Behind the Mic: A Much Different Weekend

If you recall, last weekend in the NFL, all of the underdogs won.  That’s right.  The teams that were favored to win did not.  And the thought by many was that the Colts, Cowboys, Chargers, and the Eagles all had a legitimate shot to do the same thing this weekend.  Perish the thought!

The Colts were never in the game with the Chiefs (31-13).  Dallas needed a late score to make the game look closer than it was against the Rams (30-22).  The Chargers were anemic against the Patriots (41-28).  The Eagles, on the other hand, came within an unfinished drive of beating the Saints, but they, too, did not prevail (20-14).

So, the divisional round games were basically a bunch of “yawners”.  But, that should not be the case this coming weekend.  Each match-up is extremely intriguing.

According to the lines on the games – 3 points for the Chiefs and 3.5 points for the Patriots – the only difference between the four appears to be the home field advantage.  The other interesting thing about the match-ups is each game involves high-scoring offenses.  Again the over/under line is 57 for the Rams and the Saints and 57.5 for the Patriots and the Chiefs.  The 114.5 combined number is the largest in 30 years.

Obviously, the Vegas odds makers don’t just take offense into consideration when they arrive at over/under numbers.  They also must look at the defenses.  The Chiefs’ defense is the worst of the bunch and the rest of the group have average defenses, at best.

The other huge asset for each of these four teams and, it may be the best predictor of a great Sunday of football, are the four coaches.  What announcer has not mentioned the Andy Reid tree in the last month?  Sean Payton has maintained excellence throughout his career and then (duh) – there’s Bill Belichick.  That leaves Sean McVay of the Rams, who is, by far, the most innovative mind of the young coaches.  This is an elite group, for sure.

Speaking of elite – there’s the quarterbacks – Brady, Brees, Mahomes, and Goff – two future Hall of Famers and the best young talent around.

Sunday promises to be a great day of NFL football!!

P.S.  Check Gary’s Guesses to see which teams make it to the Super Bowl at the end of the blog.

ABOVE THE EARS (SOME MUSING)

 

  1. As much as Eagles’ fans want to keep Nick Foles around (and why wouldn’t they?), it will not happen. Carson Wentz is their future and the Eagles cannot possibly carry the $20.5 million price tag attached to Foles.
  1. There are cries to fire Jason Garrett of the Cowboys. He certainly is one of the most apathetic appearing coaches on an NFL sideline.  He does not seem to be the type to light a fire under his team, BUT, in the last three years, only the Patriots, Steelers, and Chiefs have won more games.  And all the noise about firing him comes from the outside, not from within the locker room. So, wait and see.
  1. If either the Patriots or the Saints win the Super Bowl, will Tom Brady or Drew Brees call it quits? Both have contracts that run through 2019.  They are so competitive that this is a tough call.  Look for them both to return.
  1. Alshon Jeffery dropped three passes all season, but every Eagles fan will remember the last one. And that is a shame. Alshon Jeffery is a great receiver and certainly was one of the main reasons the Eagles overachieved this year.  It is more appropriate to feel badly for Jeffery than to condemn him.
  1. RCN-TV has been the home of a number of upsets this basketball season – Easton over Beca, Liberty over Emmaus to name a few. This week, it’s Easton at Northampton on Tuesday night, Navy men at Lafayette on Wednesday, Easton at Parkland wrestling on Thursday, and Allen at Emmaus on Friday followed by Wilson at Bangor.

 
Gary’s Guesses: NFL Picks (Last week: 3-1)  (Overall: 165-82-2  67% )
 
NFL PLAYOFFS
 
NEW ENGLAND
RAMS

The SportsTalk Shop: 2017 Year-in-Review

First of all, props to Morning Call sports writer Steven Gross—not only did he recently get married and treat his new bride to an exclusive behind-the-scenes tour at Yankee Stadium (yes, she’s a die-hard pinstripe fan!), he captured the “Best of RCN-TV” award by receiving the most votes for our “SportsTalk” program during a contest held recently on our website.

To see Steve’s “winning” appearance from this past year, tune in to RCN-TV on January 1st for the entire lineup of the top moments from our broadcasting schedule from this past calendar year!

**********

Speaking of holiday programming…

Morning Call Senior Sports Writer Keith Groller and I conducted our annual “Year-in-Review” show live last Thursday at 7pm on RCN-TV.

We’ve gotten quite a bit of feedback following the initial airing of the show and invite you to check out the show when it repeats again as part of the holiday’s special programming schedule coming up this week (check out the entire RCN-TV broadcast schedule over the next week here on the website).

Just to give you a little sample of what we talked about, here are a few “brief” responses to most of the topics we discussed on this program. Keep in mind, there was quite a bit of “cross-talk” and debate about a few of these issues, along with some interesting opinions and some “fun and games” we also had on the show, which we hope you will check out for yourself.

“Year-in-Review Topics for 2017”

    1. Best collection of sophomores?

Keith:  How about Carson Wentz, Doug Pedersen and the entire Eagles coaching staff? After some first-year mistakes, this crew has definitely avoided any notion of a sophomore jinx.

Me:  Nazareth Football, a team I got to see five out of six weeks in a row this year—and boy did they never disappoint! Anthony Harris (one of several great 10-th grade QBs in the area), Nate Stefanik (who made the catch of the year at BASD setting up a big win), Kyle Paccio (an underrated running back in a pass-happy offense), Jake Wilson (probably the most underrated two-way lineman among any under classmen) and more.  Definitely a team to watch for next year.

