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August 20, 2018

Angelo Cataldi: It's only preseason, sure, but Eagles have shown they're far from perfect

It’s only the preseason. Just keep telling yourself that. It means nothing that Eagles’ opponents have outscored them, 68-34, so far. Some of the best players on the reigning Super Bowl champions haven’t taken a snap yet. Everything will be fine when the real games get here in 17 days. 


Maybe. Maybe not. It’s hard to ignore how sloppy and disinterested the Birds have looked halfway through the preseason schedule. In fact, you had good reason to watch Tom Brady dismantle the top Eagles’ defensive unit and wonder how our team beat their team six months ago.

If nothing else, the first two preseason games exposed some glaring problems that could dismantle a bid to repeat. And the biggest question entering the 2018 regular season comes at the most important position.

Nick Foles is still most likely to stand behind center on Sept. 6 against Atlanta, though his performance against the Patriots hardly makes that a comforting thought. In a word, Foles was terrible last Thursday night. More and more, it appears he is a bipolar performer – wonderful when he’s good, brutal when he’s bad.

Lost in the worries about his strained right shoulder was his 3 for 9 passing effort that preceded it, an indecisive, erratic showing that brought up memories of his Oakland fiasco late last season. If this is the new Nick Foles, post Super-Bowl ring, post talk-show circuit, post bestselling book, the Eagles are in trouble.

Of course, there’s always the possibility that Carson Wentz will cure that concern by winning medical clearance to start the season. I was sitting right next to him at training camp last week, and his urgency to play is palpable. He didn’t spend every day since last Dec. 10 pounding his damaged left knee back into shape so he could hold a clipboard.

However, even though he has resumed 11-on-11 drills this week, Wentz is not going to start the season. There will never be a logical reason to take that risk. Either Foles will show more than he did last week, or the Birds might even consider their third-best quarterback, Nate Sudfeld, to bridge the gap to Wentz. Sudfeld was a rare positive on a field of negatives in New England, but most of his work came against Patriots’ scrubs. Is he ready to run the offense in real games? Doubtful.

One Eagle who clearly is not ready is Halapoulivaati Vaitai, who looked more like a matador than a left tackle last Thursday night. Even before he caused the strip sack that left Foles holding his right arm in pain, Vaitai was lost. Check the tape. On several plays, he didn’t even move after the snap. It’s amazing that the Eagles won the Super Bowl with Vaitai protecting the blind side. Jason Peters should be ready for the opener. He’d better be ready.

Also awful in New England was wide receiver Mike Wallace, the running game, the pass rush, the coverage downfield and even the coaching. Yes, it was a preseason game, but since 90 or so people bothered to make the trip, it would have been comforting if they played better, no?

There were a few encouraging signs, however. 

Rookie Shelton Gibson looked good catching passes and returning kicks, Ronald Darby is beginning to resemble the shutdown corner the Eagles thought they were getting in trade one year ago, and Jordan Hicks is healthy (so far). When all of the missing starters — Wentz, Peters, Alshon Jeffrey, Brandon Graham, Darren Sproules, Corey Clement — come back, the Birds will be great again.

Won’t they?

Since the parade, I have convinced myself that last season’s Super Bowl was the start of an amazing run by the Eagles, with so much young talent, a brilliant coaching staff and the best GM in sports, Howie Roseman.

I still believe that. I really do.

I’ve just got to stop watching these preseason games.

* * * 

Gabe Kapler is one of most interesting sports figures I have encountered over more than 40 years in the sports media. Unfortunately, he is also one of the most perplexing.

Last Thursday night, in the opener of a doubleheader against the Mets, the Phillies manager made a mockery of the game of baseball. There’s no other way to describe it. For three excruciating innings, he used position players to pitch, allowing 10 hits and nine runs in a 24-4 loss. The second of those players, Scott Kingery, lobbed the ball toward the plate, not even pretending he was competing. 

The fact that the Phillies won the second game did nothing to stifle the rage fans felt the next morning, when complaints by baseball fans overwhelmed the usual flood of football calls after an Eagles game. As he is known to do, Kapler made the situation much worse by opening his mouth.

“You guys are going to spin this however you want to spin it, but the fact of the matter is, in the fifth inning when we’re down 11 runs, we started to prepare for the second game,” he said. “We used strategy to best position the Phillies to win games. We’re going to continue to do that.”

Translation: We quit. In the city of Rocky Balboa, Gabe Kapler gave up. This is the same Game Kapler who played on the Boston team in 2004 that staged the greatest comeback, down 0-3 to the Yankees in the ALCS, in baseball history.

