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November 07, 2016

Face it, Eagles fans: The Birds just aren’t good enough yet

Not this year, Philadelphia. The Eagles are not going to win the NFC East, will not make the playoffs, and will be lucky to win half their games in the rookie seasons of coach Doug Pederson and quarterback Carson Wentz. By every rational measure, they are simply not good enough.

If there was still any doubt about the prospects of this puzzling team, it evaporated at the Meadowlands yesterday with a performance that was abysmal in all phases of the game. Wentz handed the Giants a two-touchdown lead, the defense caved when it needed to dominate, and Pederson had no answers.

The Eagles have now lost four out of five since their 3-0 start, and doubt has crept into the minds of even the most optimistic fans. Was it asking too much for the Birds to contend in a season of transition? Apparently, it was.

The most sobering part of both this bad streak and the 28-23 loss to the Giants was that the main attributes of the team early in the season are all in question now. Wentz is not the miracle worker we thought he was. The defense is not the overpowering force we expected. And Pederson is no genius.

Much is being made of the coach’s decisions to go for it twice in the first half on fourth down when field goals seemed a smarter option. That’s a reasonable criticism, to be sure, but far more frustrating were the play calls Pederson made in those important moments.

For a former quarterback whose specialty is calling plays, Pederson somehow thought it was a bright idea to roll out Wentz on one fourth-down try and to send tiny Darren Sproles right up the middle on the other. Dumb and dumber.

And in the final minutes — after the Giants tried to hand them the game with two late turnovers — the coach called one low-percentage pass play after another against a New York blitz. In fact, Pederson was inept all day calling plays inside the red zone. What was his strategy against a bad defense? Was there a strategy?

In retrospect, there was only one play that could have resulted in a winning touchdown, a pattern over the middle to Dorial Green-Beckham that Wentz overthrew. On a bewildering day, Wentz’s two early interceptions sailed well beyond his targets, and he was erratic again late in the game. This was not the kid from the first three wins.

Despite the alarming failures of Pederson and Wentz yesterday, the most upsetting aspect of the loss in the Meadowlands was the defense coming up small when it needed to play big. Yes, it got the late turnovers, but the prevailing impression is that the secondary is slow, confused, and consistently inconsistent.

Even before the 3-0 start, the best hope for the Eagles this season was a dominant defense and an opportunistic offense. Neither is turning out the way we had envisioned. The defense under Jim Schwartz has been overrated, and Wentz looks more and more like a 23-year-old rookie learning on the job.

It’s time to deal with reality. The Eagles are not as good as the Dallas Cowboys (ugh), not good enough to sneak into the playoffs, and definitely not good enough to win nine, 10 or 11 games.

Remember when we thought this was going to be a rebuilding season?

Well, guess what.

It is.


Josh Huff’s awkward release last week exposed a major flaw in the Eagles organization, an inability to think quickly and logically. Why did it take two days for the team to dump a marginal player after his arrest for DUI, speeding and possession of an unregistered gun?

In the puzzling days after the Eagles released this latest mistake from the Chip Kelly era, the organization tried to cover up its own indecisiveness with the usual rhetoric about conducting a through investigation. The truth is, GM Howie Roseman (and, presumably, owner Jeff Lurie) blew it.

First of all, from a practical standpoint, Huff was pretty much useless as a wide receiver, having caught 13 passes for 72 yards in almost half a season. He was a far more effective kick returner, but easily replaceable with a handful of other speedsters on the roster. He was about as expendable as an NFL player could be.

Second, what he did was unfathomable. Even if the team found a way to rationalize the guns charge (like they did for Nigel Bradham), the possession of hollow-point bullets should have been a deal-breaker. Huff wasn’t just trying to protect himself; he was armed for war.

And third, the front office made coach Doug Pederson look like a chump, to the public and – more importantly – to his players. After announcing that Huff would actually play Sunday, the coach had to backtrack one day later by gingerly justifying the about-face of his bosses. How many players now see the coach as a puppet?

A smart organization would have held a news conference the day after the arrest – last Tuesday – and the GM would have announced the immediate release of Josh Huff. Instead, Roseman stayed in hiding an extra day, made his coach look foolish, and then explained the move by repeating his scripted remarks like a trained parrot.

