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Cole Hamels delivers a pitch during the Phillies' 4-3 loss on Sunday.

For the third time in as many days, the Phillies and Mets treated the Phaithful at Citizens Bank Park to some free baseball, playing yet another contest that finished tied after nine and went into extra innings.


And after splitting Friday and Saturday's 14-inning affairs, the Phils dropped the series finale this afternoon 4-3, courtesy of a Lucas Duda 2-run homer off of the recently called up Philippe Aumont that snapped the 2-2 tie in the top of the 11th.

The Fightin' Phils responded in the bottom of the frame, cutting the lead in half when Marlon Byrd launched a solo shot into the left field stands. But Carlos Ruiz and Ryan Howard followed with ground outs to end the game, and lost their third game of the rare five game set (Monday night's matchup is a makeup from a rainout earlier in the month) from their rivals from New York.

Cole Hamels' seven solid innings of two-run ball (one earned) with eight strikeouts was wasted, which for anyone who has followed the Phils over the past few seasons knows is a relatively common occurrence. Howard blasted his 11th home run of the season, a two-run bomb that was his fourth in his last seven games.

The Phillies now find themselves at 24-30 on the season, and in dead last in the National League East, 6 games behind the division-leading Atlanta Braves, and will head to the Nation's Capitol to take on the Washington Nationals to start a three-game set following tonight's finale with the Mets.
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DeSean Jackson will be taking his considerable talents - and baggage - to the Redskins.

April Fool’s Day traditionally is a day of varying degrees of levity and humor, ranging from elaborate Internet-based hoaxes to good old fashioned whoopie cushions strategically placed on the boss’s chair.


April 1, 2014 however, was anything but a good time for the Philadelphia pro sports scene as once again, the Sports Gods decided to tweak their favorite collective whipping boy: the Philly sports fans.

The first cruel joke came at the expense of the Flyers, who have been among the best teams in all of hockey since their abysmal start, and who have proven themselves to be such by going toe-to-toe with the upper crust of the NHL over the past few weeks, including the Chicago Blackhawks, Pittsburgh Penguins, Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues.

The Orange and Black downed Chicago on a thrilling overtime winner by Claude Giroux with just under five seconds on the clock, swept the hated Pens in a weekend home-and-home set, and skated stride for stride to a 3-3 tie through overtime before falling to the Bruins in a shootout on Sunday.

Last night in St. Louis, where the Blues enjoy one of the biggest home ice advantages in the league (26-6-4 entering last night), the Flyers played a spirited and entertaining contest that resulted in a 0-0 tie through 65 minutes of regulation and overtime, courtesy of the solid net minding of back up Ray Emery, and the Blues’ trade deadline acquisition Ryan Miller being, well…Ryan Miller.

Ryan Miller stymied Wayne Simmonds and the Flyers last night.

And then, behind U.S. Olympic hero and shootout specialist T.J. Oshie, the Blues won the shootout – or hockey’s version of Home Run Derby – 2-0 as the Flyers were still unable to get a puck into the twine behind Miller. And with the rival Rangers winning in Vancouver, 3-1, the (hopefully) playoff-bound Flyers now sit three points out of second behind New York in the Metropolitan Division standings, with a showdown in South Philly with the fourth place Columbus Blue Jackets tomorrow night.

The second teaser impacted the Phillies, who were facing the Rangers in their second game of a three-game set in Arlington. Fresh off of a wild 14-10 win in the opener on Monday, the Fightins got a solid performance from free agent pickup A.J. Burnett, who was his effectively wild self for most of the night while limiting Texas to a single run over six strong innings.

The Phils staked the veteran righthander to a 2-0 lead in the 6th, finally getting to starter Martin Perez as Jimmy Rollins drove in his team-leading fifth run of the season with an RBI single, and Ryan Howard knocked in his first run of the season with an RBI double – which was great to see as the Big Piece came through against a lefty pitcher.

Unfortunately, the bullpen wasn’t able to hold the lead as skipper Ryne Sandberg went with a trio of lefties to get them to the finish line, but came up short of the victory. Jake Diekman promptly gave up the lead by allowing the tying run to score on an Adrian Beltre RBI double in the 7th, and following a scoreless inning from Antonio Bastardo, Sandberg opted to go with rookie southpaw Mario Hollands in the 9th with lefties Shin-Soo Choo and Prince Fielder due up, instead of sticking with Bastardo for a second inning.

Hollands looked every bit the part of a rookie making his Major League debut in a high-pressure situation, issuing a four-pitch walk to Choo and another free pass to Fielder (Elvis Andrus executed a sacrifice bunt in-between) before serving up a game-winning RBI single to Beltre.

The Phils are back at it again tonight in the rubber game, with Kyle Kendrick taking the mound.

And, for the Sports Gods’ final act, the DeSean Jackson drama finally came to an end, as news broke just before midnight that the former Eagles’ wideout agreed to a three-year deal…not with the AFC’s Oakland Raiders, Buffalo Bills or Cleveland Browns, and not with the NFC West’s San Francisco 49ers – all of whom were rumored to be interested in acquiring the mercurial wide receiver. No, DJax instead cancelled all of his other speculated visits with potential suitors (assuming there were any?) and will be signing his contract possibly as we speak to play for the Washington Redskins – yes, the NFC East rival Washington Redskins.

Not the best way to cap off what had already been a pretty disappointing April Fool’s Day!

But let’s take a look at things from an uncharacteristically optimistic, glass-half-full viewpoint today instead of our usual civic doom and gloom sports outlook.

For the Flyers, getting a pair of hard-earned points via overtime losses in back-to-back contests against the top teams in each conference only further solidifies their position amongst the NHL’s elite, and can only serve to bolster their confidence as they close out their season and look to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Their goaltending situation with Emery and starter Steve Mason is better than it has been in years, their new emphasis on defense under Craig Berube is keeping them in every game, and their balanced scoring attack led by Giroux and a host of other scoring threats – including the recently revitalized Vincent Lecavalier – all point to what could be a potentially deep run this spring.

