Monday, March 30, 2009

The Title Defense Commences

At the conclusion of the 2008 baseball campaign, I don’t think there was a serious case to be made that the Phillies were a fluke. They breezed through the play-offs with a team designed for post-season success in the bullpen era. Said ‘pen was lights-out. The top post-season starting pitcher, Cole Hamels, started five games and the Phillies won them all. They played to a six up, three down mark in the other games- and won a world title without ever playing a game even two losses away from elimination.

And yet, it was a life or death struggle for Philadelphia to even make the post-season. They never really threatened to win 97-98 games. As long as the Phillies rotation features a true number one starter, they are a danger in a short series- but can they get north of 95 regular season wins this year? not have to struggle just to get in?

Well, the first thing is to dope out just why the Phillies were merely a good team in the regular season? People will point to their slow start- but all teams have a month long stretch where they play .500 ball. The offense had its gaps: slumps by Howard, Utley disappearance in the second half as a power threat, Burrell in general, Rollins ill-fitting role as a lead-off hitter. But, most people will still rate the Phillies’ core group as a big plus- and they scored tons of runs.

I point at the rotation. Everyone loves Cole Hamels; I love Cole Hmaels- but in the regular season he was a little more up and down then people remember: 14 wins, 10 losses. The club was only five games over .500 in games he started- you need more than that from your top guy to be great over 162 games. The number two rotation spot was all over the place with the Bret Meyers follies. Myers wasn’t even .500- and it is really hard to be a 95 win team with your top two starting pitchers a combined even-steven. And that doesn’t even get us into Eaton and Kendrick.

They’ll score a ton of runs- and the bullpen probably ought to again be a strength. But I’m nervous abut the rotation. Cole Hamels is already ouchy, Jamie Moyer is old, Meyers is a mystery (and a career .500-ish pitcher). Frankly, Hamels might be your best bet to win16, but Blanton is probably your best bet to get to 12- in the sense he’s the only rotation guy that I feel is totally safe to mark down for 34 starts.

Put it this way, I don’t think the Phillies will get to sixty wins from the their top four starting pitchers- which makes a season of coasting into the post-season around 95 wins problematic. Put Hamels down for a similar fifteen, move Meyers up some, move Moyer back some- and we’re sort of in the same place, right?

Except the bottom two rotation spots look improved. Joe Blanton probably won’t pitch at that sustained level from last fall- but he might, and at the very worst, him bouncing around a few games over .500 in that spot, eating innings, is beter than anything they got from Kendrick last year. And Happ or Park are credible fives.

So, I think they’ll pitch a little better. I don’t put too much stake in an “improved offense”- as the Phillies are not a team that will be materially better by scoring more runs. But the bottom of the rotation projects better- so let’s move them up to 94 wins. Sigh, that seems high though. 94 is not a number for the faint-hearted.

I can’t imagine, barring significant injuries, they don’t make the play-offs- and they’ll be nip and tuck with the Mets again. In the end, you probably have to take the Phillies to win National League East. With two straight division titles, they’re simply not a fluke and have a proven divisional title infrastructure.


Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Nagging Doubts

I’ve spent a good portion of the last two days watching the Flyers complete an impressive sweep: at Pittsburgh, home for the Devils. That being said, I’m up in the air about just how good this team is, how ready it is to make a play-off run.

The mystery stems from last years play-off run- where the Flyers turned a very mediocre regular season into a nifty play-off run- winning a pair of series as the underdogs- before running into the Penguin buzzsaw. Philadelphia then got a pass from the local fans and media. The defense was riddled with an unreal number of injuries- and Malkin and Crosby riddled the collection of third pair style defensemen the Flyers were forced to dress.

But there were nagging doubts about the Flyers even then. The defense issues aside, they got real lucky in the draw. They outright stole a march on the Caps in the first round- getting up three games to one- and barely, grimly hung on to win in OT in a seventh game. Gritty to be sure- satisifying no doubt- but really, the Caps were much the better outfit over the last three games. The les Habitants did a total fade, particularly in goal, in the conference semi-finals- a chocking performance they still mentally have not overcome.

Frankly, the Flyers played two series last year where they had the better goalie? Biron? And that won’t happen again.

So yeah, I’m worried about Biron- who at his best in the play-offs last year, was merely "good for a journeyman". I’m worried about harder first round match-ups with either Pittsburgh (who decked them last year) or red hot Carolina.

