Category Archives: Sports

Go Your Own Nay

Wiz

By GORDON GLANTZ

@Managing2Edit

GORDONVILLE — Let the oddsmakers make their odds.

Let the doubters doubt.

Let the naysayers nay.

Let the Nick Foles haters hate.

Let the national networks do their little human interest features on players from other teams.

They neither have the Eagles pegged nor right where they want them.

They have the Eagles right where they need to be – the No. 1 seed, playing at home in a championship game against the second-seeded Minnesota Vikings.

Chips on shoulders aside, there are several reasons for optimism heading into Sunday night’s game, the outcome of which will determine if the Eagles will go to the third Super Bowl in their history.

Let us count the ways:

In Through the Outdoor: While the forecast does not call for the same kind of bitter cold that served as the backdrop for the 15-10 win against the defending NFC champion Atlanta Falcons, the game will still be played outside and not in the cushy temperature-controlled environment in which the Vikings played 11 of theirs games, counting playoffs (10-1 inside).

Plus, with kickoff coming at 6:40, there should still be a chill in the air – and enough of a wind to affect kicks and punts and passes that it will be felt, even if it is not to the extreme.

This is not to say the Vikings are ill-equipped to play outside. These are professional athletes, and the No-Dome Syndrome might have been more of an issue with a high-octane team like the Saints, who were defeated last Sunday by the Vikings on a miracle heave-ho from quarterback Case Keenum (1-4 on the road against teams with winning percentages of .666 or better) to Stefon Diggs (getting behind a safety not named Malcolm Jenkins).

The Vikings, like the Eagles, play stifling defense and effective offense. However, it should be noted that their defense is not quite as prone to stifledom on the road, where they give up just under 20 points per game. They pitched one road shutout – in Green Bay – but that was with Brett Hundley quarterbacking the Packers. Take that out, and they are giving up 22 points per game.

For as maligned as Philadelphia fans are for throwing snowballs at Santa Claus around the time of the American Revolution, they will be bringing the noise to back a defense that has been stifling at home.

Wiz With: There was a lot of worried talk – maybe too much, in retrospect – when MVP candidate Carson Wentz went down with a season-ending knee injury. Even though Nick Foles guided them to a crucial victory against the playoff-bound Rams in Los Angeles (playoff spot clinched) and then looked like his 2013 version against the lowly Giants (division clinched), the haters started hating after a forgettable performance in a win over the Raiders (home field advantage clinched) before not getting out of his funk in a cameo against Dallas.

Reality is that football is the ultimate team game, even when you lose your franchise quarterback. While the game plans were purposefully vanilla against the Raiders (a risk that almost backfired) and the Dallas in a glorified preseason game, other players were not on the field as well.

Let’s focus on one in particular: left guard Stefen Wisniewski, who was out of the lineup for the Giants and Raiders games before coming back for a few “timing” snaps against Dallas.

The unsung hero of the line, whose assertion into the starting five instead of Isaac Seumalo seemed to make the difference in the offense, Wisniewski used the bye that Foles helped earn to be back in midseason form against the Falcons. Result? Left tackle Hal Vaitai was more stable, while center Jason Kelce – a finesse pivot who thrives between physical guards like Wisniewski and Brandon Brooks – played outstanding.

Against a stellar Vikings’ front line, featuring a defensive end in Everson Griffen (13 sacks), who will likely big looking to take advantage of Vatai, the presence of a healthy Wisniewski – instead of Seumalo or Chance Warmack – is not as sexy to talk about as a receiver-corner showdown, but it’s vital. Games are still won and lost upfront. That’s why these two teams are still playing.

Second Helping: In many ways, if you break it down, last week’s meeting with the Falcons was more daunting, and it was more understandable that the Eagles were underdogs. Atlanta was the defending NFC champions and really made blowing a Super Bowl into an art form. It was a team that had been there, with something to prove, and had the hot hand. Conversely, the Eagles were loaded with players in their first NFL playoff game. Combine that with the layoff, and it could have spelled doom. Instead, the Falcons scored all 10 of their points off turnovers (a field goal after a Jay Ajayi fumble and their only touchdown following a fluke where a “poison” punt seemed intent on ricocheting of every guy in a green uniform). With that first experience in the books, and all the rust shaken off, the Eagles will go in relatively healthy and raring to go.

Celluloid Heroes and Zeroes: The Eagles have likely been scouting the Vikings for a while now, and vice-versa, but they couldn’t ask for a better game film to look at than last week’s miracle win against New Orleans. They get to study the Vikings (two of their losses outside) looking flawless in the first, looking flawed in the second as they blew their seemingly insurmountable lead, only to reclaim it on a play that will not only never happen again for a long time, but might have them in a psychological mode where the way they won syphoned a lot of gas in the tank. The emotional needle could be close to E on Sunday. The Vikings are talking about the walk-off touchdown more than they are the Eagles. It’s not a knock on the talent level, as nobody gets this far without a lot of it, but it is still a game of emotion. The Eagles’ win over the Falcons was a more businesslike win in a defensive slugfest.

History is Our Story: As mentioned earlier, as the No. 1 seed at home, the Eagles are on the right side of a 28-12 record. They are also 4-0 as home underdogs. In their history, they are 3-0 against the Vikings in the playoffs. Most notable are home wins in 1981 (1980 postseason) and 2005 (2004 postseason), which ended with the Eagles in the Super Bowl. In 2005, they beat the Vikings (27-14) and then the Falcons. Will it be the inverse order this time around? The oddsmakers, naysayers, self-proclaimed experts and Nick Foles haters all say no. But a lot of signs point the other way as well.

This analysis originally appeared at http://www.phillyphanatics.com

Feeling For Foles

Nick-Foles-2

By GORDON GLANTZ

@Managing2Edit

GORDONVILLE — All across the nation, there are young boys – and probably some young ladies, too – dreaming of being an NFL quarterback.

Reality often squashes those dreams. If they are lucky, maybe they get to run the scout team in high school and parlay that skill into quarterbacking the flag football team for their frat in college.

End of the day, there are NFL-level jobs for 32 of the trillions to start, and another group to either back them up or hang on a practice squad with as much job security as seasonal help for a department store about to declare bankruptcy.

The opportunity to be under center for a playoff game only enhances the aforementioned dream.

All that said, when Nick Foles sits back in the shotgun for the first time in the Eagles’ Divisional Round Playoff game one week from Saturday, no one should want to be in his spikes.

Unless the Eagles win it all, it will be all his fault. And if he pulls a Jeff Hostetler and wins it all like “Hoss” did in Super Bowl XXV for the Giants, it will be portrayed as the Eagles doing it in spite of him.

It’s neither fair nor accurate.

In 2013, when Foles threw 27 touchdown passes against two interceptions while ringing up an outer-worldly 119.2 QB Rating and winning MVP of the Pro Bowl, he immediately became saddled with the label as “the guy who will never do that again” instead of “he may not do that again, but we’re OK if he comes close.”

Meanwhile, the league is full with quarterbacks getting multiple opportunities to play based upon the pipedream that they can “do that” just once.

As the postseason approaches, it is time for a serious reality check.

