In an effort to offer more content on this website, I will be offering my weekly column from The Metro every Wednesday, one day after it appears in the newspaper. I've been writing the column for two-and-a-half years now, and I am proud of its honesty and its take-no-prisoners approach. In many ways, the column has become a written version of my long-running radio show. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoy writing it.


May 10, 2011

Mike Richards wears a “C” on his jersey, but it is a lie. He is not a captain. He is not a leader. The first positive change the Flyers can make this off-season is to rip that “C” right off his chest.

For the past two-plus months, the Flyers have collected millions of dollars from their fans for an effort that wasn’t worth ten cents. They stole money in March, when they lost interest in a season they had dominated. And they returned to that apathy in a May swoon that was even more criminal. Have we ever had a team that showed less interest in a playoff game than the Flyers did in Game 1 against Boston?

Shame on these Flyers for failing to win a Stanley Cup for the 36th straight year. And shame on Mike Richards for staining the captaincy of his team. If you're looking to place blame for this debacle, start with him.

Not only did he provide very little on the ice – one goal in 11 playoff games for a player with a 12-year, $69-million contract – but he was equally impotent in the locker room, where he was needed most. Where was Richards when his coach, Peter Laviolette, was exhausting his arsenal of motivational tricks? Where was Richards when it became obvious that Chris Pronger would be physically unable to lead?

Richards either said very little or refused to speak at all during the collapse of his team. When he did speak, he inspired only sleep. He may have the talent to be a very good hockey player, but he would be far more effective as a hypnotist. With him around, your eyelids always feel heavy.

The most revealing moment in a season of absentee leadership came just before Game 4 of the Boston sweep, when Richards refused to address his teammates, saying they didn’t need to be reminded of the gravity of the situation. Of course, they were saved in the first round when Danny Briere – who wears no letter on his chest – felt compelled to address his teammates before Game 7. Apparently, that reminder worked.

Mike Richards is the wrong leader for these Flyers, and the wrong player for Philadelphia. He has cashed the big check, but he feels no obligation to assume the responsibilities associated with that reward. If he were a real leader – like captains Bobby Clarke, Rick Tocchet and Keith Primeau, to name just a few – there would have been no need to acquire Pronger two years ago, no reason to replace a comatose John Stevens with the rabble-rousing Laviolette.

And that’s why something good must come from this collapse. That’s why the Flyers need desperately to correct this blatant case of fraud. That’s why the Flyers have to rip the “C” off the chest of Mike Richards before they ever play another game.

Roy Oswalt did something very unusual last week – something that could compromise the magical season we all anticipate for the Phillies. Of course, because of the maddening secrecy surrounding this team these days, we are all left to speculate about how damaging his actions could be.

Oswalt left the team for his home in Mississippi on April 28 after tornadoes had ripped through his community. At the time, his departure was not just understandable, it was expected. GM Ruben Amaro Jr. said it best when he pointed out that the only concern was for the pitcher’s family.

Fortunately, everyone was fine. Unfortunately, Oswalt stayed for eight days helping with the clean-up. And when he returned – after driving an excavator to clear away dozens of fallen trees, among other actions not normally associated with throwing a baseball – he had to go on the disabled list with a recurrence of a back injury.

As usual, the Phillies have offered very little to explain why Oswalt stayed so long and what effect the physical labor had on his already balky back. The closest anyone came shedding any light on the situation was Amaro’s statement that “moving trees . . . probably didn’t help him much.” What Amaro didn’t say was why Oswalt stayed home so long after he saw his family was safe, or why Oswalt didn’t hire someone – or an army of someones – to do the heavy lifting.

Roy Oswalt said when he came back that baseball is no more than No. 3 or No. 4 on his list of priorities in life. Fine. We can all live with that. But when one of the four arms comprising the best rotation in baseball is hauling debris instead of throwing baseballs, we all have a right to wonder whether he feels any responsibility to a team – and a city – paying him $16 million this season.

Every time GM Ruben Amaro speaks about the current Phillies roster, he emphasizes the need to plan for the future. So why does his manager keep contradicting the boss with his reluctance to develop young talent?

A case in point is the criminal way promising young pitcher Vance Worley is being jerked around by Charlie Manuel. Worley replaced overpaid and overweight fifth starter Joe Blanton last week and pitched back-to-back gems, allowing one run over 12 innings and winning both games. His reward for this effort was a return to the bullpen, at least for now.

Worley is everything Amaro has been preaching about – young (23), talented and clearly ready for the big leagues. With Roy Oswalt talking about retiring at the end of the season, there is no pitcher in the organization more suited to a move into the rotation next year than Worley.

Of course, that message has not reached Manuel, who restored Blanton to the No. 5 spot last night after some minor elbow problems. And with Oswalt now on the disabled list with a bad back, journeyman Kyle Kendrick filled his spot brilliantly last Saturday, and will continue to do so indefinitely.

Worley told me last week in an interview on my WIP radio show that he would prefer not to go back to Lehigh (AAA). He has every right to feel that way. Not only has he earned the chance to win a permanent spot on the pitching staff, but also a fair shot for the No. 5 job.

Now, who’s going to tell Charlie Manuel to cast aside his blind – and illogical – loyalty to his veteran players, and do what’s right for his team?

Idle thoughts . . . .

  • Kevin Kolb is all but gone when the NFL lockout ends, and I keep asking the same questions: What happens if (when) Michael Vick gets hurt? And even if they get back a first-round pick, won’t the Eagles will screw it up anyway? Trading Kolb will be one of the dumbest moves in coach Andy Reid’s career.
  • Pittsburgh running back Rashard Mendenhall’s insane Twitter defense of Osama bin Laden last week was only the latest example of this new way to insult fans. As the old saying goes, it’s better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.
  • The Arizona Cardinals announced last week that they have “absolutely no interest” in acquiring Donovan McNabb. Wouldn’t it be quicker if only the teams that are interested stepped forward. What? There are no teams? Oh.
  • In a recent poll, 70 percent of Sixers fans said they want the team to get rid of Andre Iguodala. The big surprise there is the 30 percent who still want him here. Is it possible to answer an Internet poll while legally drunk?
  • I can’t prove this, but I’m pretty sure goalie Johan Backlund was starting Game 5 of the Boston series if the Flyers weren’t swept. It was his turn, wasn’t it?

      May 3, 2011

      The chants of “U-S-A . . . . U-S-A” began in the seventh inning, first as a quiet undercurrent, but then progressively louder and more coordinated. Some fans had no idea why they were joining in. Others had tears in their eyes. Together, all 45,713 fans at Citizens Bank Park shared a moment they will embrace for the rest of their lives.

      Our fantasy world of sports was interrupted by an unexpected visit from reality Sunday night as we all learned the news that Osama Bin Laden was dead. This was not a rivalry between arch-enemies like two teams on the field, the Phillies and Mets. This was a real enemy with American blood on his hands. This was not a life-and-death struggle for a championship. This was an actual life-and-death struggle.

      I use this space every week to talk about things that don’t really matter. It is my choice to do so, just as it is the preference of the readers and listeners to my WIP radio show to welcome this distraction from a world that so desperately requires escape. Sports is that refuge.

      But when an intrusion arrives like the one that pierced our cocoon on Sunday night, we all need to take a moment to understand it better. In the hours after our chant of pride, I had the honor of talking to fans who had experienced it – fans who rarely, if ever, relate the real world to sports.

      I spoke to a soldier who spent four years fruitlessly tracking Bin Laden, a tour of duty that left him with a permanent disability but no closure. He was jubilant. I spoke to a man whose aunt was killed in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and who spent the past 10 years fantasizing about the bullet that pierced the skull of the monster who had masterminded those cowardly acts. He finally felt a sense of justice.

      I spoke to fans who looked down at their cell phones in disbelief, as text messages flooded in with the news that Bin Laden was dead. I spoke to former Sen. Arlen Specter, who left office after 30 years feeling a deep frustration that a modern-day Hitler had eluded our government’s grasp. I spoke to the young and the old, to the joyous and the sad.

      Only one caller voiced any negative feelings, and his political agenda was impenetrable. At the end of his attack on our country, I reminded him that he was lucky to live in a place where he was free to air those views. Then I exercised my own freedom and hung up on him.

      What I learned from the experience is that sports provides a world where no one is so evil that he would order the murder of thousands of Americans. Instead, it is a place where we escape horrors like that. It is where we can pay to see a ballgame, and sometimes come home with a whole lot more.

      I didn’t find out the final score of Sunday night’s 14-inning game until the next morning. For once, I didn’t need the final score. I already knew we had won.

      The Eagles are the most disliked team in Philadelphia’s recent sports history. They win, they entertain, but, most of all, they infuriate. No team has ever been better at doing the wrong thing, in the worst possible way, than this successful and maddening franchise.

      After a break from the Eagles’ arrogance during the NFL lockout, fans have just endured a week that proved absence does not always make the heart grow fonder. By the time the assault was over, the reinstatement of the lockout actually came as a relief. At least president Joe Banner and coach Andy Reid will have to go back into hiding for a while.

      The trouble all began when the Eagles (Banner) decided to e-mail its 68,000 season-ticketholders a self-serving, delusional op-ed article by commissioner Roger Goodell that had appeared in the Wall Street Journal. Two days later, the fans responded by booing Goodell at the draft until his ears were ringing.

      The draft itself was a predictable exercise in frustration for fans. The Eagles continued their ritual under Reid of making illogical selections – no defensive linemen? – and then representing them as strokes of genius. They tried to sell their top pick, offensive lineman Danny Watkins, as a player perfect for the aggressive temperament of our fans, downplaying his age and inexperience.

      At 26 going on 27, Watkins is the oldest player ever chosen in the first round of the NFL draft. Let that sink in for a moment. The same coach who has banished player after player when they turned 30 said he had no concerns about age.

      Sometimes, absence does bring perspective. The past two months without football have been confusing and annoying, but they have also been revealing. And what they have revealed is that it’s tougher than ever to like the Eagles.

      The Phillies have forgotten how to tell their fans the truth. For reasons that remain as mysterious as the team’s injury list, GM Ruben Amaro Jr. has launched a bizarre campaign of deception this season at a time when his team is enjoying unprecedented success.

      After his embarrassing misstatements about the conditions of Chase Utley and Brad Lidge, Amaro stuck again – twice – last week with remarks designed to obscure the truth. It all began when he announced that Roy Oswalt had left the team for “personal reasons” after getting shelled during a three-inning assault in Arizona.

      When reporters pressed Amaro for more information, the GM initially balked angrily at their questions, but then issued a statement explaining that Oswalt had left to check on his family after tornadoes had touched down in Alabama. Why Amaro originally felt that information would reflect badly on his pitcher is something that will never be explained – because it totally defies explanation.

      The day after Oswalt left the team, Amaro announced that closer Jose Contreras was going on the disabled list with a “very mild” strain. Then the GM belied his own prognosis by saying Contreras could miss up to a month. If “very mild” translates to a month, is “mild” a season-ending injury?

      Ruben Amaro Jr. has done a very good job assembling a world-class pitching rotation and a sustaining the success of his Hall of Fame predecessor, Pat Gillick. What he still needs to learn, however, is how to be honest with the fans.

      Idle thoughts . . . .

      • Hey, I’m a big Peter Laviollette fan, but lately he has been creating some pretty serious doubts. He’s got a ridiculous goaltending carousel going on, and his Flyers come out flat way too often. He may need to use one of his patented timeouts to look in the mirror.
      • And speaking of the goalie carousel, consider Michael Leighton. He was the No. 1 goaltender in Game 6 against Buffalo, and – after giving up three goals in the first period – dropped to No. 4, behind Johan Backlund. Just one question: Who the heck is Johan Backlund?
      • How great was it to watch U.S. District Judge Susan Nelson kick sand in the face of the biggest bully on the block, the NFL? Not only did she reject their lockout argument, she wrote a powerful judgment that exposed the owners for what they really are – greedy and shortsighted.
      • Thanks to his new best buddy, actor Charlie Sheen, fallen Phillies hero Lenny Dykstra is out of jail pending his trial for bankruptcy fraud. If ever two lost souls belonged together, it’s Sheen and Dykstra.
      • Andy Reid singled out David Akers after the playoff loss last winter, even though the veteran Eagle was dealing his daughter’s medical crisis, and then the coach drafted a new kicker in the fourth round last Saturday. It couldn’t be because Akers rejected Reid’s below-market contract offer, could it?

      April 19, 2011

      You’re getting soft, Philadelphia.

      I write these words with great reluctance because this is the city where I chose to live, the one place in America that didn’t tolerate disrespect from its sports heroes. The greatest third baseman in baseball history treated you with disdain for many years here, so you booed Mike Schmidt. Yes, even Mike Schmidt.

      But now you’ve decided to look the other way when sports figures fail you, lie to you, treat you with less honor than you deserve. You see no evil when Chase Utley sneers at all questions about his knee injury, you speak no evil when DeSean Jackson refuses to give you a minute of his valuable time, you hear no evil when Chris Pronger tells you his broken hand is not your concern.

      There are so many sacred cows in Philadelphia right now, you should open a farm. Yet every time I point out the arrogance of our biggest stars – and I do it every weekday on the radio – where once there was rage, now you respond with a shrug.

      Last week, Mike Richards of the Flyers took a “maintenance day” just before the start of the NHL playoffs. The only thing he actually maintained was his contempt for the fans. We still don’t know for sure what happened, but it was not the head cold he later begrudgingly revealed. In his eyes, you don’t deserve to know the truth.