    2. 2017’s Sign the Sports Apocalypse was at hand?

Keith:  The Yankees firing Joe Girardi, who took the team within a win of the World Series and hiring Aaron Boone, who has no previous managerial experience

Me:  A parent attending a high school sports practice while watching a program (I “think” it was “The Walking Dead”) with the volume up while the coach was trying to teach his players

    3. Biggest sports embarrassment?

Keith:  The US team failing to qualify for the World Cup

Me:  Chip Kelly’s hiring at UCLA…not necessarily the move itself but one of the comments from their President saying that Kelly would restore “respect” to the program (he’s replacing, Jim Mora, who was a classy guy, while Kelly was on probation while at Oregon, had some major PR issues and a checkered past with Philadelphia and San Francisco and wasn’t really “respected” as an analyst this past fall)

    4. Worst story of 2017?

Keith:  The tragic way Roy Halladay died.

Me:  Continued issues of inappropriate hazing and multiple stories of disrespect between schools, including a few incidents when one football team ran out onto the field showing up another team—and one time an administrator got involved in the back-and-forth of school on Twitter

    5. Favorite Lehigh Valley story?

Keith:  The two nights the PPL Center rocked with high school or college sports fans – the District 11 6A semifinals packing the place for basketball and the Lehigh-Penn State match bringing all the wrestling fans out.

Me:  All the LV state champions we had this past year on our “SportsTalk” show …the fact we had zero this fall shows how rare and how special it was to have so many during the ‘17 school year

    6. Biggest “National” Question Mark of 2017?

Keith:  With the national anthem controversy taking hold and the continuing concerns about concussions and other major injuries, is the sport of football headed for a big dip in popularity – both from fans and participants

Me:  Phillies new manager and the “new direction of baseball”…trend is towards analytics and I love stats, but we’re losing the personality of baseball and some of the traditions of the sport (first time since 1970 the Phillies don’t have a former player on their coaching staff)

    7. Most underrated sports program?

Keith:  Southern Lehigh

Me:  Northwestern Soccer is one of the single sports programs that gets overlooked the most. If you look district-wide and across all sports… Bangor comes in second

    8. Most overrated team/personality?

Keith:  LaVar Ball. A poster boy for everything that’s wrong with sports parenting.

Me:  Roger Goodell…new deal/extension for over $25-million … acts like a czar one minute for things like over-inflating footballs by an ounce, then hides on other issues, including the awful brutality of NFL players against women

    9. Most underrated head coach?

Keith:  Freedom football coach Jason Roeder

Me:  Joe Stellato/Joe Arndt/Eric Snider – all three have issues they had to overcome this past year, yet all are overly welcoming when I come to their practices and games, year after year

    10. Best national sports story?

Keith:  The Houston Astros, just a couple of months after the city was ravaged by a hurricane, getting its first World Series title.

Me:  My answer to this was pretty descriptive and you really need to check out the show to hear my response to this in its entirety.

    11. Nicest Sports Group of 2017?

Keith:  Tie between three groups. Enjoyed our shows with the state champs from Moravian Academy field hockey, CCHS volleyball and Becahi girls basketball – all great kids as well as well as great athletes.

Me:  Pen Argyl girls soccer. A great turnaround story that made the district playoffs for the first time in a long time.  They were a very classy group and great to speak with when our cameras were up at their place to do a story on them—and it certainly was nice of them to promote us on their social media pages this year as well!

For more “year-in-review” comments, topics and opinions, make sure you watch the show on RCN-TV, on RCN On-Demand and our podcast, found here on the RCN-TV website!

Behind the Mic: The NFL-NFC

The first weekend of the 2016 NFL season begins Thursday night, September 8, when the Broncos host the Panthers and it ends on Monday night with the 49’ers welcoming the Rams.  The other teams all play on Sunday.  So that can only mean one thing – it is time for my season outlook.  Last week, I looked at the AFC and this week it’s the NFC.  Remember everyone is 0-0 at the moment and the aspirations of the fans are running high.  If I dampen your spirit with my thoughts, just remember I don’t know any more than you do and, quite possibly, even less.

NFC EAST 

  1. Washington RedskinsThey won the division last year so I will go with them again. Their offense can be explosive and the defense might just be good enough.  This division is wide open, but the Tony Romo injury helped everybody but the Cowboys.
  2. New York Giants They had to shore up their defense and they did with money and draft picks. The offense should be problematic for opponents under new head coach Bob McAdoo.  It would be no surprise if they win the East.
  3. Dallas All they needed to be favored in the East was to get their offense healthy again. Well, forget that with the injury to Romo and a defense that does not impress.  They needed to outscore opponents and now that will not happen.  But even with rookie Dak Prescott, they should win more games than the Eagles.
  4. Philadelphia I would have picked them third, with the injury to Romo. Then they went and traded Bradford. Their schedule includes some of the best of the AFC and the NFC North so there are no easy wins.  The offensive line is a real concern.  And now, they start a rookie quarterback.  So, back to last place.

