August 08, 2016
Barring injury, Sam Bradford will have the best season of his NFL career in 2016. I base this bold prediction on a 15-minute conversation we had last week at Eagles training camp, and on a fleeting moment when he revealed the truth behind his façade.
He was sitting an arm’s length away from me in a trailer overlooking the practice field when I brought up a sensitive subject: Carson Wentz, the young quarterback who is being groomed to replace Bradford.
Forgotten since the deal – which led to Bradford’s two-week boycott of OTAs and a public snit by his agent – is the fact that Wentz still ranks behind his new mentor in draft position. Wentz was a No. 2 first-round pick this year; Bradford was No. 1 in 2010.
Isn’t it possible that a No. 1 pick with six years of NFL experience will outperform a No. 2 rookie this season, and well beyond? Why is it a foregone conclusion that Wentz is better than Bradford?
Bradford would never say anything derogatory toward Wentz, but what I saw in Bradford’s expression when I made the No. 1-No. 2 distinction was an undeniable flicker of competitive pride. He will not go quietly in this quarterback battle. His current unspoken plan is to show the kid – and his many naysayers – the real Sam Bradford.
Now I realize there are two very distinct camps when it comes to the current Eagles starting quarterback. There are those who see him as a victim of circumstance, hindered by injuries and unfavorable surroundings. He had few offensive weapons in St. Louis. He had Chip Kelly’s bizarre system, and an awful offensive line, last year.
And then there are those – a majority, I’m sure – who feel he would have emerged as a star by now, regardless of the obstacles. In his critics’ minds, he is a draft bust, a player whose understated style proves he just doesn’t want success badly enough. Bradford has never had a winning season. He stinks. Move on. Or so they say.
Hey, I‘m as eager as everybody else to see if Wentz is as good as he appears to be, but the conversation with Bradford last week has convinced me to put that urge on pause, at least for a while. With a favorable West Coast system, a reinforced offensive line and the freedom to call audibles, Bradford deserves one more chance.
It has been a very long time since Bradford had to earn his starting job – nine seasons since he began his Oklahoma career by winning the offensive player of the week award in his first two collegiate games. He went unchallenged as the starter for three years with the Sooners, and in his first six years in the NFL.
He has no such luxury now, and the competition seems to be having a positive effect. Despite Wentz’s undeniable gifts and career backup Chase Daniel’s familiarity with the system, Bradford is the best quarterback at training camp right now, and it’s not close.
Wentz shows flashes of brilliance, but Bradford is far more accurate with his throws and, understandably, is far more comfortable in the role of an NFL starting quarterback. In fact, Bradford said to me last week that he hasn’t felt this comfortable in years.
And that’s why I’m ready to make bold predictions about the lame-duck quarterback of the Eagles. If Bradford is able to avoid injury – a major accomplishment, given his history – he is going to surprise all of the people who have given up on him, and on the 2016 Eagles. His competitive spirit is going to fuel a comeback this season.
“Pride always comes just before the fall, doesn’t it?” he said with a laugh last week.
Maybe. But I’m betting it’ll come just before the rise this time.
It’s always amazing to me how one dumb sports comment can morph into conventional wisdom. The latest example is the widespread belief that the 2016 Eagles have no game-breaking weapons on offense. This just in: The Birds have plenty of concerns, but a lack of big-play players is not one of them.
Granted, the Eagles do not have an Odell Beckham Jr. or a Dez Bryant, to name two superstars in the NFC East. If that’s your definition of a major offensive weapon, then OK. You win.
It is not my definition. I define a game-breaker as someone who can take a ball and race through the defense, someone with blistering speed and elusive moves. Somebody like, say, Darren Sproles. As usual, critics are forgetting just how dangerous he can still be at 33.
Add to the elusiveness of Darren Sproles the 4.4-40 legs of Chris Givens, one of GM Howie Roseman’s under-the-radar free-agent signings who is reuniting with quarterback Sam Bradford. As a rookie in St. Louis, Givens established an NFL rookie record by recording plays of 50 yards or longer in five straight games. He’s not a game-breaker?