For the Phillies, Burnett’s performance last night against one of the top lineups in all of baseball (who roughed up Cliff Lee for eight runs the day before), coupled with news of Cole Hamels’ pain-free, 44-pitch effort in Clearwater gives the organization hope that they’ll have three very effective starters taking the mound every five days by late April.

Chase Utley has looked to be back to his old self after struggling mightily at the plate throughout Spring Training, Cody Asche has the look of a Major Leaguer after his stellar performance in the opener, and Howard appears to be back in good health and taking a better approach at the plate – his five K’s through two games notwithstanding.

And for the Eagles, you have to hope last weeks’ decision to release Jackson is a case of addition by subtraction. There is little debate over Jackson’s playmaking ability, and his mere presence on the field forcing teams to keep a safety deep in center field or rolled in coverage to his side of the field out of respect for his game-breaking speed.

There is a great deal of conjecture and speculation over the reasons WHY he was let go after a season that saw him haul in 82 receptions for 1,332 yards and 9 touchdowns: his exorbitant 2014 salary ($10.75 million), his reported need of an attitude adjustment, his petulant diva behavior, his reported blowing off of an exit meeting with Chip Kelly, his alleged gang connections (again, ALLEGED!), or some combination of all of the above and whatever else we don’t know that went on behind closed doors at the NovaCare Complex.

The reality is we don’t know what we don’t know here, and what we do know is that Kelly is attempting to create a winning culture that is based on guys buying in to everything he is doing, from the offense to the special teams to the strength and conditioning programs to the sports science program. If he viewed Jackson as an outlier and a potential distraction to others, then he really had no other alternative than to move on from him.

In reading Mark Saltveit’s excellent book “The Tao of Chip Kelly: Lessons From America’s Most Innovative Coach”, it is clear that Kelly places a lot of value on attitude over talent, and has proven with various personnel decisions during his tenure at Oregon that he will make the tough decisions regarding discipline and dismissing players for the betterment of the group, not the individual.

One other nugget from Saltveit’s book: the author detailed a Kelly appearance on the set of ESPN’s “College Gameday” that was in Oregon for a big game. As Kelly made his way to the set, the crowd began chanting something that was difficult to make out at first, but eventually was interpreted to be “Big Balls Chip”, the nickname the Ducks’ fans affectionately gave the coach for his propensity to take risks during games, from trick plays to going for it on fourth down.

After seeing the Jackson saga play out this offseason, it’s clear that nickname still applies to Kelly in Philly, because it certainly takes a major set of cojones to not only get rid of your top playmaking wide receiver, but even more so to simply release him and run the risk of him signing with a division rival, as Jackson is doing today.

Thankfully, the calendar now reads April 2, 2014, so now we can move on from yesterday’s horror show and look forward to some spirited hockey down the stretch, a full season of Phillies baseball and the opportunity to observe our civic duty to lustily boo DeSean upon his return to The Linc next fall!
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Darren Sproles will be bringing his offensive talents to South Philly this season.

As I sat down at the computer this morning, I was prepared to laud the Philadelphia Eagles for their shrewd moves thus far in free agency. In the midst of a wild spending spree that saw a record $1 billion plus in contracts inked within the first 24 hours of the opening bell, the Birds continued a trend started last year when the team avoided the big-ticket signings, and instead opted for lower cost signings for players deemed to be good system fits and with potentially rising production.

The four early acquisitions were headlined by Monday’s signing of New Orleans Saints’ free safety Malcolm Jenkins to a 3-year contract, and also featured a trio of moves to bolster their special teams, most notably the re-signing of punter Donnie Jones to a 3-year deal.

Then news broke over Twitter shortly before 9:00 AM that the Eagles were putting the finishing touches on a trade with New Orleans for all-purpose back Darren Sproles, who would provide Chip Kelly with yet another speedy weapon on offense and also provide a major upgrade to both the kickoff and punt return teams.

And then, as I was doing some research into the Sproles trade, another tweet announced that the Birds had just inked Miami Dolphins’ cornerback Nolan Carroll to a two-year deal, in a move to provide some size and depth to their secondary, and based on his previous experience, even more depth on special teams.

So let’s start off with what was originally intended: a look at the Eagles’ free agent acquisitions through the close of business yesterday.

Safety has been a sore spot for the Eagles for a long time, as we’ve covered ad nauseum in this space over the past couple of years. The majority of the Phaithful (myself included) wanted GM Howie Roseman to go all-in and ink the Bills’ Jairus Byrd, who was widely considered to be the top safety to hit the market.

Instead, the Eagles opted for Jenkins, a former first round pick (#14 overall in 2009) of the Saints who was drafted as a cornerback but moved to safety in 2010 following an injury to veteran Darren Sharper – and presumably because they didn’t think he could cut it at cornerback.

While there was a great deal of backlash amongst the fans at not signing Byrd, the Eagles were wise to avoid his price tag, as the Saints shockingly (because they only had a reported $2 million and change in salary cap space, second lowest in the NFL) signed the three-time Pro Bowler to a 6-year, $54 million deal with $28 million guaranteed, including an $11 million signing bonus for 2014. There was also a concern with Byrd’s health, as he reportedly has recurring plantar fasciitis in both feet (that’s gotta hurt) that didn’t scare the Saints away, but gave some other teams – including Philly – some pause.

Philly hopes Malcolm Jenkins (27) is finally the answer to their woes at the safety position.

Jenkins signed with the Eagles for $16.5 million over the three years of the deal, including $8.5 million in guarantees – which is actually $2 million less than the guaranteed money given to cornerback Cary Williams when he signed with the Birds during last year’s free agency period.

Kelly and defensive coordinator Billy Daivs prefer their safeties to be versatile, going back to one of Kelly’s “Chipisms” that he believes in “players not positions”. In Jenkins, they get a guy with the speed to play “center field” and take away plays over the top, who is physical and not averse to contact, and who can also play man coverage on the slot receiver or the tight end, which after reviewing some highlight reels of Jenkins with the Saints he was asked to do fairly often.

Tackling has been an issue for Jenkins (according to Pro Football Focus, he’s missed a league-high (for the safety position) 45 tackles over the past three seasons), but under Davis the defense went from one of the worst tackling teams in 2012 before his arrival to one of the more consistent ones by the end of 2013. Clearly, Roseman and Kelly felt that whatever issues he’s had in that area are correctable.

