May 29, 2017
After a bad season and now his absence from the first week of OTAs, Fletcher Cox should be cowering at the prospect of facing the Philadelphia media, the so-called toughest group of reporters and columnists in America.
He isn’t. I guarantee it. Because our city’s sports media has become as soft as a newborn kitten. This current group of scribes and babblers must have taken more courses in public relations than in journalism. For the most part, all they lack are pom-poms.
As the Cox case developed last week, our docile new media turned out looking worse than the overpaid, ungrateful defensive tackle. Voice after voice offered the same spin – OTAs are voluntary. Relax. Cox will be there when he needs to be.
Of course, these are the same alleged journalists who didn’t bother to report the fact that Cox had a miserable season after signing a $103-million contract. How else would you interpret these numbers? Cox went from 71 tackles in 2016 to 43. He dropped from 9 ½ sacks to 6 ½ sacks. In two games, he made zero plays. None.
What you got from the army of Cox defenders was that he faced double teams far more last season and that the injury to linemate Bennie Logan severely impacted his effectiveness. Not true. Cox was less effective last year because he was far less motivated. A $26-million signing bonus tends to slow down some players.
But those who ignore the money Cox miss the overriding point on why he had no choice but to show up for the OTAs. With the second-highest paycheck of anyone at his position (behind Ndamukong Suh) comes an obligation to act like a leader – to help indoctrinate the new players into the system, to inspire a team hoping to contend for the NFC East title.
The argument that the OTAs are voluntary is equally infuriating. It begs the question of why Cox was one of only four players who snubbed their teammates. The other three were Jason Peters, a banged-up 35 year old trying to stay healthy; Marcus Smith, a first-round bust who won’t make the roster; and Donnie Jones, a punter.
Cox belonged with his teammates last week, and it was the responsibility – the obligation, really – of the media to hold him to that basic standard of behavior. Instead, the prevailing response was a shrug, if not a kiss. In Philadelphia, of all places.
When I moved here 34 years ago, I did so because it was the toughest sports-media town in America. Head to the archives and check out how Stan Hochman surgically dissected stingy Eagles owner Norman “Bottom-Line” Braman, or Bill Conlin’s stunning depiction of the Phillies’ hierarchy as drenched in alcohol.
In fact, you can also check out the way I covered Buddy Ryan in 1986, when I held him to every boisterous promise he made after taking the Eagles’ head-coaching job. I was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, but it wasn’t the biggest benefit from that work. Resonating with the fans in this passionate sports city was the real prize.
Nowadays, every week of sports coverage in Philadelphia is filled with endorsements of “the process,” blind support for people who have no track record for success, or admonitions to calm down despite year after year of losing.
I talk to the fans for four hours every day on WIP radio, and I can say with absolute conviction that they have not grown as soft as the people covering the sports they love. They spent last week verbally hammering Cox for his selfishness. In a blue-collar city where you have to work every day to feed your family, commitment matters.
Soon, Fletcher Cox will return to the OTAs, but he has nothing to fear. The fawning media will treat his excuses like scripture, printing every hollow word without challenge.
What Cox should never do, however, is check the comments at the end of the articles – the voice of the fans. Unfortunately, that’s just about the only place where you can find the real truth about sports in Philadelphia these days.
As the Phillies’ No Urgency Tour slogged through town last week, doubts were growing about two of the prospective stars of the immediate future. Is it too soon yet to say that neither Odubel Herrera nor Maikel Franco will be part of the next era of winning baseball in Philadelphia?
The problem with these two enigmas is not talent. Their ability will never be in question. But their baseball intelligence, well, that’s an entirely different story.
For example, Herrera – who plays the game hard only when he feels like it – has dropped 69 points in his batting average (.217) from last season, and he appears to be uncoachable, despite his age (25) and the sad fact that he has accomplished next to nothing so far in the big leagues.
After striking out five times in a game last Thursday, Herrera actually said: "I feel that I am making good swings, but I'm just missing the pitches. . . . I feel I am swinging the bat well.”
