Friday, September 30, 2011

It's Friday, Time to Dance

The Phillies begin their 2011 playoff season tomorrow right here in Philadelphia, taking on former Phil Kyle Lohse (thanks for not choosing Jaime Garcia, Tony) at 5:07 in the p.m. So first and foremost, go here for your requisite "pre-postseason pump-up video pump-up video," as the great Zoo With Roy would say — volume up, face to screen.

As for the dance portion for this here site, I have to give all credit to one uncle jellyfish, aka @WebeCheefin, who reminded me of Delonte West's epic KFC freestyle rap:

Seeing as Delonte has gotten some pub recently, it is quite appropriate right now.

I now kind of what some KFC. Kind of.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Why Baseball Is So Great

There are throngs and throngs of people who complain about baseball being so damn boring. Hell, my man Kenny dedicated an entire post on how to survive baseball season, as if it's a torturous endeavor to sit through 162 games. There's no clock! There's too many games! The season's too long! The critics go on and on.

I've never really understood these arguments because to me, baseball always has been and always will be incredibly fun to follow. Night in and night out, you never know what you're going to see. One night, it may be a complete-game shutout, another a team dropping 18 runs on someone. One game may be shortened by rain to 5 and a half innings while another goes 17, 18, 19 innings. One minute a pitcher is hitting a home run, and the next minute a utility infielder is firing 90-mph heaters on the mound.

That's what makes baseball so great. You truly have a chance to witness something you've never seen before on a nightly basis. It's remarkable, and it's what keeps me on the edge of my seat from April through the dog days of summer all the way through October.

Last night was one of those rare instances in sports that you simply could not avoid getting caught up in if you truly are a fan. I don't care what your feelings are about baseball, that string of games was absolutely amazing.

Four teams — the Atlanta Braves, St. Louis Cardinals, Tampa Bay Rays and Boston Red Sox — were literally playing for their playoff lives on the final day of the season. 161 games couldn't differentiate these teams, thanks to two historic collapses by Atlanta and Boston coinciding with two historic stretches by St. Louis and Tampa Bay. Never can I remember the drama being so high, and it became even better theater than the most creative of screenwriters could have produced.

The Phillies, with nothing to play for playoff-wise, could set the single-season franchise record for wins by defeating the Braves, simultaneously allowing Charlie Manuel to become the all-time winningest manager all by his lonesome in Phillies history, while the Braves had to win just to force a one-game playoff as it became clear the Cardinals were going to destroy the Astros.

The Phillies didn't roll over for Atlanta in the least, playing their starters and even working in Cole Hamels for some action. But Atlanta got the game to where it wanted it, with a lead in the 9th and their stud rookie closer, who set the all-time record for most saves by a rookie with 46, Craig Kimbrel on the mound.

Kimbrel had been Atlanta's most reliable guy all year, but on this night, with everything on the line, he couldn't close it out. A leadoff single by Placido Polanco, followed by back-to-back one-out walks to Ben Francisco and Jimmy Rollins loaded the bases with just one out. And Chase Utley made the rookie pay, hitting a sac fly to tie it up and force extras.

Some four innings later, Hunter Pence was blooping an infield single that scored the game-winning run, making this the best regular-season Phillies team of all time managed by the best manager in franchise history.

At the same time, the Braves were officially eliminated from the playoffs as the Cards cruised past the Astros behind a complete-game shutout by Chris Carpenter.

Then I turned my full attention to the Red Sox-Orioles game. Boston took a 3-2 lead in the 5th when the rains started to roll in to Baltimore. A rain delay ensued, almost taunting Boston fans as much as the team itself had taunted them in September, making them suffer even longer to find out what would happen.

Like the Braves, the Red Sox got the game to where they wanted it, with their closer Jonathan Papelbon on the mound holding a lead in the 9th. As I turned up the volume, the Rick Sutcliffe said, "Look at Papelbon's eyes. He's not going to let this one slip away."

He could not have been more wrong. Back-to-back two-out doubles tied it up, and a single by Robert Andino left the Red Sox waiting with baited breath. Now they needed the Yankees, who had already blown a 7-0 lead and allowed the tying run in the most unlikeliest of ways, to somehow find a way to win in extra innings.

Literally minutes after Andino's walkoff hit to best the Red Sox, Evan Longoria stepped to the plate and did this:

Good night, Boston. Good night, Atlanta. Great night for baseball and sports fans everywhere.

It was literally the type of night that made you forget about everything else going on in your life. You were caught up in the moment. Caught up in the drama. Caught up in the sheer inconceivable moments from last night.

Two epic choke jobs. Extra innings. Three blown saves. A 9th-inning, game-tying home run by a guy batting under .200. Two walk-off hits, including a walk-off home run. And a franchise finishing off its greatest regular season ever. Unreal.

For a moment, forget about who is playing who and what is to come. Just take the time to reflect on the craziest 24 hours we have probably ever seen in any sport. It was enough to make you go giddy.

Last night, we witnessed something we have never seen before and may never see again. That's what baseball offers every fan every single night, and that's why baseball is so damn great, no matter what anyone else tries to tell you.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Philadelphia Ballers Keeping It Fresh

SLAM once again recently put out its annual Fresh 50, Fresh 25 and Fresh 10, and there are some local high schoolers ballers represented as always.

Fresh 50 - Class of 2012
Amile Jefferson

25 Amile Jefferson 6-7 PF Friends’ Central (PA) Undecided Can do damage facing the basket and is always looking to attack.

Daniel Ochefu

42 Daniel Ochefu 6-9 C Westtown (PA) Villanova Can do damage in the post and facing the basket.

Ryan Arcidiacono

44 Ryan Arcidiacono 6-3 PG Neshaminy (PA) Villanova A scoring point guard, Ryan can put up points in a hurry.

Others of note:
Marcus Paige

26 Marcus Paige 6-0 PG Linn-Mar (IA) North Carolina An offensive orchestrator, Marcus is one you want pushing the ball.

Fresh 25 - Class of 2013
Rysheed Jordan

24 Rysheed Jordan 6-3 PG Vaux Roberts (PA) Explosive guard with quick moves to the basket.

Others of note:
Isaiah Hicks

15 Isaiah Hicks 6-8 PF Body of Christ (NC) A North Carolina-commit, Isaiah can do a bit of everything.

What to Watch: Wild Card Races, Bitches

For really the first time since the Phillies clinched home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, tonight is practically a must-watch game because it puts Phillies fans in a win-win situation. If the Braves win and the Cardinals lose, Atlanta backs into playoffs and the Phils avoid having to see Albert Pujols and company. If the Braves and Cardinals both win, they have to play a one-game playoff to get in. If the Cards win that, they won't have any chance to rest anyone, and their pitching rotation won't be set. If the Braves win, again, the Phils avoid the Cardinals.

And if the Phillies win, they set a new franchise record for wins in a season with 102, having tied the current record of 101 last night. Like I said, win-win.

As for the AL Wild Card race, it would be so, so sweet to see Boston collapse, especially since ESPN keeps shoving that stupid city down our throats, even during a god damn documentary about the Cubs and Steve Bartman.

Seriously, fuck Boston and fuck ESPN.

Also, read this.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Venting About the Eagles

Normally when the Eagles lose I am angry, disappointed, and depressed before the final seconds even tick off the clock. This past Sunday these usual reactions were pushed to the back of my head for a while by the fact that as the game ended the reverend and I headed out to the Palestra to take in The Battle for I-95, which I was incredibly exited about. But now that I've had a few days to sit and stew on the things that cost the Eagles the game, I must vent.

First of all, Steve Smith please catch the fucking ball. His inexplicable drop in the red zone early in the game that went for an interception caused a huge swing right off the bat. The Eagles marched right down the field and were in position for points and the early lead, but instead came away with nothing and the Giants took advantage. Adding to my frustration is the fact that this isn't the first drop of massive consequence that has hurt the Eagles so far this year, but other than his 4th and four blunder Jeremy Maclin has been pretty good so I won't rag on him at this point.

Next, the defense. The linebackers are atrocious and contribute nothing to the team. They are only a detriment. They don't tackle, they don't support against the run, they don't help pressure the quarterback, and the can't cover anyone. I hate them all. When will this organization learn that it might help to have some serviceable linebackers on the field? The Eagles would be much better off playing nickel all the time. It would get one of those sorry excuse for football players off the field and let DRC, someone who is, you know, actually good at football, see more time on the field.

