Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Chunky Soup Conundrum

by Jim Ballas

There comes a time in every season when a team knows what their fate will be come January. For the Eagles this year, the end of week 15 meant the end of champagne dreams and playoff contention. For most coaches and teams, a failed season or moment would mean time to rebuild, or in some cases, sit on the field and cry - Jessica Simpson wasn’t there to comfort Tony Romo last time. However for the Eagles, apparently it’s time to win.

Don’t get me wrong – I love seeing the Eagles win. But I don’t want to see the Eagles win this year at the cost of stunting their team growth for the coming seasons. Clearly, there is only one person to blame for this: Terrell Owens.

OK, so that’s not true. It’s actually Andy Reid’s fault. But how can a coach with such a great winning record damage a team, especially when the team is winning?

I like to call this the Chunky Soup Conundrum. Can a once great player return to greatness after many injuries without the aid of Chunky Soup? If this season has shown anything, it’s that McNabb cannot.

Even when good things have happened to the Eagles, it can be mostly attributed to luck. Against the Saints, McNabb’s 40-yard scramble ended in a touchdown, but it was not because of McNabb. He had the ball punched out of his arms and luckily Kevin Curtis chased it down in the end zone. We can’t celebrate McNabb for dumb luck.

To make matters worse, McNabb is actually completing a few good passes to different receivers. This is a bad sign because it’s keeping him in the game. He’s trying to prove himself to a city constantly questioning him and to other teams looking for a new quarterback.

It’s finally time for the Eagles to start looking down the road, past the Chunky Soup era. It’s time to start Kevin Kolb. Preseason and red-shirt practices aren’t enough to train a young quarterback. Get Kolb some snaps so when Donovan “Not My Yard” McNabb leaves, the Eagles won’t rest on the laurels of the interception machine A.J. Feeley.

The Baltimore Ravens have the right idea in giving Troy Smith the start and the experience – we need to follow suit. High school is coming to an end and the football star with potential (the Eagles) can do better than the head cheerleader (McNabb). As hometown heroes Boyz II Men said, “It’s so hard to say goodbye.”

That doesn’t mean it isn’t necessary.

It would even be a good time to get value for McNabb. The Eagles could get the number one receiver that was traded twice – with both Owens and Stallworth. Anyway you slice it, the cut should be McNabb.

The Eagles should get together and throw a going away party for Mrs. McNabb, because as we all saw in a commercial, she sustains the team, unlike her son. I hate to retire my number 5 jersey, but I’ll gladly don the number 4 and watch the Eagles’ future begin.

Friday, December 21, 2007

The real Philadelphia Story

by Mike Prince

“Now I Can Die in Peace.” This is the name of the book that Bill Simmons wrote after his beloved Boston Red Sox won their first World Series in 86 years.

Many Philadelphia sports fans have been living with that same mentality for several years now. “Once I see a Philadelphia sports team win a championship, I can die in peace.”

The Philadelphia Story won two Oscars. The Philadelphia Phillies haven’t even won two World Series titles.

In 1983, the 76ers swept the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals, the last championship that this city was able to celebrate. Since then, the four major sports teams from the City of Brotherly Love have been to their league’s respective championship or series a total of six times.
Six times in almost 25 years, Philadelphia fans have had the chance of a Broad Street parade sitting right at their finger tips. And six times, their hopes and dreams were crushed. Philadelphia sports fans basically have come to a realization after so many years of failure. If you asked anyone in the city their thoughts on when things will turn around, odds are you will get a pessimistic answer.

Take something like this for example. At one point in early 2001, the Flyers, 76ers, and Eagles were all in first place and very likely contenders for each of their respective sport’s championships. Now, imagine at that very same time of the year, you have to go away for business for six or seven years, cut off from the rest of the world, with no idea what is going on in the world of sports.

So now it’s the year 2008. You finally arrive home, meet up with an old friend, and drive down to Passyunk Ave. for your first quality cheesesteak in almost a decade. You then sit down with your friend, look at them with that obvious “tell me what I want to know” look and simply say, “So, what did I miss?”

Very excited, and before you can even finish one delicious bite of your “wiz wit,” your friend is done telling you everything big that happened.

