Fixing the Flyers, Step One: Dont Panic Over a Shortened Season

Fixing the Flyers, Step One: Dont Panic Over a Shortened Season

It seems we’ve been on Peter Laviolette watch practically all
year, waiting for the inevitable to happen. The Flyers are notoriously tough on
head coaches. For instance when the Flyers began the 06-07 campaign with a
1-6-1 record, Ken Hitchcock was handed his walking papers that fast, while
general manager Bobby Clarke stepped down.

Coincidentally that was the only other occasion over the past
18 seasons where the Flyers missed the playoffs. This year the team started a similarly
awful 2-6, and from there we could never quite shake the feeling that Lavvy might
get canned at any moment, until Sunday that is. One day after the final horn
sounded, Paul Holmgren reiterated to reporters the message that he stuck to all
along: this head coach will return.

“Peter Laviolette is the coach,” Holmgren said. “I don’t
know where all this crap came from.”

“Our team played hard until the end,” he said. “Peter is a
strong motivator and a strong tactician. I expect him to lead our team back into
the playoffs next year.”

That doesn’t mean Laviolette won’t be looking over his
shoulder when the Flyers resume their quest for the Cup come October. While you
get the sense there is some legitimate support for the man inside the front
office, it might have as much to do with the fact that Lavvy will only be embarking
on the two-year extension he signed just this last summer, or in other words
saving face.

Still, keeping Laviolette on board (for now) – not to
mention Homer – is also the smart decision, primarily because it’s not the one
being made out of panic. In an 82-game season, eight games represent less than
10% of the schedule. In 2013, eight games was 1/6 of the slate.

Maybe this is the sign of an organization that concedes a
condensed 48-game season is not necessarily a complete representation of where
their hockey club stands today.

More quirks of a 48-game schedule

Make no mistake, nobody is trying to "blame" the shortened
season for the Flyers’ woes. Everyone had to play under the same conditions,
and the guys in Orange & Black simply were not good enough. Their 5-on-5
scoring differential ranked 25th in the NHL, the defense was plagued by constant
complete breakdowns throughout, and for much of the way there was essentially one
goaltender on the roster.

In a normal season though, eight games would not so heavily influence
the final outcome. In a normal season, the Flyers would be six points out of a
playoff spot with 34 contests left to play. And in a normal season, they are
just hitting their stride.

Don’t look now, but Lavvy’s squad started to turn the corner toward the end. Philly won six of their last seven games, and are 10-5 dating back to March 30. At the 48-game mark of an 82-game season, the Flyers would
widely be considered in the midst of their playoff push.

Instead, in a 48-game season every little misstep gets
magnified. It took 16 games, or 1/3 of the season, to figure out Claude Giroux
should be paired with Jakub Voracek. It took until the April 3 trade deadline
to add a truly viable backup netminder in Steve Mason, at which point Ilya Bryzgalov had
played in 22 games in a row – nearly half of the schedule.

Where would they be
if either of those changes had been made in January?

Some things just didn't fall their way

Then there is the matter of 262 man games being lost to injury,
2nd-most in the NHL by some counts, and also more than the Flyers endured in two
of the previous three full seasons (240 in 10-11, 205 in 09-10). Yes, that is an
excuse. Every team has to deal with injuries. But still, that averages out to roughly
five scratches per game – four even if Chris Pronger is removed from the

As a result the Flyers were forced to lean heavily on young players. By the end of the season, they had been relying on major contributions from as many as a dozen players 25-years-old
or younger, many of whom were in their first or second NHL seasons. Some of them did not enjoy the growth that the team was
counting on to be successful this year, most notably Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier.

Remarkably that was yet another area where the Flyers did
not panic. Couturier in particular was linked in potential deals with San Jose
and Ottawa for Ryane Clowe and Ben Bishop respectively. However, Homer was not willing
to give up on the talented 20 year old, even though there was almost an
expectation from fans and observers that a struggling young player would be
moved for immediate help.

2013 was a disappointing hockey season for Philadelphia, one
that exposed some definite issues that need to be addressed. However, 48 games do
not indicate first- and second-year players have hit a wall, and therefore the Flyers need to be reinvented yet again. The actions of the front
office suggest they agree.

So far at least.

Previously: Positive Takeaways from a Lost Flyers Season

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Josh Huff's acrobatic kick return touchdown sparks Eagles to win

Josh Huff's acrobatic kick return touchdown sparks Eagles to win

For the first 40 yards of Josh Huff’s kick return touchdown on Sunday, he went untouched.

When he got to the Eagles’ 42-yard line, Vikings kicker Blair Walsh was the only guy left in his way.

Huff ran through him.

“Yeah, I can’t let a kicker tackle me,” Huff said. “If he would have tackled me, I really would have been pissed at myself.”

The 170-pound Walsh couldn’t make the tackle and was sent spinning as Huff ran through. Fifty-six yards later, Huff took off from the 2-yard line, flipping into the end zone to give the Eagles their first lead in an eventual 21-10 win over the Vikings (see Instant Replay).

Huff said he knew he was scoring as soon as he saw that he had just the kicker to beat.

With the Eagles’ down 3-0 and with their offense sputtering through the first quarter and change, Huff’s play was a game-changer (see 10 Observations).

“Josh did a great job on the return,” head coach Doug Pederson said. “[Special teams coordinator] Dave Fipp really has those guys ready every single week. You need those things. You need special teams scores.”

After Wendell Smallwood’s kick return touchdown last week, this is the first time in franchise history the Eagles have had kick return touchdowns in back-to-back games. They also have the NFL’s only two kick return touchdowns of the season (see Standout Plays).

