Ryan Howard suddenly off to one of best starts of his career at the plate

Ryan Howard suddenly off to one of best starts of his career at the plate

Even back when he was bashing upwards of 40 home runs per season, Ryan Howard was a notoriously slow starter. Now all of a sudden, when everybody is least expecting it, the Philadelphia Phillies three-time All-Star first baseman might be in the midst of the best month of April in his 11-year big-league career.

With five homers through the first 19 games in 2014, Howard is one swat away from tying his personal best in the months of March and April, with eight more games to get there. Ironically, his best start from a power standpoint was in 2011, when his status as one of Major League Baseball’s elite deep threats was already dwindling.

Howard admittedly looked a little lost out of the gate this season, but has now gone yard in four of the last eight games, raising his slugging percentage from .400 to .543 in the process.

What does it all mean? Obviously, Howard is completely healthy for the first time since rupturing his Achilles tendon on the final at bat of the 2012 campaign. Even the most pessimistic fan who takes any opportunity to rip his unwieldy $25 million-per-year contract or ludicrous strikeout rate had to anticipate some return to form from Howard.

Yet as of this writing, the Big Piece is on pace to belt 42 this year, which would be more than probably the most optimistic projections. That would be his highest total since ’09, perhaps not coincidentally the last season the Phillies appeared in the World Series.

Could it be after missing more than half of each of the last two seasons, after listening to every critic who said he would never be the same player again, Howard is trying to make up for lost time?

When I say Howard was a historically slow starter, I mean his power was almost non-existent out of the gate some years.

In his MVP season of ’06 during which he slugged 58 bombs, amazingly only five of those were in the first month. The following season, Howard finished with 47 and a .584 slugging percentage after hitting just three with a .390 over the initial 21 games. In ’08, he wound up with 48/.543 after going 5/.343. ’09, only four of his 45 were in April. You get the idea.

In all, Howard easily has fewer home runs per plate appearance in March/April than any other month of the season. This time of year, you can expect him crush one once every 22.9 trips to the dish. From May 1 to the end of the regular season, it becomes every 15.3 appearances.

Enormous difference.

You can always tell when Howard is seeing the ball well, and lately, he’s in the zone. He’s staying back on pitches rather than out in front, which allows him to drive it. He’s hitting the ball the other way for power, like his shot against Colorado on Sunday and ensuing triple that just came up short. Howard’s even smashing lefties, ripping two of his five off the guys who would ordinarily be tossing Kryptonite.

Baseball is cyclical, and Howard is streaky, so setting the bar at the 42 homers he’s currently on pace for might be a bit high.

We’re not accustomed to Howard getting hot before the weather does though. If he’s smacking the ball all over the place now, could he actually set an even more torrid pace as the season marches on?

One thing is for certain, and that is the Phillies’ offense as a whole is benefiting from Howard’s power surge. Philadelphia finished 13th in the National League in ’13 with an average of 3.77 runs per game. At this early stage, the home team is fourth in run production at 4.32 per game.

Howard was always the most important part of the lineup during the Phils’ recent run of success. Now, he’s finally in good health and ready to play a full season for the first time in two years. If this keeps up, who knows where it could lead.

Could Howard swat the Phillies all the way back to the postseason?

Frank Reich learning from Doug Pederson, adjusting to new system with Eagles

Frank Reich learning from Doug Pederson, adjusting to new system with Eagles

Despite rain forcing the Eagles’ first full-squad practice of training camp inside, new offensive coordinator Frank Reich liked what he saw out of his offense.
 
Speaking to reporters after practice at the NovaCare Complex on Thursday, Reich was pleased with how the offense’s preparation off the field translated during practice.
 
“Overall, what we’re happy about is how you take it from the meeting room to the field and minimize the errors. Make plays that are there,” Reich said. “There were very few mental errors. [The offense] looked sharp today.”
 
Before coming to Philadelphia this offseason, Reich spent the past two seasons as the Chargers’ offensive coordinator.
 
