Why Are the Eagles Flying Under the Radar?

Why Are the Eagles Flying Under the Radar?

The Flyers have been golfing for weeks already, the 76ers cleaned out their lockers over the holiday, and the Phillies could miss the playoffs entirely for the first time since 2006. Now more than ever, pro sports fans from the city of Philadelphia could use a new set of heroes, but many are hesitant to look to the Eagles for sanctuary; others refuse. Will the masses find reason to embrace the football team before the end?

If the story of the 2012 Eagles picks up at roughly the same place where last year's tale ends, surely the only explanations for the dramatic shift in narrative are plot holes or continuation problems.

As last season came to a close, the franchise was portrayed as clueless. The club's four-game winning streak to finish out the schedule was rendered meaningless. Andy Reid's inability to reel in Steve Spagnuolo to replace Juan Castillo was a sign of organizational instability. The local media beefed with the head coach over press conferences, and Jeffrey Lurie emerged for just long enough to admit all of it was unacceptable, though he held nobody accountable.

Oddly enough, the tune began to change as free agency got underway in March. The front office re-signed, renegotiated, or extended nine key contributors -- six of them starters -- from an 8-8 team that had been lambasted vigorously over the previous six months, yet almost every contract was universally hailed as a major coup for the Birds. Similarly, hot on the heels of their essentially writing off sizable portions of Howie Roseman's recent drafts, would-be experts showered April's class with acclaim before this year's group of kids ever set foot on an NFL field.

A love affair with the Eagles seemingly rekindled without explanation, the news from off-season programs at the Nova Care Complex is cast in a tinge of hype. Whether that's by design or not, I can't tell. For the most part, you're told everybody looks great absent pads, and while it's always welcome when professional athletes are doing and saying the right things, being on the same page in May isn't necessarily an indicator of success in January. Still, you will be hard-pressed to find a reporter who wouldn't conservatively predict nine or ten wins right now.

Whether fans are buying in yet or not, again I can't tell, but my sense is, not in great numbers. Maybe it's simply too early to care. More likely, the divide between expectations and results that was cultivated over 12 years only intensified with the broken promise of lucky number 13, and as we approach the 2012 campaign, too many of the customary, pervasive questions were left unanswered during the offseason.

What would cause Michael Vick to reach the next level when he's never been much more than a circus act under center? Why did they ignore their need for a [blank] at position X? How can the defense be taken seriously as long as an offensive line coach is masquerading as its defensive coordinator? When will the suits upstairs wake up and realize Reid's approach to the game is flawed, and he could never lead the Eagles to a Super Bowl?

We're way past the point of persuasion with some folks, especially when it comes to the head coach, who it turns out is probably at the root of the matter. The biggest reason people are unwilling to get excited about the Birds, I'm often told condescendingly, is insanity. Leaving one man in charge for 14 years, regardless of whatever sweeping changes occur around him, can only be described as 'doing the same thing over and over again,' which apparently is the going definition of the word or something.

In addition to the fatigue fans experience from the front office and coaching staff, there is also very little difference between the 2011 squad and today's. Seventeen of 22 starters from last year's club are back, and Jason Peters would have made 18. The only change that was intended on offense will come at fullback -- if you can even count that -- and two of the three anticipated modifications on defense are at linebacker, the only area of the field to receive a true makeover.

Same players, same coaches. There's no great mystery as to why the Eagles are flying under the radar -- yet it would be a mistake to call this the same team.

Here come the missing pages of the script. 
Compared to 2010, the differences are far more striking. Only SEVEN opening-day starters remain from two years ago, along with just a handful of coaches who were working in their current capacity. That is a massive undertaking for two seasons, never mind the fact that almost all of the really huge moves were slammed into one compacted offseason. When the lockout ended, new coaches were cramming new techniques into a larger-than-normal ensemble of incoming free agents, first- and second-year players, and players learning new positions altogether.

Looking back on it, stocked with Pro Bowlers as they were, the 2011 Eagles were visibly and critically flawed, and we should've recognized that (as some did) before their record dropped to 1-4, or later 4-8. For all of the big-name players they brought in, there were simply too many loose ends that never wound up being tied. That said, while the organization's aim was off the mark, the direction they charted may have pointed them toward the right path.

The crowning achievement from this offseason wasn't the rash of signings geared toward making their own players happy, nor the additions of Demetress Bell and DeMeco Ryans that should help the team avoid desperate straits at left tackle and middle linebacker, or even the defensive-minded draft that could pay dividends immediately. The most important thing management did this Winter and Spring was trim the fat away from last season until only the prime cuts were left. There is no more discontent in the ranks, the guys who ran their mouths are all gone, and so are the high-priced free agents who contributed nothing to the cause.

