like there's no tomorrow. Sitting the injured Ellis Hobbs should help somewhat, but expect to see a shootout this Sunday when Peyton Manning and company come to town.

And that's why we should thank God for the return of Vick. As well as Kolb was playing, you can't expect him to out-duel Manning. But a healthy Vick made the Eagles offense as dynamic as its ever been, and the Colts defense is nothing to write home about. If Vick can open up the field with a few downfield throws (an additional "welcome back" to the should-be-dead DeSean Jackson), LeSean McCoy should have his first dominant game in a while.

It's almost funny how all the storylines from earlier in the year have boiled down into one. There's no question in anyone's mind that Vick is, and should be, the Eagles starting quarterback. I'm sure DeSean and Jeremy Maclin are salivating at all the deep balls that'll be coming their way, and Vick's legs should open up some extra lanes for Shady, too. He's the team's best, and maybe only, chance at a really deep playoff run. For better or worse, it's all about Michael Vick now.

But of course, you gotta make the playoffs in the first place, and that will require continued Herculean efforts from several non-Michael Vick players, guys like Antonio Dixon, King Dunlap and Owen Schmitt. Luckily, the NFC is wide open. It's the fucking Grand Canyon. The Eagles are a pretty big question mark right now, but I don't think you'd hear much argument if you ranked them as better than other "contenders" like the Redskins, Bears, Seahawks, Rams and Buccaneers. Tough schedule or not, five more wins should get them in. Redskins, Cowboys (twice), Giants, Bears, Texans, Vikings. That's seven should-wins, and that'll get you the division.

Of course, as my good friend (and Bucs fan) Ryan Caswell enjoys reminding me, the best team doesn't always win. The Eagles remain inconsistent, frustrating and (some would say) poorly coached. The return of the mack, of the most exciting quarterback in the NFL? He'll help, but as usual, it'll be up to the Eagles not to beat themselves.

October 27, 2010

Defending Ryan Howard.

From MG, one of my favorite commenters on the excellent Philadelphia Phillies blog known as Beerleaguer:

"Ryan Howard led the regulars this postseason in AVG (.303), OBP (.395), SLG (.424), OPS (.819), XHB (4), and TB (14)."

Yet the amount of shit being piled upon Howard, the number of times he's been appointed "official postseason goat," is absurd. You'd think he had a series like Pat Burrell's 2008 World Series rather than one that came very close to his career norms.

Ryan Howard had a .900 OPS in the National League Championship Series. That is higher than his OPS for the 2008 season, in which he received the second most votes in the National League MVP race. It was also higher than his OPS for the 2010 season. Meanwhile, Raul Ibanez's NLCS OPS was .513. Jimmy Rollins came in at .624. Chase Utley had a meager .561.

The Phillies were generally awful at the plate this postseason, and Ryan Howard did indeed come up small in terms of power. The reason he was offered a $125 million extension is because he socks dingers, a lot of them, and inspires a great deal of fear in the cleanup spot. This wasn't exactly the role he played in the playoffs, I'll admit that.

But he was on base all the time, and he led the team in extra-base hits. The blame should be spread around, and he certainly deserves some of it. But to imply that Ryan Howard came up small this postseason is to ignore the facts and focus on what you want Ryan Howard to be.

He's not Albert Pujols, and he's unfortunately not Reggie Jackson either. His hot streaks are legendary, and his powerless streaks are even more so. On a Phillies team that suddenly had no hope but the long ball, everyone expected Howard to provide a few. And when he didn't, it became his fault that the rest of the team was struggling.

More postseason facts: Rollins hit 1-11 with runners in scoring position (RISP). Shane Victorino hit 2-10. Jayson Werth hit 2-9, Howard hit 1-7 and Ibanez hit 1-6. Placido Polanco and Utley were the only success stories in that department, at 3-6 and 2-6, respectively.