The linebackers aren't alone in their ineptitude. The safeties have been equally as bad. Their failure to tackle, especially on one of Victor Cruz's touchdowns, is infuriating. I can't believe Kurt Coleman and Jarrad Page are starters in the National Football League. I haven't been impressed with Nate Allen either. At this point it couldn't hurt to let Jaiquawn Jarrett get some time and see what he can do. I would take Brian Dawkins over any of these guys. Oh, and great job by the genius front office to trade up and take Brandon Graham instead of Earl Thomas. Graham has barely seen the field, while Thomas had been an absolute stud at safety in Seattle.

4th and 1. Just inside Giants territory. 2 point lead. 11 minutes left. Please punt the ball. Maybe you're rolling your eyes at me and saying hindsight is 20/20, but the rev and I both immediately dissented on this decision before they ran the play. If you don't get the first, the opposition is 20 yards away from go-ahead field goal range. Oh, and your defense hadn't given up shit since the first quarter. Clearly the right call is punt the ball, pin the Giants deep, and make them move down the field and earn any points they might get. God forbid genius Andy goes with an obvious decision once in a while.

And had just moved the ball right down the field by pounding it down their throats with 8 straight runs. It was beautiful to watch. Now it's time for play number 9, and common sense would tell you to either run it again, or to call a play action pass. So what does I'm-smarter-than-everyone Andy do? He comes out with an empty backfield. An empty fucking backfield. When I saw this my head almost exploded, and it's almost exploding right now as I recall the play. I just don't get it. 8 straight runs move you right down the field, and then on play 9 you don't even come out with the threat of a run. Really?

So as it stands it's two straight incredibly frustrating losses for the Birds. Two games that I feel like they should have won. But they've made stunning physical errors at the worst of times (Steve Smith, Jeremy Maclin, the whole defense when they are trying to tackle), as well as mental errors (penalties, Jason Avant not getting out of bounds) that have ultimately cost them. Add in Mr. Know-it-all Reid and his wonderful play calling and decision making, and you have a team that is constantly shooting itself in the foot. Hopefully some corrections can be made, some focus can be found, and the rest of the team can start helping out those who have been bright spots so far, namely LeSean McCoy and the defensive line.

Should the Phillies Really Want to Beat the Braves?

Let's face it, watching the Phillies run out makeshift lineup after makeshift lineup while losing a season-high 8 straight games was painful, and even a little bit concerning. Certainly you want the team well-rested heading into postseason play, and with homefield advantage all sewn up, it would be foolish to trot out the regular lineup every day for the remainder of the regular season. But it's also not exactly encouraging to go stumbling into the playoffs.

That's why winning the last two games — Sunday against the Mets and last night vs. Atlanta — to get to 100 regular-season victories for just the third time in franchise history was very encouraging. It's good to see that when this team puts its best players on the field, they look just fine.

But now the question remains … should the Phillies really want to beat the Braves in this series? As it stands right now, the Braves are hanging on by a thread with a one-game lead over the St. Louis Cardinals in the Wild Card, a lead that at one point seemed insurmountable. If the Phillies go out and sweep Atlanta or even just win one of the two remaining games, the Cardinals have a chance to take over that Wild Card spot, either winning the thing outright or pulling even with the Braves to force a one-game playoff.

That's where things get interesting. If Atlanta can stave off an epic collapse and secure the Wild Card, the Phillies will host either the Brewers or Diamondbacks in the best-of-five first round since teams from the same division cannot meet in the first round by MLB rule. If the season ended today, it would be Arizona coming to the City of Brotherly Love, but the Diamondbacks are only one game behind the Milwaukee in the standings so that has not been officially decided yet. But if the Cardinals overtake the Braves and win the Wild Card, then the Phillies will host Albert Pujols and the Cardinals in round 1.

If you were the Phillies, would you rather face the Brewers/Diamondbacks in a short series, or the St. Louis Cardinals? Now perhaps the Phillies don't really care one way or the other. After all, they have been the best team in baseball practically since day 1 this season, they have far and away the best starting rotation of the possible postseason teams, and the roster is full of guys with playoff experience. But if I was them, I'd still rather see Milwaukee or Arizona over St. Louis in the first round.

That is not to say the Brewers or Diamondbacks are not formidable foes who could pose major problems. They are. Milwaukee can bash the ball with MVP-caliber players like Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder, to go along with very good offensive players like Rickie Weeks and Corey Hart, plus a pitching staff that has plenty of talent. Zack Greinke and Yovani Gallardo have as good a stuff as anyone, Shaun Marcum is a good number 3, and we know Randy Wolf isn't afraid of the big moment. But still, Greinke has had issues with pressure in the past, Gallardo is the type of guy the Phils could hit, and Marcum is more of a contact guy. I just don't really see both Halladay and Lee losing back-to-back games even against this lineup, and I'll take Cole over Marcum any day of the week.

Arizona has shown it is a team not to be taken lightly, but when you really take a step back and look at the playoff picture, this would be the ideal team to face. Ian Kennedy has had a fantastic year, but he's really the only starter that scares you for Arizona, and truthfully, I'd take all three of the Phils' top three starters over him. And the lineup, outside of Justin Upton and his MVP-worthy year, doesn't exactly blow you away either. This team has all the makings of a "just happy to be here" type of team. Again, doesn't make them a pushover, but I'd feel pretty confident going against the Diamondbacks.

Conversely, the Cardinals scare the living crap out of me. In fact, had Adam Wainwright been healthy this year, St. Louis was the team I thought would challenge the Phillies the most in the National League this season. Even without him, it's the team I probably would want to face the least. Chris Carpenter is a former Cy Young winner who can shut down anyone at any moment. He hasn't had a great season overall, but after a disastrous start, he's looked a lot more like the Chris Carpenter we're used to seeing the second half of the year. Jaime Garcia is the type of left-hander that has given the Phils fits in the past, and Kyle Lohse is an ex-Phillie, meaning there's a good chance he'll find a way to screw them over. It just seems to go that way all the time.

Then there's this guy by the name of Albert Pujols, who is better than everyone else on the planet at hitting a baseball. And Albert is not alone. Lance Berkman has had a renaissance this year and is a veteran who knows how to hit, and Matt Holliday is back, another force at the plate. Throw in an impressive season from John Jay and Yadier Molina throwing darts from behind the plate, and this team is capable of some great things. I know I wouldn't want to see Albert Pujols in the first round.

Of course, there is the matter of the St. Louis bullpen, which has been laughably horrible this season. The Cardinals have gone through about 800 closers and still can't hold down leads in the 9th. That bodes very well if the Phils do have to face them, seeing as the Phillies have made it a habit over the past five seasons of absolutely crushing late-inning relief pitchers. So maybe playing the Cardinals wouldn't be such a bad thing.

Still, I'd rather avoid Pujols and company in round 1, and the only way to do that is to have the Braves hold on and win the Wild Card. So again, I ask: Should the Phillies really want to beat the Braves here the next two nights?

I know Charlie Manuel would say yes, and he's probably right. The Phillies shouldn't and I'm sure aren't scared of anyone. But as a fan, I'd still rather play the Diamondbacks or Brewers over the Cardinals.

Monday, September 26, 2011

The Heat, My God, the Heat

I thought Friday was supposed to mark the official start of fall. That's what it says on the calendar, anyway. But the weather over the weekend was full-on hot, humid summer, and I suffered as a result of it.

On Saturday, I headed out to Penn State with three of my college roommates to take in the sights and sounds of our alma mater and go to the game against Eastern Michigan. Having looked at the forecast earlier in the week, I expected clouds and possibly rain, and anticipated slightly cooler weather in State College. No such luck. Because when we arrived, the sun was shining bright, it was in the mid-70s and I got burnt to a crisp watching what can only be described as a boring decimation with a few highlights and some devastating lowlights.

First the good. Devon Smith, who I proclaimed nothing more than a track star posing as a football player, actually had a really nice game, 3 balls for a game-high 104 yards, including the longest play of the game, a 71-yard explosion of a touchdown. Derek Moye, who made an excellent block on Smith's TD, had a very nice game too, hauling in 6 passes for 65 yards and two scores.

Furthermore, Matt McGloin had a field day out there, going 14-17 for 220 yards and 3 touchdowns en route to being named Big Ten Co-Offensive Player of the Week with Michigan's Denard Robinson while again splitting time with Rob Bolden.

Now listen, I have made no bones about it that I am not a Matt McGloin fan. In my opinion, he doesn't have the arm to go out there and try to routinely throw the types of passes he likes to try to throw. But as much as I want Rob Bolden to clearly establish himself ahead of McGloin, McGloin really does seem to be more in command out there. Don't get me wrong, when it comes to facing top competition, like SEC teams, Bolden has certainly been better than McGloin the past two seasons. Just look at the numbers against Florida and Alabama. But it's not as though Bolden has been good against those teams either. He hasn't. He just hasn't sucked as bad as McGloin has.