Sure, Reid, Castillo, and Vick are still in play, and whether any one of those ingredients is fit to produce a championship continues to be the greatest unknown for Philadelphia. Once the season is underway though, and everything else around them is firing on all cylinders, there aren't many teams more talented from top to bottom than the Eagles are now. 
Whether you choose to believe that or not, make no mistake, the Birds aren't flying under the radar in the eyes of their opponents -- and probably not for too much longer with the fan base, either.

Flyers-Hurricanes 5 things: Avoiding another bad 1st period

Flyers-Hurricanes 5 things: Avoiding another bad 1st period

Flyers vs. Hurricanes
7 p.m. on CSN, Pregame Live at 6:30

Another season, another slow start for the Flyers.

After dropping their home opener Thursday, the Flyers (1-2-1) welcome the Hurricanes (1-1-2) to the Wells Fargo Center Saturday night looking to snap a three-game losing skid.

Here are five things to know for Game 5 of 82.

1. Slow starts
Through four games, there are a few areas behind the Flyers' lousy start.

The defense continuing to abandon the goaltending and the lackluster power play are near the top of the list, but look no further than the first period of games.

The Flyers have been outscored, 6-1, in first periods through four games. Only Tampa Bay and Vancouver have scored fewer first-period markers with zero. The six first-period goals allowed are tied for the second most in the NHL. Only Calgary has more with seven.

It was an issue last season as well. In 2015-16, the Flyers were outscored, 62-50, in first periods, and the 50 goals ranked in the bottom five of the league. We've talked about slow starts in terms of wins-losses, but this issue extends to first periods too.

While the Flyers have exerted far greater efforts in second periods — leading the league with eight second-period tallies — getting behind so early results in playing from behind, and while resiliency is a trait of winning teams, it's ultimately cost them thus far.

On Saturday night, it doesn't get any easier for the Flyers, either. Carolina is an improved club from last season, which it, too, struggled scoring in opening periods.

That hasn't been the case this season. The 'Canes have outscored opponents, 5-2, in first periods, so it'll be important for the Flyers to come out of the gate with more authority.

2. Read-emption Song
One of the highlights of the early season for the Flyers has been the play of Matt Read.

Read scored his team-leading fourth goal of the season during the Flyers' 3-2 loss to the Ducks on Thursday, dusting off a play that brought back memories of years past.

The 30-year-old got behind the Anaheim defense on the backhand, drove to the net and deposited the puck into the net past John Gibson for a go-ahead score. It was very much a play we saw Read make a few years ago, but has been missing the last two seasons. Read came into training camp early this season hungrier than the previous two seasons, and on Wednesday, general manager Ron Hextall said Read knew he had to get back to the brand of hockey he was playing in 2013-14.

After the game Thursday, Read said his self-evaluation this offseason resulted in him realizing he has to get into the greasy areas to score and avoid playing the outside.

"I think that's something the last two years, I kind of faded away from, I was a perimeter player," Read said Thursday. "It's easy to be a perimeter player if you're going to be making plays and stuff like that. But if you want to score goals, you've got to get into those tough areas, be nasty around the net and battle for loose pucks."

3. Not so special
Special teams so often decide hockey games and it should factor into Saturday's game, too. Carolina comes into the game with a power play and penalty kill both in the top five.

The Hurricanes' man advantage has found twine five times in 16 chances, and their penalty kill has killed off 15 of 16 power plays against. On the other hand, the Flyers have had their struggles on special teams in the early going.

On Thursday night, the Flyers’ PP played a huge role in their loss. They finished 1 for 7 on the man advantage against Anaheim but were 1 for 5 in the second period alone. With Anaheim asking to be beaten, the Flyers couldn’t make the Ducks pay. 

“I thought we had pretty good power plays, our first power play,” Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol said. “I thought we had a good power play during the second, scored a good goal. Had opportunities to stretch to 3-1. It’s disappointing we couldn’t.

“We had one poor power play at the end of the first, where we weren’t able to get set up at all. Our power play was OK. The bigger thing for me is the goal we gave up a few seconds after the last power play in the second period. Those are the type of goals that as a team we can’t give up.”

4. Keep an eye on …
Flyers: It hasn't been the smoothest transition to the NHL for Ivan Provorov, one of two 19-year-olds on the roster. Provorov has shown glimpses, but there have been hiccups, as expected. He had a nightmare of a game in Chicago on Tuesday, and followed it up with a not-so-great effort against Anaheim. But we have to remember he's a teenage rookie. Patience is important. Still, the spotlight should remain on him Saturday. How does he respond after a pair of games in which he's made visible mistakes?