Jones’s 3-year pact for just under $6 million was the Eagles’ first announced move of the day on Monday. As I had indicated in our free agency preview earlier that day, the team wanted him back but were unable to re-sign him until free agency started, due to his playing in 2013 on a one-year, league minimum deal.

Jones was a revelation for the Birds last year, emerging as a special teams weapon while posting a franchise record 40.4 net return average. The veteran allowed only 28 returns out of 82 punts, and dropped a whopping 33 punts inside the opponent’s 20 yard line with only five touchbacks.

One of Jones’s most memorable punts came in the rematch against the Washington Redskins in Week 11, when he blasted a 70-yard bomb after the Eagles had stalled deep in their own territory late in the 4th quarter, after the ‘Skins had trimmed a 24-0 deficit to 24-16 and had all the momentum. Washington was forced to drive the entire field, and the game effectively ended when Robert Griffin III’s desperation heave into the end zone was picked off by Brandon Boykin.

A couple of less-flashy moves were announced on Tuesday, as the Eagles signed a pair of special teams aces in Chris Maragos from Seattle, and Bryan Braman (yes, he’s no relation to Norman!) from Houston. Roseman spent a combined $6.65 million on the duo, who are expected to provide some speed and physicality to a special teams unit that struggled at times in coverage in 2013, and also provide some depth on the defensive side of the ball, with Maragos joining Jenkins on the safety depth chart and Braman hoping to join the rotation at outside linebacker with Connor Barwin, Trent Cole and Brandon Graham.

These four moves, along with the already-completed deals with would-be free agents Riley Cooper, Jeremy Maclin and Cedric Thornton (restricted), and the long-term extensions for Jason Peters and Jason Kelce, really looked to have the Eagles going in the right direction, shore up some spots that needed it, and allow Roseman to take the best available players in the draft when their it’s their turn to pick.

And then came this morning’s announcement of the Sproles trade, in which the Eagles acquired the elusive running back from the Saints in exchange for the fifth round pick they had acquired from New England in the Isaac Sopoaga trade during last season.

In Sproles, Kelly adds the NFL’s leader in receptions (232), receiving yards (1,918) and receiving touchdowns (16) over the past three seasons, and the league’s single-season record holder in all-purpose yards with 2,696 in 2011, his first year with the Saints. In fact, Sproles is, according to PhiladelphiaEagles.com, one of only two running backs with 150-plus receptions and 8-plus receiving touchdowns since 2011.

The other? His new running mate, LeSean McCoy.

His return skills are also appealing to the Eagles (again, improving special teams) despite his numbers in 2013: 21.3 yards per kickoff return and 6.7 yards per punt return, which were ranked 29th and 24th in the league overall, respectively.

Is Sproles as nimble and quick as he once was? No, as he’ll be 31 in June. But seeing what he did in Sean Payton’s offense with the Saints would lead you to believe that he will more than thrive in Kelly’s spread offense, and opposing defenses will have a great deal of difficulty matching up with the likes of Sproles, McCoy, DeSean Jackson, Maclin, Cooper, Zach Ertz and whoever else they run out there in their spread formation.

Nolan Carroll (28) will be expected to bolster the Eagles' secondary and special teams units.

The final acquisition (thus far) was that of Carroll, a 6’1”, 205 pound corner who started 12 games for the Dolphins last year, picked off three passes and posted two sacks. Kelly’s “big people beat up little people” mantra is all over this signing, and according to Pro Football Focus, Carroll registered 44 tackles in 2013 and missed only three, which equated to ninth in the league in tackling efficiency – an area in which the defense, especially in the secondary, can stand to improve.

It can be presumed that Carroll will be here to compete for a starting job, most likely with Bradley Fletcher, and will also be in the mix for special teams, as he played on the unit in Miami and even returned kickoffs as a rookie in 2010.

All in all, it’s been a whirlwind first few days of free agency, and Roseman and the Eagles’ front office have acquitted themselves well, bringing in players who fill specific needs and that they hope will be contributors toward their plans for long-term success.

Stay tuned to see what else they have up their sleeves, as they most likely would like to add some more depth to their pass rush, and Miami is reportedly shopping last year’s first round pick in OLB/DE Dion Jordan, who played for Kelly at Oregon and would probably already be an Eagle if the Dolphins hadn’t traded up to #3 in the draft to select him just before the Birds picked at #4.
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Eagles Set to Begin Free Agency...

March 11th 2014 16:05
Eagles' fans are hoping to see Jairus Byrd starting at free safety in 2014.

For NFL fans around the country, today is, aside from Kickoff Weekend in September, the most wonderful time of the year.

Today is the football equivalent of Black Friday, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day all rolled into one, thanks to the NFL’s marketing machine that has fans yearning for their daily dose of football all year round.

The official start of the league’s annual free agency period begins in a few hours, when franchises do the shopping, doling out exorbitantly large amounts of cash to players who went unsigned by their previous teams, in the hopes of striking it rich and finding the guy or guys that will put them over the top in the race for Super Bowl supremacy.

The fans and media who cover the teams are like little kids on Christmas Eve, having compiled their wish lists for Santa, speculating and fretting over what he might or might not bring them leading up to the big day, and then rushing downstairs the next morning to see what the jolly old elf left under the tree.

And there is nowhere else in the country where fans and media are more amped up and counting down the hours until 4:00 PM this afternoon, when free agency “officially” begins, than in Philadelphia.

I say “officially” because in reality, free agency unofficially started shortly after the Seahawks put the finishing touches on their 43-8 rout of the Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII. While teams aren’t allowed to announce any signings until after the official start time, the reality is that agents have been gauging the interest in their clients from teams behind the scenes since February. The league even took it a step further over the past couple of years, creating a 3 ½ day negotiating period, where teams were legally allowed to begin talking turkey with said agents so some deals can be all but signed once the clock strikes four.

Again, marketing genius. The soft open to free agency only serves to further whet the appetites of the fans, with media reports popping up all over Twitter of teams having interest in a certain player or players, and fans scouring the Internet for some scrap of news pertaining to their team’s plans.