NFC NORTH 

  1. Green Bay Who else could be favored here? Aaron Rodgers has his receivers back and the defense looks strong again.  They have a tough opener at Jacksonville, so don’t panic if they lose that one.
  2. Minnesota – Does this team EVER catch a break? They won the division last year and looked to be really good this season.  Then their starting quarterback goes down with a freak non-contact serious knee injury and is likely out for the year.  But they went out and got Sam Bradford.  Their defense is solid, and the offense if Bradford stays healthy should be pretty good now.
  3. ChicagoIf only their offense was better. The Bears will be as fierce as ever on defense and John Fox’s teams improve with him at the helm.  They may surprise.
  4. Detroit –They played exceptionally well after their horrendous start last year (1-7). Calvin Johnson has retired and that hurts.  With a tough division, they are still picked last.

NFC SOUTH 

  1. Carolina – This could be the NFL’s best offensive team with some added weapons. The defense is certainly good enough to compete for a Super Bowl.
  2. New Orleans – Drew Brees always makes them dangerous and Mark Ingram is back at running back. If defense wins games as they say, the Saints will fall short in that department.
  3. Atlanta – They have a very tough road schedule (Oakland, Denver, and Seattle) which could keep them from the playoffs. If Matt Ryan has an exceptional year, they could be a wild card.
  4. Tampa Bay – How good is Jameis Winston at quarterback after a year under his belt. I don’t think he’s good enough to overcome their other deficiencies.

NFC WEST 

  1. Arizona – This will be one of the very best teams in the NFL – the defense is strong and the offense is ridiculous. Could be a good Super Bowl pick.
  2. Seattle – The best defense and a solid offense. They will make the playoffs for the fifth consecutive year and are always a contender for the title.
  3. Los Angeles – They will probably start #1 draft pick, Jared Goff, at QB; travel to London for a game; and await a new stadium. Lots of distractions, not to mention their HBO Hard Knocks show.
  4. San Francisco – Chip Kelly tries his system in a MUCH tougher division than the NFC East where the Eagles sat. He will struggle this year, but gets to spend four weeks back on the East Coast.

ABOVE THE EARS (SOME MUSINGS)
NFC Playoffs
Championship Game – Cardinals vs Carolina
NFC Champions – Arizona Cardinals
Super Bowl Champions – Arizona Cardinals

Gary's Picks

NFL Picks – Week One
Carolina
Houston
Atlanta
Tennessee
Philadelphia
Cincinnati
Oakland
Kansas City
Baltimore
Green Bay
Seattle
Giants
Indianapolis
Arizona
Pittsburgh
Los Angeles
 

Behind the Mic: Saquon Barkley

October 17th was a rare Saturday for me.  Campus Insiders, an internet sports streaming group affiliated with the Patriot League, was granted the rights to the Lafayette-Harvard game.  There were slim pickings among the high school match-ups, so we all took the day off, a circumstance usually unheard of at this time of the year.  So what did I decide to do – WATCH football, of course. Specifically, I wanted to watch Penn State freshman “phenom”, Saquon Barkley of Whitehall High School, go up against the #1 team in the nation – Ohio State.  This, as many know, is the same Saquon Barkley who thrilled us on RCN-TV last year.  The 18-year-old is a true freshman and playing Big Ten football.  Watching him on Saturday night and putting it mildly, he did not disappoint.

Saquon had sat out the previous two games due to an ankle injury and his availability for Saturday’s game was not known prior to game time.  Trust me, he was available. Saquon rushed for 194 yards on 26 carries, an average of 7.5 yards per carry.  And he had a 44-yard touchdown run called back in the first quarter.  He did have a season-long 56-yard run in the fourth quarter.  He had four runs of over 14 yards.  He has now rushed for over 100 yards in three games and combined with the 195 yards rushing against Rutgers, he now ranks third and fourth in all-time rushing games at Penn State by a freshman.

His runs were dazzling and included another leap over a potential tackler, his second of the season.  He is spectacular at “putting his foot into the ground” and making cuts that leave defenders grasping at air or just watching him run by them.  To me, he has instincts that match some of the greatest to ever play the game.

Barkley is shredding college defenses much like he did at Whitehall.  In his senior year, he rushed for 1851 yards, 8.6 yards per carry and scored 24 rushing touchdowns.  He added another three receiving and a punt and kickoff return for touchdowns.  Take a look at his high school highlight tape:

When his Penn State highlight tape is put together at the end of the season, it should look almost as impressive.

Add to that, he is a great young man who distinguished himself both as a student and an athlete at Whitehall.  He played basketball, even though he was not a great basketball player and could have easily walked away from the team his senior year after acquiring the full scholarship at Penn State.  He played hard in every game and used all the basketball ability he had.  Then, he went on to be a track star and gave away one of his gold medals to a young lady whom he felt deserved one after a bad break cost her a victory.

For me, it is always special to follow the players who were part of the RCN broadcasts in high school.  I relish their success.  Liberty High School product and Villanova’s Darrun Hilliard comes to mind as he gets ready to launch an NBA career.  I want the same kind of success for Saquon.

Here’s hoping Saquon stays injury-free and continues to create exceptional highlight reels.  He has moved well beyond local television in the Lehigh Valley to national exposure on the major networks. For the next 3 ½ seasons, I will be yelling, like all the Nittany Lions fans,

“We are – Penn State!!”

