By Bill Campbell
Dallas’ Problems vs. the Eagles
By the time you read this, the Eagles-Dallas game will have been decided. Without Tony Romo, the Dallas Cowboys were expected to lean heavily on running back, De Marco Murray, who had been coming on strong of late. This season, he had surpassed 1,000 yards rushing for the first time in his three-year career. In the last six games, he’d been tremendously effective and, with a change at the quarterback position, Murray figured to carry the ball throughout the night. He missed two of the first seven games this season with an injury but in his last six games he’d scored three touchdowns, run for 614 yards on 105 carries. That’s a 5.8 yard average per carry, which was ahead of the Birds’ Shady McCoy who’d averaged 5.1 yards. Overall before Sunday night’s contest with the Eagles, Murray had scored 6 TD’s. The Cowboys were 11-0 over Murray’s career when he got at least 20 carries per game – of course, that was with Romo at the helm. While the big story in Dallas late in the week became Romo’s absence, Murray’s presence was sure to be a factor in the divisional head-to-head no matter who called the plays.
Murray said he had complete faith in the Cowboys’ game plan and in second string QB, Kyle Orton. He wasn’t expecting more carries than usual against the Eagles but, since he is one the Cowboys’ most dependable backs, surely the Eagles were anticipating that he would have the ball in his hands repeatedly on Sunday night. Chip Kelly and his staff had to have prepared for that. Bill Collier is the Cowboys’ play caller and DeMarco Murray said, “I’ll do whatever Bill asks me to do.” He also said he would welcome the opportunity to carry an increased load, adding, “I’m preparing like I do every week.” No doubt the same could be said for the prep at the Novacare Complex in Philly, where LeSean McCoy, DeSean Jackson, Brent Celek, Zach Ertz and Riley Cooper, to name a few, were tuning up to take the ball from Nick Foles and beat up on the Cowboys.
The Eagles also had to prepare to deal with Dallas tight end, Jason Witten, and receiver, Dez Bryant, who can take off at any time and find a hole in a defense. So this game was not destined to be a cake-walk for the Eagles, no matter what the pundits were saying at the start of the week. Things lightened up a bit when the truth was finally told about Tony Romo. But the Birds needed to focus and prepare for every possibility against a battered but proud Cowboy squad playing on its home turf.
After stating that QB Romo had been walking around the Cowboys complex early in the week, the team finally admitted on Wednesday that he had neither practiced nor participated in team meetings. They finally acknowledged that Romo had spent several days trying to rehabilitate his back even prior to the previous week’s game against the Redskins, which he won on an exciting fourth-quarter drive. At last, on Friday the team announced that its star quarterback had undergone surgery that morning for a herniated disc. Kyle Orton would suit up and the retired Jon Kitna, who is a teacher at Lincoln High in Tacoma, would be his back-up in Dallas on Sunday night. The Eagles flew to Dallas as the slight favorite. We’ll have more to say the game in just a few days.
Villanova – Syracuse
By the time you read this Villanova and Syracuse, who both were undefeated going in, also will have met each other in a post-Christmas match-up at the Carrier Dome, just outside of Utica, New York. At tip-off, Syracuse was ranked second, Villanova eighth, nationally. They met before a packed house and in front of a national television audience on Saturday. The Wildcats were outplayed by the Orangemen, losing 78-62, and leaving with an 11-1 record. Syracuse is now 12-0. Villanova coach, Jay Wright, took his team north for the contest and said afterwards, “Even though the games are always tough, you love the experience of playing them even if you lose. You’re always treated so well.” Villanova started out strong but was just out-played on both ends of the floor in this one.
Villanova and Syracuse have played each other 63 times in the Big East since the Wildcats joined the league in 1980. They split 2 games last year before going their separate ways, ‘Nova to the “new” Big East and Syracuse to the Atlantic Coast Conference. But Coach Wright, as well as Orange Head Coach Jim Boeheim, made sure the rivalry continued at least for the next two years, including a date at the Wells Fargo Center next season. Jay Wright was an assistant to head coach Rollie Massamino at Villanova and he recalled that the annual games against Syracuse were engrained in the basketball team’s history. Wright said, “I think it’s important for us because I think one of the great things about the new Big East is that we maintain the connection in basketball, in the game and in its history. Playing basketball retains that connection because the crowds love to come to watch Villanova and Syracuse play each other. It’s like a tradition.” This writer thinks it’s one that should go on for a while.
Syracuse has won more than 84% of its games at the Carrier Dome since it opened in 1990 and Villanova has won 13 out of 39 in the series, probably more than its share, and 4 out of 4 since Wright took over in 2001. The last time both teams were ranked in the Top 10 was 2011 when Villanova was seventh and Syracuse third. This year, the Wildcats have defeated Kansas and Iowa with a nine-man rotation including a bench that has averaged nearly 28 points since sophomore guard, Dylan Ennis, returned from a broken hand. Ennis was slated to play opposite his brother, Tyler, a freshman at Syracuse who is reported to be the best first-year in the nation. So there wasn’t just a big game slated to be played in Dallas last weekend. The battle in Utica looked to be a good one too. Unfortunately, it went their way and not ours.
