The SportsTalk Shop: NFL Draft “Recap Thoughts”

As the dust beings to settle from this year’s NFL draft, a few observations on the picks by the Eagles and Redskins:

Most of these players were, in fact, available and, although I was very high on Eagles adding Foster to shore-up their linebacker core, I can’t argue with the logic of either team’s number-one selection.

      • Talking with Redskins insiders in the days leading up to the draft, they were unanimous in that Washington had multiple holes still to fill and that adding the “best available” player in each round was the way to go.  They did that, picking up a stud defensive lineman in Allen with their top pick and acquired value at several positions—all of them should benefit from the added depth.
      • Fabian Moreau was a good gamble for Washington to take with their third round pick. Unlike rounds 1 and 2 (see below), I don’t have a problem with selecting a top-tier player buoyed by injury concerns in round three.  Moreau clearly will not be available for training camp, but hopefully we can start to see his potential by the season’s second half.  With the league moving towards a more wide open/pass-happy offensive sets (and three WR looks becoming more prevalent), adding a physical corner with Moreau’s speed could be an excellent pickup for the Redskins.
      • The Eagles also had multiple options to strengthen areas of need, specifically cornerback, running back, offensive line and wide receiver. Their biggest gap was a corner—an area I thought the Birds needed to add at least three quality CBs in order to have a “successful” draft.  They responded by added one-and-a-half (Sidney Jones will probably not be available to play this fall). IF (and that’s a big IF) he returns in 2018 and plays up to his pre-injury capability, it will be a tremendous selection.  However,…
      • The Eagles still have gaping holes at corner, with their only other CB selection (and a good one at that) being Rasul Douglas. You could argue that Philadelphia will not be a realistic playoff contender this fall, so they could afford to wait a year and hope that Jones recovers completely from his Achilles tendon tear (same injury that felled Ryan Howard, btw).  But, you won’t really know how good Jones will be by this time next year, leaving the Eagles will virtually the same concerns in their secondary going into NEXT year’s draft.

Another somewhat questionable decision by the Eagles was to NOT target a bruising running back who get can you yards between the tackles.  In fact, with the Eagles decision to NOT bring a proven, short-yardage back and not adding depth along the offensive line, you may even have the same number of holes a year from now: corner, o-linemen, wide receiver (if either Alshon Jeffery and/or Torrey Smith don’t return), running back…clearly, this would be a ‘worst case scenario,’ but by gambling with your second round pick, this is a legit concern.

Now, if the Eagles are setting their sights on next year, when Penn State highly touted running back Saquon Barkley might be available…?

We’ll have more insights and analysis of this year’s NFL Drafts with NFL Beat Reporters Nick Fierro and George Wallace on this Thursday’s program, live at 7pm on RCN-TV.   Email us (rcnsportstalk@rcn.com) your thoughts on this year’s draft along with questions as teams get ready for “voluntary” workouts.
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Again, big “thanks” are in order for some of our local “AD-s” for sending us this week’s top track and field performers:

4-28-17 boys frosh
4-28-17 girls top 60
4-28-17 girls relays
4-28-17 girls frosh
4-28-17 boys top 60
4-28-17 boys relays

Colonial League Boys Week 5 Link
http://www.colonialleague.org/sports/boys/boys-track-field/

Colonial League Girls Week 5 Link
http://www.colonialleague.org/sports/girls/girls-track-field/

School administrators:  don’t forget to send us your news notes, top athletes and other special achievements to us as we continue to spotlight local student-athletes in the RCN viewing area each week.  Also, be sure to catch our local sports features on this week’s “SportsTalk” show as well!

The SportsTalk Shop: NFL Draft Thoughts/Sports Interviews

We had some great analysis and insights for this week’s NFL Draft on the most recent “RCN SportsTalk presented by The Morning Call” which you can see on RCN On-Demand or hear the podcast: rcn.com/rcntv/sports-talk.

Here are a few more insights/observations that either didn’t make it to air or should be emphasized as we approach this week’s Draft:

1.  Neither the Eagles nor the Redskins should be picky: take the best available player!
Both teams have multiple holes to fill and are not any one position player away for making a major jump to becoming a Super Bowl contender. Take the best option / most talented player at the spot you pick — whether you move up or down — and find a place for him to utilize his talents!

2.  Stay away from Christian McCaffrey.
Unless you move down later into the first round he’s not going to be your best available player. Durable running backs can be found much later in the draft and NFL beat writers are mixed as far as how well McCaffrey will hold up as a between-the-tackles rusher. He’s a great talent and will be a great compliment player to a team that is already close to Super Bowl contention but neither the Redskins nor Eagles find themselves in that position right now and, although he’d be a great storyline for us in the media, avoid people that encourage picking up this Stanford back.

Our beat writers on this week’s “SportsTalk” discussed in more detail some areas that should concern fans that are going “all-in” for McCaffrey that you need to hear.

3.  Although not necessarily all flashy names, there are some outstanding talents both the Redskins and/or Eagles could pick up throughout the draft who could go a long way in helping each organization. 
Some of my top names for round one who could be available “mid-round” include:

  • LB Reuben Foster, Alabama  (although he’s MY pick, word is Arizona is heavily in on him) 

On our program, Al Thompson and Rock Hoffman also had an interesting rumor regarding a certain team’s interest in the controversial but ultra-talented running back Joe Mixon, along with some great insights on “diamonds in the rough” among later round draft picks that you can hear on the podcast.
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In addition to our pro sports coverage, our “SportsTalk” cameras have also been busy keeping up with local high school sports, including this past weekend’s Colonial League “Play Day” tournament…

We’d also like to thank Lehigh Valley track-and-field Chairs Bob Hartman and Brian Geist (EPC & Colonial League, respectively) for sending me the updated “performance list” for us to highlight the top male and female track athletes and their performances to date:

4-21-17 girls top 60
4-21-17 girls relay
4-21-17 girls frosh
4-21-17 boys top 60
4-21-17 boys relay
4-21-17 boys frosh

Colonial League Boys Week 4 Link: http://www.colonialleague.org/sports/boys/boys-track-field/
Colonial League Girls Week 4 Link : http://www.colonialleague.org/sports/girls/girls-track-field/

You can catch high school sports videos and interviews on this Thursday’s program, live at 7pm on RCN-TV, including a feature on the Saucon Valley track team that posted a major tri-meet win for both its girls and boys teams last week.  We’ll also have coverage a big girls lacrosse battle—tune in for details!

