Monday, January 31, 2005

A Prescription For Victory- Part One

A Philadelphian could get very depressed listening to endless drivel being spouted by America’s so-called football mouthpieces this week. As someone with the credibility of 9-1 ATS picking the Eagles over the past four years, I am here to tell you the Patriots are not a foregone conclusion in this spot. They better come to Jacksonville looking for a fight.

This is the first of two postings- where I will carefully explain, unfortunately using big words at times, how the Eagles can beat the New England Patriots. It is not often you can get, for all intents and purposes, a 15-1 team giving a touchdown. For the simple lack of anything else, the Eagles are a pro-team not coached by Joe Gibbs. They have a sound chance.

I will begin by saying I love the New England Patriots. Love them. Thought they would kill Pittsburgh. Thought they would humiliate Indianapolis. This is no easy task ahead of Philadelphia.

This morning, the over/under is at 48- which suggests there is support in Vegas for a game played in the upper-twenties- by the winning team at least. Clearly, the Eagles are going to have trouble reaching that number against this Patriots defense. There are few match-ups there, on said offense, that break in the Eagles favor. No, to get this done, the defense must come to play- and keep New England to a manageable number- something south of 21.

In a lot of ways, New England is a lot like Philadelphia on offense. Outside of Brady, you don’t really look at the Patriots’ passing attack and get blown away by their weapons. It is merely a collection of solid pros who both know what they are doing and have played together a lot. The rushing game and star tailback have some gaudy numbers- but like most good NFL teams the Patriots use the run merely to set up damage through the air. I don’t care so much if they rush for 100. It is if Brady can use all those 2nd and 5s to throw for 300 more.

However, the fact that New England can both run and pass with proficiency makes them harder to defend than Minnesota or Atlanta. Wrap all that up in a superior quarterback, who like McNabb, is a master of ruthless efficiency at the position: no mistakes, no turnovers, complete all the make-able throws and execute flawlessly in the red zone.

While Minnesota and Atlanta were good offense teams- Minnesota has a better passing attack than New England, the Falcons featured a fairly comparable rushing attack- the Eagles were able to focus on taking away their preferred attack mode- rush (Atlanta) or pass (Minnesota)- and dare them to do the other successfully 25 or so times.

Regardless, the seeds for success were there in those two stellar defense outings. Both Minnesota and Atlanta had "good-plus" offensive lines- and the Eagles were able to dominate both easily- without committing extra help. Of course, the Eagles’ defensive backs need to continue to handle wideouts without assistance. Frankly, they ought to be able to handle this mob- which simply isn’t in Minnesota’s league. So, if the Eagles can get dependable pressure with their front four, and successfully cover the base offense with their largely All-Pro secondary, they ought to keep Brady under some semblance of control.

Then, if Philadelphia can reliably get the nickel on the field, I don’t think Brady, or anyone frankly, can mange the pocket well-enough against our third down pressure- particularly to hurt us down the field consistently. I’m more worried about Brady hurting us early in down and distance. The Eagles are just too good upfront and in the secondary to get killed in 3rd and long too often. This point is very important. Playing Brady, it is all important to get your defense off the field when you have a chance. He is a smart quarterback who makes a living moving the sticks. The Eagles have the capacity to turn a 1st down mistake into a Patriot punt via their nickle!

I don’t think any of that is too unreasonable to expect. Regardless of the quality of your rushing attack, the Eagles are plainly hard to throw on. The defensive backfield never needs help- so if the linebackers are committed hard elsewhere- who cares? Accordingly, they will be tough to throw on Sunday too.

The Patriots running game is more exigent- but also in many ways not as important. The Eagles have been fantastic against the run since the insertion of Trotter. Accordingly, they have made football an easy game for Trotter to play- a game where he plays downhill all day. Against both the Falcons and the Vikings, he was able to focus solely on moving forward and destroying people. If it was a pass, he just became a stand up inside rusher. If it was a run- well, you saw the play-offs games. He was just short of Ray Lewis good against the rush. Trotter is a no doubt about it top-five linebacker if all he has to do is move forward. So let him do that- again and again. Maybe the Pats can block him. Fortunately, no one has in three months.

