By Bill Campbell
The Eagles – Double Duty
The Eagles added running back Darren Sproles to their roster last week. There can be little doubt that, in doing do, they’ve added an advantage that could turn into something big in the upcoming season. Add to that the fact that the Birds surrendered only a fifth round draft pick to get Sproles from the New Orleans Saints and this news gets even better. Signing a two-year contract extension to the one-year deal the Saints made with the Eagles to trade him, Sproles came at a marketable price. He should get something like 150 touches per season and is the sort of player who on the field seemingly all the time. His story says that he seldom misses a game though he’s barely big enough to ride on the roller coasters. So size isn’t a big deal with this guy. But he caught 71 passes for 604 yards last season and had the second best rushing average among active NFL backs. Sproles was twenty-second in the league in total yards and scored 4 touchdowns last season. Darren Sproles looks to be a valuable weapon in Chip Kelly’s arsenal come September. Rated as one of the best ever at his position, it puts the Eagles in perfect position for next month’s draft which some say should be one of the deepest in ten years. Sproles said that, when he realized that the Saints weren’t going to bring him back next season, he asked them to release him rather than involve him in a trade so that he could have some influence on his destiny and pick a team that likely would be his final destination. The Saints made this deal and Sproles, who said at a Friday press conference that he is happy with this deal, is now with a team with a solid future. Asked where he could contribute, Sproles answered, “Anywhere in space.” This should be interesting.
Shortly after completing the Sproles deal, the Eagles seem to have found themselves another winner in former Miami Dolphin, Nolan Carroll. Making a two-year deal with the running back, the Eagles were pleased at coming to terms with a guy who also wants to play for Chip Kelly. He’s 27, a six-footer who provides the Eagles with a corner who can provide depth to the defensive back field. “I feel comfortable that I can come in and make the group better,” said Carroll. I saw the strides Coach Kelly made last year and I am anxious to do the same thing here in 2014.” Carroll also said that Kelly told him he should fit in well here and will compete for the starting job against Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher. Last year, the Birds couldn’t get a much-needed fourth corner back so they just didn’t play one. Now they have depth at the position. Defensive Coordinator Bill Dunn needed a big guy like Carroll who has long arms and good speed.
Jeremy Maclin will also be back this season. He missed all of last season with a torn ACL. His return, combined with the efforts of guys like LeSean McCoy, Riley Cooper, Zack Ertz and Brent Celek should have the offense tooled up. Sproles can add to that. And Carroll may fill a hole on the D line that was gaping at times last year.
The NFL Draft
The NFL Network’s chief draft analyst, Mike Maycock, recently said, “From my perspective, this is the deepest and best draft class that I’ve seen in probably 10 years. I had one general manager tell me the other day that having a top-20 pick this year is very similar to having a top-10 pick last year.” He could be right. The list of eligible players is so deep, there isn’t any doubt that you can get a quality player deal in at least three or four rounds. The Eagles have made themselves candidates for a great draft after giving up only the fifth round for Sproles – and that’s the furthest the team ever has yielded. They currently have the twenty-second overall pick, the fifty-fourth in the second round and the eighty-sixth in the third. They have some trade-able players: Vinny Curry, Brandon Graham, Bryce Brown, even DeSean Jackson. Chip Kelly will be sure to show up in plenty of time for this year’s meetings. Fans will be looking for some bold moves from General Manager Howie Roseman which they hope will pave the way for an Eagles championship in the years to come.
At this writing, the 76ers have lost twenty games in a row. They’re headed to Indiana where they will face the 47-17 Pacers, who look like the best team in the eastern part of the country at the moment. Former 76ers, Evan Turner and Lavoy Allen, who were traded to the Pacers just before the deadline expired, will be on the court against their old team mates. They seem to have figured out how to make their new team even better. Try to explain that to me.
On Saturday, the Sixers faced the Memphis Grizzlies, a good, tough team which was expected to pound the 76ers mercilessly. They did. Mike Connelly led Memphis with 19 points while Michael Carter-Williams had 23 in a 103-77 losing effort. The Sixers actually completed and even led in the first half. But they couldn’t hold on. That loss made it twenty in a row. Sixers’ opponents have averaged 115.2 points during this streak, while the home team has averaged 96.3. The combined total stands at 320-194. Looking at the next opponents, the 76ers likely will lose their next eight games. That would tie the NBA record for consecutive losses at 26. The team also lost twenty straight between January 9, 1973 and February 11, 1973, in a 9-73 season. I remember it well: I was the 76ers broadcaster then.