“Nothing really,” he replies.

Now here is the funny thing. As excited as you may have been to hear about the number of trophies the city has captured in your absence, the answer you get is not a very big surprise.
In any other city, a sports fan that has three of his city’s teams in first place at the time, all of which are obvious contenders for many years to come, would probably assume they missed at least one championship (not even to mention their baseball team is also a threat within their division).

Now back to the pessimistic, generally disappointed Philadelphia sports fan.

As you finish the last bites of your whiz-covered Amoroso roll, you hear that the Flyers made the playoffs all but one year since you’ve been gone, including a conference final game seven. You find out that the 76ers were leading in the NBA Championship, and also made the playoffs the following few years. You find out the Phillies made the playoffs for the first time in 14 long years as division champs. Then, you hear that the Eagles made the playoffs all but one year you were gone, including four conference championship games.

Just from looking at those facts, any sports fan would assume that at least one ring was won within those six years. Twenty-four seasons total between the teams, and one would think there was at least one winner in the whole bunch.

But if you asked a guy from Philly to put his money on something, most likely, he’d bet on failure.

It’s not personal. It’s not the desire to lose. It’s not purposeful pessimism.
It’s just what the average person is used to.

It’s the “norm.” The so-called standard for Philadelphia sports, which as one fan once described it as “getting our hopes up as much as possible, only to crush them and break our hearts year after year.”

The city is starved for a championship. It needs it. The people need a parade like a 75-year-old alcoholic needs a new liver. Ask some men who are tailgating for a 4:15 Eagles game at 8:00 in the morning and some of them would be willing to trade their wives for a championship. And if drunk enough, they may even start to actually believe something so foolish.

The truth is, in a city of more than 1.5 million people, roughly 37 percent of the population has never witnessed a championship. People are becoming impatient, frustrated and discouraged. Many have, or at least say they have, lost complete hope for any of the four major franchises.
The problems are clear when looking at the history books.

The Phillies have been around since 1883 (they were also known as the Philadelphia Athletics for a period of time). They have been playing baseball for well over a century now. That’s 125 seasons of baseball. Nearly 1,900 games. The first team in sports history to have over 10,000 losses.

And yet, only one World Series championship. The Phillies won their lone title in 1980, nearly 100 years after the team originated. They haven’t won since.

This means that even the oldest living person in the world, Edna Parker, who is 114 years old, has only been alive for one Phillies World Series title.

Imagine if she was from Philadelphia.

The results have been basically the same for the other major teams. The Eagles won the NFL Championship in 1948, 1949 and 1960. Since 1966, when the Super Bowl was invented, they have never won. They made it to the Big Dance during the 1980 and 2004 seasons, but fell short both times.

The Philadelphia Flyers came into expansion in 1966. Since then, they have won two Stanley Cups, consecutively in 1974 and 1975. Since then, they have made the Stanley Cup Finals on five separate occasions, but have come up short each time, leaving Flyers fans in their early 30s and younger without any memories of a championship.

Finally, the Philadelphia 76ers, the most recent team to win a championship, in 1983, has only been back to the finals once (2001) since that unforgettable year. They managed to win the first game, before losing the next four games and eventually losing the series to Shaq, Kobe and the Los Angeles Lakers.

While these numbers show the lack of success within sports in the city of Philadelphia, fan support has generally been there for the majority. While attendance goes both ways, the fans are always one step away from being there for their team when they need it. While Philadelphia is not known for having bandwagon fans, they do have one particular trait that every fan base should have.

One word: Loyalty.

No matter what the record is, fans always manage to fill the stadium for an Eagles game. Flyers season tickets have been selling out at rapid rates for decades, and the Phillies have been drawing record attendances over the past several years. While the Sixers have fallen off over the past few years, so has attendance. This does not show the lack of support for the team, but it does prove one theory on its fans.

Loyalty can only go so far. The fans lost trust in the team. Since the Sixers made it to the championship in 2001 and brought a city together like it never has before, the Sixers organization has had a long list of disloyalty to its fans. Pat Croce, a fan favorite, stepped down as president in 2001, and eventually was almost forced out of the organization. He could not work with them anymore. They have gone from coach after coach after coach over the past few years, with some not even lasting an entire year. They traded away half of their draft picks of the past several years, giving the fans nothing to look forward to. They had Allen Iverson, a superstar and arguably one of the most beloved Philadelphia sports icons in the history of this city. Since 2002, they never brought in supporting players to give the team what it needed to get over the hump.