Brady will hurt them at times no matter what they do, he is the best. It is impossible to play error-free football in the defensive backfield in today’s NFL- and Brady never messes up in those situations. But this isn’t the slop Indianapolis called defense, and the Eagles’ stoppers won’t be struggling to overcome turnover after turnover like Pittsburgh. Philadelphia will be cagey and physical- and make New England successfully execute a dozen plays, rather than six, to score.

Okay, the Eagles varsity defense will be hard pressed to hold New England to fourteen points- like they have the last eight offenses they have faced (five of them to ten points or less). But Philadelphia will keep them in the 21-point range- and maybe less- with a turnover or two. A great truism about the NFL is that if your front four can get pressure, your middle ‘backer can play the run, and your corners can cover, you are a tough out. The Eagles will bring these three things Sunday. And that is good enough to give McNabb a shot to steal this.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

A Championship!

Monday morning, the ancestral homestead was afflicted by a terrible sewage disaster. The details are unimportant- sewage is all you really need to know. And as I was crawling around on my hands and knees- in the snow, in said sewage-looking for a sort of valve on the front lawn, in order to access the system in order to unclog it, my heart was filled with joy. You see, Philadelphia is going to the Super Bowl. The George Halas trophy is secured.

Honored by just about every announcer, player and pundit there as the “best fans in the NFL”, the Linc denizens finally had a chance to just roar and party and spontaneously sing. At the two minute warning, the catharsis of just standing and screaming dementedly seemed to cure the crowd of two decades of troubles. Somewhere Buddy Ryan flipped off his television and grunted contentedly.

After the victory, the party spilled out into the parking lot. The cops ceded control to Philadelphians almost immediately- but it never felt dangerous. Yes, totally illegal, yet strangely organized and impressive fireworks displays lit up the night- in multiple locations over the Linc. Some nut was cranking a twenty-minute Rocky theme “dance mix” very loudly out of his RV- and almost a thousand people did the Mummers' Strut in circles around it. Barrels flamed cheerily, beer and vodka handed to all passer-bys. I will never forget it.

Despite the fact the NFL has seemingly decreed the NFC Championship game will be in Philadelphia- until further notice- it never feels jaded. This was about a clinical dissection of a twelve win team as you are apt to see. Last week, the reason I wrote the Eagles were such a stone lay-up in this spot is that it was patently obvious the Falcons would be able to do nothing on offense. The howling wind, Vick’s passing incompetence and mostly the Eagles secondary took away the perimeter and deep passing game- largely with only three defensive players. That meant eight were freed up to stop the run.

The Eagles were so disrespectful of Vick’s passing the entire afternoon. Frequently, Johnson played a corner as the deep safety, in order to free up both safeties (superior tacklers in the box than the corners) to stuff the run. I have never seen that in a pro-game. But if you don’t fear a deep pass play- why not? All those guys in the box had two ramifications. First, the Falcons could not rush the football. Second, with so many defensive players near the line of scrimmage, totally free of deep and perimeter responsibilities, Vick had no where to turn his own marvelous legs up field.

Since scoring two touchdowns was a mountain Vick was plainly not going to be able to climb, the Eagles played like Missouri Synod Lutherans- that is to say- conservative on offense. Their offensive effort was sort of very clinical, very safe. Turnovers, leading to easy points, were the only way the Falcons had a hope of scoring somewhere north of twenty. The wideouts did not contribute much- but they were asked to do much either. In the gusty conditions, it was far more prudent to dump the ball to Westbrook and work in the tight ends in the red zone. The Eagles ran the ball surprisingly well; I was surprised as by all accounts Atlanta's front four are powerful. The drive to start the second half was notable- immediately after the Falcons had cut the lead down to 14-10, to get points and relieve pressure, was a big score. As usual, the Eagles play offense with intelligence- and almost always tailored to the moment. On Sunday, it was enough to cruise to 27 points.

I want to remark on one point about the game- that gives me some robust hope for the coming Super Bowl with a superb Patriot’s outfit. Candidly, the Eagles dominated most of the game- and yet it was only 14-10 at half- and 17-10 deep into the third quarter. First, let’s put aside the two obvious factors: the Falcons are certainly a good, very well-coached team and the brutal weather made the explosive offensive numbers necessary to bury a club pretty impossible. What kept the Falcons in the game was their refusal to turn it over. The minute they did- then the game ended.