Howard does sit right in the middle of that sad, sad group. But MG also notes that Howard had only one game (Game 6 of the NLCS) where he had more than one more at-bat with RISP. In that game, he went 1-3. More often than not, people just weren't getting on base in front of him. If Victorino, Polanco and Utley had been on second base for a few of those Howard singles or doubles, the RBIs would have been there. It's even more proof that RBIs are an overrated, outdated statistic.

Ryan Howard has holes in his swing, gaping ones that many teams have taken advantage of. He's poor against left-handers and it doesn't seem likely that he'll challenge 60 homers again. For whatever reason, this year his on-base and slugging percentages dropped while his batting average went up. It's enough to make baseball stat geeks go insane, and it's probably not conducive to Howard remaining a premier hitter as his lengthy extension comes to an end.

But consider this. Howard missed 19 games this year with injuries and struggled to find his swing in at least a dozen more, but he still ended the season eighth in the National League in home runs and fourth in RBIs. Even though he's "gone Hollywood" with his Entourage appearances and Eagles game attendances, he's still driving in runs and doing his job. He's still quite the slugger, and while he may never match what he did at the plate in 2006, he's arguably the most important hitting cog in the Phillies machine.

Ninety percent of baseball teams, and cities, would kill to have a Ryan Howard. He did his part in bringing Philadelphia a championship in 2008, and he did his part in attempting to bring home another in 2010. The Phillies ultimately fell short, but you'd be foolish to blame that on Ryan Howard.

October 24, 2010

The better team won.

The better team won the 2010 National League Championship Series.

The San Francisco Giants are not that good. Play a hundred 162-game seasons and the Philadelphia Phillies will have more wins in 99 of them. Play a hundred seven-game showdowns and the Phillies will win more than half. In my opinion, the Giants are destined to come up short in a listless World Series match-up with Cliff Lee and the Texas Rangers.

But over the last week, in six games against the once-vaunted Phillies offense and the "just imperfect enough to lose" starting trio of Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels, the Giants were unquestionably superior.

They can barely put four runs on the board, but they always make them count. Their bullpen is stocked with lefties, a picture-perfect solution for dealing with Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Raul Ibanez. They have a stud catcher in Buster Posey and their own top-shelf trio of starting pitchers in Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Jonathan Sanchez.

They recognize their limitations and maximize their strengths. They're able to survive with a decomposing corpse like Edgar Renteria at shortstop because it moves the halfway-decent Juan Uribe to third base and the suddenly abysmal Pablo Sandoval to the bench. Their cobbled-together outfield of Pat Burrell, Andres Torres and Cody Ross offers just enough power, speed and elfishness to get by.

They have passionate fans and a ballpark expertly designed for the low-scoring, scrappy team that they are. This October, they were kryptonite for the Phillies.

The only analysis I can provide is this: Don't blame Ryan Howard. Maybe he ended up with a zero in the power column, but the Big Man hit .318 with four doubles. Is it his fault that Shane Victorino and Utley weren't on second or third when he was dropping singles into the outfield? Is it his fault that he faced an array of talented lefties that exploited his inalterable weaknesses? He's certainly not above reproach, but he's also only fourth or fifth on my list of "people to blame." He was one of the few hitters who made adjustments and, simplest of simple tasks, reached base once in a while.

The scary thing is, things might get worse for the Phils before they get better. Jayson Werth is likely to leave as a free agent, and Jose Contreras, J.C. Romero and Chad Durbin may depart as well. That will deprive the team of its only right-handed power bat, along with every bit of bullpen depth.

And remember when Placido Polanco, Jimmy Rollins, Utley and Ibanez all looked aged and feeble at the plate? Well, they'll all be a year older! Raul will catch up to even fewer fastballs, Jimmy's legs just might act up again, Polanco will combat more nagging injuries and Utley will continue to suffer through whatever mysterious ailment has been plaguing him these last two weeks. His hip? His thumb? We may never know, but less-than-stellar Chase may rear his ugly head yet again.