The SportsTalk Shop: 2016 Predictions: Mid-Year Update

Each December both here at the “SportsTalk Shop” and on our TV show, “SportsTalk”, panelists and I make some sports-based predictions for the new year.  I don’t get caught up in the prediction business ordinarily, but it’s become a bit of a tradition around the holidays to make a couple bold statements to go along with resolutions (of which I don’t do nearly as well).

While some sports prognosticators love to boast about how accurate they are with their futuristic insights, I make it a habit of going back and making public my predictions, and owning up to any that don’t come true.  (I’d also like to take a miniscule amount of credit for the ones that work out—I’m owed at least as much, right?)

Since we’re over the halfway point through the calendar year, and before we start ramping up our fall football coverage (which will be bigger and better than ever before!), I think I should take a peek at how some of my predictions are holding up and make myself accountable for any gaffes on my part.

Philly pro sports teams will win LESS games in 2016
The 2015-16 76ers certainly lived up to their end of my prediction.  Aside from forcing out the team’s General Manager, Sam Hinkie, they were near perfect in their quest for futility, reaching new levels of bad play, even with pressure from Jerry Colangelo (and the league office?) to try to improve.

My prediction will take a hit with the idea that the Sixers will try to go after some more recognizable free agency in all probability this offseason.  They might also win a few more games than expected if they select Brandon Ingram with the first pick in this month’s NBA Draft.  Selecting Ingram would make the team better—short-term—than if they select Ben Simmons or even draft down a few spots, but I don’t see that much improvement in November and December and still believe they’ll ring up more losses in the 2016 calendar year than they lost in 2015 (but the future is very bright for 2017).

I knew the Flyers were going to be improved, but had no idea that they would be as exciting to watch this past season as they were, to say nothing about making the playoffs and having a few good moments against the Capitals before losing to Washington in the first round of the NHL playoffs.  This team ramped up the speed of its rebuild and, with a few tweaks, will be a middle-of-the-pack playoff team, in not better, for next season.

The Phillies also have surprised me with better than average starting pitching, and the bullpen overcame a woeful start to the season and has pitched better, helping the team to a slightly better record than I had anticipated.  This, despite a woeful offense that had seven position players on the roster hitting below .200 after the first month of the season.

However, the Phillies fell (like a plummeting cannon ball) back to Earth hard and fast during the month of May and show very little signs of making a push to get back above, or probably even near, .500 this summer.

With less than half of the Major League baseball season remaining—which will still probably have more losses than wins, and an Eagles team in, at the very least, a retooling stage following the car wreck of the Chip Kelly Era, I’d say I still have a good chance at nailing this prediction.

The Wizards, Nationals AND Redskins – will have even greater success in 2016
With over half of the MLB season and the entire NFL season yet to come (and I’m looking pretty good for both of these teams), we only have the Wizards to look at.  And on the prediction that they would have a better 2016…I admit I put up a major “airball.”

Off a second-round playoff appearance and loss to a high-quality team, I thought the Wizards could improve and—with the right match-up–the Wiz could actually advance a round further.  However, not only did they take took a major step back in win total, they also didn’t qualify for the post-season, ushering in a quick replacement at the helm by bringing in Scott Brooks (formerly of Oklahoma City) as a new head coach.

Rumors of discontent and players “trading barbs” (according to the Washington CBS sports radio station) spread wildly as they limped home to close out the regular season out of the playoffs.  There are different reports as far as remaining free agent possibilities and other speculation about what direction the team could go in.  Also, players are a little less secure than this time a year ago and the forecast is more ambiguous as far as how good this team will be for the upcoming season, even with one of the most exciting, yet underrated players, in John Wall back on board.  I’ll stick to my guns and say they make a jump for the 2016-17 campaign.

Notice, I did NOT include the Capitals in this mix.  Their back-to-back premature failings in the playoffs have me worried about their future, and I’ll also continue to say (as I did following their playoff exit) that they might actually take a step back in the upcoming year.

2016 will be a successful District XI Wrestling season
I have never claimed to be a wrestling expert, but the fact that we had so many talented underclassmen returning for the 2015-16 wrestling season made it easy for me to say that the Lehigh Valley would have tremendous success at the state tournament in Hershey.

Not only did Bethlehem Catholic come away with convincing (mostly dominating) performances in the team PIAA competitions, but they accomplished this goal against the best the state of Pennsylvania had to offer, by competing in the 3A classifications (as critics had ask for, for a number of seasons).

Individually, District XI featured eight gold medalists and 20 overall medal winners.  Special props go out to Palisades’ Tyler Marsh, the lone wrestler in the RCN viewing area to receive the top scholar athlete award.

For an area that has had a long tradition of great wrestling success, it was a tremendous season all the way around for many different schools and I can unequivocally chalk this one up as one I got correct.

Stay tuned for more sports conversations coming up and don’t forget to check back later in the year as I take a look at the rest of my predictions to see how I fared.

The SportsTalk Shop: Eagles/Redskins Draft Grades

I know one of last year’s “SportsTalk Shop” blogs that drew the most feedback on my part was my analysis following the NFL draft, with thoughts on both the Eagles and Redskins’ selections.  I hope I’m up to the challenge again this year as we take a look at both teams’ efforts last weekend.

REDSKINS: 1st ROUND
There were a couple ways the Redskins could have gone.  There was a plethora of defensive lineman/linebackers available (including several from Alabama) that Washington could have selected to fill some holes.  They could have moved down to accumulate talent.  Or, they could have gone for a flashing wide receiving name like Laquon Treadwell to groom to potentially replace DeShawn Jackson after his contract expires at the end of 2016.