But when the Nittany Lions play inferior competition, McGloin clearly stands out. He did last year, and he has so far this season. And if I'm looking at it from a coaching perspective, I'd rather have the guy who I know will play well against inferior teams under center than the guy who will play OK against bad teams and slightly less shitty against good teams than McGloin. At least McGloin does what he's supposed to against the teams Penn State should beat. Bolden is still a work in progress in that regard, evident by his pedestrian statline of 7-13 for 115 yards, 1 touchdown and 1 interception Saturday.

The difference between these guys is so marginal at this point that you might as well just go with the guy who instills the most confidence in teammates. That guy seems to be McGloin. Though I honestly don't think either one is really any good at all at this point. Hopefully Paul Jones can get himself eligible next year and be something these guys are not, or maybe even Skyler Mornhinweg.

More good: Devon Still continued to be an unblockable monster. That guy is easily the best player on this team, and he looks like he may be working his way into the first round come April. Also good news, Evan Lewis did not touch the field, and uncoincidentally, Penn State did not miss any field goals or extra points, as Anthony Fera hit a 29-yarder and freshman Sam Ficken hit a 43-yarder.

As for the bad, and I mean really bad, Mike Mauti again tore his ACL, an absolutely devastating blow to the Nittany Lions but more importantly to Mauti. This was supposed to be the year that Mauti established himself in the same breath as the greats of Linebacker U, and he was on his way. Sadly, his season is ended again, just as it was two years ago.

To add injury to injury, the team's best corner, D'Anton Lynn, suffered a head and neck injury, laying motionless on the field in a scary moment. Honestly, I thought the worst, picturing Lynn paralyzed in an Adam Taliaferro vein. Thankfully, that is not the case and Lynn has been released from the hospital. But it was certainly sobering to see him carried off in the stretcher after a long time motionless on the turf.

Those injuries dampened the good vibes around a pretty well-played game by Penn State. You never want to see anyone go down to injury, especially when it is two of your best players in a game that wasn't even competitive. It just seems to be one of those seasons for the Nittany Lions.

After returning from Penn State, I took it easy from a long day and then prepared to watch the Eagles-Giants prior to taking in the Battle of I-95. When I woke up yesterday, it was even hotter and more humid than it was the day before. What the hell? Where did all that fall weather that we had two weeks ago disappear to?

And where did this dream team everyone keeps talking about go? Because right now, the Eagles are anything but. Besides LeSean McCoy, who has absolutely been incredible this year, this team is underachieving all over the place. That's why they sit at 1-2, dead last in the NFC East after three weeks.

The offensive line is only OK. Mike Vick cannot stay healthy. Steve Smith dropped a perfectly thrown ball right in his hands in the red zone, which turned into an interception off his deflection. Then later Smith stopped his route short on a key third down, then turned the wrong way after the catch, failing to pick up a first. What a waste of a signing.

Nnamdi Asomugha has struggled to adjust to this Cover 2 scheme that clueless Juan Castillo has employed, and he has given up more big plays in three games as an Eagle than he did in 8 years in Oakland. The linebackers are atrocious, even worse than the low expectation set out before them. The safeties may be even worse than the linebackers, which seems unfathomable. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who everyone keeps calling the best athlete on the team, doesn't see the field enough despite being way better at his position than any of the linebackers or safeties are at theirs. And guys like Ronnie Brown and Vince Young, players who were thought to be key signings, don't even see the field really at all.

The there is the usual poor clock management and field awareness, evidenced by Jason Avant trying to juke someone instead of getting out of bounds, the team having to scramble to get off a field goal before half, and Andy Reid deciding to go for it at the New York 43 with a two-point lead and failing to convert instead of punting it and pinning New York deep. As a result, the Giants had their best starting field position of the game, and went in to take the lead for good.

A lot of people are saying that for not a few mistakes and some red zone failures, the Eagles would have won yesterday and probably would have won in Atlanta. That's true. But it's also true that they did make those mistakes, they do have terribly glaring weaknesses, they do commit mindless penalties, and they do have flaws that never get addressed. All the seemingly great signings blinded us to these facts in the offseason, but now the blinders are off. This team has major holes that must be corrected.

Undoubtedly, they can be addressed and corrected. We've seen the Eagles go on late-season runs before after stumbling early on. But any talk of a Super Bowl appearance is incredibly premature, and right now would be downright foolish. Other than LeSean's brilliance, this team has been underachieving week in and week out. The good news is at least someone is expressing their frustration.

I'm just thankful I didn't bake out in the sun to see it. I was watching in disgust at my house.

Afterward, silver fox and I headed to the Palestra to take in the Battle for I-95, and right away we knew we were in for a long night. Now, it's always pretty warm in the Palestra, but with the temperatures in Philadelphia in the high 70s and the humidity casting an unbearable mugginess in the region, not to mention a completely packed out, the heat was paralyzing in there. I mean, it was deadly hot. Before long, everyone was sweating so profusely that the entire arena smelled like a locker room.

By the time the game actually tipped off, I was covered in sweat. That was unpleasant. And to make matters worse, a few of the guys I was really looking forward to seeing didn't show up. The Morris twins were no-shows, and Kevin Durant did not attend. Also, Lynn Greer was there but did not dress, which I assume was due to injury.

Contrary to the rumors, no big surprise guests made an appearance either. No Iverson. No Sheed. No Kobe. No Jameer. The only guys who showed up that I didn't know would be there were a trio of Temple alums, Dionte Christmas, Mardy Collins and Mark Tyndale.

That's not say the game wasn't fun, because it was. Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James were in the building, as were Hakim Warrick, Kyle Lowry, Lou Williams and Tyreke Evans. Watching throughout, Melo and Hakim, the former Syracuse teammates who a national title for the Orange, looked to be having the most fun from the opening tip to the final whistle. It was cool to see them laughing it up and competing.

Chris Paul was getting love from the crowd and made some great passes, but LeBron, despite scoring a game-high 43 points, was a let-down. He spent nearly the entire game taking fadeaway jumpers, which is not exactly what the crowd wanted to see.

On the other hand, the Team Philly guys really impressed in the 132-122 victory. Kyle Lowry was awesome, scoring 34 points, and Lou Will was draining threes for 31 points. But Hakim Warrick and Tyreke Evans had the most impressive plays of the night. Warrick threw down a few awesome alley-oops and dunks while also getting some great blocks, while Tyreke looked like the best athlete on the court, getting to the rim often and flat out embarrassing defenders at times.

It was a fun time, but honestly not as much fun as I expected. The refs called way too many fouls for a game like this, and I was let down that there was no Durant and no real surprise guest. Plus, it was hot as hell in there.

However, it was still pretty sweet to see Paul, Melo, LeBron and company in town to take on some of Philadelphia's best ballers. Certainly a lot more sweet that getting sun burnt to death on Saturday and witnessing that debacle by the Eagles yesterday.

Friday, September 23, 2011

It's Friday, Time to Dance

Sunday a slew of NBA players embark on the Palestra to put on a show, and I cannot wait to be there. So to get us in the right NBA mood, here is Charles Barkley singing karaoke.

Seriously, I hope Iverson shows up.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The 2011-12 Flyers: I Don't Even Know You Anymore

If you've made a habit of reading my musings the past few years, you may have noticed that I've been uncharacteristically silent on the Flyers front this summer. Usually, I have something to say about what this team should do next, players they should look at acquiring, what to expect from the season ahead, things like that. But so far, ever since doomsday hit, I haven't been able to muster up any energy to properly digest the astonishing trades of Jeff Carter and especially Mike Richards within hours of each other.

I've made my feelings on Richards and Carter as players known, so I'm not going to go back and rehash all the great things those guys do on the ice. I will say this though: While never being the biggest Carter fan in the world, I recognized his incredible ability to score goals and the way he did a lot more than people realize defensively. What Carter brings to the table is not easily replaced. As for Richards, well, I'm a Mike Richards guy. I always have been and always will be. No, he's not on the level of a Sidney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin, but you would be hard-pressed to find many other players in the NHL who help a team win in as many ways as Richards does. Seeing him go hit me hard.

That crazy day, it felt like I was hit with a ton of bricks. I couldn't understand it and still don't understand it. Yes, the Flyers certainly needed to address their goaltending situation, which they did emphatically by trading for the rights of and then signing Ilya Bryzgalov, the top goaltender on the market, to a 9-year contract … but to then go around and trade the team's two top forwards (or two of the top three at worst) seemed counterproductive. It appeared as though Ilya was the final piece to the puzzle — then the Flyers blew the puzzle to smithereens.