Hurricanes: Carolina has a few young players that are a joy to watch, but let’s highlight defenseman Justin Faulk, who quarterbacks the power play. The 24-year-old has a goal and three assists in four games, with two of the helpers coming on the man advantage. An extremely gifted blueliner, Faulk has scored 15 and 16 goals, respectively, the last two seasons, but that wasn’t enough to get him on Team USA for the World Cup of Hockey. We all know how that panned out.

5. This and that
• Read has 14 points in 20 career games against the Hurricanes.

• Dale Weise was suspended three games for an illegal check to the head of Anaheim defenseman Korbinian Holzer. Roman Lyubimov will replace Weise in the lineup.

• Carolina has killed off its last 11 penalties and has scored at least one power-play goal in three of its four games and two power-play goals in two of its four games.

Matt Read showing Flyers he's done his homework

Matt Read showing Flyers he's done his homework

To Matt Read’s credit, his hockey education never stopped.

Through a second straight subpar season with a murky summer ahead, Read realized he had to change, even on the cusp of his 30th birthday.

It was in late April when the much-maligned winger met with head coach Dave Hakstol and turned in his homework, almost like a student-teacher conference to address troubled grades.

Read vowed he had learned.

Now, nearly six months later, he’s off to the best start of his six-year career.

“He has always been a hard-working guy,” Hakstol said Thursday. “He is a guy that is doing things with a lot of confidence. For me, it started with Reader back in late August. He was in here working early, getting ready, getting prepared and he has carried that through everything he has done so far this year.”

What he has done is rip off a team-high four goals in four games, attacking the net at will and with an undeniable bravado. Really, it’s a Matt Read we haven’t seen before. On Thursday night in the Flyers’ 3-2 home-opening loss, he took a bouncing puck at the blue line, careened toward the net on a sharp, decisive angle and buried his fourth goal with skilled stick work.

“For myself, I’m just trying to play with speed and get to the net,” he said. “I had all the speed and kind of beat the goalie to the back post.”

Last season, the bottom-six forward needed 26 games to score four goals. The year prior, it took 54 games.

So Read studied. What exactly did he grasp?

“Even my linemates, we talk about that if we’re in the offensive zone, we’ve got to get somebody in the blue paint there,” Read said Thursday. “I don’t know the stat, but I think it’s near 90 percent of all goals are within 10 feet of the net. So if you want to score goals, you’ve got to get in that area.”

This offseason, Read looked in the mirror and, with some self-evaluation, knew what had to be done.

“I think that’s something the last two years, I kind of faded away from, I was a perimeter player,” he said. “It’s easy to be a perimeter player if you’re going to be making plays and stuff like that. But if you want to score goals, you’ve got to get into those tough areas, be nasty around the net and battle for loose pucks.”

A new outlook has brought renewed confidence. It’s fair to question whether over the last two seasons if Read ever makes the play he made Thursday. He also knows it’s early and more can be accomplished.

“I feel good out there right now,” Read said. “Hopefully I continue to have good health, keep working out and being strong on my feet. A lot of it has to do with confidence. If you’re shy or not having the confidence, you probably won’t go to that far post.

“I know for myself in the last two years, I know I’ve got to be better. Even going into last year, I knew I had to be better and I did as much I could in the offseason to have a good season and I guess it didn’t go my way, or over the course of the season, it took its toll.”

Read amassed 11 goals and 15 assists in 79 games. The 26 points were a personal low for a full season. Those figures didn’t sit well with Read and general manager Ron Hextall noticed.

“You know what, Reader came in early before camp, he's absolutely worked his tail off,” Hextall said Wednesday. “He understood that he hadn't been as good a player as he should have been last year. He understood it, he took it upon himself, put in a great summer, came in early, got himself in great shape, and he's a hungry hockey player right now and he's been back to where he was.”

When signed by the Flyers in 2011 out of Bemidji State University, it was uncertain where Read projected. Over the past two seasons, he’s fallen to a fourth-line role and was even healthy-scratched last season. More buzz surrounding his status within the organization heated up entering training camp as the Flyers made additions and Travis Konecny blossomed.

Thus far, however, Read has won himself a promotion to the third line because of his early success. He played only 16 power-play seconds Thursday, but if goals keep coming and the Flyers produce more 1-for-7 results on the man advantage, maybe Hakstol increases the 30-year-old’s minutes there, as well.

“When Matt Read is playing like he can play,” Hextall said, “he's a helluva player.”

Not a bad student, too.