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December 26, 2017

While you were panicking, the Eagles were actually, you know … winning

Opinion Angelo Cataldi
122517_Elliott_USAT James Lang/USA TODAY Sports

Philadelphia Eagles kicker Jake Elliott watches his successful go-ahead field goal as tight end Trey Burton and punter Donnie Jones celebrate and Oakland Raiders cornerback T.J. Carrie looks on in the fourth quarter at Lincoln Financial Field.

In the 86-year history of the Eagles, only two teams have ever won 13 games in a season. You’re watching one of them right now. So why is everybody treating the latest adventure, a 19-10 win Monday night over Oakland, like an ugly Christmas sweater? When did we all become art critics instead of football fans?

At one point in his post-game analysis, coach Doug Pederson actually felt compelled to remind the media – and himself – that the Eagles had actually won, thereby securing the home field in the NFC throughout the playoffs. A victory Sunday against Dallas will give the Birds their first 14-win season ever.

What you’re about to read is a far more positive spin on an admittedly maddening game than you will read anywhere else, from someone who is known far more for seeing the thorns than smelling the roses.

This morning I did two things that dramatically altered my perception of the win. First, I checked my column from last week, a screed against a defense that had somehow allowed 504 yards to a putrid Giants offense. And second, I saw a stat that amazed me.

Due to the misdeeds of Eagles backup quarterback Nick Foles and his sputtering offense, Oakland is the first NFL team in 16 years to have six possessions at its own 40-yard line or better and come away with zero points. Yes, the Raiders were partly to blame for that epic fail, but there were 11 Eagle defenders on the field, too.

And the truth is, the Eagles defense didn’t just rebound from its flops in Los Angeles and New York; it regained the playoff form that has brought the team more success than anyone imagined so far this season. To hold any opponent to 10 points is remarkable in the NFL. To do it when the other team is constantly in your territory is even more impressive.

Ronald Darby best personified the turnaround when he avenged a dreadful game against the Giants with a terrific effort against the Raiders, including the decisive play, an interception with 54 seconds left that set up Jake Elliott’s game-winning field goal. Darby’s pick was the fifth turnover in the second half for the defense.

That’s right, five turnovers in 30 minutes. Did that fact elude the critics? Did the game-saving strip by Malcolm Jenkins of Jalen Richard at the Eagles’ 16-yard line also slip everybody’s minds? Or how about the big interception by Patrick Robinson when the Raiders were threatening to take the lead midway through the fourth quarter?

If the Eagles defense plays like it did on Christmas night during the playoffs, the team is headed to the third Super Bowl in its history. And if the offense plays the way it did against the Giants and Rams in the two weeks before, the Birds are going to hold a parade in early February.

Does anyone remember how the only other 13-win regular season ended, all the way back in 2004? The Eagles lost their final two games against inferior opponents by a composite score of 58-17. Then, in the playoffs, they squashed Minnesota, 27-14, and Atlanta, 27-10.

Defense wins in the postseason. The Eagles’ defense just had a fantastic game. So smile, everybody. The only fans who have a right to be grumpy today are the ones who predicted more than 13 wins this season.

In other words, nobody.

NoneJohn Geliebter/USA TODAY Sports

Sixers coach Brett Brown.


The drumbeat is already beginning. Brett Brown is coaching for his job right now, after losing the last nine of 11. He already has the worst record of any head coach in NBA history, and still, he’s still on the Sixers’ bench after four-plus miserable seasons. The team is undisciplined. His end-of-game strategy stinks. He needs to go.

Yeah, right. Brett Brown is what’s wrong with the Sixers. It’s not a front office that, again, used the No. 1 pick in the draft on a kid who’s not playing. It’s not a medical staff that keeps clearing players to play when they shouldn’t be playing and keeps benching them for no good reason. It’s not an ownership that has zero regard for the fans.

The chronic failure of the organization came into full view last Thursday when the Sixers were hosting Toronto. Embiid, who had missed two previous games because he played 49 minutes with a fickle back a week earlier, was upgraded from questionable to probable – just in time for fans to buy tickets on StubHub.

Twenty minutes before the game, with the crowd already in the stands or on their way there, Embiid suddenly went from probable to out. Hmmm. There’s no way the team knew Embiid was not likely to play and sent out a bogus message just to profit from the secondary ticket market and to fill the seats, is there?

Perish the thought.

Despite the Christmas win over the Knicks, Brett Brown is not having a good season on the bench. All of the above complaints are valid. But it would be a laughable injustice to sacrifice a man who so ably represented the organization when there are so many other people far more worthy of dismissal.