Help isn't on the way. The Phillies have already committed $145 million to 16 players next year. Domonic Brown might be a stud but he's just one bat, and a lefty at that. Unless Ruben Amaro Jr. pulls a rabbit out of his hat, this is your team in 2011.

That's not necessarily a bad thing; the Phillies won 102 total games this year. But the Reds will be better, the Giants' core will remain, the Cardinals and the Rockies have enough bats to be worrisome. The Phillies may find that they're no longer the class of the National League...that is, if they haven't already.

A lot of good baseball players are being paid a vast amount to ply their trade in Philadelphia for one reason: to a win a championship. Anything less is a failure. And after seeing the Phillies at their absolute worst this past week, I'm nervous that failure is the only thing in their immediate future.

October 21, 2010

On the brink.

So far, the San Francisco Giants have outplayed the Philadelphia Phillies.

They've played smarter. They've played harder. They're exuding a confidence that was previously reserved only for teams coming off two straight World Series berths, teams like the Phillies. But now, momentum resides solely in San Francisco.

Last night, it was the pitching that came up short. But I refuse to nitpick any decisions involving the Roys; it was right to start Joe Blanton, and if Roy Oswalt says he can give you an inning on his side day, I'd much rather see him out there than Kyle Kendrick.

Should Charlie Manuel have left Blanton in longer? Probably, considering how wiped the bullpen was by the 9th. Should he have had Rollins bunt Werth to third in the 8th, should he have pinch-hit for Ben Francisco afterward? Most definitely, but hindsight is always 20/20.

This isn't the time to bitch about the umpires or complain about little managerial moves. This is a series that has played out exactly as it should. I don't care what happened over 162 regular season games; the Phillies are losing this National League Championship Series because, over the last four games, they've largely been a disappointment.

Right now, the Phillies can't manufacture runs; the Giants can. At best, the pitching has evened out. When you're at a disadvantage like that, no matter how slight, the only way to overcome it is playing spirited, intelligent baseball. This is something, unfortunately, that the Giants have been doing.

Meanwhile, the Phillies, the "playoff-tested" team, are making errors left and right. Wasting an out by foolishly sending Ruiz home. Booting ground balls, failing to move runners over, flailing at pitches outside the strike zone.

The Giants deserve to be up 3-1; Cody Ross deserves to feel like Babe Ruth right now, no matter how absurdly stupid his new "nickname" may be. They've earned this chance to clinch on their home field.

But amazingly, the Phillies can change all that. This is why you spend $50 million a year on three aces: for tense, otherwise hopeless moments like these. Throw a seven-spot on Tim Lincecum and company tonight. Get a gem from Roy Halladay. Show the San Francisco fans and players that this series might not be over.

Let's be honest; the series is probably over. Beating an ace pitcher in his home park, a pitcher's park, with an unbelievably raucous crowd behind him? I'd say it's far more likely that the World Series Game 6 tickets my mom somehow snagged for face value will go to waste.

But with Halladay, Oswalt and Cole Hamels, there's always hope. It might be slight, it might be unwarranted, but it's hope. Bust out the clichés: one game at a time, one batter at a time, etc. Teams can claw back; we've seen the Red Sox do it. Hell, we've seen the Flyers do it.

Do I think it will happen? No. I'm planning to acquire a large amount of beer before tonight's game, as I expect to have some sorrows that need drinking away. But a part of me remains, as The A.V. Club is so fond of repeating, cautiously optimistic. In about eight hours, we'll see how stupid that part of me really is.

October 20, 2010

The series we feared.

On Tuesday, October 19th, 2010, Chase Utley played the worst game of his professional baseball career.

I didn't research that. I don't have detailed statistics to show just how subpar his performance in Game 3 at AT&T Park really was. But I did see the heart and soul of the Philadelphia Phillies go 0 for 4, leaving three men on base. I saw him commit one error (although it was officially scored otherwise) and let another ball bounce off his glove on a diving attempt.

