Five Reasons the Eagles Might Be Successful in 2013

Five Reasons the Eagles Might Be Successful in 2013

For the first time since Chip Kelly came to Philadelphia, we were provided an actual glimpse into what the Eagles will be like under a new head coach on Monday. It will be a few months yet before we can get a read on what direction the team is heading – and as long as we’re being honest, probably longer – but excitement seems to be on the rise.

Expectations on the other hand, well… not quite so much.

We’re only a handful of practices deep, not to mention a few short months removed from a 4-12 campaign, so I suppose it’s only natural. That said, a lot of people might be underselling the Birds already at this juncture. I don’t mean to suggest they are a legitimate contender or anything like that at the moment, but somewhere in the broad spectrum of 6 to 10 wins is a possibility in the season ahead.

10 wins? Yes, I have been told that sounds steep. Frankly it’s not a prediction, which I would not even attempt to make before knowing who the starting quarterback is going to be at the very least.

There are several reasons to believe the Eagles might be heading for a nice rebound season of sorts under Kelly – despite the uncertainty under center. With the squad in the news a bunch over the past 24 hours, here are my strongest five.

1. Improved offensive line

Some might say the Eagles’ season was over before it ever began in 2012. When left tackle Jason Peters went down with a ruptured Achilles that March, the club lost arguably the most dominant offensive lineman in the NFL. Center Jason Kelce followed suit with a torn ACL in Week 2, and right tackle Todd Herremans completed the trifecta with a broken foot around the midway point.

Good news: two of the three were full participants at OTAs on Monday. Peters is back where he belongs, anchoring the left side of the line. Herremans was in his new home at right guard – no worries, he played well there (albeit on the left side) for the better part of six seasons.

Kelce was only a limited participant, although he is expected to be a full go for training camp. Evan Mathis recently underwent a cleanup procedure on his knee and was absent, but should also be ready by July.

Just having those four players healthy alone would have been an upgrade over last season, and that doesn’t even include rookie Lane Johnson. The fourth-overall pick was getting his feet wet with the second stringers at practice, however he figures as the opening day starter at right tackle come September.

Regardless of which quarterback is at the helm, that person stands a far better chance behind this group than they did the likes of Demetress Bell, King Dunlap, Dallas Reynolds, Danny Watkins, etc.

2. Unpredictable schemes

We think we have some inkling as to what the Eagles might look like under Chip. By now we’re all familiar on some level with the spread offense/read option his offenses ran at Oregon. We know defensive coordinator Billy Davis has experience with hybrid defenses that utilize aspects of both the 4-3 and 3-4 alignments.

What we don’t know – and more importantly, what the rest of the league does not know yet – is precisely how all of these different philosophies will be incorporated into the Eagles.

For at least the first few weeks of the season, perhaps longer, Chip Kelly will hold the element of surprise against his opponents. Heck, it’s entirely possible we may not even have an official announcement about who the quarterback is until the weeks leading up to the first game of the season.

Do opposing defenses prepare for the read option similar to what Kelly used at Oregon, or should they ready themselves for elements of the west coast attack that offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur is versed in? And how are Eli Manning, Tony Romo, and Robert Griffin going to react to the varying fronts Davis will throw at them when those passers have had a general idea as to where exactly the Birds’ pass rush was coming from over the past two seasons?

Add the anticipated no-huddle offense into the equation, and Kelly should have the opposing sidelines on their toes. The advantages might be slight – might not – and the coaching staff won’t necessarily reinvent the game, but after 14 years of Andy Reid, any deviation from the norm should have an impact.

3. Culture change

Speaking of Andy, as good of a run he had, there is no denying how completely the wheels fell of over the last two seasons. It began at the very top with an alleged power struggle. How much of that was with former club president Joe Banner is unclear, but Reid and general manager Howie Roseman almost certainly did not see eye to eye on some players.

That dysfunction trickled down to the coaching staff, particularly on the defense end beginning when Reid promoted offensive line coach Juan Castillo to coordinator. The hire was intently scrutinized, and Castillo was undermined at every turn – directly by Jim Washburn, indirectly through the presence of Todd Bowles, and a bit of both by some players – until he was fired six weeks into his second season on the job.

Then there were those very players, guys Reid himself brought in. Whether it was Nnamdi Asomugha, Domonique Rodgers-Cromartie, or Jason Babin, several of the franchise’s biggest additions over the last two seasons came from losing organizations and brought attitudes with them to boot.