      Even more irritating was Pronger’s parrying over the condition of his broken hand. Pronger is here because he is the best leader in hockey, maybe in all of sports. And he isn’t playing the most important games of the season. Why? “It’s none of your business,” he said last week. The next call I take slamming him for that obnoxious answer will be the first.

      Utley has been stonewalling questions about his knee for two months now. You praise his consistency. DeSean Jackson does a weekly interview on Comcast Sportsnet via computer because driving to the studio is inconvenient. You admire his use of alternate media. Jeff Lurie hides from reporters all year, every year. You understand. After all, the owner of the Eagles is busy. He’s a billionaire.

      What none of the sports figures realize – and what you have forgotten – is that they are all privileged because of you. Your loyalty to their teams, your willingness to pay for the honor of cheering for them, is the basis of their wealth and their celebrity. Without you, they are just Chase and Chris and DeSean. They are nobody.

      It is very rare that I criticize fans because I realize that their passion has given me the best job I’ve ever had. But this is not the tough sports town that it was 10 or 20 years ago, not even close. So, for what it’s worth, here’s one voice in the wilderness lamenting a legacy that made us different, that made us better.

      You’re getting soft, Philadelphia.

      Imagine for a moment that you’re Sergei Bobrovski, a 22-year-old goaltender who has been No. 1 all season for the Flyers. Today, on the morning of Game 4 in the first round of the playoffs, you’re not No. 1 anymore. Or No. 2. In fact, you will not be dressing for the game tonight in Buffalo.

      Peter Laviollette has made many bold moves in his season-plus as Flyers coach, but nothing is more fascinating – or more dangerous – than his current machinations with his young Russian goaltender. After benching Bobrovsky in the final game of the regular season, the coach did it again in Game 2 of the playoffs. There are no immediate plans to use him again.

      Is this the right way to treat a rookie who won 28 games in the regular season and then held the Sabres to one goal in the first game of the playoffs? For today, yes. But the long-term implications of the current banishment are much harder to predict, especially for someone dealing with the culture shock of his first year in a foreign country.

      What it says about Laviollette is that there is no tomorrow. He’s trying to win right now, even if it means damaging the psyche of a promising young player. In the space of 12 ugly minutes last Saturday, Bobrovsky fell behind Boucher and the long-forgotten Michael Leighton. Seven shots and three goals is all it took to move him right out of the playoff picture.

      In his four seasons of Russian hockey before moving to the NHL, there is no record of Bobrovsky ever being sent to Siberia. Well, here’s definitely there now.

      The first two games of an already doomed series against the Miami Heat have established one fact above all others for the Sixers: Andre Iguodala must go.

      He has been an enigma from the day he arrived on the Sixers as a first-round draft pick in 2004, a rare star player with no position and no personality. He has flirted with greatness from time to time – especially in moments featuring his undeniable athleticism – but these were always followed by far more dramatic disappointments.

      Now, there is no argument left about his role on a winning team. He has none. At a time when he is the highest paid ($80-million) and longest tenured Sixer, he has failed miserably. One number is all it takes to end all arguments about Iguodala – nine. That’s the number of points he has scored in the first two games of the playoffs. In 75 minutes, he has managed four field goals and one free throw.

      Iguodala is not strong enough to play forward and cannot shoot well enough to play guard. He cannot compensate for his shortcomings with dynamic leadership because he is not a leader at all. He is a relic of a lost era in Sixers basketball, the years after Allen Iverson left town. Iguodala will always be the other AI, the lesser AI.

      And now it’s time for him to go. The Sixers worked all year for the chance to make it back to playoffs, where they will be pummeled by the Heat in four (or maybe five) games. All will not be lost, however, if Sixers management finally gets the message it has been avoiding for years now: Andre Iguodala must go.

      Idle thoughts . . .

      • The masterpiece by Cliff Lee last week in Washington was the highlight of the Phillies season so far. Complete game shutout, three hits allowed, 12 strikeouts, one walk. After the game, all he talked about was the walk. Now that’s a perfectionist.
      • In the history of Philadelphia sports, have we ever had a beloved hero fall harder or more embarrassingly than Lenny Dykstra? Nails got nailed last week on charges of embezzling and grand theft. Reportedly, he tried to steal his own $50,000 kitchen sink. If that’s not reaching bottom, what is?
      • Joe Theismann and Matt Millen have been fired as game analysts on the NFL Network. This is really not news. The news is that the most powerful league in sports hired two totally incompetent and unbearable broadcasters in the first place.
      • The New York Mets are having a horrible time right now. Their team stinks, their ownership is facing bankruptcy and their new billion-dollar ballpark has all the charm of an abandoned airplane hangar. In other words, it’s a very good time to be a Phillies fan.

      March 23, 2011

      On my 60th birthday last week, I got a call from a reporter writing about a murder case I had covered 35 years ago in Rhode Island. It was a hideous story involving the abduction of a five-year-old boy, the horrors suffered by his family and the eventual arrest and conviction of a thrill-seeking teenager who lived right down the street.

      I realize it was a complete coincidence that the call came on the day that it did, while I was reflecting on a 40-year run in the media and trying to figure out where I go from here, but it left me revisiting my decision to work in sports. When I left the news 32 years ago, it was one of the most difficult choices of my career – and one I have never regretted.

      Sports is a refuge for all of us fortunate enough to catch the fever. It is real enough, with all of the greed and stupidity and outrageous behavior, without being too real. What is too real? Well, the tragedy unfolding in Japan right now is a painful example. I’d rather deal with relatively minor inconveniences like Chase Utley’s bum knee or the NFL lockout than real human suffering.

      Like so many fans, my love of sports was inherited from my father, who sat me down in 1957 and explained to me why the World Series that year – viewed on a black-and-white Admiral console TV – was important. We bonded in front of that TV – and even more so next to our wooden Philco radio – for years after that. Our conversations in his final years were almost entirely about sports. When he died, his obit identified him as “lifelong Yankees fan.”

      It wasn’t always easy to stay on the path of sports. When I confided to my advisor at Columbia University in 1976 that I intended to pursue sports journalism, he cringed. He told me I couldn’t change the world covering games. I told him I didn’t want to change the world. Our compromise was that I’d try to change the sports world.

      I haven’t really succeeded in that quest, but the sports world has definitely changed me. Who couldn’t be affected by meeting Wilt Chamberlain, sharing a table with Muhammad Ali, feuding with Larry Bird, covering countless World Series, Super Bowls and Stanley Cup Finals, and, above all, savoring that amazing Phillies parade in 2008?

      This is probably the most personal column I have ever written in the Metro, but it is not indicative of a new direction for me. I simply felt the urge, just this once, to express my appreciation for the world of sports, and all it has meant in my life. Every 60 years or so, that’s probably a good idea.

      It must be hard living in the world Joe Banner has created for himself, a place where logic and reason are treated like illegal aliens. In Banner’s world, his side never loses, his cause is always noble, and his generosity is never appreciated.

      Last week, the Eagles president took an entirely predictable – and ridiculous – public stand in favor of the owners in their ugly labor battle with the players. Juggling numbers as only he can, Banner said the players were getting a sweet deal that included major money increases over the next four years. A few days later, union leaders called the final owners’ contract proposal “the worst in sports history.”

      Banner also endorses the owners’ strategy not to open their books to support the claim that the players are getting too big a piece of the $9 billion revenue pie. Hey, would the owners lie about profits and losses? Ruthless billionaires who were so successful in their original businesses that they could afford $500-million toys like NFL franchises?

      Using Banner’s logic, fans should call the Eagles today and say they need a rebate because the cost of tickets has made it much harder to balance their household budgets. If someone asks for proof, just tell them to take your word for it. Yeah, that would work just fine. Banner wouldn’t question that reasoning at all.

      While we all endure this horrible lockout in the weeks and months ahead, we all need to understand that, in Joe Banner’s world, the fight is over already. As always, he has won. Just don’t expect a parade.

      It is a rare day when I feel compelled to discuss the NCAA basketball tournament, the most overrated and overblown sports event on the American sports calendar. But, in the interest of protecting the reputation of Philadelphia, I must make this one exception.

      The best thing that happened over the weekend is the ouster of Villanova and Temple because now, at least, we will no longer have to endure the cloying media coverage of their two coaches, Jay Wright and Fran Dunphy. Is the appeal of these two extremely likeable personalities so great that all conventional journalistic standards must be abandoned?

      When Wright’s Wildcats melted down in the final minutes of the loss to George Mason, it was the sixth consecutive defeat for a team once ranked fourth in the nation. By all the usual measures, Wright did a terrible job of coaching his basketball team. Even he said if he were a pro coach, he would be fired. Has anyone, anywhere, offered a word of criticism yet? Not that I have seen.

      The story after Dunphy’s excruciating double-overtime loss to San Diego State was how tough the Owls hung in against a superior opponent. OK, I’ll buy that. But I won’t buy the decision by Dunphy to hold the ball for 30 seconds with a minute left in the first overtime. The game was tied. If Temple shot more quickly, they would guarantee themselves another possession. Why didn’t they? No one has asked that question yet.

      Look, I get it. College is not the pros. The same level of scrutiny is not appropriate. But our chummy media coverage of the college game goes way beyond that reality. It is unprofessional, and – above all – it is a disservice to the savvy fans of our city.

      Idle thoughts . . . .

      • The Eagles and Phillies have the worst fans in American sports, according to GQ Magazine. Both teams sold out every game last season, both are among the league leaders in sales of team apparel, and Cliff Lee signed here because of the fans. GQ might want to stick to men’s fashion in the future. That’s all I’m saying.
      • When are the Phillies and Chase Utley going to end this futile search for a medical miracle and schedule the surgery he needs? From last June until now, all parties involved have been in a state of denial, and now, with every day that passes, they lose another day of their top hitter during the regular season.
      • Elton Brand is still overpaid at $16 million, but I’ve got to admit I didn’t foresee his rebirth this season. Not only has he been a consistent force on the court, but he has been a true veteran leader in the clubhouse. After coach Doug Collins, Brand is the man most responsible for the Sixers’ unexpected success.
      • If you would like to witness a theft on national television, tune in when Charles Barkley is analyzing the NCAA tournament. He is the same clueless blowhard he has been for years on the NBA, but he is also incredibly boring. The man is stealing money.
      • New York Giants’ owner John Mara said he wouldn’t take any of the fans’ season-ticket money during the lockout. It wouldn’t be fair. On the other hand, the Eagles will accept your money. In fact, they insist on it. Stay tuned for Joe Banner’s spin on how this somehow makes the Eagles better than the Giants.

      March 1, 2011

      The Phillies have something they want to hide, especially at the beginning of a season with unprecedented promise. One of their players is selfish. His name is Jimmy Rollins.

      It took no less a legend than Mike Schmidt to speak the unspeakable last week, but by the time his wise and courageous words had made it onto the Internet and into the newspapers, they were twisted and mangled. The point of Schmidt’s address was not that Rollins needs to become Pete Rose, as was reported. The point was that Rollins needs to care more about the Phillies than he does about himself.

      Just read Schmidt’s words of advice for Rollins, and it should be obvious that the greatest third baseman of all time was asking for something from the declining shortstop that Rollins clearly refuses to ask of himself. Maybe to lessen the sting a little, Schmidt included Shane Victorino in his criticism, but the dart was aimed right at Rollins.

      “Jimmy needs to be more Pete Rose-like in his approach to the game and more accountable for getting on base,” Schmidt said. “I look for a Rollins to push a 200-hit year. I look for Victorino to have a 200-hit year, and we’re talking in those terms: 100 walks, 200 hits. . . . (Rollins) wants to look at the USA Today every day or the Inquirer and see his name right up there in the top three of hitting.”

      Last year, Rollins (.322) ranked 26th in on-base percentage among leadoff hitters, behind such nonentities as Fred Lewis of Toronto (.337) and Rajai Davis of Oakland – not to mention his own teammate, Victorino (.348). The fact is, Rollins has never been a traditional No. 1 batter, because of his unwillingness to take the walk and his lust for power. He got away with this approach earlier in his career thanks to a much higher batting average, but in the past two seasons, he has become a liability at the top of the lineup.

      Of course, this basic logic does not impress Rollins. When asked last week if he would be willing to move down to the No. 5 spot vacated by Jayson Werth, Rollins said he much preferred to stay in front of Placido Polanco, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard. Why? “Because I’m a leadoff hitter,” he snapped.

      Well, then maybe he should start acting like one. It’s time for Rollins, at 32, either to acknowledge the demands of the No. 1 spot or quietly drift down the order without complaint. It’s time for him to learn to play small ball, to take pitches, to bunt – all basic tools of the leadoff trade. It’s time, basically, for him to grow up.

      Mike Schmidt doesn’t deserve the criticism he has received for giving Rollins a much-deserved kick in the pants last week. Schmidt deserves our gratitude for saying something that no one on the Phillies has had the courage to say – for speaking the truth about Jimmy Rollins.

      In an executive suite filled with dreamers, the happiest hallucinator is Eagles GM Howie Roseman. If you’re still seeking an explanation for president Joe Banner’s delusional behavior this off-season, a good place to start looking is his top accomplice.

      Roseman’s office is located somewhere between Yes and Absolutely in the Novacare Complex. To him, every draft pick is a master stroke, every public statement a pearl of wisdom. When Banner needs some positive reinforcement, Roseman is a one-man booster club.

