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.