Even before wunderkind Carson Wentz was lost for the season with a knee injury, the realistic perspective from the “thinking” part of the media and fan base was that he gave them a chance – key word being “chance” – to bring the Eagles Nation its first championship since 1960 and the first in the Super Bowl era. The hoisting of the Lombardi Trophy was far from a foregone conclusion, with the nailing down of a first-round bye and the home field advantage being seen as a major step in the right direction.

It may not have been pretty, but Foles kept that train on the tracks.

If pretty is what you want from Foles, you are going to be disappointed. If you want a guy who finds a way to win, even if it is by virtue of avoiding finding a way to lose, Foles fits the bill.

By the numbers

In 2012, as a rookie on a hideous team in Andy Reid’s final season, Foles started the last six games and was 1-5. Throw that out the window – as you should, considering the implosion going on around him – and he is 21-12 for his career.

In 2015, after being sent to the St. Louis (now Los Angeles) Rams, Foles was 4-7. He was replaced by Case Keenum, who went 3-2 but was still sent into exile after going 4-5 as a placeholder for Jared Goff last season.

Ironically, it is quite possible Foles and Keenum – now quarterbacking the Vikings after Sam Bradford (the guy traded here for Foles from the Rams before the Eagles traded Bradford to Minnesota for first-round pick that turned into promising defensive end Derek Barnett) – could match up in the NFC Championship Game at the Linc. That scenario is getting too far ahead of ourselves, but it would kick more dirt on the legacy of former Rams’ coach Jeff Fisher, who clearly stayed in the game well past his expiration date.

If you’d like to see the glass as half-full, we can throw out Foles’ 4-7 mark with the Rams, too. To be fair, we can subtract his 1-0 record starting last year for Reid and the Kansas City Chiefs. And we won’t even subtract the loss after playing less than a half in the season-ending loss to Dallas. This leaves us with Foles’ record as a starter, not counting his stoic-under-fire rookie season, as 16-5 in an Eagles’ uniform.

And yet, with winning being all that matters, he has gone from St. Nick status to the Grinch status while still keeping the Eagles in position to do what has not been done in most our lifetimes.

He may not have left a highlight reel under the tree, but we unwrapped a crucial first-round bye to rejuvenate the team and then the chance to play two home games before likely meeting New England or Pittsburgh in the Big Dance in Minneapolis.

Home teams only win at a rate slightly above .500 in the wild card round, but that percentage goes up over .600 in the divisional and championship rounds, so we are talking about substantial steps toward the ultimate goal.

Did Foles do it alone? No, not all.

He’s not Carson Wentz. He won’t strap a team on his back and will it to victory. He won’t avoid three sacks on a third-and-12 and turn it into a 20-yard gain to spark a scoring drive. He doesn’t have the athleticism that makes the Eagles impossible to stop in the Red Zone.

But Wentz will be the first one to tell you he wasn’t doing it alone, either.

It will take a village

What would be your reaction if a crystal ball revealed Foles’ two-game playoff stats as follows: 26 completions in 67 attempts for 281 yards, one touchdown and four interceptions?

You would not be expecting the Eagles to be in the Super Bowl, but those are the exact numbers Ron Jaworski put up for the Eagles – with “Jaws” throwing three picks in the Eagles’ 27-10 loss to the Raiders in Super Bowl XV.

They still got there, with others filling the void on what were tough days, weather-wise, to throw.

The feeling here is that you should be less worried about Nick Foles and more worried about left tackle Halapoulivaati Vatai and his ability to stave off what will likely being the opposition’s best defensive end and/or blitzes. He will be targeted, and it would be a shame to lose a possible safety valve receiver – tight end or running back – to help him block.

You should be more worried about cornerback Jalen Mills, who bites on double moves faster than a shark bites bloody chum.

Vatai and Mills are among many Eagles who will be playing in their first playoff game. Foles is not among them. Actually, he started at quarterback the last time the Birds were in the postseason and led a fourth-quarter comeback against the Saints that the special teams and defense could not hold.

The special teams and defense need to do their part this time around. While it is likely the offense will at least initially play more for first downs than touchdowns, punter Donnie Jones will need to avoid touchbacks. He’s a tenured veteran, and that’s what he is paid to do. If a game of field position means more field goals than touchdowns, rookie Jake Elliott can’t afford to miss. Every point counts.

And, to be honest, this team – even with Wentz – was not reaching the Promised Land without unforgiving defense. First against the run during the season needs to carry over to the postseason. In terms of sacks and turnovers, quality over quantity would be a fair trade.

And some secret weapons, in all three phases, could be the difference. How about dusting the moth balls off of Trey Burton, or trying to take a strategic deep shot with rookie Mack Hollins? This is the first season since Dave Fipp has run the special teams without a kick return for a touchdown and two since a punt return to the house.

That’s a direct challenge to Kenjon Barner, who has been flirting with disaster on some punts down the stretch. Or maybe Corey Clement fields a short kickoff and goes all the way?

And maybe this could be when Jay Ajayi breaks loose as the clear No. 1 back and turns 15-20 carries into more than 100 yards.

If most or all of this is there, the offense does not need to score 30 points in what will be cold conditions that should favor the Eagles.

The recipe for victory is right there. Repeat it again the following week, and we can talk about the third time being the charm for the Super Bowl.

Setting up to Succeed

The coaches have to put the players in position to win. In the NFL, especially when the stakes are raised, it is – as the kids say – “a thing.”

Nick Foles is what he is: a system quarterback. If the offense clicks, Nick clicks. If it doesn’t, he won’t. That’s not all on him.

While the Eagles have struggled on third down lately, head coach Doug Pederson accurately pointed out that the issue is really first and second down. That means establishing the run and setting up some nice screens and maybe going more the dink-and-dunk route to get Foles into a rhythm.

It’s also fair to submit that the game plan was purposefully vanilla against Dallas, and probably not too elaborate against Oakland, either, as the feeling may have been that the Raiders could be beaten without playing a full hand for future opponents to see.

If so, it was a risk that almost backfired.

But it didn’t.

We are right where we need to be.

This can still happen, and Foles will not be the reason it doesn’t.

What has to happen?

Cut down the penalties to nullify positive offensive plays, let alone extend drives for what will be good opponents who will capitalize.

There can’t be drops, like that of Torrey Smith on third down when Foles had the offense moving on the first possession against Dallas. It is highly likely that if that pass is held, Smith runs for a while. The Eagles come away with points – three or seven – and Foles likely exits with everyone feeling a whole lot better about him right now.

But when you are Nick Foles, the “guy who will never do that again,” that’s not the way it is.

Nobody really ever feels good about you. Even when you throw four touchdowns in your first start, it is quickly pointed out that it was against the Giants.

It’s a bad spot to be in, but that does not mean the outcome can’t still be good overall.

Even if the guy living out the American dream gets no credit.

This column initially appeared at phillyphanatics.com

Open Letter to Alabama Voters

ForMooreBlog

Dear White Alabama,

I know you don’t me well.

In fact, you don’t me at all. Doubt you would if you could. I am, after all, a Yankee – and one of them “Bernie Bernstein” Jews on top of that.

Probably would help if I told you I was a non-practicing Jew, because that would make me even more of a heathen in your twisted view.