Three of those at-bats were against right-hander Matt Cain; Utley came into the afternoon hitting 7 for 15 lifetime off Cain with three homers. Small sample size, I know, but the Phillies star second baseman came up even smaller. Someone, anyone, needs to get a big hit or two in this series, and yesterday it should have been Utley. It just wasn't.

As Jason Weitzel of Beerleaguer noted, this is the series we were all afraid of. The San Francisco Giants, despite maybe the saddest-looking batting order to ever hit in the National League Championship Series, are sneaking just enough runs home to win. The Phillies, meanwhile, are in another fun team-wide slump. Raul Ibanez looks a thousand years old again, Jimmy Rollins has already provided his requisite "one big hit" of the series, and Ryan Howard's September power has mysteriously vanished. They can't even capitalize when Matt Cain throws 50 of his 119 pitches for balls.

It's not over. Not by a long shot. Even if Joe Blanton can't win tonight, it'll be Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels to end the series, a fearsome trio for any team to overcome. There used to be talk in Philadelphia that the Phils needed one stopper, just one, to halt losing streaks. Now they have three, and you know they aren't going down without a fight.

But let's hope it doesn't get that far. Phil Sheridan wrote today, "If the mighty Phillies...can't score a few runs off Madison Bumgarner, they have no business being in the World Series." You can excuse low-scoring days against Tim Lincecum, the Sanchise and even "Big Daddy" Cain, but tonight is not a night to come up small.

That's not even a slight against the rookie Bumgarner, who looks like a more-than-worthy addition to the Giants' formidable rotation. But this is a supposedly "powerful" offense, a playoff-tested team of veterans who always claimed they could turn on the jets at just the right time.

Well, boys, this is the right time. Win tonight, and the Big Three are ready to take it home. Lose tonight, and you face Lincecum, a raucous San Francisco crowd and elimination tomorrow. Your choice.

October 12, 2010

Superman ain't coming.

A note before we begin: I know very little about politics, social policies or anything of the sort. I mostly watch sports and movies. Some of those movies, however, are documentaries, and from them, I've started to glean a better picture of the world outside my Caucasian, middle-class bubble. I also really liked The Wire. So here we go.

I saw Waiting for "Superman" earlier tonight, and I thought it was a probing look at what's wrong with American schools. A quick summation without spoiling too much for those who haven't seen it: Some extremely charismatic reformers want to change how public schools work, but a good deal of the teachers and administrators in said schools seem complacent in their overall beliefs toward education.

This could mean that troubled schools in lower-class areas are not getting enough attention, mostly due to the theory that bad areas create bad schools (studies show it's the other way around). The film also surprisingly touches on the idea that innocent looking middle-class schools also function incorrectly, as they operate on fifty-year-old principles that separate each grade based on archaic "levels."

Basically, you used to become either a doctor/lawyer, an accountant/middle-manager or a factory worker; those were the three general tiers. Even though children can no longer efficiently be defined in this way, the policies remain. Therefore, a lot of kids are herded in the wrong direction with an inadequate level of teaching, where they often fall behind other students.

This part, admittedly, is a lot less interesting, because it just means that (mostly) well-to-do white people are given only a bunch of advantages, not the full range of advantages they expect. Luckily, this only takes up about one-eighth of the film.

The interesting thing about this documentary, and others of its kind that I've seen recently, is that they attempt to diagnose the key issue plaguing America. What this is, at least from my perspective, is that the people in charge of the systems in this country will not allow them to be replaced. Whether its big pharmaceuticals, the teachers unions or some other faceless, shadowy organization, things are a certain way and our leaders have no interest in allowing them to change.

Now, I've seen enough documentaries to know that objectivity is not often one of their goals. The director usually has an opinion, especially if it's Michael Moore, and that guides the film, even if it comes with the best possible intentions. I'm very sure teachers unions do a great deal of good, even though "Superman" paints them as inconvenient roadblocks in the way of true reform. And I'm sure that, while Sicko depicts every other country in the world as having super wonderful healthcare that Americans can only dream of, the political realities are slightly more complicated than that.