      For example, last week – as Banner was whining about the way his absurd comparison of the Eagles and the Steelers was being interpreted – Roseman popped up at the NFL Scouting Combine with a bounty of new superlatives. He actually called Kevin Kolb “a great player” and even managed to put a happy face on the team’s stupid decision last year not to draft an offensive lineman.

      Of course, he saved his highest praise for Andy Reid, who “does a great job in terms of evaluating himself and his staff.” Yeah, that’s why the coach still can’t figure out how to use a timeout or a coach’s challenge, and that’s also why he allowed inept assistant Rory Segrest to screw up special teams and the defensive line over five inept seasons.

      Howie Roseman seems like a bright enough guy, but he is symbolic of exactly what is wrong with these Eagles. He is programmed to say only what his bosses want to hear. More than a pass rusher or a top blocker, this team needs a bold soul to tell Joe Banner when he’s wrong, to tell Andy Reid he needs to change his tired act.

      Until they find that dissenting voice, we can all forget about a parade.

      While the entire nation was debating who was more culpable in the ugly incident at Holy Family University, the real villain got away relatively unscathed last week.

      The camera never lies. Coach John O’Connor knocked to the ground and then gently kicked sophomore Matt Kravchuk during an angry drill at the Division II school on Jan. 25. As a dazed Kravchuk slinked away, O’Connor then added one final insult: “You got a little bleepin’ blood? Good!”

      Nothing that O’Connor said in his own defense – including a dramatic confrontation with Kravchuk on Good Morning America – could explain away the damning video of his bullying, and he ended up resigning at the end of a chaotic week. Kravchuk did himself no favors, either, when he refused to accept the coach’s apology on TV and hired the best lawyer he could find.

      But neither the coach nor the player is the real story here. The real story is Holy Family University, which took no action until a tape of the incident aired on Fox 29. For 18 days, absolutely nothing was done at a Catholic institution whose primary calling is to build character through their Roman Catholic teachings. Even now, more than a month later, the school has offered not one public word in response, other than to announce O’Connor’s departure.

      The people running that school should take a minute and read their own mission statement, in which they advocate “free and conscientious pursuit of truth.” For the past month, a more accurate motto would be: “Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil.”

      Idle thoughts . . . .

      • Why do teams feel the need to deceive their fans? Chase Utley supposedly missed the first two exhibition games with “general soreness,” which suddenly turned into patellar tendinitis, a knee problem. It’s a bad sign that Utley is already hurt again, and it’s a bad omen that the Phillies are afraid to tell the truth about injuries.
      • Jeff Lurie did it. The Eagles owner won an Academy Award (for his superb documentary Inside Job) before he won a Super Bowl. Maybe it’s time for him to turn back to movies full-time and leave the football decisions to people who actually have a clue about the game.
      • Sixers color TV commentator Eric Snow returned after the All-Star break without saying anything on the air about falling asleep at the microphone on Feb. 16. Bad decision. He needs to explain why he did what he did, and then he needs to apologize to a team that deserves more, and to fans who deserve better.
      • If Doug Collins keeps this up much longer – he is the NBA coach of the year so far – we might have no choice but to start paying close attention to the Sixers again. Collins has not just done a good job this season, he has removed the stench left by his predecessor, Professor Eddie Jordan.
      • I just placed a wager of $1,000 in Las Vegas for the Phillies to win at least 97 games this season, but you know me. I will not complain if they fall short, and I will blame no one. You have my word on that. Honest.

      February 22, 2011

      If Joe Banner was trying to steal the spotlight from the Phillies as spring training opened, the Eagles president just completed an extremely successful media blitz. No one is talking about the Big 4 anymore. They are talking about Joe Banner now, and the words are a mixture of shock and rage.

      During an interview on WIP, Banner compared favorably his Eagles – a half century without a championship – with the Pittsburgh Steelers, who have six Super Bowl victories and two in the past six years. The Eagles have made it twice, and lost both times, in the past 45 years.

      “We've been to five championship games in the last 11 years,” said Banner, who has been running the Eagles since 1995. “They haven't. We've been in the playoffs the last three years. They haven't. At the same time, the ultimate goal is winning the Super Bowl and they've been more successful at that particular part than us, so I don't look at them and say they're really smart and they're really good, and we're not.”

      Banner’s comparison to the Steelers came in the middle of a week in which he openly mocked the work of two-time championship coach Mike Shanahan, dismissed criticism of the hiring of defensive coordinator Juan Castillo as “predictable,” and seemed for the first time to connect a championship to Andy Reid’s job security, before claiming the next day that he was misrepresented.

      So, what should we learn from this experience? A couple of things. First, Banner should never again appear as the voice of the franchise. He is so completely out of touch with the fans, he should find someone who doesn’t insult them this way. And second, he needs to get a clue about his football team.

      The Eagles are not in the same stratosphere as the Steelers, and they will not be until they win at least one Super Bowl. Success in professional sports is defined by championships, not some arbitrary sequence of numbers designed to obscure the truth. Yes, the Birds are contenders. Yes, they make a lot of money. But in a city like ours, winning it all is what truly matters. Just ask the Phillies.

      More alarming, at least to me, is the implication of that Steeler comparison. Delusional thinking like this can happen only in a hermetically sealed world where hard, cold facts are treated like a transmittable disease. It is no secret that Banner has never had much tolerance for dissent, but it is clearer than ever now that he surrounds himself with an army of bobble-headed yes men.

      Well, here’s a potent little slice of reality Banner will never hear from his minions in the Novacare complex. After all these years, Andy Reid is no longer seen as the biggest obstacle to the Super Bowl. As of last week, that distinction belongs to Joe Banner.

      Something extraordinary – and appalling – happened last week in the midst of the resurgence of the Sixers. Their rookie color TV commentator, Eric Snow, fell asleep during a broadcast. That’s right. He nodded off right in the middle of the Sixers-Rockets game in Houston.

      Mark Zumoff, the play-by-play announcer, is heard asking Snow: “Are you meditating?” Snow replies: “I thought . . . I was trying to stay awoke. Some people, you know they kind of wear on you. . . . They make you a little sleepy.”

      It’s hard to imagine what is more alarming about this situation, the fact that an NBA broadcaster would act so unprofessionally, or that it was Eric Snow. In his playing days, there was no one more professional than the steady-handed point guard on the beloved 2001 team that made it to the NBA Finals.

      So what happened? It’s really not that complicated. Snow doesn’t play basketball anymore, and clearly he doesn’t take as seriously his new occupation. I have worked with former athletes for years in radio, and there is a transition period from the glory of playing the game to the daily grind of working behind a microphone.

      What Snow will learn – if he survives this embarrassing blunder – is that his new job will require the same commitment as his old one. The last thing the Sixers need right now, as they begin to win back fans with an infusion of youth and enthusiasm, is a broadcaster nodding off at the microphone.

      When you commit a turnover in basketball, you lose the ball. When you screw up like this in broadcasting, you lose your job.

      Months before the first pitch of a new baseball season, the Phillies are already a huge hit at the box office. On the first day for the sale of single-game tickets last week, a total of 70,000 flew out of Citizens Bank Park. Lines ran all the way down the street on a cold, winter day in February.

      How popular are the Phils right now? Well, they just passed the 3.3-million mark in tickets sold for the 2011 season, about half a million ahead of the pace for last year’s first sold-out season in team history. Those 3.3 million tickets represent the third-highest attendance total for any season in Phillies history – with five weeks to go before the first pitch.

      This is not just a story of numbers, however. The even better tale is how the Phillies accomplished a feat that would have seemed impossible as recently as 2002, when they drew 1.6-million fans and averaged less than 20,000 per game. The crossroad in the history of the Phillies actually came in 1998, when the owners finally realized that Philadelphia is a major sports city requiring a major financial commitment.

      Phillies president Dave Montgomery said last week that abandoning the self-defeating philosophy that Philadelphia was a small-market franchise because of its proximity to New York was the true turning point. From that decision arose a brilliant new stadium, a parade of top free agents, a revitalized farm system and – exactly one decade after the change – a world championship.

      The crazy part is not that they finally realized the potential of their own amazing city. What’s really amazing is that it took them so long.

        Idle thoughts. . . .
      • Michael Vick backed out of a commitment to appear this week on Oprah, despite two months of prep work that included a field trip with the grand lady of TV herself. Vick has survived a lot the past few years, but the wrath of Oprah? This may be his biggest threat yet.
      • The Flyers lost last Friday night in Carolina, but respect for coach Peter Laviolette just keeps growing. His pep talk (or was it a tantrum?) on the sideline after the Flyers fell behind, 2-0, was like a shot of adrenaline for the sluggish team. Any time you want to see some real coaching, check out the Flyers.
      • How can St. Louis be Baseball Heaven when the best they can offer the best player in baseball, Albert Pujols, is around $21 million a year -- $4 million less than Ryan Howard? Something tells me a Pujols-for-Howard deal is going to come up again during the season. And if it does, I hope the Phillies say yes.
      • For the second time in three years, Jimmy Rollins is predicting 100 wins for the Phillies. When he did it in 2009, most fans thought he was being too optimistic. This time around, the only complaint is that the number is way too low.
      • The Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition featured a photo last week in which a model was wearing no swimsuit at all. She had an oar in her hands and a smile on her face. No swimsuit. I checked twice. I demand a refund.

      February 15, 2011

      The Big Four is no more. Even before the first unhittable pitch is delivered at Phillies spring training in Clearwater, the 2011 juggernaut has already acquired a fifth wheel.

      At the insistence of Roy Halladay, no media requests will be granted for one of the best pitching rotations ever assembled without including the fifth starter, Joe Blanton. That’s why Blanton was perched right up there on the press-conference podium yesterday with his four more talented teammates, a living, breathing version of that old Sesame Street game, Which One Doesn’t Belong?

      Now, there are two ways to look at this odd development in a sport that needs all of the national exposure it can get, especially in its losing battle with the NFL. One is that this just proves what a great team the Phillies have put together, one for all and all for one. The other perspective is the correct one, of course – that it’s totally ridiculous.

      Lumping Blanton in with these elite pitchers is not just an affront to smart sports fans, it is an insult to Blanton himself. Think about it. The five pitchers sit down for a Q & A with ESPN. Halladay talks about his perfect game and no-hitter. Cliff Lee discusses how he took less money to play in Philadelphia. Roy Oswalt explains his decision to waive a no-trade clause to play with these guys. Cole Hamels reflects on his 2008 World Series MVP.

      And Joe Blanton discusses his . . . . training regimen? His career 4.30 earned run average? His trade value? The only pertinent question will be: What is like being The Other Guy? The moment that question is posed – and rest assured, it’s coming soon – the folly of this plan will become painfully apparent.

      Hey, I realize many fans see this insistence on including Blanton as a positive sign that no egos are bigger than any others on the 2011 Phillies. And yes, I know Halladay calls the shots on all major decisions because he is a powerful and unique presence in the clubhouse.

      But something crazy like this is no less crazy because the team leader is insisting on it. The Big Four is something very special this year for the sport and for this city. If Blanton plans to make it the Big Five, there is no short cut. He has to do what Halladay, Lee, Oswalt and Hamels did. He has to earn it.

      Jerry Sloan resigned in his 23rd year as coach of the Utah Jazz last week, ending his reign as the longest-tenured coach in American pro sports. A week earlier, coach Jeff Fisher left Tennessee after 16 years. Is Andy Reid next?

      Unfortunately, not yet. But those departures moved Reid up to fourth on the list of U.S. coaches currently working continuously in one city. He is entering his 13th year, behind only Tony LaRussa (16 years), Greg Popovich (16) and Lindy Ruff (13). Please note that those other coaches either won a championship or work in a small market, making Reid’s survival here even more improbable.

      However, every coach has an expiration date stamped on his era, and Reid’s seems close at hand. His erratic behavior this off-season – Sean McDermott’s vote of confidence and subsequent firing, Juan Castillo’s promotion, the singling out of David Akers during a major family medical crisis – is definitely not playing well in the cheap seats.

      Last week, a rumor circulated that Reid had been replaced by Jon Gruden, an ESPN broadcaster who won a Super Bowl seven years ago in Tampa. The false report provided the happiest few hours for Eagles fans since the comeback against the New York Giants. In fact, the reaction was so powerful, the Eagles did something they never do. They issued a statement refuting it.

      Even though there was no truth to the rumor, the fans issued their own statement about Reid just by reacting the way they did. If they have their way, Reid will be joining Sloan and Fisher as soon as possible.

      While the focus of the Philadelphia fans remains on the Phillies and Eagles, something remarkable has been happening with our under-the-radar winter teams. Both are demonstrating the value of a good coach. And make no mistake. Peter Laviolettte of the Flyers and Doug Collins of the Sixers are excellent coaches having extraordinary seasons.

      Laviolette is everything Andy Reid is not. He is thoughtful, respectful, inspirational and probably the best strategist in sports today. The Flyers coach has an uncanny knack for calling time out at precisely the right moment, a skill that has eluded Reid for 12 frustrating years. Is it any wonder Laviolette is also a champion, having won a Stanley Cup in 2006 with the overachieving Carolina Hurricanes?

      What makes Laviolette special is an intensity that brings out the best in players young and old. It is no coincidence that Danny Briere has experienced a rebirth under Laviolette, nor that Claude Giroux has developed into a star so quickly. The best coach in this city – by a wide margin – is Peter Laviolette.

