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March 19, 2018

Eagles showing everyone they're not content with just one Super Bowl

The Philadelphia Eagles proved six weeks ago that they were the best team in the NFL. (In case you missed it, they beat the Patriots, 41-33, in the Super Bowl.)

Well, guess what. They are undeniably better now. Just a few days into the free-agency season, the Birds have defied the rules of football and improved an already terrific team.

Thank you, Howie Roseman, Joe Douglas and the rest of the front office. Thank you for showing every other team in Philadelphia how to run a consistently focused and remarkably efficient sports franchise.

Many years ago, the late commissioner Pete Rozelle built the framework of the NFL around parity. Teams are not supposed to get better after they win a championship. The best organizations have to deal with a hard salary cap and the lowest picks in the draft. The NFL wants to share the wealth, on and off the field.

With the greatest quarterback and coach ever, the Patriots were able to clear those hurdles and win five championships. Now, the Eagles are showing another way to defy the process – brilliant management. What Roseman and Co. did last week was astonishing.

The GM was $11 million over the salary cap when his maneuvering began, and – after renegotiating the contracts of Lane Johnson and Zach Ertz – he gamed the system to acquire defensive end Michael Bennett, cornerback Daryl Worley, defensive tackle Haloti Ngata and linebacker Corey Nelson, and then found enough money to re-sign his best free agent, linebacker Nigel Bradham.

By way of comparison, all the cash-strapped Patriots were able to do was trade for defensive tackle Danny Shelton and cornerback Jason McCourty, both discards from the hideous Cleveland Browns, and Oakland kick returner Cordarrelle Patterson. New England lost four major contributors – Nate Solder, Danny Amendola, Dion Lewis and Malcolm Butler.

The Eagles also had to sacrifice a handful of useful contributors to the Super Bowl win, including Vinny Curry, Beau Allen, LeGarrette Blount, Torrey Smith and Patrick Robinson, but they already have better replacements for all of those players.

For Curry, they have Bennett. All you need to know about that exchange is that Curry had nine sacks in the past three seasons, while Bennett had 23½. Curry was always clamoring for more playing time. With those puny sack totals, maybe he will find it in Tampa Bay. But he definitely wasn’t going to get it here.

And then there’s Ngata, an elite run-stopper hungering for another Super Bowl ring. He got his first in 2012 in Baltimore, and all you need to know about him is, last year in Detroit, the Lions’ defense held opponents to 75 yards per game on the ground when Ngata was in the lineup and – after he tore his bicep in their fifth game – 129 yards without him. He is a significant improvement over Allen.

Blount’s departure clears the way for running back Corey Clement to build on his stunning rookie season, and gives more carries to Jay Ajayi in what will be his first full season with the Eagles. Mack Hollins is ready to replace Torrey Smith, especially when it comes to actually holding onto the ball. A healthy Sidney Jones should be step up from Robinson.

Meanwhile, let’s not forget that the Eagles have the best depth in the NFL at quarterback, a developing superstar in defensive end Derek Barnett, returning Hall of Famer Jason Peters, one of the best linebacker tandems in Bradham and returning Jordan Hicks, and a game-changing special-teams stud in a healthy Chris Maragos.

The best part of this roster retooling is that the Eagles are already a better team than the one that beat the Patriots six weeks ago, and they still have next month's draft to provide depth and challenge a few declining veterans.

I would pinch myself right now, but I’m already black and blue.

* * *

In the jubilant aftermath of the Jake Arrieta signing last week, it took a voice of reason to place into perspective the current state of the Phillies. Who better than Hall of Fame GM Pat Gillick to deal with the cold, hard truth about his former team?

“I thought ’18 would be a year to compete,” Gillick said at his Phils’ Wall of Fame news conference last Friday. “I think probably I was a little too optimistic.”

Translation: Despite the signings of free agents Arrieta and Carlos Santana, the Phillies will NOT compete for the playoffs in 2018.

Gillick’s honest assessment must have caused the many Andy MacPhail and Matt Klentak apologists to choke on their analytics charts. They have been gushing with superlatives since the Arrieta signing, even though the catalyst for the deal was owner John Middleton, and not his docile underlings.

Arrieta made his own feelings clear when, during an impressive introductory news conference last week, he thanked “the Middleton family” for the three-year, $75-million contract – making the veteran starter the first player in Philadelphia sports history to receive $30 million in one season.

If it were strictly up to MacPhail or Klentak, Gillick would be even less optimistic about the immediate future of a franchise he led to its second championship in 2008. Middleton has given them a blank checkbook, and they still are showing no urgency in their rebuild. 