And Givens is not even the fastest Eagle on offense. That distinction goes to Nelson Agholor, who ran a 4.27 40 at the NFL combine last year. Remember him? Agholor is the first-round draft pick who got lost in Chip Kelly’s system last season. He appears to be finding himself this year, a typical progression for young receivers.
Another forgotten big-play guy is running back Kenjon Barner, a breakout star in the preseason last year before injuries set him back. Barner will have a better chance to emerge now that DeMarco Murray took his big paycheck and slow legs to Tennessee. I’m betting he will.
Then there’s Zach Ertz, the tight end who is ideally suited to the West Coast offense, which emphasizes pass-catching at the position. Ertz is fast, agile and smart. Now that he has shed the bias against pass-catching tight ends harbored by Kelly, is there one good reason why he cannot become a major weapon?
The list goes on. Heck, I haven’t even mentioned two starters – Ryan and Jordan Matthews. The point is, the Eagles will be dangerous all season, despite the naysayers. They have more than enough weapons to compete. OK? Is that settled now?
The very essence of our love for sports is the bond developed between young people and their heroes. How many fans today are addicted to the Eagles because they felt a personal bond with a special player like Brian Dawkins or Randall Cunningham?
Never has this connection been better captured than in a remarkable new play called “Tommy and Me” currently on stage through Aug. 14 at Theatre Exile on Delaware Avenue. Because every show in this limited run has already sold out, you will have to be patient until its inevitable return. Believe me, it’s worth the wait.
The story behind the production is almost as compelling as the play itself. It was written by Ray Didinger, a legendary columnist who has also done exemplary work in television, radio and books. At 69, he had never even tried to write a play until two years ago, when one of the best stories of his life demanded to be told.
So he sat down and pounded out a masterpiece about his early bond with Tommy MacDonald and his relentless crusade to get the Eagles wide receiver inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The play has everything – humor, pathos, thrills, and an ending that stays with you for days.
Every night, it inspires the 200 patrons to cheer the good times and groan at the bad. They even get a chance to howl at the Dallas Cowboys, and the fans haven’t missed their cue yet. The underlining theme is that sports is more than just an endless stream of games and seasons. It touches many of us far more deeply than that.
I’m not giving away the big finish when I say the play has the happiest of endings. Didinger’s campaign wins MacDonald the ultimate honor. In fact, they both reside in the Hall of Fame now, MacDonald in the player wing and Didinger among the media standouts.
The play belongs right there in Canton with both of them. It’s Hall of Fame material, executed brilliantly by director Joe Canuso. Don’t miss it when it comes back to town.
And finally …
• Marvin Harrison had the audacity last weekend to rip Philadelphia fans at his Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Calling Indianapolis fans “the best in the world,” he added: “I’m from Philadelphia, the home of the Eagles. If you get the coin toss wrong in Philadelphia, they want to trade you the first thing on Monday morning.” Hey, Marvin. If the Indy people are so wonderful, why do you still live here?
• Two human dumpster fires, Donovan McNabb and Curt Schilling, also felt compelled to rip Philadelphia fans last week. Fresh off two DUIs, McNabb rolled out his tired musings about the fickle nature of the paying customers, and the oft-fired Schilling called the old 700-levelers “felons.” Shut up, boys. All of you. Just shut up.
• This is going to be a very long year for Chip Kelly in San Francisco. The Niners are favored to win no games this season, they already have a quarterback controversy, and opponents have deciphered the coach’s fast-paced offense. Kelly did manage to get his pal, Tom Gamble, a job in the front office, but he’d be smart not to pass up the holiday party this time.
• Umpire Bob Davidson was wrong to eject a fan behind the third-base dugout at Citizens Bank Park last week for heckling the San Francisco Giants. According to witnesses who called my WIP radio show, the fan used no profanity and was actually entertaining those seated around him. This is Philadelphia, Bob. The fans have a right to speak their minds.
• When President Obama predicted that “it’s about to get a lot better” for the Sixers, he sparked instant speculation that he could be a potential buyer for the team. Oh, I get it. After eight years of running the country, he’s ready for a real challenge.