      Meanwhile, from the wasteland of another Sixers season has emerged a likeable team with a driven coach. Doug Collins has not just brought new life to a comatose franchise, he has also done so in the Philadelphia style. At the end of games, the persons sweating the hardest is the guy on the sideline wearing the suit.

      The next time someone argues that a coach is not a crucial element of a team, feel free to remind them that, one year ago, John Stevens and Eddie Jordan were singlehandedly ruining the Flyers and Sixers. In other words, the two biggest stars on our winter teams this season don’t even wear uniforms.

      Idle thoughts . . . .

      • Eric Grubman, CEO of the NFL, actually had the audacity last week to tell fans who were shafted out of seats at the Super Bowl to focus on “world peace” instead of suing the league. And we wonder where the Eagles get their arrogance?
      • NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said at the Super Bowl that both sides in the labor battle must commit to round-the-clock talks. Last week, the owners – for whom Goodell is a paid lapdog – walked out when they didn’t like the initial offer of the players’ union. OK, Roger. What have you got to say now?
      • Isn’t it amazing how quickly the Philadelphia media has turned against Sean McDermott? When he was here, he was a victim of injuries and bad luck. Now, suddenly, he was a know-it-all with a defense that was too complicated. Where were all of these “experts” when the coordinator was actually screwing up the season?
      • Charlie Manuel is looking for $5 million per year in his next contract with the Phillies. Can you imagine what he’d be asking if he didn’t totally screw up the playoffs last season? I wouldn’t give him a dime unless he wins it all with the best team in baseball this season.
      • Even when he’s just being nice and accepting a key to the city, Michael Vick causes problems. The acting mayor of Dallas honored the Eagles quarterback on Super Bowl week, only to learn that the actual mayor hated the idea. As a result, Vick does have the key, but Dallas changed all the locks.

      February 8, 2011

      Andy Reid is not getting the credit he deserves. People who constantly criticize the Eagles coach for a lack of creativity are being unfair. When it comes to finding new ways to insult the intelligence of the fans, he is a man without peer.

      Unfortunately, he is also a man without a clue. What Reid did last week in naming Juan Castillo the new defensive coordinator was the latest and most dramatic example of his complete separation from reality. He took a highly regarded offensive-line coach and managed to promote the man way, way beyond his area of expertise.

      Reid has specialized in odd decisions over the past few years, but never has he made one so blatantly absurd. In fact, there is no reasonable argument for this decision other than an arrogance run amok. Let’s run through the many rationales the coach offered when he finally resurfaced after 23 days in hiding.

      • Castillo is a terrific coach. By all accounts, he is – despite suffering through one of his worst seasons in 2010, when his porous offensive line managed to get both quarterbacks hurt. Castillo was also a terrific coach two years ago, when he was not a candidate for the defensive coordinator’s position after Jim Johnson died. Why didn’t Reid promote him then?
      • Castillo would have been promoted sooner, but Reid could never find a suitable replacement. By all accounts, Howard Mudd is a fine addition, but are we supposed to believe that, before this, not one good candidate became available in Castillo’s 12 seasons here with Reid?
      • Castillo has a background in defense, having played and coached there early in his career. Very early. In fact, Castillo has not coached defense in the 16 years he has worked for the Eagles. He did serve once before as a defensive coordinator – 22 years ago, at the high school level.
      • Castillo is the hardest worker on the Eagles coaching staff, and he will learn quickly. Two years ago, Reid was saying precisely the same things about Sean McDermott, who worked his way right out of town after two disastrous seasons.
      • Castillo was so strong a candidate, there was no need to wait until after the Super Bowl. If he was that impressive, why did it take Reid three weeks even to include him on the interview list?

      There is no rational explanation for this decision because it is insane. Suggesting that Juan Castillo is the best choice for defensive coordinator is like trying to argue that Andy Reid is still the best man to coach the Eagles.

      The final minutes of a close Super Bowl provide the ultimate test of character for football players, but only rarely are the fans included in that equation. When Pittsburgh had the ball with two minutes left, down six to Green Bay, on Sunday night in Super Bowl XLV, did you root for or against Ben Roethlisberger?

      If you cheered for him, you are either a Steelers fan or a Pennsylvania football enthusiast. If you rooted against him, you are either a Packers fan or a hypocrite. I am a hypocrite.

      This realization snuck up on me as Big Ben called the signals in the defining moment of a game he would ultimately lose, 31-25. All I could see was the man accused of abusing women in two separate incidents over the past two years. All I could hear were the words of Commissioner Roger Goodell, who said not one NFL player among two dozen offered words of support for the arrogant, selfish quarterback during a league investigation.

      And then it hit me that, four weeks ago, I was in precisely the same position when the Eagles had the ball with the game on the line and Michael Vick at the controls. Vick’s misdeeds won him two years in prison. All Roethlisberger received was a four-game suspension. How could I root for Vick, but against Roethlisberger?

      Obviously, I am an Eagles fan above all else, including my own basic sense of right and wrong. I am a sensitive, caring human being, unless I am required to block out reality in the blind pursuit of winning.

      If you passed the test and showed some consistency in your rooting interests for Vick and Roethlisberger, congratulations. Now that this morally challenging season is finally over, I’m looking for a good shrink.

      Inside the Wells Fargo Center very early last Friday morning, a contestant at Wing Bowl 19 entered the arena in a float named “Mound Rushmore.” Carved into his fake mountainside were the faces of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels. The sellout crowd loved it.

      Meanwhile, across the street, the Phillies were loading their truck with equipment for the annual trip to Clearwater, Fla., their spring training home. The first players are scheduled to check in on Feb. 14 to begin the most anticipated season in the team’s history.

      The Phillies are the best team in baseball. The Vegas oddsmakers have listed them as favorites. The blogosphere has them securely at No. 1. The Big 4 will be on more magazine covers this year than supermodels Brooklyn Decker and Gisele Bundchen combined. Our Phillies are the apple of every eye, the envy of every town.

      So, as fans, let’s set the proper tone before the first unhittable pitch is thrown by our legendary staff. This season, there are no excuses. The underachieving of 2010 – the failure of the offense in the clutch, the unreliability of the bullpen, the clueless strategy of Charlie Manuel – will not be tolerated with a gentle shrug this time around. All the goodwill from 2008 has now been spent.

      Spring is a time when every team has hope, but the Phillies have the best reason for their optimism. The core of an imposing lineup is still in its prime, the bullpen should have no problem fulfilling its reduced responsibilities, and the starting rotation is extraordinary.

      Only one result is acceptable this time around. This great era in Phillies baseball demands an even bigger parade than we had three seasons ago. Our team is simply too good for anything less. In 2011, failure is not an option.


      February 1, 2011

      Andy Reid has been a polarizing figure during his 12 years as Eagles coach, but there has never been any debate about his character. Love him or hate him, his work in the community and his humanity toward his players have provided a shining example to every sports figure in Philadelphia. All of which makes the latest story involving his increasingly bizarre behavior so very hard to understand. Reid singled out only one player after the playoff loss to Green Bay three weeks ago, David Akers, while fully aware that the veteran kicker was dealing with a major personal crisis. Akers’ six-year-old daughter Halley had a serious medical condition, and the coach knew it. In fact, Reid excused Akers from practice two days before the Jan. 9 game so that the kicker could take Halley to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia – the same place where Reid pays an annual visit to ease the fears of sick children – for an MRI that would reveal the need for immediate surgery to remove one of her ovaries. Akers’ wife Erika said, in an article Sunday in the Inquirer, that she could see during the 21-16 loss that her husband was distracted by Halley’s precarious condition, so much so that he missed two field goals from 41 and 34 yards – distances from which he has rarely missed during his brilliant Eagles career. The prognosis is good for Halley, despite the discovery of cancer. For Reid, the future is not so clear. How could he act so coldly toward the only kicker he has ever employed, saying “We can all count. Those points would have helped”? Words like those would not have seemed so lethal if they came out of the mouth of any other NFL coach, but Reid has been so loyal to his players, so protective of them under all circumstances, that they were totally out of character. Now that we know more about the drama Akers was facing behind the scenes, they were far worse than that. They were irresponsible and unconscionable. If Quintin Mikell, the player who immediately jumped to Akers’ defense after the game and revealed the personal crisis to the media, could feel sympathy toward his teammate, how could Reid ignore the extenuating circumstances? Four years ago, Reid faced a family crisis of his own with his two sons, and he received the support of an entire city for months afterward. Has he forgotten how dire his own situation was back then, or how much understanding he received in return? Andy Reid has shown a lack of respect to Eagles fans for a long time now, refusing to answer the simplest questions, making himself inaccessible for weeks at a time, bullying and belittling reporters without reprimand. For many, it has been easy to look the other way because he wins more games than he loses. It is much harder to ignore his behavior this time, however, because the questions are not just about football. Reid needs to speak to the fans about the way he treated David Akers – and he needs to do it now.

      Charlie Manuel does not deserve a contract extension. That’s right. The folk hero who manages the Phillies, the man who brought our city its first pro sports championship in 25 years, needs to earn a new deal by winning it all again in 2011. The challenge here is separating sentiment from reality. Manuel, who is entering the final year of his current deal, has already won immortality in a city starved for the ultimate success. The glow of that parade has faded, however – or should have by now – after losing to the Yankees in 2009 and blowing the playoffs last year against an inferior San Francisco team. And make no mistake about who was the biggest cause of the failure of the 2010 Phillies. It was Manuel, whose strategic blunders were far less charming than his Mister-Magoo persona after them. Joe Blanton over Roy Halladay to start Game 4? No bunt by Jimmy Rollins in the eighth inning of that pivotal game? Really? Somehow, the love affair between Manuel and the city lives on anyway, creating an ideal atmosphere for managerial myths to flourish. Manuel gets the most out of his players? Then please explain the career trajectory of Chase Utley, or the nosedives of Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard last season. He’s extremely loyal? Tell that to Jimy Williams and Davey Lopes, his two best coaches who left when he failed to get them the salaries they deserved. The truth is, if Manuel fails to win the World Series this year with one of the best starting rotations ever, he will have succeeded one time in seven seasons with arguably the most talented team in Phillies history. That record may be good enough to preserve his legacy, but it’s not good enough for a new deal.

      Most media types are not taking sides in the labor dispute that already threatens the 2012 NFL season. Well, I have no reluctance in declaring my allegiance right now, one month before the lockout becomes official. I’m rooting for the players. The tipping point for me came last week, when the NFL invited 10 hand-picked reporters to the headquarters in New York to state its case. These empty suits then had the audacity to argue that the “current model” doesn’t work anymore for the owners. In other words, the billionaires are not making enough money. Jeff Lurie, who bought the Eagles for $185 million in 1995 and now owns the 11th most valuable sports franchise in the world -- $1.12 billion, according to Forbes Magazine -- is being victimized by a system that no longer works for him? Really? I wonder how many of those 68,000 working people who attend Eagles games wish they had such a system sabotaging their own success like that. Meanwhile, HBO’s Real Sports ran two separate features last week on life after the NFL for the people we pay to see, the players. Many lose their money, their families, and ultimately the quality of their lives because of unscrupulous profiteers and failing bodies. For the players, it’s painfully clear that the current system really doesn’t work. So that’s my verdict for the nuclear winter that awaits NFL fans: Go, millionaires. Beat the billionaires.



      Idle thoughts . . . .

      • NFL commissioner Roger Goodell pledged last week to take a salary of $1 a year during any labor stoppage. In other words, if there is a lockout, he will finally be paid exactly what he’s worth.
      • After the latest Sixers meltdown Friday night against the Grizzlies, Andre Iguodala blamed the team’s attitude, its practice demeanor, and its carelessless with the ball in the final eight minutes. Conveniently missing from the harsh assessment was the lackluster 12-point performance of the man who was speaking.
      • If Eagles owner Jeff Lurie wins an Academy Award for his terrific documentary Inside Job next month in Hollywood, will he give the acceptance speech on stage that night, or will we have to wait for his annual state-of-the-team address at training camp next summer?
      • Pay no attention to all of the football snobs who say you can’t question a player’s heart. Jay Cutler left the biggest game of his Chicago career with an injury so debilitating, he went out to dinner that night – taking the stairs instead of the elevator – and then went out shopping two days later. Sorry, the man can’t play on my team.
      • Philadelphia is the most depressed city in the NFL, according to a report released last week by a team of physicians. Eagles coach Andy Reid isn’t speaking to us right now, but I’m pretty sure he would say he needs to do a better job.

      January 25, 2011

      While Andy Reid was soaking up the sun in beautiful Antigua last week, the Eagles hired a new assistant coach and issued several statements about their long and confusing search for a new defensive coordinator. For the first time, it appeared that Reid was not running his football team.

      And maybe – just maybe – he wasn’t. More than ever, it appears that there has been a seismic shift in the Eagles power structure. Major football decisions seem to be falling increasingly under the control of president Joe Banner and GM Howie Roseman.

      Just follow the timeline of the past two weeks. This is definitely not the way a conventional football operation conducts business. At his news conference on Jan. 10 after another disappointing finish, Reid offered testimonials for all of his assistants, especially defensive coordinator Sean McDermott. Two days later, Reid fired McDermott and defensive-line coach Rory Segrest.

      Rather than deal with questions about his about-face, Reid escaped to the Caribbean, issuing no statement after news of the moves became public. A few days later, Jim Washburn agreed to coach the defensive line, and Reid jumped right in with a statement crowing over the new addition. Glowing words for a coach he didn’t even interview face to face? No comment on a valued 12-year colleague? Does this sound logical to you?