If you are a good football team- and you play a game near turnover free- with no other turnover like plays (blocked punts, conceding big returns), you are almost always in the game. Seriously- always. Look at the Steelers. The Pats are great, but I refuse to believe they are normally three scores better than Pittsburgh- particularly in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh largely got scorched due to their inability to protect the football, particularly early. Down a bunch of scores, forced to throw a lot more than they wanted, meant even more turnovers. Philadelphia’s singular excellence on offense since Reid’s arrival is a stubborn refusal to turn it over. If the Eagles enter the fourth quarter against the Patriots with one or fewer turnovers, particularly with the way the defense is playing, I guarantee they will be positioned to rock those guys.

Most importantly, the game raised my record picking the Birds ATS in the play-offs to a stupefying 8-1 over the past four campaigns. I’ll blog later on the Super Bowl, but my gut feeling, today, is the spread is a little rich. “Minus” seven? That is an awful lot for anyone to be spotted- particularly playing a good team that is playing frankly very well. I would have been shocked had Atlanta come into the Linc and won that game. Yes, I would be surprised, but not shocked, if Philadelphia won the Super Bowl. And yet, the Eagles are a bigger ‘dog? Unlike the last two games, Philadelphia does not feel like a stone lock- but I am leaning their way.

Friday, January 21, 2005

Once More Into the Breech

Stepping outside today, did you feel it? The angry twenty degrees, the cutting wind? Feels like NFC Championship Game weekend. And of course, according to long-standing NFL tradition, the game will be held Sunday in Philadelphia in front of howling, oh-so-drunken mob. The weather Fates are calling for lots of snow and raw cold- perfect weather for a fight. The 65,000 will be ready. We’re ready Andy!

proclaim it, throughout my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made
And crowns for convoy put into his purse
The line that greets us in Philadelphia -5 over Atlanta. I must admit I find that line cheap; it opened at -4 and has moved steadily up since. It has touched -5.5; I would not be surprised to see at -6 come kick-off.

Last year, I fairly confidently picked Carolina in this spot. The Eagles looked used up: most of their defense was out, the quarterback was hurt, Westbrook was out. Philadelphia needed both an outright miracle and an unbelievable intimidating home-field advantage to get by Green Bay.

This year feels different. In fact, I am convinced the Falcons are in whole lot of trouble here. The Eagles are better and healthier on both offense and defense. The Falcons are a Dome team forced to come outside- in what are projected to be horrific conditions. Vick is fun and entertaining- but c’mon... Vick's upside in three years is McNabb. I am not sure the Falcons are all that great either; I look back to that Tampa Bay game and this Falcon’s team can definitely be handled- particularly on offense.

I simply cannot see the Falcons doing simply anything on offense Sunday. First, Vick is not going to be able to throw it a lick. This is not a unique observation- the Vegas over/under for the “Vick completions” prop wager is, get this, eleven. How on earth can you game plan a winning effort if your passing attack is predicated on "Vick sort of running around and making amazing things happen"? Worse, their wide outs are “2003 Eagles” style bad. Grotesque example: not one wide out has as many yards receiving as the brutal Todd Pinkston. The wind means the Eagles are not going to have to worry about protecting the perimeter- and their wide outs cannot beat Philadelphia's corners, even without safety help, deep consistently.

A great truism in the NFL is that if a defense can totally take away the offense’s ability to throw- a situation I am sure will exist Sunday- that offense is in real trouble. Not fearing the perimeter passing attack or the deep ball, Philadelphia will be able to pack the middle of the field and eliminate the run- and have eight guys consistently fifteen yards away from the mobile Vick. Vick is good- but he cannot teleport himself yet. And as Tampa showed, if you can keep a lot of guys “near” Vick while simultaneously covering their wide-outs, the Falcons are frankly ineffective.

Since Trotter's move to the middle, the Eagles’ varsity defense has allowed just over ten points per game- and around eight if you eliminate garbage scores in the Dallas/Green Bay blowouts. The Falcons will struggle mightly to surpass that number.