The thing that I didn't understand then and still can't fully comprehend now is how the Flyers can honestly say they are a better team today than they were a few months ago. For better or worse, Jeff Carter and Mike Richards inarguably have been the Flyers' best forwards for the past four years. Trading them for young talent could pay off in the long run, but it's quite a stretch to think it will pay off in the immediate future.

And that's where things get fuzzy for me. The Flyers were supposed to be a team built to win now, a team that was perhaps a goaltender and a player or two away from finally ending the long Stanley Cup drought. After all, their two best defensemen, newly minted captain Chris Pronger and the ever-underappreciated (outside of Philadelphia) Kimmo Timonen are up there in age — each 36 years old — and not getting any younger, and the high-priced netminder is no spring chicken himself at 31. It's not as if these guys have a huge window to keep playing at their usually high level. The time to win was and is now, which is why I am still struggling with the trades.

That is not to say this won't all work out. It very well could. The Flyers made these moves for a reason, and ultimately thought they were the best thing for this team moving forward. I hope they're right. I really do. But that still doesn't make it any easier to digest. Jeff Carter and Mike Richards were the face of this franchise for the past 5 years. Now, I can barely even recognize this team. Sure, there are still plenty of familiar faces, but the two most high-profile are gone, replaced with players I admittedly have seen very little of for the most part, mainly because they've spent the majority of their careers playing for decent-at-best to poor Western Conference teams. So really, I have no idea what I can expect out of the newcomers or the team as a whole.

What I do know is Claude Giroux and James van Riemsdyk are the new faces of the franchise, two young, budding potential superstars among a solid cast of veterans to build around, much the way Richards and Carter were when they broke in.

Giroux had a breakout season last year, being named an all-star and taking his game to new levels. He will undoubtedly be the player the Flyers look to to fill all the roles Richards played so well. He is now the leader of the forwards, plain and simple. We all know Claude has the ability and the work ethic to take his game to an even greater level, and I fully expect him to do that. He's the marked man now, and he has to keep producing and getting better with the bull's eye on his back.

It's also time for JVR to become the perennial goal-scorer and force he was drafted second overall to be. Last postseason, he clearly stood out more than any other Flyer in the two series this team played in. Each game, you could see JVR's confidence growing. He's big, he's fast, he's getting stronger and in the playoffs, he put it all together to become an absolute force. Now he must do that for an entire season to help fill the void Carter and Richards left behind. His success or failure will determine a lot of what happens with the Flyers this season. There's more pressure on him now than he's faced since being drafted because he's being tasked with carrying a much bigger load. The good news is, he showed what type of player he can be in the postseason. The thoughts of him and Giroux pairing up for years to come have to make any Flyers fan excited.

To that end, Danny Briere really has to earn his paycheck as well. He has to stay healthy, and he has to pile up the points the way he did last season. Briere is the guy Giroux and JVR will be looking to for guidance. Another 34-34 campaign would go a long way in helping to lighten the load slightly on the youngsters. He and Scott Hartnell must continue to work well together and be a productive pairing … and stay out of the penalty box.

Of course, this team is predicated on its defense, and you can expect that to be a strength once again. Pronger is now the undisputed leader, being named captain, if he wasn't already. He must stay healthy as well following an injury-plagued 2010-11 season if the Flyers truly hope to be where they expect. Braydon Coburn, Andrej Meszaros and Matt Carle must continue to progress as well. If they can up their ice time even a little more, it will go a long way toward preventing the aging Timonen (and Pronger) from breaking down throughout the long season.

And Ilya, well, if he thought he may have been unfairly criticized at times in Phoenix, he hasn't seen anything yet.

Ilya was without question the best goalie out there, and the Flyers got their man. But now the pressure is on. Bryzgalov has spent his entire career playing for franchises without much pressure on them to hoist the Cup. Yes, he did play for the same Anaheim team that Pronger won a championship with, but to compare the scrutiny the Ducks get from the media and fans to that of Philadelphia is foolish. And for the past four years, he played for a Coyotes franchise that really brought no expectations to the table. Now all eyes are on him.

He has quietly been one of the better goaltenders for a few years now, and he's never played on a full-time basis for a team as talented as the Flyers. His regular-season numbers are awesome. But there is the one point of contention that could cause a big problem here if it continues. His playoff numbers in Phoenix, admittedly behind a less-than-Cup-worthy team, are horrendous. In the past two postseasons, Bryzgalov has posted a combined 3.73 goals against average and a very pedestrian .896 save percentage. No matter how you slice it, that's not good. If he has a showing like that for the Orange and Black, it could get ugly.

Of course, with a better team and much better defense in front of him in Philadelphia, it wouldn't be surprising to see a guy as good and as talented as Ilya reverse those numbers this year. And he better with all the money and years the Flyers gave him.

As for the newcomers, I'm excited to see what they bring to the table. Jacob Voracek sounds like a Philadelphia type of player. He's young and talented and gritty, which should make Flyers fans take to him well, given that he plays hard night in and night out. Wayne Simmonds has been productive out in Los Angeles, and at 23 has room to improve. And Brayden Schenn was LA's top prospect. It will be interesting to see if he can stick with the big club at just 20 years old, and by all account his future is bright in the NHL. Though his spot very well could go to Sean Couturier, the 18-year-old rookie who has generated a lot of buzz this offseason.

I have to admit though that it's going to be extremely uncomfortable seeing Max Talbot and Jaromir Jagr donning the Orange and Black. Like, want to stab my eyes out uncomfortable.

I mean, Flyers fans have spent two decades rooting against Jagr, giving him cat calls and playing "Dude Looks Like a Lady" every time he touched the ice in Philadelphia, first as a hated Pittsburgh Penguin, then as a hated Washington Capital and finally as a hated New York Ranger. Honestly, the guy could not have played for three more despised franchises by Flyers fans. Now he's going to be wearing a Flyers sweater, and something about that just doesn't seem right. It doesn't help that he's 39 years old and hasn't played in the NHL since the 2007-08 season either.

Of course, if we even get flashes of the brilliance Jagr has displayed on the ice over the years, we may all be forgetting about those hideous jerseys he used to wear, at least for a little while.

As for Max Talbot, by all accounts this is a great signing. The guy is supposedly an excellent teammate and locker-room guy, something we know has been an issue for the Flyers during the Carter-Richards era, and he plays the tough style of hockey Philadelphians like. He'll make an excellent addition to the penalty kill, and he's really good at playing the agitator role.

But man, do I hate Max Talbot. I mean hate, hate. He has easily been my least favorite Penguin since he started playing for Pittsburgh, the one I grew to despise more than anyone else. And now he's a Flyer. I can't believe it. I really can't. Just like I can't believe this franchise actually pulled the trigger and shipped off the two players it has built the team around the past half-decade an offseason before their no-trade clauses kicked in, two players who signed long-term contracts to conceivably make them lifetime Flyers, one the captain and the other the team's leading goal-scorer.

But that's the reality of the 2011-12 Philadelphia Flyers. I have no idea what the hell to expect, because I really don't even know them anymore.

I do, however, look forward to finding out.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Would You Eat a Mustard Packet for $10?

I've mentioned this before, but it bears repeating: I've been the black cloud hanging over the 2011 Phillies. So once again, I was in attendance as the Phillies suffered yet another loss, with Roy Halladay uncharacteristically walking four batters and taking the loss.

I mean, before I was even completely settled, Roy had given up a leadoff double to Rafael Furcal, let him advance to third on a passed ball, scored on a ground out and then gave up a home run to Lance Berkman. Not even an inning in the books and the Cards were up 2-0. And here I thought Doc would clinch home field throughout the playoffs with ease. After all, the guy was on the mound last season when the Phils clinched the NL East with a dominating performance against the Nationals and again on the mound when the Phillies clinched a playoff berth this year. But it was not to be, probably because I was there.

The only wins I've seen this year were when Vance Worley was pitching. That's a pretty remarkable feat given that Halladay and Cliff Lee have been in the Cy Young conversation, Cole Hamels has had an all-star season and Roy Oswalt is on the team. But that's just the way things have gone for me this year.

On the other side, the Cards hit Halladay hard all game, led by Lance Berkman, who was 2-for-2 with the aforementioned home run and another RBI hit, and former Phillie Kyle Lohse picked up the win with 7 and a third of one-run ball, with that run being unearned. I still can't believe the Phils let him walk and allowed Adam Eaton to remain in the rotation for a short while, but I guess it all worked out in the end.