In December of 2006, the Sixers traded away Allen Iverson for three players that will probably not be with the team for more than another year. Iverson was the main reason that the Sixers were drawing attendance records year after year. He was an attraction. He brought excitement to the team. He was arguably the favorite athlete in arguably one of the top two or three sports cities in America. The fans have lost trust for the organization, but they still love their team and root for them day in and day out.

While fans still manage to make it to as many games as they can, they are growing weary and impatient. There is only so much failure a fan can take before it becomes too much to handle. To many, sports are life. Sports are everything and mean the world to some.
Four teams. 125 years of games being played. Nearly 300 seasons combined. Two Stanley Cups, four NBA Championships, one World Series, and zero Super Bowls. That’s all Philadelphia has to show for itself.

Still, fans will say that their city is “the best.” They will tell people that no one is better than them and that they are number one, no matter what. They love their teams and no one can convince them otherwise.

Will the fans still be around if Philadelphia goes another 25 years without a championship? Absolutely, yes. While sitting at Chickie’s and Pete’s, a fan-favorite sports bar and grille for home sporting events, one Philadelphia fan says, “It will only make that first win, in however many years it may be, that much sweeter.”

Monday, December 17, 2007

Eagles' fans have something to smile about despite the rocky season

by Greg Bialor

With a season seemingly lost, and hopes of the playoffs destroyed by the hands of the New York Giants, the Birds flew the nest and stormed into the big D with thoughts of the turmoil left behind. Forget the almost win against New England and all other losses this season; this is what matters to this organization. Sure, it is the goal to win a Super Bowl or make the playoffs for that matter, but it is the bigger picture that really matters.

The long and mutual history of these two teams are engraved in each other’s fans’ skulls as being not just games, but battles. As far as I can remember, those first moments of being a child and you are taught that there is no evil as evil as the Dallas Cowboys. In Philadelphia, learning such a thing was as regular as being taught to say “God bless you” after a sneeze. If there would be one thing to reconcile this season, it would be a win against the Cowgirls, and in Dallas.

I do not know exactly how it happened, but it did. The 12-1 Cowboys hosting the 5-8 Eagles; who would have thought the Eagles would have a chance? But they did. Through the attack of the defense and the chance that Tony Romo sprained his right thumb, the Eagles pulled off a true and defensive 10-6 victory against the Cowboys.

From watching the game on Sunday, it was announced that in the stands and cheering for her man was Jessica Simpson. Of course we could all remember last year around the same time of year when Carrie Underwood, the then-girlfriend of Tony Romo, was in the stands for the Christmas game against the Eagles in Dallas. It is true what Mick said to Rocky Balboa – “women weaken the knees.” That being said for the sake of the career of Tony Romo, ask your girlfriends to stay home for Christmas. And for the sake of Philadelphia fans, Merry Christmas Tony and a Happy New Year. Thanks for the gift.

Brian Westbrook + Jim Johnson = Victory. Duh.

by AJ Gonzalez

In what has been a tremendously rocky season, two of the few constants have been Brian Westbrook and Jim Johnson’s prepared defense. Sunday’s 10-6 win over the Dallas “Brokeback” Cowboys was the true definition of the Eagles playing to their strengths.

Image and video hosting by TinyPic
Lito Sheppard and the rest of the Eagles' D kept Tony Romo's Cowboys silent on Sunday. Is Romo about to lose Jessica Simpson too?

Though Dallas bottled up Westbrook for most of the day, Andy (and maybe Marty, too) kept dialing up the plays for number 36. And boy, did he deliver. Westbrook’s solid performance was only matched by the impeccable job the Birds did against the NFC’s most potent offense. Though many are forgetting about Donovan McNabb, this Sunday I find myself asking Tony who?