It was an astonishing admission, made much worse by the slow-pitch softball approach of erstwhile pitcher Kingery. What Kapler doesn’t understand — and may never understand — is that Philadelphia sports fans are wired differently than any others. Yes, there was some logic to the manager’s thinking. But not here. You don’t quit in Philadelphia. Ever.

Equally worrisome for Kapler is the perception that he really doesn’t care how the fans feel, a fatal mistake made by many managers and coaches who have preceded him here. Ultimately, Andy Reid was pink-slipped when his contempt for the paying customers got to be too much for owner Jeffrey Lurie to tolerate. Even a hero like Doug Collins signed his own death warrant when he asked fans to pray for slovenly center Andrew Bynum.

After Kapler messed up a pitching change the first week of the season and drew the loud wrath of the fans at the home opener in April, he adjusted well. He won more games than anyone expected, and he added a refreshing flair to the managing position. People learned to like him, eccentricities and all.

Now he’s going to have to adjust again. He’s going to have to learn that there are certain things that are simply not acceptable here. And at the top of the list is quitting. Philadelphia is a city that never quits.

* * * 

Since the Sixers won’t do it, I will. After 74 days, I hereby declare that the new GM is Mark Eversley. That’s right. The vice president of player personnel is getting the title formerly held by Bryan Colangelo.

Now, I could be wrong in this assumption. Maybe owner Joshua Harris, CEO Scott O’Neill and the rest of the New York carpetbaggers responsible for the team are actually conducting one of the most extensive searches for a new leader in sports history. It is possible.

But recent history suggests that it’s far more likely that the Sixers just don’t respect their fans enough to tell them who’s running the team. Think about it. When is the last time they offered a medical update on one of the players that didn’t leak out from another source first? The Sixers under Harris and O’Neill are the most fan-unfriendly franchise in at least the past 30 years in Philadelphia — and that includes the screw-you Eagles teams under president Joe Banner.

In the two and a half months since Colangelo left, exactly one name has surfaced as a GM candidate, and it was Daryl Morey, the Houston team-builder who was mentor to former Sixers GM (and reigning martyr) Sam Hinkie. Morey rejected the overture, no doubt after a hearty belly-laugh.

Since then, nothing. Jon Johnson of WIP radio, largely for his own amusement, has been texting the PR staff of the Sixers every other day for weeks seeking an update on the GM search. The team keeps sending him the exact same message: Nothing yet. Nothing yet. Nothing yet...

Well, in this plugged-in media world, I’m going to assume there is no GM search. I’m going to assume that coach Brett Brown will have a big say in future personnel moves, and that he will get that with someone he already knows and trusts. That someone is Mark Eversley.

Congratulations, Mark. This might be a good time to quit Twitter.

* * *

And finally . . . 

•   Phillies GM Matt Klentak thought it was a great idea to screw one of his best young pitchers, Zach Eflin, out of $20,000 in salary last week by exploiting a loophole in baseball rules that allowed Eflin to go back to the minors without missing a start. Yes, the team got to activate an extra player for a few games. Hallelujah. But at the expense of currying disfavor with a young star making the minimum salary? That’s stupid.

•   Also stupid, once again, was the decision by chronic offender Odubel Herrera on Saturday to step toward second base after beating the throw on an RBI force out. Against Cy Young candidate Jacob deGrom of the Mets, it was a fatal mistake in a 3-1 loss. After the game, manager Gabe Kapler said he would review with his player what a runner should do after he passes first base – as if Herrera didn’t already know it. Herrera may be a brilliant guy off the field. On it, I can say for sure, he is one of the dumbest I’ve ever seen. 

•   ESPN is so concerned about plunging ratings for it pre- and post-game NFL shows that it may be bringing back, back, back the most tired act in sports broadcasting, Chris Berman. Yeah, that’s the answer. Fans can’t wait to hear him say, “He could go all the way. . . .” another 1,000 times this season. The viewers are clamoring for more of his old stories about hobnobbing with coaches and owners. In sports broadcasting, there really are no new ideas.

•   Speaking of broadcasting, Mike Mayock has been the best thing about the Eagles’ first two preseason games, offering terrific insights without overwhelming the viewer. He is a major improvement over the cliched, self-important musings of NBC blabber Cris Collinsworth. For that matter, how could anyone with ears rate Fox relic Dick Stockton above Eagles’ preseason play-by-player Scott Graham? I hate NFL preseason games, but we’re definitely going to miss Mayock and Graham.

•   Is there a dumber new twist in sports right now than the NFL’s helmet rule? The Eagles have already drawn five penalties for using their helmets during tackles, and I have had the same reaction every time: It’s football. Games will be decided this season because a tackler moved his head an inch or two just before colliding with a ball-carrier. At some point, the NFL is going to have to tell its concussion-wary critics to go to hell. It’s football, dammit.