Oh, another former Phillie, Nick Punto, also scored a run and was the one who drove in Furcal with an RBI ground out.

For once, I'd love to see a former Philadelphia athlete not do well against the team he used to play for. It always seems like those guys kill the Phillies (or Eagles or Flyers or Sixers) every time they play them.

Even with the loss, the Phils clinched home field throughout the postseason because the Brewers lost, making the remaining games in the regular season completely meaningless in the standings. Thus the boredom starts to set in, as it did last night, seeing as clinching home field was all but inevitable at some point.

So with the Phillies losing and the atmosphere really not very electric until the 9th-inning comeback that came up a run short, silver fox, Toonces and I had to find a way to entertain ourselves.

Since it was dollar dog night, we had purchased a few hot dogs and grabbed several packets of condiments. That led to me offering silver fox or Toonces, whoever accepted first, $10 to eat a packet of mustard — plastic packet and all. Toonces gladly accepted, then proceeded to struggle for nearly three full innings to get the thing down. A few times, he looked as though he was going to puke. But I'll be damned if he didn't actually eat an entire mustard packet including the plastic.

I then jumped at the opportunity to get $3 of the $10 I paid Toonces back by eating three peanuts shell and all, which is a no-brainer. Hell, my cousin always eats peanuts shells and all because he is weird as shit. Eventually, that led to me offering silver fox the opportunity to eat an entire paper Coke cup for $3, but he wisely declined.

Did I mention that we're all 27 and 28 years old? We are. Yet that's what we still subject ourselves to, because we are idiots. And that Phillies game was boring as hell until the 9th inning.

Anyway, go read about what pitcher I'd choose with my life on the line over at Ed the Sports Fan as well as who the rest of the crew would choose.

But the even bigger question than who you would choose is if you'd eat an entire mustard packet, plastic and all, for $10.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Dropping the Ball on the Weekend

To be perfectly honest with you, my weekend was a whole lot like Jeremy Maclin's game in Atlanta last night. On paper, the weekend looked great: Relaxing and drinking some beers on Friday night, tailgating and taking in the Penn State-Temple game at the Linc on Saturday followed by a wedding and then watching the Floyd Mayweather-Victor Ortiz fight, and wrapping it all up with football all day Sunday leading up to the Eagles-Falcons game for the nightcap. Oh, and the Phillies had the opportunity to clinch their fifth straight NL East title, not to mention playing under the bright lights of Sunday Night Baseball.

Likewise, Maclin's statistics — 13 catches for 171 yards and two touchdowns — were outstanding on paper. But just like my fun-filled weekend hit some hiccups along the way, no amount of catches, yards and even touchdowns can wipe away the memory of Maclin's critical drop on 4th-and-4 last night that sealed the Eagles' fate in Atlanta's 35-31 victory.

It really is a shame for both of us, because had just one or two more things gone right, this weekend could have been glorious for both Jeremy Maclin and me. But in the end, someone dropped the ball and prevented it from being all that it could have been.

Things started out on the wrong foot with the Phillies dropping the series opener to the Cardinals Friday, but at least we had Saturday to look forward to. We headed down to FDR Park around 9 a.m. to set up for a daylong tailgate for the Penn State-Temple game, though I could only partake in the morning portion because I had to leave after the game to go to a wedding.

There, things started great. We got a prime spot right at a group of picnic tables, had plenty of food and beer, and a crowd gathered before the game. We were drinking and eating and having a great time in anticipation for the game. Now, as much as people were talking about this being Temple's best shot ever at knocking off the Nittany Lions, I personally didn't see it. Undoubtedly my bias as a Penn State alum played a hand in that, but I honestly thought that with the talent disparity as far as depth is concerned, Penn State would win by two touchdowns.

I couldn't have been more wrong. The game was an absolute debacle. Penn State looked more incompetent on offense than I've ever seen. For starters, it's become abundantly clear now that neither Rob Bolden or Matt McGloin are any good. In fact, they're terrible. Really terrible. To the point that you wonder how a Big Ten team with the tradition Penn State has is in the position where these two guys are the best option at quarterback.

It doesn't even matter who starts, to be honest with you. Neither one is good, but playing both of them makes them both worse. The offense can get no rhythm because the QBs are being shuffled in and out at random, regardless of performance. Against Alabama, Bolden was playing much better than McGloin, yet the carousel continued. Saturday, McGloin was having a much better game than Bolden, yet the merry-go-round pressed on. Honestly, I don't think the coaching staff has any idea what the hell it's doing, and I don't mean just with the quarterback.

On offense, this team has some truly good playmakers — Silas Redd, Derek Moye, Justin Brown. Yet none of those guys are given the opportunity to get in a rhythm either. Every other play on offense, Penn State rotates in different sets of wide receivers and running backs, and it just makes no sense. Brown, Moye and Redd should be on the field for the large majority, I'm talking 70-80 percent, of the offensive snaps. But they aren't. Instead, in come true freshmen or backups to cut into that playing time, meaning the more talented players are on the sidelines when they could be making plays and developing chemistry with whatever quarterback is in the game. It simultaneously stunts the quarterbacks, those players and the offense as a whole. And it's why this team looks completely inept when it has the ball. More than anything, it's the coaching.

I never thought I'd say this, but the time has come. Clean house. Get rid of every coach in the program except for Larry Johnson, and maybe Tom Bradley and Mike McQueary. At least the receivers get open, and the defense is good.

That's really the shame of it. This defense is really good. Devon Still is one of the best defensive tackles in the nation. Mike Mauti played tremendously on Saturday. As did Chaz Powell and D'Anton Lynn. But their efforts are going to be wasted all season behind a terrible offense that his being horribly coached. It's really not fun being a Penn State fan right now, and I'm saying this after a victory.

I can say without hesitation that that disgusting 14-10 win was the most miserable I have ever been at game in which the team I was rooting for won. I have nothing more to say about this, because honestly this game wasn't worth anyone's time.

Also, Evan Lewis should never be allowed on the field ever again. I know at least 15 people personally who could kick a football better than him.

After that sorry disgrace for a game, my cousin and I hopped in my car, made a quick getaway and changed at my house before heading to a wedding for our other cousin.

That was just the appetizer to the Mayweather-Ortiz fight, which I watched at my other cousin's house after the wedding.

The fight started off with plenty of promise. Floyd was clearly outclassing Ortiz through three rounds, especially dominating in the third by picking apart the 24-year-old, but Ortiz wasn't backing down, was taking it to Mayweather in the 4th and it looked like we were in for a good fight. But then Victor dropped the ball, inexplicably heading Floyd when he had him pinned against the ropes, then kissing him on the cheek to make Money even more angry, then trying to apologize 15 damn times before getting knocked the fuck out when he lost focus and forgot he was in a boxing match.

Hands down, man down. Say what you want about Floyd, the dude did his job. Ortiz is a moron. He dropped the ball.

At least the Phils won and clinched the NL East behind Raul Ibanez's grand slam and Roy Oswalt's gem.

Then last night took place. The Phils lost yet again, putting it on Doc's shoulders to clinch home field tonight. While I never want to see the Phils lose, the silver lining is that I'll be in attendance tonight as Roy Halladay takes the ball to clinch home field. Should be good.

What was not good was the Eagles. We all know what happened last night, because everyone was watching. Mike Vick was playing extremely well until he fumbled in the red zone, leading to a Falcons touchdown and a 14-point swing. Then the game went on the see-saw, Maclin dominated, Vick got knocked out and the Eagles looked be in control. Until they weren't.

Mike Kafka did all he could, playing extremely well and putting the Eagles in position to go ahead late, until Maclin, who had been the hero to that point, dropped a ball that anyone in the world with hands could have caught. With the way Maclin played, you want to give him the benefit of the doubt there, but you really just can't. That's not just a ball that should be caught or could be caught, it's a ball that has to be caught, 100 times out of 100. To be frank, it's absolutely ridiculous that any player in the NFL would drop that pass. But shit happens, unfortunately, and a whole lot of shit happened in that game — the turnovers, Vick getting concussed by his own guy, and the dropped ball. Ugly.

A few other notes on the game:

-LeSean McCoy is an absolute stud. Seriously, this guy needs to get the ball a ton and should be on his way to perennial Pro Bowl status. The things he does out there are amazing, and he was great last night.

-Jason Peters is a man's man. It's really frustrating watching him commit a false start, but all you need to do is watch him maul everyone in his path to forgive him. That guy is insanely good.