On offense, the TO hand-wringers need to take a moment and acknowledge that the last eight times McNabb and Westbrook have played together, without TO, they have averaged a shade under thirty points per outing. That is a lot. The Eagles will score around that number again. They were a little rusty against Minnesota- and only played offense for about a half before dialing it down- and still scored 27. It will be yet another in a seemingly endless supply of Reid directed offensive efforts: McNabb won’t turn it over, Westbrook will have a crazy day, and Pinkston & Mitchell will do enough to survive.

Lastly, this game is similar in some ways to the Chicago play-off game a few years back- with the Eagles facing an offense that is dependant somewhat on serendipity rather than competence. Accordingly, the Eagles could really help themselves by coming after the Falcons physically- knock the happy right the hell out of them. The Eagles are tougher upfront than this team- particularly on defense. Philadelphia must be nasty and ill-humored. It absolutely would not hurt to see them hit Vick “a little late” or “a little out of bounds”- both making the game “hard” for Vick to play and forcing the Falcons to play something rather than simply “offense”.

Roman Catholics believe- rather used to believe before the awful neo-liberalism- that there are four sins that cry to Heaven for vengeance. I find that to be an excellent analogy here- the Eagles’ fourth try for the Super Bowl and the assembled horde will be crying for retribution- our long anticipated settling of scores. People of Philadelphia: Rejoice and be glad! Take the -5; this won’t even be close. A day to be remembered- one team, one city that would not quit. There is an honor in that, and a story to not be forgotten.

This story shall the good man teach his son;
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember'd;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in “Philadelphia” now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon this day.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Tulane Hoops: Mid-Term Report

Much like Lincoln needed Antietam, in order to issue the Emancipation Proclamation on the heels of something other than a defeat; I too am issuing a hopeful message- on the news of the upset of UAB.

Of the next five games, Tulane ought to have a chance in four of them. Yes, too bad three of the four affairs are on the road. But if the Wave could get two- it would go a long way to salvaging something out of this lame duck year.

Short of a meteorite landing on McAllister Avenue, and an alien climbing out to address the assembled undergraduates, imploring that Finney must be retained for galactic order or something, the coach is gone.

But if they can find five league wins, with a frosh class seemingly with a pulse, there is something to be gained from the C-USA season besides crushing beatings in front of sparse crowds.

I was never down too much on the hoops program- as while Tulane athletics always faces a myriad of problems- the basketball program seems sort of fixable.

To me, most of the problem is that the league grew up around Tulane real fast- and the Wave got caught sort of wrong-footed:

- again, the league got super good, elite-like, real quick.
- hiring the wrong guy- pretty clear at this point, right?
- being sort of behind in terms of arena, facilites, attendance, etc. as everyone else in C-USA exploded into this new level.

C-USA basketball has to be one of the great success stories in college sports over the past ten years, right? Tulane just kind of missed it. Not only did we not take a great leap forward- Tulane sort of fell back- and that made it look worse than it was.

Obviously, the league is coming back to them some- and the coach part has a good chance to be fixed- if just because they new guy cannot do much worse. That potentially fixes two of their big problems in one swoop.

Now, I must admit I look at these freshmen and don't get why they are so great- but I am hopeful a lot of my consternation is because it is hard to evaluate guys when everything is going so wrong. Just as you couldn't evaluate my pet Irvin off the Louisville game- because he never had a chance. And that might be true of some of these guys too. A guy might be a great jump shooter- but he might look horrible here- as we have no one to develop another type of complimentary game that would allow him to get ten open 18-foot looks a night. A guy who just "rebounds and dunks" might hurt us on offense might not providing consistent points- but put him on the floor with two other front-court players to provide scoring- who cares? Just rebound baby.

But of all our big problems, this one seems most solvable. You can get good quick in college basketball- get one or two players from this class, one or two more next year, and they could win fourteen, and eight in our dumbed-down league, as soon as next year.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Back Where We Belong

Sigh.... it was so nice to walk back into the Linc this Sunday and feel the electricity, revel in the hate, wallow in the winning. Sadly, a whole generation of children in our nation’s capitol is growing up without experiencing the exhilaration of winning divisional play-off games. There ought to be a telethon- or something.