      Adding to the intrigue is the undeniable emergence of a mystery man, GM Howie Roseman, a lawyer who cut his teeth in football by negotiating contracts. Yesterday, Roseman said before leaving for the Senior Bowl that Reid was in charge of the search for a defensive coordinator. The fact that Roseman – a total novice in the Eagles hierarchy – felt he needed to clarify that point only raised more doubts, and more eyebrows.

      Who’s running the Eagles right now? If the answer is Reid, why did he say one thing and do the opposite when he traded his all-time favorite Eagle, Donovan McNabb? Why did he switch to Michael Vick two days after insisting that Kevin Kolb was still his starting quarterback? Is Reid having trouble making decisions these days, or are they no longer solely his decisions?

      The irony in all of this is that the three moves in question have all proven to be right. McNabb is done. Kolb is nowhere near the quarterback Vick has become. And McDermott was dreadful. If Banner and Roseman played a significant role in those decisions, the positive outcomes will only empower them even more in future moves.

      Reid is back in town now, preparing to hire his new defensive coordinator. After what we have all just seen, however, it’s fair to wonder whether he is making that decision alone now – or if it’s still his decision to make.

      The Phillies did something last week that showed a genuine appreciation for the loyal people who have given them this unprecedented era of success. They bought the fans a new TV.

      This is not just any video screen, understand. It is the biggest in baseball – 97 feet wide, 76 feet high, the absolute latest is high-resolution technology. It will fill the entire surface of the already spectacular left-field scoreboard, offering film packages, interactive crowd games and – most importantly – replays with a clarity most fans won’t even find in their own living rooms.

      The cost of the new screen is the true indication of the Phillies’ commitment to the fans: $10 million. Yes, I know a big percentage of the cost will be defrayed by advertising, but that’s not the point. The Phillies didn’t have to do this. They sell out every game. There was not a single complaint about the old video board, which was installed when Citizens Bank Park was built seven years ago.

      The Phillies did this because they honestly care about the people who buy their tickets. It’s that simple. Every pro team in our city pays lip service to the patrons, but the Phils just showed the difference between words and deeds. They remember what it was like when half the seats were empty at Veterans Stadium, when a Phillies game was not the must-see event it is today.

      Bravo to president Dave Montgomery and his staff of fan-friendly thinkers. When the Phillies celebrate another championship this fall, thanks to the best pitching in baseball, we will all see it on the best ballpark TV in the sport.

      Note to the other pro teams in our town: This is how it’s done.

      How many games are the Sixers going to blow – and much many weeks are they going to waste—before GM Ed Stefanski finally does his job and trades Andre Iguodala?

      In a week when the Flyers extended the contract of superb GM Paul Holmgren and the Eagles signed the best available defensive-line coach in the NFL, Stefanski remained invisible. Have we ever had a GM of a major pro team less conspicuous than Stefanski? How does he get away with it?

      It doesn’t take a genius to see the wisdom of an Iguodala trade. By now, there is no debate about how good he will become; in his seventh season, he has reached his NBA prime. What you see is what you get. On a good team, he could be a vital addition, especially at his still appealing age (27 on Friday). On the Sixers, he is neither a franchise player nor a gate attraction.

      Even worse, Iguodala is seriously stunting the development of Evan Turner, a rookie with a greater upside than Iguodala. Given his record of blunders as GM over the past three seasons, it is no sure thing that Stefanski sees this obvious problem. Or maybe he can’t trade the veteran swingman because of the ridiculous $80-million contract Stefanski gave him two years ago.

      Whatever the problem, the clock is ticking on Iguodala and Stefanski. The trade deadline is Feb. 24. The affable GM said it was a dream-come-true when he took the job in his hometown. OK, great. Now it’s time to wake up from that dream and do something.

      Idle thoughts . . . .

      • This is a huge day for Eagles owner Jeff Lurie, who is expected to earn an Oscar nomination for Inside Job, a documentary he and wife Christina produced to major acclaim. Lurie left movies after a string of failures, and now he may win an Academy Award before the Lombardi Trophy. Just our luck, isn’t it?
      • New York Jets coach Rex Ryan reacted to another championship-game loss Sunday with defiant words, vowing to keep chasing the ultimate dream of a Super Bowl victory. Andy Reid thanked his players for a fine job when his Eagles were ousted two weeks ago. Some people take losing a lot easier than others.
      • Is it just me, or was the Philadelphia media a day late and a dollar short on both Sean McDermott and Rory Segrest? Now that these two inept coaches are gone, they are being called busts. During the season they were victims of injury and circumstance. The easiest targets are always the ones headed out of town.
      • Dallas fans are eagerly paying $200 each to watch the Super Bowl on a video screen in the cold outside their billion-dollar stadium. The next time you encounter a Cowboys fan who tells you how smart he is, feel free to use this information.
      • Larry Brown is already so bored, he’s been showing up again at Villanova practices. At 70, he’s looking for another coaching job. My advice is to call Penn State. Joe Paterno, 84, is always looking for young assistants.

      January 11, 2011

      The Philadelphia Eagles are clinically insane. They are an organization that continues to do the same thing, year after year, expecting a different result. President Joe Banner, two years ago this month, used those words to define insanity, and he was right. The Eagles are nuts.

      Is there any other logical explanation for coach Andy Reid making the same mistakes in every loss, with no accountability? Is there any reason why he continues to pass the ball maniacally behind a woeful offensive line? Is there a better excuse for why the defense is always too small and too young?

      The miracle of 2010 became the debacle of 2011 at Lincoln Financial Field on Sunday, when the Eagles did more than lose another playoff game. This time they unwittingly revealed Reid to be overmatched on the field and a bully off it. They screamed from the rooftops that he will never win a Super Bowl as a head coach – not here, not anywhere. Was anyone listening?

      Of course, they weren’t. Reid is the biggest winner in Eagles coaching history. The fact that he got his quarterback, Michael Vick, crushed under a blitz on the very first play is not important to the people in charge. The fact that his red-zone defense is the worst in the past quarter-century of the NFL is not relevant. All that matters is that Reid has won a lot of games, and has made the playoffs most of the time, during his 12 years in Philadelphia.

      And it isn’t bad enough that fans – who have waited 50 years since the last Eagles’ championship – must deal with the weekly repetition of Reid’s maddening mistakes, they then have to suffer the added indignity of his comments after losses. This week, the coach actually pointed the finger at one player following the 21-16 defeat to Green Bay – kicker David Akers, who missed two field goals. Reid’s defense gave up three more touchdowns in the red zone – on three attempts – and the only villain he was willing to name was the kicker.

      There are really no surprises anymore on this Eagles merry-go-round. The top officials – president Joe Banner and owner Jeffrey Lurie – will lie low for a few months until the anger subsides, and then they will resurface around draft time in April to crow about the team’s promising future. At training camp, Lurie will have a fully reloaded arsenal of hollow platitudes to describe Reid. The coach will then greet another undersized and inexperienced group of players, who will perform honorably until their ultimate failure again in the playoffs.

      Take note, Philadelphia. We are all captives now in the world of the Eagles, and the lunatics are officially running the asylum.

      As we savor the most compelling drama in sports, the NFL playoffs, it is impossible to ignore the act of suicide being contemplated by these outrageous people. Do they really have the audacity to shut down America’s most popular sport, at the absolute height of its acclaim?

      My best answer to that question, right now, is yes. My best guess is that these ingrates – all made successful beyond their wildest dreams by the fans – will now turn their backs on that generosity and shut down the NFL. The fact that the labor dispute has gotten this far is absurd. That it could lead to a winter without football next year is appalling.

      The NFL has ruled American sports for three decades now, but never more so than this year. TV ratings are at an all-time high. New stadiums are popping up all over the country, thanks to the tax contributions of the fans. Ad revenue is setting records, too, in a terrible economy. In every way possible, fans are supporting the NFL.

      In return, they are about to get punched in the face. The players want guaranteed contracts and better protection of their battered bodies, especially in an expanded 18-game schedule. The owners want more money; somehow, they have carefully studied the books and have concluded they are not rich enough. In this classic battle of millionaires vs. billionaires, a lockout looms.

      Hey, they can leave if they choose. We can’t stop them. But the players and (especially) owners need to know what’s at stake here. It is not money. It is not TV ratings. It is something much harder to win back – the affection of loyal people who deserve their favorite sport every week, every year, without interruption.

      Ed Rendell, a politician whose abrasive style has often sabotaged his tireless efforts, will leave the governor’s mansion in Harrisburg next week – after 16 years as the loudest political voice on Philadelphia sports. How will he be remembered? To me, it’s more a question of how he should be remembered.

      As someone who has done a radio sports-talk show during his tenures both as mayor and governor, I am outraged at the ignorant commentaries being provided in Rendell’s wild, final days in office. Gov. Rendell made news again Sunday night when he had a meltdown on 60 Minutes while discussing casino gambling. Before that, he was vilified nationally for calling us “a nation of wussies” after the Eagles postponed a game because of a snowstorm.

      If you’ve been reading this column over the past three-plus years, you know I am no mouthpiece for the governor – or anybody else, for that matter. His blind and clueless fawning over Donovan McNabb on the Eagles’ post-game show on Comcast Sportsnet was a source of constant irritation to me and thousands of others.

      But here’s the bottom line: The Philadelphia sports fans has not had – and will probably never have again – a more vocal and more determined advocate in politics than Ed Rendell. He played a major role in financing the new stadiums, his vigilance kept in line all of our pro teams and, most importantly, he was truly one of us. He cared. And, like the sports fans of Philadelphia teams, he did so too loudly sometimes.

      The next time you hear or read the latest diatribe against Gov. Rendell, please understand that it is a criticism not just of how he is, but of how we all are.

      Idle thoughts . . . .

      • Giants coach Tom Coughlin told his critics to “kiss my ass” after his team won 10 games but missed the playoffs. It takes a truly special man to choke away an entire season the way Coughlin did against the Eagles, and then act belligerent about it. Hey, Tom. You’re watching the games at home right now. Kiss that.
      • In six months, Flyers goalie Michael Leighton went from a playoff hero to a minor leaguer. This is why GMs like Paul Holmgren get paid the big bucks, and why he earns them with courageous and unsentimental moves like this. I just hope he’s right.
      • Eddie Jordan is no longer coaching the Sixers. If you have any doubts, just look at the enthusiasm and fun our young basketball team is bringing to every game under coach Doug Collins. If they ever stop choking in the final seconds the way they did Saturday night, fans might actually start paying attention again.
      • The Phillies have become a team of mystery this winter. They never explained why first-base coach Davey Lopes was not re-signed, and they never gave any reason for not signing lefty reliever Dennys Reyes after agreeing to a deal. So, instead, we’ve got a new first-base coach, Juan Samuel, and another year of J. C. Romero. Ugh.
      • Lenny Dykstra reportedly bounced a check for $1,000 last week to a professional escort. It covered nothing more than drinks and conversation. If he started offering more of his brilliant stock tips, however, she was planning to charge him triple.

      January 4, 2011

      In the end, the Eagles got exactly what they deserved – failure and controversy at a time when they should have been enjoying their sweetest success. How did the Miracle in the New Meadowlands become the Debacle at the Linc? How did the Eagles, on their way to a first-round playoff bye, screw it up? It all began in the jubilation of an improbable win against the Giants, a heady time when the Eagles decided they could change the rules of football. With a blizzard threatening last week, the Birds went to Commissioner Roger Goodell and threw a Hail Mary. In the interest of public safety, they argued that the game should be postponed. True, a postponement for snow hadn’t happened in 88 years, but hey, why not try? We all know the rest of the story. Goodell caved under the pressure, moved the game back 48 hours to accommodate his sacred TV agreement with ESPN, and then watched his league stage one of the worst games in recent prime-time history. It was especially bad for the Eagles, of course, because they ruined a clear track to the NFC championship game. It takes a special kind of arrogance to preside over the disaster that unfolded in the past week – first by asking for something that is simply not in the NFL doctrine and then by lambasting the critics who pointed it out. The most vocal opponent of the delay, Gov. Ed Rendell, was greeted at his seat last Tuesday night with a huge mound of snow provided by the endlessly hilarious Eagles organization. Well, at least they’re not vindictive. Since the unprecedented decision by Goodell, the truth has seeped out about the real intentions of the Eagles. Of course, the decision had very little to do with public safety. It never does. The team wanted its many weapons – Michael Vick, DeSean Jackson, LeSean McCoy and Jeremy Maclin – to have the fastest possible field on which to display their talents. The only thing standing in their way was the unfortunate rule that the NFL doesn’t postpone games because of the weather. President Joe Banner – who suddenly reappeared after months of self-imposed media exile – was the picture of smugness last week as he blustered about how he wasn’t fretting over a letdown because Andy Reid is his coach, and Reid is the best in the business at adjusting to changes. (Obviously, Banner has not been watching the games too closely this season.) A few hours later, Reid was calling his own effort “pathetic,” which it was. But don’t you wonder – and doesn’t he? – what would have happened if the Eagles just played by the rules, braved the blizzard, and took their chances against Vikings team that had lost the previous two games by 61-17? Well, keep wondering. If the Eagles don’t stage another improbable comeback in the playoffs this season, we’ll all be asking that question for a very long time.