ABOVE THE EARS (SOME MUSINGS)

  1. Cleveland QB Johnny Manziel got into trouble again this past week when he was stopped and questioned by police following an argument with his girlfriend. He was stopped in his car and admitted to drinking prior to the incident.  He was not arrested and did not play in the Cleveland-Denver game.
  2. In case you did not believe Yogi Berra when he said, “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over”, take a look at the Michigan State-Michigan game this past Saturday:

http://ftw.usatoday.com/2015/10/michigan-state-stuns-michigan-by-returning-punters-fumble-for-td-on-final-play

  1. If you watched the Colts self-destruct against the Patriots on Sunday night, this might be what they really wanted to do:

http://ftw.usatoday.com/2015/10/university-of-maine-ran-a-similar-play-to-colts-trick-play-but-it-actually-worked#cx_ab_test_id=17&cx_ab_test_variant=cx_blend&cx_art_pos=4&cx_navSource=arttop&cx_tag=trend&cx_ctrl_comp_grp=true&cxrecs_s

  1. If you are an Eagles’ fan, you must constantly be bewildered. How can they make so many mistakes on offense and still win?  If “defense wins championships”, the Eagles can still have a good season.
  2. The EPC South picture could become clearer on Friday night when Freedom (5-0; 7-0) visits Parkland (4-1; 6-1). You can watch the game LIVE on RCN-TV.  Saturday’s games are Lafayette at Holy Cross LIVE at 1:00 and Wilson at Pen Argyl at 7:00.

Gary's Picks

NFL PICKS LAST WEEK – 9-5; OVERALL 61-30 (67%)

NFL PICKS (WEEK SEVEN)
SEATTLE
BUFFALO
WASHINGTON
ATLANTA
INDIANAPOLIS
DETROIT
PITTSBURGH
BROWNS
HOUSTON
NEW ENGLAND
SAN DIEGO
GIANTS
CAROLINA
ARIZONA

Behind the Mic: Chip Kelly

Chip Kelly became the Eagles’ head football coach in January of 2013.  And, boy, has he shaken things up.

DeSean Jackson is gone; LeSean McCoy is gone; Nick Foles is gone; Michael Vick is gone; and most of the secondary is gone.  Add Trent Cole, Jeremy Maclin, Todd Herremans, Evan Mathis to the “gone” list, and, just this past weekend, Brandon Boykin was let go.

The Eagles were 10-6 in Kelly’s first two years.  They made the playoffs in year one; just missed them in year two.  Not bad, right?  Obviously, it was not good enough for Chip Kelly.  Eleven of last year’s twenty-two starters are gone!  Nine of the eleven were part of the 2013 playoff team.

So, will they be better?

OFFENSE
They will be better at quarterback if Sam Bradford’s knee holds up.  They should be better with both DeMarco Murray and Ryan Matthews sharing running back duties with a sprinkling of Sproles.  They may be equal to last season with this receiving corps and just as good at tight end. The offensive line cannot possibly be better.

DEFENSE
The defensive line is solid.  The exits of Trent Cole and Casey Matthews seem to make the Eagles weaker at linebacker and that is never a good thing.  The Eagles really needed help at cornerback and appear to have acquired that help when they got Byron Maxwell from the Seahawks.  They retained Nolan Carroll and signed four rookies.  Success rests on the improvement of this area over last year.  Malcolm Jenkins returns at free safety, but the strong safety spot does not look particularly strong.

Will they make the NFL playoffs?

For some reason, I have faith in Chip Kelly.  I certainly enjoy his style of football; I respect his confidence in the changes he has made; I like his philosophy of keeping players who love to play football as part of a team.

Eagles’ fans, as we all know, are an impatient bunch (perhaps, much like Kelly himself).  All of Philadelphia is ready for a winning season from at least one of its major pro teams and the city painfully waits for the next championship team.  It will be awhile (make that a LONG while) for the Sixers, Flyers, and the Phillies.  And certainly the expectations rest more heavily upon the Eagles and Chip Kelly to get it done much sooner.  Make no mistake, Kelly knows that and I, for one, think he will excite the Philadelphia masses this year.  I don’t envision a Super Bowl quite yet, but, if at all possible, try to be PATIENT!

ABOVE THE EARS (SOME NO-HIT MUSINGS) 

  1. Remember this past Wednesday when Twitter put it out there that the Mets’ Wilmer Flores was traded to the Brewers. Flores got word while he was playing for the Mets and cried in the infield.  He had been in the Mets’ organization since he was 16-years old.  It turns out the internet was wrong.  He remained a Met. Flores capped off the week with a walk-off home run against the Nationals on Friday night.  Watch:

  1. Triple Crown winner American Pharoah won the Haskell Invitational in Oceanport, NJ on Sunday. A record crowd of 60,983 people cheered him on.  Betting on him, however, did not make anyone much money – $2.20 on a $2.00 bet.  It is anticipated that the $5 million Breeder’s Cup Classic will be his final race in October.  Then, it’s on to the breeding life.
  2. For Eagles’ fans who love to read anything bad about the Cowboys comes the story out of training camp that WR Dez Bryant got into a fist fight with CB Tyler Patmon on Sunday. Each one swung at the other and both missed!
  3. Unlike Dez Bryant, UFC Bantamweight champion Rhonda Rousey did not miss her foe on Saturday night. She knocked out the previously undefeated Brazilian Bethe Correia in 34 seconds in Rio de Janeiro.  Her last three fights have lasted a total of 64 seconds!

  1. As I write this, the Mets are tied for first place in the National League East and the Phillies are the hottest team in baseball in the last ten games going 8-2. It must be a very cold day in Hades!

