November 28, 2011

Coming apart at the seams.

A college friend of mine used to have a saying that we all loved. Maybe it was the way he said it (or the frequency of use) more than the saying itself, but every time something would go awry or someone would get a little too graphic with a story, he'd yell, "That shit is gross!"

Those words kept ringing in my head throughout yesterday's Eagles game.

I've alternately cast the Eagles aside and believed in their potential to bounce back, but now we know for sure. This is a bad football team, one that's coming apart at the seams.

I don't think the Eagles will fire Andy Reid. He's got two years left on his contract, and the players still seem to have his back. Plus, there would have to be a sterling replacement lined up: Jon Gruden, Jeff Fisher, Bill Cowher. No matter what you think about Reid and his 2011 season, he's proven himself many times over as a successful head coach; it wouldn't make sense to replace him with anyone less qualified.

But if Jeffrey Lurie and Joe Banner come to a lesser conclusion -- that Juan Castillo must go -- I don't see how they can relieve him of his defensive coordinator duties and keep Reid onboard. Castillo is Reid's guy. Andy stuck his neck out for Juan, and so far, Juan has not delivered.

Maybe Reid and Howie Roseman didn't supply Castillo with the defensive personnel necessary for success; he didn't have much to choose from in the linebacker and safety department. But the facts are the facts: After 11 games, the Eagles have given up 251 points (21st in the NFL) and 344.6 yards per game (15th in the league). Sean McDermott's defense allowed 321.1 yards per game in 2009 and 327.2 yards per game in 2010. And that got him fired.

You don't need numbers, only eyes, to know that Tom Brady picked the Eagles defense apart last night. They're not the first team he's torched, nor will they be the last, but the disorganized mess that spent three hours chasing after Deion Branch and Wes Welker did not inspire any sort of confidence or hope for the future. This wasn't another blown fourth-quarter lead, but it was the worst home loss since 2009 and the fourth-most points allowed at home in 13 years under Andy Reid.

And now the fans are calling for not only Juan's head but Andy's, too. Will that sway Lurie at all? Will the sight of thousands of  ticket holders streaming out of Lincoln Financial Field in the third quarter have any impact on the owner's state of mind regarding his floundering franchise?

Eagles fans have always been both passionate and reactionary -- present company included -- but an adjective no one's ever used to describe them is "apathetic." Yet I suspect that's how most fans will feel in the weeks to come; the season is cooked, the coach has all but worn out his welcome, every player not named LeSean McCoy (and maybe Jason Peters) has underwhelmed in one way or another. Perhaps an abundance of apathy, not rancor, will inspire change.

At this point, it's all but impossible to argue with the growing disinterest. This was, and I guess still is, one of the more overhyped, disastrous seasons in recent sports history, Philly-based or otherwise. There's no easy way to right the ship; the talent is (arguably) there but the results are nowhere to be found. Maybe the only real question going forward is, massive overhaul or tweak and pray? Either way, the skies over Philadelphia football seem to keep on getting darker.

November 12, 2011

The value of value.

Every fantasy league has that guy who's constantly trying to one-up everyone else.

You know who I'm talking about. The dude (or dudette) who needs to come out on top, no matter what. He'll open negotiations by offering LeGarrette Blount for Ryan Mathews and Greg Jennings, and then call you names when you counter with something reasonable. He doesn't just want to help his team; he wants to squeeze you dry, and he wants everyone in the league to know just how smart and savvy he is in the process.

Lately, many Philadelphia Phillies fans have become that kind of guy. It's not enough for the team to make noise, sign some good players and compete for a championship year after year, which they do. To them, the Phillies need to win every trade; they need to get maximum value from every signing; they need to be the most well-oiled, smoothly operated machine in the history of baseball. Some folks make it seem like treason to expect any less.

And yet, it used to be that the Phillies didn't sign anyone of consequence. Once upon a time, they gave Rheal Cormier three years and $8.75 million; players like him were the best they could do. They operated on the periphery, occasionally thinking big with guys like Gregg Jefferies and Andy Ashby, only to see these attempted forays into respectability blow up in their faces.

Now, they're able to sign respected veterans like Raul Ibanez, Placido Polanco, Cliff Lee and Jonathan Papelbon at the drop of a hat. It's no big thing to spend $120 million on an ace or $50 million on a closer; it's what a competitive team in a big market does. You'd think that long-time Phillies fans would be ecstatic; look at all the money they're spending! And almost all of it on talented players who, in one way or another, can help the team. But you'd be wrong; every signing (sans Lee, of course) is nitpicked to no end. It's not just about bringing in good players anymore; it's about getting fan-approved value.