Our connections are few, really. On Sunday mornings, when y’all were at church and hearing your ministers justify your hate from the pulpit, my grandfather – I called him Poppy but, for your sake, I’ll say “Grandpappy” – would break out his string instruments. One of his favorites, played with a banjo on his knee, was “Oh Susannah.”

And once, while on vacation in Florida, all the menfolk gathered round in the hotel lobby and watched the 1973 Sugar Bowl game between Notre Dame and Alabama that received a staggering 25.1 Nielsen rating.

In the neutral ground of South Florida, it was just me and some guy with a twang and a crew cut pulling for y’all. I didn’t quite get all the Notre Dame love, but my next several decades on the planet – and opening some them there American history books — have “learned me up” a bit.

Upon further review, it was probably more dislike for ‘Bama than it was love for and often self-righteous Notre Dame program.

While Notre Dame was a Catholic school born from an era when Catholics did not have many options for higher learning, black student-athletes first showed up in South Bend after World War II and the first non-white football players came in the 1950s.

Meanwhile, Alabama’s Bear Bryant didn’t start recruiting black players until he took that 52-6 ass-whooping against racially mixed USC in 1970.

Here it was, just a few years later, and an Alabama team with black players was looking to secure a national title with a win over Notre Dame.

I would have been a bit peeved, too.

But what did I know? I wasn’t even 8 years old. I was on your side. I was rolling with the Tide (maybe the only Yankee Jew ever to do so).

But yeah, other than that, you don’t know me.

I may as well be an alien from another galaxy.

Sometimes, though, that’s we need when it comes to advice and constructive criticism.

Yes, Alabama, I’m here to tell you that you don’t have much of a positive reputation around the rest of the country.

You are right down there with Mississippi, and that’s nothing to be proud of, is it?

Even some of your other southern brethren – like in Virginia, Tennessee and the Carolinas — are a bit ashamed of you.

On Dec. 12 — 2017 years after the arrival of your lord — you have a chance to begin changing your image a bit.

No one is expecting a complete and total metamorphosis – I’ll wait while you go down to that library place two counties over, wait in line for the one tattered dictionary and look it up – and that would be hypocritical to expect one.

All of us need to look in the mirror. All of us have room for improvement. All of us have skeletons in our closet. All of us could show others a different side of ourselves.

And it has to start someplace.

It can’t be done all at once.

So let’s keep this as small as a plate of grits (I do eat them, and like them, by the way).

This Roy Moore thing – or thang – is that line in the sand.

The rest of us see you one way.

There is a reason I – and many others – have flirted with a brain hemorrhage from laughter while watching “My Cousin Vinny.”

We’re not laughing with you. We’re laughing at you.

We see you as a bunch of separate-water-fountain-drinkin’, lynch-mobbin’, cross-burnin’, toothless-smilin’, big-butt-lovin’, bible-misinterpretin’, gay-hatin’, wildlife-huntin’, George-Wallace-alter-worshipin’, Conferedate-flag-wavin’, tobacky-chewin’ traitors still fighting the Civil War and proud of your low ranking in education.

Show the rest of us we are wrong.

Stereotypes – all stereotypes, up to and including Yankee Jews – are built upon some basis of fact.

But they are patently unfair, because there exceptions to all rules.

Be the exception to that rule on Dec. 12, and do not elect that creepiest of creeps, Roy Moore, for senate.

Show us that you can put what’s right over being white, and that party affiliation is not in the Ten Commandments. Show us what being a Christian is more than selectively absolving people of their sins.

Yeah, yeah … I know your voting machines probably wired to start to overheat once a Democrat, in the post-Dixiecrat era, nears 50 percent.

We’ll send in the fire companies to put out the fires.

And, really, is Moore’s challenger, Doug Jones, so horrible?

It is only recently, since the repeated allegations against Moore being a pedophile surfaced, that he started treating the blacks in your state – a good portion of which can’t vote because of a systematic lockout via crime-and-punishment that would be more akin to North Korea – like actual people.

Yeah, yeah – he prosecuted them “good ‘ol boys” who bombed that church and killed those girls back in the 1960s, but that was one of those steps toward dealing with your history that we discussed earlier, was it not?

And trust me – as much as you can a Yankee Jew – on what I’m about to tell you: Doug Jones, at least by blue-state standards, is pretty much a Republican anyway.

But he’s not a teen-girl-stalkin’, gun-wavin’ caveman like Roy Moore, who probably belongs in jail more than he does in the US Senate.

Even before the allegations, he was so deplorable that Lord Deplorable in the White House didn’t want any parts of his act (UPDATE: He now says, “Got ’em, Roy,” because, well, every day is new low).

So, come Dec. 12, if you do us this solid – that’s Yankee talk – we’ll return the favor.

We’ll bless your hearts.

Peace,

Gordon L. Glantz

Mayor of Gordonville, USA

P.S.

As far as Alabama or Auburn players helping the Eagles, we’re still cool.

Seven for Heaven

 

Celek Point

By GORDON GLANTZ

@Managing2Edit

GORDONVILLE — Back in the preseason, before the reality sets in that every other team in the NFL has undrafted rookie skill-position players looking like unearthed gems and veteran free agents who look like magic panaceas to all previous ills, veteran Eagles’ tight end Brent Celek was interviewed on the sideline. He was asked about the prospects of the 2017 version of the team, in the second year of the Doug Pederson/Carson Wentz era, moving out of the shadows of 7-9 mediocrity.

A grizzled veteran of trench warfare, Celek refused to buy into any “sky is the limit” cheerleading.

Instead, to paraphrase, he explained that every season – heck, every game in season – has adversity built into it.

While Celek – who has played under three coaches now – allowed that some exciting talent was in place, and previous holes were seemingly patched by de facto GM Howie Roseman and sidekick Joe Douglas, it would impossible to predict the way it would translate into the won-loss column until the team faced adversity and how it then dealt with it.

What could not have been known in the humid air of that August night was just how much adversity, and how much success, it would translate into.

The Eagles have since lost four Pro Bowl-level players: first all-purpose yardage magnet Darren Sproles and special teams demon Chris Maragos, and then Hall of Fame-bound left tackle Jason Peters and middle linebacker Jordan Hicks.

They lost their projected No. 1 corner, Ronald Darby, to injury after trading away reliable receiver Jordan Matthews.

They lost their kicker, Caleb Sturgis, only to land a rookie, Jake Elliott, who won them a game on a 61-yard boot at the buzzer and continues to kick at a high level.

They overcame national naysayers, doubting the team and its coach. They overcame local media attempts to make it sound like defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz was plotting a coup.

They overcame beginning the year with two road games, not to mention three of the first four, and also playing on the road on a short week in Carolina, where they were undaunted by lopsided officiating.

They have found ways to win the same kind of close games they found a way to lose last year.

And they overcame the adversity of having to wait until the second week in November – and nine games into the season – before catching their breath and enjoying a bye week.

While the Eagles’ still have concerns – such as not being able to afford another substantial injury at offensive line or linebacker – they have gone beyond Celek’s wildest dreams.