Behind the Mic: Sideline – For the Birds!

Up front, I want to say that Chip Kelly is a breath of fresh air as an NFL coach. He is innovative, plays an up-tempo game that the fans find interesting, and seems to win with unknowns and makes them “knowns”. He has reinvigorated professional football in Philadelphia. And by now, I am sure you are waiting for… but…

There are times when I watch a game (and I see plenty of games), I wonder what is the coach thinking? I felt that way watching the Eagles this past week against the 49’ers. The Eagles lost 26-21 but were in position to win at the end. They could have been in a better position to win the game, except, in my opinion, for some coaching decisions. Let me give you three examples:

1. All Eagles’ fans are aware that the Birds are playing with a much-depleted offensive line – center Jason Kelce is out with a hernia; guard Evan Mathis has a knee injury; and tackle Lane Johnson is suspended. That is three of five offensive line positions. I love the hurry-up offense, but with so many injuries up front, might one consider to use a “slow-it-down offense”? On Sunday, the Eagles could not sustain drives. Seven of their eleven possessions ended in less than two minutes and the reasons were that they could not block the 49’ers and they could not run the football. Sprinkle in an awful day by quarterback, Nick Foles, and the Eagles’ offense spent the majority of the time on the sidelines. Remember, all 21 points were scored by the defense and special teams. This, also, means the defense had to spend an inordinate amount of time ON the field. With the way things were going on Sunday, the big early lead, the offensive blocking woes, and the lack of any offense, might this have been a good time to slow down the hurry-up?

2. In the fourth quarter and the Eagles down by two, the 49’ers were stopped on a third-and-three. This created a field-goal try of 42 yards. The Niners, however, were called for an offensive pass interference penalty on the third down play. Decline the penalty, right? Let them kick the field goal – worst case scenario – down by five; best case – still down by two. Coach Kelly accepted the penalty and the 49’ers got a first down on the next play and eventually kicked a field goal which was eleven yards closer and allowed the continued possession to use three more minutes of precious game time.

3. Despite #1 and #2, the Eagles still had a chance to win the game. Two minutes were left in the game and the Eagles were on the 49’ers one-yard line. They have LeSean McCoy and they have Darren Sproles; one can move the pile and one can seemingly go under the pile. Instead, as Tony Dungy pointed out in a postgame show, the Eagles chose twice to throw the ball with the linebackers playing 5 yards off the line of scrimmage. At least run it once. As I am sure you have already guessed, both pass attempts were unsuccessful.

So there’s my beef. Let me repeat – I am not a coach, nor do I profess to be one. But, I did stay at a Holiday Inn once!

ABOVE THE EARS (SOME MUSINGS)
1. Has anyone had a classier exit from sports than Derek Jeter? There was walk-off drama in his last at-bat in Yankee Stadium and an RBI base hit in his final at-bat ever at Fenway Park. Jeter made a point of shaking every Red Sox players’ hand before the game and telling them how much he enjoyed competing against them. He even stopped at the mound to shake the pitcher’s hand because he did not get a chance to do that before the game. Jeter finished his career #6 all-time in hits, #7 in at-bats, and #9 in runs scored. And kudos to the Red Sox for honoring Jeter in a perfect way.

2. We are four weeks into the NFL season (one-quarter of the way) and there are only two undefeated teams left. Seattle and Denver, right? Uh, no. It’s Arizona and Cincinnati! This is going to be a strange, strange season. Those suicide pools, where you pick one guaranteed winner each week, but you can’t re-pick the same team again are probably done by now. This year, you could start one every four weeks.

3. The baseball playoffs started this week. If you’re a fan, expect very little sleep FOR the next three weeks or so. Night games start late, end late, and seem to take forever.

4. I watched Whitehall take apart Parkland on Friday night. Before the game, the “experts” were all picking Parkland to win and most thought rather easily. That didn’t happen. That’s why you play the game. The Zephyrs travel to Easton (both undefeated) this week. It’s on RCN-TV LIVE at 7:00 with Chris Michael and John Leone.

5. If you are interested in Lafayette football this week, show me some love on Friday night at 6:30. I will be in the Bronx to do an audio-cast of the Lafayette-Fordham Patriot League football game. The game will be televised by the CBS Sports Network (on the RCN dial), but Mike Joseph and I will be doing an audio broadcast on the internet at goleopards.com. Watch the game on TV, turn the sound down, and use the computer to hear our biased Lafayette broadcast. Just a thought.

Gary's Picks
(Last Week – 9-4; Seasonal Record – 34-27: 56%)

GREEN BAY
CAROLINA
CLEVELAND
PHILADELPHIA
GIANTS
NEW ORLEANS
DALLAS
DETROIT
INDIANAPOLIS
PITTSBUGH
DENVER
SAN FRANCISCO
SAN DIEGO
CINCINNATI
SEATTLE

The SportsTalk Shop: Eagles’ September Recap

As pain of the tough loss to the 49ers begins to subside just a bit, it’s time to take a realistic look back at the first month of the Eagles‘ season. Yes, if the Birds could have reached the endzone from the one yard line in the waning minutes of the San Francisco game, a 4-0 start would look tremendous heading into October. But when you look at the schedule, the sluggish starts to their games, their inconsistent offense and defense, and all the injuries sustained the past four weeks, 3-1 is nothing sort of amazing. If fact, with games against the lowly Rams and then the Giants coming up, I think most Eagles fans will be thrilled if their team heads into the bye week with a 5-1 record.