Is this justified? With all this cash being thrown around, is the team consistently getting its money's worth? There is a way to calculate this sort of thing, at least when it comes to numbers. According to FanGraphs, Raul Ibanez returned $18.1 million of "value" in his three years with the Phillies (compared to his $30 million salary) but that was lowered considerably by the left-fielder actually "costing" the team $6 million with his disappointing 2011 season. But he did return $17.4 million in 2009 alone, when the poor play of Brad Lidge and Cole Hamels, not Ibanez, cost the team its second championship in a row. If Raul had ended up being a key cog in another title run, do we really care how much he "lives up" to his deal?

Contracts in sports are based on performance, sure, but in the end they're all business decisions. The Ryan Howard extension might end up being a mess in terms of value on the field, but if they get a few more years of Howard's recognizable presence at first base, along with 30+ dingers a year and some mashing of right-handed pitching, maybe the bucks all even out. And hopefully, the other perks of employing Howard and Roy Halladay and Papelbon -- name players who'll sell jerseys, ticket packages and other revenue-generating goodies  -- mean that the team around them will continue to improve. Even if Howard isn't worth $25 million on the field, the money can be made up elsewhere. And if the Phillies recognize Howard's on-field limitations and allocate the rest of the payroll wisely, the team stays competitive.

I'm not saying we need to agree with every move Ruben Amaro Jr. makes, and I don't think we should rationalize each signing by saying, "But think of how many tickets he'll sell!" But I am saying that the team won 102 games last year and will almost certainly contend for a title again in 2012 and 2013. And there's no way Amaro thinks Papelbon is the last piece of the puzzle; he wouldn't blow his last $12.5 million on a closer. In the end, will Jonathan Papelbon earn his inflated salary? Probably not. But will he increase the team's chances of winning in the near future? Yes.

The Phillies don't have to win every move they make; that's short-sighted. They need to bring in veteran personnel that can help them compete for a championship while also developing (and eventually, relying on) cheap young talent like Antonio Bastardo, Dom Brown and Trevor May. A solid mix of both is key, along with ensuring that the big contracts you do offer up aren't back-breaking. Is blowing $50 million on a closer smart? I'd say there are better uses for the money, but if Amaro still has a big chunk of cash to spend on the Michael Cuddyers and Jimmy Rollinses of the world, why not?

In the end, I respect his give-to-get, rolling-the-dice style of aggressiveness, and I remember the days when that kind of fire, and especially the kind of dough to bankroll said fire, weren't a part of baseball in Philadelphia.

November 10, 2011

Blind faith in Happy Valley.

From 2004 to 2008, I attended Boston University. Many of my fellow students fell in love with the oft-competitive hockey team, and a few even got into Terrier basketball. But college athletics have never been my bag, and that didn't change just because I was now in college. I went to maybe three hockey games in four years and never really regretted a thing.

So I don't understand how the students of Penn State University, past and present, feel about Joe Paterno and the Nittany Lions football program.

And frankly, I don't want to understand.

I get that this scandal is swirling up boatloads of emotions -- mostly anger at the accused perpetrator and compassion towards the victims -- and I know that many of the people who care the most are those who have attended, taught at or otherwise supported Penn State and the school's football program.

But when Joe Paterno was fired last night, an uncomfortable amount of emphasis was placed on his legacy, his own personal struggles over the past week, his previous battles with PSU's Board of Trustees and other matters that have nothing to do with the current situation.

Even if Paterno is innocent of all legal wrongdoing, even if he followed procedure to the letter when dealing with rumors of Jerry Sandusky's foul play, the fact remains that a pedophile spent years in a position of power, legitimate or implied, on the Penn State campus, many of them coming after investigations were launched into his wrongdoings with young children. If that shouldn't be rectified with a complete ousting of all of the university's leading personnel, football or otherwise, then I don't know what should.

I tweeted earlier this week that Joe Paterno, like Jon Arryn of Game of Thrones, has been Lord of the Eyrie for far too long. For those non-nerds out there, the Eyrie is an impregnable fortress on top of a mountain, one that often chooses not to get involved in matters of worldwide importance. And quaint little State College, Pennsylvania, while not perched high in the sky, is equally as isolated from the rest of college athletics. Once a bastion of respectability and honor, we now see that foul play at Penn State was not only prevalent, it was swept under the rug when deemed inconvenient by coaches and administrators alike.

