Caution: 5 reasons the Tampa Bay Bucs could upset the Eagles

Caution: 5 reasons the Tampa Bay Bucs could upset the Eagles

It sure seemed like the Eagles were catching a break when I first saw Tampa Bay on the schedule. The Buccaneers will be searching for their first win of the season on Sunday. They’re mostly in the news these days because of a messy divorce with their former franchise quarterback. From an outsider’s perspective, they appear to be dysfunctional both on and off the field.

But as it turns out, the Bucs aren’t as feeble as their record would have you believe, so don’t go marking a W on your oversized Miller Lite Eagles schedule just yet. Going on the road to face a team coming off of a bye is always dangerous, but a team that is probably feeling a bit desperate and disrespected these days? Look out.

This is not as “easy” of a game as it might have appeared. The Eagles are only 2-point favorites for a reason, and fans should be very leery about the possibility for an upset this Sunday.

Playing close games

They may have similar records, but the Bucs are not the Giants exactly.

New York’s rampant turnovers and porous defense have led to their being blown out or at least beaten by multiple scores most weeks this season. Tampa Bay on the other hand has been involved in several close games. Three of their four losses were decided by a combined six points.

The Eagles can’t approach this game as if they are going to walk all over the Bucs. As long as Tampa Bay continues holding opponents to 17.5 points per game—eighth-lowest total in the NFL—they have a chance to beat anybody.

Philadelphia may have one of the most prolific offenses in the league—second in yards (454.8), eighth in points (27)—but as we’re about to delve into, the Buccaneers defense actually matches up quite well. Plus, while Nick Foles may be a high-end backup with starter potential, there’s no denying the Birds lose some of their explosiveness with Michael Vick out of the lineup.

The concern is the Eagles are going to be caught in a low-scoring affair this week, one in which one big play one way or the other could swing the outcome.

Can shut down the opposing team’s running game

Tampa Bay finished 2012 with the top rushing defense in the NFL, holding opponents to 82.5 yards per game and 3.5 yards per carry. With Vick and LeSean McCoy out of the lineup, the Eagles managed just 29 yards on the ground in a meeting against the Bucs last season—27 of those coming from Nick Foles.

While they’re not ranked number one through four games, it’s basically been more of the same. Tampa is still only conceding 94.2 YPG with an average of 3.7 per attempt, both tied for eighth.

The Eagles may have Shady in the lineup this time around, but it hasn’t been so easy for the All-Pro back the past couple weeks. Denver’s No. 1 run defense limited McCoy to 73 yards on 16 carries in Week 4, then in last Sunday’s win over New York he was held to -2 yards on eight tries once Vick exited the game.

Vick’s likely absence doesn’t mean McCoy can’t have success on the ground, but a mobile quarterback certainly helps to open things up. Even if he plays though, expect Tampa Bay to be stingy against Philly's ground attack.

They have a shutdown corner

When DeSean Jackson is involved in the passing game, the offense looks good. The Eagles are scoring 33 points per game when Djacc goes off for at least seven receptions, 100 yards and a touchdown this season, while the club’s record is 2-1 in those games.

Unfortunately, the offense has not fared as well when Jackson is matched up against better cornerbacks. Kansas City’s Brandon Flowers and Denver’s Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie were able keep the diminutive wide receiver at bay—5 REC, 96 YDS, 0 TD in two games. Not surprisingly, the Birds’ suffered as a result, averaging 14.5 points and losing both.

Now Jackson faces his toughest test to date in All-World defensive back Darrelle Revis, the top shutdown corner in the game. When the two last met with Revis a member of the New York Jets in 2011, DeSean hauled in just two passes for 28 yards.

Without Jeremy Maclin on the opposite side of the field, what we’ve seen when Jackson is erased as an option is Philly’s offense vanishes along with him. Nobody else has stepped up as viable No. 2 target, and if that happens again this week in Tampa Bay, the Eagles could be in serious trouble.

Numerous Pro Bowlers

The Bucs are actually loaded with star players capable of breaking out at any given moment. Revis and safety Dashon Goldson can swing the momentum with one big interception. Chip Kelly thinks Gerald McCoy might be the best 3-technique defensive lineman in the NFL.