Sunday afternoon dawned brutal and mean at Broad and Pattison. Many of our “visitors” did not enjoy our hospitality. The Philadelphia Daily News yesterday has a riotous piece about the famous “Viking Guy”- a semi-well-known Minnesota fan who dresses as a Viking. They flew him to Philly for the game- and upon arriving at the Linc and experiencing the crowd, refused to wear his costume. Fink! I long to pour a beverage on him.

This is a nice article from the Star Tribune.

The few fans that came to the game wearing Vikings purple were greeted by a boisterous and hostile crowd that began sharpening their fangs in parking lots near the stadium at 6 a.m., presumably stirring their alcoholic beverages with rusty nails.

All the mother of Vikings lineman Chris Liwienski could talk about was how she and her family were physically abused by fans in the upper deck of Lincoln Financial Field. Wearing one of her son's purple Vikings jerseys, Marie Hoppe said she was pushed repeatedly by hostile Philadelphia fans. Her daughter-in-law, Christina Liwienski, said she was hit in the head by a plastic beer bottle.

"We were warned that Philadelphia fans would be rough, the worst in the league, and my son begged me not to wear this jersey," said Hoppe. "Fans are supposed to come to games, not thugs. But these people had their hands on me constantly. What are these people doing at sporting events like this?"
They better shut their mouths before Runyan and Section 204 shuts it for them.

Prior to kick-off, it was hard to imagine Minnesota being in this thing late unless both Culpepper could get his team three touchdowns and the Eagles helped out with a bunch of turnovers. The Vikes got neither- and as a result got blown out handily by three scores- until garbage time. At the end, Minnesota was exposed for what they are: a pretty average .500 team that parlayed some dumb play last week by Favre into a seventeen point lead and then managed to hang onto for dear life. I am not sure Minnesota could go to, say, Washington and win- which, of course, they failed to do a few weeks ago. And losing this year to Joe Gibbs says a lot about the ability of your football team's players- as teams weren’t exactly “out-coached” in DC this year.

Not that the Vikes played all that badly- but other than one big pass from Culpepper to Robinson in the first half, the Vikings were pretty uncompetitive on offense. Like everyone else in the NFC other than Atlanta, the Vikings as a collective are simply not in Philadelphia’s league right now: offense, defense, or special teams. The Eagles won all three of these phases handily.

McNabb and the offense exploded out of the gate- scoring touchdowns on their second, third and fourth possessions. In the first half, with the notable exception of a dumb throw to end it, McNabb was effective and efficient. He threw for two scores- and did not turn the ball over once. He got a big day, as predicted here, from FredEx- two scores and a slew of nice, big catches. The Vikings could not cover Westbrook- or anyone really- and took a slew of crucial penalties in the defensive secondary. The Eagles, I felt, could have gone for forty had they needed too.

Forty was out of the question, as almost immediately after seizing this two score lead, Reid largely shut the offense down, playing conservatively and eschewing all shots downfield. Playing most of the entire second half up 17 or 20 points, turnovers were the only thing that could beat the Eagles- so Reid was content to just let the clock run, particularly since the Vikes never steadily brought an offense that could hurt Philadelphia’s stellar outfit.

The Eagles explosive start certainly intensified pressure on the Vikes to score early and often. But since the insertion of Trotter after the Pittsburgh debacle, the Eagles have been the best defense in the NFC. You never could throw on Philadelphia all year, but now it is awful hard to run too. Everyone played great on defense. The defensive line got pressure- yet contained Culpepper. I cannot remember the linebackers playing a better effort since Trotter was here the first time. And arguably the four best defensive backs in the whole conference play in Philadelphia- the three pro-Bowlers- and Sheldon Brown really ought to go too. Minnesota may have problems, but they can normally play pitch and catch. They managed to score seven Sunday- barely- and probably considered themselves lucky to have that much.