Turning over a new leaf was just what this franchise needed. A fresh start with a different coaching staff can only be a positive for the remaining players. Bringing in free agents such as Connor Barwin, Cary Williams, Patrick Chung, Kenny Phillips, and Isaac Sopoaga from winning programs should affect change on the mindset in the locker room. Add a smart, impressionable draft class into the mix, and this is suddenly a very different organization.

4. Usual playoff turnover

12 clubs earn a berth into the NFL playoffs. History portends that roughly half of the past season’s entrants will not return next January.

Since 1996 between five and seven new qualifiers have emerged in all but three postseasons. One year – 2008 – there was actually eight. So in 15 of the last 17 seasons there have been at least five substitutes in the tournament, and on average it’s roughly half the field.

Those factoids are far from some kind of assurance the Eagles will land a spot after the dust settles in ‘13, but they certainly don’t hurt Philly’s chances, either. The NFL is unpredictable, so although inter-conference opponents such as the 49ers, Falcons, and Packers appear to be locks in May, a lot can change between now and December.

And even though the Eagles finished 4-12 last season, having one of the worst records in the league doesn’t necessarily preclude them from making the jump. The Colts, Vikings, and Redskins all finished with five wins or less in ‘11, and each followed up with widely unexpected runs in ‘12.

Playoff turnover is the norm in pro football. There will very likely be a minimum of two, and possibly as many as three or four new challengers in the NFC next season. With everything going on at the NovaCare Complex these days, why can’t one of them be the Birds?

5. The talent is there

Nobody is suggesting this team as currently constructed is Super Bowl bound. This may have been mentioned once or twice before, but we can’t even be sure who the quarterback is.

The Eagles have three talented quarterbacks though. They have an All-Pro running back, a Pro-Bowl wide receiver (maybe two), along with a healthy group of prospects and veterans on offense. The defense is more a work in progress, but there is some flexibility in terms of scheme, plus a fair mix of young players from recent drafts and quality free agent competition from this offseason.

While they only won four games last season, does that tell the whole story of the current Eagles? How many games were lost before the opening kickoff without a competitive O-line, or because some folks in the organization just weren’t buying in? How hard is it to believe with a little shake-up some of these players can produce more, or what they were before everything apart?

The Birds could win six games this upcoming season, they could win 10 – let’s be real, that’s just about every team in the NFL. But if all went well, they could win 10.

Just a little something to tide you over until training camp.

Jahlil Okafor's Duke network helping him through up-and-down season

Jahlil Okafor's Duke network helping him through up-and-down season

Jahlil Okafor’s second season in the NBA has been one of learning, marked by injuries, trade talks and DNPs. Throughout these shifting uncertainties, he had a constant foundation: his fellow Duke players.

“It’s a brotherhood,” Okafor said. “We’re all friends, we’re all a family.”

From those who burst onto the scene to those who struggled to veterans who have seen it all, Okafor has a network of players who already have been through the ups and downs of the league. Even though Okafor competed for only one year at the college level, he got to know many of them while he was coming up the ranks in high school. He formed a stronger bond once he got to the pros.

“He always knows I’m one phone call away no matter what,” Kyrie Irving said. 

Okafor began his second year dealing with a knee injury that held him out most of preseason action. When he got back into the mix, the Sixers looked to determine his place in a logjammed frontcourt.

Minutes were more available at the five-spot when Nerlens Noel was sidelined for the first 23 games of the season. Once all four centers (including Richaun Holmes) were healthy, it was Noel who found himself the odd man out of the rotation. Then the Sixers tried experimenting with a “twin towers” starting lineup of Embiid and Okafor. That pairing didn’t pan out and roles changed.

The Sixers narrowed their roster to a 10-man rotation with Noel as the defensive leader in the second unit. Okafor, for the most part, got the start when Embiid did not play because of back-to-backs or injuries, and was a DNP otherwise.

That situation changed again when the Sixers sat Okafor recently for two games as he was involved in trade discussions. Okafor did not travel with the Sixers for their Feb. 13 contest in Charlotte and rejoined them in Boston for their Feb. 15 game when a deal did not transpire. 

Okafor has a long list of players he can ask about these trying scenarios.

“I get help from all those guys,” Okafor said. “I can look to any one of [them] for advice.”

Former Blue Devil Austin Rivers has been in Okafor’s situation when it comes to decreased playing time. The 2012 10th overall pick had troubles carving out a role early on with the Pelicans. He dealt with injuries and was hit with DNPs when the team added more guards to the mix. Now in his fifth season, he has established a spot on the Clippers. 