-Nnamdi and Asante are everything everyone expected them to be. Asomugha played practically a flawless game, blanketing Roddy White and holding him to 3 catches for 23 yards, while Julio Jones only had 2 catches for 29 yards. Meanwhile, both Asante and Nnamdi came up with a pick, and no one is going to be able to throw to their receivers against this defense.

-Unfortunately, they will be able to throw to the tight end all day. While the linebackers improved against the run this week, even Casey Matthews, they showed they cannot cover the tight end at all. Tony Gonzalez went bonkers, routinely burning the linebackers and safeties.

-And that's why the Eagles gave up 35 points, mainly because of the linebackers and safeties in the passing game. Honestly, the defensive line played well, with Trent Cole playing beastlike as the best defensive player on the field all night, and Cullen Jenkins impressing even more. But Matt Ryan just kept going over the middle, exploiting the linebackers and safeties in coverage, and it worked. It's frustrating when so many players on defense are playing well yet the Falcons still scored 35 and went 5-for-5 in the red zone.

-I really hope Mike Vick is all right. Having said that, Kafka played really well.

Seriously Maclin, how the hell did you drop that ball?

Friday, September 16, 2011

It's Friday, Time to Dance

The Eagles head down to Atlanta to take on the Falcons Sunday night, the first time Vick returns as a starter to his former home. Here's a rap song I found by someone who does not care that Mike Vick is returning to Atlanta.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

On Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Pitching Greatness

Yesterday, the Phillies clinched a franchise-record fifth straight trip to the playoffs, something that five years ago would have been inconceivable given the fact that the team had only made the postseason once in my entire life prior to 2007. They accomplished this feat behind a 1-0 complete-game shutout victory by Roy Halladay, one of the many dominant pitching performances from this team this year.

To be perfectly honest, the notion of the Phillies clinching yet another playoff berth wasn't all that exciting. I guess that's what happens when expectations grow and your team is atop the standings from essentially day one on. But what has been remarkable this year — and was on full display yesterday afternoon — is the sheer dominance of this pitching staff, and it's something no Phillies fan in his or her right mind takes for granted, especially those from my generation.

I was born in 1984, too young to recall the greatness of Steve Carlton or the incredible Cy Young seasons of John Denny in 1983 and Steve Bedrosian in 1987. In fact, the only truly excellent pitcher I really had the pleasure of watching take the mound for the Phillies was Curt Schilling in his workhorse days in Philadelphia.

Sure, there were the occasional good seasons from starting pitchers like Terry Mulholland, Danny Jackson, Paul Byrd, Vicente Padilla and Randy Wolf. And youngsters like Tyler Green, Mike Grace and Brett Myers gave us hope. But none of them panned out to perennial all-stars or Cy Young candidates, though we all know how vital Myers was to this current string of success. In reality, prior to this new winning era of Phillies baseball, good pitching was an anomaly, not the norm. It was hard to watch, to be honest, especially as the Braves were winning pennant after pennant behind three of the best pitchers this game has ever seen — Greg Maddux, John Smoltz and Tom Glavine.

So to see the arsenal of starting pitchers this team has assembled and watch how incredibly dominant these guys have been this year is a complete and utter joy. For two decades, the Phillies were among the worst pitching staffs in baseball. In 2011, behind the quintet of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, Roy Oswalt and Vance Worley, the Phillies lead all of baseball in ERA (3.03), starters innings pitched, WHIP (1.17), complete games (18) and shutouts (21). They also have surrendered the fewest runs in baseball, walked the fewest batters, thrown the fewest wild pitches and have the best numbers against opponents in on-base percentage and slugging. Only the Giants' pitching staff has surrendered fewer home runs, and only the Giants and Rays have yielded fewer hits. Oh yeah, they're also fourth in baseball in strikeouts and fourth in opponents' batting average.

Basically, these guys are perhaps even more dominant than people expected. I mean, they have three pitchers who were all-stars and have been or are in the Cy Young conversation, a rookie who has pitched as well as any rookie in baseball since being inserted into the rotation, not to mention Roy Oswalt, who has battled injuries but is now back as the postseason approaches.

All Roy Halladay has done this year in following up his NL Cy Young in his inaugural season on the senior circuit is go 18-5 with a 2.34 ERA and 1.04 WHIP, while leading the National League in complete games with 8, trailing only James Shields' 11 in the majors. He also has 211 strikeouts to just 30 walks in 219.2 innings. Most years, he'd be squarely in the Cy Young discussions, but right now, he may not even be the front-runner on his own team.

That's because Cliff Lee leads everyone with six shutouts this season and had two of greatest pitching months in MLB history, going 5-0 in June with a 0.21 ERA and 5-0 in August with a 0.45 ERA en route to being named NL Pitcher of the Month each time. Overall, Cliff is 16-7 with a 2.44 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, 211 strikeouts and just 42 walks in 210.2 innings. That's just not fair.

Lost in the shuffle is Cole Hamels, who prior to the all-star break was arguably having a better season than either Halladay or Lee. To date, Hamels is 14-8 with a 2.71 ERA, a ridiculous NL-leading 0.98 WHIP (tied with LA's Clayton Kershaw), to go along with 177 strikeouts to just 41 walks in 199 innings. Then there is rookie surprise Vance Worley, who filled in for the injured Joe Blanton and overtook Kyle Kendrick while going 11-2 with a 2.92 ERA. And that doesn't even include Roy Oswalt, who has been up and down this season, and his credentials.

To a lifelong Phillies fan, it has truly been something to behold. Honestly, it has been one of the biggest privileges of my life, watching these guys go out there and master their craft.

Every day, we get treated to the brilliance and work ethic of Roy Halladay, the effortless, nonchalant dominance of Cliff Lee, the once-young prospect Cole Hamels maturing into an ace before our very eyes, the fire and professionalism of Roy Oswalt, and the surprising rise of Vance Worley.

As the Phillies wind down the regular season with yet another hopeful October looming, we should all recognize just how special it is to watch these guys day in and day out. It's something we've never seen before, and perhaps something we'll never see again.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

A Look Ahead: The Battle for I-95

A few weeks ago, Philadelphia native Hakim Warrick began talking to his former Syracuse teammate Carmelo Anthony about setting up a game in Philadelphia like the one Melo held in his native Baltimore this summer headlined by a slew of NBA stars.

Warrick got the ball rolling, and word came on Monday that the game between Team Melo and Hakim's Team Philly was set for Sept. 25. Better yet, the two college teammates will be leading their respective teams at the basketball mecca, the Palestra on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania.

Once tickets went on sale yesterday, I jumped at the chance and secured two seats for myself and silver fox. The game, which I am incredibly excited for, will be the culmination of a hectic sports weekend for me. On Saturday, Sept. 24, I'm headed to State College to take in the Penn State-Eastern Michigan game with three of my college roommates in a reunion tour of our senior (well, for two of us anyway) year apartment. Then on Sunday, the Eagles play their home opener at the Linc against the hated New York Giants at 1. And finally, the Team Melo vs. Team Philly game will be held at 6.

This weekend should be fun as well, with Temple hosting Penn State at the Linc, another game at which I'll be in attendance, and the Cardinals come into town with the Phils potentially clinching the NL East and even the top seed in the NL. Oh, and I'll be headed to the series finale on Monday against the Cardinals, and then back at Citizens Bank Park on Wednesday to welcome the Nationals. Like I said, there's plenty going on.

But next weekend is what I'm really looking forward to, particularly next Sunday. Eagles-Giants followed by this unprecedented game at the Palestra. Should be great, especially given the participants. As of right now, here are the confirmed players for the game:

Team Melo
Carmelo Anthony
LeBron James
Chris Paul
Kevin Durant
Donte Greene
Gary Neal
Eric Bledsoe
Josh Selby

Team Philly
Hakim Warrick
Markieff Morris
Marcus Morris
Flip Murray
Lou Williams
Aaron Owens, aka A.O.
Wayne Ellington
John Salmons
Lynn Greer
Jason Thompson
Kyle Lowry
Tyreke Evans

There are also all sorts of rumors flying around that surprise guests could show up. Names like Kobe Bryant, Jameer Nelson and Rasheed Wallace have been tossed around given their Philadelphia roots, and while I haven't even heard a murmur about him, it would be insanely awesome if Allen Iverson were to show up — and there's no shortage of Philadelphia ballers to keep throwing out there. But those are just unsubstantiated rumors.

What we do know is that the likes of LeBron, Melo, Paul and Durant will be in Philadelphia in less than two weeks to take on Hakim, Tyreke, Lou Will and the rest of Team Philly. And frankly, I cannot wait.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Eagles-Rams: The Good, the Bad & the Clock Management

It's been two days since the dust settled from the 2011 Philadelphia Eagles' season opener in St. Louis, and just about everything that can be said about the 31-13 win has been said. Regardless, here's my take on the good, the bad and the most frustrating constant of the Andy Reid era.