However, they went with a less flashy, but probably better all-around receiver in Josh Doctson from TCU.  While Treadwell and Will Fuller received more pre-draft hype while a few national mock drafts didn’t even have Doctson going in the first round, many people I talked with thought Doctson was the best receiver in the NFL Draft.  The multi-sport athlete has overcome some adversity during his high school and college careers (one story includes his mother reportedly wanted him to quite football after breaking his collar bone in a scrimmage when he was 16 years old).  With multiple picks remaining and several more defensive options seemingly available for the later rounds (and the fact Washington actually traded down a spot to get him), I’d give the ‘Skins an…

GRADE:  A

EAGLES: 1ST ROUND
Philadelphia followed the Rams by making a major move up to secure a “franchise” quarterback in Carson Wentz.  While a final, definitive decision on whether this was a good move or not won’t be known for a while, you had to give Vice President of Football Operation Howie Roseman credit for being aggressive and, at least on the surface, making an apparent good deal.

Wentz rated high in all the off-season activities, camps, interviews, et al, and even though he did not play for a major Division I-A school, it seems like they rolled the dice on a quality prospect.  Wentz has the physical skills, a good head on his shoulders and, if Sam Bradford returns to the team, the time to be able to get up to speed of the pro game.  If he turns out to be two-thirds of what some Eagles fans are currently dreaming about…?

GRADE:  A-  (they gave up a huge amount in draft picks with a number of holes yet to fill)

REDSKINS: 2nd & 3rd ROUNDS
Washington needed help at corner and on the outside linebacker positions, and grabbed two excellent players in hybrid LB Su’a Cravens (USC) and DB Kendall Fuller (Virginia Tech).

Fuller is a great young corner with speed who could make an impact with the ‘Skins this fall.  I remember watching him two years ago and thought then he could be a later first-round option in the draft (before he was injured last year).  I really believed the Eagles could have really benefitted by selecting the DMV native and Good Counsel alum and, quite frankly, I’m shocked they didn’t select him, which makes this an even better pick for their division rivals.

To be completely honest, I had to go to NFL.com to look up more details on Cravens and don’t recall even watching him play on TV, but what I did find online did impress me.  He comes from a long pro-football lineage and there’s nothing I found to suggest he wasn’t a very solid pick at the 53rd spot.

GRADE:  A

EAGLES: 2nd & 3rd ROUNDS
Coming into the draft, I felt that the Eagles needed to add at least one higher-end cornerback or safety.  After all, they probably need at least two, if not three, quality defensive backs if this team seriously wants to contend this fall–something they apparently think they’re capable of, since they committed $36 million to non-quarterbacks-of-the-future.  After not getting enough depth via free agency (nice job picking up Josh Norman, Washington, by the way), the Eagles clearly had to select someone to help the latter-half of their defensive with their next couple picks after Wentz.

Granted, Chip Kelly’s bone-headed move (or one of them) to trade for Sam Bradford prevented the Birds from a second-round pick in this year’s draft.   And I know the prevailing wisdom (and usually my personal preference) is to draft the “best available” options in which you are presented (something they clearly did NOT do when they drafted Marcus Smith two years ago).  However, to pass on Kendall Fuller, Nick Vigil or Brandon Williams is inexcusable for Roseman & Co.

I like Guard Isaac Seumalo a lot (even though he needs to improve on his pass protection—according to CBS Sports–which is a concern if true).  However, to not select one of the available corners or safeties in the third round or at least try to try to move up to get another pick was a big mistake.

GRADE:  C+

REDSKINS: LATER ROUNDS
There was speculation that the Redskins might try to target an early-to-mid-round quarterback as insurance in case Kirk Cousins regresses this fall.  However, quarterback Nate Sudfeld is probably not a guy who will make Washington fans chant his name if Cousins struggles this fall.

I do like some of the selections made elsewhere in the later rounds.  I love Temple product Matt Ioannidis to add depth along the defensive line (full disclosure: yes, I am a Temple University grad).  Keith Marshall might help out on special teams and as a later-option running back.  The Redskins added a nice piece with Steven Daniels.  I saw him play a couple games at Boston College–he hits hard and impressed me against the run.  Daniels might actually contribute in limited opportunities.

GRADE:  B

EAGLES: LATER ROUNDS
Still no defensive backs…until the 196th (sixth round) pick? Really?  Is Chip Kelly still in charge here?

Blake Countess and Jalen Mills are nice pieces, and the reports say they could play both safety and cornerback.  They did offer additional support with Running Back Wendell Smallwood and Offensive Lineman Halapoulivaati Vaitai to help Wentz (when he’s ready), but the Eagles are still one, or two, or maybe three quality D-back options short and still lack depth at middle linebacker.  I know you can solve every problem through the draft.  I also get the argument that they wanted to add a couple O-line pieces as protection for the quarterback, but there were/are additional decent offensive line options still available to add depth.  And did they HAVE to draft another player from Oregon?

GRADE:  D+

FINAL GRADES:

REDSKINS: A-  (Solid moves all around, taking best-available players in nearly every case while upgrading several positions that needed to be addressed).

EAGLES:  C  (Cornerback?  Safety?  Middle linebacker?  Bueller?)

Your comments, complains, opinions are most welcome via email: rcnsportstalk@rcn.com

The SportsTalk Shop: Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down

One of the regular elements of the “RCN SportsTalk” program is that on each show, all of our studio panelists identify a person or a group of people in the sports world for doing something extraordinary (“thumbs up”) and calling out a group or individual for doing something excessively bad (“thumbs down”).    Most weeks, I don’t have much difficulty coming up with at least one “winner” to identify on each week’s show/podcast, but some weeks—like this one—I have a hard time trying to limit my choices to one, or even two.

I’m always interested in hearing what our viewers/listeners have to say and love hearing your feedback, and this week, I’d like to extend that invitation to you to help me figure out who is most deserving of these “honors.”

Here are the nominations…

“THUMBS UP” CANDIDATES
Washington Redskins
The rumors are that the Redskins, who had the number-5 overall pick a year ago will not be looking to make a big splash in this year’s draft.  Instead, the word is they’ll be looking to trade down to get more picks (we’ll have more on both the Redskins & Eagles draft options & possibilities on our April 21st “NFL Draft Preview Show.”   I like the idea of Washington continuing to accumulate talent and add capable bodies, in lieu of getting caught up in the hip of a “named” player and think the team is continuing to head in the right direction, fresh of their division title from a year ago.