The Eagles’ offensive game plan was clearly ineffective for much of this game. They had a rough outing and the blame deserves to go around. The offensive line eerily resembled a thin slice of Swiss cheese whenever McNabb went back to pass. The times he was able to throw it, Donnie wasn’t exactly lighting it up. And how about those superstar (cough) receivers? No one was confusing them with the Patriots passing attack. Even their usually potent running game was quieted until the fourth quarter.

And that’s when something amazing happened. Something so miraculous that I truly believe time stood still and hell officially froze over. Andy realized putting the ball in B-West’s hands gave his team its best chance to win, even if it meant, gulp, rushing. A team’s running game isn’t just handing the ball off to its back and hoping he’ll gain positive chunks of yardage. A coach must approach the running game as a boxer approaches body attacks. If you work the body long and hard enough, you wear out the opposition. That’s exactly what running the ball consists of. Andy, I mean Marty, never completely abandoned the running game like he has in the past. A 60/40 pass-to-rush ratio isn’t too bad in a very close game. The result? Westbrook gained 60 of his 81 yards in the fourth quarter when they needed it most. Can I get a “DUH” please? That’s how it’s supposed to go.

My final note on Westbrook is definitely the most impressive. Picture being an NFL running back where every penny you make is based on your stats. Having one more touchdown a year could net you a million more dollars. That’s the nature of the business. Apparently that’s not what drives Westbrook. With just over two minutes left in regulation, Brian breaks away from the defense and is capable of walking into the end zone, thus padding his stats and further insuring a trip to Hawaii in February. Instead, Westbrook takes a knee at the one-yard line securing possession and a victory. Could you imagine Ricky Watters doing that? For who? For what? For your teammates and your fans; that’s who.

Considering the offense mustered only 10 points, none of this would be possible without the inconceivable play of the Eagles’ defensive unit. Jim Johnson’s boys have played pretty well all season. The last drive of the Chicago game not withstanding. And despite their lack of turnovers, the defense has kept them competitive enough to win. Their only poor game came in week 9 against none other than the Dallas Gyllenhaals. That’s where Jimmy earns his reputation as one of the league’s best coordinators. He made adjustments and put his players in the right places. Back in November, Terrell Owens had over 170 yards and a touchdown. This week O.D. wasn’t even a factor. In fact, he hadn’t made a reception until the fourth quarter. Lito Sheppard played the role of human blanket, allowing the rest of the secondary to cover the other feared Dallas receivers. The line managed three sacks, while the secondary produced three interceptions all while making the golden boy Tony Romo hang his head in humiliation while his girlfriend looked on in shame. Speaking of which, I find it quite humorous that the last time the Eagles traveled down to Dallas, Tony had a different blonde, pop star girlfriend watching him from a luxury box. However, the outcome was the same. Something tells me little Miss Jessica might not be sticking about for much longer.

Whenever the Birds play the Dallas Ledgers, it’s a special experience. This game proved to be extra special. We got the opportunity to witness the smart, selfless, nature of Brian Westbrook while also having the privilege of viewing Tony Romo being thrown back down to reality once again at the hands of Jim Johnson. This season may be ending in two weeks, but I’m proud to bleed green for at least one more week, or until I have to hear about the distancing relationship between the Eagles and Donnie Mac. I had to ruin it.

Game Notes
-How was the hit on Matt Schobel in the first quarter not a 15-yard penalty?
-Reno Mahe sucks. I hate him.
-At some point in the draft the Eagles should consider nabbing a kicker. Akers is at his limit. Thanks for everything, but it’s time to move on.
-After Reggie Brown ended up in the Salvation Army bucket, did anyone else think to themselves that not even they would want him?

Friday, December 14, 2007

The biggest surprise of the Mitchell Report – only two

by Goose

Forget the debate about what the sport should do about steroids – that’s for Around the Horn and PTI to discuss for the next eleventy months. I really think the biggest shock of the Mitchell Report is the spirit of the ’93 Phillies can remain intact.

Image and video hosting by TinyPic
Lenny Dykstra was one of only two Phils from the '93 N.L. Champs squad mentioned in the Mitchell Report. To many, the fact that Tobacco King was doing the 'roids was breaking news 20 years ago.

