Opinion Angelo Cataldi
AP_17267744220775.jpg Matt Rourke/AP

Philadelphia Eagles' Jake Elliott is carried off the field after kicking the game-winning field goal during an NFL football game against the New York Giants, Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017, in Philadelphia.

September 25, 2017

Jake Elliott saved Pederson, Eagles – and Philly – from a week from hell

With one swipe of his magical right foot, Jake Elliott dramatically changed the sports conversation in Philadelphia this week, silencing the complaints – at least temporarily – of a fan base that endured three hours of heat and frustration before the happiest of endings.

Did he really do it? Did a 22-year-old kid from Memphis who had arrived here only two weeks ago actually rescue the Eagles with a franchise-record 61-yard field goal at Lincoln Financial Field? The scoreboard said Eagles 27, Giants 24, but even now, a day later, the whole afternoon seems surreal. A five-foot-nine rookie really made that kick?

Thank you, Jake Elliott.

Elliott appeared on my WIP radio show this morning, and he was absolutely clueless about what he had done. I tried to explain that the outcome of Eagles games determines our mood from week to week, and the feeling after that fourth-quarter collapse was grim, bordering on suicidal.

What he cannot comprehend is how much adversity he avoided with that amazing kick. For example, he actually quieted serious fan demands for the firing of Doug Pederson after the coach insanely chose to go for it with 2:36 left in the first half on a fourth-and-eight play from the Giant 43. Some fans wanted Pederson fired at halftime. Seriously.

In a season-plus of unorthodox strategic decisions, this was Pederson’s worst, and the fact that he was saved by a dubious no-catch ruling on a sure touchdown, followed by a bold goal-line stand, changed nothing. Pederson risked losing a game he was winning by listening to an analytics guy in his ear on the sidelines.

The head coach also figured to face an inquisition over how he used LeGarrette Blount, the power-runner who was effective early and then disappeared from the game plan. On a key third-and-two, why wasn’t Blount in the game? Didn’t the Eagles bring him here for precisely that situation?

Elliott has no idea how much outrage would have been directed at the Eagles defense, which gave up 24 points in the fourth quarter to a Giants offense that had scored 13 in the previous 11 quarters combined. Did the defense wilt in the 90-degree heat? Did coordinator Jim Schwartz play too soft? What caused that collapse?

And Malcolm Jenkins, the smartest player on that unit, didn’t have to come up with an explanation for why he clotheslined Odell Beckham Jr. on a play that set up the Giants’ go-ahead field goal. Jenkins knew it was pass interference, didn’t he? He understood it would cost the Eagles 28 yards with only 4:15 to play and the game tied at 21? Why did he do that?

Carson Wentz wouldn’t have gone unscathed in the post-game analysis if Elliott had missed that kick, either. Yes, the second-year quarterback made some great throws and escaped the pass rush several times, but he also held the ball way too long, and he missed another long pass to a wide-open Alshon Jeffrey early in the game.

There were many other targets for criticism if that ball didn’t sneak over the uprights. Tight end Zach Ertz’s fumble handed the Giants their second touchdown. Beckham owned cornerback Jalen Mills in the fourth quarter. The heralded Eagles pass rush didn’t get a sniff of Giants quarterback Eli Manning the whole game – zero sacks.

Jake Elliott has no idea how many teammates he saved from the grim rehash after a brutal loss in Philadelphia. He said he doesn’t dwell on the negative anyway. That’s good because only a wide-eyed optimist thinks it’s possible to kick a ball that far with the game – and the mood of a major American city – on the line.

Thank you, Jake Elliott. You saved our city from a really, really rough week.

***

After President Donald Trump’s inflammatory attack against the anthem protestors in sports over the weekend, I am suddenly conflicted on an issue I thought I understood completely. My guess is, so are many other fans.

As I have written many times here in the past year, I remain outraged by Colin Kaepernick and the other sports figures who have kneeled or sat during the anthem. I find it neither the proper forum nor the right way to express frustration at the racial unrest in America.

At the same time, however, to have the president urge teams to “fire” players who disrespect the flag in that way is more anti-American than the act itself. Freedom of expression is one of the basic privileges of living in this country, and it is appalling for the leader of the free world to say what Trump said.

What I have been wrestling with is my delight that Kaepernick was not signed this summer, no doubt in part because of his protest. My argument has been that he is simply paying the price for his act of defiance. But how is that different than Trump’s edict to get rid of all of the players who defy the anthem? Didn’t the NFL, in effect, get rid of Kaepernick?

There is no easy answer to this conflict. My first reaction when I see a player kneeling or sitting for the anthem is outrage that someone who has benefitted from our free lives in America cannot see the big picture. They are rich and famous because of the system in which they live. They should appreciate that.

But if, say, Carson Wentz were to start a protest of his own, would I feel such glee over banishing the player the way the NFL did with Kaepernick? Uh, no. So, apparently, my commitment to this issue changes once it affects the fortunes of my team. That seems superficial, don’t you think?