Since his promotion to head coach in 1966, Joe Paterno rose to become king of Happy Valley. He was beloved by the students and revered by former players. Did all this power cloud his judgment when it came to Sandusky's transgressions? Did it lead to Sandusky's abrupt "retirement" in 1999, an event that many have linked to an investigation into his behavior in 1998, a sort of "out of sight, out of mind" policy that may have saved the university the "trouble" of increased snooping and, eventually, legal liability?

Either way, Joe Paterno has been relieved of his abilities to directly influence matters at Penn State. He's now an unemployed, disgraced old man, one who has made at least a few dubious ethical decisions over the last decade; decisions that may have led to the continued molestation of numerous young children. And to look upon that with anything but scorn and dismay blows my mind.

To anyone with common sense, Joe Paterno's time as a respected leader of young men is at an end. And good riddance. For some, though, he's still their coach, one who won a bunch of football games, donated a bunch of money, and then was caught up in a whirlwind that only included him tangentially and therefore shouldn't land on his plate.

But as Bruce Springsteen once said, "Blind faith in your leaders, or in anything, will get you killed." Sandusky may be innocent until proven guilty, but the facts have been pretty neatly laid out: He did wrong, and Paterno was aware. Blind faith in a football coach may not get you killed, but it will make you truly blind to what really matters.

November 4, 2011

Andy's adaptation abilities.

Andy Reid has his flaws. Extremely frustrating failings that'll make you want to rip your eyes out or, more reasonably, flip to another game.

Clock management is one. Stubbornness is another.

Like the time he assigned the completely untested Greg Lewis and J.R. Reed to return punts. It cost the Eagles the game and forced the hopelessly mediocre Reno Mahe back into our lives.

Like his refusal to spend on linebackers and safeties. Maybe we shouldn't lament the loss of Stewart Bradley, but I wonder how the Eagles defense would have looked earlier this season with Quintin Mikell in the defensive backfield instead of Jarrad Page.

A few weeks ago, I would have also added "like the time he hired offensive line coach Juan Castillo to be the new defensive coordinator." But a funny thing happened along the way; the Eagles defense started to improve.

They've allowed only 127 rushing yards over the last two games. Nnamdi Asomugha looks increasingly comfortable in Castillo's schemes. The wide nine has apparently been tweaked (or maybe better grasped by the players), rookie Casey Matthews has been banished from the starting lineup, and the Brian Rolle/Jamar Chaney/Moise Fokou trio has shored up a previously detrimental linebacking core.

And therein lies Andy Reid's genius: His ability to adapt. He's one of the best coaches in the league, maybe in the history of the game, at rolling with the punches.

He's 13-0 after the bye, and he's 62-33-1 in the second half of the season. Take out 2005, which turned into a lost season, and the handful of late-December losses that came after the Eagles had already locked up a playoff spot, and you've got an almost-immaculate record from November on.

Some coaches wither and die after being dealt a bad hand. To his credit, Andy Reid is not one of them.

His in-game decision-making isn't always top-notch, but give him a bye week -- or even sometimes just an intermission -- to get situated and you'll often see the play-calling or the scheme do a complete 180° flip. The team that destroyed Dallas on Sunday night was not the team that pissed away wins in Atlanta and Buffalo. That's Andy Reid out-coaching Jason Garrett and Rob Ryan, that's coaches flip-flopping starters and building up the confidence and capabilities of rookies like Danny Watkins.

Unfortunately, making midseason changes isn't always enough; despite two very strong games in a row (and the promise of more to come) the Eagles remain two wins behind the New York Giants with only one head-to-head match-up remaining. They'll have to take at least 6 of their last 9 games to have any chance at the playoffs. Luckily, they have the personnel to pull it off.

I really thought this might be Andy Reid's last hurrah. Turnovers abounded, and the defense and offensive line took some time to get going. But Castillo's straightened his boys out, and Howard Mudd looks to be every bit the Hall of Fame line coach they said he was.

With the NFL's leading rush attack, a healthy Michael Vick and a boatload of everyone's favorite intangible, momentum, the pieces are there for another dominant season-ending stretch. If the Eagles are able to rebound from 1-4 and live up to the preseason hype after all, this just might be Andy Reid's masterpiece.

November 1, 2011

Jimmy Rollins or Ryan Madson?

In roughly 34 hours, Major League Baseball free agents will be allowed to sign with whichever team they please.

For the Philadelphia Phillies, this'll require saying goodbye to players like Raul Ibanez, Brian Schneider, Roy Oswalt and Ross Gload. For the most part -- or, in Oswalt's case, for the money it'd probably take to keep him around -- they won't be missed.