      Is it just me, or do the Eagles have a serious problem with their defensive coordinator? No one is ever going to replace the late, great Jim Johnson, but Sean McDermott appears hopelessly overmatched in that critical role. Remember Johnson’s bend-but-don’t-break defense? Well, McDermott has a bend-and-then-shatter defense. The Eagles have the worst red-zone offense in the NFL, the absolute worst. In fact, it has been nearly a quarter-century since an NFL team ever had a failure rate in the red zone (77 percent) as bad as the Eagles’ this season. If we can’t blame McDermott – the strategist – for that embarrassing stat, whom should we blame? And then we have the case of Dmitri Patterson, a cornerback so inept that opponents have been developing their entire offensive game plan around him. He was devoured by the Giants in the miracle game two weeks ago, and yet McDermott put Patterson back out there against the Vikings to get burned again and again. When Joselio Hanson finally replaced Patterson in the second half, the deluge ended. How many times have the Eagles given an opponent the early lead because the defense came out flat? How many times have the Eagles relied on Michael Vick and the offense to bail out a defense allowing 24 points per game? How many times have the Eagles squandered a timeout on defense or got caught with 12 men on the field? Coach Andy Reid is a master at hiding the flaws of his underlings, but it’s getting harder and harder for him to camouflage the incompetence of his defensive coordinator.

      Imagine this: You got caught making sexually-suggestive calls to a co-worker, and you are accused of text-messaging photos of your private parts to her. Now imagine that the boss calls you in to find out what really happened. You acknowledge making the calls, but you won’t say whether you sent the photos. In the real world, what would happen to you? Would the boss fine you a nominal sum and express frustration that he couldn’t determine the full scope of your misbehavior? Or would he fire you? If your answer is the latter, congratulations. You are not a hopeless bureaucrat. If you picked option one, your name is probably Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner who basically ran away and hid from a blatant a case of sexual harassment when he fined Brett Farve $50,000 (five cents to you and me) for the legend’s unwanted sexual advances toward former Jets sideline reporter Jen Sterger. Let’s apply some simple logic here. If Farve didn’t send the photos, why would he refuse to answer any questions about them? Is there any reasonable explanation why he would not deny sending the photos unless he actually did send them? Given this evidence, Goodell had every right to protect his business and assume the obvious. But he didn’t. He spent an entire season conducting an investigation that encompassed little more than the totally believable accusations of a young woman and the shameless stonewalling by an American hero, and then he refused to take a stand. The “wussification” of America, Gov. Ed Rendell called it last week. And he was totally right.

      Idle thoughts . . . .

      • Could this Donovan McNabb story get any better? First, he tells his coaches that he didn’t agree with his agent’s criticism for benching him, then he says on his radio show that he agrees with his agent. OK, let’s resume the debate over whether McNabb belongs in the Hall of Fame. Who wants to start?
      • Somebody actually pays this empty suit (and bow tie) named Tucker Carlson lots of money to say outrageous things like Michael Vick should be executed for killing dogs? And somebody actually watches Carlson on TV and cares what he says? What a world.
      • Repeating a stupid tradition started last year by the Eagles, the Baltimore Ravens have voted Donte Stallworth – who killed a pedestrian in 2009 while driving under the influence – the Ed Block Courage Award. A renowned NFL trainer and humanitarian, Ed Block deserves much better than this.
      • Andre Iguodala misses a game in Phoenix, and Evan Turner scores 23. Is there a message here? Yes, there is. Iguodala needs to go – now – or the Sixers can forget about developing their top draft pick.
      • The New York Jets sure have become a party these days. Foot-fetish videos, penis text-messages, strength coaches tripping opposing players on the sidelines. . . . Last summer they had a reality TV show. Now they are one.

      December 28, 2010

      Mother Nature provided the blizzard Sunday night at Lincoln Financial Field, but it was the NFL that gave us the real snow job. Why didn’t the Eagles face the Vikings Sunday night? Let’s shovel away all of the propaganda and provide some real answers after a strange and confusing weekend.

      First of all, Commissioner Roger Goodell is simply not telling the truth when he says the game was rescheduled for tonight, 48 hours after the storm, because of public safety. Yeah, sure. The fact that ESPN pays $1 billion a year to have an exclusive NFL game on Monday night had nothing to do with it. Please. We’re not that stupid.

      And once we’ve established that the NFL will tell us anything to protect its own interests, it becomes tougher to explain why the game was postponed in the first place. After all, the decision ignored the 88-year tradition of playing in all weather for a storm that was far from extraordinary, dumping less than a foot of snow on the city.

      What really happened, it seems, is that Goodell, owner Jeff Lurie and president Joe Banner of the Eagles and Mayor Michael Nutter all panicked. Nutter declared a storm emergency six hours before the game and openly supported a postponement, Lurie and Banner didn’t want to deal with the complications of the storm and Goodell refused to stand his ground. In other words, they all felt a sudden urge to buy bread and milk and wait out the storm at home.

      It’s safe to say that there would have been a game Sunday if Gov. Ed Rendell were still mayor, since he has already snorted at the idea of calling off a football game because of snow. It’s also safe to say former Commissioner Pete Rozelle would never have agreed to a postponement, since he refused to reschedule the Ice Bowl despite a wind chill of minus-48 in Green Bay in 1967.

      The saddest part of this to Philadelphia is that the NFL wimped out here, in its toughest city. Fans reacted with anger because they happily would have attended a game they would have talked about for years – like the 1948 championship game played during a far bigger blizzard at Franklin Field.

      Now, nothing will ever be the same in NFL cities. Every time a forecast of snow coincides with the next home game, we will all have to wonder whether they’ll play, much like baseball does with rain. Every time a fidgety meteorologist predicts the storm of the century, we may be denied the unique pleasure of a game being waged in the elements – like the Tuck Rule contest in 2003 or the NFC championship game here in 2005.

      In a sport that has tried to place its quarterbacks in a protective bubble and has totally redefined a legal hit, it should be no surprise that the NFL has now taken a stand against playing in the snow. It just hurts because it happened here, in the only city that ever threw snowballs at Santa Claus.

      Even though the blizzard denied us the pleasure of another exciting Eagles victory, it was a very good weekend to be a football fan in Philadelphia. Not only did the Birds clinch their first NFC East title in four years, they did it in a uniquely rewarding way.

      One week after suffering their worst loss in years, the Giants looked like zombies in their 45-17 loss in Green Bay. The final eight minutes of the Dec. 19 Eagles victory did more than propel the Birds into the playoffs. It killed the Giants. Regardless of how this season ends, those eight minutes are going to define the season for both teams.

      The Redskins – who not so long ago were considered a threat to steal the division – are finally winning now that Donovan McNabb has been demoted, but it’s way too little and way too late. Remember when most NFL experts questioned coach Andy Reid’s sanity to trade the veteran quarterback within his division? In retrospect, Reid made his own team much better, and a rival much worse, with one simple move.

      The consensus choice to win the NFC East, of course, was the Cowboys, who required no help from the Eagles to implode. One year ago at this time, they were in the process of ruining the final season of the McNabb era here. Today, they are in shambles, with owner Jerry Jones issuing weekly apologies for his 5-10 team. Is there anything sweeter about this season than their embarrassing failure?

      The best games are still ahead, of course, but this is a perfect time to remember how horrible we all felt at the end of 2009 – and to be grateful we don’t feel that way now.

      A football legend text-messaging photos of his private parts to a female reporter? A high-profile NFL coach and his wife doing foot-fetish videos? Did these things really happen?

      Yes, probably, though nothing has been proven yet. By now, we should all be past the point where even juicy scandals like those involving Brett Favre or Rex Ryan shock us. After all, the Eagles MVP this season (Michael Vick) is two years removed from federal prison, and a two-time Super Bowl quarterback (Ben Roethlisberger) was suspended four games for acting inappropriately with women.

      What it all comes down to, really, is what sells in the NFL, and who’s selling it. Empowered with the qualities of a superhero by a fawning national media, Farve has done whatever he has wanted for many years now, with no repercussions. Ryan’s outrageous behavior earned him his own HBO show this summer, and all the attention he so clearly craves.

      Farve can allegedly text-message X-rated photos because who’s going to stop him? Ryan can allegedly keep the camera rolling to reveal his deepest secrets because, well, why not? The NFL, under commissioner Roger Goodell, is all about branding. The players and coaches are nothing more than products to be sold, and scandal sells.

      Nobody in the NFL is worried anymore about how something looks. If the league really cared about its image, would Goodell have spent an entire season investigating the Farve case? A decision is expected any day now – as is the end of Farve’s career. What a coincidence.

      Postscript: The No. 1 NFL jersey sold this Christmas was that of Michael Vick, convicted felon. Any questions?

      Idle thoughts . . . .

      • Repeating a stupid tradition started last year by the Eagles, the Baltimore Ravens voted Donte Stallworth – who killed a pedestrian in 2009 while driving under the influence – the Ed Block Courage Award last week. Ed Block, a renowned NFL trainer and humanitarian, deserves better than this.
      • Be honest. If you’re a Phillies fan, there was no gift under the Christmas tree this year better than Cliff Lee. And if you’re an Eagles fan, nothing brought more joy than that amazing comeback against the Giants.
      • The Sixers have a major dilemma to deal with as they enter the new year. They either have to dump Andre Iguodala or admit their mistake and see what they can get for draft bust Evan Turner. With Iguodala dominating the floor, there is no room for Turner to grow.
      • Does the NHL make up its schedule on the back of a cocktail napkin at closing time? Is there any other explanation for why the Flyers, after a flurry of games, would suddenly get seven days off? Christmas is one day. When did it become a full week?
      • Isn’t it ironic that New York Jets coach Rex Ryan ended up dedicating his life to football?

      December 16, 2010

      At the end of a stunning victory over the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday night, Andy Reid and DeSean Jackson actually kissed on the sideline. The superstar wide receiver asked for it, and the jubilant Eagles coach was happy to oblige.

      Of course, if Reid had smacked Jackson in the head, no one would have been surprised, either. They have a unique relationship based on their mutual appreciation for Jackson’s amazing talents, and seasoned with Reid’s prickly frustration over the player’s quirky personality.

      All aspects of this odd and interesting coupling were on display right there in prime time, with Jackson accounting for 210 receiving yards – including the pivotal 91-yard touchdown reception in the fourth quarter – and then sealing the 30-27 victory with a stupid and selfish play.

      Jackson’s decision to stop at the one-yard line in a 20-20 tie, spin on an allegedly bad foot and swan-dive backwards into the end zone was “the Hollywood” coming out in him, as Reid put it. Given Jackson’s numerous mishaps around the end zone in the past, however, maybe it’s time he become more concerned about serving the interests of Philadelphia.

      After the game, Jackson said he was just displaying his own unique style, before promising not to do it again. History suggests he is right about that. He never repeats himself. When it comes to getting attention – positive or negative – Jackson is endlessly creative.

      On a team of extraordinary talents that includes Michael Vick, Jeremy Maclin and the quickly emerging LeSean McCoy, Jackson remains the most explosive attraction. From the 63-yard play that started the game to the 91-yarder that finished it, he can take over a game. The only thing he lacks is a respect for it. Write it off as youthful exuberance if you must, but he simply doesn’t consider the team before he considers himself.

      A month ago, he was sulking because the Eagles weren’t throwing the ball to him enough. Then he went through a period when he didn’t want to reach for balls over the middle because of his two recent concussions. There were reports that he was distracted during team meetings because he was text-messaging his agent, Drew Rosenhaus. In fact, if you want to know what he’s thinking this very minute, his musings are available 24/7 on Twitter.

      In short, DeSean Jackson is a talk-show host’s dream come true. And, being a talk-show host for the past 21 years, I can confirm that belief. He is unpredictable, he is controversial and he is certainly not the sour presence that Terrell Owens was. He is just a flashy young kid with a world of talent and no clue how to act.

      The kiss that Andy Reid planted on his cheek could be just the beginning of an outpouring of affection like none Jackson could ever dream, especially if the Eagles end their 50-year championship drought this season. Of course, with Jackson you never know. It could also be the kiss of death.

      When Pat Gillick makes his Hall of Fame induction speech next summer, the first person he needs to thank is former Phillies GM Ed Wade. After building winners everywhere he went, Gillick somehow still needed a major assist by Wade to cross the threshold into true greatness.

      Follow the simple logic: Gillick himself said last week that, despite his two championship teams in Toronto and his 116-win club in Seattle, the 2008 Phillies put him in another stratosphere, bound for Cooperstown. The announcement last week was a direct result of Gillick’s pivotal triumph, at age 71, right here in Philadelphia.

      Well, the truth is, Gillick stumbled as often as he prevailed during his three-year stint here. Two of the worst transactions in Phillies history – trading for Freddie Garcia and signing Adam Eaton – were Gillick moves. Of course, so were the acquisitions of stud outfielder Jayson Werth and key role players like Matt Stairs and J.C. Romero.

      Wade had much more to do with that Phillies championship than Gillick. Remember, it was Wade who recruited and developed the core of that team – Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and World Series MVP Cole Hamels. Wade also provided the missing piece of that 2008 puzzle when – now working for Houston – he gift-wrapped closer Brad Lidge in a ridiculous trade.

      Pat Gillick is one of the best GMs in the past generation of baseball, no doubt. His body of work in the game speaks for itself. But the difference between a superb career record and immortality, believe it or not, was Ed Wade.

      The 30th anniversary last week of John Lennon’s death, which was revealed to a shocked world on Monday Night Football, provided a compelling indictment of the current state of sports broadcasting.