Trotter’s emergence has altered how Philadelphia plays defense- moving them from a solid unit to a great one. As my brother points out, in the first half of the season, the Eagles were forced to allow teams to run on them until they fell back to the red zone. Once opponents got inside the twenty, the Eagles superior corners, coupled with the lack of a deep zone to defend, freed the safeties up to solely perform run support. In their base set, the corners took care of the two guys on the outside without help- and Eagles stuffed nine guys in the box- and stopped the run near the goal line that way. In the season’s first half, for example, Dawkins never made a stop on a running play in the middle of the field, but he made every single tackle in the red zone- because he was playing linebacker for all intents and purposes.

Now with Trotter, the Eagles start playing defense from your first snap. I know it is sort of curious Trotter is going to the Pro-Bowl- and you can question fairly the merits of a guy participating who has been great- but only for half a season. Nevertheless, if you are being fair, and you watched him yesterday, it is pretty obvious that Trotter is back completely to being an elite NFL linebacker.

Most importantly, the thirteen point win raises my Philadelphia play-off ATS to a superior 6-1 since 2001. You also got another winner on my bonus pick of “under”. I have not finished my in-depth analysis on the Falcons yet, but I sense that -4.5 might be light- making Philadelphia my early lean this morning.

Friday, January 14, 2005

Its Vike-tastic!

See, read and understand Proverbs 4:1-2

That over- be advised I hate this game. Hate it. Hate it. Why couldn’t the Saints have snuck into the play-offs, instead of the Vikings?

The line this morning in the official source for lines on this Blog- the New York Post- is Philadelphia -8.5 over Minnesota. As I said earlier this week, I think that line is very fair- and thus makes this a difficult game to contemplate. I am on a bit of a roll picking the Eagles in the play-offs though- picking five out of the last six ATS. I must proceed boldly.

The divisional round almost always looks tricky for the favorites- because by definition the road team has to be coming in off a huge win- a play-off win- and normally has around ten wins- signifying some degree of competence. Minnesota basically qualifies on both fronts- and their “competence” largely presents itself in the form of Duante Culpepper.

In actuality, it is the nature of the play-offs. There is not one team still in the NFL’s glorious tournament that cannot possibly beat any of the other teams still competing.

A great game by Culpepper is probably not enough here to get the Vikes the win. Even if the Viking were, say, to manage to score 28 points Sunday, that 28th in the league defense (29th against the pass) might not be able to make that stand up. The Eagles need to help out some- much like Green Bay did: turn the ball over endlessly, play chaotic special teams, commit Redskin-style killer formation and discipline penalties, and of course allow big play downfield. Fortunately, the Eagles don't normally do that sort of thing.

The more I think about this, the more I am convinced this is a real tough spot for the Vikings. Don't underestimate this, Minnesota is awful on defense. Favre could not have played any worse or turned it over more & the Viking played their "A" defensive game- and the Pack still had big numbers, should have still scored over 20 and was only down a score in the fourth quarter. Surely Westbrook will go for a big number too- and look for McNabb, for the first time this season, to get a little crazy in the pocket. Clearly, the Eagles minimized Westbrook’s and McNabb’s exposure to the grind of pro-football this year. Look for that reserve to go away- Westbrook will get double the standard touches and McNabb to be terrorizing the Vikings with his legs. I am confident the Eagles can get the four scores they need to win and cover here.

Conversely, I don’t think the Vikings will be able to run it a lick here- and if Moss is gimpy or they get down quick- they could be in real trouble. They might not score twice. Plus, I am not sure the Vikings can block our front seven consistently. The Eagles, since the introduction of Trotter and the added return of some of their defense linemen, look to be way more physical than the Vikes up front.

I do not imagine the Eagles' refusal to play people lately will have any impact on the game. They might be a bit out of sync on offense- but I tend to think that would be adjusting to the absence of TO more than anything. I think it arguably helps the defense some: freshening Kearse’s and the young DB’s legs a little.

Look, the Vikings just are not that good. They have lost four of their last six. If Culpepper goes for a giant game, and the Eagles help out, this game could be trouble. I doubt either will happen.

This morning, I realized I have picked against the Eagles in three straight home play-off games. There is nothing like going to the Linc and having to root for a backdoor cover. “C’mon Packers,” I would think, “lose this game- but not by more than five.” Relax. I bring you tidings of great joy. To all those folks in Philadelphia: I like Philadelphia -8.5 over Minnesota.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Slumming at Harvard

Sigh.... the unique tortures of the Tulane fan. Irvin to Harvard? Instead of I-A? A chance to play weekly in a vacant dome? Or a metropolis like Hattiesburg? Mercy, but I’ll never understand the priority of these kids today.

