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.

Several reasons behind Brandon Graham's seemingly sudden emergence

Several reasons behind Brandon Graham's seemingly sudden emergence

With three sacks in three games, Brandon Graham is off to the fastest start of his career by far, already almost halfway to his career high of 6½. Naturally, the Eagles' defensive end is excited about the production, but not nearly as excited as he was with the defense as a whole after a 34-3 romp over the Steelers on Sunday.

"For us, I was just happy we stayed together, we played together and the outcome was good," Graham said postgame. "Hats off to Pittsburgh because we did a lot of planning for them. We respect them a lot.

"I am just happy to get this win and I am happy in the style we did it."

Graham was one of four Eagles players to bring down Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, marking the first time the seventh-year veteran has recorded at least one sack in three consecutive games. In fact, prior to this season, Graham had never posted a sack in Week 1.

For once, the numbers are taking care of themselves for Graham — although that's not what he's focused on.

"Since I've been here, I've never gotten a sack in the first game, and I've never been consistent," Graham said. "I'm just trying to be the leader, go out there, get W's and be relentless."

There are plenty of explanations for Graham's seemingly sudden emergence.

This is only his second season as a full-time player in the NFL after injuries, then depth conspired to keep the 2010 first-round pick on the bench early in his career. Perhaps all he needed was an opportunity. The switch back to a 4-3 defense and wide-nine front no doubt helped rejuvenate Graham's career as well, allowing him to move from outside linebacker back to his natural position at defensive end and focus on rushing the passer.

With Connor Barwin, Vinny Curry and Marcus Smith all rotating in at end, Graham is also being kept fresh. Last season, the Eagles lacked the quality reserves to provide many breathers for Barwin and Graham on the outside.

"It's a great feeling because there's no pressure to hurry up and get back out," Graham said. "I feel like everybody is just as good and there's no drop-off when we come out of there.

"It's definitely going to help us later on in the year. It's been helping now."

There are all sorts of schematic reasons why Graham could finally be on his way to a breakout season. This will be his first full season as a starter at D-end in a 4-3, it's the first time since 2012 he's in a wide-nine and the defense no longer has to be worried about being exhausted by Chip Kelly's offense's uptempo approach.

Graham was also blessed with a new addition to his family during the offseason — a baby girl. The 28-year-old admits that changed his perspective as well, making him want to work even harder toward achieving his goals.

"Just the preparation and then the work this offseason, I took it up to another level," Graham said. "I guess because I had a daughter this offseason, everything is kind of viewed a different way for me.

"I know we have a good defense — that helps out a lot, too. I couldn't ask for a better defense right now."

Clearly, those goals are not individually motivated. Graham wants to be part of something great, and with a dominant performance against the Steelers in Week 3, the Eagles and their defense passed a huge test.

"I feel like we improved," Graham said. "We got a lot better. We stopped a good team, a great team, a well-coached team. Our hats off to them because they made us work this week."

Few people were expecting the Eagles to handle a trendy Super Bowl pick the way they did, and Graham actually prefers it that way.

"I hope we still get overlooked because it feels so good when people are talking the way they did," Graham said. "It added a little fuel. We watched a little bit of the TV (Sunday) morning, and they were just saying how [the Steelers] were going to dog us.

"I'm just happy that we came out and did what we were supposed to do, and I hope we stay the underdog because, for us, nobody gave us a chance and we stayed together. If we stay together in here, that's all that matters."

Through three games, the Eagles lead the NFL in fewest points surrendered with a paltry 27 and rank fourth in yards allowed. They're also tied for third with 10 sacks and tied for seventh with six takeaways.

If the defense stays together the way Graham says they have, how far does he think the Eagles go this season?

"I don't know," Graham said. "If we keep playing like that, there is no ceiling."

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Flyers Notes: Promising performances from young defensemen

Flyers Notes: Promising performances from young defensemen

The most impressive thing about the Flyers' 4-0 preseason win over the Islanders on Tuesday night was the play of the their young defense and the outstanding work by the penalty kill.