The Good
Mike Vick: The passing numbers aren't particularly impressive — 14-32, 187 yards, three sacks, two touchdowns — but when you take everything into consideration, the newly minted $100 million man showed his worth on Sunday. In addition to his two-touchdown, no-turnover day throwing the ball, Vick did what no other quarterback can do, rushing the ball for 98 yards on just 10 carries.

Yes, did lose one fumble, and you certainly would like to see a higher completion percentage, but in all, Vick was pretty damn good. Consider that his receivers had a few pretty bad drops, particularly DeSean Jackson on what would have been a 90-yard touchdown, and there's not much to complain about in regard to Vick. Well, except that he once again took too many hits, but what do you expect from an offensive line in such turmoil.

Even with the hits on Vick, I didn't think the offensive played all that badly considering they hadn't played a single snap together as a unit ever. There's work to be done for sure, but it was a promising start.

DeSean Jackson: Save for his horrible drop on that bomb from Vick, DeSean showed he certainly isn't going to let his contract status affect his play. As has been customary since being drafted a few years ago, Jackson made big plays and had a huge game, nabbing 6 balls for 102 yards and a score, including a 41-yarder that went for the biggest pass play of the afternoon. Pay this man.

LeSean McCoy: For anyone who thought Ronnie Brown may cut into LeSean's production this season, fear not if this game was any indication. McCoy wasn't tearing it up in the early going, but as the game wore on and the Eagles took a lead, the offensive line started to dominate in the running game and LeSean took advantage. In the end, he finished with 122 yards on 15 carries and a touchdown on the longest play of the game, a 49-yard run, while also hauling in a touchdown catch.

If last year wasn't proof enough, this is good reinforcement that McCoy is among the elite running backs in the league.

The pass rush: The Eagles sacked Sam Bradford 4 times and former Eagle A.J. Feeley once, with the new additions certainly making their presence felt. Jason Babin recorded two sacks in his return to Philadelphia, making him already more valuable than he was the first around, and Cullen Jenkins was a beast all day, ultimately getting a sack himself.

Honestly, in my opinion Jenkins was the most impressive Eagle defender on the day. He routinely got push up front and helped create all the pressure the Eagles got on Bradford. All day long the Birds were hitting Bradford and putting him on his back before he had to leave with that finger injury. Trent Cole got on the board, and Darryl Tapp had a very strong showing as a situational pass rusher, registering a sack himself and a forced fumble. All in all, great work on the pass rush from the front four.

The secondary: Yes, as the always impressive Sheil Kapadia pointed out, Nnamdi Asomugha was flagged for a 41-yard pass interference and also was a part of a 31-yard completion to Brandon Gibson on a blown assignment by either Nnamdi or Kurt Coleman. But the Nnamdi effect was profound. Those two plays were the only two times Bradford went to Asomugha's side all game long, meaning most of the balls to wideouts were headed Asante Samuel's way. That is a terrifying proposition for any quarterback.

Even though Asante didn't get a pick on Sunday — in fact, he dropped an incredibly easy one — I'd bet the house that he leads the league in picks with Nnamdi taking away his half of the field. Every pass in the first half especially seemed to go Asante's way, and unsurprisingly, the Rams struggled throwing the ball. Bradford was held to just 17-30 for 188 yards while Feeley was just 1-5 for 21 yards.

Add in the fact that Jarrad Page played very well, tying Jamar Chaney for the team-high in tackles with 6 and making several nice plays on the ball, and that Kurt Coleman didn't make any glaring mistakes, and teams are not going to have fun trying to throw the ball against this defense. At all. Though I have to admit that Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie got turned around a few times trying to cover Danny Amendola. Still, the talent in the secondary is frightening.

The Bad
The run defense: Oh boy, it didn't take long to see the Eagles may get gashed a bit in the run game. Before you could blink, Steven Jackson was blowing by everyone 47 yards without being touched for a score on the first play of the game. It's a good thing for the Birds that he tweaked his quad on that carry and only had one more all game, though Cadillac Williams continued to get chunks of yards in the run game, going for 91 yards on 19 carries.

Playing the defensive ends to wide clearly leaves the Eagles vulnerable against the run, and the pass-rush-first mentality of the defensive line left them out of position routinely against the run. That made the linebackers' job that much more difficult, because with the d-linemen out of the way, the Rams' o-linemen were able to get on the linebackers and clear the way. Not good.

Casey Matthews: The starting middle linebacker had 4 tackles against a team that was running the ball all game long. That's not good enough. And to be perfectly honest, from what we've seen this preseason and now in one regular season game, Casey Matthews simply isn't good enough to be starting in the NFL. The guy could not shed a black to save his life, he's not particular strong or fast, and he doesn't make plays. Add him to the long list of "other" brothers in Philadelphia's sports history.

Honestly, from what I've seen, Brian Rolle is just a better player than Matthews. I know he's incredibly small too, but he's faster, stronger and seems to have better instincts. I'd like to see more Rolle and less Matthews going forward.

The other linebackers: Matthews struggles were indicative of the linebackers as a whole, though Matthews certainly struggled the most. Jamar Chaney was probably the best of the bunch, leading the Eagles with 6 tackles, but it would be an absolute stretch to say he stood out. Moise Fokou made a couple good plays but also had some absolutely horrible plays, getting eaten alive by blockers and completely misjudging plays.

As everyone expected, the linebackers struggled, especially against the run. Why this franchise seems to undervalue the position this past decade is pretty baffling, but nothing new.

Danny Amendola:

I'm pretty sure your arm is not supposed to do that.

Clock management
If there is one thing that frustrates us Eagles fans more than anything it is this team's absolutely pathetic clock management skills, specifically during the two-minute drill, and it's something that's been going on the entire Andy Reid era.

For a refresher, the Eagles took possession at their own 35-yard line on Sunday with 3:40 left in the first half — 3 minutes and 40 seconds. That is an eternity for most NFL teams to try and go 75 yards, regardless of the timeout situation — though having all three timeouts certainly helps. Of course, the Eagles senselessly burned a timeout in the first quarter on a first-down play and then another on a 3rd-and-6 in the 2nd quarter, which did result in a first down.

So the Eagles got the ball back with 3:40 remaining in the half and one timeout. Seriously, that should leave every team in the NFL with more than enough time to try and punch it into the end zone. Of course, it wasn't for the Eagles, because every single season since Andy Reid has become head coach, this team is clueless at managing the clock. That is not an opinion, it is fact.

Shit, on the first play of that final drive of the half, Vick threw an incomplete pass … and then on 2nd and 10 the Eagles took their final timeout! The clock was already stopped for christ's sake! OK, fine. No timeouts. Still, the team had the ball at their own 35 with 3:34 remaining … and they still ran out of time as they were driving down the field, being forced to kick a field goal because they let so much time expire between plays.

It's something that is mind-numbingly frustrating. Honestly, it is beyond logic that a coach who is as well-prepared and that has had as much success as Andy Reid year in and year out cannot teach his team to function in the two-minute offense. It makes absolutely no sense. And things like that are why so many Eagles fans call for the head of the most successful coach in franchise history as far as wins and losses and playoff appearances are concerned. It's because even though he's been at the helm for more than a decade, he and his teams still make the same mistakes that they did in his rookie season as head coach.

I don't understand how a guy as smart as Andy Reid, a guy who is as good of a coach as Andy Reid can go so long without ever correcting this and his other mistakes. I'll never understand it, and it will continue to drive me crazy.

Teams from other cities think Eagles fans are nuts to hate Andy Reid because they look at all the NFC East titles, all the wins, all the playoff appearances and teams that were in contention and they see a great coach. And they're right. But what they don't see week in and week out for the past 13 seasons is the same mistakes over and over and over again. It's enough to drive you mad and call for his head, even when you know he's had so much success.

You said it, Jaws.

In the end, however, it was a pretty good performance in the season opener. The Eagles had too much for talent for the Rams, and they did what a talented team should do against a less talented one, winning going away 31-13. There's definitely room for improvement, but you really couldn't have asked for a whole lot more in the season debut.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Penn State-Alabama: The Difference Between Outcoached vs. Outmatched

Last season when Penn State got rolled by the Crimson Tide in Tuscaloosa, the Nittany Lions were overpowered and outmatched. The loss was ugly, but the outcome was expected. After all, Alabama was the defending national champions and returned a ton of players while Penn State was transitioning to a true freshman under center and a green team full of inexperience.