You know, no LSU football coach in the history of the program has ever gone to sleep worrying that one of his players would leave him in the lurch by transferring to Harvard.

I am a little surprised at the general tone of coverage that Irvin’s departure does not matter- that it is sort of unimportant. One guy suggested that Irvin left because he is now the third quarterback here- but then further implies Irvin might play in the NFL one day. Heaven help us all. How can you possibly write first that a guy's departutre does not matter- then turn around and suggest he has an NFL career?

Bottom line, even leaving aside my conjecture that Irvin is really the best quarterback at Tulane, long term, for this “read it and throw it” offense Tulane runs, this is bad. There is no possible upside in the departure from your program of a quarterback that has shown conclusively he can play I-A, plainly has the best understanding of your offense and whose departure now thrusts into the role of back up two guys who have either conclusively proved to this point that they cannot play (Cannon) or have never played (Elliott). At this point, it is just a measure of how bad, not how good, this blow is.

Let me put it this way, if there were in Vegas an over/under for total regular season wins for college teams, similar to what the NFL franchises has, the Tulane number would have moved down a whole unit, maybe a unit and a half. 80% of I-A teams have their back-up quarterbacks take a significant numbers of snaps in season- and Tulane had a competent one just walk out the door.

Plus, I know Ricard is the heir apparent around here- but the potential #1 and #2 here was absolutely not going to be like 2001, where Ramsey was #1 and Losman #2, set in stone. I mean, did anyone other than me watch Ricard last year? Fact: He was bad to horrible in half his starts. Fact: He was bad to horrible in every single road game. Fact: He was bad against every single team that generated even vague pressure. Fact: He got hurt.

Had these scenarios played out next year, Irvin would have had every chance to come in and play a game like he did versus TCU. You know, that poised, gutsy start where Irvin made about one hundred great throws.

In short, any player move that forces Cannon to be key figure in Tulane’s fortunes is not good for this team. The best part of last year was thinking that Cannon was going to transfer to Nicholls, not Irvin to Harvard.

The only other rumored transfer that perturbs me is Ryan Johnson- who was, in the fall, the best young player for long stretches at DL that Tulane has had in awhile. I was shocked when he did not start the first game against MSU last year- as everyone who watched fall camp must have been. He started the second game- and then sort of mysteriously disappeared. I have no evidence, but I imagine there must be more to this story than meets the eye- but it is disappointing. He was a very watchable kid on the field- who would not have looked out of place in the future playing in the Big 12. It is a shame to lose him.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Too Bad for Minnesota

It is the Vikings. This morning, Minnesota is an irresolute +9.5 over the Eagles- which I think is just.

Clearly, coming to Philadelphia will be a big challenge for Minnesota. As the line indicates, the Eagles are, for two pro teams in the play-offs, substantially better. I concede the gutty win against Green Bay shows that Minnesota can win a big game outside- but I will also gently point out that the Eagles’ quarterback will not allow Culpepper to beat him 4-0 in the quarterback turnover battle.

I would argue that was essentially the entire story of the Wild Card game between the Vikes and Packers. In this league, if one team holds a +4 margin in turnovers, that teams wins. Forget the rest. The Vikings did not score 31 points because their offense was amazing. 261 yards passing is nice- but not overwhelming. The Packers just kept giving them the ball. The Pack punted three times- and only scored 17 points and loses? At home? Hmmm… If the Vikes do upset Philadelphia Sunday, I cannot imagine a scenario where turnovers are not a huge part of the result.

Accordingly, Minnesota has lots of reason to show up Sunday afternoon- particularly since this is a one and done situation. For one thing, if I had my choice between facing a mediocre outfit with an emphasis on either offense (like Minnesota) or defense (say a better coached Redskins outfit), I would definitely choose the latter. The Eagles could play well here on defense- and Minnesota could still score seventeen points. There is indeed pressure on the Eagles’ offense to perform here. They probably need to score three touchdowns to win- and four to cover and win comfortably- and you can make a case for a out-of-sync Eagles offense, coupled with no TO, to certainly struggle to get to that kind of number.

