By Bill Campbell

Chipper Strikes Again

Just last week I wrote something about veteran Atlanta Braves star Chipper Jones having a flair for the dramatic. Thanks to his long career, which is about to come to an end because he’s retiring, Jones will have a host of memories to mull over. He’s hit home runs in many meaningful situations. But the shot he engineered last Sunday against the Phillies will take its place with the best of them.

The Phillies had won the first two games of their weekend series in Atlanta. On Sunday, they sent Cole Hamels to the mound looking for a sweep. Hamels was productive with the bat as he almost always is with his good left arm. At one point, the Braves trailed 7-1 and appeared to be merely playing out the string to conclude a dull game. But the Phillies’ bullpen, as it has so frequently this season, fell apart in the late innings. Jones came to bat with two out in the bottom of the ninth with Atlanta trailing 7-5. With three balls and two strikes and the bases loaded, Jones swung on a Jonathan Papelbon pitch and sent the ball deep into the right field stands to give the Braves a walk-off, unbelievable 8-7 victory. You had to see it to believe it. It was the sort of Chipper Jones moment that’s easy to write about. These clutch hits happened frequently during his lifetime career with the Braves in Atlanta. It was his last swing of the bat in Philadelphia – a little memory swing. The Phillies will have no trouble remembering Chipper Jones.

When you really think about it, the finish of this game represented what this great game of baseball is all about, a script writers’ dream: last of the ninth, two out, bases loaded, fast ball pitcher on the mound, fast ball hitter on the plate and, Bang, a home run. It could have been a grand slam but the Braves only needed three runs to win. It was most unfortunate that the Phillies had to be the victims, as they have been throughout most of this sorry season.

The Phils have 27 games left on the current schedule. Last Saturday’s victory bumped them to five under 500 for the first time since June 27th. They must go 17-19 to finish with a winning record for the tenth consecutive season. At least they won’t have to face Chipper Jones again.

Bill O’Brien

I confess that I was rooting hard for Penn State’s Bill O’Brien last Saturday. He’s probably going to be the most scrutinized football coach in America this season for the obvious reasons. Succeeding a legend like Joe Paterno can’t be easy and the pressure must be enormous. Unfortunately, O’Brien had to take the blame for Penn State’s 24-14 loss to Ohio U. A look at the game stats pretty much tells the story.

Penn State led at the half, 14-3, but Ohio dominated the second half, 15 to 8 in first downs, 94 to 33 in rushing yardage, 207 to 82 in passing, 301 to 115 in total yardage. Additionally, Ohio managed to run off 49 plays in the second half to State’s 31. The Nittany Lions defense really was shredded in the second half with drives of 82, 70, 50 and 93 yards, three TD’s and a missed field goal attempt. Ohio completed 11 of 12 third down plays.

In his post-game press conference, O’Brien rook responsibility for the Lions’ second half meltdown, saying, “It all comes down to me being the head football coach. I have to get them ready to play. I told them in the locker room that it’s a long season. This is only one game.” But it was the first one and it mattered. O’Brien also said, “I’m going to come back tomorrow and do a better job for these kids. That’s my number one priority.” Penn State’s next opponent is Virginia. The Lions will be on the road against the Cavaliers who beat Richmond 43-19 in their season opener last Saturday. Maybe they’ll fare better in their next outing.

College Football

The college football season is upon us. Temple and Villanova went at it last Friday night at Lincoln Financial Field prior to Temple’s return to the Big East after a four year absence. The Owls won handily, 41-10. As noted, Penn State lost to Ohio U. But the Owls, Wildcats and Nittany Lions were not alone in getting their seasons underway.

If you’re a Notre Dame fan, and there are thousands all over the country, you had to get up early Saturday morning to see the Fighting Irish open their season against Navy in Dublin, Ireland. Kick-off was at 9 a.m. in the USA. After it got going, former Notre Dame running back and now radio analyst, Allen Pinkett, was pulled off the game broadcast after commenting that teams need more bad guys to give them an edge. A spokesman for the Notre Dame network said that the game deserves to be free of distortion and Pinkett’s on-air comments were unacceptable. A further decision on Pinkett’s status is pending.

In addition to the college games mentioned, West Virginia opened with Marshall, Northwestern with Syracuse, Ohio State with Miami of Ohio. Illinois met Western Michigan, California with Nevada, Miami with Boston College, Southern Cal – slated in many pools to be the best team in the nation – played Hawaii while Rutgers met Tulsa and Oklahoma played UTEP. Does anyone remember Silas Redd? He was the expected starter at the running back position at Penn State before he transferred to USC in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. He hasn’t had time to visit the beaches of Southern California since he’s been spending many hours trying to learn a new system. But Redd says that he’s been welcomed by the USC coaches and squad and has been installed as the co-starter with Curtis McNeal, the Trojan’s 1,000 yard rusher of last season. McNeal says that Redd’s arrival is not a threat but rather that they’ve bonded, realizing they need two experienced ball carriers. Penn State figures to miss Redd, badly.