GM Bryan Colangelo is the one who drafted Markelle Fultz, the one who allowed the young guard to play the first few games with an obviously injured shoulder, the one who is ducking questions about this latest fiasco. Other than drafting Ben Simmons – an obvious move – what has Colangelo accomplished in 20 months here?

The medical staff headed by a Barcelona soccer doctor and an Australian cycling medic was brought here because these docs had methods not just to treat injuries, but also to avoid them. In the past two weeks alone, JJ Redick, Robert Covington, T.J. McConnell, Trevor Booker and, of course, Embiid and Fultz have all missed time. This is effective preventative medicine?

Meanwhile, owner Joshua Harris and his CEO Scott O’Neill have been conspicuous only by their absences, once again hiding when times are tough. Is anyone left in Philadelphia who believes these two carpetbaggers have any regard for the fans?

And yet, the only one at risk right now is Brett Brown? If the Sixers fail to make the playoffs this season, the coach may lose his job – but he won’t be the biggest reason why the Sixers failed.

***

John Middleton has been hypnotized. There’s no other logical explanation for the Phillies owner’s delusional comment last week that his team is “close” to winning again.

Close? The Phils lost 96 games last season and couldn’t even nudge ahead of two pitiful NL East rivals, Atlanta and New York. Their power is condensed primarily at one position, first base (Carlos Santana, Rhys Hoskins, Tommy Greene). They have one good starting pitcher (Aaron Nola) and no quality relievers.

They also employ a novice GM who and still speaks primarily in theoretical terms, using analytical philosophies that are equally unproven. Their president, the supposed architect of the rebuild, is invisible. The rest of the front office is clogged with stat nerds. The new manager (Gabe Kapler) is, um, unorthodox, to say the least.

There are only two things about the Phillies that are undeniably good right now: Citizens Bank Park and the Phanatic. That’s it.

Having spent an hour with Middleton on my WIP radio show last spring, I feel as qualified as any media member to provide insight into the elusive billionaire who has the loudest voice in the Phillies’ boardroom. I still believe he is the best hope fans have for another great team, but now I am seeing more reasons for concern.

Middleton made his money in the cigar business, and it is becoming clear that his business expertise is not transferring smoothly into baseball. He has placed way too much trust in president Andy MacPhail and GM Matt Klentak, and he is blindly and robotically preaching the gospel of analytics.

I’m not here to tell you exit velocities and spin rates have no place in the game. But there’s no question – at least to me – that there is already an overreliance on statistical analysis. All you need is your eyes to see that Freddy Galvis is a better option at shortstop than J.P. Crawford, on-base percentages be damned.

The Phillies are not close to contending in the NL East. They are a muddle of disjointed parts being assembled with pie-in-the-sky theories by stat-crunching novices. They will lose at least 90 games again next season. Bet on it right now.

And then we can only hope John Middleton will wake up from this trance and see the truth about the Phillies.

And finally ...

     • Was there a sadder sight on Christmas night at Lincoln Financial Field than franchise quarterback Carson Wentz sitting alone in the owner’s box watching his Eagles scrape past Oakland? His only companion was a pair of crutches he must use because of knee surgery two weeks ago. Can you imagine the excitement in Philadelphia right now if Wentz were still healthy? Life is just not fair, especially in the NFL.

     • One of the great voices of sports, Dick Enberg, passed away last week at the age of 82. For five decades, the sound of Enberg’s voice meant you were watching an important event. He was articulate, well-prepared and – above all – knew he was not the No. 1 reason people were watching. And he had that trademark exclamation, “Oh, my!” He is already missed.

     • Why, after all these years, does the NFL still find it impossible to define a catch? The league’s failure could decide the championship this season because now Pittsburgh will have to face New England on the road in the playoffs because of a decision to nullify a catch by Steelers tight end Jesse James on Dec. 17. If breaking the plane of the goal line doesn’t end a play, what does? Ridiculous.

     • Maybe it’s my bias against all Cowboys, past or present, but I’m still waiting to be bowled over by Tony Romo’s work as the No. 1 analyst on CBS. Granted, he has not been an embarrassment, but his work covering the Jesse James non-catch in Pittsburgh was amateurish and ludicrous. First, he said it was definitely a catch, then he refused to take a position. Am I the only one who thinks Romo is overrated?

     • Now that the Flyers have resumed their losing ways, it might be time for GM Ron Hextall to snap at the media again and offer another resounding vote of confidence to his beleaguered head coach Dave Hakstol. It’s been a few weeks now since Hextall was offended by valid questions about his team, hasn’t it?

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