Villanova Men’s Basketball
I put the Wildcats on here for several reasons…

Not just for the fact that they won a national championship.  Not just that they did it in dramatic fashion (for my money, the most exciting finish to the tournament, EVER).  Not just for the fact that they did not have any “big named” stars, but instead won with fundamentals, great team defense, an outstanding coach and a blue-collar, workmanlike approach in their victories.  BUT…they also handled themselves with class, before, during and after the game (unlike someone else—see below).  For more thoughts and comments on the Wildcats great run, check out last week’s “SportsTalk” podcast here .

Flyers
After some tough losses on Wednesday and Thursday of last week, the team rebounded with a tremendous win over Pittsburgh to not only clinch a playoff berth, but to sweep a weekend pair of games (the second win was against the Islanders) and pay tribute to their owner Ed Snider.  Ed was one of the most passionate owners in sports and tried to do whatever it took to put together a winning team each year.  The gritty effort by the Flyers for most of the season, and especially this weekend, was exactly what that organization was all about for many years, with Mr. Snyder leading the way.   He will be truly be missed by fans, players, coaches and everyone surrounding the Delaware Valley region.

Phillies
As I stated in the above video clip (with a great response by ESPN Radio’s Eytan Shander), there were WAY too many Phillies fans that were panicking last week when the team lost its first four games of the season.  Again, it is a REBUILDING year.  No one—including the front office themselves—is looking at winning anything this season.  Take this year for what it is—the team has accumulated one of the deepest prospect pools in all of the major leagues.  It will be extremely unlikely that at least some of the young players won’t contribute at some point.  Patience is what’s needed here, and it is an exciting time to watch these guys develop, along with a few other somewhat interesting storylines (eg., how will Ryan Howard and Carlos Ruiz’s final seasons play out, will Darin Ruf earn a full-time spot in the future, will Cody Asche bounce back and more).  The team rebounded with two nice wins in New York and will have their share of well-played games.  But please, stop getting carried away over the wins and losses of this year’s team.  The record isn’t what’s important this summer…the maturation of their young stars IS.

HS spring athletes
I know it’s not uncommon for the scholastic spring sports athletes to deal with unreasonably cold temperatures and poor weather conditions for the first half of their sports season.  I have many memories over the last few years (and once again experienced it last Friday) of sitting in a chair in an open space, trying to make notes on games and capturing video (which is hard to do with gloves on) while the cold, gusty winds blow…to say nothing about what the athletes have to endure (hitting a metal bat is one of the most painful ‘regular’ experiences one can have in sports).  With frigid temperatures all last week and snow cancelling games the last few days, many sports programs are going to have a grueling schedule over the next month playing catch-up to get all their games in, and it’s truly not fun, even playing a sport you love, when the conditions are this bad.  However, our area young people will continue to battle and give themselves a chance to keep playing meaningful games—when the weather finally becomes more athletics-friendly.

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“THUMBS DOWN” CANDIDATES
Philadelphia 76ers Front Office
I’m still shaking my head trying to figure out what the heck happened to the “Hinkie process.”  Was this purely a Colangelo-family hostile takeover?  Was the organization strong-armed by the league itself to make a change?  Or was there another conspiracy theory that hasn’t gotten much attention, as we speculated on last week’s program.  We’ll try to get a better assessment of the front office changes and the future direction of the franchise on this Thursday’s “SportsTalk” (live, 7-8pm, RCN-TV) as one of our guest will be Eric Goldwein (who runs the ESPN-affiliated site Hoop76.com) and also covers sports for the Washington Post.

Washington Wizards
Wow, what happened here?  Fresh off an impressive 2014-15 season and an optimistic-to-realistic chance to improve coming into this season, the Wizards fell flat and didn’t even come close to making a late run for a playoff berth—let alone not improving on their performance from a year ago.  There’s plenty of rumors as far as who gets the most blame (along with a CBS report of the players taking shots at each other).  Some long, hard questions will have to be addressed this off-season and the once promising future of this team, centered around the talented John Wall, is now very much in limbo.

North Carolina Men’s Basketball Fans
After losing the championship game to Villanova, the Tar Heel fans were so bothered by their upset loss, that they apparently lost their minds.  They are actually circulating a petition calling for the NCAA to reverse the outcome of the national championship because they questioned one of the referee’s calls.

Seriously?

North Carolinians couldn’t have just graciously accept a thrilling victory by the Wildcats and give them their rightful honor following a tremendous run in the tournament?  I know quite a few people that support the Tar Heels and really feel badly that some of their fellow-supporters tried to give all of their fan base a black eye for a tasteless attempt at redemption.

Chip Kelly
I still haven’t gotten over the way he gutted the team while harboring a nasty attitude towards just about everyone he came in contact with, then tried to take the ‘weasel’ approach after he left by saying he had nothing to do with the 2015 collapse.  I’ll probably keep him on this list for quite some time.

So, let’s hear it!  Who do you think deserves a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” the most?  Email us at rcnsportstalk@rcn.com and hear us read and respond to your opinions on our weekly show/podcast!

The SportsTalk Shop: Biggest Philly/DC Disappointments

Many national pundits had the Eagles going to the Super Bowl this year, and the Nationals were odds-on favorites to win the pennant.

The Birds were flirting with what could have been a catastrophic 1-4 start to their season (it was looking that way following Sam Bradford‘s second red-zone interception in the first half against the Saints on Sunday).  That combined with the fact that the Nats had already crash-landed well before the MLB playoffs got underway last week, got me thinking about some of the major sports disappointments that both Philadelphia and Washington, DC residents have had to endure.

Without question, there have been some horrendous teams in both of these cities.  But I’m talking about having even the most stoic fans getting caught up in a frenzy, ready to ride a sea of momentum to glorious new heights, only to have one’s hopes dashed to smithereens, leaving you feeling emotionally drained when your team failed to live up to the extraordinary expectations.

Just how does this year’s Nationals season and the Eagles slow start compare with the other major sports catastrophes in the region?  For argument’s sake—and to avoid using up too much of the internet’s bandwidth–I thought I better limit my Philly/DC-based disappointments to not more than the last 15 years.