Ivan Provorov, Travis Sanheim and Philippe Myers each gave a strong accounting of themselves while veteran Andrew MacDonald proved why experience helps with some terrific PK work during an extended five-on-three Islanders power play in the third period.

“Overall, they did a good job,” head coach Dave Hakstol said. “I look at some of the opportunities we gave up, especially in the second period, we gave up three or four Grade A opportunities that Mase (goalie Steve Mason) was great on, but I put those on our forwards.

“We’re still not into regular-season form on our play without the puck. I thought as a whole, the group of defensemen did a good job and the young guys in there were good tonight.”

Sanheim had strong plays the entire game from the point and picked up two assists (see highlights). He gets the puck quickly on net and joins the play up front.

“It took me a little bit, even in this game,” Sanheim said. “As I play more, I started to jump up more and you start to see my game more. It’s something I want to bring to this next level.”

Provorov logged 21:43 of ice time following nearly 29 minutes at New Jersey. He had 5:17 on the PK. Some of his clears weren’t deep or hard enough, at times, possibly because of fatigue.

He also took a bad boarding hit on Joshua Ho-Sang in the third period that set up an Isles five-on-three power play. It became extended because of a trip call to Myers but MacDonald did yeoman’s work on the extended PK.

Provorov quarterbacks the first-unit man advantage for now until Shayne Gostisbehere joins the crowd. He had some very skillful passes. The Russian can find the seam up the ice on the breakout quickly and had a no-look, hard pass to Nick Cousins in the second period for a quality one-timer on net.

Expect Provorov to handle the second-unit power play during the season, should he make the roster.

The goals
Although the Flyers, using a better NHL lineup, were lacking for offensive chances early against the Isles' "B" squad, they found their way in the final four minutes of the opening period.

First, Dale Weise had one of those pinball goals as a bouncing puck hit a couple of players in the slot, including goalie Chris Gibson, to make it 1-0 during four-on-four play.

That was the Flyers' first goal of preseason in three games. A little more than a minute later, Wayne Simmonds scored off a rebound just as a Flyers power play ended. Simmonds had two goals in the game, including a wrister from the left circle to open the final period.

Smallish (5-foot-7) — but bullish — centerman Andy Miele, a former Hobey Baker Award winner as college hockey’s top player (Miami-Ohio), made it 3-0, out-battling Thomas Hickey for the rebound of Michael Raffl’s shot.

The shield
Simmonds is wearing a visor for the first time. It’s an experiment for now.

“Everyone is all over me about it,” he said. “We’ll see what happens. It wasn’t too bad tonight. The only thing is trying to track pucks in the sky when you are getting the glare from the lights. A little bit of an adjustment."

He said neither his mother nor girlfriend had pushed him as hard to wear the shield as someone else: “Ron Hextall,” he said flatly. “He gave me a call.”

Because of his tenacious play in the slot where sticks are high and pucks are deflected, a shield makes sense.

“Yeah, I think so, being that front guy and doing work on the PK,” he said. “Getting sticks in lanes like that, the game is really fast and pucks get deflected.

“Sometime you don’t know where they’re going and can’t react to that. Obviously, the shield is good for that."

He added he would wear the shield in a fight, too.

“Every time I fight and someone has a shield on, I’m at a disadvantage so I guess this evens it up,” he said.

Loose pucks
Weise did a nice job sticking up for teammates late during a melee after a Ben Holmstrom crosscheck to linemate Nick Cousins. “It was a bad crosscheck and you’re defending your teammates,” he said. “The ref was in the way and I kind of went overtop him. That’s what I’m about. Guys take liberties on my linemates, I’ll stand up for them.” … Matt Read had just 6:54 ice time through two periods. Fourth-liner Boyd Gordon had more ice time there — 9:39 — but Read finished with 13:55 to Gordon’s 13:41. More than half of Gordon’s ice time was on the penalty kill. … Goalie Steve Mason faced some point-blank chances among the first 17 shots he faced and finished with 23-save shutout.