I imagine the Vikes will try and attack the Eagles much the same way they did the Pack. Keep a back or tight end to deal with the pass rush- and count on their superior receivers to make plays despite double coverage. On defense, gamble everywhere, pressure or force McNabb to make throws to guys short of the sticks, guys who other than Westbrook have singularly not proven they can make plays after the catch.

I don’t have a pick yet- the line of Eagles -9.5 seems very fair frankly. I do think the over/under of 48.5 is a little crazy. The Eagles are no lock to score 28 points in this spot- nor are the Vikings likely to get to 21. So the under looks real appealing today.

Some thoughts on the first game are here:

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Thank God That is Over

The papers greet us this morning with the announcement that Brunell does not think he “can return to Washington as a back-up.” Heaven help us all. The guy stunk this year. He counts an obscene $10 million next year against the Redskins’ cap. Seriously… what kind of money gets you silence from a guy, who simply cannot play, nowadays? When I am feeling blue about TO, I like to remember back to when the genius Gibbs endlessly boasted about “my guy” Brunell’s veteran leadership and intangibles. In Philadelphia, we call it intangible stinking.

Still, I know a team who will be in the off-season market for a back-up quarterback. Even a casual observer has to admit Koy Detmer is pretty much done as a pro player. True, Detmer was never exactly a strong-armed guy, but he threw touch passes and slants and fades as well as anyone- and he completely knew the offense. But he has no velocity left anymore- and I would be surprised if he was even in camp next year. Blake is Blake, an obviously gifted physical specimen who has no idea of what it takes to play quarterback in the NFL. It just doesn’t appear hanging around true pros like McNabb and Detmer has rubbed off much. I think you could argue another off-season under Reid’s personal supervision might help him- as the Eagles system is very demanding of the quarterback position- but don’t you just get a bad vibe looking at him? Much like the Sixers' offense, everything seems just so hard with Blake- like he is straining just to dump the ball off.

The only substantive plus I took from the two regular season exhibitions was the play of Freddie Mitchell. Mitchell, despite the quarterbacking incompetence, caught a pair of touchdowns and a slew of balls over two games, in his first sustained action of the season. Unlike a lot of people, I have never been that down on Freddie. If you can divorce your thinking from his draft position, he is a pretty good third wide out/slot-style receiver. Mitchell can beat the third corner on most teams- and he catches the ball everywhere and can take a hit. I was always thought his numbers were “down” because a lot of those possession-style 3rd down routes, where slot receivers make a living, in Philadelphia go to Westbrook and our solid tight ends- rather than Mitchell being a poor player.

With a healthy TO, Pinkston has to be the #2 guy, as he brings that vertical speed that Mitchell lacks to that position (although admittedly absolutely nothing else)- and this offense requires a runner at one of the top two wideout spots. But you watch, Freddie is going to be a “nice” surprise of this post-season if the eagles can win a game or two- and he’ll catch a touchdown or two- and he’ll carve out a nice eight year career for himself.

The answer as to whether Coach Reid should have played his starters during the pointless last two exercises in “football” is pretty simple. It is merely a question of balancing the equation: any key Eagles’ starters that had gotten hurt in the last two games versus the advantage of maintaining competitive sharpness. Since you cannot know the answer to that question beforehand, I was equally okay with either approach: play the guys and stay sharp or rest the guys and start the play-offs healthy and fresh. Regardless, as long as it was a consistent approach- and not playing some guys for some of the time- which I don’t think would have either promoted health or continuity of purpose. Reid obviously went with the former- rest people. That is fine. The coach had to take some sort of approach to these meaningless games, and this one made sense- and you cannot possibly conclusively argue one way over another.

I suppose the bottom line in all this is fairly simple. The Eagles are about as ready as they can be. The loss of TO is a huge blow. Nevertheless, the defense is the best version since the 2001 outfit in the first NFC championship game. Plus, last year’s offense, when Westbrook was healthy, was competent: capable of 24 to 28 points consistently. I imagine they’ll threaten that number in the play-offs. For the first time since the 2003 season, Philadelphia really ought to win the NFC.