Here are my thoughts on what have been the “other” biggest pro sports disappointments for fans in the RCN viewing area.

The Phillies 2011 Playoffs
From December, 2010 until the final week of the regular season, it seemed like it was a magic carpet ride for Phillies fans.  Launched into a frenzy over the signing of Cliff Lee, the regular season and preliminary playoff rounds were a mere formality, and everyone wanted to see the “Aces” baffling hitters right and left en route to another World Series appearance…and presumed victory.

For reasons I’ll never completely understand, nor agree with, Phillies Manager Charlie Manuel decided to play all of his regulars the final weekend of the season, instead of giving a couple blows to his everyday players, who had started advancing in years (by athletes’ standards, that is).  By playing their top players, and ultimately sweeping the series, the final three of those meaningless games (the Phillies had long since clinched the division title), the team missed an opportunity to rest its players, and knocked its opponents, the struggling Braves, out of the playoff race.  While the last three Phillies wins set a new club record for regular season victories for Manuel, it also gave rise to the hard-charging St. Louis Cardinals, a team the Phils did not match up against well, and positioned the Redbirds into the opposing slot to face the Phillies in the wild card playoffs.

Philadelphia’s tired hitters struggled to gain any traction against the Redbirds after the first game, and the team that everyone assumed would become the greatest Phillies team of all-time, went out with a game-five whimper—a 1-0 loss to St. Louis.  That team might have been the most talented club in the organization’s history on paper, but they failed to bring home a single playoff series win, and started what has become an incredibly long, drawn-out, rebuilding cycle.

The Redskins 2000 season
In 1999, the Skins were coming off a 10-6 season and had won the NFC East.  Mix in a renewed belief that the front office was “all in,” and that a promise of spending money in the offseason fueled the fervor that Washington was beginning to build another dynasty in DC.

They did, in fact, spend money and added some great players, including LaVar Arrington, Bruce Smith, Jeff George, Mark Carrier, Chris Samuels and–last and certainly not least flamboyant–Deion Sanders.  This complemented the return of the core of a talented offensive unit and a number of their defensive players.  Many expected another division title was a no-brainer with many people banking on Washington to at least get to the Super Bowl.  The Redskins won six of its first eight games, before the injuries set in to some of its key offensive players and…of all people, their kicker (sound familiar, Eagles fans?).   Then, Head Coach Norv Turner was let go (perhaps foreshadowing, Philadelphians, especially if the Birds don’t at least get back to 8-8?).

Instead of building on the ’99 team’s success and establishing a string of winning campaigns, Washington ended up losing six of its final eight games and failed to cash in on all the revitalized excitement that the ’99 team brought.

Marty Shottenheimer would then take over the head coaching reins for one fateful season the following year, going 8-8 that fall.  But the failure of 2000 started a seemingly endless cycle of revolving coaches over the last 15 years, with none of the seven subsequent head coaches to follow Turner owning a winning record while at the helm of the Redskins.

The Wizards’ “Michael Jordan Era”
After failing to win a playoff game for over 12 years, it seemed like the Wizards were finally headed back in the right direction when, in January 2000, Michael Jordan became the part owner and President of Basketball Operations.   Aside from his baseball experiment, everything that “MJ” had touched during his career had turned to gold.  His basketball playing career, his merchandising and advertisement campaigns…heck, I even liked “Space Jam.”  With his playing days finally behind him, he could focus completely on revamping the franchise using his acute basketball knowledge and business savvy.  Surely, Jordan would have the Midas touch to turn this franchise around and at least get Washington back into the NBA playoffs—whose eight-team format allows for even the most mediocre teams to have a shot at reaching the post-season.

In a short time, he made some positive moves by shedding payroll and unloading some of the dead weight that existed on the team and it looked like he was moving the franchise in the right direction.  Then came the 2001 NBA Draft and the selection of Kwame Brown (who ended up being traded to the Lakers after four inconsistent seasons).  Jordan brought in his former head coach in Chicago, Doug Collins, as the head coach, followed by his announcement that he, himself, would return as a player.

In his first year back (which followed his second retirement, for those keeping score at home), he battled injuries and the team he assembled was just not good enough to compete.  To his credit, he was active from a personnel standpoint prior to the 2002 season and tried to bring in headline names to improve the team.  While he continued to add talent and even agreed to take a reserve role for the betterment of the team (although he ended the year as the team’s top scorer), the chemistry never worked, and the team failed to finish at or above the 500-mark during his tenure, much less had a chance to make the playoffs.

Jordan was then unceremoniously fired as the team President and left the organization in disgust, pushing back the organization’s rebuild efforts for years.

The team finally has made great strides over the last few seasons, a trend I am fully expecting to continue this winter.  But the failures of Michael Jordan left Washington fans, along with MJ supporters around the world, with an empty feeling, and tainted the final on-court chapter of one of the greatest basketball players of all-time.

The 76ers 2001 Playoff Run
I know.   Philly sports fans could just as easily identify this team as one of its brightest moments over the last 15 years.

To be honest, I don’t remember glorious preseason expectations for the 76ers.  However, the way that the team played in the fall of 2000, led by the gutsy, and largely, very focused efforts of Allen Iverson that year, the 76ers quickly captured the attention of the entire Delaware Valley.  Iverson was living up to all his glorious potential, and the team won 41 of its first 55 games.  Even when starting center Theo Ratliff came down with an injury (he was initially supposed to miss 16-20 games per ESPN), it still seemed like the old-time Philly basketball mojo was flowing strong.  The Lakers were heavily favored to win the championship, but if Ratliff could get healthy, he could combine with Todd MacCulloch, Matt Geiger and Nazr Mohammed to form a formidable “hack-a-Shaq” tandem that could neutralize Shaquille O’Neil, and the Sixers speed could push the tempo and have an advantage against most teams in the post-season.

Until….

February 23, 2001, when the Sixers traded Ratliff, Toni Kukoc (one of just two players with NBA Championship experience) and others to Atlanta for Dikembe Mutombo.