Obviously the Flyers are loaded up front- six 20+ goal scores, and that is not counting Briere. But in the Daily News, Sam Donnellson makes a good point- about the dangers of falling in love with your own players.

I mean, outside their final four finish from last year, the Flyers simply don’t have a glittering resume. They struggled to make the play-offs last year, they’re a middle of the road seed this year. They have talent up front- so exactly where does the marginal play come from? Hint: maybe the defense isn’t all its cracked up to be? Maybe they don’t have a true elite first pairing, like say New Jersey?

Just sayin’, that is all. But add that to a pretty average goaltender, and a probable tough first round draw, the Flyers could be better than last year- but not get out of the first round.


Thursday, March 19, 2009

Being Thwarted

I am a Philadelphia sports fan. I follow all four of the major pro-sports.

A piece of news recently jarred me to think which athlete in an opposing uniform I wish had spent a decade in Philadelphia rather than killing us night after night.

Almost by definition that player has to be a division style rival. For instance, Kobe Bryant may be great- but he plays far away on teams we just don’t see much. Again and again, this athlete had to thwart good Philadelphia teams- not merely throttle bad one- as the former hurts more than the latter.

I guess I don’t have a concrete answer- but Marty Brodeur has to be at the top of that list: he’s great, he’s a class act, and he’s killed the Flyers forever.

I must admit I was shocked at how few times the Flyers have actually faced Marty in the play-offs. They lost in both 1995 (galling) and 2000 (an unreal galling experience in seven games) in the conference finals. The beat Marty in he quarterfinals in 2004.

And that is it. But the Devils, waving their multitude of Cups around, have long been a measuring stick for a pretty competent Flyers’ organization. And every Flyers fan knows had Marty been in Philadelphia, many Cups would be ours. Instead, we got Cechmanek, Vanbiesbrouck, Burke, Rousell, Hextall and Garth Snow.

He has been the difference between two good organizations for more than a decade- a difference that is counted in multiple championships versus crushing heartbeaks. We’ve watched him play dozens and dozens and dozens of times so we can appreciate his Hall of Fame greatness. He’s beaten us in a Game 7. And he was close enough geographically that we could follow his day-to-day brilliance.

Anyway, he set another milestone recently- most wins by a goalie ever- so a grudging but earned round of applause to a guy to good to be a public enemy.


Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Looking at Loyola of New Orleans

In his column today, Kevin Blackstone takes on the NCAA Tournament “bias” toward major BCS conferences.
That's because the NCAA tournament selection process is increasingly biased nowadays. It favors the haves and discriminates against the have-littles. It is turning the college basketball championship into just another weekend of games on ESPN or CBS. It is slowly but surely exorcising the marvel of madness from March.
I’m sympathetic: four mid-majors got in at-large versus thirty BCS schools. I’m not so sure you can really parse those last three/four at-large bids that concretely- and as Blackstone implies, the game is so rigged toward the power conferences- that I wish the committee would defer to the St. Mary’s of the world instead of the Michigans.

That being said, I’m inclined to do nothing vis-à-vis the tournament selection process- to the extent it does takes the best 34. First, I’m not sure ordering the committee to lean toward taking another one or two mid-majors to populate the thirteenth seed spot is going to do anything to materially change college ball’s status quo. And second, as many of the commentators below Blackstone’s articles write, this tournament is not an exercise in propping up mid-major athletics.

If fairness comes at the expense of entertainment and interest- so be it. (editor’s note: yes, it hurts to hear BCS fans whining about fairness- as if Michigan would ever play a game at Fogelman). But, my lack of interest is the consequnce- albein only anecdotal. I increasingly don’t follow college basketball. I haven’t watched a non-Tulane regular season game from start to finish in years. And the only tournament games I watch in their entirety are those featuring mid-majors. For example, I watched every George Mason game during their recent run- and really none of the others.

Still, a simple “populate more bracket lines with mid-majors” solution is not going to be coming soon. But there are openings to attack the underlying issues. For example, the selection committee can be instructed to ignore wins generated by Blackstone’s “pick and choose scheduling” that BCS schools frequently exercise. Refuse to play out of conference games on the road, etc. then your home wins are marked down. Why not? Playing a ton of home games is an economic decision, not a competitive one- so why treat those wins solely competitive achievements? Stop rewarding aristocracy.