      Back then, the voices of Howard Cosell and Don Meredith had the attention of the American public, whether they were announcing that horrific news, entertaining us with their bickering or providing potent commentary on the game. They were not for sale. Neither was the early version of John Madden, nor Al DeRogatis, nor my affable old radio partner Tom Brookshier. They gave their honest opinions. What a concept.

      Today, we don’t listen much to the commentator anymore because he has nothing significant to say. Joe Theismann and Matt Millen are an earache waiting to happen on the NFL Network, Moose Johnston is a mindless platitude machine on Fox, Phil Simms and Troy Aikman are impressive only in contrast to the other network hacks. When is the last time any one of these commentators had something memorable to say?

      Broadcasting is so much more sophisticated now than it was when Cosell and Meredith made every Monday night an event, largely through the power of their personalities. Yet, in many ways, it is inferior because it replaced straight-forward honesty with an endless din of meaningless blabber.

      Don Meredith died last week. Unfortunately, his style of broadcasting was gone long before him.

      Idle thoughts . . . . • The experts sure were right when they said the Sixers were getting a great young shooting guard this season, weren’t they? No, not top draft pick Evan Turner. He looks like a major bust. I’m talking about virtual unknown Jody Meeks. Go figure. • What a week to be a Flyers fan. After suffering a horrific loss on a nullified goal one-tenth of a second after the horn in overtime, the Flyers came back the next night and dominated the Maple Leafs, then squeezed out a big win in Boston on a goal with three seconds left in OT. This just in: Peter Laviolette can coach. • Is it just me, or has it been an incredibly long time since Eagles president Joe Banner said anything publicly? Hey, don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining. • Since when is it OK for a player to ask an opponent for an autograph on the field after a game? Cowboys running back Tashard Choice did it to Michael Vick, and nobody in Dallas seemed to mind. Wow. If an Eagle ever asks a Cowboy for one, I’m pretty sure it won’t go nearly as well. • The Phillies may not have the best bullpen these days, but with Dennys Reyes and Danys Baez, they’re doing a great job stockpiling relievers with extra S’s in their first names. You can never have too many consonants out there, you know.


      November 16, 2010

      Michael Vick has done the impossible. In three astonishing hours on Monday night, he quieted his loudest critics, he upstaged Donovan McNabb on football’s biggest stage, and he revived a dream that is 50 years in the making.

      For the first time since 2005, Eagles fans are seriously talking about the Super Bowl again. They watched Vick engineer five straight touchdown drives in the first 15:09 of the game, and now they’re embracing the idea of their first championship since 1960. Vick seems unstoppable when he plays like this. He makes the improbable seem realistic, the ultimate fantasy suddenly plausible.

      Just a few months ago, I was leading the clamor to throw Vick off the team and out of the city after a shooting incident at his 30th birthday party. Now, I am prepared to drive the lead car in a caravan to Dallas, site of Super Bowl XLV. My change of attitude is easily explained, really. I have been watching the Eagles play with Vick at quarterback, and they are spectacular.

      For example, Vick’s first touchdown throw to DeSean Jackson was a work of art – 88 yards in all, 65 in the air. His first touchdown run somehow eluded six potential tacklers. Later, he dropped a perfect 48-yard pass into the hands of Jeremy Maclin at the right pylon for a score, and zipped a laser into the back of the end zone to Jason Avant for another. In a game of outrageous statistics, this was the best: The Eagles scored 35 points before the Redskins got their initial first down.

      And that’s where the other part of this wonderful story begins, the national humiliation of Donovan McNabb. After milking his victim role for two excruciating weeks, the former Eagles quarterback received yet another financial apology when he signed a $78-million deal just before kickoff. The fact that McNabb was ranked 25th among NFL quarterbacks at the time meant nothing to him. When you bench the great Donovan McNabb, you pay.

      Of course, McNabb then did what he does best, coming up small on the big stage of Monday Night Football. The first of his three interceptions set up the Eagles third touchdown, and another was returned 40 yards by Dmitri Patterson for a score. McNabb ended the night sheepishly conceding his own embarrassment. Yeah, right. With all of those fresh new greenbacks safely in the bank, it was an embarrassment only of riches for McNabb.

      Fortunately, the Eagles have moved past their drama-queen former quarterback. Defensive end Trent Cole said it best before the game when he expressed no concern about playing McNabb. Cole noted that only the great players worry him.

      In that case, everyone in football should fear Michael Vick right now. After one of the greatest performances we have ever seen, all bets are off. Anything is possible. Darnell Dockett of the Arizona Cardinals put it all into perspective during the game when he Tweeted: “Vick doing so good, he got dogs cheering for him.”

      Ruben Amaro Jr. should know better. After all of the years playing here and working in the front office, he must have forgotten that you cannot con Phillies fans.

      Yet, the GM is trying to do precisely that with his periodic assurances that the Phils are trying really, really hard to re-sign star outfielder Jayson Werth. The only thing Amaro is trying really, really hard to do is to convince fans that he is doing everything he can to sign his star rightfielder. The truth is, Werth is not coming back.

      How can I be so sure? OK, let’s do the math. Werth will want between $15 and $18 million per season on at least a five-year deal. The Phillies right now are already projected to be over their magic $140-million payroll ceiling. The only way to clear some money for Werth would be for Amaro to unload the $11.5 million owed to Raul Ibanez in 2011. What team is dumb enough to absorb that ridiculous salary?

      And even if the Phillies GM finds some sucker to take that deal, does he honestly believe that Werth and super-agent Scott Boras are going to grant the Phillies the early commitment Amaro is demanding? Of course not. Boras has never – not once – accepted a deal for a marquee player in November.

      Werth will be signing with the Angels, Tigers or Red Sox, and it won’t be much before Christmas. Anything else you hear or read is pure fiction.

      The Eagles get all the attention and the Phillies get all the affection, but the team most likely to win our next championship is the Flyers.

      Just answer the following questions, and you’ll arrive at the same conclusion: Which Philadelphia pro team has the best coach or manager? Which club has the best leaders? Which one has the best balance? Which has come closest to a championship since the Phillies parade of 2008?

      In all cases, the answer is the Flyers. Coach Peter Laviolette is neither the bumbler that Charlie Manuel is, nor the robot that Andy Reid has become. Veteran defenseman Chris Pronger is the best leader in any clubhouse in Philadelphia, if not all of America.

      Quietly, Flyers GM Paul Holmgren has crafted a superb roster – young and old, fast and tough, on both ends of the ice. The Phillies have great pitching, but their offense is in decline, especially now without Jayson Werth. The Eagles have a potent weapon in Vick, but their defense is prone to horrible meltdowns.

      And now it looks like the Flyers have the next big new star in Philadelphia, Sergei Bobrovski, the 22-year-old sensation who may be the final piece in a goaltending puzzle that has resulted in a 35-year championship drought.

      Hockey is not – and will never be – as popular as baseball or football, but the next team truly worthy of our affection and attention is these Flyers, this year.

        Idle thoughts . . . .
      • Let’s see, Allen Iverson missed his flight to Turkey and then begged off the season opener for his new team because he didn’t feel ready to play yet. Different country, different era, same clueless jerk.
      • Just when you think there are no great new ideas in sports, the NHL comes up with the plan to have its top superstars choose up sides for the next All-Star Game, bringing all of us back to the frozen ponds and sandlots of our youth.
      • After 21 years, the worst broadcaster on the national sports scene, Joe Morgan, finally got the boot by ESPN last week. Morgan was ill-prepared, illogical and often idiotic. He had nothing to say, and he consistently said it poorly.
      • Mike Richards signed a 12-year, $69-million deal with the Flyers three years ago, and now Jeff Carter has a brand-new 11-year, $58-million agreement. That’s a combined 23 years and $127 million. The Flyers really know how to show the love, don’t they?
      • Ed Stefanski was not terrible filling in for sick Sixers color analyst Eric Snow on TV over the weekend. Maybe the GM should quit his day job.

      November 2, 2010

      Now that the Phillies have failed twice to expand their championship legacy of 2008, is it finally time to revoke the free passes we have handed out to our October heroes?

      For too long, members of the best Phillies team ever have been living off the goodwill generated in that magical season two years ago. Charlie Manuel, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins – to name just a few – have spent the past two seasons enjoying an acclaim that far exceeds their declining contributions.

      Manuel is the most extreme example. Since the championship season, he has blundered and botched one chance after another for his team to repeat, yet he remains the lovable, tongue-tied charmer from the parade. Heck, as recently as last Friday, one of the top sports columnists in the city proclaimed him the best Philliies manager ever, less than two weeks after the debacle of Game 4.

      It’s time for a reality check, Philadelphia. Manuel blew at least one game of the NLCS – and maybe two – because he refused to abandon his paint-by-numbers style of strategizing. Roy Halladay should have started Game 4, Jimmy Rollins should have bunted in the seventh inning of that game, Mike Sweeney deserved a chance to pinch-hit before Ben Francisco, etc.

      And please don’t start with that tired team chemistry argument again. If Manuel is still performing magic in the locker room, then maybe you can explain why the core of his team is in such sharp decline.

      A case in point is Utley, who was a .332 hitter in 2007 and is a .275 hitter today – a falloff of 57 points. And then there’s Howard, whose 58 homers four years ago made him a superstar. If Manuel’s player-first approach was a reason for that amazing season, then what’s happening now that the slugger has dropped to 31 homers and ended the year with the bat on his shoulder?

      No player earned more praise for the skipper than Rollins, who was benched and publicly chastised for lackadaisical play. Manuel was brilliant in motivating Rollins to an MVP season just three years ago – or so the story goes -- so why is the shortstop, at 31, a punchless .243 hitter now?

      Yeah, I know. Injuries. It’s always injuries when the Phillies fail to reach their potential. Sure it is. And the Texas Rangers didn’t suffer when they lost their best hitter, Josh Hamilton, for a month late in the season. Surely, the San Francisco Giants weren’t impacted by injuries to one of their best sluggers, Jose Guillen, or their super-sub, Mark DeRosa.

      Come on, people. Two years have passed since those glory days of 2008. The time has come to revoke all of the free passes handed out then. The best team in baseball will not be holding a parade this year – and we really need to start asking why.

      ----------

      Listen very closely. Can you hear the silence? Finally, after years of mindless praise for Donovan McNabb, his army of apologists has clammed up. McNabb has been one of the worst quarterback in the NFL this year in Washington – ranked No. 25 out of 32 – after 11 seasons of ridiculously overrated play here.

      Remember how McNabb was going to show all of his critics how great he really was now that he had a genius, coach Mike Shanahan, teaching him the intricacies of the West Coast offense? Well, after exactly half a season, Shanahan has seen enough of our franchise quarterback, at least with the game on the line.

      On Sunday, after McNabb’s interception had set up the go-ahead score against the Lions and another hurry-up drive had stalled, Shanahan benched old No. 5 with 1:50 left and the Redskins trailing by six. Guess who he considered a better option than McNabb to run the two-minute drill. Rex Grossman. That’s right. Rex Grossman, total bust in Chicago, total bust in the NFL.

      For the first time in Washington, McNabb was comfortable with the situation because he could play his favorite role, victim. His woe-is-me expression on the sideline said more than the usual hollow clichés he spouted afterwards. The last time McNabb looked that way, Andy Reid had benched him in Baltimore two years ago, for a far more reasonable option named Kevin Kolb.

      If that Eagles benching required a financial apology totaling $5 million, what is this one going to cost the Redskins? And how long before we get an Internet posting by Wilma and Sam McNabb lamenting the lack of respect their son is receiving in D.C.?

      As the lead basher of the most overrated sports figure in Philadelphia history, all I can do is laugh right now. Once a fraud, always a fraud. And Donovan McNabb is truly the king of the frauds.

      ----------

      Flyers coach Peter Laviolette – the most intelligent person in Philadelphia sports these days – was asked last week to explain how best to deal with the modern athlete and the media. He needed only two words in reply: Be honest.

      I was the one who asked the question during an interview on my radio show, and I did it after I had played a collection of comments by Eagles coach Andy Reid that would have riled the fans if they were not already numbed by years of his obnoxious attitude. In that montage, Reid said he had to “do a better job” eight times after blowing a big game in Tennessee.

      The very next night, Laviolette watched his Flyers melt down in similar fashion, and the coach immediately went public with his frustration. He called his team “mindless” and openly questioned their desire to win that game.

      Wasn’t he worried that he would lose his locker room because of the public blast? Isn’t that always the reason we’ve been given for Reid’s insulting and robotic comments?

      Laviolette said a coach doesn’t have to worry about the reaction in the locker room to public comments if he has already established credibility with his players. In other words, if he tells them they stunk behind closed doors – and if they really did stink – then they should expect him to tell the fans the truth, too.

      Peter Laviolette won a Stanley Cup in 2006 with Carolina, and he nearly won another one with the Flyers last spring. Andy Reid has won no championships as an NFL head coach. End of discussion.

      ----------

      Idle thoughts . . . .