Not only do they sit atop the NFC East standings, but, at 8-1, they have the best record in the entire NFL. And talk of maybe just squeaking into the playoffs at, maybe, 9-7, has turned into realistic expectations of getting a first-round bye, home-field advantage and – whisper – a trip to the Super Bowl.

The bad news is that the Eagles now hit another tough stretch of schedule.

The good news is that, at least in the division, they have earned themselves a bit of breathing room.

Before any champagne is uncorked, please remember the Eagles of 1994, who started 7-2 and finished 7-9. Remember the Eagles of 2014, who beat up the Cowboys, 33-10, in Dallas on Thanksgiving Day to take a two-game lead in the division, only to miss the playoffs altogether.

Yet, this team seems different in many ways.

It has more locker-room leaders – Celek and safety Malcolm Jenkins, not to mention Sproles and Peters – than it is does locker-room lawyers.

While the jury has not rendered a final verdict on Pederson, he seems a bit more grounded – and committed to the long haul – than Rich Kotite and Chip Kelly.

And quarterback Carson Wentz, who is currently on a collision course with a boatload of postseason accolades, is not Mark Sanchez or Bubby Brister.

Aside from being the complete athletic package, and possessing the leadership skillset that makes him the quarterback of the future, Wentz would trade any prize ticketed for his trophy case for a ring on his finger and a lifetime key to the city.

Still, just as Celek cautioned back in the preseason, the Holy Grail for the Eagle Nation – most of which is too young to recall much about the 1960 championship season, let alone those of 1948 and 1949 – it will not happen without dealing with more adversity.

We won’t waste space here going gray over the litany of things that can go wrong. We all know what those things are. We have lived through them.

Instead, let’s look what needs to go right during the final seven games for the Eagles to be positioned to get to the Super Bowl in Minneapolis, and to not be content with taking selfies on media day, but actually win it all.

Let’s call it the Lucky Seven:

1. Stay Healthy

This is football, and football is a violent game. Injuries happen, and they will continue to happen. Just because the Eagles have been hit hard doesn’t mean they will be spared. Nonetheless, while they have a more than capable No. 2 quarterback in Nick Foles, Wentz has to stay upright. Also, they can overcome injuries as many spots. Last week, for example, Pro Bowl-bound tight end Zach Ertz was scratched but Trey Burton and Celek picked up the slack. Sproles went down, and undrafted rookie Corey Clement has filled the void while recently acquired Jay Ajayi adds another option. Rookie Mack Hollins can step in for an injured receiver.

However, they are down to their final options on the offensive line, especially tackle. Hal Vatai – aka “Big V” – isn’t Peters, but he is not Joe Conwell or Antone Davis, either. If Vatai or Lane Johnson goes down, the next up is Isaac Seumalo, who was already benched after being handed the left guard job now manned by Stefen Wisniewski. On the other side of the ball, the injury to Hicks has allowed more snaps for Mychal Kendricks, who previously came off the field when Schwartz went to two linebackers. After requesting a trade in the offseason, Kendricks is having a career year while fellow linebacker Nigel Bradham is playing out of his mind. Lose one or the other, it suddenly means more snaps for Joe Walker, a seventh-round pick in 2016 who is essentially a rookie because he missed last season with a knee injury. Darby also needs to get back into the mix at close to 100 percent, because better teams and better passing games will soon exploit rookie Rasul Douglas. And the safety tandem of Jenkins and Rodney McLeod is essential. Not much behind them.

2. Lasso the Cowboys

The Eagles still have two games with the second-place Dallas Cowboys, including the first game back from the break, in Dallas, on a Sunday night (Nov. 19). A win there would put Dallas well behind the pace, while a loss would keep them within striking distance.

3. Lay It On The Line

The football graveyard is littered with defensive fronts that spent the first halves of a season being compared to the Purple People Easters, Fearsome Foursome and Gang Green, only to fizzle and fade away down the stretch. The Eagles have had such exceptional play from their defensive front that the same comparisons are occurring now. It is premature to go there, in terms of a place in history, but the immediate concern is to maintain that dominance against the run and continue with a pass rush that is top-flight at forcing early throws and does well enough at getting home with sacks.

On paper, there seems to be enough depth to avoid hitting a wall. Pro Bowl tackle Fletcher Cox has benefitted from Timmy Jernigan as much as Jernigan has flourished next to him. Beau Allen is the consummate third tackle and Destiny Vaeao is getting more snaps. Outside, the presence of first-round pick of Derek Barnett, who gets better each week, has seemingly made Vinnie Curry better, while Brandon Graham in Steady Eddie on the other side. Meanwhile, veteran Chris Long has proven to be a welcome addition. Steven Means, a nice player in his own right, can’t even get on the field.

4. Maintain Focus

“One game at a time” is what is taught on the first day of Coachspeak 101. However, for reasons never really pinpointed, it often sticks with certain teams. Pederson keeps saying it, and the Eagles keep living it. However, as the season goes on and the glare of the national spotlight grows more intense, this has to be maintained. After Dallas, win or lose, the Eagles come home to face a young Chicago team – not much unlike the Eagles of a year ago – that won’t be a pushover. It is the ultimate trap game, with three straight road games to follow.  The first two road games are against likely playoff teams, Seattle (Monday night) and the Los Angeles Rams, before getting a bit of a theoretical breather in the Meadowlands against the hapless New York Giants. Those road games are followed by a Christmas Day home game against the Oakland Raiders, who may be playing for their playoff lives.

Without the senseless drill of going game by game, let’s say the Eagles need to go through this tough stretch at no worse than 3-3 – although 4-2 would look a lot better – in order for the final meeting against the Cowboys to feature Nate Sudfeld handing the ball off to Kenjon Barner and throwing passes to Shelton Gibson while the starters and key subs rest, hopefully for two weeks, for the playoffs. Not going to happen without continuing to buy into the one-game-at-a-time approach.

5. Keep Adding to the Supporting Cast

There have been some pleasant surprises, from Elliott being next to automatic on field goals (not quite the same on point-after kicks) to Clement to slot corner Patrick Robinson to Chris Long to Wisniewski to Douglas. That would mean Vatai holding his own, the continued maturation of Agholor as a slot receiver and a strong second half from emerging first-round pick Derek Barnett in the defensive end rotation. Extra defensive backs like Jaylen Watkins and Corey Graham and Douglas, if he goes to the bench in favor of a healthy Darby, would help the cause with some key plays and key times. And it wouldn’t hurt the cause to see Ajayi break loose for 100-plus yards in some of these tough road games, or to see Barner turn a game around with a punt return to the house (and then hand the ball to Sproles on the sideline). While Alshon Jeffery and Wentz seem to be clicking, it would be nice to see Torrey Smith regain his quarterback’s confidence.

6. X out the X

That would be the X on their backs. This relates to Points 4 and 5. While the players need to act like they have been here before and not give fuel to anyone’s fire, the coaches have to not become overly predictable. A downside of being the best team in the league nine games in is that it gives future opponents plenty of tendencies to study. It is a fine line to walk, between not doing what brought you to the precipice of a bye week and home-field advantage and still keeping a trick or two tucked up your sleeve.

