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December 18, 2017

After recent disappearing act, Eagles defense needs to find itself – or else

The Eagles performed a magic trick yesterday in the Meadowlands. While everyone’s eyes were glued on one player, quarterback Nick Foles, 11 others disappeared.

Where did the defense go? How could the fourth-ranked unit in the NFL allow 29 points and 504 yards to the 29th best offense? Why did Jalen Mills forget what holding was, or how to cover a mediocre receiver? Where the hell were Tim Jernigan and Fletcher Cox?

Somehow, the Eagles still managed to win the game, 34-29, against one of the worst Giants team in their proud history, but no one is talking about the Birds’ 12-2 record or their first-round playoff bye today. Instead, Eagles fans are obsessed with the shocking deterioration of the defense.

Remember, the Birds allowed 35 points a week earlier to the Rams, and the defense flopped against Russell Wilson the week before that. What was once the biggest strength of the team – especially the defensive line – has become the biggest question mark.

“You can’t play like this and win in the postseason, obviously,” said coach Doug Pederson right after the game. He was even more adamant this morning when he appeared on my WIP radio show, citing the litany of penalties, open Giants’ receivers and lack of pressure on quarterback Eli Manning.

The worst part is, nothing the Giants did was a surprise to the Eagles, who prepared all week for the dink-and-dunk, hurry-up style of offense they were facing. With no running game and a depleted offensive line, the New Yorkers have no other options. A statue like Manning would have no chance with seven-step drops.

Of course, the Eagles would have fared better if Cox and Jernigan had made their presence known on the stat sheet. Combined they had a grand total of three tackles, on 88 snaps. The Eagles recorded one sack on 57 passing attempts. Neither of the high-priced tackles got a sniff of Eli Manning. 

Meanwhile, the Giants’ receivers were running free all afternoon. Sterling Shepard, who entered the game with 43 catches and 547 yards, grabbed 11 for 139 yards and a touchdown. Shepard is not exactly Odell Beckham Jr., the New York superstar who is lost for the season with a broken ankle. It’s hard to imagine what Beckham would have done against that defense.

This morning, Peterson suggested the defensive failings were more an issue of intensity than game plan, more a question of desire than talent. In other words, the Giants wanted to win more than the Eagles. The coach said he couldn’t explain why. Neither could his players.

A bizarre twist on the narrow win was that Foles, starting his first game for the Eagles in three years, became an after-thought. The backup quarterback was efficient, accurate and completely in control throughout the contest. He delivered all that the fans could have hoped.

In fact, the fans did their part, too – at least the 15,000 or so who made the 100-mile trek up the New Jersey Turnpike. Manning himself said that the noise from the enemy patrons caused a false start on a huge fourth-down play at the Eagles’ 6-yard line. The veteran quarterback seemed discouraged by that fact.

But not as discouraged as the Eagles fans were this morning because, just when they thought there was still hope after the injury to Wentz, the defense collapsed. 

Pederson insisted, both yesterday and this morning, that he is not worried about the defense. After that debacle in the Meadowlands, he may be the only one who’s not.

***

Is there anyone left in Philadelphia who believes that Matt Klentak has any idea what’s he’s doing as GM of the Phillies? 

OK, maybe his equally lost boss, president Andy MacPhail, and perhaps a few of the smiley-faced robots who cover the team are not willing yet to admit the obvious, but it must be getting harder for all of them to keep the faith. Especially after the past few days.

Let’s take a look at the flurry of moves Klentak made at and right after the baseball winter meetings in Orlando, moves that cost the Phillies – are you ready for this? – $92 million:

Signed free agent relievers Pat Neshek and Tommy Hunter.

Yawn. Neshek was here last season and managed to pitch well enough to get back in a trade three so-so prospects from Colorado. The Phillies are Tommy Hunter’s sixth team in the past six years, the true definition of a journeyman. Neshek was a known quantity, having pitched here last season. Hunter worked on MacPhail’s Baltimore teams. So much for in-depth analytics research.

Traded Freddy Galvis. 

This was a real stroke of genius. For a brilliant defensive shortstop who also managed to hit 32 homers over the past two seasons, Klentak got the 13th-best prospect in the San Diego organization, pitcher Enyel De Los Santos. Hey, the GM cleared the way for J.P. Crawford, you say? Galvis hit .255 in the big leagues last season; Crawford .243 at Lehigh. Whoopee.

Signed free agent Carlos Santana.