      • Eagles owner Jeff Lurie has a new film out that is a sensation among critics across the nation – Inside Job, the story of the 2008 economic crisis. How ironic would it be if Lurie, who jumped to the NFL after a failed career as a movie producer, won an Oscar before he wins a Super Bowl?
      • How ironic would it be if the decades-long search for a great goalie has ended for the Flyers with Sergei Bobrovski? The team that shamed the Red Army 34 years ago is now pinning its hopes on a promising 22-year-old Russian goaltender? The Cold War really must be over.
      • Evan Turner had an impressive debut with the Sixers against the Miami Heat, but his no-points-in-19-minutes effort against Atlanta should send alarms throughout the organization. It’s too early to call him a bust, of course, but it’s not too early to start thinking it.
      • Brett Favre did not die Sunday in New England; it just looked that way. Milking the drama as only he can, Favre was helped off the field by two trainers, and then carted away while folded into the fetal position. In the end, he got eight stitches in his chin. That’s it. Eight stitches. Or roughly three minutes of TV time per stitch.
      • A moment of silence, please, for the death of the 2010 Dallas Cowboys. They are 1-6, their starting quarterback is out indefinitely, coach Wade Phillips is about to get fired and owner Jerry Jones is going to need some emergency plastic surgery to find his smile again. How ‘bout dem Cowboys!

      Angelo Cataldi


      October 26, 2010

      Ryan Howard’s lethal bat sat impotently on his left shoulder as the final pitch danced past him, providing a symbolic ending to a frustrating season. When it mattered most, the Phillies were able to beat only themselves.

      If the 2008 Phillies were the little engine that could, then this 2010 edition was the big engine that couldn’t. This team had more pitching, better hitting, stronger defense and a deeper bench. The 2008 team had something far more important than all of those things – heart.

      And the worst part of the depression that has set in over Philadelphia is that the best Phillies team ever (at least on paper) did not go down swinging. Howard refused to swing at the last pitch, Ben Francisco did the same thing with a chance to give his team the lead in the sixth inning of Game 6, Roy Halladay sat and watched an easily winnable Game 4, and Charlie Manuel was asleep at the wheel throughout the series.

      What made the San Francisco Giants celebration unbearable is that they were us two years ago, a cantankerous upstart determined to live the dream, while the Phillies had the look of a team that was no longer inspired by the biggest stage in baseball. The Giants wanted it more. Way more.

      When you’re pondering whom to blame for this unexpected and unwelcome turn of events, first on your list should be the lovable old skipper, Manuel. It is no surprise that he was outmaneuvered at every turn by Giants manager Bruce Bochy, but Manuel came up short in team chemistry this time, an unpardonable sin.

      The real test of character for these Phillies came in the third inning of Game 6, when both benches emptied during a silly misunderstanding between Chase Utley and Giants starter Jonathan Sanchez. From that point on, the Giants took control, wriggling out of a two-on, no-out jam and then administering the fatal blow – a Juan Uribe homer in the eighth – for the improbable series win.

      Manuel wasn’t the only goat here, of course. Howard struck out 12 of the 22 times he batted and had no RBIs in the NLCS. Utley hit .182 with one RBI and turned in some shaky work at second base. Even the team MVP, Carlos Ruiz, hit a puny .167 in the biggest games of the season.

      All we have left now is a long, cold winter of what ifs. What if Utley didn’t unintentionally start the ruckus that led to the removal of Sanchez in Game 6?

      What if Ruiz’s line drive in the eighth inning were not right at first baseman Aubrey Huff? What if Uribe’s home-run ball were a few feet lower, off the fence instead of over it?

      In the end, though, freeze-framed in our brain will always be the sight of Howard standing at home plate with the bat on his shoulder. And that’s the real shame of the 2010 Phillies. They didn’t lose to the Giants. They lost to themselves.

      ----------

      The worst part of the abrupt departure from the playoffs of the best team in baseball is that there are no guarantees that the Phillies will be back. Oh, sure, they will be successful for years to come – especially because of their starting pitching – but there are some major issues to consider in the months ahead.

      The biggest is the imminent departure of Jayson Werth. If GM Ruben Amaro Jr. needed a reminder of how vulnerable the Phillies are to left-handed pitching, Game 6 definitely provided that. Now that Werth is leaving, who will keep the lefty-leaning teams honest? If the Phils offense was inconsistent with Werth in the lineup this season, how much worse will it be without him?

      There’s another problem in the outfield, and his name is Raul Ibanez. His skills are eroding at an alarming rate, and his price tag ($11.5 million) makes him untradeable. Will he be a full-time player in 2011? Should he be?

      At the risk of stubbing some sacred toes, I feel obligated to point out that Jimmy Rollins (.243, down from .292 in 2007), Chase Utley (.273, down from .332 in 2007), and Ryan Howard (31 HRs, down from 58 in 2006) all appear to be in decline. Will Rollins, at 32, be playing his final season here in 2011? Will Utley and Howard be able to buck their recent downward trends?

      Of course, the biggest question of all is whether the window is already closing on the best era of Phillies baseball. The answer is no, not yet. But there are definitely some cracks forming in the glass.

      ----------

      Ellis Hobbs and Nate Allen of the Eagles should be treated for third-degree burns after the torching they received from Kenny Britt on Sunday, but let’s not forget the mastermind who sent them into the fire. He is defensive coordinator Sean McDermott, and, based on this season, it’s very possible that he can’t coach.

      For reasons that even he couldn’t explain, McDermott had no response when Britt took over the game against the Titans. With few exceptions, Hobbs had Britt short and Allen deep, for catch after catch and yard after yard – 225 of them in less than three quarters of play, an Eagles record for passing yards allowed to one player.

      The true measure of a good coach is his ability to improvise on the sidelines, to adjust to the unique circumstances that each game provides. McDermott has rarely shown any ability to do that. But then again, what exactly has he excelled at since taking over for the late and legendary Jim Johnson two seasons ago? At the moment, the Eagles are ranked 21st in the NFL in points allowed, 22 per game. Johnson never coached a team that generous.

      What made McDermott’s performance Sunday even more discouraging is his admission that he had planned to switch the team’s top cornerback, Asante Samuel, over to cover Britt with about seven minutes left in the game, but circumstances made that move impossible. It took the defensive coordinator three-and-a-half quarters to figure out what the guy at the corner bar stool knew within 15 minutes?

      After Johnson passed away, we were all told that McDermott was a worthy successor. Everyone was certain that the kid could coach. Well, he couldn’t coach on Sunday. And now it’s reasonable to wonder if he can coach at all.

      ----------

      Idle thoughts . . . .

      • In his first year here, Roy Halladay has managed to give us three moments that rank among our favorites ever: the perfect game, the no-hitter in the playoffs and five innings of courageous pitching on one good leg in the NLCS. He is not what we expected. He is even more than that.
      • Exactly what were the Giants thinking when they hired a woman (or was it a man?) to sing God Bless America with a sculpture of the San Francisco skyline perched on her/his head during Game 5? And who finished second in the competition for that gig?
      • Because of the Phillies, I haven’t been paying much attention to the other sports lately. Have the Eagles had their bye week yet? When do the Flyers and Sixers start? What about the Union? When are they opening that new stadium?
      • The baseball playoffs – which included the Phillies and Yankees – were getting clobbered in the TV ratings by football before this, so what’s going to happen now that the World Series pits the Texas Rangers and San Francisco Giants? Is there a mercy rule in television?
      • Finally, the NFL has cracked down on the headhunters in their game. Kevin Kolb of the Eagles was fined $5,000 for an illegal tackle last week. At all costs, these dangerous attacks by 210-pound quarterbacks must stop.

      Angelo Cataldi


      September 7, 2010

      Predicting the Eagles season is a lot like forecasting the weather, without the benefit of Doppler radar. Consider this column your guide to a stormy season that will lead to. . . . hey, not so fast. The forecast always comes at the end of the broadcast, not the beginning.

      The Eagles are embarking on a new era this season, the treacherous transition to Kevin Kolb. The weak-hearted among us are hesitant to venture even a guess as to how a tough Texas kid who was born to play quarterback will actually perform. I have no such reluctance. Kolb will be fine – better than Donovan McNabb.

      Oh, there will be drama. There always is with a young quarterback. But by the end of the season, there will be no more questions about who will be leading the Eagles for the next decade or so. Kolb was born to run the West Coast offense, especially with weapons like DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, Brent Celek and LeSean McCoy. By next January, Kolb will be the absolute least of coach Andy Reid’s concerns.

      Unfortunately, Reid has made a couple of spectacular mistakes in shaping and preparing this team, and they will haunt the franchise throughout this transition season. The coach has not positioned his Eagles to exploit a soft early schedule, and he has not developed an offensive line worthy of the talent surrounding it.

      The most frustrating thing about Reid will always be his stubbornness, and this summer has provided a classic example of it. Even with so many questions on both sides of the ball, Reid squandered the preseason by playing his young starters far less than he should have. His fear of injury will cost the Eagles when they play weaker teams like Detroit, Jacksonville, Washington, San Francisco and Tennessee in the first half of the season.

      Even more worrisome is the front line Reid has assembled, a hodgepodge of mediocrities like Jason Peters, Winston Justice, Jamaal Jackson and Nick Cole. The situation grew so dire last weekend that the Eagles traded for another lineman, Reggie Wells of Arizona, because the ones they have . . . er, stink. That’s not a good sign.

      On the other hand, the defense under second-year coordinator Sean McDermott already looks better than last year’s group. You can expect some big plays, both good and bad, with gamblers like Asante Samuel patrolling the secondary. The special teams should be better, too, under new coach Bobby April.

      And now the forecast: Partly sunny with some late-season thunderstorms. Fortunately, the rest of the NFL East will be dealing with turbulent conditions all year, too. Probability of victories for the Eagles: 9. And yes, another trip to the playoffs – barely.

      ----------

      A strange thing has happened to Cole Hamels on his seemingly inevitable journey to mediocrity. Not only did he become a brilliant pitcher again this season, but he stopped acting like a diva at the same time. Why?

      Well, here’s a theory based on my advanced-study course in clubhouse chemistry. What happened to Hamels, very simply, is Roy Halladay.

      Easily forgotten in this season of redemption for Hamels – his ERA (3.18) has dropped almost all the way back to that of his breakout 2008 season (3.09) – is that the young pitcher not only lost his fastball last season, but he developed a reputation for odd behavior. It wasn’t all that long ago that he was demanding a chiropractor for road trips, and that he was openly pining for the end of the 2009 season.

      The arrival of Halladay changed all that. Hamels couldn’t really whine about all of his side issues when the ace of the staff was showing up at 5:30 a.m. every day at spring training, could he? Halladay has set a tone this entire year for professional behavior, and it has permeated the entire Phillies roster. When is the last time a Phillie was caught not running out a popup?

      The irony of Hamels’ situation is that he really has a valid reason for complaint this season; the run support from his team has been abysmal, and it reflects in his 10-10 record. But Hamels has responded by saying and doing all the right things.

      We tend to evaluate every transaction based on statistics, but there’s no accurate way to do that when Roy Halladay joins a team. The old cliché is that great players make those around him better. This Phillies season is the latest example of how true that really is.

      ----------

      What does an NFL team get for $75 million these days? Well, if the team is the Eagles and the $75 million is committed to Shawn and Stacy Andrews, the answer is trouble. Nothing but trouble.

      Two weeks ago, Shawn proclaimed that he loved his new team, the New York Giants, because of a “family atmosphere” that was lacking in Philadelphia. Hello? The Eagles signed his brother Stacy to a six-year $39-million deal in 2009. If your own brother can’t make you feel at home, who can?

      Meanwhile, it should have surprised no one when Stacy then got dumped over the weekend in a trade with Seattle that brought back a seventh-round pick. My sources tell me it would have been an eighth-round pick, but there are only seven rounds in the NFL draft. Goodbye, Stacy. Goodbye, Andrews brothers.

      So, how should we remember these burly boys who were going to anchor the Eagles offensive line for the next five to 10 years? Very simply, they represent the biggest rip-off in Philadelphia sports history.

      Think about it. Shawn got a 10-year deal worth $36 million, and then Stacy was brought in as a $39-million, six-year babysitter. For the tens of millions they eventually spent, the Eagles got an endless list of injuries, a few trips to the shrink, a ton of unfulfilled promise and, of course, Shawn’s You Tube sensation, “Getting My Michael Phelps On” – a poorly veiled tribute to drug use.

      What makes this whole story so amazing is that the Eagles, arguably the smartest money-managers in the NFL, got fleeced by two lazy, goofy brothers who don’t even like playing the game that made them both rich.

      ----------

      Idle thoughts . . . .

    • Eagles coach Andy Reid pulled Michael Vick after the first quarter last week because there was nothing left for the quarterback to accomplish in the preseason? Really? Those three interceptions and two fumbles proved Vick is ready for what, exactly?
    • How bad does the Eagles’ decision not to resign Brian Dawkins look now? In the final cut last weekend, both of Dawkins’ prime 2009 replacements, Quintin Demps and Macho Harris, were released. Meanwhile, Dawkins remains a top player and leader in Denver. Dumb, dumb, dumb.
    • The worst sports event of every year is the final preseason NFL game. It is consumer fraud, a full-price game featuring many performers who will be out of football within 48 hours. The 18-game schedule (and two-game preseason) can’t come soon enough for me.
    • The Phillies have become increasingly frustrated with Kyle Kendrick, especially after the twitchy pitcher served a meatball to Prince Fielder that led to a loss on Sunday. Kendrick is not good enough to be in the pitching rotation of a great team. It’s that simple. He lacks the mental toughness.
    • Did you happen to see that fat, old man attacking a younger fan in the stands at the U.S. Open last week? They tussled for a moment, then both went tumbling over two rows of seats below them. Beautiful. It brought back my fondest memories of the old 700 level at Veterans Stadium.

    Angelo Cataldi