And then we come to Ryan Madson and Jimmy Rollins. The general consensus is that one of these two guys will be back for 2012 and beyond; figuring out which one it'll be has been the tough part.

I've advocated resigning both of them in the past, but I also recognize that doing so might be a financial stretch. The Phillies are a big market team, one that shouldn't have to cut too many corners, but even the richest teams have a breaking point.

So if it comes down to one or the other, bring back Jimmy Rollins.

I know that Ruben Amaro Jr. has already expressed his desire for a "proven closer," and Madson certainly fits that bill after last year's 32 saves and 2.37 ERA. But I think bringing back Madson -- or blowing a bunch of bucks on a name guy like Heath Bell or Jonathan Papelbon --  would be a poor allocation of resources.

Is it really wise to go big (and long) for a closer? The Phillies locked up Brad Lidge after his epic 2008 season and were rewarded with a disastrous 2009 and only 65 innings in 2010-2011. Maybe if they had made the smart business decision and turned to Madson in 2009, Amaro wouldn't have been forced to trade Cliff Lee in December of that same year for quick salary relief and (as of right now) a bunch of prospect-shaped doorstops.

Granted, there's no Madson-esque arm-in-waiting for 2012. Antonio Bastardo's numbers might suggest that he's ready, but the way he faltered down the stretch (and his left-handedness) probably convinced Amaro to look elsewhere. Phillippe Aumont is a fun name to throw around, if only to prove that the aforementioned Lee trade wasn't a total disaster, but he have to perform at the Major League level before they hand him any important innings.

If the Phillies insist on signing a veteran, I pray that they think old and cheap. Joe Nathan and Francisco Cordero are long-time closers, and their age (37) would, presumably, increase their interest in a shorter, simpler contract. Guys like Jon Rauch and Frank Francisco have closed before -- albeit relatively unimpressively -- and they can also slot into a setup role if one of the young guys decides to step up after all. And if you really want to roll the dice, the bloated corpse of Jonathan Broxton is also available. Just keep him away from Matt Stairs.

Meanwhile, there are two Type A shortstops on the market this offseason: Jose Reyes and Rollins. And although it would be a sportswriter's dream, the Phillies are unlikely to spend the nine figures necessary to snare the 29-year-old Reyes.

So if not Rollins or Reyes, then who? Rafael Furcal? Alex Gonzalez? Of all the names on this list, they're the only two even remotely "worthy" of starting on a legitimate contender. I'm really not interested in either one, and I highly doubt they tickle Amaro's fancy.

The solution could end up being Freddy Galvis, the 21-year-old prospect with the supposedly dazzling glove. But, as more than a few commenters on Beerleaguer have noted, a team with World Series aspirations and a league-average offense probably shouldn't turn to an unproven rookie with a weak bat.

Plus, there's the intangibles-oriented argument: Jimmy Rollins is the Phillies, he's meant so much to this organization, etc. I don't know how you'd quantify that, but I do agree with the idea that the devil you know is better than the devil you don't. I'm not sure Jimmy "deserves" one more big contract from the Phillies, but I'm not sure I'd want to roll the dice with anyone but him.

Some fans are probably (justifiably) nervous that Rollins will break down by the end of any deal (he's 33), and I know that there's a lot of rumbling about whether players can truly "live up" to extravagant deals like the ones Rollins and Madson are sure to sign.

But most free agents (or players in their 30s that choose extensions over free agency) rarely perform at the level, or for the length, of their new deals. The key, especially if you're a team with a massive payroll, is to limit your mistakes. Organizations like the Phillies and the Red Sox can survive a Geoff Jenkins, a J.D. Drew, even a John Lackey or (gulp) a Ryan Howard. But bury yourself under too many massive deals (like the Yankees may have done in a few years, as Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and CC Sabathia continue to age) and you might find your window of championship opportunity has suddenly slammed shut.

The Phillies aren't even close to in trouble. Whether it's Dom Brown or John Mayberry in left field next year, the end result will (finally) be a cheap, young, competent bat to go with the old, expensive ones. As for their long-term financial interests, the only Phillies signed beyond 2012 are Howard, Lee, Roy Halladay and Chase Utley. And even after the Hunter Pence trade, the team's farm system should still be ranked as (at least) average.

Simply put, signing Jimmy Rollins won't cripple the Phillies. Neither will bringing back Ryan Madson. But when it comes to what they need, what they should really be willing to spend for, the stud shortstop trumps the stud closer.