“It’s super cool,” Smallwood said. “Now teams have to pick their poison. They can’t go away from one. They can’t say they’re not going to kick to Smallwood, then they kick to Huff and he takes it. I think we’re going to get a lot of teams’ attention.”

Huff also had a role in the Eagles’ offense against the Vikings. He caught four passes for 39 yards, including two that picked up first downs. His 14-yarder in the third helped set up the touchdown that sealed the win for the Eagles.

This season hasn’t been great offensively for Huff. He is clearly the Eagles’ fourth wideout and came into Sunday with just eight catches for 24 yards.

“Obviously, I want to play good on offense, but we have three great guys in front of me,” Huff said. “I’m doing what I can to stay ready and I’m at my best when those guys do need me. At the end of the day, as long as I’m doing my job and as long as I stay ready, today was evident. Whenever they call my number, I’m going to make the most of my opportunities.”

Huff finished off his 98-yard kick return touchdown the same way he finished off his 41-yard receiving touchdown in New England last year: With a flip.

Huff took off from the 2-yard line and did a front flip, landing in the middle in the black end zone on his backside.

“It’s just something that happens,” Huff said. “Everybody says I should have stuck the landing, but I’m not a gymnast.”

Eagles' defense outplays Vikings' top-ranked unit

Eagles' defense outplays Vikings' top-ranked unit

The Eagles’ defense had two challenges on its mind Sunday. First, there was the challenge of outplaying Sam Bradford and the Vikings’ offense. Just as important was the challenge of outplaying the Vikings’ top-ranked defense.

“We wanted to be the better defense out there,” Eagles defensive end Brandon Graham said. “We wanted to match their intensity. That was the whole thing. That’s all we talked about — let’s be the best defense out there today. We wanted to make sure we were the most dominating defense in the game.

“We wanted to get more sacks, get more turnovers … that was our whole goal.”

In a clash of two of the NFL’s top defensive units, the Eagles beat the previously undefeated Vikings 21-10 Sunday at the Linc (see Instant Replay).

The Vikings defense was very good. It held the Eagles to 14 offensive points and forced four turnovers, but also had no sacks.

The Eagles’ defense was better. It held the Vikings to 10 offensive points, forced four turnovers and recorded six sacks.

If you watched this game and had to guess which defense is No. 1 in the NFL, you’d guess Eagles.

They were that dominating.

They outplayed the best defense in the game.

“We think we’re the best defense, but they’ve been playing great, and they were the best defense coming in,” Eagles safety Rodney McLeod said. “We knew it would come down to whichever defense played the best.

“You could see that the first quarter. We’d make a play, they’d make a play. But you’ve just got to keep on chopping. After the last two games, we wanted to get back to playing Eagles defense, and I feel like we did that.”

McLeod, linebacker Jordan Hicks, Connor Barwin and Graham led a ferocious defensive effort that saw the Eagles batter former teammate Sam Bradford, who absorbed his first loss as a Viking (see 10 Observations).

The Eagles sacked Bradford six times, intercepted him twice and mauled him snap after snap after snap. By the time the Vikings got in the end zone, with half a minute left, it was already a three-possession game.

Neither team had an offensive play longer than 29 yards.

“We think we’re the No. 1 defense in the league,” Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “We think we can be that and should be that if we go out and play the way we’re supposed to.

“We have to do that every week. But we think we can hang with any defenses out there. And we have a lot of respect for that defense across the field, and we knew we would have to show up for us to even have a chance to be in this game. Because that defense is ranked No. 1 coming into this thing.

“But we also feel we’re the best defense in the league, even though we haven’t played like it. But this is the opportunity you want. On the main stage, you’re coming into our home, and this was our opportunity to face the best defense in the league, and I think we showed our worth.”

The Eagles, who looked nothing like a top defense the last two weeks in losses in Detroit and Washington, improved to 4-2 and dropped the Vikings to 5-1.

Six games in, the Eagles’ defense is allowing just 13.5 points per game. That’s No. 2 in the league, behind only … who else … the Vikings at 12.8 per game.

“For us, it’s a battle of the defenses,” Hicks said. “And we always want to be the best defense on the field and put our team in a position to win.”

Bradford has been sacked more only once in his career, back in 2011 with the Rams, when the Redskins got him seven times.

And after opening the season with no interceptions in four games, the Eagles picked him off twice.

Whatever it takes to get motivated. If it works, it works. And this Eagles' defense was clearly motivated by that No. 1 ranking the Vikings brought to town.

“It motivated everybody,” Fletcher Cox said. “We knew in order to win this game we had to be good up front, and the last two weeks we weren’t very good up front. But we got back to basics and went out and played a physical football game.”

Hicks had 11 tackles, a sack, three tackles for loss and two pass knockdowns in his finest game of the year. McLeod became the first Eagle since Quintin Mikell in 2007 with a sack, forced fumble and interception in the same game and added seven tackles. And Graham picked up his fourth sack to go with five quarterback hurries and a forced fumble (see Standout Plays).

The Eagles got back to the way they played defense the first three games of the season. They’ve now held their opponents to 14 or fewer points in four of six games and won them all. In their two losses, they’ve allowed 24 and 27.

“Pride … call it what you want, we knew we had to play well today,” Hicks said. “This defense has a certain standard, and it doesn’t matter what anybody else does, it matters what we do, and ultimately if we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing, we’re going to be a top, top, top defense.

“For me, it’s not about them. It’s about us and what we do.”