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.

Best of MLB: Indians rally off Papelbon, stun Nationals, 7-6

Best of MLB: Indians rally off Papelbon, stun Nationals, 7-6

CLEVELAND -- Francisco Lindor pushed an RBI single through Washington's drawn-in infield with one out in the ninth inning, and the Cleveland Indians rallied for three runs in their final at-bat to stun the Washington Nationals 7-6 on Tuesday night in a matchup of two first-place teams with sights on October.

Down two runs and three outs from their losing streak reaching a season-high four games, the Indians rallied against Nationals closer Jonathan Papelbon (2-4), who did not get an out before he was pulled by manager Dusty Baker.

With the bases loaded, Lindor fisted his base hit into right field and danced his way up the first-base line as the Indians celebrated an improbable victory.

Bryan Shaw (2-4) got two outs in the ninth and picked up the win as Cleveland won its first home game since July 10 (see full recap).

Cardinals take first game of doubleheader with Mets, 3-2
NEW YORK -- Jedd Gyorko homered again, hitting a two-run drive off Noah Syndergaard that sent the St. Louis Cardinals over the New York Mets 3-2 Tuesday in the first game of a doubleheader.

Gyorko connected for the sixth time in eight games, giving him 13 this season. The Cardinals lead the NL in home runs with 137, matching last year's total.

The Mets played at home for the first time since the All-Star break and lost in a matchup of NL wild-card contenders. Citi Field was nearly empty at the start, a day after a rainout forced the twinbill.

Carlos Martinez (10-6) gave up a two-run homer to Rene Rivera and left after the fifth inning with a 3-2 lead. Three relievers finished, with Seung Hwan Oh getting his fifth save in six chances.

Syndergaard (9-5) has won only one of his last five starts (see full recap).

Colon, Mets top Cards, 3-1, for doubleheader split
NEW YORK -- Bartolo Colon pitched three-hit ball for seven sharp innings and the New York Mets overcame another home run by Jedd Gyorko to beat the St. Louis Cardinals 3-1 Tuesday night for a doubleheader split.

Gyorko homered in both ends and has connected seven times in nine games. His two-run shot helped St. Louis win the opener 3-2.

Colon (9-5) struck out eight and walked none. After Gyorko homered in the second and Alberto Rosario doubled in the third, Colon set down 14 of his final 15 batters.

Addison Reed worked the eighth and Jeurys Familia closed for his 36th save this year and 52nd in a row during the regular season.

White Sox avoid Chapman, down Cubs 3-0 behind Shields
CHICAGO -- James Shields allowed four singles in 7 2/3 innings, Adam Eaton homered and the White Sox stayed unbeaten since Chris Sale's suspension by beating the Cubs 3-0 Tuesday night in Chicago's crosstown rivalry.

The Cubs lost their second straight and never got to use new closer Aroldis Chapman hours after he joined the team and struggled answering questions related to an altercation last year with his girlfriend.

Shields (5-12) struck out five and continued an impressive turnaround from a terrible first three starts after being acquired from San Diego last month. Nate Jones finished the eighth and David Robertson worked the ninth for his 24th save in the White Sox's fourth straight win since their ace was sent home for destroying throwback jerseys.

Jose Abreu had two hits, including an RBI single in the first off Kyle Hendricks (9-7) that ended his streak of 22 2/3 innings without allowing an earned run (see full story).

Jerad Eickhoff's 'outstanding' start wasted by Phillies in shutout loss to Marlins

Jerad Eickhoff's 'outstanding' start wasted by Phillies in shutout loss to Marlins

BOX SCORE

MIAMI — The Phillies enjoyed a three-week stretch before the All-Star break when they were the best hitting team in baseball.

In the final 19 games before the break, they hit .308 with a .871 OPS. Both marks were tops in the majors over that span. They averaged 5.63 runs per game in that stretch.

The run of sturdy offense created some excitement and anticipation heading into the second half of the season. But that excitement and anticipation has now dissipated. Since coming back from the break, the Phillies’ offense has retreated back to invisibility.

The Phils were blanked, 5-0, by the Miami Marlins on Tuesday night, wasting a terrific start from Jerad Eickhoff (see Instant Replay).

After the game, manager Pete Mackanin was peeved.

“The only thing positive I can say about this game is Eickhoff,” Mackanin said. “He was outstanding. He had a great curveball, hit his spots, pitched well. It was a pitchers' duel up until the end. I’m real happy about that. 

"But that’s about all I’m happy about.”

Marlins starter Tom Koehler and a trio of relievers held the Phillies to just four singles.