The speculation and reports border on laughable. For example, over the weekend someone reported that the Eagles had not been in touch with Browns’ strong safety T.J. Ward, who played for Chip Kelly at Oregon, is coming off a Pro Bowl season and is one of the objects of the Phaithful’s affection. Then earlier this morning, someone else reported that the Eagles were showing “strong interest” in Ward; about 30 minutes later, yet another source reported that the Eagles had “no interest” in Ward.

The Eagles have been down this road before, most notably in the lockout-shortened 2011 offseason. The Birds went all in, spending big on some of the biggest names on the market, including Nnamdi Asomugha, Jason Babin, Vince Young, Steve Smith and Ronnie Brown. Coupled with a roster that was coming off an NFC East title in 2010, Young infamously dubbed the group to be like a “dream team”, a moniker which was roundly mocked over the next two seasons as they went a combined 12-20 and Andy Reid was shown the door.

The lesson learned here is that, much like the draft, there are few guarantees with free agent signings. The Eagles have had some successful ones over the years: Ricky Watters, Troy Vincent, Carlos Emmons, Asante Samuel, the controversial signing of Michael Vick and current Eagles Evan Mathis and Connor Barwin, to name a few.

They’ve also been on the wrong end of some signings, as well: the afore mentioned Dream Teamers, Steve Everitt, Blaine Bishop, Jevon Kearse (just OK production for $66 million), Stacy Andrews and the forgettable Felix Jones, who didn’t even make the team last year.

The one area that is under a great deal of scrutiny for Philly is the safety position, which has been an abyss of failed signings and draft picks since Brian Dawkins left for Denver following the 2009 season.

That this year’s free agent crop of safeties is especially deep and talented has not gone unnoticed by the Phaithful, who have been burning up the phone lines on sports talk radio and banging the drums in chat rooms, message boards and Twitter feeds emploring the Eagles to spend big, bring some safeties in who can play for a change and be done with it.

The most popular name on the market is the Bills’ Jairus Byrd, like Ward a 27-year old former Oregon Duck who is a three-time Pro Bowler, and is widely regarded as the top safety on the market. Byrd is a ball-hawking free safety, picking off 22 interceptions over his five-year career in Buffalo and returning two for touchdowns.

Byrd seems to make a lot of sense, but he reportedly already turned down a deal from the Bills that would have made him the highest paid safety in football, and other “sources” are already reporting that his expected asking price of $9 million a year has scared off several possible suitors.

While GM Howie Roseman has said in the past that the team is not averse to spending big on the right player if he’s a good fit both on and off the field, he’s also made no bones about the team’s plan to build through the draft and supplement through free agency. The reported $24 million in cap space Roseman has to play with sounds great, but with 2012 draftees like Nick Foles, Fletcher Cox, Mychal Kendricks and Brandon Boykin being eligible to sign extensions after the 2014 season, the likelihood is that the team uses a big chunk of their cap room to take care of their own, as they did already this offseason with Jason Peters, Jason Kelce, Riley Cooper and Jeremy Maclin.

Former All-Pro Darrelle Revis may hit the market if Tampa Bay is unable to trade him by Wednesday.

That being said, here are some names to watch for as free agency gets underway:

P Donnie Jones – Eagles reportedly want him back after his strong 2013 season, but since league rules prohibit teams from signing their own players prior to March 11th who had been signed to a one-year, league minimum contract, have not been able to re-sign him until this afternoon.

Byrd – An intriguing report came out today that said the Eagles had looked into trading for him last year, as he was unhappy with having to play under the franchise tag in Buffalo and was unlikely to re-sign after 2013 – which he clearly didn’t. If the price is right (much less than $9 million a year), this is a deal that should happen.

CB Darrelle Revis – Word came down yesterday that Tampa Bay was looking to trade their star cornerback after one season, while at the same time trying to restructure his deal to make it more cap friendly to a potential trade partner. Eagles reportedly had interest in him last offseason, and could be in the mix if he is released if the Buccaneers can’t make a trade. Fans might be wary after Asomugha debacle, and Revis is a guy who has made waves speaking his mind in the past.

FS Malcolm Jenkins – The former Saints’ first rounder was originally drafted as a cornerback and moved to safety, and has shown flashes at times of the skills and athleticism that made him the 14th overall selection, but has been inconsistent overall. A change of scenery might do him some good, and with his age (26) and expected price tag as a notch below the Byrd’s and Ward’s, Eagles might go this route.

SS Mike Mitchell – Numerous reports have linked the Panthers’ safety to the Eagles since Saturday, and much like Jenkins, his price tag should be more palatable for Roseman. Also like Jenkins, was a 2009 first rounder who struggled with his original franchise (Oakland), but had a strong season playing on a one-year contract in Carolina.

CB Corey Graham – Graham’s name has been prominently linked to Philly over the past 24 hours, as the soon-to-be former Raven is considered a versatile defensive back who can play in the slot and outside, might be able to play safety, and has ties to Kelly from his playing days at New Hampshire.

OLB Mike Neal – The former Packers’ defensive end moved to 3-4 outside linebacker last season after dropping 20 pounds and was very productive. Eagles are looking to add depth to Barwin and Trent Cole there.

OLB Rob Jackson – 6’4”, 266 pound frame fits Kelly’s “big people beat up little people” mantra. Jackson had his best season for the Redskins in 2012 when he started for the injured Brian Orapko, registering 4.5 sacks and 4 interceptions, showing the ability to generate a pass rush and to drop into coverage, a skill set defensive coordinator Billy Davis covets. Red flag: missed four games due to violating league’s substance abuse policy in 2013.

WR Ted Ginn, Jr. – Might be a bit of a reach here with DeSean Jackson, Maclin and Cooper already on board and a deep WR class in the upcoming draft, but knowing Kelly’s penchant for speed on offense and emphasis on special teams, Ginn would give the second-year coach another burner to add to his WR stable, and an instant upgrade in the return game.
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Flyers Surging Toward Playoffs...

March 6th 2014 15:55
It's been all smiles of late for the Flyers, shown here celebrating Vinny Lecavalier's OT game winner on Saturday.