On the other side of the ball, Vincent Jackson is third among all active receivers averaging 17.8 yards per reception, which can flip field position or light up a scoreboard in a hurry. And Doug Martin ran for 1,454 yards last season behind an offensive line that features three Pro Bowlers.

How quickly could the Eagles’ fortunes change on Sunday if any one of these stars finds themselves in the zone? If the game is tight, it may only take one or two plays from a special player to put the Bucs out in front.

Mike Glennon had an extra week to prepare

The best thing the Eagles have going for them is third-round pick Mike Glennon will be making his second career start under center for the Bucs. For all we know, Glennon may possess the skill to be a starting quarterback in the NFL, but right now he’s just another unimpressive rookie.

In Week 4 against Arizona, Glennon completed 24 of 43 passes for 193 yards and a touchdown, but heaved two interceptions late in the fourth quarter to choke the game away. He’s at a point right now where he probably needs to worry about managing games, not winning them.

Then again, Tampa Bay is coming off of that bye, which means the coaching staff has had extra time to draw up a game plan specifically for Glennon. The Bucs’ offense is going to have new wrinkles the Eagles haven’t seen on tape before, and the NC State product may catch the defense by surprise.

After all, while Philadelphia’s D probably isn’t as bad as their rankings would suggest—31st in the NFL—we’re all aware they have shortcomings. Philip Rivers and Peyton Manning both have been able to completely expose the Eagles this season.

I don’t think we’ll see an elite or Hall of Fame caliber performance from Glennon, but if he can avoid turning the ball over, the coaches should be able to put him in a situation where he can succeed. This alone would make the Bucs a dangerous opponent this week, but as you can see they have a lot more going for them than a little extra preparation.

Phils owner John Middleton, who still wants his trophy back, reflects on the Ryan Howard era

Phils owner John Middleton, who still wants his trophy back, reflects on the Ryan Howard era

The end of an era has arrived for the Phillies.

Ryan Howard burst on the scene like a comet ablaze and powered his way to becoming the National League Rookie of the Year in just a half-season in 2005. A year later, he had one of the greatest seasons in franchise history when he clubbed a team-record 58 homers and added 149 RBIs in winning the 2006 National League Most Valuable Player award. He was the big bat — or Big Piece, as Charlie Manuel so aptly dubbed him — in the middle of the lineup for a club that won five NL East titles, two NL pennants and a World Series over a five-year run of success that ended on that October night in 2011 when Howard himself fell to the ground in pain and clutched his left ankle as his Achilles tendon exploded on the final swing of the season.

From his seat at Citizens Bank Park, John Middleton watched Howard go down that night and he knew.

Middleton had joined the Phillies ownership group in 1994 and seen his stake in the team rise to nearly 48 percent as the club was rising to the level of baseball elite. He felt elation on the night the Phillies won the World Series in 2008, disappointment on the night they lost the World Series in 2009 and frustration when the team suffered postseason failures in 2010 and 2011.

Howard’s crumbling to the ground on that October night in 2011 came to symbolize the end of the Phillies’ great run. A mighty man had been felled by injury. A mighty team had been brought down.

“They all gnaw at me,” Middleton said of the postseason failures that followed 2008 in a recent interview with CSN Philadelphia. “The opportunity to do something extraordinarily special is rare. And when it presents itself, you need to be able to take advantage of it as much as you possibly can.

“That said, I think '11 was the hardest for me.”

The Phillies won a club-record 102 games that year, but did not make it out of the first round of the playoffs and haven’t been back since.

Middleton, still in ass-kickin’ physical condition at 61, was a wrestler in college. He’d seen injuries. He’d had injuries. As soon as he saw Howard go down, he knew it was an Achilles injury and he knew it was bad. Deep down inside, he just knew that great Phillies team would never be the same, that the run was over.

“When Ryan went down with the Achilles injury at the end of that game, I knew he was going to be out for 2012 and you didn't really know when he was going to be back and how well he would come back,” Middleton said.