7. Believe

Believe in the odds (a rent-a-city like Tampa Bay won a Super Bowl, for crying out loud). Believe in Wentz as the messiah. Believe in Pederson. Believe in magic – the breaks and bounces never seem to go our way finally going our way (61-yard field goal, for example). The team seems to believe it, and they may not get the pending sense of doom many of us feel, but it wouldn’t hurt to go with the flow. And, most of all, believe that inevitable adversity can be overcome.

This column/analysis first appeared at PhillyPhanatics.com

Tweet Home Alabama

roy-moore

By GORDON GLANTZ

@Managing2Edit

GORDONVILLE – So what is it all really about, this kneel-or-not-to-kneel controversy stirred up by the “president” recently?

Was it really about what NFL players do before a game during the national anthem?

Given the fact that the players generally weren’t on sidelines for pre-game pomp until 2009, around the time the military and the NFL struck a mutually beneficially deal to exploit the new brand of conditional patriotism spawned after 9/11, not really.

Was it about this generation’s Curt Flood, Colin Kaepernick, who is not even playing this year – and is seemingly in hiding?

Nope, not really.

For the answer, peel away the layers and see what’s left.

With his make-believe empire crumbling around him, the “president” stirred his pot of diversion while in Mobile, Alabama.

He was campaigning for Luther Strange, who was about to engage in a runoff election against Judge Roy Moore in a special election to fill the senate vacated when former senator, Jeff Sessions, made the fateful choice to of going from deep-fryer into the fire and become the attorney general.

This is in Alabama, y’all, where “heritage” is a dollar-store disguise for hate.

The kind of place where baseless claims have hit a bull’s eye with his base, where “real” Americans fly flags of treason next to the Old Glory that is to be honored without dissent.

When the “president” tossed Crimson-colored meat to his ravenous followers and ranted about “firing” (there is no such term for NFL players, who are “cut” or “released,” usually with financial consequences for the team that signed them to contracts) those “son of bitch” (i.e. black) football players, it was to appeal to the lowest common denominator in the state that ranks 45th in education.

If they were a little quicker on the uptake, they might have known that a grand total of 10 players out of more than 1,000 took a knee during the previous week’s national anthem.

After he threw his stink bomb, an estimated 250 took a knee.

Seemingly, it lacked a spiral.

Playing his own “Trump” card, the far-right Moore, who was backed by former White House advisor scorned Steve Bannon and holds extreme views like wanting to ban homosexuality (always have to wonder about those who doth protest too much), waived around a gun at a rally a few nights later.

The message: You don’t out-Alabama an Alabama boy in Alabama.

He won by 10 points.

A sweet win for Moore and more Tweets from the “president.”

And that’s what this was all about.

It wasn’t about the NFL’s “son of a bitch” players at all.

It was about who was going to out-Alabama each other the most, in a race to the bottom in an appeal for the bottom-feeder vote.

In the end, it was Moore – hailing from Etowah County, which most known for a still-simmering 1906 lynching case after a white woman was killed – who was able to out-Alabama the slick-talkin’ billionaire Yankee from New York.

This is the Alabama where its “Black Belt Region,” where a large number of black voters live, are subjected to systematic voter suppression tactics (driver’s license centers closing before elections where photo IDs are required).

This is the Alabama where former governor and presidential candidate George Wallace was one of the last segregationist holdouts.

This is the Alabama where they are generally too dumb to realize that the Florida-based band Lynyrd Skynyrd was purportedly merely mocking the Wallace mindset in the state’s unofficial anthem, “Sweet Home Alabama.”

But the “president,” well, he “loves the uneducated.”

That’s probably why he doesn’t love the NFL, and its owners and players.

Turned out the “son of a bitch” players, and the owners who won’t “fire” them, are more sophisticated than he is on his last good day (if anyone can remember when that was).

What he learned – or should have – in his proxy battle with Bannon in the state that ranks fifth all-time in deaths by lynch mob is that more NFL players, and other pro athletes, are more educated than he would like.

Those interviewed – including NBA megastars Stephen Curry and LeBron James — after what will likely be the tip of the protest ice berg were they were as articulate about their reasons as the supposed leader of the free world was incapable of making sense of the issues.

It’s only going to get more intense when basketball season starts, and don’t be surprised if some of the NHL’s 25-30 players “of-color” players make a stand — or kneel — as well (despite being a league that includes many Europeans).

Being surrounded by sycophants afraid to tell him the truth, the “president” fails to realize that one is not a “son of bitch” for peacefully protesting while a White Nationalist/Neo-Nazi/Klansman – the “base” that Bannon told him to coddle – are not full of “many fine people.”

And when you ducked service in the military yourself with mythical bone spurs, you might be the last one to be preaching about disrespect to the flag and the military.

And for those who follow sports closely, who know that athletes with contracts are not at-will employees to be “fired” on a whim – you know, like on a reality TV show — his motives not only seems curious but were also exposed to a larger audience.

The “president” has his own axe to grind with the NFL, which rejected his bid to buy the Buffalo Bills in 2014. The antipathy goes back further, when he tried to force a merger with the USFL (he owned that league’s New Jersey Generals) and the NFL but saw his smirk turn to a frown when his awarded $1 in anti-trust lawsuit.

The result of the backfire?

The USFL, which was doing well in the spring, was dead – just like his many bankrupted companies – and a lot people were out of work, not just those on his team.

Was all this on his mind during the rant, which also included belligerence about the league attempted to catch up to itself on the concussion issue (one that also affects members of the military)?

Maybe.

But that’s not what this was all about.

This was about one thing.

It was about a state that proved not to be such a sweet home to his brand of bitter divisiveness.

It was about Alabama.

 

 

 

Hoping This Chase Won’t End In A Crash

Ertz

By GORDON GLANTZ

@Managing2Edit

GORDONVILLE — While I’m not much of a fan of chase scenes in films – especially when they are clearly being used as space-eaters to cover up a lame plot – there are enough storylines woven into the fabric of the 2017 Philadelphia Eagles that there is little to no reason not to cut to the chase from the jump.

What should we expect this season, the second in the tenure of head coach Doug Pederson and key members of his staff (offensive coordinator Frank Reich and defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz) and second in the redemption of de facto general manager Howie Roseman and sidekick Joe Douglas?

Enough intrigue to rival Game of Thrones, that’s what.

Prediction?

Honestly, and not to cop out, but I can’t tell you. Not in terms of wins and losses. Overall, I think this team could be a bit better than last year’s 7-9 squad that snatched defeat from the jaws of victory on too many occasions.

But the schedule is pretty exhaustive, beginning with two road games against the Redskins and Chiefs. And if the Eagles come in for their home opener against the Giants in Week 3 at 0-2, they are in must-win territory in September and could be behind an 8-ball that will grow to the size of the world’s largest 8-ball in Tipton, Missouri.

One would suspect the Eagles will again find themselves in close games, putting the magnifying glass on just a handful plays that will tip the scales one way or the other in those few contests.

Neither 6-10 nor 10-6 would surprise me, although I find it difficult to see this team scale the 8-8 wall without a few yet-unknown stars being hatched along the way.

As it is, we have the guys we can count on – and the lost causes we probably know we really can’t – and those somewhere in between.