As the marathon that is the NHL season grinds along through the winter months, once the calendar turns to March the teams and fans know that they are finally entering the home stretch, and that the marathon turns into a sprint over the final month and a half to the finish line that is the Stanley Cup Playoffs – arguably the most exciting tournament in all of professional sports.

The Flyers started their finishing stride back in February by rattling off four straight wins heading into the Olympics break, and save for one disastrous period against the San Jose Sharks in their first game back, have been the hottest team in the league at the most opportune time.

Philly continued its torrid play last night at the Wells Fargo Center, following up their dramatic overtime win over the Washington Capitals on Saturday by dominating their Metropolitan Division rivals behind a pair of Claude Giroux goals through the first two periods, and then hanging on for a 6-4 win to completee the home-and-home sweep. The win, coupled with a home overtime loss by the New York Rangers to the Toronto Maple Leafs, leaves the Orange and Black squarely in second place with some much-needed, albeit slim, breathing room in the standings.

The win gives the Flyers a two-point lead over the Rangers, three over the Columbus Blue Jackets and four over the Caps. The new playoff format with the newly-aligned divisions for this season takes the top three teams from each division plus two wild cards, and if the season ended today the first-place Pittsburgh Penguins, Flyers and Rangers would be the Met entrants to the tourney.

Jakub Voracek added his 17th and 18th goals on the season, lighting the lamp on a power play goal from a great cross-ice setup by Giroux to push the score to 2-0 in the first period, and then netting a huge goal just two and a half minutes after the Caps had cut what had been a four-goal cushion to 4-3 in the third.

Following their 3-9 start to the season that cost former coach Peter Laviolette his job after just three games, the Flyers have not only been one of the hottest teams over their last 10 games, in which they are 8-2, but one of the most consistent, going 30-15-6 since their rough start.

Not coincidentally, Giroux’s resurgence after an early-season scoring drought has keyed the turnaround, as after his second straight three-point effort last night, the Flyers’ captain has now registered 46 points in his last 36 games, with 19 coming on goals.

Head Coach Craig Berube’s role in their comeback this season cannot be understated, either. He changed the team’s style of play from an all-out attack on offense with little concern for defense into a much more defensively responsible system, and the strong defensive play in front of the solid netminding of goalie Steve Mason has made a major difference.

And the solid blue line play has produced more scoring opportunities, as the offense that struggled to find the back of the net last season looks more like the scoring machine that propelled the Flyers to a 103-point season in 2011-12. Their balanced scoring attack has been getting contributions from Giroux’s mates on the top line in Voracek and Scotty Hartnell (15 goals), but also from a potent second unit led by Wayne Simmonds (19 goals), Brayden Schenn (16) and Vincent Lecavalier (15).

The stretch run continues as the Flyers head to Toronto to faceoff against the Maple Leafs on Saturday, and then return to Broad and Pattison for the next two against the New Jersey Devils, who are just two points outside of the playoff picture with 67 points, before playing another divisional home-and-home, this time against the hated Penguins next weekend.

The Flyers’ marketing department has come up with the catchy #CLUTCHTIME promo for the stretch run, and if they continue on their current upward trajectory it might extend all the way into late May.

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Eagles Strike Again, Re-Sign Maclin...

February 28th 2014 22:37
A healthy Jeremy Maclin will be a welcome sight for the Eagles in 2014.

As I mentioned yesterday, the last two days provided been a much-needed dose of football news for Eagles fans who are still riding high following Chip Kelly's 10-6, NFC East-winning debut in 2013 and who can't wait for the 2014 season to kickoff.

The re-signing of WR Riley Cooper and the contract extensions for offensive linemen Jason Peters and Jason Kelce generated a great deal of buzz and excitement with the season still six months away, and there were various reports that the team still wasn't done with personnel moves.

Well, the latest domino fell as the Eagles were at it again this afternoon, with ESPN's Adam Schefter the first to report that the team has re-signed its other free agent wide receiver, Jeremy Maclin, to a reported one-year deal for $5.5 million, $3.5 million of which is guaranteed, that can total $6 million if incentives are reached.

The Birds' 2009 first round pick out of Missouri came into 2013 in the final year of his rookie contract, and opted not to hold out of OTA's or Training Camp to force a possible extension, instead figuring that his skills would be a perfect match for Kelly's up-tempo offense, and a new deal that was commensurate with his performance would be forthcoming, either from Philly or another team in free agency.

And he felt that way with good reason. Maclin finished the 2012 season as the Birds' leading receiver, pulling down 69 receptions for 857 yards and seven touchdowns. Even with the mercurial DeSean Jackson lining up on the opposite side of the formation, Maclin was still the team's most productive receiver, as his 257 catches, 3,442 yards and 26 touchdowns were the most ever by a wide receiver over his first four seasons in Philly.

He also, according to PhiladelphiaEagles.com, became only the eighth player in league history to amass at least 55 receptions and 750 yards in every season of the first four years of his career.

Unfortunately for Maclin and the Eagles, he suffered a torn ACL for the second time in his playing career (the other occurring in college) at the start of Training Camp, thus ending his season before it began and his opportunity for a big payday.

There were reports that several teams would be interested in the 25 year-old if he made it to free agency, specifically the Jets and Broncos according to Schefter. But once again, the Eagles wanted to retain Maclin's services and, much like his fellow signees over the last two days, Maclin was not shy about saying he wanted to remain in midnight green.

Maclin reportedly preferred a one-year deal to prove he's all the way back from his injury, and then attempt to cash in next year via free agency. It's still early, but my prediction is that if Maclin has a big season, the Eagles will sign him to a long-term extension and, with Cooper already under contract for four more years, possibly part ways with Jackson, who would have two years remaining on his contract but with no guaranteed money.

And so, another day, and another flurry of football news out of the NovaCare Complex. The Eagles have taken care of their own again, and now we can sit back and wait to see what the next phase of their offseason plan is once the league's free agency period begins on March 11th.

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Riley Cooper passed up free agency to sign a reported 5-year deal with the Eagles.