“It’s a good thing,” Rivers said of the challenges. “If you’re truly a good player and a competitor, it’ll breed maturity and a level of respect and hard work. It’s a humbling experience. It’s the best thing for you; it’s the best thing that happened to me. I went through struggles to come back a better player and person. I think it’s the same thing he’s doing now. He’ll appreciate it.”

Irving, formerly the first overall pick, didn’t struggle with his role with the Cavaliers. He was a focal point from the start and had become a three-time All-Star and NBA champion by the end of his fifth season. Because of this, Okafor looks to Irving for his knowledge of managing the spotlight.

“Guys have to go through what they go through just to build character, build whatever they need, that armor, to deal with what this NBA life entails. It comes with a lot,” Irving said. “It’s just patience. Despite what's going on in the outside world, you’ve got to remain calm and give everything you have to this game of basketball.”

Last season, Okafor established a mentor relationship with Elton Brand when the 17-year veteran signed with the Sixers in January of Okafor’s rookie year. Okafor still speaks with Brand, who became a player development consultant for the Sixers, on a weekly basis for guidance.

This season, he has another veteran Duke player in the locker room. Gerald Henderson got to know Okafor before they played together on the Sixers. Henderson was on campus completing his degree when Okafor was there ahead of his freshman season. The two spent time together then, and Henderson continues to look out for him now as a teammate.

“I was around him a lot, working out with the team, seeing how good of a kid he was,” Henderson said, also adding, “It’s a man’s league. It’s not like you’ve got to hold somebody’s hand through something. Jah’s a man in himself. But at the same time, I’m always checking on him, seeing how he’s doing, make sure he’s not down, make sure he’s still getting his work in and focusing on the right things.”

The trade deadline is two days away.

Whether Okafor remains in a Sixers jersey or puts on a new uniform, the one he wore in college always will be a part of his journey through the NBA.

“It’s bigger than basketball,” Okafor said. 

Phillies Notes: Hector Neris looks to become three-pitch guy in 2017

Phillies Notes: Hector Neris looks to become three-pitch guy in 2017

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Hector Neris racked up 102 strikeouts, the second-most ever by a Phillies reliever, during his breakout 2016 season.

The right-hander did it basically with a two-pitch mix — a power fastball and a darting splitter that manager Pete Mackanin likes to call “an invisible pitch.”

After last season, Neris reflected on his success, which included a 2.58 ERA over 80⅓ innings, the third-most among NL relievers.

Neris determined that he would need to diversify his pitch repertoire if he’s going to continue to have success.

So during winter ball in his native Dominican Republic, he dusted off his seldom-used slider and threw it more. He’s polishing it up in this camp and plans to use it in the upcoming World Baseball Classic and during the regular season.

“I think it’s something that can make me better,” Neris said. “I’ve never had the confidence in it that I had in my other pitches, but I’m working hard on it. It will give me a third option for the hitter to think about.”

Neris threw a slider 2.9 percent of the time in 2016, according to MLB Statcast. He threw more than 49 percent splitters and 46 percent fastballs.

“In the big leagues you have to respect the hitter,” Neris said. “The hitters know me now and they know I throw fastballs and splitters. I need to have that third pitch for them to respect. When I throw it, I want them to say, ‘What is that?’”

Neris’ splitter darts down and in to a right-hander hitter. The slider will break the other way.

Neris has talked about different grips on the pitch with guest spring-training instructor Larry Andersen, who threw a million sliders in his career.

“He threw some nasty ones today,” Andersen said after Tuesday’s workout. “The pitch will help him.”

McLaren to WBC
Bullpen coach John McLaren will leave camp on Wednesday and travel to Japan as Team China assembles for the World Baseball Classic. McLaren will manage that club. He also skippered the club in 2013.

Asked if he spoke more than seven words of Chinese, McLaren quipped, “That would be pushing it. I’m still trying to conquer English.”

Team China will provide a translator for McLaren, though there is a universal element to baseball communication.

“This is my third time going to the WBC,” McLaren said. “I love it.”

Almost game time
The Phillies will play their annual exhibition game against the University of Tampa on Thursday. The Phils are expected to play many of the young players that will make up their Triple A Lehigh Valley roster. Right-hander Mark Leiter Jr., who pitched at Double A Reading last season, will come over from minor-league camp to make the start. Pitching coach Bob McClure said he expected to get several projected big-league relievers work in the game.

Alec Asher will start the Grapefruit League opener against the Yankees on Friday in Tampa and Adam Morgan will start Saturday’s games against the Yankees in Clearwater.