But certain messages -- the core ideas behind Sicko, Taxi to the Dark Side, Waiting for "Superman" and An Inconvenient Truth -- are hard to argue with. Do you like Michael Moore and Davis Guggenheim, do you agree with their politics? Maybe not. But do you want people without healthcare to suffer from crippling financial burdens, do you want poor minority children to languish in awful educational systems, do you agree that innocent foreigners should be tortured, do you think we're polluting the Earth in one way or another?

The curious thing about documentaries is that no one sees them. The people that do seem to be film buffs or upper/middle-class liberals, not necessarily unlike myself. Documentaries seem like they're going to do a lot of good, but I've never seen one have more than a fleeting impact. Besides Fahrenheit 9/11 and March of the Penguins, very few of them even pass over into the public realm. Meanwhile, March was only a bunch of pretty pictures of penguins, and everyone agreed after the fact that Fahrenheit sucked ass.

The only thing that lends credence to this era of "muckraking" documentary filmmaking is that information is now disseminated so much more quickly and openly. There's a great part in "Superman" where it shows that, although American students score very poorly in mathematics, they're also supremely confident when interviewed immediately afterward. Basically, we think we're great, even when we're not.

And that's probably what slows change as much as anything. We're America, damn it! Intentionally or otherwise, we've been convinced that we're number one, so why would we need reform?! We've got all the money, all the power, all the bombs, we're kicking butt.

But apparently we're not. Apparently, we're getting stupider, and no one wants to admit it. But now, thanks to the Internet, to Twitter, to Facebook, young people have access to this information. You don't have to go buy a stupid newspaper or watch boring old "60 Minutes" to learn about the world; everything is at your fingertips. Everything is unlocked, to a certain extent, and a bit more freely accessed by anyone interested in looking. I don't think this will make us smarter, but it's pretty sad if it makes us less informed.

So as we have access to more information, and as America and other advanced countries come in closer and closer contact with each other, will we realize how far we're falling behind? Will it become more and more obvious that other nations are usurping economic and political power bit by bit, that changes are needed if America is going to remain an intelligent, functioning world leader?

I guess that depends on whether people will use, or pay attention to, the new power they've been given; everyone used to say television will (or should, at least) be an educational tool, which seems ridiculous now that "Outsourced" exists. But it does seem like, as it becomes less a looming peril and more of an inevitable conclusion, improving our failing school systems (which could generously be labeled as "declining" if you aren't into the whole facts and studies thing) is something that most people can probably get behind.

So let's bust those devilish unions, fire those incompetent teachers and build an army of genius robots to teach our young. Documentaries can be the new pamphlets, because Thomas Paine surely had futuristic, 100-minute-long montages of talking heads in mind while he was crafting Common Sense.

October 11, 2010

Never a doubt.

As Cole Hamels entered his windup in the bottom of the ninth inning -- man on first, two-run lead, an 0-2 pitch to likely National League MVP Joey Votto about to leave his hand -- I lounged on my couch in Boston, seemingly without a care in the world.

A few years ago, I'd have been standing six inches from the TV, jersey on, Phillies hat torn off and locked in a death grip, terrified at what the Cincinnati Reds slugger might do to that baseball.

But in 2010? After two straight World Series berths, with 2008 Cole Hamels reanimated and throwing a gem before my eyes? Nah, I thought, the Philadelphia Phillies will be fine.

And they were. Hamels got Votto to ground into a double play, Scott Rolen struck out for what felt like the six-thousandth time this series, and the Phils were off to another NLCS. Just like we all expected.

Admittedly, I didn't think it would be over this quick. I anticipated a series much like the 2009 Phillies/Rockies NLDS; lengthy games, come-from-behind victories and many, many dingers being socked all over both ballparks.