As we now scrutinize the 53-man roster heading into Week 1, it seems to be more one of hope than nope, but a blessing from the Pope wouldn’t hurt, as bad bounces and injuries – not to mention gameday decisions from Pederson – might make the ultimate difference.

And now, if you dare, let’s sort out this Magical Mystery Tour:

OFFENSE

QUARTERBACK (2): *Carson Wentz, Nick Foles

Summary: Unlike last year, less latitude will be given to Wentz, who was thrown into a sink-or-swim narrative in 2016 when Sam Bradford was dealt to Minnesota with the season beckoning. Although Wentz set some rookie records, and took almost every snap, most of the records – such as Bradford’s for completions by a rookie (379) were the result of Wentz setting the franchise mark for passes thrown (607) and by throwing the second most all-time by a rookie in NFL history. All in all, we can safely say that Wentz – for whom the Eagles gave up a great deal in assets to acquire at second overall – treaded water when tossed in the deep end.

What has changed between then and now? Wentz sought counsel from a quarterback guru, took his receivers for pre-camp getaway in his native North Dakota and studied more film of himself than Warren “You’re So Vain” Beatty. For good measure, the Eagles reached back into their recent past and brought in Foles, the last Eagles quarterback to play in a Pro Bowl, to serve as backup. Assuming Foles’ aching throwing arm heals up before being pressed into action, this seems like an upgrade over a raw Wentz and Chase Daniel as backup.

Eagles-SprolesRUNNING Back (5): *LeGarrette Blount, Darren Sproles (left), Wendell Smallwood, Corey Clement (R), Donnel Pumphrey (R)

Summary: For a position where the leading rusher in the preseason, Byron Marshall, landed on the practice squad, this group sure attracted a lot of attention. Blount, who led the league in touchdowns with 18 in New England last year, didn’t do much in the preseason, while Sproles didn’t play at all as a precaution heading into what will likely be the final year of his borderline Hall of Fame career. There were barely any snaps for Smallwood, the talented but oft-dinged sophomore back who could prove to be an X-factor between Blount’s power game and Sproles’ as a third-down option. That left the discussion between that of compare and contrast between Clement and Pumphrey, who was drafted in the fourth round to ostensibly be the next Sproles in 2018. Thing is, if Clement were the fourth-round pick and Pumphrey the undrafted free agent, it would have been a quick conversation. As it was, Clement – a South Jersey native and this year’s Rocky Balboa figure who had a strong senior year at Wisconsin – played too well to cut. The harsh reality about Pumphrey was that he looks more like a poor man’s Kenjon Barner, a former underused Eagle just released by the Chargers, than a poor man’s Sproles.

This may all be much ado about nothing. Sproles will get the most touches, and the hope is that Wentz has mastered the art of the screen pass to make the best use of Sproles in the open field, while Blount will be the guy in short yardage and the goal line and the end of games when trying to secure leads. In between, there should be plenty of chances – 10 touches, maybe – for Smallwood.

TIGHT END (2): *Zach Ertz, Brent Celek

Summary: For the first time since Ertz was nabbed in the second round in 2013, this is not a power-sharing arrangement. It’s Ertz’s chance to prove himself to be an upper-echelon tight end, and he will need to do that with more than just a few big games to pad his numbers. Ertz will likely benefit from the addition of NFL-caliber receivers on the outside and burgeoning chemistry with Wentz. Celek, still a reliable underneath target, likely winds down his career here blocking and being a spiritual leader.

UNCLASSIFIED (1): Trey Burton

Summary: You could just label the fourth-year man out of Florida a tight end and be done with it, but, even there, it’s a tough call whether his spot on the depth chart is before or after Celek. Burton caught 37 passes last year – for an average just under nine yards per reception and one touchdown. The plan is seemingly for that catch total to go up to the 45-55 range, for maybe a 10-yard average and a few more scores. That will come with Burton lining up as a traditional tight end, a motion tight end, a slot receiver and out of the backfield. Since it is likely the Eagles dress just three running backs on game day, Burton would be next up in the dire event of two injuries. Ditto at quarterback, with only two, and long snapper. Did we mention that Burton is one of the team’s best special teams players as well?

WIDE RECEIVER (6): *Alshon Jeffrey, *Torrey Smith, *Nelson Agholor, Mack Hollins (R), Marcus Johnson, Shelton Gibson (R)

Summary: So, a year ago, Jordan Matthews was going to move from his comfort zone at slot receiver to wherever Pederson felt he had the best match-up for his default No. 1 receiver. Starting outside were Nelson Agholor, then coming off an uneventful rookie year, and the infamous Josh Huff. A year later, after trading Matthews – in spite of his kinship with Wentz – Agholor moves to the slot and legit veteran outside receivers Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith step into the mix. They do so looking to reclaim some lost mojo on their recent production, but the preseason revealed the obvious upgrade in skill and professionalism. This is the last chance for Agholor to show a pulse – especially with Hollins, a fluid rookie, waiting in the wings. Johnson is the more under-the-radar “Rocky” story. Cut last year and re-signed in the offseason, he shined in camp enough that Roseman began working the phones to bring in corners, and then he nailed down a roster spot while worrying about his family back home in the Houston area. Right now, Johnson (6-foot-1, 205 pounds, sub-4.5 40-yard dash) is a more size-speed guy than a finished product but, if dressed, will help on special teams. Gibson, like Pumphrey, only made the team because he was a draft pick – although he did look somewhat more in the flow of the offense in the final preseason game.

Eagles-KelceOFFENSIVE LINE (8): *Jason Peters, *Isaac Seumalo, *Jason Kelce (left), *Brandon Brooks, *Lane Johnson, Halapoulivanti Vatai, Stefen Wisniewski, Chance Warmack

Summary: From the outside looking in, this is one of the best lines in the whole NFC, if not the whole NFL. From this view? Eh. I’m not even sure if it’s the best in the NFC East, but I’ll take second – behind the Cowboys – and it will have to be in order for Wentz to utilize his new targets and for a better run/pass balance to be achieved. Peters, like Sproles and Celek, is nearing the end of the line. Unlike them, the success of the team rides more directly on his shoulders. Next to the aging longtime left tackle will be a first-year starter, and second-year man, Seumalo. There is upside there, but also a learning curve. While Kelce does some things that most centers don’t, like blocking 20 yards downfield on screens, he remains like the shortstop who hits 25 home runs but can’t crack the Mendoza line and isn’t really much more than an average fielder. His shortcoming is physicality in the trenches. Whenever the Eagles face a 3-4 team with a stout nose tackle, they are at an immediate disadvantage. The jury remains out on right guard Brooks, who was an above-average run blocker and below-average pass protector, making him an average player who had some personal issues going on as well. Right tackle Johnson is much like Ertz, his fellow member of the 2013 draft class. He goes in as a Pro bowl talent who still has to pay his own way to get there. The Eagles will start the season with only three reserves – center/guard Wisniewski, guard Warmack and tackle Vatai – but all have starting experience. In the case of Wisniewski, quite frankly, it might be an upgrade if pressed into action at center or guard.