Apparently, it hasn’t occurred to Herrera yet that the object of the game is to actually hit the ball.
Franco is equally perplexing. Manager Pete Mackanin benched the 24-year-old third baseman for two games last week because he had been flailing helplessly at just about every outside breaking ball. His .213 batting average – 42 points below last season – is not going to cut it in the major leagues.
The issue with both players is whether they will ever respond to the demands of the game. Mackanin acknowledged last week on my WIP radio show that handling Herrera is a unique challenge – and the manager has been in the game more than 40 years. Franco works hard, but seems far too easily distracted.
GM Matt Klentak has a mountain of statistics evaluating the most intricate aspects of the game, but I wonder if any of those numbers includes a basic baseball IQ.
Based on recent developments, it appears Herrera and Franco are near the bottom of the league in that category as well.
Bryan Colangelo has placed himself in a very uncomfortable position. The Sixers GM rarely speaks, but when he does, he almost always says something absurd.
Last week, he actually proclaimed that “we have a lot more knowns than unknowns” after the team’s 11th losing season in 12 years. He compared the situation to last year at this time, when the Sixers were coming off a pathetic 10-win season. Now, having improved by 18 wins, he is ready to take a bold stand.
The only problem is, there are almost as many unknowns now as there were in 2016. Really, the only known is Dario Saric, the young forward who figures to win the Rookie of the Year award. Saric did two things that are uncommon in this era of Sixers basketball: he played well and stayed healthy. Imagine that.
Joel Embiid was terrific in the 31 games that he played, but if the young center’s fragile health is a known, Colangelo is going to have to explain his definition of that word. Ben Simmons is not exactly a sure thing right now, either, with his slow-healing foot and zero experience in the NBA. Jahlil Okafor has to be an unknown, too, unless the GM has finally concluded that the Duke bust should leave.
And then there’s the No. 3 pick in the draft. Yes, the Sixers know where they’re picking, but they have no idea who they’re picking. Will it be Josh Jackson, who was accused of pummeling the car of a young woman and threatening her? Lonzo Ball and his crazy father? Malik Monk, another Kentucky one-and-doner?
The ultimate irony of Colangelo’s remark is that the GM himself is far from a known quantity right now. He is standing firm behind a medical staff that has failed spectacularly – a ridiculous decision – and he has admitted his own shortcomings in communicating with fans.
A lot more knowns than unknowns?
Maybe Colangelo is better off not speaking.
And finally . . . .
• CBS producer Lance Barrow actually called his new No.1 NFL analyst Tony Romo “the next John Madden” last week. OK, so let’s review. Romo played for the most hated team in football (Dallas), was a terrible interview during his 13-year career and has zero experience in the broadcast booth. And now he’s the next John Madden? Brace yourself, Tony. You’re heading for disaster.
• Peter Laviolette is back in the Stanley Cup finals, coaching the underdog Nashville Predators against Pittsburgh. Meanwhile, the Flyers are out of sight, out of mind. Since Laviolettte was fired as coach here, the Flyers brought in Craig Berube and now Dave Hakstol. Is it just me, or are the Flyers are going in the wrong direction with their coaching hires?
• Here’s an early NFL prediction: Hard Knocks will be a huge hit this year, and the star of the show will be ex-Eagle DeSean Jackson. First of all, Jackson is a narcissist ideally suited for reality TV. Second, his new offensive coordinator in Tampa Bay, Todd Monken, is already calling him out publicly. Will Jackson made a jackass of himself on television? Oh, you can bet on it.
• Two hours went by at the first day of OTAs before anyone realized Eagles linebacker Marcus Smith wasn’t there. This oversight doesn’t bode well for the first-round bust making the roster this season. I’m just saying.
• Meanwhile, Odell Beckham Jr. blew off the first week of the New York Giants’ OTAs to hang out with NFL pariah Johnny Manziel. When it comes to excuses, is there a worse one than that?