But Hamels, Roy Halladay and the Phillies bullpen (sorry, Roy Oswalt, better luck in the Championship Series) made sure this would be a short and quick one. With, of course, an assist from the god awful Reds defense. You'd think Scott Rolen was Brooks Conrad, not a seven-time Gold Glove winner.

You can't say enough about what Cole Hamels did in Game 3. Like Brad Lidge, it's still a little disconcerting to see him on the mound at key moments. You remember what he's capable of, the frustrated tantrums he was prone to throw last year, and you can't help but tense up a bit.

But that Cole Hamels is gone. In his place is the 2008 NLCS and World Series MVP, only a little more seasoned, a little more hardened. He's not just getting by on talent, on a lethal two-pitch combo that no one had figured out just yet. He's a complete pitcher, a 26-year-old stud who might just get better and better.

And he's our no. 3 starter.

There's just no jinxing this team. I felt comfortable saying "Roy Halladay is pitching a no-hitter" out loud on Wednesday night, and I felt comfortable passively enjoying a playoff clincher last night. That doesn't mean that the bounces will all go our way, that Ryan Howard and Jayson Werth will rediscover their power strokes in time to win another title.

But it's a start, and it puts them light years ahead of the rest of the NL.

The 2009 Phillies came up short against the New York Yankees because Lidge and Ol' King Cole were shells of their former selves. Give Cliff Lee an ace buddy and a legit closer, and you're talking about a possible threepeat in 2010.

Of course, that didn't happen, but maybe they wouldn't have brought in Halladay and Oswalt if it did. And don't look now, but Hamels and Lidge are partying like its 2008 again. If that doesn't intimidate other teams, especially the punchless San Francisco Giants and Atlanta Braves, I don't know what will.

Confidence is high, extremely high. A few years ago, that in and of itself would have been terrifying. Now, it's just a part of Phillies baseball.

October 9, 2010

The team to beat.

The 2010 Cincinnati Reds remind me of the 2007 Philadelphia Phillies.

Three years ago, sneaking into the playoffs was all that mattered. When Brett Myers struck out Wily Mo Pena to clinch the division, well, that was our World Series. The celebration afterward was epic; the games to come seemed irrelevant. It turned out they were, as the Phils were swept by the Colorado Rockies in the National League Division Series a few days layer.

In 2010, history, albeit reversed, seems to be repeating itself. I barely followed the Reds this year, so I can't tell you that winning the NL Central was their Mount Everest. But when a team records zero hits one game and commits four errors the next, they certainly don't look prepared for the intensity of playoff baseball.

In Jim Salisbury's game recap, he uses the word "experience" about eight thousand times. Charlie Manuel says it, Brad Lidge says it, everyone fucking says it. By the end of the story, you want to smash your computer screen.

But they're right. These Phillies really have seen it all, and they're showing a patience and unflappability that all good championship teams have in spades. The Reds might have offered them last night's game on a silver platter, but the Phils still had to take it. Shane Victorino still had to draw that bases-loaded walk. Chase Utley still had to beat out that fielder's choice at second. The bullpen still had to shut the door.

And they all did their jobs, because the Phillies have completed their transition from a fun, power-happy team to a methodical, winning team. They don't bludgeon you with homers anymore, they beat you with walks and defense and dominant starting pitching. It's very nerve-wracking to watch, but considering that they had the best record in baseball this year, it's damn effective.

Besides the joy they took in getting Mike Sweeney and Roy Halladay to the playoffs for the first time in their careers, the 2010 Phillies didn't seem all that jazzed about winning another NL East title. Even Halladay's no-hitter, amazing as it was, is already old news. Roy refused almost every media request, including a spot on David Letterman, because he wanted to "keep the focus on the team." You'd think he'd done this a dozen times already; the rest of his team actually has. That's why people keep saying the Phillies are the team to beat.

The Reds are a good team with a hell of an offense. If they can stay healthy, learn from their time in the playoffs and bring in a true ace, a Cliff Lee or a Zack Greinke, to go with Johnny Cueto and Edinson Volquez, they might end up being the team to beat in the National League.