For the Phaithful, this is annually one of the most trying sports times of the calendar year. We are smack dab in the middle of winter – this year one of the most miserable winters on record – and here is a quick overview of the sporting landscape in South Philly:

The Sixers are in full tank mode and are unwatchable; the Flyers are finally coming back from their Winter Olympics hiatus and still have 20 games to go before they are ready to start the Stanley Cup Playoffs; the Phillies are just beginning their Grapefruit League schedule and Opening Day is still more than a month away; and the Eagles, who returned to their lofty perch atop the Philly sports scene last season, are what feels like an eternity away from returning to the gridiron to defend their NFC East title.

But the Phaithful got a much-needed and healthy dose of football news out of the NovaCare Complex over the last two days, as in advance of the start of the league’s free agency period in two weeks the team has announced three key signings: contract extensions of five and seven years for offensive linemen Jason Peters and Jason Kelce, and a new, five year pact for pending free agent wide receiver Riley Cooper.

Peters and Kelce were each entering the final years of their existing contracts next season, but with both expressing the desire to remain in Philly for the long term and the team wanting to keep their O-Line anchors in the nest, GM Howie Roseman doled out a pair of new deals that totaled 11 years (Kelce is signed for next seven years, playing out the final year of his rookie deal before his extension kicks in for 2015) and $88.8 million, with $32 million in guaranteed money. Peters’ deal also saves the team a reported $2 million in cap space this year, according to ESPN’s Adam Caplan.

Cooper played out the final year of his rookie contract last season, and his emergence as a playmaker filling in for the injured Jeremy Maclin on the eve of his pending free agency couldn’t have come at a more opportune time for him. But like Peters and Kelce, Cooper was adamant about his desire to remain in Philly, and Roseman and head coach Chip Kelly agreed, and signed the receiver to a five-year deal worth a reported $25 million, although according to several sources those numbers are unofficial and unconfirmed.

Both blockers played at a high level in 2013 after suffering major injuries that cost them all or most of 2012 – Peters a twice-torn Achilles tendon, and Kelce a torn ACL. Most NFL experts view Peters to be one of if not the best left tackles in the NFL, and also view Kelce as among the top centers in the game. And now they are being compensated accordingly.

Jason Peters will be the Eagles' left tackle through 2018.

Cooper had his own share of adversity to deal with, albeit it self-inflicted by his racial slur-filled rant at a Kenny Chesney concert last summer that was caught on video, went viral and almost ended his tenure in midnight green. But with the support of Kelly, Michael Vick and Jason Avant among others, Cooper emerged as a legitimate threat in the new coach’s offense, establishing career highs with 47 receptions, 835 yards and eight touchdowns, along with a team-best 17.8 yards per catch that was also good for third in the league.

The trio’s ascent to the NFL’s elite was anything but guaranteed when they entered the NFL. Peters was an undrafted tight end out of Arkansas, signed for a cool $5,000 by the Buffalo Bills as a free agent; Kelce was a 6th round selection from Cincinnati by the Eagles in 2011, whose emergence salvaged one of the worst drafts in recent franchise history (Danny Watkins, Jaiquawn Jarrett and Curtis Marsh were the first three picks…ouch!); and Cooper was a 5th round selection in 2010 out of Florida, and at one point was viewed as a better baseball prospect than football, getting drafted in the 15th round of the MLB Amateur Draft out of high school in 2006 by the Phillies, and again in the 25th round by the Texas Rangers in 2009.

With these three squarely back in the fold, Roseman and Co. are expected to turn their attention to their other pending free agent wide receiver in Maclin, who has also expressed his desire to stay here (sensing a trend here?) and will do so eventually, according to various media reports. The length and dollar amount of any deal is debatable, as he returns from his own major knee injury that he suffered early in training camp last offseason.

And with the league’s free agency period set to kick off on March 11th, one would have to expect the Eagles to be in play for some reinforcements on the defensive side of the ball, particularly at safety, where the team has struggled to find stability since Brian Dawkins left for Denver and there are some intriguing veteran options available.

So enjoy this rare bit of February sporting excitement, albeit off the field. Opening Day, playoff hockey and warm weather are right around the corner…
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Danny Granger is shown here, presumably after learning he'd been traded from the Pacers to the tanking Sixers!

The Sixers were expected to be among the most active NBA teams as the 3:00 PM trade deadline approached today. And in his first year in the GM chair, Sam Hinkie didn't disappoint.

Hinkie spent a busy Thursday orchestrating four separate trades, highlighted by parting with leading scorer Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes. In return, the Sixers brought back a series of expiring contracts and at least five second round picks for the 2014 through 2016 drafts that leave them in prime position to continue the rebuilding process from the ground up.

The first deal reported earlier today was Hawes and his expiring contract being dealt to the playoff hungry Cleveland Cavaliers, in return for a pair of second round picks and a pair of 6'10" warm bodies with expiring contracts in F Earl Clark and C Henry Sims.

Hinkie then acquired PG Eric Maynor from the Washington Wizards and two more draft picks - a 2015 second rounder from the Wizards and a 2016 second rounder from the Denver Nuggets, respectively - as part of a three-team deal that saw former Sixers PG Andre Miller go from the Nuggets to the Wizards and F Jan Vesely from Washington to Denver. Maynor backed up John Wall with the Wizards, and has a player option for next season worth $2.1 million.

Seven footer Byron Mullens was acquired from the L.A. Clippers in exchange for one of the several second round picks in Hinkie's possession, and the big man has a $1 million player option for 2014-15.

But the biggest deal of the day, perhaps in the entire league, occurred just prior to the league deadline as the Sixers dealt Turner and Lavoy Allen to the Eastern Conference-leading Indiana Pacers, and in return received F Danny Granger and, you guessed it, a second round pick.

Granger was the leading scorer for Indiana a few seasons ago, and averaged over 25 per game during the 2008-09 season. But the veteran forward has been relegated to a reserve role the last two seasons after knee surgery last year sidelined him for an extended period of time. Granger comes with the all-important expiring contract, and is being paid $13 million and change for this season.

What does this all mean for the Sixers? Well, for a team that currently sits next-to-last in the Eastern Conference and second in the league in the all-important draft ping pong ball category, things appear to be getting worse (for the better) this season. Turner and Hawes combined for 30 points a game, so the offense for the rest of the season will be a challenge.