Howard’s injury coincided with injuries to Chase Utley and Roy Halladay.

“That was just too many people to lose,” Middleton said.

Middleton has stepped out of the background and taken a more up-front role with the club over the past two years. He was a leader in making the decision to move away from past glory and commit to a full rebuild two years ago, and he remains committed to it today.

The reconstruction of the Phillies has coincided with the deconstruction of the club that won all those games and titles from 2007-2011. Hamels, Rollins, Utley, Ruiz, Werth, Halladay, Lee and others are gone. All that remains is Howard and his time in red pinstripes will come to an end after this final weekend series against the New York Mets at Citizens Bank Park.

While the failure to do something “extraordinarily special” — i.e., win multiple World Series — still gnaws at Middleton, he will remember the good times that Howard provided.

There were lots of them.

“This wasn't just a guy who was good or very good, this was an elite player,” Middleton said.

Howard has not been an elite player since the Achilles injury. There were times in recent seasons when his union with the club became uncomfortable. He was mentioned in trade rumors, but the fact is there wasn’t much interest in him from other teams. He went from being a full-time player and a star to being a part-time player.

Middleton appreciates the way Howard handled things as his role diminished.

“I think he’s a wonderful human being,” Middleton said. “He's been a terrific player and an even better person. I really will miss him when he's gone.

“Ryan made it easy because he was the consummate teammate. And not only for the other 24, 25 guys on the roster, but for his coaches, for the front office, for the owners. This guy has just been fabulous about it.”

In April 2010, a year and a half before Howard would have been a free agent, the Phillies gave him a five-year, $125 million contract extension. The idea was to lock up a key, productive player and gain some cost certainty. Critics said the Phillies acted too early and they were proven right when Howard blew out his Achilles before the extension even officially kicked in.

Middleton was not the architect of that extension. Former club president David Montgomery and general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. were at the helm then. Both have stood by the decision and pointed to Howard’s productivity — he averaged 44 homers and 133 RBIs from 2006 to through 2011 — as a reason the deal made sense. Both have acknowledged that injuries can change everything in a blink of an eye and, in this case, one did.

“Hindsight is 20/20,” Middleton said. “Had you asked a question and had a crystal ball and knew Ryan was going to have an Achilles injury in October of ‘11 and that would probably limit his effectiveness going forward … that's one question.”

Middleton rattled off some of Howard’s accomplishments: The top 10 finishes in the MVP voting, including the win, the fastest player to 100 and 250 home runs in baseball history …

“This guy was a truly terrific player,” he said. “Over the past 10 years, there's been a strategic move on the part of teams to identify young talent and lock it up early. Ryan's contract was just that. We were trying to identify young talent and lock it up before it hit free agency. Unfortunately, it didn't work out. And in large part, it didn't work out because he had that crippling injury in 2011.”

Howard was still healthy in 2009. In fact, he hit 45 homers and led the NL with 141 RBIs that year. He was the MVP of the NLCS but struggled badly in the World Series against the Yankees, going 4 for 23 with 13 strikeouts.

The performance crushed Howard.

After the Phillies lost Game 6 in Yankee Stadium, Middleton stood outside the clubhouse and wondered if he should go in and comfort the disappointed players.

He finally did and a story that will forever link him and Ryan Howard was born.

Yes, the “I want my (bleeping) trophy back” story is true.

“Completely true,” Middleton said with a laugh.

“We have to go back to that night. Losing the World Series is excruciatingly painful. As great as they have to be to get to the World Series, when you lose, it's just crushing. It really is. I don't know any other word for it.

“So I went into the locker room, obviously very emotional, and there's tons of media around, and I'm trying to talk to each player quietly and privately. I'm trying to thank them for their contribution to the year. I'm trying to get them focused for the offseason and 2010 because I thought we had a great opportunity in 2010. And I look around, and I see Ryan kind of sitting in front of his locker, slumped over with his head in his hands.

“This is my opportunity to go up to Ryan and talk to him without anyone around so I did that. I knelt down beside him and we were talking about the season, the postseason, just a very emotional moment for the two of us and it became more emotional as we talked.