Unlike his first tour of duty as GM, when Roseman actually had a weekly radio show, he has been elusive and robotic on those rare occasions when he fulfills the public responsibilities of his job. Roseman may need another year in exile to fix that part of his game.

The bottom line on this mess is that Huff was not enough of a contributor to risk the public damage the Eagles caused by butchering a very simple matter. Huff is already forgotten, but how the Eagles mishandled his departure is going to linger for a while.

Five million jubilant fans created the biggest sports parade in American history last Friday in Chicago – a turnout that may endure only until the Eagles break their own championship drought some time (we hope) before we get too old to enjoy it.

The Cubs winning the World Series after 108 years of frustration is the best story of 2016, if not the decade. It involved so many casual fans that baseball beat football in prime-time TV ratings for the first time in a generation. Game 5 trampled that terrific overtime Eagles-Dallas game on Oct. 30 – by 32 percent, no less.

And that’s not the only thing that the Cubs’ improbable comeback from a 3-1 deficit accomplished. It also established Cubs president Theo Epstein as one of the greatest team-builders ever, and the all-time curse-buster. (He ended the Red Sox’ 86-year streak in 2004.) Manager Joe Maddon will someday join him in the Hall of Fame.

For a while, the World Series also elevated Terry Francona to elite status as Cleveland’s manager, a plateau that seeming impossible when he was blundering his way through four awful seasons with the Phillies. Of course, Francona is back among the mortals after ending up with Michael Martinez as the last batter in Game 7.

But before the loss, Francona struck a blow against the robots in baseball (are you listening, Pete Mackanin?) who assign specific innings to relief pitchers, logic be damned. The way Francona used Andrew Miller should serve as a wake-up call to all future strategists. Sometimes, the best reliever should not be the last.

It was impossible to watch the Chicago parade without fantasizing about what an Eagles championship would create. Unlike the romanticism that engulfed the Cubs’ long journey, there is no hidden charm in losing here. Eagles fans have waited 56 years now, and many of us won’t be around if we have to wait 108.

Would Philadelphia – which drew well over two million for the Phillies parade in 2008 – top the five-million mark that Chicago set last week?

Here’s a much better question: Wouldn’t it be fun to find out?

And finally ...

• Joel Embiid remains the biggest story in the past three-plus hideous seasons for the Sixers, but now the scrutiny is turning toward Brett Brown, who is in his fourth year as head coach and his first actually trying to win games. In what would have been a thrilling victory over Cleveland on Saturday night, the Sixers turned the ball over the last five times down the floor and ended up losing, 102-101. Why can’t Brett Brown’s team finish? Is it the coach? Stay tuned.

Matt Stairs is an excellent hitting coach. That’s why the two-year experiment of Stairs working in the TV booth with Tom McCarthy ended last week with the Phillies moving the likable ex-hero into the dugout. Stairs was always enlightening on the art of hitting, but otherwise he was rough on the ears. He was neither funny nor all that interesting in the role of color commentator. Here’s one vote for Ben Davis to do all the TV games next season.

• Why has Flyers coach Dave Hakstol suddenly become obsessed with goalie Michal Neuvirth, who started the last four games – and appeared in all five – over a span of eight days? Granted, Neuvirth is probably slightly better than Steve Mason, but it makes no sense to burn out one of your goaltenders in the first month of the season.

• Dean Blandino, a man of dubious judgment, is a focal point in the ongoing investigation into the alarming decline of NFL TV ratings this season. The vice president of officiating – best known for spending a night on the Dallas Cowboys’ party bus two years ago – does not agree at all that there are too many penalties. In fact, last week he proposed that crews add another official next season to monitor hits on the quarterback. Blandino is clueless. He needs to go.

• The most poignant story that came out of the Cubs’ championship last week was that of Darel Sterner, a lifelong fan who was at death’s doorstep during Game 7 of the World Series. When the final out was recorded, a member of his family whispered to Sterner: “The Cubs won the World Series.” Three hours later, Sterner passed away. Now that’s the true definition of a diehard fan.