Before we start looking ahead, let’s analyze the three biggest stories so far, and what needs to happen for their success to continue.

#1 Nick Foles, You Are The Man…I Think
Foles recovered from a dreadful start against Jacksonville to post a second half stat line of 5-for-21, 183 yards & 2 touchdowns, followed by successively improving performances against the Colts and the Redskins. Foles became just the eighth quarterback in NFL history to pass for at least 320 yards in each of the first three games of the season. And, perhaps even more encouraging, after practically ignoring Foles in 2013, the national media teased last Sunday’s game as “Nick Foles and the Eagles…” as opposed to “LeSean McCoy and the Eagles…” or last year’s “DeShawn Jackson’s Eagles…” After a year-and-a-half of questions surrounding the team’s QB, it seemed like Foles had finally arrived as “the guy.” That was before Sunday, when he put up one of the worst quarterback ratings of his career. I know–it’s just one game, and Sunday could simply be a minor blip on the radar of his steadily climbing career.

If there was a sliver of optimism from the Eagles’ final, yet futile drive in San Francisco, it was that Head Coach Chip Kelly showed the utmost confidence in the third-year pro by putting the game’s outcome in Foles’ hands, as opposed to some combination of Jason Peters’ blocking/McCoy running, as what I would have done in that situation. Granted, the woeful play of the decimated offensive line played a huge role in the decision (and was repeated by Kelly in his “day-after interviews” multiple times). But Kelly has been making all the right moves so far (or at least most of the right moves) in his short tenure in Philadelphia, and his decision to allow the game’s outcome to be decided by his quarterback could provide Foles with a world of confidence that his head coach has his back.

At least for this season.

#2 The Injuries
Without three-fifths of the team’s offensive line and the services of the team’s best defender due to injuries, Eagles fans should just be happy the team even had a shot a winning the game in San Fran. I had a chance recently to chat with Eagles reporter Al Thompson (“Footballstories” Magazine) and he was optimist about the Birds’ ability to overcome the medical setbacks on the offensive line and at middle linebacker.

Clearly the Eagles will benefit from the return of Lane Johnson from his four-game suspension, which will also allow Todd Herremans to move back to his more comfortable guard position. Fans can also take comfort in the fact that Center Jason Kelce should be able to return from his sports hernia in time to shake off the rust and be back to full strength for the playoff push. The team should be in good shape on the health front in a few weeks provided they can stay away from another rash of O-line injuries and if Mychal Kendricks can recover from his calf injury.

#3 The Running Game
On the one hand, the addition of Darren Sproles to the backfield has looked like the steal of the season. If fact, a national broadcaster said that if the Eagles win the Super Bowl this year, the New Orleans Saints should get a chunk of the championship prize money for giving Sproles away for just a fifth-round pick. He’s one of just three NFL players to have two 50+ yard receptions, he was named Offensive Player of the Week after setting career highs in both receiving yards and total years again Indianapolis, and he’s helped change field position numerous times on special teams, including returning an 82-yard punt for a touchdown against the Niners.

McCoy, meanwhile, came into the San Francisco game averaging less than 3-yards per carry, and that number went DOWN this past Sunday (10 carries for just 17 yards). Against the 49ers, the entire Eagles backfield combined for just 22 total yards for the game. It is true that McCoy has been dinged-up in a couple of the games with injuries, and the dreadful offensive line the Eagles had on display in their last ball game no doubt was a major contribution for lack of a ground assault. However, McCoy and the Eagles’ rushing attack MUST improve if the team is to have any postseason success, no matter how much luck they have in-tow and have already used through the team’s first four games. The upstart Cowboys are also 3-1 and, of more concern for Birds fans, are having great success moving the ball on the ground, which allows Tony Romo the wiggle room he usually needs to overshadow his often inconsistent passing. It won’t matter how many regular season victories the Eagles enter the playoffs with–it won’t mean a thing if they don’t get to at least the second round of the playoffs (see the 2011 Phillies).

Feel free to email your comments and opinions on the Eagles’ 3-1 start to the season to RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com and tune in for our live show this Thursday from 6-7 pm. We’ll also be discussing the use of technology in football on this week’s program on RCN-TV.

 

Behind the Mic: The NFL-NFC – Another Spoiler Alert!

Last week, my blog focused on the NFL-AFC as I wanted to let everyone know how each division would finish. This is the sequel to that blog as I now will take you through a journey of the NFC and give you enough information so that you can start to make your playoff plans. Remember, for a true fan there is no better way to spend a Sunday afternoon than to tune in to the NFL Red Zone which covers highlights of every game played that day. You can order it by calling 1-800-RING RCN (this IS an unmitigated “plug” for the Red Zone – it makes our marketing people even happier when I do this two weeks in a row).