Phillies hitters struck out 10 times. They have averaged 9.5 strikeouts in 12 games since coming back from the break and hit just .208. They are averaging just 2.75 runs in the 12 games since the break and carrying a 4-8 record.

“Poor plate discipline,” Mackanin said. “Poor plate discipline. Swinging at too many bad pitches. We get ourselves out too often. That’s about all I can think of.

“Koehler pitched well. But we helped him out a lot. We didn’t give him a chance to walk us. We swung at too many bad pitches. That’s our problem. We just get ourselves out too often. That’s what it boils down to.

“If you’re a free swinger who’s going to hit 30-plus home runs and drive in 100 runs, that’s acceptable to me. But if you’re not a power hitter, it’s unacceptable. You’ve got to make adjustments. You’ve got improve on it. You’ve got to work on it.”

Peter Bourjos offered his thoughts on the Phillies’ offensive struggles since the All-Star break.

“It's almost like it was probably bad timing for that break,” he said. “Everything was rolling. We were swinging the bats really well. Everyone looked comfortable in the box and feeling good and it's tough right now. You can see what there was with the offense. I think it's going to come back. We just need to get back into the rhythm that we had and everything's going to be all right.”

Eickhoff scattered five hits and a run over seven innings. He walked one and struck out eight, a big improvement over his previous start when these same Marlins tagged him for nine hits and six runs in five innings.

“I was more aggressive,” Eickhoff said. “It’s amazing what being aggressive will do for your game and how hitters will react. I threw my fastball inside and that set up my curveball so much more.”

The poor run support was nothing new for Eickhoff. He entered the game receiving an average of just 3.53 runs per game, 10th worst in the majors.

It was a scoreless game until there were two outs in the sixth. That’s when Giancarlo Stanton swatted a two-out RBI single to right, scoring Martin Prado from second. Stanton’s hit rolled untouched through the second base area because the Phillies’ defense was shifted to the pull side.

“We’ve got to play a shift on him,” Mackanin said of baseball's most fearsome power bat.

The game got out of hand when the bullpen was tagged for four runs in the eighth. Ichiro Suzuki stroked career hit No. 2,997 to get the Marlins’ late rally started.

In the first inning, Suzuki launched a long drive to the gap in right-center. Rightfielder Bourjos ran the ball down and made a terrific catch while crashing into the wall. He left the game with a jammed right shoulder and could miss some time (see story).

Instant Replay: Marlins 5, Phillies 0

Instant Replay: Marlins 5, Phillies 0

BOX SCORE

MIAMI — Jerad Eickhoff pitched seven innings of one-run ball, but still came away with a loss as the Phillies were shut out, 5-0, by the Miami Marlins on Tuesday night.

Giancarlo Stanton drove in the Marlins’ first two runs with a single and a double.

Stanton gave the Marlins a 1-0 lead with a two-out base hit to right field against Eickhoff in the sixth inning. Stanton’s groundball hit rolled through the second base area, which had been vacated by the shift.

The Marlins blew the game open with four runs against the Phillies’ bullpen in the eighth.

The Phillies are 4-8 since the All-Star break and 46-56 overall.

Starting pithing report
Eickhoff scattered five hits and a run over seven innings. He walked one and struck out eight.

Miami manager Don Mattingly pulled Tom Koehler after the right-hander pitched six shutout innings and had allowed just three hits. Koehler walked one, struck out five and threw just 73 pitches. He exited with a 1-0 lead.

Koehler pitched eight innings of two-run ball in a win over the Phillies last week.

Bullpen report 
Andrew Bailey was charged with three runs in the eighth.

Mike Dunn, David Phelps and Nick Wittgren completed the shutout for the Marlins. 

At the plate
The Phillies had just four hits, all singles, and struck out 10 times. They were 0 for 4 with runners in scoring position and are 1 for 13 the last two nights.

Stanton had been just 3 for 35 against the Phils this season before his shift-beating RBI hit in the sixth. He hit the ball much harder in the eighth inning when he clouted an RBI double to right-center against Bailey.

Adeiny Hechavarria padded the Marlins’ lead with a two-run single in their four-run eighth inning.

Ichiro Suzuki’s eighth-inning single left him three hits shy of 3,000 in his big-league career.

Health check
Rightfielder Peter Bourjos injured his right shoulder making a catch against the wall in the first inning and left the game (see story).

Minor matters
Ranger Suarez, a 20-year-old left-hander from Venezuela, pitched a seven-inning no-hitter for the Phillies’ Single A Williamsport club on Tuesday night.

Up next
The series concludes on Wednesday afternoon. Zach Eflin (3-3, 3.40) pitches against Miami lefty Adam Conley (6-5, 3.58).