Don’t get me wrong.  Mutombo is not only a wonderful person (he was incredibly gracious the few times I had the opportunity to interview him), a great humanitarian, and one of the best centers—when he was at his peak—of that era.  He was still one of the better centers in the game, but his slow, plodding-style kept the 76ers from utilizing its speed against Los Angeles in the championship round.  Furthermore, while that trade might have looked good on paper, the team never quite recaptured the swagger that it had before the Mutombo trade (the Sixers were 15-12 the rest of the regular season).

Iverson’s late game-one jumper and subsequent iconic stomp over Tyronn Lue became a sports moment few Philadelphians will ever forget.  But I remembered thinking when it happened, something along the lines of “yea, we weren’t suppose to be here, and we’re winning tonight’s game, and all things considered, we’re going to be proud of that moment.”  But the adrenaline rush soon subsided, and the O’Neil/Bryant pairing led Los Angeles to four consecutive victories, in which they outscored the slow-footed Sixers by 40 points in the final four games.

In retrospect, the Sixers certainly exceeded what most people had expected out of that team before the season started.  Much like the 1993 Phillies team, the entire Delaware Valley had gotten swept up in the blue-collar efforts and good vibes through that entire fall and winter season, but the feeling was never quite the same as the 76ers finished out their spring playoff run.  Did they overachieve?  Certainly.  It featured a tremendous team effort and the gritty performances of Iverson, Eric Snow, George Lynch and company.  But the team has never really been the same since, and what could have been still lingers among those long-time fans patiently waiting for the “Hinkie Plan” to develop.

Final Eagles game at the Veteran’s Stadium
If there ever was a time in my life when I thought I could bet the house—literally—on a game, it had to be the Eagles/Buccaneers game in January, 2003.  As someone who grew up—both as a fan and a reporter—at what had become an old, rundown ball field, I thought the “Vet” would work some magic one last time for its final professional football game.  And what a game it was.  The Birds were 12-3 coming in.  Donavan McNabb, the franchise quarterback, was living up to what Head Coach Andy Reid had envisioned when he drafted him.  The Birds had the defense, the offensive playmakers, and special team stars.  Even Mother Nature seemed to be helping out—and Tampa Bay had struggled mightily in cold conditions in previous games, and a wind chill in the teens seemed to be the final signal that the Eagles were finally going to advance to the Super Bowl.

Instead, Philadelphia looked flat, was manhandled physically and truly sent Eagles fans home dejected and with lumps in their throats—and not just because of the sorry way the team closed out its tenure at a worn-out stadium.

That game may be lost in an era of missed opportunities and “what could have beens.”  While optimists can say it was the golden era for Eagles football, one can also point examples of post-season futility.  During a ten-year span where the Birds won six division titles and finished second two more seasons, they lost two Wild Card games, two divisional round playoff games, three conference final losses and a pitiful end to the 2004 Super Bowl.

What are your thoughts on this list?  Should other pro sports teams be included, and where would you rank these, along with the 2015 Eagles and Nationals seasons?  Email your opinions to RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com and we might just read your comments on an upcoming “SportsTalk” program.

The SportsTalk Shop: Two Classy Guys

I had the pleasure of interviewing two of the most professional and highly regarded people in the sports world recently for our “RCN SportsTalk” show (you can see these shows in their entirety through RCN On-Demand and on our podcasts.

Merrill Reese is the longest-serving current team announcer in the NFL and has become the sports voice of the entire Delaware Valley region.  Growing up in a region that already featured broadcasting icons By Saam, Bill Campbell, Gene Hart, Harry Kalas and Richie Ashburn, Reese’s calls are as memorable as nearly any Eagles play on the field since 1977.  Like Kalas, many of the Birds’ greatest moments and team highlights are accompanied by Reese’s calls, and the Eagles’ main radio affiliate, WIP, synchronizes their broadcast with television stations, so that people watching the game can turn down the TV announcers, and hear Merrill’s calls in real time.  Many local stations’ nightly sportscasters, when showing highlights of the Eagles, will stop talking so viewers can hear Reese’s voice and opinions as a play unfolds.

It wouldn’t be a true Eagles game if their fans couldn’t hear Merrill’s calls either during or after the game.  It was great to speak with him recently and get his thoughts on the Eagles training camp, the team’s biggest roster additions, and his outlook on the Redskins, Cowboys and Giants.

Tony Gwynn, Jr. is the son of baseball Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn, Sr., and has carved out a nice career for himself–currently playing with the Washington Nationals’ Triple-A affiliate.  Like his dad, Gwynn, Jr. plays the game hard and rarely makes mental mistakes, and has always treated his teammates, coaches, fans, and the game itself, with the upmost respect.  I had a chance to interview both father and son a few times over the years when they were in Philadelphia—Tony, Sr. as a visiting player and Tony, Jr. when he played first against, and then for, Philadelphia.  Few people come close to this pair who combined professionalism with great baseball insights.  It was my pleasure to once again catch up with Tony, Jr. recently to speak with him about some current baseball issues, along with his memories of his father.

 

Here are samples of both of our interviews.

 

 

 

It’s wonderful enough to get an opportunity to spend a few minutes with a “big name” in the sports world, but it is incredibly rewarding when you have an opportunity to meet a special person in the sports world and revisit with them from time to time.  Both Merrill and Tony not only have a world of knowledge regarding their respective sports, but also they turn out to be great people when the cameras are turned off.

 

Keep watching our “SportsTalk” shows and check in for more special interviews here at the “SportsTalk Shop” as we continue to feature more of the great sports personalities in the RCN region.

The SportsTalk Shop: Mid-Year Predictions – Part 2

Recently here at the “Shop,” we took a look at some of the predictions I made last winter to see how I did.  Today, I look ahead to the next several months and guarantee* they come true!