Despite these more-than-sobering statistics, Coach Brett Brown is realistic, if not optimistic. “This is not slit-your-wrist time. This is not even close to that,” Brown said. “This is about building a program and understanding the short-term pain for a lot of long-term gain. That’s my vision. That’s how I approach it.” He acknowledges that, “Any win we have right now would be considered an upset” and that he knew what he was getting into when he took the job. But the 76ers in free fall is not a pretty picture. Can you imagine losing all of these upcoming games consecutively? Brown may sound a little different then.
The Holy War
For years they’re been referring to the basketball competition between Villanova and St. Joe’s as the “holy war”. It seems to get holier each winter. St. Joe’s won the Atlantic 10 Championship on Sunday afternoon, beating Dayton, St. Bonaventure and VCU. That final victory relieved a lot of the selection torture at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn for the Hawks and likely assured their selection for one of the NCAA tournament bids. After the Hawks had cut down the nets in celebration their hard-fought win, they huddled together to learn their tourney future. Shortly afterwards, they got the call for the Big Dance. So did Villanova. As St. Joe’s coach, Phil Martelli, put it after grinding out three wins in three days, “I was glad to hear our name called.” St. Joe’s finished the regular season 24-9 and will meet UConn on Thursday. Villanova will play Milwaukee. If both teams win, they would meet in Round 3.
Against VCU, seniors Langston Galloway, Halil Kanecevic, Ronald Roberts, junior guard Chris Wilson, and freshman DeAndre Bembry comprised the Iron Five. They played almost all of the minutes, going 10-3 in games decided by six points or less, and using all of their talents to find a way to win. This group has been there when one player got thrown out of school, another transferred on his own, another left for the NBA just before a school year started. No matter what happened, the seniors on this team just kept coming to practice, setting the example for the younger guys. Coach Martelli is proud of his guys. Galloway now has scored 1,966 points. Kanecevic, who sat out a year after transferring from Hofstra and after two incredible performances against St. Bonaventure and VCU in the A10, has totaled 1,151 points, 1,020 rebounds, 402 assists and 279 blocked shots. Roberts racked up 1,381 points, 851 rebounds, and a series of incredible dunks topped by a tip throw-jam against Dayton on Friday. Most importantly, the St. Joe’s seniors are now 62-37 in their three seasons together. When a gratified Martelli was asked what an NCAA berth would men to this team on Sunday, he said, “It would be a testimony to the players because of perseverance, the unusual journey because so many of them have played so many minutes from when they were so young. It would be an endorsement of what and how you should go about your college career. They’ve stayed with it.” Well, the Hawks got the call. So did the Wildcats. There may be another “holy war” to be fought before March madness ends. Philadelphia’s ultimate rivalry could be fought on a national stage.
By now you know who will be playing in the NCAA Tournament starting later this week. These teams play the best college basketball and have reached the big time. If you like to think about statistics as you make your bracket choices, here is how they finished their regular season:
Virginia 28-6 Iowa State 26-7
North Carolina 23-9 Michigan State 26-8
Connecticut 26-8 Villanova 28-4
Cincinnati 27-6 Memphis 23-9
Harvard 26-4 Milwaukee 21-13
St. Joseph’s 24-9 Central Carolina 21-12
Three of the number one seeds won championships in ten multi-bid leagues: Gonzaga, Virginia and Florida. Only four of the number one seeds even made the championship game and Michigan lost to Michigan State. Louisville, coached by Rick Pitino, will arrive at the tournament as hot as ever. Billy Donovan, Florida’s head coach, has been at the helm there since 1996. He played point guard under Rick Pitino at Providence. He has led the Gators to NCAA Championships in 2006 and 2007. Florida, of course, is the favorite and will begin play in Orlando on Thursday.
