By Bill Campbell
Hold the Presses…
Apparently, and at long last, Andy Reid has decided to pull the plug: Juan Castillo is no longer the Eagles’ defensive coordinator. Reid called an unexpected press conference on Tuesday just before this blog was posted, and announced that he had installed defensive backs coach Todd Bowles in the job. We’ll have to wait to see if this decision, while not completely unexpected, can make any difference in the Eagles’ fortunes.
Eagles – Lions
Despite the Castillo decision, which will generate lots of chatter for sure, I’ve got to comment upon Sunday’s Eagles-Lions game. The one they lost 26-23. You had to see it to believe it. Unfortunately, lots of us did.
At the start of the day, the Eagles were facing their bye week, a chance to mull over an expected 4-2 record and ready themselves to face the rest of their schedule. After playing the Atlanta Falcons at home on October 28th, the Eagles will face New Orleans, Dallas, and Atlanta at home. Then it’s the Redskins and Panthers. This schedule is more challenging that most people may think. The bye should have given them some time to physically rest and mentally prepare for what lies ahead. It wasn’t to be. They finished the day 3-3 — and the reasons for it are pretty disturbing.
Before the start of Sunday’s game, the 1-3 Detroit Lions appeared to epitomize disorganization. That remained fairly true throughout the first half. The Birds held them to field goals through three periods and, when the Eagles scored a TD on a 70-yard pass with 5:18 to go some fans headed for the exits. But this is the season of Eagle turnovers and the problem reared its ugly head again.
Michael Vick threw two interceptions against Detroit although he did recover one of his own fumbles. Vick now has turned the ball over thirteen times in a season which has not yet reached its halfway mark. Clearly, this is a major concern. But Vick also spent most of the day on his back, often getting up after really hard hits and knock-downs. These shots have become the mainstay of the defenses that go up against the Eagles each week and toss Vick around game after game. I wonder sometimes how he gets up after these poundings.
Despite Castillo’s departure, however, when I ask who is most responsible for allowing the Detroit Lions to come back to life last Sunday, my pick is the Eagles’ offensive line. The players in front of Vick, who allow him to be repeatedly hit, — at least twelve times against the Lions — and spend so much time pulling himself up off the ground. The line is just full of holes. Vick is now 10-10 in his last twenty regular season games and has at least one turnover in five of six games this season. This is, without doubt, unacceptable. But the guy is getting his clock cleaned again and again. As long as this continues, even a team as unthreatening as the Lions has a chance to get it just slightly together and eke out a win – and that is exactly what happened last Sunday. The Lions took it into overtime and won on a field goal after sacking Vick twice in the first two plays in OT. Those sacks will be long remembered. But the team’s problems aren’t confined just to the offensive line. Perhaps Andy Reid drew the same conclusion.
Most of football is still a game that’s played up front and I can’t deny that the Birds’ defense hasn’t exactly covered itself in glory either. The D has improved in the red zone and on third down this year but the front line has finished three straight games without recording a sack. That’s the first time in twenty-nine years that the Eagles have gone sack-less for such a stretch. As the coach put it in typical Reid-speak when asked about this after the game, “We have to do a better job there.” That admission hadn’t changed much this season until the Castillo axing today. In Sunday’s game, the Lions successfully protected QB Matt Stafford, who not only went un-sacked but was hit only four times all day – a significant defensive failure. Last year, even in a disappointing 8-8 season, the Eagles accounted for seven sacks through the first four games and fifty total for the season. The comparison makes this year’s stats jump out at you.
In the OT, the Birds won the coin toss and elected to receive –another questionable decision. They started on the 25 yard line and Vick was rapidly sacked twice. Punter Matt Mc Brian was forced to kick from the back of the end zone, giving the Lions the ball near mid-field. Stafford completed a pass for sixteen yards which gave forty-three year-old Jason Hanson an easy field goal to kick and win the game. And let’s not forget the contribution of the Lions 6’5” wide receiver, Calvin Johnson, whose great speed has earned him the nickname “Megatron”. Johnson was held to one catch for twenty-one yards by the Eagles in the first three quarters as Nnamdi Asomugha did a decent job on him, including an interception. But in the fourth quarter, Reid/Castillo switched the coverage on Johnson and he caught five passes for 107 yards in the final seventeen minutes. Couple that with the near-absent protection of Vick and a scattered defense and, yes, they have to do a better job.