1)  PREDICTION:  This fall’s HS football season will be more competitive than last year’s.
Last year, it was virtually Parkland and Easton as the favorites in District XI’s EPC league and Northwestern and Southern Lehigh, with Saucon Valley rising to prominence in the Colonial League.  There seemed to be a “next level” of several teams right below the top squads, and then another grouping of teams below them.  This made for a rather predictable season, with hardly any upsets or teams beating other squads not quite at the same talent-level.  While the Trojans and Red Rovers are the early favorites once again in the EPC, I see several teams stepping up and providing tougher competition, making for a more balanced schedule this fall.  Also, among the Colonial teams, Saucon Valley is the only one of the top three that didn’t suffer a huge number of graduate losses and many of the league’s teams that struggled in 2014 will be improved.  After the Panthers?  I could see Northern Lehigh, Northwestern, Southern Lehigh, Pen Argyl, Palmerton and maybe even Salisbury, Wilson or another team all playing competitive football.

I think it will be much more difficult for the football prognosticators to accurately figure out which teams will have the most success, and make for many more “even” games to watch this fall.  For more on the upcoming high school football season, make sure you tune into our “SportsTalk: HS Football Preview” show on RCN-TV on Thursday, August 27, at 7pm—complete with coach and player interviews, insights, analysis, and predictions on many of the teams in the RCN coverage area.

2)   PREDICTION:  Emotions will be running at an all-time high for Eagles fans this season.
We’ll be talking more about the Birds on this Thursday’s “SportsTalk” show with legendary play-by-play broadcaster Merrill Reese, complete with his thoughts on the team’s offseason moves and updates from Eagles training camp.  But regardless of how Philadelphia does this fall, when you tear apart a team—personnel-wise—and move some of the region’s most popular players for ‘high-risk’ returns (see Kiko Alonso’s concussion injury this weekend), fans have been stirred-up for this team well before training camp even started this summer.  The overly passionate fan base has been building emotional steam for months and it won’t take much for people to start boiling over and voicing their excitement/anger (based on a win or loss) with Chip Kelly early and often this fall.

3)  “Stone-Cold Lock” PREDICTION:  The next 12 months will be a banner year for DC sports fans.
I think the Nationals will persevere through an incredible amount of injuries.  The Mets did make some nice moves at the non-waiver deadline, but I still believe that quality pitching—and Washington has a ton—must get the edge.  The impressive return of Stephen Strasburg this weekend can only help, and I think the Nats will soon gain momentum and retake the NL East League.  Even if they don’t and have to settle for a Wild Card berth, with the arms the Nationals have, I think they can challenge any potential National League opponent, perhaps with the exception of the Dodgers, the team that scares me the most.

But the Nats’ potential deep run in the playoffs won’t be the only reason for optimism for Washington sports fans in the near future.  The Redskins will have six wins and improved play (and boast closer margins in their losses than last year).  I also think Georgetown—in both football and basketball—will have solid campaigns.  If you haven’t noticed, Mike Lonergan has transformed the George Washington men’s basketball program and shows no signs of slowing down, and American will again be a major force in what’s shaping up to be another competitive Patriot League season.

I also think the Wizards and Capitals will also continue to improve on the court and ice, respectively, all making for what I feel could be the best stretch of professional and collegiate sports action the DC area has seen in decades.

And even if the Nats don’t get to the World Series—which, granted, will be a major disappointment, they still have a boat-load of talent that will return.  The Nats will still have work to do in the off-season picking and choosing which of their free agents they will bring back, but I think with Max Scherzer in tow, anchoring the staff, there won’t be a major drop-off in 2016.

There you have it.  Mark it down…and we’ll check back to see in a few months how these predictions fared.

*NOTE: ”guaranteed” is used in the most relative-term possible.

The SportsTalk Shop: NFL & MLB News & Trade Rumors

First of all, I hope everyone had a wonderful Independence Day weekend.  I’m not sure if it was just that this year’s “Fourth” fell on a Saturday, but it seemed like I encountered more energy, patriotism and general feelings of goodwill throughout my travels…and I hope the same was true for you!

Now, the post-July 4th season kicks in…which is usually an interesting time, pro sports-wise, in our DC/Philadelphia coverage area.  There was the trade…or, more appropriately, the ‘diamond-mine heist,’ that 76ers GM Sam Hinkie pulled off.  In case you were on vacation, Philadelphia secured a promising shooting guard, two solid role-playing forwards, an additional first-round selection and a unique, but brilliant, draft-swap option from the Kings.  They gave up two lower-level 2015 draft picks who probably would not have even been on the team’s Opening Day roster.  The Wizards made a great pick-up themselves in adding sharpshooter Gary Neal with various rumors swirling about Paul Pierce, Kevin Seraphin and others.  The Flyers were not outdone as they made some tremendous moves clearing cap space while adding young talent, which has revitalized their fan base after a disappointing season.

And that’s just the pro sports in the RCN region that WON’T be playing this month!

The Major League Baseball season of course is in full swing with the non-waiver trade deadline looming, and within a few weeks, the pads will be colliding across the country as all NFL training camps will be open.  We had the good fortune of speaking with sports writer extraordinaire, Associated Press’ Rob Maaddi, to get his insights on the latest developments with the Phillies, the Nationals’ hunt for a championship, and his thoughts on the storylines to watch for the Eagles, Redskins and the teams in the NFC East.  Here’s a portion of our interview (the entire show is available to watch on RCN On-Demand).

The Phillies were also active in the international market.  Philadelphia already selected highly-prized power hitter Jhailyn Ortiz, along with catcher Rafael Marchan, pitcher Manuel Silva and middle-infield prospect Keudi Bocio.  They also shipped two lower-level minor leagues and their number-nine international slots to the Diamondbacks to acquire the number-one international position, which allows the team to spend a greater allotment of money on signing free agents without being subject to drafting penalties.  Expect more Phillies moves over the next couple of weeks.

Whether your team has a mountain of expectations (Nationals, Eagles), or they’re building for the future (Redskins, Phillies), the next several weeks will be interesting for local sports fans and something to monitor in-between enjoying your summer activities!

 

The SportsTalk Shop: NFL Draft Recap

I don’t believe there has been more excitement, angst, anticipation—and anxiety—for an NFL Draft than this year’s selection process for both the Redskins and Eagles communities.  Birds fans wanted new Eagles Czar Chip Kelly to move up and pick Marcus Mariota, and many Skins supporters wanted a move backwards to secure more picks.  While many dyed-in-the-wool football experts really thought the odds were against both of those things happening, it seemed that many, including the entire Delaware Valley, had convinced themselves—emotionally—that a major move would be made…one that would never occur.  After several days of mental withdraw, it’s time to take a step back and take a more pragmatic view of what transpired.