DEFENSE

DEFENSIVE END (5): *Brandon Graham, *Vinny Curry, Derek Barnett, Chris Long, Steven Means

Summary: In a calculated risk, Roseman and Co. decided to address the secondary – in a draft loaded with blue-chip corners – by improving the pass rush and drafting Barnett in the first round. Time will tell if it was luxury they couldn’t afford, but the early glimpses of Barnett are that of an absolute beast who will likely overtake the perpetually underachieving Curry as the starter right before or after the bye week (Nov. 12). Long provides a steady veteran presence after winning a ring with the Patriots last year, while Means just played too well, for the second preseason in a row, to cut. As a matter of fact, this onetime journeyman received a contract extension. Graham, a second-team All-Pro choice last year, will get the most snaps in what will be a heavily rotated group.

DEFENSIVE TACKLE (5): *Fletcher Cox, *Timmy Jernigan, Beau Allen, Destiny Veao, Elijah Qualls (R)

Summary: With all due respect to Bennie Logan, who tended to break down by midseason and not draw significant double teams away from Cox, Jernigan’s ability to play in the other team’s backfield is an upgrade the brass is counting on. Allen just returned to the fold after a freak injury while working out in the offseason, but should get up to game speed and reprise his third tackle role. In the meantime, the cat-quick Veaeo and intriguing Qualls will get chances to appear on the radar.

Eagles-Kendricks dejectedLINEBACKER (6): *Nigel Bradham, * Jordan Hicks, *Mychal Kendricks (left), Najee Goode, Joe Walker, Kamu Grugier-Hill

Summary: Behind what appears to be a defensive line that might be stealing the headlines reserved for the offensive line, this group – if healthy – has a chance to do some easy cleanups and make plays. Hicks, in the middle, could arguably be the best player on the defense and is the unit’s most ascendant player. Bradham is earning his doctorate in Schwartz’s system, but more snaps will have to be found for a playmaker like Kendricks, who appears to be hitting his prime. Though essentially a rookie after missing last season, Walker is the likely fourth linebacker, while Goode and Grugier-Hill will be looked on to excel on special teams.

OUTSIDE CORNER (4): *Ronald Darby, *Jalen Mills, Jaylen Watkins, Rasul Douglas (R)

Summary: The Achilles’ heel of the defense for what seems like infinity will hopefully got a boost from a consistent pass rush, linebackers who excel in coverage and the combination of substantive additions. If that sounds familiar, it is almost verbatim of what I wrote last year about another cast of medicine men brought in to cure our ills at cornerback. The difference this year is that we are not looking at stop-gap guys. There seems to be a plan and vision of a future devoid of a revolving door of Bradley Fletchers and Leodis McKelvins. Darby, a former second-round pick of the Bills, has all the requisite physical tools and is immediately inserted as the No. 1 of the future after being acquired in a swap for Matthews and a third-round pick. There will still be a learning curve, as with Mills, a second-year man who played as well as could be expected in extended snaps last season as a seventh-round pick. He eventually will go to the slot when Sidney Jones, the 2017 second-round pick red-shirted this year with a ruptured Achilles, returns next season. Watkins is the defense’s version of Burton. In addition to special teams prowess, he can line up anyway in the secondary. Douglas, who led the nation in interceptions last year as a first-year starter at West Virginia, was drafted in the third round and is likely not to dress much on game day. He remains a work in progress but also part of a light at the end of tunnel that finally isn’t an oncoming train.

SLOT CORNER (2): *Patrick Robinson, Dexter McDougle

Summary: Robinson is this year’s lone carpet-bagger whose claim to fame is being a first-round pick and claim to shame is not living up to that before seeking refuge here. To Roseman’s credit, seeing Robinson getting torched by young receivers early in camp was enough to add Darby – albeit at the high cost of Matthews while banking on Agholor to arise from his coma and fill the void. To Robinson’s credit, he embraced a chance to stay on as the slot corner and made Ron Brooks expendable. While McDougle made the team after being added in a last-minute trade, he is only an insurance policy right now.

SAFETY (4): *Malcolm Jenkins, *Rodney McLeod, Corey Graham, Chris Maragos

Summary: Theoretically, a strong point. Jenkins and McLeod did a lot of chasing as the season wore on last season, but we will blame that on breakdowns around them. There’s only so much you can do on the back end when the pass rush is intermittent and the corner play non-existent. Graham is a key veteran who can be deployed in some packages. All that is separating Maragos from the Pro Bowl as a special teams choice is that the designation generally goes to players from playoff teams.

SPECIAL TEAMS

LONG SNAPPER (1): Rick Lovato

Summary: If it came as a surprise that the beloved snapper/magician Jon Dorenbos was traded away (almost unheard of for a snapper), it really shouldn’t have. There were signs a year ago that they were looking for a more cost-effective solution when a training camp roster spot was eaten up by a fella named Chris DePalma. Well, he didn’t make it, but Lovato – after filling in for an injured Dorenbos at the end of last season, did. If we don’t mention Lovato’s name at all – except for a special teams tackle or fumble recovery – then the mission was accomplished. If not, well, I wouldn’t want to be Roseman.

PUNTER (1): Donnie Jones

Summary: Now in the twilight of his career, but reliable, he fended off a formidable challenge this summer from undrafted rookie Cameron Johnston. Let’s hope the Eagles don’t live to regret it (i.e Brad Wing, now of the rival Giants).

KICKER (1): Caleb Strugis

Summary: He’s coming off a real good year, but yet he doesn’t inspire confidence. It might because he looks like he is 12 years old, or it might just be because he would need another solid season to settle any restless stomachs.

RETURN GAME: Sproles will reprise his role as punt returner before the curtain falls. The kickoff return job is likely to go to Smallwood, with either Hollins or Agholor also back deep, although some of the defensive backs – such as Watkins – have kick returning on their resumes.

COVERAGE UNITS: There seemed to be some slippage in this area during the preseason, but the hope is that it was more the net result of mixing and matching personnel and less that they will miss Bryan Braman, who was not retained as a free agent, or that coordinator Dave Fipp has been “figured out.” While Burton has made himself an integral part of the offense, Maragos is primarily just a special teamer now. Watkins and Grugier-Hill will be asked to become leaders of a next generation that will include Hollins, considered one of the best special teams players in college football the last few years.

* denotes starters

This preview/column/analysis first appeared at phillyphanatics.com

Birds With A Burden

Barnett-Curry

By GORDON GLANTZ

@Managing2Edit

GORDONVILLE — In high school, I was more freak than geek.

In adulthood, well, another story.

If my adoration for Star Trek isn’t enough, I often prefer documentaries over movies – especially if the movies in questions are sequels to sequels of rebooted sequels full of car-chase scenes, unrealistic fight sequences and gratuitous violence.

Then there is sports. I was always fascinated with drafts – all drafts, but football in particular.

I remember running home from school, turning on KYW and waiting for a report on the NFL Draft (I’m old enough to remember it being on a weekday and not in prime time). I was glued to the TV when the draft was broadcast on ESPN for the first time, and fascinated to learn – from a fellow counselor at Blue Bell Day Camp named Bill – that there was this thing called the “Ourlad’s Guide to the NFL Draft.”

Yes, I’m a draft geek, which put me in the Fantasy Football realm (always downhill after the draft).