Brian Westbrook

Last week, I shared my feelings about, and memories of, the late Steve Van Buren. He still registers in my book as the best running back I’ve ever seen. But Brian Westbrook, who officially retired as an Eagle last week in a ceremony at the Nova Care Complex, has to be in the top five.

I’ve always wondered how Villanova’s football program was able to recruit Westbrook, since every top-flight football power in the land must have been on his tail. But it so happens that when Westbrook finished his high school career at DeMatha in Hyatsville, Maryland, near Washington, D.C. there were some concerns about him that scared off some college scouts. Westbrook had played both football and basketball at DeMatha and had a damaged hip flexor and partially torn an anterior cruciate ligament in one knee. He was generously listed as about 5′ 8″ or 9″. Based on that, the Division I-A football schools seemed to have decided that he wasn’t a very good risk. Even the top basketball schools had their doubts. So it looked like Westbrook would end up playing football somewhere at the I-AA level or, perhaps, receive a basketball scholarship to a lesser Division I school. But Villanova remained interested and, since there was very little film available on the guy, Villanova football head coach Andy Talley was asked to check out Westbrook’s abilities as an athlete. He went to watch the him play basketball, saw Westbrook come out on the court in warm-ups and promptly dunk the ball. That made an impression that lingered with Talley. He watched and resolved to get the kid to Villanova and, if possible, on his football team, playing for him. The rest, as they say, is history.

Westbrook had a good freshman season at Villanova but nothing special. The 1997 team was undefeated but Brian was just a cog in a pretty good offensive wheel. Going on his instincts in the off-season, Talley revamped the offense to take better advantage of Westbrook’s size and speed, allowing him to play in the slot at times and to catch the ball and take off with it. When the ‘98 season began against Pitt, a Division I-A defense, Westbrook scored four TD’s and had 428 all-purpose yards, prompting Pitt coach, Walt Harris, to ask Tally, “Who in the hell is Number 20, where did you get him from?” I guess Talley didn’t tell him he’d seen him on a basketball court.

When Brian Westbrook was a senior, Andy Tally saw Andy Reid at a banquet and remembers making only one comment to Reid about him. Tally said that he told Reid, “Our Number 20 is a very special player.” He added, “I never said another word.” Reid listened. Brian Westbrook, listed as too small to make it in the NFL, became the Birds’ third round draft pick. At the time, most thought he might become a special teams player in the pros. No one expected him to be a star. But Talley was right, Number 20 was special. He became an all-pro player, a franchise leader, a thrill to watch on the field. Brian Westbrook tallied 9,785 yards from scrimmage with the Eagles, a team record. And anyone whose followed the Eagles can remember seeing him take off down the field. At his retirement ceremony, Andy Talley said, “Taking Brian in the third round was the best chance the Eagles ever took.” You’ve got to agree with him.

The NFL Season Begins

Although the season has not yet begun, this is a very important time in the NFL campaign. It’s apparent that, once kick-off time comes, the guy under the gun here in Philadelphia will be Andy Reid. Owner Jeff Lurie has used his favorite word again – “unacceptable”– referring to any possible repeat of last year’s 8-8 record. But General Manager Howie Roseman has his hands full too. It’s his job to supervise the composition of the 53 players who were be on the squad once the season begins. A lot of voices will contribute their opinions about the make-up and management of that roster but the final word will come from him.

The Eagles’ roster likely will include twenty-four first or second year players which can be a troublesome problem in itself. It can mean that there will be a limited number of available resources when a more seasoned player is hurt. Unfortunately, injuries are part of this game. The positions where they occur and the availability of viable replacements are always important. So managing the roster is the most significant part of the general manager’s job — and dealing with the unpredictable when it comes to injuries makes this part of the job so critical.

The Eagles’ decision to open the season with twenty-four less experienced players is interesting but we should note that the Giants will have nineteen such team members, the Cowboys eighteen and the Redskins sixteen. So the Division’s composition itself has changed. In Roseman’s words, “As we look at it, we have a lot of guys who make good money because they are good players. When you have that kind of roster, you have to have young players to supplement it.” The Eagles front line guys are pretty handsomely paid, with nineteen due to have a salary cap hit of $2 million or more. Two of those players – Jason Peters and Mike Patterson – are on the non-football injury list. Because of that, it’s important to stockpile players who earn the rookie minimum or close to it. That calls for budget allocation, another important job for the GM. He has to see to it that the top players are paid well but assess the salary cap value on a player’s spot on the team, a factor the average fan seldom considers. Seasons aren’t won or lost in training camp or during the still-warm days of August. But come September and the start of the season, managing the daily lives of the players becomes a significant part of the team’s overall picture. It’s got to be a very tough job.

The Eagles open against the Cleveland Brown on Sunday. Kick-off is at 1:00 p.m. Are you ready for some football?