With that said, I am now ready to tell you (some say predict) how the regular season will turn out in terms of the NFC Division winners. So, much like last week, – SPOILER ALERT! – Do not read this if you want to enjoy the NFC regular season. The following is how the NFC will end up (This year’s record is in parentheses):

NFC SOUTH
1. New Orleans Saints (11-5) – They lost to Super Bowl champion, Seattle, in the playoffs. Their defense is better (Champ Bailey, for instance). AND, they are in a rather weak division.
2. Atlanta Falcons (9-7) – What the heck happened last year (4-12)? One word – injuries. They should be healthier (have to be) and begin to look like the team that was outstanding in 2012.
3. Carolina Panthers (8-8) – Here the question will be, “What the heck happened this year?” The Panthers were 12-4 last year, but they lost their wide receiver collection from last year. Even though their offense is questionable, their defense will win some games for them.
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-9) – They have the potential to be one of the most improved teams (4-12 last year), but their improvement in the standings could take awhile.

NFC NORTH
1. Green Bay Packers (12-4) – IF Aaron Rodgers stays healthy and Eddie Lacy runs wild, the Packers will win the North. Their defense is a bit of a question mark.
2. Chicago Bears (11-5) – As QB Jay Cutler goes, so go the Bears. They have faith in him (he is signed through 2020). This is a tough division and “survival of the fittest” usually wins out. The Bears could be one of the “fittest”.
3. Detroit Lions (9-7) – Why don’t the Lions get better? They appear solid everywhere, but in the secondary. Potentially, they could have a very good season, but don’t we say that every year?
4. Minnesota Vikings (6-10) – They will not get better. Only dog in the division.

NFC WEST
1. Seattle Seahawks (13-3) – Obviously, the Super Bowl champs were great last year (13-3) and with their youth and talent, there is every reason to believe they will be great again. Pete Carroll seems to have the perfect disposition to avoid the typical Super Bowl letdown. This is the toughest division in the NFL and Seattle is the best team in that division.
2. San Francisco 49ers (12-4) – The 49ers lost to Seattle in the NFC championship game and they continue to possess great talent and great coaching. It has been 20 years from their last championship and that may give them enough incentive to get it done.
3. Arizona Cardinals (11-5) – They won 10 regular season games last year and missed the playoffs. Winning 11 should get them in. They proved they could beat Seattle when the Seahawks are at home and that says something about their pedigree. Carson Palmer to Larry Fitzgerald is a lethal combination.
4. St. Louis Rams (8-8) – The Rams need to find another division. They are not a bad team, just not better than the other three in the NFC West. And no quarterback of note at the moment.

NFC EAST
1. Philadelphia Eagles (11-5) – They were about the only team that looked better throughout the “NFC Least” last year. There just doesn’t seem to be much negativity around Chip Kelly. Nick Foles has to be the real deal and Darren Sproles should add even more excitement to the up-tempo style.
2. New York Giants (9-7) – Eli Manning cannot be as bad as he was last year; the defense is pretty good; the offensive line is better. The Giants will, also, be better.
3. Dallas Cowboys (8-8) – Another ho-hum year for America’s team (still?). DeMarcus Ware is gone so the defense can’t be better. There were no great offensive additions. A long-shot to make the playoffs.
4. Washington Redskins (7-9) – New coach usually warrants a new attitude. RG III is healed, but not playing well. Name has not been changed. Four more wins than last year, but not enough to make the playoffs.

There you have it. It all starts September 4. Enjoy the season!!

ABOVE THE EARS (SOME MUSINGS)
1. Joe Torre’s #6 was retired Saturday and that leaves only #2 left as a single-digit Yankees uniform not retired. That distinction will end when Derek Jeter has #2 retired. The Yankees were the first team to put numbers on uniforms back in 1929. The numbers originally coincided with the player’s spot in the batting order. In case you do not remember the single-digit retired numbers: #1-Billy Martin; #2-Derek Jeter; #3- Babe Ruth; #4- Lou Gerhrig; #5- Joe Dimaggio; #6- Joe Torre; #7- Mickey Mantle; #8- Bill Dickey, Yogi Berra; #9-Roger Maris.

2. The Eagles looked very good last Thursday against the Steelers. Even the back-ups played well. The Steelers looked very disinterested.

3. The Rams lost their quarterback, Sam Bradford, for the season (ACL) and are now desperate for a starting quarterback. The obvious choice is Mark Sanchez of the Eagles, who ran offensive coordinator Marty Schottenheimer’s offense in New York. This would create a very interesting decision for all concerned.

4. Have you noticed how awful RG III has been for Washington so far? He threw for 20 yards – 20 yards! – on Saturday night. Joe Theismann has come out and suggested Jay Gruden yank his star for Kirk Cousins. That won’t happen.

5. Speaking of Grudens, father Jon Gruden was at Lafayette this past Wednesday to watch his son, Deuce, scrimmage. Ross Scheurman, Lafayette’s All-League running back was kept out of the scrimmage. Deuce is second on the depth chart and saw quite a bit of action.

 

Behind the Mic: Golf Without Tiger – Not So Bad After All

Another major golf tournament and another missed cut by Tiger Woods. And by Saturday, the popularity of golf lessens even more. Eighteen years ago, a young Tiger stepped into the professional golf limelight and became the center of attention for the sport. It seemed like a whole new audience joined golf fanatics around the world to anoint this athlete as one of their favorites ever. And now, Tiger cannot make the cuts. His body is breaking down and he has played hurt for the last seven years. Sadly, he has become just another player. He has suffered and, ergo, golf is, also, suffering.

