As empty seats multiply at PPL Park, Saturday could be judgment day for Union manager Hackworth

As empty seats multiply at PPL Park, Saturday could be judgment day for Union manager Hackworth

Union manager John Hackworth has plenty of pressure on his shoulders this season.

This week, I've gotten two emails from the Union pushing tickets for this Saturday's home game against D.C. United (4 p.m. - The Comcast Network). One was about honoring mom for Mother's Day by bringing her to the game, and the other offered a sharp discount offer on the pricier tickets at PPL Park.

Those emails -- and the empty seats that caused them -- are what should have Union manager John Hackworth looking over his shoulder, and what I think could force a change at the top as early as next week, if the fans who do show up on Saturday leave PPL Park disappointed yet again.

There's no doubt Hackworth is feeling the heat.

“We’re going to have to get out of this hole we dug, one step at a time,” Hackworth told MLSsoccer.com after the 2-1 loss to Seattle last weekend.. “But I know there’s only so much time to have that opportunity.”

I'm never one to call for a coach's firing prematurely. When I said in the preseason that this year was Hackworth's chance to put up or shut up, I assumed that meant he'd get the entire season to figure it out. And he still might. Changing coaches in the middle of the season won't lead to anything more than maybe a short-lived kick in the butt.

This is me, on the record, saying that while I think Hackworth is not the answer, I don't think a midseason firing is either.

But things have been so underwhelming, and so disappointing, that Union CEO Nick Sakiewicz (under pressure from investors weary of a long summer at the turnstiles) may have to pull the trigger much, much sooner, just to appeal to frustrated fans who are tired of spending their money to watch a team that can't score. Even as soon as Sunday or Monday if things don't go well on Saturday.

The Union not only need a win against a decent but beatable D.C. United team, but they need to entertain. They need to show some growth. They need to show some initiative. They need to show some chemistry. They showed a little bit of that in Seattle last weekend, but in the end, it was the same old story: shoulda, coulda, woulda.

The team's near-bottom-of-the-table standing isn't what will push the change. Nor will it be because vocal Union fans on the Internet calling for his head (some have been calling for it since the day he was hired).

It'll be the hard-to-ignore swaths of blue seats sitting empty on Saturday.

If you're at PPL Park, take a look toward the corners, especially the two corners close to the Delaware River. On Saturday, section 133 will be relatively full because D.C. United will bring a large contingent. But sections 101 and 102, as well as 113 and 121 are usually the last ones sold.

While paid attendance has been decent so far this season (according to this site, the team is averaging 94 percent capacity at 17,415), the warm summer months are coming. Kids are almost done with school, tailgating weather is improving, and the Union -- like every MLS team -- are hoping to capitalize on the excitement surrounding the World Cup next month.

Sakiewicz and Co. obviously hoped that the on-field results would fill PPL to capacity through those warm summer months. But if things don't turn around soon, he might have to show Hackworth the door just so he can stand up and say that he really is in it to win it.

Sure, there are other ways for the team to appeal to frustrated fans. The front office could make a splashy move in the summer transfer window (Jozy Altidore to the white courtesy phone...). Hell, they could just unveil another new jersey or offer 10 percent off at the Union Store.

Just kidding.

Firing Hackworth won't solve the Union's problems. Along those lines, it's about time for the players to stand up and take some responsibility for the dumpster fire this season is quickly becoming. Many of them have not performed anywhere near their potential (not you, Zac MacMath ... you're excused).

But at this point, if things don't turn around, Hackworth may be the sacrificial lamb intended to appease frustrated fans.

The Union have six games before the World Cup break.

John Hackworth might be watching some of them on TV.

Frank Reich: Sam Bradford won't be handed Eagles' starting job

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Frank Reich: Sam Bradford won't be handed Eagles' starting job

After the Eagles drafted quarterback Carson Wentz, head coach Doug Pederson declared that Sam Bradford was still the No. 1 quarterback.

Pederson reiterated it when a scowling Bradford chose to skip some voluntary workouts and did so again after Bradford returned to the team.

But Pederson's assistants haven't been so clear.

On Tuesday, defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz discussed the topic when asked how he brought along QB Matt Stafford — the first overall pick in 2009 — while serving as head coach of the Detroit Lions. 

"Don't judge him on somebody else, and then also don't predetermine the results of the race," Schwartz said. "Just let him go play. Don't put pressure on him."