That may be why I’m one of the few who boldly goes where no one with a life goes and watches as many preseason football games as possible.

And when it comes to the Eagles, well, I go one step beyond. From the VCR of yore to the DVR methods of the present day, I make sure I gather all the worthless knowledge I can about undrafted free agents with as much chance of making the team as I do.

With the 2017 preseason upon us, and the first glimpse of new faces – or others in the limelight of expanded roles – it is a time to dream through the eyes of others.

Like all good geeks.

But through it all – and through my training as a journalist – I can keep it real, too.

For every longshot that snares the last spot or two on the 53-man roster or turns up on the practice squad, the fortunes of the Eagles and their championship drought dating back to five years before I was born are going to ride on the shoulder-padded shoulders of players who need to live up to their advance billing.

At present, I have the Eagles anywhere from 6-10 to 10-6. That’s a big gap, especially since 10-6 would likely mean at least a wild card berth in the playoffs.

I also expect a lot of close games – games that are decided not so much by the final score but by the few key plays that turned it around one way or the other.

Who needs to make these plays, making the difference between 6-10 and 10-6 and all points in between?

These guys do:

1) Carson Wentz, QB: “Ah, come on,” you say. “Cut the kid a break.” Nope, can’t go there. That was last year. Wentz only started a season and a half in college. And while he led North Dakota State to a pair of national titles, it was at a lower level than Division I. The 16 starts last year were bonus time. Now we need to see some progress. Wentz has all the tools – size, arm strength, mobility, leadership skills and what has been billed as a photographic memory – but the football graveyard has a whole section for quarterbacks buried after the same obituary was written. Last year, especially early, we saw a glimpse of the possibilities. But we also got a heavy dose of reality. While he took almost every snap, learning on the job, we learned that his mechanics were so off that it was painful to watch. And in this system, the West Coast offense, he needs to do two things that Donovan McNabb subsisted on (despite being woefully inconsistent on short- and medium-range passes ): throwing a deft screen pass and being fairly accurate on the deep ball. Last year, we chalked up Wentz’s misfires to inexperience. This year, with an offseason to work on it with a quarterback guru, and with Darren Sproles to catch screens and newcomers Torrey Smith and Alshon Jeffery to get open deep, the franchise quarterback is under both a microscope and magnifying glass to get the ball into those hands.

Eagles-Ertz2) Zach Ertz, TE: Here in Philly, we sometimes get caught gazing at our own bellybuttons. When that happens, we are prone to think the guys in green are more impactful than they truly are in the overall picture. Here is where the Fantasy Football geek in me pays dividends. I know, from my own painful experience with Ertz and from the litany of Fantasy draft guides I read, that Ertz – a non-entity as a blocker in the real world – is in the upper middle class of tight ends (i.e. not in the top 10, but not quite middle of the pack) when it comes to receiving production. The major issue here has been the Red Zone. Out of 17 targets – more than one per game (he played in 14) – Ertz had four touchdown catches in 2016. The year before,  he had just two. There have been injuries and excuses made, but the fact is that a one-way tight end with his size and the skills he has flashed should be a security blanket for a young QB. That’s what Ertz needs to be, and not just in a double-digit game or two to pad his statistics. Stay healthy, get open and catch the ball. Two-way tight ends are coming back into vogue, so his time in Philadelphia – let alone the league, at least as anything more than a role player – could be more numbered than we realize on the surface.

3) Derek Barnett/Vinny Curry, DE: Violating two rules here: 1) putting undo pressure on a rookie, like Barnett and 2) cheating a bit by putting two guys together in one entry. However, the Eagles went into the offseason desperate for an upgrade at cornerback and had the good fortune of a draft that was deep in corner prospects. Some teams chose to use that depth as a reason to wait, but it was a luxury the Eagles could not afford. The wiser move – particularly after some surprises in the 13 picks before them – was to swim against the tide and take Marlon Humphrey (Alabama) or Adoree’ Jackson (USC) or Garreon Conley (Ohio State). Instead, they went with Barnett, who was clearly the guy they had fixated on all along. The thinking was that a relentless pass rush was the panacea for sub-par corners trying to hang with super human wide receivers. And let’s be honest here, they are placing all this pressure on Barnett because Curry, despite a hefty contract that says otherwise, has not consistently produced (especially since getting said contract) as a pass-rushing specialist. Last year, for example, the since-vanquished Marcus Smith had as many sacks (2½) as Curry. In fact, nine of Curry’s 19 career sacks came in 2014. In football years, than may as well be 1914. So now we have Barnett, whose name comes attached with Reggie White because he broke White’s sack record at Tennessee, being asked to step in and be in contention for NFC Defensive Rookie of the Year in order to justify his choice. Since the pick, I have gone back and watched some Tennessee games on the SEC Network (total geek move, I know), and he was an absolute beast. Not only did he make plays, but he did it at key times. Let’s hope that carries over, as the Eagles went for a corner in the second round, Washington’s Sidney Jones, who is likely to miss the season with an Achilles injury that bumped him out of the first round. As a bonus to Barnett being dominant, maybe Curry can recapture some of his 2014 form and the two – in combination with Brandon Graham – can create enough consistent pressure to offset the still unaddressed weakness at corner. Additionally, this trio – and we can only really count on Graham right now – can free up space for defensive tackle Fletcher Cox and middle linebacker Jordan Hicks to come clean and make plays. It’s a ripple effect that needs to happen.

4) Jason Peters/Lane Johnson, OT: May as well go back and draw water from the 2-for-1 well once more, because this is really where the house of cards could ultimately stand or fall. Peters, while likely ticketed for Canton, is not playing at that high of a level anymore. At age 35, he has been to nine Pro Bowls and is a six-time first- or second-team All-Pro selection, but most of those honors now come by rote from voters who don’t see him on a play-in-and-play-out basis. Though signed through 2019, via extension from his “best friend” Jeffrey Lurie, the realistic hope is that he stays intact for the 2017 season. If he doesn’t, Johnson moves from right tackle – a spot where was becoming stone-cold dominant before leaving a 3-1 team with a 10-game suspension for his second PED strike – to left, and Hal Vaitai moves into the right tackle spot. Then again, given Johnson’s history, he better not take even a Tylenol without a team official present. The Eagles really need both bookends on the field. If that happens, the run game will be effective enough that Wentz won’t have to throw 50-plus times per game.

5) Caleb Sturgis, K: Snicker at a kicker all you want. Your smiles will turn to frowns if he costs you a game – or two or three or five. There is no reason to suspect Sturgis won’t continue to be solid (135 points last season on the strength of an 85.4 percent accuracy rate), but we are talking about delicate geniuses here who usually wear out their two- or three-year welcome and need a change of scenery to get their mojo back. Consider this a preemptive warning that the meter on Sturgis – unless he is more Justin Tucker than Alex Henery – is running in his third year in green. Assuming he does not regress, it is vital he hit as many makeable kicks as possible while showing he can hit from a distance (53-yard long in 2016 and 55-yard long last season). In close game, a missed or made field goal can make all the difference between crying in your beer or raising it in victory.

This column/analysis originally appeared at Phillyphanatics.com