So what’s the solution here? My answer is probably as upsetting as Trump’s, but I would advocate that the major sports remove the forum for protest by no longer playing the anthem before games. It is an antiquated ritual anyway, when you think about it. I don’t need to hear a song to reinforce my love for America. No one does.

The protestors will find a new way to express their entirely valid concerns about race relations in America, and sports will remain a haven from reality that will always be important to the psyche of our country. Most fans follow sports to get away from all of the horrors of everyday life, and this intrusion into that diversion is not welcome.

I realize in many ways my solution is a cop-out, but the time to get past this anthem controversy has arrived, courtesy of President Trump. We should all support the right of all Americans to exercise their freedom of expression – in the proper forum, in an appropriate way.

***

As the Phillies begin the final week of the season, my sincere hope is that it’s not also the last week in the big-league managerial career of Pete Mackanin.

Before I go any further, I must offer a disclaimer. For the past two years, Mackanin has been a weekly guest on my radio show, and I have developed an appreciation for his honesty and accessibility unlike anything I have experienced in my past three decades at WIP. Maybe I just like the guy too much to offer an objective appraisal.

At the same time, though, a strong case can be made for Mackanin’s work here, despite the lousy 133-184 record and some questionable work trying to control man-child Odubel Herrera. The mere fact that this cadaver of a team kept competing – and at times even excelling – in the last two months is a testament to the manager.

The real problem this season has been Mackanin’s bosses, who saddled him with free-agent busts like Michael Saunders and Clay Buckholz, not to mention oft-injured Howie Kendrick and $17 million waste Jeremy Hellickson. The latter two were traded (for peanuts).

Ultimately, the decision on Mackanin’s future will come from president Andy MacPhail and GM Matt Klentak, who have botched just about everything they have tried this year. They waited far too long to call up Rhys Hoskins, they didn’t even bother to reward their best prospect, Scott Kingery, with a promotion, and most of their roster moves backfired.

This is not to imply that Mackanin was blameless, especially in his handling of Herrera, a talented outfielder who does what he wants when he wants. As the season evolved, the player remained an enigma, on one occasion not even bothering to hustle after a misjudged fly ball that turned into an inside-the-park grand slam.

Almost every week, I would hammer Mackanin with questions about Herrera, and the skipper consistently offered logical and respectful answers. He said Herrera was such a great talent, he required a different approach. Sometimes you have to sacrifice discipline for ability. Mackanin made it clear he hated doing it, but he implied there was no choice.

More than anyone I have ever covered, Mackanin took fans into his process. We didn’t always have to agree with him – I know I didn’t, particularly with Herrera – but he had a reasonable explanation for every decision he made.

The bottom line is, he developed a core of young players – Aaron Nola, Hoskins, Jorge Alfaro, and maybe Herrera and J.P. Crawford – that gives the Phillies a chance to be better in 2018, and maybe a lot better.

Mackanin, who has a year left on his contract, deserves one more chance to prove what he’s been trying to prove for most of his life – that he’s a good big-league manager. I hope the Phillies give it to him.

And finally …

     • Sixers GM Bryan Colangelo last week on the condition of franchise center Joel Embiid, whose meniscus was repaired more than six months ago: "(The doctors) have him on a path that is a conservative path that will hopefully put him in a planned progression to have sustainable on-court success. It's not about getting ready for the first practice or the first game. He will be out there on the first practice and the first game. The question is, how much, how little, if [at] all." Sometimes, no opinion is required. The words say it all.

     • Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie yesterday on the anthem protest controversy: “Every day I see the genuine dedication and hard work of our players. And I support them as they take their courage, character and commitment into our communities to make them better or to call attention to injustice. Having spoken with our players, I can attest to the great respect they have for the national anthem and all it represents. We at the Philadelphia Eagles firmly believe that in this difficult time of division and conflict, it is more important than ever for football to be a great unifier.” Who wrote that statement for Lurie, Bryan Colangelo?

     • If the Flyers have such an amazing farm system, why are they 1-3 in the preseason so far, when the kids play the most? And why is the power play still terrible? At some point, the Flyers – and especially GM Ron Hextall – are going to have to start proving their progress on the ice, aren’t they? Let the record show I remain skeptical about both Hextall and coach Dave Hakstol. If the Flyers don’t make the playoffs this season, they both need to go.

     • Wasn’t it charming to see the Phillies honor Scott Kingery last week as the organization’s best minor-league player in a special ceremony at Citizens Bank Park? Most teams with 24-year-old prospects like Kingery promote them to the big leagues as a reward; the Phils gave their best prospect a cheap trophy. They are trying to preserve another year of his free agency by keeping him down in the minors until next June. Because let’s face it, the Phils need to save every dollar they can. With their new $2.5-billion TV deal, they’re barely scraping by.

     • Wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. thought it was clever to drop to all fours after his first touchdown Sunday in Philadelphia and pantomime a dog lifting his leg and peeing in the end zone. All it really accomplished is getting the New York Giants a 15-yard penalty and inspiring some terrific tabloid headlines. The best two were: Pissing It Away and Urine Bad Trouble.