At the moment, it certainly seems like the results of the race are predetermined. It's Bradford, Chase Daniel and Wentz ... right? 

On Wednesday, offensive coordinator Frank Reich was on 94-WIP and was asked by Angelo Cataldi about the "impression" that Bradford is the No. 1 QB and there isn't an open competition. 

“No, I would actually say that’s probably not the right impression. I'll tell you why,” Reich said. “I’ve been around this business a long time as a player and as a coach, and one of the things I’ve really come to appreciate is it’s not a contradiction to say that you’ve got to have order. Because if you don’t order it’s chaos. 

"So if you’re the head coach you, gotta come in and you’ve gotta establish order. There has to be organization, there has to be order, but the other thing that, as coaches, that you’ve got to establish is a culture of competition. I mean this is one of the most competitive industries in the world — and so, to say that there’s not competition, that’s just the furthest thing from the truth.

“So I don’t see the problem with creating order and competition at the same time, personally. Every one of us as a coach and a player, you’re working harder to get better, but in that process you have to establish order, and things have a way of working themselves out.”

So there has to be a order — hence Pederson's QB depth chart — but there also has to be competition.

In other words, there is a depth chart, but it's written in pencil. And a big eraser is nearby.

Let the saga continue.

Training camp is still two months away.

New scheme, new Marcus Smith: 'You'll see a lot different Marcus'

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New scheme, new Marcus Smith: 'You'll see a lot different Marcus'

It's a new year for the Eagles, but the same lowered expectations for Marcus Smith. The 2014 first-round pick recorded only seven tackles and 1½ sacks over his first two NFL seasons, so at this point you can forgive people for being pessimistic about his development.

Smith doesn't blame Eagles fans for being disappointed with his career up to this point. The 24-year-old isn't content with the way things have panned out thus far, either, but sounds as though he's ready to turn the page in a new scheme.

"I understand they want their first-round draft pick to play," Smith said of fan criticism. "I wanted to be on the field, but I wasn't. I learned a lot of things from my first to my second year and I think I've grown and matured a lot, and this third year you'll see a lot different Marcus."

That won't do much to sway public opinion that he's a draft bust. The Eagles, however, are hoping a position change will unlock the potential that led the club to take Smith with the 26th overall selection in the draft.

Smith came to the league a raw prospect to begin with, and was immediately asked to take on the many responsibilities of an outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense. In a 4-3 alignment under defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, the third-year pro will line up at defensive end, where he'll primarily be used to create disruptions in opposing backfields.

"This is a scheme that greatly limits what he's asked to do," Schwartz said. "Difficult in execution, but easy in theory. Should allow him to play fast, attack spots, give him a little bit less responsibility but hopefully allow him to make a greater impact.

"He's very athletic. He's got great size. He's done very well so far, but let's reserve judgment on any of these guys until we get pads on them."

Smith admits it's a role he was more accustomed to playing in college.

"I never really dropped into coverage before," Smith said reminiscing of his time at Louisville. "I dropped into coverage in some spurts, I knew how to do it, I was athletic enough to do it, but their thing was they wanted me to go rush the passer and be able to make plays. That's what I'm doing now."

This could be an opportunity for Smith to hit the reset button, in a manner of speaking. He was overwhelmed and couldn't get on the field in a complex 3-4. Schwartz's 4-3, on the other hand, is much more streamlined, letting linemen pin their ears back and do one thing well rather than force them to be jacks of all trades.

"I feel like with Jim Schwartz, we have a great relationship to where I can just go make plays and not think about anything," Smith said. "He always talks about that with me. He says, 'Just go make plays, I don't want you to think.'

"Scheme is definitely more simplified. It's really just go get the ball. His philosophy is hit the ball on the way to the quarterback because we know sacks change games, so if you get a sack fumble and you're able to scoop and score, that's what changes a game. That's what Schwartz's philosophy is."

Believe it or not, there might still be hope for Smith. His 1½ sacks were registered in the final two games of the 2015 season, a late surge that could've been seen as a sign of progress, yet wound up flying under the radar at the conclusion of a lost year. After all, it's not at all uncommon for some players to need a year or two to adjust to life in the NFL.

If Smith has any chance of shedding the dreaded bust label, he certainly has a perfect mentor in teammate Brandon Graham. The 13th pick in 2010, Graham experienced similar hardships when his Eagles career didn't get off to a brilliant start, but has since proven to be a capable starter.