Flyers’ Ups and Downs
Up at home, down on the road: the Flyers have won nine straight games at the Wells Fargo Center but have lost five in a row away. At the moment, they face six games on the road. That’s a long time to go without home cooking, a familiar mattress and the comforts of home ice. The trip started in Edmonton, where the team was to meet its old friend, now Oiler goalie, Ilya Bryzgalov. You’ll recall that the Flyers bought out his contract to correct a deal that General Manager, Paul Holmgren, called “a ghastly mistake” after last season. We never heard whether Flyers President, Ed Snyder, felt the same way but Bryzgalov isn’t here anymore and it’s doubtful the deal would have been made if Snyder hadn’t agreed with Holmgren’s assessment. As to Bryz’s facing his old team in Edmonton, Flyers winger Scott Hartnell said, “I’m sure they’ll play him. It makes the game bigger for everybody. Better to write and talk about for the media, better story for Hockey Night in Canada, something bigger to talk about. They have to play him. It will be the main thing for us to get two points for a win and starting this big holiday road trip with a win.” It sounded like Hartnell was looking forward to pushing Bryzgalov and his team mates probably were too. As for Bryz, he seemed unmoved. “It’s just another game of hockey,” he told the Edmonton media. No big deal.
Since Edmonton seized him last month as a free agent, Bryzgalov was 2-4 with 2.8 goals against average and a .915 save percentage. He also had missed two weeks with a concussion. “I like Bryz,” Hartnell said, “He was a goofy guy. I think you really had to know him to know how to take his personality.” Apparently not many here knew him well enough. The Flyers, having played with Bryzgalov for two years as one of them, “know where to shoot and what to do and how to create havoc for him,” said Hartnell. The inference was that the team intended to do just that. However, Flyers coach Craig Berube added, “Our team needs to worry about who’s in net to try to get their two points. If they don’t do that they will not be successful.” The Flyers went on to win this one, 4-3, on a shoot-out goal in the third period, a promising start for this road swing. In addition to Edmonton, the Flyers will play Vancouver, Calgary, Colorado, Phoenix and New Jersey before returning home. It should be an interesting trip.
Bill O’Brien – Penn State or Houston?
One of the most surprising developments in sports news this week is that there are talks going on between Penn State football coach, Bill O’Brien, and the Houston Texans of the NFL for that team’s head coaching job. After replacing Joe Paterno and leading the Nittany Lions past those crippling NCAA sanctions for the last two years, the rumors more than suggest that O’Brien might be headed to the NFL. Whether or not he’s ready to head coach in the pros is an open question. O’Brien was an assistant and offensive coordinator with the New England Patriots for five years before heading to Happy Valley. But ESPN reported on Saturday that league sources indicate that O’Brien has emerged as the “overwhelming favorite” of the Houston Texans to replace Gary Kubiak, who was fired in early December. It’s said that the two sides are close to a deal which could be finalized this week. ESPN stated that neither the coach nor his agent, Neil Cornrich, could be reached for verification but both are reported to have met with Texans’ officials recently at O’Brien’s home on Cape Cod. It’s noteworthy that, as a condition to returning to Penn State for 2012, O’Brien and the school agreed to an amended contract that lowered his buyout to join an NFL team from $19.33 million to $6.48 million. According to ESPN, O’Brien is holding firm on that number. Not bad for a guy who has worked for his current employer for only two years with records of 8-4 and 7-5 for those seasons.
After these reports circulated, one of O’Brien’s highest ranked incoming recruits, tackle Thomas Holley of Brooklyn, New York, told reporters he had spoken to O’Brien who told him, “He isn’t going anywhere, the report simply isn’t true.” Penn State’s Information Director was non-committal as to whether these talks had taken place. However, the rumor mill also reports that Penn State is quietly searching for an O’Brien replacement. Apparently, Tennessee Titans coach and former Penn State star, Mike Munchak, former Penn State assistant and Tampa Bay head coach, Greg Schiano, and Vanderbilt head coach Jim Franklin, are said to be in line for interviews.
As for the talks with O’Brien, the Houston Chronicle reports that Texans’ Chairman and CEO, Bob McNair, met with O’Brien and Cornrich himself and has admitted that O’Brien is the leading candidate. McNair also said that the search process will continue and that he will meet with other candidates for the head coaching job this week. The Chronicle writers also indicated that interim Texans coach, Wade Phillips, and former Chicago Bears head coach, Lovie Smith, also are under consideration. This is far from over.
The Andrew Bynum Saga
On Saturday, the Cleveland Cavaliers announced that they were suspending center Andrew Bynum, of past 76ers fame, “for conduct detrimental to the team.” Reports came through that Bynum has no further interest in playing professional basketball. Having babied his knees for as long as he could, Bynum was averaging 7.4 points and 5.3 rebounds per game for Cleveland this year. On Sunday, the team lifted the suspension but Bynum remained away from the team, having been excused from all basketball activities. Apparently, the Cavaliers are looking to trade Bynum and his $6 million guaranteed cap space before the January 7th deadline to guarantee his full $12 million in salary for this season. If the team can’t find a trade partner desperate enough to just wait until then, one has to assume that the Cavs will waive Bynum and make him an unrestricted free agent. It looks like Andrew Bynum wants to get paid not to play. It’s working for him so far.