By Bill Campbell
Eagles v. Cardinals
I don’t ever like to see the Eagles lose. I hope they win every game they play from now until the end of time. But I’m starting to believe that the Eagles are beginning to get the officiating calls and, maybe, the overall good judgment that the better teams earn when they play at home. If I was Jeff Lurie and I owned the Eagles, I think I’d like to refuse to play anymore games on the road – if such was possible – because the whistles are starting to blow our way. Even when the team starts to crumble in the waning moments, it’s gotten some breaks. They really help.
I’ve wondered for years why there are so many games in which the Eagles get off to such good starts only to blunder in the third quarter and hang on for dear life in the fourth. The game against the Arizona Cardinal at Lincoln Financial Field on Sunday was typical, but the home advantage surely helped. On offense, they started fast and strong scoring with accuracy as well as speed. Nick Foles appears to be in command and receivers like Zak Ertz, Riley Cooper and Brent Celek were open and able to catch and score. Yet it looked like a different team as the game dwindled to an end, making mistakes, turning it over, letting the opposition fight back. At times it felt like the final whistle would never be blown. They held on, but just barely. When asked post- game why the offense has such a hard time getting back its edge once it starts to go in the second half, Coach Kelly replied, “I don’t know. Good question.” But it would restore our heartbeats to a regular rhythm if he could find that answer. The Birds overpowered the Cardinals for 30 minutes or more, earning themselves a substantial lead only to nearly lose the game in the last few minutes. They took away another win, 24-21, but it wasn’t easy. I don’t know why this is their pattern but they’ve been holding true to it, and we’ve been holding our breaths because of it, for more than a month now.
Given this is Coach Chip Kelly’s first year, almost everyone came into this season expecting the Eagles to set a foundation for the future, maybe win 5 or 6. The consensus was that the team would start to build for the long haul and attain contention, work towards making the play-offs next year and solidify their future. However, they are 7-5 now, tied for the lead in the East, having beaten a good Cardinals team on Sunday. They scored 24 points with a defense that forced 3 turnovers and had 5 sacks. The guys coming off the bench played well as the Arizona offense went nearly scoreless in the first half. No doubt, the Birds owe something to the officials who made a defensive holding call on rookie defensive back Tyrann Mathieu that negated a Patrick Peterson interception with just over four minutes left in regulation. Philadelphia was able to run two extra minutes off the clock before giving the ball over to the Cardinals who could not take advantage of the time to tie it up. For once there in the Linc, things went the Birds way.
A month or so ago, the idea of making it to post-season play was close to laughable. Now such an ambition is more than realistic. In fact, if this team has to go home at the end of the regular season it would be a major disappointment and both the team and the fans would feel like a promise that has grown with each week’s play had been left unfulfilled. Do officials perform their jobs differently depending on where games are played? Do they have a feeling about that? Probably not. Hopefully, they have too much integrity to be swayed by their surroundings. But they made a few calls on Sunday that certainly added to the drama and suspense the Birds created for themselves. As guard Evan Mathis put it, “To survive that kind of game you need a good team with a good defense. To survive it and get a win, it’s great indeed.” Yes, it is – and it makes the idea of post-season play that much more possible.
This coming Sunday it’s the Eagles against the Detroit Lions at home. Matt Stafford, Reggie Bush and Calvin Johnson are coming to the Linc. Both teams are 7-5. I know where I’ll be at 1:00 p.m. on Sunday. I think I know where you’ll be too.
If the Eagles’ defense has really improved as much as we think it has, it will meet its toughest test of the season over the next few weeks. Led by coordinator Bill Davis, the squad will face some formidable opponents. Three of the 4 remaining teams on the Eagles’ schedule, the Detroit Lions, the Chicago Bears and the Dallas Cowboys, are third, fourth and second respectively in NFL scoring this season. The D had better be more than ready from here on out.
The 1991 Eagles’ defense, which many current fans remember, is generally regarded as the best in Eagles’ history because it won the mythical Triple Crown that year: first in rushing yards allowed, passing yards allowed and total yards allowed. In the season after Buddy Ryan was fired and Bud Carson arrived as an assistant coach, a few guys who could play a little bit were also here. People like Reggie White, Jerome Brown, Clyde Simmons, Seth Joyner and Eric Allen among them. Their years of success were cemented by the arrival of defensive coordinator, Jim Johnson, who is still revered by the people who knew and played for him. Jim’s talents as a coach and his character left their mark on the Eagles. Now we are in a new era, when scoring in the NFL has never been higher. Preventing scoring is even more challenging. Bill Davis and his coaching crew have a challenging job but it looks like they are rising to the task. Things are getting very interesting here in Philadelphia.