But, in my opinion, there is hope on the horizon – perhaps, not in finding the next Tiger, but in finding great drama week in and week out. And that was never more prevalent than this past Sunday during the PGA Championship. The recipe was blended to perfection. Take a dash of the recent past (Phil Mickelson and Jim Furyk); throw in an American young gun (Rickie Fowler); add a sprinkle of foreign notoriety (Henrik Stenson and Ernie Els); mix in the current favorite ingredient (Rory McIlroy) and you have the drama great golf produces.

This major had it all. Rory McIlroy won and became only the fourth player in the last century to win four majors at 25 or younger. The others were Bobby Jones, Jack Nicklaus, and Tiger Woods. He has won the last two majors of the year (only 7 players have done that). He had to overcome falling behind, waiting on almost every shot after the rain delay, watching his closest opponents, Mickelson and Fowler play directly in front of him and experiencing their outstanding moments and, at times missed opportunities. Added to that was the possibility that he may not be able to finish the round because darkness was engulfing Valhalla Country Club. The final hole was played in a mysterious “foursome” setting just to get the championship settled. It had an almost Hollywood feel to it.

It was the best golf had to order for sure. And it was “Tiger-less”. I must admit that I was one of those who did not take as much interest in a tournament if Tiger was not playing or missed the cut and was not around for the weekend. Sunday changed that. I do not say that Rory McIlroy is the next Tiger. There is almost too much talent out on tour right now for just one player to be as dominant as Woods was. But, the drama has been instilled again and the characters are fascinating enough to draw me back.

The spectacle of golf needed a shot in the arm. It needed to overcome Tiger’s lack of competitiveness due to a bad back, bad knees, and a sore Achilles. Tiger Woods had become golf’s Achilles heel. His success raised golf to new heights; his failures were sending it to new lows. That “heel” ironically is beginning to heal! Who would think that it would come in Kentucky in the dark on an August summer afternoon?

ABOVE THE EARS (SOME MUSINGS)
1. Did you hear that Ryan Howard is building a $5.8 million house in Florida? It is being built near Clearwater where the Phillies have spring training. It will have 8 bedrooms, 10+ baths, a two-story library, 2 kitchens, 3 laundry rooms, 2 elevators, a wine room, a bowling alley, and a trophy room (I hope he can fill it). The doorknobs alone reportedly cost $80,000. When you have a contract worth $180 million, you can do this.

2. A friend of mine told me that while he and his wife were watching the Eagles lose their first preseason game (they are both huge Eagles fans), she asked which six Eagles he would like to have as his pallbearers. He wondered why she would ask such a strange question. She said she thought that when he died, it would be appropriate for the Eagles to let him down one last time!

3. Speaking of the Eagles, they practiced this past Sunday at Franklin Field, the football home of the Penn Quakers. The Eagles played there from 1958-1970. It was built in 1895. Why there you might ask. Well that was the site of their last NFL championship in 1960 when they beat the Packers 17-13. That was 54 years ago. 28,000 people showed up to watch.

4. Andre Reed did himself, his family, his high school (Dieruff), and his community proud at the NFL Hall of Fame ceremony in Canton, Ohio last week. His speech was straight from the heart, especially his thoughts on Jim Kelly, his quarterback. I have a helmet in my office with both their autographs on it. That helmet was always special to me; now it is even more so.

5. I want to thank John Leone for filling in for me last week. If you haven’t read his blog, please take the time, especially if you are as passionate a sports fan, as John is. You can feel his pain and suffering. Give it a look.

 

The SportsTalk Shop: NFL Draft Preview

The commencement of the NFL Draft 2014 is almost upon us.

Before you settle in for all the festivities and start price shopping for jerseys of your favorite team’s newest players, I want to provide you with the latest rumors, insights and possibilities on who’s going where, what team is doing what, and any surprises that might be lurking for this year’s three-day event.

First, here are insights from some of the NFL beat writers who joined us on our most recent “RCN SportsTalk” show, discussing the Eagles’ draft direction, DeSean Jackson’s departure and the top pick in the draft overall (the entire program is available to watch for free on RCN On-Demand).

Now, here are a few more bits of information from our sources on what to watch for in this year’s draft:

1) Don’t expect the Eagles to “stand pat.”
They’ve already made several incredibly risky moves—the biggest of these in releasing their most dynamic player, DeSean Jackson—so don’t be surprised if they make a move. The Eagles do have some depth on the line and rumors continue to swirl that Brandon Graham, who never quite fit in comfortably to the Birds’ new defense, might be one piece that gets swapped in order for the team to move up in the draft.

2) Expect to hear all-Manziel, all-the-time on Thursday.
Right or wrong, the NFL, ESPN and all the national media outlets love to overexpose someone at the NFL draft, and “Johnny Football” will be the guy this year. Rumored to be drafted anywhere from third to twenty-third, the former Aggies quarterback will be talked about early and often in Thursday’s “Day One” events, and probably even more so in the weeks and months to follow, regardless of whether he succeeds or not.

3) Look for the SEC to do some gloating.
While they will no doubt lose a ton of talent—again–due to this year’s draft, the SEC will be able to brag about having as many as nine players from their conference selected in the first round. I figure Jadeveon Clowney of South Carolina and Auburn’s Greg Robinson go in the first five selections, and Manziel, along with fellow Texas A&M standouts Jake Matthews and Mike Evans, are next to go, with plenty more talent from this conference left for other teams to pick up before the draft’s second round gets underway.

Who do you think will be drafted #1 this year, and where do you think Manziel will end up? Post your opinions in our comments section or send an email to RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com.