Mind you, Tulane is one of the worst offenders of this- the reason the home slate is so bad is we’ll obviously schedule anyone who doesn’t want a reciprocal home game. Loyola of New Orleans, I’m lookin’ at you.


Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Blind Side

In The Blind Side, Michael Lewis sorts through the numbers to inform us that left tackle is probably the second most important position in the NFL offense- at least as measured by pay check, and to the extent pay measures simple capacity and not scarcity.

This probably explains why the Eagles- the NFL’s most arrogant franchise- is in flux at that position. By the way, I tend to believe all the left tackle hype- at least anecdotally. To wit, a few years back I once drove by and stopped into the Rams’ camp in Macomb, Illinois. Tony Banks was executing the two minute drill in a sort of seven-on-seven exercise- and he did not miss a throw, went up and down the field. But the minute they introduced the pass rush, even wearing the red jersey, Tony began to miss- and miss a lot. Pressure and danger people- organziations pay and players play up for safety.

Consequently, I am going to put my forecasting hat on- and try to figure out just what in heck the Eagles are doing vis-à-vis the left tackle position:

Shawn Andrews: Obviously, the Eagles secret fantasy when they selected this guy sixteenth overall in 2004 was to anoint him the left tackle for the next decade. They wavered in this assignment for reasons good (William Thomas’ prolonged solid play, the fact Andrews developed into the best offensive guard I’ve ever seen in Philadelphia) and bad (many hurts, mental illness).

Look, Andrews is going to get a look- he is a brilliant physical talent. But in the end, the move is probably too risky organizationally. Moving Shawn to tackle definitely weakens the interior of the line dramatically. Who takes his place? Do you want to move the best guard here in Philadelphia in a generation to generate perhaps an average tackle? One move could downgrade two positions. So unless he just looks awesome and healthy, I imagine he’s going to play next to his brother.

Todd Herremans: Obviously, the Eagles secret fantasy when they selected this guy in the fourth round was to anoint him the right tackle for the next decade. Like Andrews, he’s remained marooned at guard for a similar mixture of good, bad and the prolonged play of the incumbent. Two years ago, he had a bad season- which made them fearful to promote him. Last year, he was probably their best lineman- which would put him in line for “promotion” to tackle. In fact, had the opening the Eagles have been on the right side, I think Herremans would be penciled in.

Herremans probably has more utility as a tackle- he isn’t a true road grader type that lends itself to guard. He is very athletic- and has played serviceable tackle in emergencies. Frankly, that is what he is- a servicable guard or tackle who had an up, healthy, in his prime year last year. But, in the end, you can get by with "serviceable" a lot easier at guard than left tackle. Even though he might be better as a tacle, I'm not sure the Eagles want to be yoked to a guy for half-a-decade who aspires to "mediocre". Thus, he’ll stay in the interior- and be the chief back-up at the tackle position.

Thus, I think the Eagles are going to draft a tackle and play him right away. Which makes a lot of their off-season posturing make sense: the unreal accumulation of twelve(!) draft picks in a seven round draft, the retention of Lito Sheppard, the stashing of cap mad money versus giving it to the incumbent tackles.

Obviously, the success of such a strategy is ultimately part and parcel of picking the "right" guy. But it isn't without a certain inteligence. Fact: it is a whole lot easier to trade up now. Bad teams that populate the first half dozen picks have made a determination it is a waste of cap space to give big guaranteed numbers to guys who, for the most part, need some seasoning. Further, most share a view you get better faster giving up your pick for multiple later selections. And while the draft is a cap shoot, left tackle seems to be- within the context of a crapshoot- one of the easier positions to grade out and top guys can play right away.

So that is my prediction- the Eagles have identified one of these guys as ready to play- and will trade up to get him. Should this fail, I also would absolutely not be shocked if they select Andre Smith either- as they have a semi-credible back-up plan a left tackle should he blow up, and the guy is both an awesome player and awesomely crazy. Between Shawn Andrews and Andre Smith, one of them might be un-crazy enough to make sixteen starts.

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Friday, March 06, 2009

Bring Back TO!

I find myself- probably the only person in America- agreeing with Kirk Bohls today. I’ve always had a soft spot for Terrell Owens- and if you have a strong locker room culture, and your quarterback is not emotionally needy, I would not hesitate to bring him in.