Right now, however, they're no Phillies. These last two games have all but proven that.

October 6, 2010

Mr. Doctober.

Before the National League Division Series showdown between the Philadelphia Phillies and Cincinnati Reds began, I predicted the Phillies to win in four.

I thought Game 2, a Roy Oswalt/Bronson Arroyo match-up, would be a guaranteed Phillies victory; Arroyo's nothing more than a competent journeyman, and Oswalt has been dominant both in Citizens Bank Park and throughout his career against the Reds.

And I figured Roy Halladay would end it all in a series-clinching Game 4 at Great American Ball Park; he'd have his postseason feet wet by then, and a typical Doc masterpiece would surely shut the door on any hope for the Reds.

But sweeping Cincinnati, an offensive powerhouse throughout the 2010 season, seemed too far-fetched. No, the Phillies would drop a game. Maybe Game 3, Cole Hamels vs. Johnny Cueto in Cincinnati. The first game at home for the Reds, a fired-up crowd, a hard-throwing young pitcher...

Or maybe they'd lose Game 1. Yeah, that might be it! As good as Halladay is, it's his first postseason start. Maybe he'll come out a little too juiced, give up a few early runs. Hey, maybe Edinson Volquez will throw a surprise gem. He's 2-0 with a career 0.73 ERA against the Phils. You know what, that is exactly what will happen. Man, this prognosticating is so easy...

Fast forward to right now, this instant, and I'm still shaking with excitement. Anyone that doubted Roy Halladay, even fans like myself with only the purest intentions, well, our questions, our fears, no matter how vague they might have been, were answered.

Can Roy Halladay carry his regular season dominance over into postseason play? Yes.

Will Roy Halladay be the playoff stopper, the unbeatable ace that the Phillies need to win another World Series? Yes.

Is Roy Halladay better than Cliff Lee? Emphatically, yes.

This was better than the perfect game. That was against a free-swinging Florida Marlins team that Roy picked apart, like an expert surgeon performing a simple, routine operation. Tonight was a playoff game against what seemed to be a worthy foe, and Roy Halladay rendered them helpless.

There's still a lot to do before another World Series berth is ensured. It would be nice if Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels threw a few gems of their own, and five hits isn't going to cut it in regular, hard-fought games.

But after seeing Roy make the Reds look like Little Leaguers tonight, confidence is certainly high. There's no reason at all that the Phillies can't win another World Series; now, they just have to do it. Now, the only question is: What will Roy Halladay do for an encore?

Tonight, someone (I can't keep track of all the Halladay-related talk) reminded us in a tweet that Doc, Mr. Doctober himself, bought the entire team engraved watches after his perfect game. "What will Roy get them this time?" he asked, only to answer his own question. "Rings."

September 26, 2010

Tweeting my tweets on Twitter.

I'm not ashamed to say that I love Twitter.

I currently have 389 followers, which I think is pretty good for some asshole Web editor living in Boston. Of course, a lot of them are fake accounts set up to send people spam links and porn, but beggars can't be choosers.

There's a million reasons why YOU should be tweeting right now, too. First off, there's some true comedic geniuses out there. If you don't laugh at Cyborg Tommy Hanson, Drunk Hulk or snakebro, you don't have a soul.

And you might get in contact with stars! I've been direct messaged by Thurman Thomas (of Buffalo Bills fame) and Thomas Lennon (of Lt. Dangle fame). Both were upset that I lightly ridiculed them. Keep in mind that Thomas is an NFL Hall of Famer and Lennon is a very successful comedic actor and television star.

But if you aren't contacted directly by celebrities you've chosen to malign, don't worry. Sometimes they'll share your words with all their pals! I've been retweeted by CSNPhilly.com's Jordan Raanan, The700Level.com's Matt P, ESPN's "Talented Mr. Roto" Matthew Berry and NickCifuentes.com's Nick Cifuentes (alright, the last one is less impressive). It's the silliest, cheapest thrill to get RTed by someone like TMR, to stand out amongst the hundreds of tweets he gets every hour. But it's a thrill nonetheless.