There was no question that in 2010, Alabama had more talent — the returning Heisman Trophy winner, a senior quarterback who had never lost a game and lots of returning starters.

What made Penn State's 27-11 loss in Beaver Stadium Saturday so damn frustrating is that even though Bama showcased one of the most impressive defenses I've ever seen, Penn State had just about as much talent on the field as the Crimson Tide. The biggest difference was in the coaching, plain and simple.

Don't get me wrong, Alabama is, as expected, a better football team than Penn State right now. But the talent disparity is not that great, certainly nowhere near as far as it was a year ago. Yet the result was practically the same despite Penn State playing at home this year, having more experience across the board and putting the same type of athletes for the most part on the field. That's because Nick Saban and his staff outcoached Galen Hall, Jay Paterno and the rest of Joe Paterno's coaching crew to a laughable degree.

And it began at the very start of the game. On the opening drive, Penn State did a fantastic job moving the ball and keeping Alabama off-balance. Rob Bolden looked confident and competent and, frankly, good on the opening drive, making the right reads, being decisive and taking control of the team. But at the same time, the Nittany Lions were forced to take all three of their first-half timeouts on the opening drive of the game because on three separate occasions, the combination of Hall/Jay Paterno took entirely too long to get the play in, resulting in the play clock nearly running out. And they used all three timeouts on the opening possession without even getting a touchdown, having to settle for a field goal after the Bama defense tightened up as Penn State approached the red zone.

That is just inexcusably bad. It shows a total lack of preparation on the offensive coaches' part, having to burn three timeouts on the opening possession, especially against the third-ranked team in the nation. Timeouts are valuable commodities in a game like this, yet Paterno and Hall treated them like disposable Monopoly money income. It was atrocious. It also doesn't help that Hall calls the running plays while Paterno calls the passing plays, meaning those two have to convene on each play call, then relay the call down to the field to Mike McQuery, who then has to relay the play to the quarterback. No wonder it takes so long to get the plays in. It's a flawed system to begin with. That's why most teams have one guy who calls the plays.

And frankly, that was just the beginning the incredibly terrible coaching on Saturday.

Number 1, the decision to have Devon Smith on the field at all is a horrible coaching decision. Smith is a 5'7, 155-lb. speedster who has no discernible football skills besides being able to run fast. He's too small to break any tackles or pose even a threat as a blocker. He cannot actually catch a pass, evident by the first play of the game, where he dropped an absolutely perfect pass from Rob Bolden that would have went for a big game and given Penn State huge momentum early on at home. The only thing he can do is run fast. Great. Awesome. But that doesn't mean anything if you have no other football skills. Devon Smith does not possess those. He hasn't shown anything really since stepping foot on campus other than that speed that he can't actually use.

The guy would probably make an excellent addition to Penn State's track team, but honestly, he does not add anything to the football team. Time to give up on the Devon Smith experiment. This team has too many other talented wide receivers and running backs on the roster to waste time with Smith on the field. I hate to say it because I actually like the guy, but the facts are the facts. Problem is, once again, the coaches seem to be the only ones who don't notice that since they keep insisting on giving Smith playing time that would be better served for other guys.

Just like the coaching staff doesn't seem to see that Rob Bolden is simply a better quarterback than Matt McGloin, and that was glaringly obvious on Saturday. Now by looking at the stats, you can argue that Bolden certainly didn't blow anyone away. I mean, 11-29 for 144 yards, 0 touchdowns and 1 crippling interception aren't exactly numbers to write home about. Still, they were far better than McGloin's absolutely disgusting 1-10 for 0 yards, and about 5 or 6 passes that almost were or could have been intercepted, though he did somehow manage to escape without tossing a pick.

But more important than any set of horrific numbers was the way the offense moved with Bolden in there as opposed to McGloin. Penn State actually moved the ball against the vaunted Alabama defense when Bolden was on the field. The opening drive was the most impressive drive of the game for Penn State until the outcome was already decided on the lone touchdown drive, led by Bolden's decision-making and some nice play-calling.

Then, he was marching the Nittany Lions out of their own end and into Bama territory on his 3rd possession before Anthony Szczerba fumble in what turned out to be the nail in the coffin for the Nittany Lions, with Alabama turning that fumble into a 10-play drive that resulted in a touchdown to put the Tide up 17-3 with 51 seconds remaining in the half. In the first half alone, it was clear Bolden was the guy who had the best chance of getting it done. In McGloin's two first-half possessions, the Lions went 3-and-out on both of them.

Yet there was McGloin, back out there on the second drive of the second half after Bolden picked up one first down on his first drive of the half before Penn State had to punt. The result? Three incomplete passes for McGloin and a punt. If you're counting, that's three possessions for McGloin, three 3-and-outs, and several potential interceptions.

Bolden came in again and started to move Penn State down the field once more, connecting with Derek Moye for 26 yards and Justin Brown for 12. Then Bolden made his worst pass of the game, tossing a horrendous interception that ended any slim hopes of a comeback. Without question, it was a brutally awful pass. But still, Penn State was moving the ball, Bolden was decisive and he at least got something going, which was more than McGloin could say.

Still, McGloin went out for the next possession, and for the first time all game Penn State picked up a first down with McGloin on the field … on a personal foul by Alabama. After that, three and out. That personal foul first down impressed the Penn State coaches so much that McGloin was sent out for the next possession too, where he threw two incomplete passes, though Penn State did pick up two first downs, one on another Alabama personal foul, and another on 11 yards on two carries by Brandon Beachum, before Devon Smith fumbled (see what I mean about Smith?).

Meanwhile Bolden led Penn State on its lone touchdown drive as time was winding down, using his legs and arms effectively to go 71 yards, capped off by a Silas Redd touchdown.

I don't know how the Penn State coaches could possibly keep rotating the quarterbacks all game when it was clear Bolden was the better player who was doing far more than McGloin on the afternoon. It was even more baffling when after halftime ABC sideline reporter Holly Rowe said she talked to several Penn State players who said they hope one of the quarterbacks gets a chance to get in a rhythm the way Alabama's A.J. McCarron did. Well, it's impossible for a quarterback to get into a rhythm when he's getting pulled every other possession, yet there the Penn State coaches were, playing yo-yo with the most important position on the field.

Speaking of A.J. McCarron, hats off to him. Bama had a quarterback controversy of its own after their opener, in which both McCarron and Phillip Sims were unimpressive, each throwing two interceptions. Well, McCarron got his number called for the whole game, and he played like a veteran quarterback, limiting mistakes and making the right reads and right throws. He was really impressive against a Penn State defense that was up for the challenge.

And honestly, the Penn State defense did not play badly at all. In fact, they were rather impressive early on, limiting Trent Richardson in the first half and playing a physical, bruising style that they lacked down in Tuscaloosa last year. Truth be told, Penn State defensive tackle Devon Still was perhaps the best player on the field for either team, routinely blowing up Alabama's offensive line, stuffing the run and putting pressure on McCarron. Minus a few big plays here and there, the defense did an admirable job.

Problem is, they were on the field all day long, eventually getting worn down due to the inept offense and offensive coaching. You can't ask your defense to shut out a physical team like Alabama when they're on the field nearly the entire game.

I would like to point out as well that Alabama caught a huge break that really turned the tide of the game on their fake punt in the first quarter. I watched the play live and thought Penn State stuffed Bama for a loss, watched the replay about 8 times and still thought Alabama didn't reach the line of scrimmage, and yet the refs gave Bama the first down. Seven plays later, Alabama was waltzing into the end zone to go up 7-3 and never looked back. Had Penn State actually stopped Alabama there, which it certainly looked like they did to me, the Nittany Lions would have had the ball at Bama's 39 or 40, up 3-0 already at home in front a crowd going absolutely wild.

Ideally, it would have been the perfect time for Penn State to challenge the call … except that they used all three of their timeouts on that opening drive because they are idiots. And the officials didn't review it because, well, I don't know. They did have to review two interceptions by Alabama that clearly hit the ground because they are blind and couldn't see they both hit the ground in real time even though both were obvious. I still don't think Bama picked up that first down, which was a huge momentum shift.

Still, with how badly Penn State was outcoached on Saturday, it most likely wouldn't have mattered. And that's why the loss was so much more difficult to take this time around.

Don't get me wrong, Alabama was and is the better team. They are ranked in the top 5 for a reason, and that defense is nothing short of outstanding. But this game should have been closer and should have been more competitive. Unfortunately, Penn State's coaches wouldn't let that happen. This one is on them because they did not put the team in a position to succeed. That's not on the players one bit. That's on the coaches.