Players like Danny Watkins, Dallas Reynolds and Demetress Bell are playing as hard as they can. But these guys just aren’t good enough – which may be the reason why Michael Vick spends so much time looking up at the sky. And it just may be the root of the Eagles’ overall problems. That’s one Reid has to ponder long and hard. All in all, the Eagles led through most of Sunday’s game, once by ten points with five minutes to go, yet managed to lose. This cannot continue. There simply has to come a time when Jeffrey Lurie is the one who steps up and answers the post-game questions instead of Andy Reid. And he can’t get away with that “better job” excuse.
Changing the Job at Penn State
Joe Paterno did not welcome the admission of professional scouts at his Penn State practices. In fact, Joe never was a fan of professional football despite the fact that there were a few NFL teams that expressed an interest in him coaching them over the years. So scouts were out. But new head coach, Bill O’Brien, has welcomed them. He feels he owes pro scouting not only to his players but also to his recruiting efforts, as it provides prospective students with the incentive to join O’Brien’s program despite the NCAA sanctions leveled upon Penn State in the wake of the Sandusky scandal. He thinks it establishes a bond of trust between his coaching staff and the team, letting the players know the coaches are interested in the kids’ present and future. The fact that O’Brien was the former offensive coordinator of the New England Patriots probably makes a difference and he surely senses that a few of his Nittany Lions players likely are NFL bound. So he wants to give them the opportunity to be seen by the guys that matter. In this spirit, O’Brien has opened the gates of the Lasch practice fields on Wednesdays to pro scouts and one from each of the thirty-two NFL teams has been to a Penn State practice at least once this year.
O’Brien has said that “it was always a big thing for our New England scouts to be able to see college practices” so he knows the value of it. “A lot of colleges allow scouts in. I’m not the only one,” he explained, “but I think it helps when kids know that, if you come to Penn State, if you play well and you produce on the field, you’re going to be seen at practice and at games and you’re going to have a chance.” Certainly, having serious onlookers in NFL apparel on the sidelines is a change of atmosphere for Penn State. It won’t change the intensity of the practices; it might even increase it. But O’Brien is letting it happen.
Apparently, there’s more than one way to become a successful college head coach. In his first opportunity, Bill O’Brien seems determined to make that point. It looks like his positive attitude and approach have opened things up for a football program that was under untold pressure. It also looks like the Nittany Lions can play a little football. They’re on a four-game winning streak and may still be celebrating their come-from-behind victory over Northwestern last Saturday. It’s a new day in Happy Valley where Bill O’Brien has been doing a great job.
Good Guys, Jim Thome and Raul Ibanez
In June, Jim Thome hit a walk-off home run for the Phillies against the Tampa Bay Rays. It was the thirteenth walk-off shot of Thome’s illustrious career, the most for any player in baseball history to date. It also was his fifth homer in his last eleven games. And it was his last in a Phillies uniform. A week later, after the Phillies had lost eleven of twelve games, they sent Thome to Baltimore, a place where he could play every day if needed as a designated hitter on a team contending for a play-off spot.
Jim is the most accomplished player in baseball without a World Series ring – which he covets more than any honor he’s received. The Orioles did go on to play in the post-season and give Jim his shot, only to fall short once again. Thome played in just eighteen games for the Orioles from the time he was traded till the play-offs. His chronic back pain resurfaced in July. Yet he managed a homer and two doubles in eighteen games and helped capture the Orioles’ first play-off berth in fifteen years. That’s who he is.
Jim Thome doesn’t want to end his twenty-two-year career without a ring, the crown jewel for any athlete. At age 42, he’s hit 612 home runs, the seventh highest career tally in baseball history. Yet he walks through the club house doors every day like a kid playing his first Little League game. Jim always is upbeat, enthusiastic and approachable. So many players with comparable resumes resort to off-putting answers or mannerisms but Thome is always looking for ways to make everyone else comfortable. Despite his individual accomplishments, he’s the essence of the team player, always striving to make the team better. Let’s hope he gets another chance at a ring somewhere next year.
Another former Phillie without a ring stole the show for New York a few nights ago. Yankee Raul Ibanez has been on a home run spree lately and helped bring the Yanks back from the dead when they needed it. The 40-year-old designated hitter, in for Alex Rodriguez who’d fractured an ankle, capped a four-run rally in the ninth inning with a two-run homer as New York tied the Detroit Tigers 4-4 in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series at Yankee Stadium. Maybe the journeyman Ibanez will enjoy the opportunity to play and, perhaps, win a World Series standing in for A-Rod, the Yankees’ $275 million man.
It’s great to see good guys like Jim Thome and Raul Ibanez, who do a consistent job day in and day out, get the chance to shine at this point in their careers. I like to think that the fans remember the regular guys like them even longer than most of the superstars.