He plays hurt. He works hard. He wants the ball more than Keyshawn Johnson. He wants to win. He is a standup guy in the locker room after losses. And, yes, he's an egomaniac, one of dozens in that league.

How disruptive was Anquan Boldin, who aimed a sideline outburst toward Arizona's offensive coordinator during the playoffs? The Cardinals still made the Super Bowl. Has Randy Moss taken down the New England Patriots, the NFL's model franchise for this decade? Don't think so. With Moss on the roster, the Pats almost were perfect in 2007 and may have been the best team in the league at the end of the 2008 season before just missing the playoffs. And didn't Santonio Holmes talk before the Super Bowl about how he sold drugs in Belle Glade, Fla., as a teen? He's also been suspended twice by his coach since joining the Steelers. Oh, yeah, he was the Super Bowl MVP, too. This is the NFL, not Sunday school.
I’ve written about this before four years ago- "Quit Crying"- and I stand by it now. Maybe it was not a mistake to let him leave Philadelphia- but it catagorically hasn’t worked out to let him go.

People forget the key rule of pro-football: it is hard to win. TO helps you win; he is a touchdown machine. He hasn’t killed anyone, hurt anyone, took drugs. Calling people names is boorish behavior- but it is ultimately no big deal. You have to ask yourself how bad do you want it. I know in Section 204 we want it bad. Bad enough to take some barbs from a guy no one believes has a clue. Shut up and deal with it.


Monday, March 02, 2009

Brain Dawkins

Les Bowen labels those of us who have little problem- from a football standpoint- waving good-bye to Brain Dawkins as “front office apologists” and then throws in a cheap taunt:
But never fear. I'm sure that even as you read this, the Eagles are assembling polling data that show I am wrong, that most of their fans support not bringing back Dawkins. I'm not sure, but I think they also have a poll that shows they won the last three Super Bowls.
There is a certain arrogance there. Let’s be honest about one thing, for all of their cultural arrogance, the Eagles never assemble poll data when it comes time to dismiss veteran players. If anything, they seem to almost relish it.

But equally candidly, they do very rarely mess this sort of thing up. Not that it is hard, the surest road to ruin in pro-football is lavishing big contracts on thirty-something free agents. Since Philadelphia rarely pay guys on a third or fourth contract, the writing was on the wall.

Particularly on the kind of really insane dollars Denver lavished here. I’m fine with the occasional “good soldier” contract- it is part and parcel for being an organization that has player respect in the NFL. Player respect is mostly a marginal effect- players chase dollars above all- but class does tell (see Dallas and Washington). But at almost ten million guaranteed, you need a guy who can play.

And that ain’t Dawk. Bottom line, the guy can’t play at a sustained level anymore. He has flashes. For some snaps he’s mediocre. For all snaps you’re protecting him. And he’s outright bad sometimes too.

It isn’t a question of playing serious money to a guy who can contribute in spurts, be an on-field mentor to young players and providing depth. It is more that he can’t do those things anymore. The Eagles survived with him out there last year. He was the worst regular on the defense. He was the worst part timer in the situational rotation schemes. He was horrid in pass defense. What happens when the two corners and other safety don’t play at Pro-Bowl level in pass defense- and Dawkins has got to participate. He can’t even run with tight ends anymore.

Again, there were flashes. He understands the starship. But he is in obvious decline- and the Eagles are loaded with young defense backs with experience who can play and probably need to play more. For nine million over two years you can get a guy who can contribute- not be hidden.

Of course, as a fan in 204, I will miss B-Dawk. He is a Hall of Fame player oozing with charisma. He won a ton of games here.

I don’t really believe in “off the field” leadership- a combination of winning and being well-paid solves almost all locker room issues. But in Dawkins case you’d have to be blind not to notice his impact. First, in a league that values continuity, he and Jim Johnson were the source of it on defense.

Second, I always point out that Reid’s great strength as a coach is guys play for him. A lot of teams left for dead rally back to life for him. The dreadful 0-2 start in 2003. Jeff Garcia sweeping three straight division road games en route to an NFC East title in 2006. The 5-8 squad from two years back winning three in a row to finish the season respectably. This year’s club coming from dead to the NFC Champiosnhip game. Ultimately, a lot of that will probably was Dawkins- it is hard to quit on a season when the best player never stops caring and, again, has that personal charisma to impose his will on the locker room.

You were the man Dawkins. Godspeed.

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