Graham's situation wasn't identical, as his progress and opportunities were derailed in large part because of injury. Regardless, he understands as well anybody the lack of playing time and criticism that comes with failing to live up to high expectations.

"We talk pretty much every day," Smith says of his relationship with Graham. "He actually went through something worse than I did because he went through a couple of years with not playing. He talks to me about it all the time, and told me to keep my head down and keep working and everything will fall into place."

As of now, Smith is currently lining up opposite Graham with the second-team defense, behind Connor Barwin and Vinny Curry. The Eagles also used a seventh-round pick on Alex McAllister.

Still, despite the competition, despite his lack of production to date, Smith is keeping a positive outlook and feels as though he has every opportunity to be productive as part of a rotation.

"The way we play and how fast we play, [Schwartz] wants an eight-man rotation," Smith said. "He wants us to be able to be fresh. All of us can play 25-30 snaps a game. He wants us to be well-rested and ready to go because we're gonna be going.

"Whoever is starting, whoever's not starting, I think when you get in the game, just go get it. Once the coaches put you in the ballgame, you've just gotta be able to make plays."

There's no question Smith is running out of chances with the Eagles, that his reclamation story is already beginning to wear thin. The truth is his roster spot might even be in jeopardy if the roster was much deeper, and any contribution in 2016 will be viewed as a pleasant surprise.

There's also no question the physical ability is there. Smith is 6-foot-3 with sub-4.7 speed and told reporters he weighs close to 260 pounds. Point him in one direction with a singular goal — get into the backfield — and the Eagles may squeeze some production out of him yet.

NFC East: DeSean Jackson a no-show at Redskins' OTAs

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NFC East: DeSean Jackson a no-show at Redskins' OTAs

ASHBURN, Va. -- DeSean Jackson isn't taking part in voluntary team workouts, and the Washington Redskins don't seem to care.

Jackson was the only healthy player not at Redskins Park this week for the first organized team activities of the offseason. But teammates and coach Jay Gruden brushed off Jackson's notable absence, saying the veteran wide receiver knows how to get prepared.

"The last time I looked up the word `voluntary,' it is his choice," Gruden said Wednesday. "He's been in the league nine years I believe it is and he knows what type of shape he has to come in. Obviously last year he pulled his hamstring, and people are gonna say he was out of shape, but he wasn't really. I think he'll be ready to go."

Jackson missed six games last season after injuring his hamstring in the opener. After returning Nov. 8, he made 30 catches for 528 yards and four touchdowns.

The 29-year-old has one year left on his contract and is still expected to be a big part of Washington's offense with quarterback Kirk Cousins, tight end Jordan Reed and fellow receiver Pierre Garcon even after the Redskins drafted Josh Doctston out of TCU in the first round.

Veteran defensive back DeAngelo Hall said players understand Jackson's situation.

"As long as these guys are working I don't think we mind too much," Hall said. "Yes you want him here, but this is an offense he knows and he knows himself. When you have a guy that knows (himself), you kind of what them to train the way they want to train."

Cousins likes having OTAs to get on the same page with receivers and go over the nuances of running routes and recognizing coverages. He's the unquestioned starter for the first time, which he said gives him "permission to take ownership" of the team.

With that ownership, Cousins followed the theme of downplaying Jackson not being around.

"DeSean will get here," said Cousins, who's on a one-year deal with the franchise tag and had no update on long-term contract talks. "He was here the last few weeks and was able to work with us. He knows what's best for him and what he's gotta do to be ready this fall. I'm excited for whenever he does get here and expect to get a lot of work in."

Jackson must attend 90 percent of offseason workouts to earn a $500,000 bonus in his contract.

Hall said because Jackson's home is in California and with him having a newborn, it makes it easier to comprehend why he didn't make it to optional workouts. From the standpoint of the secondary that's trying to work in All-Pro cornerback Josh Norman, it'd be nice to have Jackson on the field.

"I'm just excited about getting him out here, Josh is excited about getting him out here," said Hall, who was one of the first-team safeties along with David Bruton Jr. "We want to go against him. We're juiced up to get him out here."

Gruden joked that Jackson "popped in and had a cup of coffee" at the team's facility but otherwise expressed no real concerns. He also doesn't know when Jackson will make an appearance.

"He'll probably show up here, could be next week could be whenever," Gruden said.