Most experts figured Hinkie would move two out of the three veterans they had on the roster in Turner, Hawes and F Thaddeus Young, and from here it looks like they made the best choice in keeping the versatile and athletic Young, who is under contract for next season and has an option for 2015-16.

And so, it's a race to the bottom for the Sixers as they look to continue their abysmal play and position themselves to secure one of the top draft picks in the 2014 Draft.

With Michael Carter-Williams, Young and the rehabbing Nerlens Noel already on board, Hinkie and Co. can look to secure a pair of top talents with their own selection and New Orleans' (top 5 protected) first rounder that looks to be a lottery pick as well, their abundance of second round picks and with a reported $50 million plus in cap space, can be aggressive in pursuing some other pieces (i.e. a guy who can shoot consistently from the perimeter) that will be a long-term fit as they attempt to climb out of the East's basement.

Sometimes it takes things getting worse before they get better...let's hope the Sixers' high at the tail end of this rebuild is as high as their low has been low.



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Spring Training Underway for Phillies...

February 20th 2014 16:27
Cody Asche is expected to be the Phillies' third baseman in 2014.

This week provided some wonderful news for all of the Phaithful in the Delaware Valley who have been buried under an endless barrage of snow storms, ice and polar vortexes in what has become one of the worst winters in recent memory:

The Phillies have begun to prepare in earnest for the 2014 season, with full squad Spring Training workouts underway in sunny Clearwater, FL!

First year manager Ryne Sandberg kicked off his first preseason camp with a full squad team meeting on Tuesday, during which, among other things, he expressed his expectations for the season and how he defines what it means to be a good teammate - the latter of which would appear to be a top priority heading into this season after the likes of Jonathan Papelbon, Cole Hamels and others indicated that the chemistry in the 2013 clubhouse was far less than harmonious.

It will be interesting to see how Sandberg's approach will differ from that of his predecessor, Charlie Manuel, who was described as a "player's manager" and often times sat back and let the players handle issues amongst themselves. And while the team's lackluster performance on the field made it clear it was time for a change, it would be revisionist history not to acknowledge that Manuel was one of if not the most successful manager in the Phils' history, so Sandberg has a tough act to follow.

Embattled GM Ruben Amaro, Jr. had an interesting offseason, as while the Phaithful mostly clamored for him to get the Phils younger, he actually managed to make their roster older. RAJ kicked off the Hot Stove season by signing former Phillie OF Marlon Byrd (36 yrs. old), then re-signed C Carlos Ruiz (35), inked another former Phil in OF Bobby Abreu (40) to a minor league deal, and capped off the free agent spending by prudently signing former Pirate RHP AJ Burnett (37). The signing of 27 year old utility infielder Reid Brignac was the only acquisition of a player short of his mid-30's.

Folks were quick to jump on Amaro's continued penchant for signing euphemistically labeled "seasoned" players, and the AARP and "Senior" Citizens Bank Park jokes were abundant. But RAJ has expressed his belief all along that this roster, as presently constructed and healthy, should be able to compete for the NL East title. His offseason moves are directly in line with that, as he tries to again squeeze at least one more title run from the core of Hamels, Ruiz, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins.

And so, what to watch for from the Fightin' Phils during their time in Clearwater? Over the next few days we'll run through some of the intriguing storylines that figure to develop during Spring Training, and we'll begin with a look at the Phils' 3B situation:

Who's on Third? Third base has been a revolving door for the organization since the disgruntled Scott Rolen was jettisoned to St. Louis in 2002. Since then, we've seen Placido Polanco, David Bell (ugh), Pedro Feliz, Polanco again and Michael Young man the hot corner, with varying degrees of success.

After dealing Young to the Dodgers before last season's trade deadline, the Phils handed the 3B job to top prospect Cody Asche, and the youngster was solid in 44 starts, showing a solid approach and some pop at the plate despite a late-season swoon that lowered his average to .235. Asche also played very well defensively, and his athleticism along with the continued Gold Glove-caliber play from Rollins should give the Phils one of the best left side defenses in the NL.

Sandberg appeared to be impressed with what he saw as he declared Asche to be the leading candidate for the job last season. However, the manager has made it clear that he believes in competition, and while Asche is the incumbent, the Phils' top overall prospect Maikel Franco is also in the mix for the 3B job.

Maikel Franco's 31 HR's and 103 RBI earned him an invite to Spring Training this year.

The 21-year old was named the Phils' top position player in their minor league system, bursting onto the big club's radar by launching a combined 31 homers and driving in a combined 103 runs at Single A Clearwater and Double A Reading.

If Franco was a farmhand in the Braves' system, there would be a better than average chance that he would be opening the season at third in the majors, as they've been quick to promote talented yet inexperienced players in their early twenties (Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman, Craig Kimbrel and Julio Teheran, to name a few).

The Phils have traditionally kept their prospects down in the bushes for some extra seasoning over the years, and that will most likely happen with Franco. But if he were to have an outstanding exhibition season in March, he may force his way onto the roster - especially considering the fact that he is a right-handed power hitter, something which the Phils have been desperate for and severely lack, outside of Byrd and backup 1B/OF Darin Ruf.

Amaro and Sandberg could decide to platoon Franco and the lefty-hitting Asche, but I think they will want both of them to play everyday and get their regular at-bats against lefties and righties to continue their development.

My prediction: Asche is the guy at third base when the Phils open the season in Texas against the Rangers, and Franco opens the season at Triple A Lehigh Valley, with a mid-to-late season call up in his future.
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What a Difference a Year Makes...

January 1st 2014 18:05
Chip Kelly and Nick Foles will be the big story in Philadelphia heading into 2014.

The Phaithful readers of this blog will recall that in the not-so-distant past – mid-April to be exact – I posted this article that depicted a potentially very bleak outlook for the Philadelphia pro sports scene, not only for the short term, but potentially for the (very) long haul.

At the time, it was a pretty accurate assessment of the state of the locals, as 2013 proved to be one of the most trying calendar years not only for the fans, but also (and especially) for the coaches!

The once-promising Sixers had faltered mightily in their attempt to return to the postseason, largely due to the failed gamble on acquiring Andrew Bynum and his balky knees. Head Coach Doug Collins was shown the door as a result, and the Bynum Era came to an ignominious end before it even began.