Joining a new coaching staff means learning a new system, and Reich has noticed some unique aspects of head coach Doug Pederson’s offensive attack.
 
“This West Coast-hybrid system obviously has a very long winning track record,” Reich said. “How it’s adapted in the run game now with some of the zone-read stuff and all the different ways you can scheme wide receiver throws, when you get a heavy box, I think that’s what Doug did really well in Kansas City.
 
“Of course, I went up against it six times in three years playing against that team (with the Chargers), so I saw it firsthand,” Reich said. “It’s fun now to be on the other side of that.”
 
Now working alongside Pederson, Reich thinks what the Eagles were able to do this offseason to build a talented roster was huge for what they’re trying to accomplish.
 
“Every time we had a chance to get something done from a personnel standpoint, we got it done," Reich said. "So that fires you up as a coach."

One of those moves was trading up to draft quarterback Carson Wentz with the second overall pick in April’s draft. Although he was running the third-team offense Thursday (see Day 4 notes), Wentz stood out, making some good throws and ending the day with a deep completion across the field.
 
Reich took notice and was encouraged by the rookie’s performance, but he and the rest of the Eagles’ coaching staff are focused on the team as a whole as opposed to just one player.
 
“We’re eager to see how we develop as a team first and foremost, and certainly that’s going to include great individual performances and days,” Reich said.
 
With a new coaching staff in place, Reich isn’t the only one adjusting to a new situation. Starting quarterback Sam Bradford, who had to learn former head coach Chip Kelly’s system last season, is getting used to Pederson’s offense this time around.
 
“I’ve seen a lot of football, I’ve seen a lot of different systems,” Bradford said after practice Thursday. “Obviously, this one’s new. It’s different, but I think there’s some carryover from some past systems that I’ve been in, so it’s nice to know that everything isn’t brand new and there are some things that are familiar.”
 
Bradford and Wentz are adapting together to the Eagles' new offense. Fellow quarterback Chase Daniel is more familiar with it, having studied and played in Pederson’s offense with the Chiefs. But Reich knows it’s been a learning process for the Eagles’ quarterback group.
 
“The guys have learned it real fast, they’ve studied it hard and they feed off of each other. They challenge each other,” he said. “I give them a lot of credit, they’ve picked it up very quickly.”
 
In terms of fulfilling his own role as a coach on Pederson’s staff, Reich is dedicated to going along with how Pederson runs the team.
 
“You commit yourself to whatever way the head coach wants to do it,” Reich said. “It’s been a really good thing for me as a coach learning from him.”

Jon Dorenbos far more than just Eagles' long snapper

Jon Dorenbos far more than just Eagles' long snapper

Most long snappers in the NFL are pretty anonymous.

Mike Bartrum spent seven years at that position for the Eagles with very little fanfare.

Over the last few weeks, Jon Dorenbos has turned himself into something much more than a football player, let alone a long snapper. Dorenbos is now a celebrity.

Thanks to a successful stint on the NBC show America's Got Talent, Dorenbos has shown off his ability as a magician. With another mind-blowing trick on Tuesday night's show, it was announced on Wednesday's results show that Dorenbos has made it to the semifinals. 

With each passing stage, Dorenbos gets closer to the $1 million grand prize — but not without a few anxious moments.

"It's a waiting game," Dorenbos said Thursday of the judges determining his fate. "Because it's a variety show there's a lot of completely different acts. I think the important thing is, at least for me, is don't try to compete with them. Be who you are and focus more on what makes you unique and what makes you interesting and try and highlight that and then hopefully the act follows."

A big part of what makes Dorenbos unique is his tragic back story. When Dornebos was 12, his father killed his mother at the family's home in Seattle. Dorenbos was left with a lot of confusion, but channeled that into something positive.

Magic has been a big part of his life since he was 16. He's used it to help himself heal and he hopes it has done the same for others. He's shared his story of success through tragedy with kids who have been through similar situations.