“And at the end, I said, ‘Ryan, I want my … trophy back.’"

The Phillies are still looking to get that trophy back.

Ryan Howard will not be on the team when they finally do.

But he was a big reason they got one in the first place and in a town that loves winners, well, that should not be forgotten as he heads out the door.

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Jeremy Hellickson enjoyed his time with Phillies, now he'll look for free-agent riches

Jeremy Hellickson enjoyed his time with Phillies, now he'll look for free-agent riches

BOX SCORE

ATLANTA — Jeremy Hellickson made his final start of the season for the Phillies on Thursday night.

Now he becomes the team’s first big offseason decision.

Hellickson had long left the game with a sore right knee by the time struggling reliever Jeanmar Gomez was tagged for four runs in the bottom of the eighth inning in what ended up as a 5-2 loss to the Atlanta Braves (see Instant Replay). The Phillies were swept in their final trip to Turner Field — the Braves will move into a new ballpark in April — and have lost six of their last seven games heading into the final weekend of the season and a three-game series against the New York Mets at Citizens Bank Park.

“It’s a bad time to be in a rut and we’re in a rut,” manager Pete Mackanin said. “We’ve got to go home and snap out of it.”

Besides supporting his rotation mates, Hellickson won’t make any contributions this weekend. The 29-year-old right-hander, acquired in a November trade with Arizona, finished his season 12-10 in a career-high 32 starts. He tied a career high with 189 innings. His final ERA of 3.71 was his best since he recorded a 3.10 ERA in 31 starts for Tampa Bay in 2012.

Though he left the game in the fourth inning after tweaking his knee while running the bases (see story), Hellickson achieved his season goal.

“This isn’t anything that’s going to linger,” he said, looking down at his knee. “So I came out healthy. That was my main thing, try to throw 200 innings — I fell just short of that — and stay healthy. So as far as those two goals go, it was good.”

By staying healthy and pitching well, Hellickson built himself a nice free-agent platform. But before Hellickson heads out on the open market, the Phillies must make a decision: Do they offer him $17 million to retain him in 2017 or simply let him go. As a rebuilding team, the Phils would love to get a draft pick as compensation for Hellickson’s leaving. But to get that pick, they must make Hellickson that one-year qualifying offer and he must reject it and sign elsewhere. 

It seems likely that the Phils will make the offer to Hellickson. If he takes it, he will return in 2017 and fill the same veteran stabilizer role he did this season. If he rejects, the team will get a pick between the first and second rounds of next year’s draft. The value of that draft pick is significant and was seen as a reason the Phillies did not trade Hellickson in July.

Qualifying offers go out in early November, but general manager Matt Klentak isn’t ready to tip his hand on what he’ll do.

“Both are valuable,” he said, weighing Hellickson's returning on a one-year deal versus picking up a draft selection between the first and second rounds. “For the same reason Jeremy Hellickson was valuable to us this year, Jeremy Hellickson or a player like that could be valuable to us again next year. The draft pick at the end of the first round has a real, measurable, tangible value.”

After Thursday night’s game, Hellickson was asked if he believed he’d made his final start with the Phillies.

“I hope not,” he said. “But I don’t really know how to answer that. I would love to be back here next year. I think everyone knows how much I’ve enjoyed my time here and I think we’re moving in the right direction.”

The pitcher was pressed as to whether he could envision himself accepting the qualifying offer if the Phillies made one.

“Yeah, I mean I definitely could see it,” he said. “But …"

Hellickson paused. Then a reporter broke the silence by suggesting the pitcher would rather get a multi-year deal on the open market.

“Yeah, I would love that actually a little bit more,” he said.

The Phillies could look to strike a multi-year deal with Hellickson before he hits the open market five days after the World Series, but that does not appear to be in the club’s plans. The Phils seem to be interested mostly in short-term deals for veterans as they let their kids develop.

In time, this thing will play out.

But for now, the Phillies head home looking to stop a losing streak and scuttle the Mets’ postseason hopes.

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