The Sixers’ fellow Wells Fargo Center tenants, the Flyers, had their own share of difficulties, failing to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs due to a surprising lack of scoring and the maddening inconsistency of free agent bust Ilya Bryzgalov in goal.

The Phillies had stumbled out of the gate and ultimately wound up, for the fifth consecutive season, failing to reach the level of achievement of the previous year, this time bottoming out with a miserable 73-89 record that cost long-time manager Charlie Manuel his job.

And then there were the Eagles, who were fresh off a disastrous 4-12 campaign in 2012 that ended Andy Reid’s 14-year run at the helm. The Birds were expected by most to be embarking on a lengthy and painful rebuilding progress, and owner Jeffrey Lurie had pinned the franchise’s future hopes to a hotshot collegiate offensive whiz in Oregon’s Chip Kelly, who had as much NFL coaching experience as I did.

And then, something strange happened…things actually started to look up around the Sports Complex!

The Phillies named Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg as their interim manager after dismissing Manuel, and then removed the interim tag near the end of the season, making him the full time skipper heading into 2014.

Chase Utley made it through a healthy 2013 season without any major issues with his chronically aching knees. Domonic Brown put together his finest season in the bigs, launching 27 homers while driving in 83 runs. Rookie Cody Asche acquitted himself well while manning the hot corner following a late-season call up, and could be in line to shore up what has been a revolving door at third base for the long term – provided he can hold off the competition from hot prospect Maikel Franco during Spring Training.

Of course, we’re talking about the Phillies, and things aren’t all rainbows and ice cream cones. GM Ruben Amaro, Jr. continues to try to squeeze one last run to glory out of this aging group, and actually managed to increase the team’s average age by acquiring 36-year old free agent OF Marlon Byrd and re-signing veteran C Carlos Ruiz.

Despite still having Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee to lead their pitching staff, the Phils still have more questions than answers to round out their five-man rotation, with Cuban defector Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez the most intriguing story heading to Clearwater.

And with the huge contracts of Ryan Howard and Jonathan Papelbon limiting their spending options, what further moves Amaro can make after painting himself into a financial corner remain to be seen.

The Sixers tabbed analytics guru Sam Hinkie from Houston’s front office to be their next GM, and he made an immediate splash on Draft Night by selecting Syracuse point guard Michael Carter-Williams with their first selection. Hinkie then shocked everyone by dealing All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday to New Orleans in exchange for Kentucky big man Nerlens Noel, whom the Pelicans had just taken 6th overall and was projected to be the top prospect in the entire draft before tearing his ACL during the college season.

Hinkie then hired Spurs’ assistant Brett Brown to replace Collins, and all Brown did was knock off the two-time defending champion Miami Heat in his debut. Things have taken a turn for the worse for the Sixers over the past month and a half, including a recently-ended 13-game losing skid.

But all those losses just mean more ping pong balls and a potentially high lottery pick in the highly-touted 2014 Draft, which, along with the first rounder acquired in the Holiday trade and a large amount of cap space, will allow Hinkie to further establish the foundation for a potential future winner over the next few years.

The Flyers got off to a poor start this fall, so poor that the organization decided after three games to ice Peter Laviolette – making him the fourth Philly coach to lose his job in 2013 (Reid was let go on New Year’s Eve, but we’ll count him anyway).

Claude Giroux's resurgence has lifted the Flyers back into the playoff race.

Things didn’t get much better under his former assistant Craig Berube, but after a prolonged scoring drought Claude Giroux has found his offensive groove, net minders Steve Mason and Ray Emery have shored things up between the pipes, and the wins have followed. The Flyers currently sit at 20-16-4, which puts them a point out of second place behind Washington in the newly-aligned Metropolitan Division and squarely in the playoff mix in the Eastern Conference.

Which brings us to the Eagles.

The team that had the most question marks has been the one that has provided the most answers this year. Kelly proved not only that his offense would translate to the NFL – to the tune of a franchise record for points scored and yards gained – but that his sports science techniques and ability to motivate would also work with millionaire pro athletes.

Playmakers LeSean McCoy and DeSean Jackson had monster seasons in Kelly's new scheme, with McCoy wrapping up the league's rushing title with a 1,607 yard campaign, and Jackson re-emerging as a feared weapon in this offense, posting career highs in catches (82), yards (1,332) to go along with nine scores, which tied his career best from 2009.

QB Nick Foles emerged from the second team spot on the depth chart following an injury to Michael Vick to put together one of the greatest statistical seasons in league history, tossing 27 touchdowns while throwing only two interceptions. His seven TD performance at Oakland tied the league’s all-time single game record, and his league-best 119.2 passer rating was good for the third highest ever. Foles has given the team and fans alike hope that he can be their long-term answer at quarterback, and allow the front office to build around him.

Much-maligned GM Howie Roseman emerged from Reid’s ouster and president Joe Banner’s departure as the last man standing in the personnel department, and has proven that he can, in fact, accurately evaluate and draft prospects. The likes of Foles, defensive lineman Fletcher Cox, LB Mychal Kendricks, DE Vinny Curry and slot corner Brandon Boykin from the 2012 draft have all proven to be everything from valuable contributors to emerging stars.

Couple that draft haul with the promising outlook and contributions from 2013 draftees in OT Lane Johnson, TE Zach Ertz, DL Bennie Logan and S Earl Wolff, and it would appear that Lurie was not just blowing smoke when he said he trusted Roseman to run the show.

After Kelly and Co. turned a 1-3 start into a thrilling and improbable 10-6 campaign that propelled them to the top spot in the NFC East, the Birds will provide the Phaithful with one more playoff game on this first weekend of 2014 Saturday night than the city enjoyed in all of 2013, hosting New Orleans at The Linc.

For the team that looked to be as far from any from competing for anything other than draft position, Kelly has shown that the future is now for the Eagles, and that dreams of a Super Bowl run in the near future might be more realistic than anyone thought just a year ago.

So Happy 2014, Philly! Let’s hope that the Birds ring it in with a bang by taking down Drew Brees and the Saints.

Either way, we’re already better off than we were last year.
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