"At first when I was a rookie and I was young, it was a little awkward for me," Dorenbos said of sharing his story.

"You eventually start seeing that you're not alone and we're all in this together and if we just kind of help each other out and share our experiences and how we got through stuff and you can help, maybe that's why I was put here. I can share my message through the way I perform. If that's the case then it's pretty cool, man. That's a big responsibility and a big honor."

People have constantly asked Dornebos how he manages to balance his newfound celebrity magician status with his day job of being a professional football player. When you put it in perspective, it's really not that difficult considering what he's been through.

Then again, with this training camp comes something the two-time Pro Bowler has never truly experienced with the Eagles: Competition. The team brought in undrafted rookie free-agent long snapper John DePalma out of West Virginia.

Whether it's on the gridiron or on the stage, Dorenbos doesn't sweat the competition.

"I don't really worry about [the competition]. I don't really care," Dorenbos said. "And it's in the most respectful way possible and I want everybody to have success and I want everybody to do well but if I worry about other people, then all of the sudden I'm not worried about myself. If you worry too much about other people and you don't handle your own business, then it's a missed opportunity on your own stupidity."

When it comes to scheduling conflicts, that's another thing Dorenbos doesn't really worry about. He knows his teammates are in his corner. 

Head coach Doug Pederson had the team watch his latest trick on Tuesday night. Some of his teammates shared pictures of the Eagles watching Dorenbos. He was genuinely appreciative of their support, saying he doesn't "think anything feels better than when you get the respect of your teammates."

As for America's Got Talent, Dorenbos doesn't know how long the ride will last, but he's enjoying it. Just like his football career, he's leaving it all out there and not leaving a single trick up his sleeve.

"To me, you gotta let it ride and worry about the next one later," he said, "because if you save it, then what's the point?"

Darren Sproles signs 1-year extension with Eagles

Darren Sproles signs 1-year extension with Eagles

The Eagles signed veteran running back and punt returner Darren Sproles to a one-year contract extension Friday morning.

Terms of the deal were not made immediately available by the team, but NFL Network's Ian Rapoport reports the deal is for $4.5 million. That would represent a $1 million raise from the $3.5 million base salary Sproles was set to earn in 2016. Rapoport also reports that the Eagles have moved money from the extension into this season. 

Sproles, a Pro Bowler in each of his two seasons with the Eagles, is now signed through 2017. He was due to become a free agent after this season.

Sproles skipped the Eagles’ voluntary organized offseason workouts and the given reason was to spend more time with his family in San Diego. But Sproles’ contract status certainly could have played a role in his reason to stay away.

Sproles, 33, is tied for seventh in NFL history with Dave Meggett with seven career punt returns for touchdowns.

After five years with the Chargers and three with the Saints, he has enjoyed a career resurgence with the Eagles, making his first two Pro Bowl teams and becoming only the second player in NFL history with four or more punt return TDs after his 30th birthday. The other is Hall of Famer Deion Sanders.

In his career, Sproles has 2,867 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns with a 5.0 average rushing and 473 receptions for 4,156 yards and 28 more touchdowns.

With 133 more rushing yards and 27 more receptions, Sproles will become only the 12th player in NFL history with 3,000 rushing yards and 500 receptions.

Sproles' 5.0 career rushing average is 14th-highest in NFL history among non-quarterbacks with at least 500 rushing attempts.

In two seasons with the Eagles, he has 646 rushing yards and 95 receptions, although his 3.8 rushing average last year was well below his career average.

He has two punt return TDs in each of his seasons with the Eagles and is one of only seven NFL players in history with consecutive seasons with multiple punt return touchdowns.

Sproles entered the league as the Chargers’ fourth-round draft pick in 2005. The Eagles acquired him – or stole him – from the Saints in March 2014 in exchange for a fifth-round pick.

That pick turned out to be Ronald Powell, a linebacker who played in just 14 career games and is not currently in the league.