Day One…the first pick

REDSKINS PICK:                B+
EAGLES PICK:                    A-  (However…)

All things considered, I believe both Washington and Philadelphia made the “safe” move.  The Redskins were not able to get the number of quality picks to trade out of the number-five spot overall, and Brandon Scherff is a good choice for a team that needed a major boost on the offensive line.  While it’s normally startling to hear a top-five pick is slated for right tackle (the #5 pick is an awfully high pick for that position), it is an area that had to be addressed, and if he can also play guard, that versatility certainly is a plus.  I had Scherff several spots lower on my draft board, but I don’t think it was a major leap for the Redskins to make to enhance their O-line.

For the Eagles, I’ll first go back to the final game of the regular season.  They had NOTHING to play for, so why didn’t they give Matt Barkley the start at quarterback?  Kelly clearly doesn’t like him (is there another team in the country with more quarterbacks—all of them ahead of Barkley?)  Playing him in the season finale would have benefitted the team no matter what happened.  If Barkley played well, it would have served as a showcase for other teams so that you could have used him as a trade chip.  If he fell flat on his face and lost, the Eagles would have moved up several spots in the draft—perhaps enough to get Marcus Mariota, their prized quarterback.  Clearly Sam Bradford was not enough to enable the Eagles to get Mariota without also surrendering other major talent, but if Bradford is your guy, why haven’t they signed him to a long-term deal—like, yesterday?  If Bradford plays well, he’s going to ask for the farm—and get it.  If he fails (or gets hurt for the third year in a row), you’re starting year-four under Kelly with no definitive quarterback.

So after dropping the ball at several steps, Kelly saved face in the first round by filling one of the three major holes they needed to address.  Of course, if they signed Jeremy Maclin last summer as I had suggested they do, they wouldn’t have had that vacancy in the first place.

Day Two…Rounds 2 & 3

REDSKINS PICK:        C+       
EAGLES PICK:            A-

While I really like the selection of Preston Smith in the second round and think he has great potential, I was not a fan of the third round trade and their subsequent picks.  The Redskins picked up a running back (Matt Jones) that I had questions about and really don’t think will make a major impact with this team.  With the other acquired selections, Washington’s first-year General Manager Scot McCloughan clearly favored selecting players in spots of need over the best available talents, and there were enough players at their initial third-round selection position with more upside that could have made a bigger impact that the collective efforts of the players gained through the trade.  However, whether he’s right or wrong, I’ll give McCloughan credit for adding bodies in the draft (see below).

The Eagles made their best decision of the draft in the second round–trading up to obtain Defensive Back Eric Rowe out of Utah.  He can be an instant starter (that’s something new for a Kelly draftee) and could be a star at either cornerback or safety going forward.  While I question selecting an inside linebacker with their third pick (unless Kelly is planning on trading Mychal Kendricks or is looking ahead to the future), Jordan Hicks is a nice pickup with the 84th overall pick and can help right away on special teams.

Day Three…Rounds 4-7

REDSKINS PICK:   B-        
EAGLES PICK:  C        

With very few big names escaping past the first three rounds (which is why I did not like the decision to trade down), I think Washington did make some good talent additions to their squad overall.  Probably the one most likely to exceed their respective numbered-round expectations is Kyshoen Jarrett, a defensive back out of Virginia Tech.  Despite being undersized (5’10”), I think he can help Washington right away on special teams, and could carve out a nice career as a nickel back or an occasional number-two corner.

In the later stage of the draft, the Eagles added much-needed secondary depth in their back-half of the draft.  However,  I’m still shocked that they didn’t select ANY offensive linemen in the draft–which was one of the three major needs to the team going in. They also didn’t get a “pure” strong safety, so that could be a more minor issue to watch as training camp unfolds.

Final Evaluations/Overall Grades

Despite failing to solidify the quarterback position–which could be a major setback to the future success of the organization–the Eagles’ picks themselves make a lot of sense.  Keep an eye on non-drafted lineman Mike Coccia.  I announced several of his games and visited his workouts at Freedom High School.  He’s an outstanding young blocker who works hard and has always had good technique.  I think Kelly would be foolish not to hold onto him as he can add some much-needed depth along the Birds’ offensive line.  Still, Philadelphia needs a lot to go right to protect an already fragile Bradford under center.

Overall, the Eagles moved forward with this draft, with a couple question marks remaining.  They may have done just enough this past weekend (and, taking advantage of one of the weaker NFL schedules this fall) to propel themselves to a playoff appearance.  How far they’ll go remains a mystery, led by the quarterback combination of Bradford (when/if healthy), Mark Sanchez, Tim Tebow et al, and the team certainly didn’t do anything to help protect their signal callers with their draft choices.

EAGLES OVERALL DRAFT GRADE:  B+

I also think the Redskins made some nice decisions in this year’s draft…but “nice” won’t result in a major improvement in the win total for this season.  Their draft selections should move the team in the right direction, and, with some luck, they could win at least six to seven games this season.  The team made a few weaker selections at some spots in trying to fill needs.  Skins fans hoping for some major moves are left disappointed, as they still look to be AT LEAST one year away from any possible playoff contention, and a subpar year from Robert Griffin III (whose option for 2016 was picked up last week) might just set that plan back even further.  I’ll take into account that it was McCloughan’s first draft with the Skins, and I do believe in him going forward.  But again, we’re analyzing with our head and not with our heart, which results in a…

REDSKINS OVERALL DRAFT GRADE:  B

What are your thoughts on this year’s NFL Draft?  Which picks did you like/hate and what grades would you give the Eagles and the Redskins?  We’ll have plenty of football talk on this Thursday’s “RCN SportsTalk” so email your opinions to RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com and tune in as we respond to your comments live on air.  Don’t forget our show is now on at a new time, live on Thursdays from 7-8pm.  We’ll also have a phone interview with Washington Nationals broadcaster Charlie Slows to talk about the first month of the baseball season on this week’s program.