September 28, 2015
Pope Francis isn’t the only one who left town on Sunday. The army of doomsayers who presided over the most negative week in recent Eagles history also said goodbye to our city — at least for now — after the Eagles performed their own miracle, a 24-17 win over the New York Jets.
Suddenly, the Eagles are a game out of first place in the putrid NFC East, and Dallas quarterback Tony Romo’s collarbone is still broken. The Giants are awful, and the Redskins — next on the Birds’ schedule — are even worse.
Does anybody want to bet against the Eagles winning the division now? Is anyone still planning to send coach Chip Kelly back to college? Are there any fans quitting on a season that is three games old?
The answers to those questions are no, no and no. In fact, a poll Monday morning of hundreds of Eagles fans showed that 71 percent now believe the Birds will win the NFC East – three days after 60 percent picked the Jets (4-12 last season) to beat the Eagles. Go figure.
As someone who has talked to fans for more than a quarter-century on my WIP radio show, I feel qualified to say there was never a week like the one leading up to the win over the Jets. Even in the inspiring presence of the pontiff, the prophets of doom dominated the conversation for seven brutal days.
Kelly was the main target, for good reason after the worst football game ever played against Dallas. But the coach wasn’t the only source of gloom. By the end of the week, quarterback Sam Bradford was said to be scared, the offensive line was a lost cause, and Byron Maxwell was Nnamdi Asomugha.
But then a very strange thing happened as the city simultaneously hosted the pope and planned a funeral for the Eagles. The Birds suddenly ran the ball effectively again — 108 yards for backup running back Ryan Mathews. Their defense drowned the Jets in a deluge of turnovers and big stops. Kelly called a smart first half and then milked the clock effectively in the final minutes.
No, it was not a masterful performance. Bradford still missed some key throws, Mathews coughed up a dangerous fumble, and the defense did give up 323 yards. Nobody is crowing about a trip to the Super Bowl like they were after the preseason game against Green Bay. Not at all.
But former Eagle Ron Jaworski, who knows a little bit about football, warned everyone before the first game that the new roster Kelly created will take time to gel. The current team is a work in progress, and that’s exactly what the Jets’ win meant — progress. New players need time to feel comfortable together.
The win over the Jets presented some encouraging signs. Against a tough defense, the offensive line was dramatically better, both in creating space for Mathews and in protecting Bradford. Sub Jordan Hicks accounted for two turnovers himself, and led the team with 10 tackles. Defensive tackle Brandon Bair may be a better shot-blocker than Nerlens Noel. Darren Sproles is just plain amazing.
Kelly won a combined 20 games in his first two NFL seasons, and the Jets’ game at least proved he did not have a lobotomy in the off-season, though some of his roster decisions remain dubious. Kelly is not a terrible coach, and the 2015 Eagles are not a terrible team; they just had a terrible start. They will contend for the division title, and may actually be the favorites now.
Imagine that. One visit by Pope Francis, and the Eagles are born again. Just one question: If the pontiff brought so much good karma, why did we let him leave?
The Phillies haven’t named a general manager to replace Ruben Amaro Jr. yet, but new president Andy MacPhail tipped his hand last week. The new GM is ... Andy MacPhail.
When Pete Mackanin lost the interim tag as manager and signed a new deal through the 2016 season, MacPhail was establishing clearly that the president will be making all of the major decisions for the Phils, not the new GM. Why else would MacPhail appoint a manager before he named Amaro’s successor? Doesn’t a GM normally choose the manager?
This declaration of power is entirely understandable; MacPhail didn’t come out of retirement to watch someone else decide what trades to make, what free agents to sign and what manager to hire. MacPhail is here because he has been very successful at those things.
The only problem is, he wasn’t honest about his intentions. Instead, he said this: “I’ll just go full disclosure here ... It takes you a while to find a G.M., and then (when) he gets consumed the first month or two with a manager and coaching staff, look how much of the offseason we’ve lost. That’s a high price to pay.”
Full disclosure? Not even close. When MacPhail hired the manager himself, he immediately excluded all of the alpha candidates for GM because they would insist – demand – that they get to pick the person they will be working with most closely. No elite GM candidate will embrace the manager who is already in place. It’s that simple.
Now, please understand. MacPhail has every right to make all the key moves. He built a champion in Minnesota and rebuilt rosters in every other city where he served as GM. Nobody he hires will have the record of success that he has. If he thinks Mackanin can continue the progress of this season, that’s fine.
Andy MacPhail just needs to know now that it’s better to speak the truth to Phillies fans, regardless of the implications. When he opts for “full disclosure,” he should really mean it.
Flyers fans have a reputation as the most loyal in Philadelphia, if not in North America. Good team or bad, they have been filling every seat at the Wells Fargo Center for decades. Last season they finished fourth in NHL attendance – far higher than the hockey club ended up in the standings.
And loyal they remain after an off-season in which the new GM hired a new coach, remade the roster with young players and created a new culture in an archaically traditional organization. They only thing that hasn’t changed is the loyalty of the fans, more than 15,000 of whom have bought season tickets for the new season.
Technically, that number is about 500 less than a year ago, but it represents a stunning display of confidence compared to our other teams (except the Eagles, of course, who sell out all eight home games every year). Despite exorbitant prices – well over $100 a game – and hikes in parking and food, Flyers fans just keep on buying tickets.
Meanwhile, the Phillies have lost half their total attendance – and close to half of their season-ticket base – in the past three years. The Sixers ranked dead last in attendance last season in the NBA, after finishing as high as third 12 years ago. They have lost over 7,000 fans per game since their last run of success.
What makes the Flyers fans so much more forgiving? Part of it is the family atmosphere chairman Ed Snider has created; Flyers fans really bond with their team, and with each other. Also, they truly love hockey. They are cult-like in their zeal for the sport and their affection for the guys in orange and black.
In return for this generosity, the Flyers need to break their 41-year Stanley Cup drought while Snider, 82, is still here to enjoy it. They absolutely must return to the playoffs this season, and give these fans what they deserve – a product as exceptional as their loyalty.
And finally …
• Jonathan Papelbon is now officially the biggest knucklehead in sports after grabbing by the neck and slamming against the dugout wall Washington teammate – and NL MVP – Bryce Harper on Sunday. The ex-Phillies closer, who has led the Nationals right out of the playoffs with his shaky pitching and surly attitude, still has a year to go on his contract. He will probably be watching that final season from home, however, because he is toxic.
• Remember that outpouring of praise for Ruben Amaro in the weeks before his well-deserved firing last month? Well, consider this: The Phils announced over the weekend that they will pay Cliff Lee $12.5 million not to pitch for them next season. Bad contracts are Amaro’s only legacy here. Good riddance to him.
• If nothing else, the 0-2 start by the Eagles this season proved how many enemies coach Chip Kelly has made in his two-plus NFL seasons. Before the win over the Jets, the air was filled with smoothie jokes and “genius” scoffs, primarily from the snide traditionalists who love to see new ideas fail. If these Neanderthals had their way, players would still be wearing leather helmets.
• Kelly is not exactly ingratiating himself with the media around the league, either. When a New York reporter asked the coach last week about using ex-Jet quarterback Mark Sanchez, Kelly snapped: “What are you, his agent?” The next time Kelly screws up, he can expect serious media backlash because of this attitude. Believe it.
• The visit of Pope Francis to Philadelphia exceeded all expectations, but Jim Gaffigan – normally a brilliant comedian – bombed after he rolled out a Santa joke, alluding to the time Eagles fans threw snowballs at the jolly fat man. Can we finally retire that tired old punch line now? After all, it has been 47 years.