These days, Mike Schmidt is talking about avoiding the sun. The sixty-four-year-old was diagnosed with Stage III melanoma in August and has undergone two surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation since then. He arrived in Clearwater just last week and reported that the latest scans he has undergone show that he is cancer-free. He’ll be joining Tom McCarthy, Jamie Moyers and Matt Stairs on Sundays to talk about the Phillies games this season. Continued recovery wishes go out to Michael Jack.
It looks like Cole Hamels is smiling again. The Phillies left-hander’s arm is on the mend and he’s talking about it. Cole says he won’t be ready for opening day but he expects to be ready at some point in April. If his progress seems consistent in a bullpen session, that should carry him through thirty pitches or more in the coming weeks and get him back on track with his program. He threw thirty late last week, the second time he has thrown off the mound in five days. He said that he didn’t use the arm off for eleven days due to a tired arm and fatigue. After the throwing sessions, Hamels said that he felt good. “Just the way I was able to kind of bounce back. It came out of nowhere a couple weeks ago. It was very unexpected because I was really working well and everything was showing great signs. My strength was gaining. So just being able then to step back, reassess what I need to do and try to reapply some of the exercises so I can build up the correct strength or even more strength.” Let’s hope the good news on this guy continues. The last we heard, Cliff Lee is scheduled to pitch in the Phils opener on March 31st in Texas. Hamels will still be healing.
Big Flyers Weekend
In two games last weekend, the Flyers power play was 3 for 17 against the powerful Pittsburgh Penguins, who were 0 for 9 against the Flyers, with Pittsburgh giving up two shortened goals to Philadelphia. Wayne Simons scored twice on the power play for the second short game. The special teams did the job and the Flyers came away with 4-0, 4-3 wins. In the second game, Wayne Simmonds had two power-play goals in the first period, Matt Reed had a short-handed tally and Philly deflected all four Pittsburgh power plays for the win. Their overall balance in these winning efforts was just about perfect – a back-to-back series played in Philly and then in Pittsburgh. Stating that his team had played “a pretty solid game” on Sunday, Coach Craig Berube continued, “I don’t think the game was any different than the day before. I thought we played really good. The power play was outstanding again. Also the penalty kill was good again. Lots of shots all day. Lots of chances.” Goalie Steve Mason, who allowed three goals on forty-eight shots during the weekend, said after the game, “I know the boys in this locker room love playing against them. Whether we’re in their head or not, we don’t really care. We get amped up to play against them.” Mason has started in eight straight games with no sign of fatigue. In their last four games, the Flyers have killed off fifteen straight power plays. The Flyers are going strong.
The New York Knicks have announced the signing of Phil Jackson as president of basketball operations. This move gives Jackson his first front office job in his storied career. Jackson retired as Laker’s coach in 2011 and has been out of the sport since. Now, though not coaching, he will run the Knicks on and off the court from the word “go”. He signed a five year deal with the team for a reported $12 million per year. At the press conference announcing this deal, he acknowledged that Carmelo Anthony, who will become an unrestricted free agent this summer, is part of his future plans for the Knicks. “There are a number of things I see Carmelo doing as he moves forward,” said the new team president, “And as great a player as Carmelo is, he still has another level to get to.” It sounds like keeping Anthony with the team is a priority. As for Anthony, he acknowledged the idea that Jackson’s presence may lure some big name players to New York. “I’m willing to do whatever. As long as it’s gonna put me in a situation to win, I’m willing to do whatever. I’m not sold or stuck on my play. What I’ve been able to do these past 10-11 years has gotten me to where I am now.” If Phil Jackson wants to come in and make some changes, said Anthony, “If it’s going to help me out to win a championship, I’m with it.”
I can’t help but wonder about the “what ifs” if Phil Jackson had come to the 76ers. Of course, he wouldn’t have wanted to come here but it’s entertaining to think about even if just for a moment. The hapless Sixers are sure to finish the year with a record so ignominious that it will put them in the lottery with a very good draft pick — but what a price to pay for it.
So, the Flyers’ hockey fortunes are looking up these days. The Sixers’ future is pretty bleak. But the baseball season opens at the end of the month and it’s March Madness time. Get your brackets in by noon on Thursday, sports fans. The fun begins.