Let’s try to make sense of this one. Klentak is prepared to move the best young player in the organization, Rhys Hoskins, from his regular position at first base to the outfield for a 31-year-old switch-hitter with a price tag of $20 million a year for each of the next three seasons. The one position where the Phils had depth – remember Tommy Joseph and his 43 homers over the past two years? – is the one position that Klentak addressed with his bankbook. Ridiculous.

The only quality that made Klentak appealing two years ago when he was hired as a 35-year-old novice GM was his ability to use analytics to build the foundation of a winning organization. Or so the theory went. Well, if he actually has a blueprint, this might be a good time to begin executing it.

Based on the maneuvers of the past few days, Klentak’s only plan is to bring back familiar faces, stockpile first basemen and middle relievers, and hope nobody notices that the Phillies are no better now than when he came here.

***

Julio Cortez/AP, File

Former Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb.


The first few years of Donovan McNabb’s retirement from the NFL brought a perverse pleasure to those (like me) who never liked the guy – all of those awkward interviews, the passive-aggressive comments about the Eagles quarterbacks who followed him, the “No. 5 will always love you!” scream at his jersey ceremony.

It stopped being fun when McNabb got arrested for DUI twice, ending what had become a promising career as a TV game analyst at FOX. Everyone who followed his decade-plus of excellent football in Philadelphia knew he was psychologically fragile, but no one expected that.

Nor did they anticipate what happened last week, when he was suspended by ESPN amid horrifying charges of sexual harassment against a wardrobe stylist when he was working for the NFL Network. How horrifying? The texts he allegedly sent to the young woman cannot be repeated on any respectable website.

Who is this man? How could be perform for so long and so well here with none of these behavioral issues surfacing? Who is the real Donovan McNabb: the one Philadelphia respected (despite his eccentricities) when he played here, or the mess he has become?

This is mere speculation, but it seems that McNabb is still dealing with the disappointment that his playing career is over. Remember, he left the game after short stints in Washington and Minnesota while expressing disappointment that the game felt he was done before he did.

Since then, he has ballooned physically to offensive-lineman size, and he has failed to adhere to the most basic tenets of employment, the same behavioral requirements he had no trouble following when he was a player.

My own animosity toward him during his playing days was a response to his endless whining about the booing at his draft, an unfortunate incident that I have owned (and apologized for) many times. His preoccupation with that one moment led to a feud that was silly at times and comical at others.

But what is happening to McNabb now is not funny at all. The two DUIs were alarming, and the text messages he allegedly sent to that woman are downright appalling. His broadcast career is probably over. His legacy is in tatters. 

It’s sad to say, but the greatest Eagles quarterback in history is a hero no more.

***

And finally ...

Carson Wentz fans – and who isn’t these days? – should take encouragement from what Shayne Gostisbehere said on my WIP radio show last week. The young Flyers defenseman underwent ACL surgery in 2014 and was ready to play in less than five months. I asked him if he is 100 percent now. He replied with the tying and winning goals in a 2-1 win against Dallas on Saturday. Torn ACLs are not fatal.

Those Los Angeles fans who chanted “ACL! ACL!” after the Rams game last week should try that in Philadelphia sometime. Let’s see how tough they are here. Eagles fans have a reputation – well-earned – for obnoxious behavior, but they do not have the exclusive rights to drunken stupidity. Why weren’t the LA fans publicly chastised the way our fans are every time some moron acts out? Because the act didn’t happen in Philadelphia, that’s why.

When Tom Savage went back into the game after a brutal hit last week, the Houston quarterback illustrated why the NFL will never be able to control. Savage was visibly upset when Texan officials told him to stay on the sideline, eventually having to lead him to the locker room. Savage didn’t play yesterday, one week later, because he had not passed the concussion protocols. Staying on the sideline was not his idea then, either.

There are many media types in this city thrilled that the Sixers are 14-14 so far this season. I am not one of them. Yes, they are still a work in progress, and their two young superstars, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, are the foundation of a perennial playoff team. But why hold the current players to such a low standard? With so many dog teams in the NBA, it would be a major disappointment if the Sixers failed to make the post-season again this year.

Jose Canseco was fired as an analyst on NBC Sports California last week after making some inappropriate remarks about sexual harassment. Explaining how he was often victimized himself in his playing days, Canseco tweeted: “I was a good-looking guy and these politicians look like a bag of boogers.” How will California survive without brilliant analysis like that?