No gimmes on Eagles’ 2014 schedule

No gimmes on Eagles’ 2014 schedule

Last year, I thought Philadelphia Eagles’ fans expectations were too low, with many calling for 4-6 wins “at best.” Based on some of the reactions I’ve seen since the 2014 schedule was released on Wednesday, some of you might be a tad too high on the Birds heading into Chip Kelly’s second season on the sideline.

Assigning wins and losses before we’ve even held the NFL Draft is a fool’s errand to begin with. Anybody who looks at this slate though and thinks it sets up for 11, 12 wins “easy” is taking for granted just how fortunate the Eagles truly were last year, how the tough the rest of the league really is.

Don’t kid yourself. This schedule is very difficult.

Even if the NFC East is as weak as perceived, division rivals almost always play each other tight. The Eagles posted a 4-2 record in their division last season, with three of their wins coming by eight points or less.

Every team in the NFC West is quality, and the Birds face them all—two of whom met in the conference title game in January, the Seattle Seahawks being the reigning Super Bowl champions of course, plus another 10-game winner. All four clubs boasted defenses that ranked no worse than 13th in points allowed in ’13, and the worst of them—the St. Louis Rams, coming off of a 7-9 campaign—own two first-round picks in May, including No. 2 overall.

The AFC South isn’t exactly full of pushovers as it might appear, either. Obviously, the Indianapolis Colts are going to be tough year in, year out as long as Andrew Luck is under center. Too many people are overlooking an improving Jacksonville Jaguars franchise, and especially a Houston Texans team that, despite finishing with the worst record in the league, isn’t anywhere near that bad and could be due for a quick turnaround. And hey, the Tennessee Titans are a pro football team, too.

No last-place schedule this time around for the Eagles, either. Their unique opponents are a pair of fellow reigning division champions, the Green Bay Packers and Carolina Panthers—one led by an MVP quarterback, the other one of the stingiest defenses in the league.

But who can say with any certainty which teams will be the toughest the months of September through December when it’s only April. The landscape often shifts dramatically on a year-to-year basis in the NFL.

That being said, it might be safe to say Philadelphia isn’t likely to wind up with the weakest strength of schedule in the league again, as they did in ’13. That’s right. The Birds managed to cobble together 10 whole wins going up against the easiest slate in the league. They even got a bonus when Aaron Rodgers missed the Packers game.

Not to take anything away from the season the Eagles just had. After all, teams can only play the schedule they’re given. Just saying, it helped.

The Eagles also benefitted from suffering almost zero serious injuries during the season. Other than Jeremy Maclin going down in training camp—which didn’t seem to slow down the league’s No. 2 offense much—who did the club lose for any length of time that was of any importance?

Chip awarded some of the credit for his squad’s good health to sports science. Let’s face it, luck was a huge factor as well, and injuries often play a huge role in which teams make a playoff run and which don’t.

In the Eagles’ case, they have some fairly glaring depth issues, particularly at wide receiver, defensive line and outside linebacker. With only six picks in this year’s draft, it’s going to be a challenge if not impossible to upgrade every area that could use it. And with seven starters or major contributors who are 30 or will turn before the Super Bowl, losing someone or even general decline becomes increasingly inevitable.

Don’t get me wrong, I still believe Philly has the most talented roster in the NFC East and a better than 50/50 shot at winning the division for a second year in a row, regardless of the arbitrary order in which the games are to be played. I’d just be careful not to assume that it’s a foregone conclusion they get there.

However, if I absolutely had to pick a win total today, I’d lean more in the 8-10 range than 11-plus.

The truth is, while the Eagles might be good enough to compete for a Super Bowl right now, they’re still probably a year away from having a complete, balanced roster. That means solid depth at most or all positions, less reliance on veterans that are past their primes.

As long as that’s the case, I can’t look at this schedule and picture many easy games. I’d say the Eagles should have a difficult road ahead.

Nerlens Noel joins Sixers in New Orleans, may play Sunday vs. Pistons

Nerlens Noel joins Sixers in New Orleans, may play Sunday vs. Pistons

NEW ORLEANS — Nerlens Noel made another step toward his return from arthroscopic left knee surgery by joining the Sixers in New Orleans for their game against the Pelicans.

Noel arrived on Wednesday with Robert Covington, who is slated to start after missing the last three games with a left knee sprain. Noel is not cleared to play, but Brown doesn’t think it will be long until he suits up. 

“I don’t think far away,” Brown said of Noel’s regular season debut after shootaround.

When asked about the possibility of Noel playing this weekend when the Sixers face the Pistons on Sunday in Detroit, Brown replied, “Maybe.” 

Noel has missed the entire regular season recovering from elective surgery for an inflamed plica in October. He completed the first phase of his rehab in Birmingham, Ala. and has been continuing his work with the Sixers. This trip to New Orleans is the first time he has been with the Sixers on the road. 

“[He is] integrating with the team, studying a lot of tape, scripting with his teammates with the understanding that we have a chance to see him soon,” Brown said. “All that trying to ramp it up where he can go to an NBA court more comfortably.”

Noel spoke out about his displeasure with the Sixers crowded frontcourt at the start of the preseason. He recently stuck with his stance, saying, “I don’t think the roster’s changed.”

Brown is working to keep the team moving forward as a unit while still being aware of and recognizing Noel’s perspective. 

“It does,” Brown said when asked if Noel’s open frustration concerns him as it pertains to team cohesiveness. “But I feel like it’s so much a part of what we try do around here that it’s not like you’re going to blink and you’ve forgotten something that equals camaraderie, that equals team, that equals trying to keep this together, and you’ve left it for a week … 

“It’s a day-to-day focus for me and it’s a very candid conversation with me and the player. The team hears it, the individual hears it, we all understand it … We need to coexist and we need to understand the reality of it all, too. There’s a human side you understand. It’s also pride, it’s competitiveness, it’s do your job, it’s nothing is given, you’ve got to take stuff, draw your own line in the sand, competitors rule the day.”

Last season Noel averaged 11.1 points and a team-high 8.1 rebounds per game. The Sixers will look forward to having him back on the court in that once-crowded frontcourt that is now shorthanded. Jahlil Okafor remained in Philadelphia with gastroenteritis. Ben Simmons still is rehabbing from a right foot fracture. 

"Soon you’re going to see Ben Simmons coming to a team bench where he doesn’t come out with boots and have to push him in some type of wheely apparatus," Brown said. "We’ve dealt with so many injuries trying to find that balance of dealing with their health and so on, and then trying to integrate them back into a team is part of growing a program."