Keep in mind, though, that it's not just about the "fame" of accumulating followers and being recognized by fantasy sports gurus. I've had football conversations with NFL analysts, talked hockey with Philadelphia sportswriters and shot the shit with "respected" bloggers. All of a sudden, everyone is accessible. If you like (or don't like) someone, you can let them know. Odds are, if they're like Thomas Lennon and Thurman Thomas, you'll even be asked why.

It's already cliché to say this, but Twitter really does bring everyone down to a more even playing field. Guys like Chad Ochocinco and Kevin Durant tweet as much, if not more, than I do. Suddenly, the only difference between us is that they have millions of dollars and outrageous amounts of athletic ability.

I know that doesn't exactly make us equals, but on a typical day, both of us are staring at our smartphones while sending out stupid 140-character messages. No matter what, they're still people. Rich, successful people, but also attention-seeking weirdos looking for human connection and online encouragement. Just like me!

If you're reading this and you aren't on Twitter, I highly recommend it. It's a little weird at first; you'll basically be tweeting into a deep, dark void of disinterest. But it's obviously more than just a fad, and there really is something for everyone. If you like sports, for example, you'll find that breaking stories are now tweeted before anything else. I highly enjoyed being the first person in my friend group to know that Vick was retaining his starting job; it made me feel special in a loser-y way.

And of course, Sylvester Stallone and Weird Al Yankovic are on Twitter. If that's not enough for you, I don't know what is.

September 21, 2010

All aboard the Michael Vick Experience.

A show of hands: who actually gives a shit about Kevin Kolb?

Sure, Andy Reid anointed him the 2010 starter to great fanfare, essentially choosing Kolb over his long-time, Hall of Fame-caliber quarterback. And yes, Kolb put together a quality game and a half in relief of said QB last year, showing a skill-set that made people believe he could be the next Aaron Rodgers.

But in reality, Kevin Kolb is nothing more than those six quarters plus two months of uncontrollable preseason hype. Why that ensures him the starting job over Michael Vick in some people's minds is something I do not understand.

When it was Donovan McNabb versus Kevin Kolb, there was an investment there. Eagles fans knew what McNabb would bring to the table, and many of them loved what he'd done for the franchise and the city. While most people seemed to agree that a change was in order, you could certainly make a case that McNabb had done enough, and remained talented enough, to go out on his own terms.

There's none of that here. Andy Reid has seen Kolb behind center for 3+ seasons, and Vick since August of last year. If he says Michael Vick is the better choice at quarterback, well, let's roll those dice.

Now, don't get me wrong. I thought that Kolb would be handed the job back immediately, and I would have seen the logic behind that decision. Everyone seemed to agree that 2010 was a transitional season, and everything the Eagles have done in the last six months indicated that Kolb was the starter for this year and beyond.

But I thought wrong. Suddenly, the transition is to the known quantity, to Michael Vick. Based on Vick's work so far in 2010, that's tough to argue with. This certainly hurts Kolb's career, and probably his psyche, but that looks like a risk Reid is willing to take. He, like many other people, wants to see how the Vick saga plays out.

So what now? Well, we know that Sundays will be very interesting with Vick behind center. We know that he'll be much better than Kolb at evading the blitz, which is probably a big reason that he's still starting. We saw him go 21 for 34 last weekend, admittedly against a porous Lions secondary, and we saw him break into some freaky runs. We got a glimpse of the quarterback everyone's always wanted Vick to be: an amazing combination of lethal speed and a arm-cannon, one that made smart decisions and led his team with gusto.

And who knows? Maybe Michael Vick really has matured, maybe he does want to be more than just the human highlight film he was a few years ago. Maybe he is the best football player in the universe ever.

We won't have to wait long to find out. The Michael Vick Experience is heading to Jacksonville. All aboard.