You know, that lovable bunch of misfits that caught lightning in a bottle that one year to take the city on a ride all the way to the World Series. For years people have thought that “lightning” was created artificially and injected into the majority of that lineup's behinds. And now, here comes a report saying that, aside from Dykstra and Todd Pratt, the 1993 Phillies were clean.

Really? Well, that’s cool with me, since I loved that team about the same as sex. But the fact alone that Pete Incaviglia wasn’t named renders the report useless. I mean, c’mon. I once saw him hit a ball off the top of the foul pole at the vet. I was shocked it didn’t go through the foul pole at that point. It wasn’t still traveling up when it hit; it was traveling straight. That thing would have killed a human had it hit one. Not that this anecdote is proof positive that he took steroids, but can you tell me where he went after that magical season? What happened to him?

Dykstra, Daulton, Inky, Pratt, Danny Jackson, Wes Chamberlain, Dave Hollins…all clean. Dave Hollins? The man who had a nickname Mikey, because he acted like a serial killer. And now we can infer that he was on nothing more than V-8 to keep his edge.

Look, my point isn’t that these guys were on steroids, because I don’t know. My point is that the Mitchell Report is a $20 million joke that did nothing to stop players from taking steroids. Dykstra, if anything, was a scapegoat; a player that people knew was on steroids and could be listed in the report because it was already common knowledge. And that’s what was wrong with this whole thing. Based on testimonies from a few people, we get a sparse list of names that have been in the press for a while. Sure Clemens and Pettite included in this was a bit of a mild shock, but honestly, you can go back to 2006 to find suspicions about both of them.

In perusing the report (full disclosure: I didn’t read the whole thing. I mean, did you see it? Hey Mitchell, ever hear of Microsoft Word? A little thing called color? C’mon), it seemed to me that baseball just spent $20 million to talk to a former Mets’ clubhouse attendant and to read Game of Shadows. I would have done that for $89. And I would have made the report a little easier on the eyes.

So, while I’m glad that my memories of the ’93 Phillies can remain somewhat pure for the time being, I am disappointed by the lack of meat this silly little report gave us. But then again, who really thought Selig would pay for an unbiased report that had the potential to sink his sport? But that conspiracy is for another time.

Phillies' outfield left with lots of questions

by Goose

OK, yes it’s December, and it is a bit premature to think the roster of any Major League Baseball team is etched in stone right now. Injuries, hot spring trainings and shrewd deals all play a part in setting the starting nine for April… but still, there is a small undercurrent of dread running through me right now, because honestly, I don’t see the plan for the 2008 Phillies outfield.

Image and video hosting by TinyPic
Pat Burrell is part of the Phils' outfield going into the 2008 season. Which other inconsistent players will join him?

This feeling of uncertainty comes on the heels of the news that Aaron Rowand just signed a five-year/$60 million deal with the San Francisco Giants. Now, don’t get me wrong, after the season was over, I saw the signs pointing to him leaving for greener, longer pastures. And I was OK with that. I knew he was looking for a long-term contract, and with the way he throws his body around in the outfield, coupled with a high strikeout total, I didn’t think it was a good fit.

But perhaps it wouldn’t have been the worst thing in the world to lock him up. Because now that he’s gone, we can really focus on the outfield and see that it’s uh, well…um… interesting.

Burrell, coming off a great second half in 2007, is in left. I guess at some point in time he dosed Philadelphia’s water supply to make sure no one remembered anything before that. Seriously, I have a vague recollection of him jumping back from a called third strike over the plate once or twice, but can’t seem to figure out where that memory came from. Oh well. If only that was the Phillies’ major problem.

I really like Shane Victorino. In fact, I think he’ll play better in centerfield than Rowand. He’s quicker and has a great arm. He’s also the reason I at first didn’t mind seeing Rowand leave. But now there are two things that make me wonder if the Phils made a mistake. The first is Victorino’s offensive potential. He did well last year, batting .281/.347/.423 with speed; perfect for a two-hole hitter. Of course, it remains to be seen if those numbers will be acceptable for 2008, or if we will need him to step up. And the more important part – can he step up?