Gillick is too much of a gentleman to further impugn his successors by questioning the way they are handling the top two prospects in the organization, Rhys Hoskins and Scott Kingery, but you can believe both of those young players would receive far different treatment if Gillick were still in charge.

For his 18 home runs in 170 at bats last season, earlier this month Hoskins was handed a ridiculous raise of only $7,500 for 2018. Klentak had the power to renew the young slugger’s contract, and the GM wielded it – right after asking the franchise’s best prospect to move from first base to left field to make room for Santana.

Kingery leads the team in most offensive categories this spring, but he will return to Lehigh in two weeks so that the Phillies can screw him out of a year of service time. Now, the 23-year-old will be almost 31 before he gets to test free agency. 

Yeah, that should really make him love playing in Philadelphia.

Seeing Gillick back, if only for a day, revived fond memories of a time when the Phillies had someone in charge who actually knew what he was doing. 

It seems like a long time ago, doesn’t it?

* * *

Maybe it’s just me, but when someone says his team didn’t want to win as much as the opponent, I always blame the coach. If motivating the players is not the coach’s job, whose job is it?

Last week, both of Philadelphia’s winter teams faced crises involving effort, a bizarre twist since they are playing important games in the final month of bounce-back seasons. If teams can’t get up for these games, with the playoffs just ahead, when will they be motivated to play harder?

When the 76ers lost at home to Indiana last week, Dario Saric openly questioned the work ethic of his teammates.

“This game, I think maybe [the Pacers] wanted it more than we did,” he said. “I think we’ve got the better team, but sometimes this team doesn’t work.”

Of course, coach Brett Brown saw no problem with the effort; to do so would be to blame himself. Instead, he talked about how young his players are, how demanding these games are, blah, blah, blah. The truth is, the Sixers have been sub-par for weeks now, saved only by the cake schedule they’ve been playing.

The Flyers are an even bigger puzzle. 

They finally won a huge game on Saturday night when they woke up and scored four goals in the final 12 minutes against Carolina. Then, last night, they exploded for six more goals in their win over Washington. How could they lose seven out of eight, and then score 10 goals in 72 minutes? 

After a sloppy loss last Thursday night against Columbus, coach Dave Hakstol admitted that his team has not been consistently motivated to play every period of every game.

“That squarely comes to me,” he said. “I thought their team was a little bit more ready to play in that first 20 minutes, and that can’t happen at this time of year.”

No, Dave, it can’t.

All signs point to both teams making the playoffs – a big step forward after a dark spring last year at the Wells Fargo Center – but if these two flawed clubs think they can mail it in, they will be back on the golf course before they know it.

* * *

And finally . . . . 

Sam Bradford must have pictures of somebody. There’s no other logical explanation for NFL teams showering him with money even though he never – absolutely never – wins. His insane one-year, $15-million deal with Arizona last week gives him a guaranteed $129 million overall during his disappointing eight-year career. He rarely stays healthy, he is a lousy leader and his teams have never won more than seven games in a season. And he will make almost $130 million? That’s mind-boggling.

Because Arizona opted to sign Sam Bradford, Nick Foles is probably staying with the Eagles – and I’m starting to embrace that reality. There’s no indication any team has offered a first-round pick for the Super Bowl hero, and the biggest question about a fabulous Birds team will be the health of quarterback Carson Wentz. There’s no better insurance policy in sports right now than Nick Foles. By the way, Foles will make one third of what Bradford is getting in 2018 – not including the value of his Super-Bowl ring.

Even though I’m not a fan of college basketball, I am rooting especially hard this month for Jay Wright and Villanova to win another national championship. My thinking is, if the Wildcats do it again, Wright will be more inclined than ever to listen to offers from the NBA, including the Sixers. Imagine Jay Wright and Doug Pederson coaching pro teams in Philadelphia at the same time. It may be asking too much, but I’m asking anyway.

Congratulations to Norristown hero Geno Auriemma, coach of the iconic UConn women’s basketball team, for demonstrating once again what he is all about in a 140-52 win over St. Francis on Saturday. The Huskies bludgeoned an opponent because Auriemma doesn’t care about sportsmanship, and never has.

All I have done for the past decade is complain about the obsession that the media has with Tiger Woods, and yet when he‘s challenging to win a tournament, I find myself watching anyway. Maybe that’s why TV ratings soared 180 percent last week when he finished second in the Valspar Championship. This Sunday, in the Arnold Palmer Invitational, I found myself checking back every few minutes, hoping that he mounted a late rally. I offer this information just in case you were still wondering whether I’m a hypocrite.