Kansas City has 9 straight below the average to open the season. Carolina, with Jim Johnson disciple, Sean McDermott, coordinating defense there, had 10 in a row, 11 for the season. The Eagles defense had 8 in a row. The upcoming games pose some questions that only a well-tuned Eagle defense can answer. In the first month of this season, it looked like the Birds’ defense wouldn’t or couldn’t stop anybody. But the changes that Davis and his staff have made since then have made the difference: in 8 consecutive games the Eagles have allowed 21 points or fewer when the average NFL team is scoring just over 23 per game this season. The Birds have had a 10-game stretch when they were averaging below 20.2 every week — an amazing statistic considering their performance out of the starting gate in September. We will always value the Jim Johnson-coached defense of Eagles legend. But Bill Davis and his staff are making their own mark on this team now.
Now that he has resigned his position as president of the Flyers, the question of the day here in Philly is where Peter Luuko is going and why? The guy who has been next to Ed Snider was as close to the top as one can get at the Flyers’ parent company, Comcast Spectacor. Now he has stepped down. “It came out of the blue,” said Snider, adding, “We’ll survive but he has done a hell of a job and he will be hard to replace.” Luuko explained, “After 32 years of traveling and working 6 and 7 days and nights a week, I want the opportunity to cash out and, because of Ed, I can do that and then decide what’s next for me.” Luuko also said he wants to spend more time with his family. He and his wife, Casey, have 3 children, one of whom is a hockey player at the University of Vermont and another in prep school. He plans to take his time before making his next move, wanting the freedom to watch his sons play the sport he enjoys so much himself. Peter Luuko was with Comcast-Spectacor for 25 years, helping the company to thrive here in Philadelphia. “I’ll miss hockey,” he admitted, “particularly orange and black hockey. I think it’s just time to do something else.” Shawn Tilger, the Flyers’ Senior Vice president of Business Operations, is a candidate to replace Luuko, although Snider said Tilger is “extremely valuable in his present position.” Many had assumed that when Snider, who is 80, retired, Luuko would replace him. Even Snider thought that way. “We never talked about it,” said the owner, “but I thought he would be the logical guy. But now the decision will be up to the people at Comcast.” As president of the Flyers, Luuko had been the driving force behind the Flyers’ participation in 2 Winter Classics and for having the NHL 2014 draft scheduled to take place in Philadelphia. He also brought in college’s Frozen Four, to be held at the Wells Fargo Center in the spring. Luuko also was a sounding board for GM Paul Holmgren when trades and personnel moves were made. Forbes placed the Flyers’ value at $500 million just last week, ranking the Flyers 7th in the 30-team, National Hockey League. Luuko will cash out his equity in the company and, I have to think, have a very lucrative holiday.
Penn State quarterback, Christian Hackenberg, has just been named the winner of the Thompson-Randle El Award as the Big Ten Freshman of the Year. He’s the second straight Penn State player to earn this honor. Defensive end and Northeast High grad, Deion Barnes, received the award last year. When asked about the significance of this recognition, the 6’4” 200 lb. Hackenberg said it seemed like a daunting task, trying to learn Coach Bill O’Brien’s offense when he first arrived at State from Palmyra, Virginia, after playing at Fort Union Military Academy. “You don’t really understand the bigness of it,” he said, “I was playing small high school football in Central Virginia last year so stepping into this type of environment was definitely different and I think that, the more you experience it each week, [the more] you start to understand and grasp how big it is.” Hackenberg was named Big Ten Freshman of the Week 5 times this season, earned for having completed nearly 59% of his passes for 2,955 yards and 20 touchdowns this season. He threw just 10 interceptions all year. The young quarterback probably scored his best performance last Saturday (339 yards and 4 TD’s) in the Nittany Lions’ 31-24 upset over Wisconsin. He led State to a 7-5 record for the year. Reflecting on the season, Hackenberg said that Penn State’s 4-overtime victory in October over Michigan was truly spectacular but the Wisconsin win was the most memorable because “we were able to send the seniors out with a win and that meant a lot to me.” The freshman was one of 4 Penn State players to be honored by the Big Ten in the post-season. Wide receiver Allen Robinson, offensive lineman John Urschel and defensive lineman DaQuan Jones were all named to the All-Big Ten team. Robinson also won the Big Ten Receiver of the Year award. Two members of State’s coaching staff, however, turned in their resignations: linebackers coach, Ron Vanderlinden, and quarterback coach, Charlie Fisher. Vanderlinden spent 13 years at Penn State, both recruiting and coaching under Joe Paterno. It’s not clear whether these coaches came to their own decisions or were pushed out. But it looks like the Nittany Lions have themselves a quarterback with three more years to play in Happy Valley.
See you next week.