The other thing that makes me wonder? With Victorino now taking over center, that leaves right field to be patrolled by…Jayson Werth? Really? Look, he had an awesome last month or so of great baseball. But is he ready to take over full time? I mean, it seems to me the only reason he’s being considered is because he made those two steals against Wagner. And yes, they were awesome, but at this point, Charlie Manuel could have stolen off Wagner. He’s not exactly Terry Mulholland.

My point is this – I’m not sure the Phillies really should be going into the season with two unproven guys in the outfield. And that’s not including Burrell. No matter how much water I drink, I still have the nagging suspicion he could regress.

I’m praying Gillick has an ace up his sleeve and can turn something into gold before April. Because if not, we lost a pretty important chunk of the offense when Rowand signed in San Francisco. And my stir-crazy outfield fantasy with Milton Bradley involved is now impossible with him going to the Rangers. Is Gillick creative enough to come up with something else? Time will tell.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Swatting out the Fly Guys

by Charlie Gagliardi

The Flyers’ season was so bad last year that their remarkable turnaround this year has become an amazing afterthought in the minds of the local media.

We are almost three months into the new season and the Flyers have fluctuated between first, second, and third place all season, never falling more than two points out of the top spot in an incredibly competitive Atlantic Division. But all anyone ever wants to talk about, it seems, was last season, the worst season in Flyers history, ignoring the fact that this team almost has as many points now as they did last year at the end of the season. Why does the media constantly push negativity into the spotlight all of the time? Why can’t they let it go and focus on the good stuff instead of last year’s horrid effort?

Image and video hosting by TinyPic
Kimmo Timonen, Danny Briere and Jason Smith, three of GM Paul Holmgren's biggest offseason acquisitions, have all been monumental in the Flyers turnaround this season.

Sure, Peter Forsberg was to blame for most of what went on. When you come to the rink every day not knowing if your best player has two feet or not, it is tough to go into a game with any kind of plan to score goals. Yet, a lot of the players that were here last year are here this year and they have improved tremendously. Does Mike Richards remind of you Keith Primeau in the 2004 playoffs almost every night so far this year? Has Jeff Carter not become the bruising forward we all hoped he would become? What has changed? And why has no one said anything about it?

Is it John Stevens and his morbidly relaxed approach to the game? Is it the culture of the team changing with Paul Holmgren’s unbelievable moves toward the end of last year and in the offseason? Or is it simply the fact that Forsberg is gone and the team can now only rely on themselves to win games?

The turnaround started late last year, when Scottie Upshall seemed to bring a renewed energy to this team thanks to Foppa’s Fleecing of Nashville with his hard-nosed style of play. Suddenly, losses still piled up, but the team became competitive toward the end and even beat the Red Wings badly in one of the final games of the season.

Locking up Marty Biron was also a key move because, frankly, this team has not had a steady goaltender since Ron Hextall. No, John Vanbiesbrouck and Darren Boouregard, you do not count.

But if you look at the new young defensemen in Braydon Coburn and Lasse Kukkonen, you start to see why this team is better. They finally have speed on the blue line, something that would have won them a handful of Stanley Cups in the 90s had they had it back then. The additions of Kimmo Timonen and Jason Smith have provided the perfect leadership for a team sorely lacking it since Primeau retired.

It is a shame the whole Forsberg era did not work out. The man was the best player in the NHL when he was healthy. Without him, the Flyers probably do not even make the playoffs in 2005-06 either.

Also, don’t forget, there is talk that the Flyers are keeping salary cap room available in case Mr. Forsberg decides to give his feet one more shot at standing straight in the NHL. I am sure he knows what he caused around here last year and wants to atone for it by playing here again. Wouldn’t a healthy Forsberg look great on the power play with Danny Briere?

Everyone panics that this team has been playing inconsistently lately. To me, I would rather see this happen considering they are still mostly young and improving, and their best scoring forward is out with concussion problems. Boy, does that sound familiar.
Don’t forget about the Penguins game this past Tuesday, as well. When players start to stick up for each other like the Flyers did the other night, it breeds caring and winning streaks. I don’t think that kind of stuff would have happened last year, unless it was out of frustration.

No matter how many games they win and whether or not they make the playoffs, this team is 100 times better off than they were at this point last year. And you can be sure that in the end, everyone will let the Flyers know just how much worse they were.