5 reasons Philly sports fans should be excited for 2014

5 reasons Philly sports fans should be excited for 2014

5. Playoffs!

2013 came and went, and not one of the big four managed to reach their respective sport’s postseason. In fact, we have to go all the way back to May of 2012 when the Flyers and 76ers both advanced to the quarterfinals.

Philadelphia did have some postseason representation in 2013. La Salle’s men’s basketball team enjoyed a memorable run to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA tournament. Merion Golf Club hosted the U.S. Open. Still, those experiences don’t unite the city in quite the same way.

Thankfully, the New Year is going to get started right, with the Eagles hosting an NFL playoff game this Saturday. The Flyers have turned their season around as well, and currently appear on track to make their postseason return as well. Who knows, the Phillies could even steal a Wild Card this summer.

The point is, Philly sports have enjoyed a marked turnaround compared to where we were even six short months ago. Don’t take that for granted.

4. Jesse Biddle / Maikel Franco

The Phillies figure to go into 2014 with one of if not THE oldest roster in Major League Baseball. Nobody is expecting much from the aging core that helped produce the city’s last major championship in 2008. Some would laugh at the mere suggestion they could sneak into the playoffs.

Admittedly, there’s a decent chance we’ll have to slog through another summer of meaningless baseball from a franchise spinning its wheels. Thankfully though, there is some help on the way. A pair of quality prospects are looming in the minors, both of whom could potentially find their way to the big-league roster sometime in 2014.

For Maikel Franco, a September call-up at least seems likely as long as his stroke is anything like it was in 2013. The 21-year-old third baseman swatted 31 home runs between Clearwater and Reading last season with a .320 batting average, earning MiLB’s Breakout Prospect of the Year honors. He should be at Triple-A Lehigh Valley by summer, if he doesn’t start the season there.

Jesse Biddle’s ascension to the show might not be much closer, but he’ll be another name to watch this year. The 21-year-old Philly native didn’t have a great 2013 at Reading with a 5-14 record and 3.64 ERA, but it turns out the lefty was pitching through various maladies, including plantar fasciitis and whooping cough. With an offseason of rest, the 2010 first-round pick should return to form in the new year.

Biddle will probably begin the year at Triple A as well, and both he and Maikel are long-shots to make meaningful contributions to the Phillies this year. Both young men have bright futures ahead though, and there’s a good chance fans could get their first glimpse of one or both of them this summer.

3. Steve Mason

Ilya Bryzgalov had his moments when he was in Philadelphia, but it rarely felt like he stole victories from the jaws of defeat. Since the Flyers acquired Steve Mason at April’s deadline, the new guy has frequently put the club on his back.

The orange and black acquired Mason from the Columbus Blue Jackets for the discount price of Michael Leighton and a third-round pick, though for good reason. Since winning the Calder Trophy for rookie of the year in ’08, the 25-year-old’s numbers plummeted every season until last when Sergei Bobrovsky finally replaced him between the pipes.

Mason’s fortunes began turning around immediately upon his arrival. Hell, he was the only reason the Flyers won any games at all during the early portion of this season's schedule, as the offense struggled mightily to light the lamp more than once or twice per game.

The scoring has improved, and so too has Mason’s record in net. Since getting off to a 1-5-0 start in goal, the lefty’s record has improved to an incredible 17-4-4 to go with a solid .922 save percentage and 2.38 goals against average. They haven’t all been easy, either.  Mase has frequently stood on his head to bail out his mates.

With the Flyers rising in the standings and looking like a surefire playoff team again, it feels good to have a promising, young netminder in the crease. Who knows how deep they could run if Mason gets hot at the right time of the year.

2. 2014 NBA Draft and Offseason

Sometimes you have to take a step back before you can take two forward. That seemed to be Sam Hinkie’s philosophy when he took over as 76ers general manager in May, as he quickly engineered a draft-day trade that sent the franchise’s best player packing.

Jrue Holiday was shipped to the New Orleans Pelicans in exchange for the rights to sixth-overall pick Nerlens Noel and a top-five protected first-round pick in 2014. The move guaranteed two things: first, that the Sixers would be so awful as a result, they would have an excellent shot at landing the No. 1 pick with their own ping-pong ball. Second, they would likely have two lottery picks in that draft.

The Sixers’ future already looks brighter than most thought. After a hot start, the club is well on its way to tanking, but exciting 2013 first-round pick Michael Carter-Williams has already made fans forget about Holiday.

With some quality pieces already in place, Hinkie will have an opportunity to make a big splash next offseason. Besides a pair of first-round picks, the Sixers are way under the salary cap, so they should be players in free agency. Plus, Evan Turner and Thaddeus Young may be tradeable assets that land more picks and pieces for the future.

Right now, the Sixers blow, and that’s unfortunate. Come this summer though, they are going to be a franchise to watch as Hinkie’s blueprint continues to unfold.

1. The Philadelphia Eagles

The Eagles’ rebuilding process is way ahead of schedule. In a season where most fans and experts predicted 6-8 wins, the Birds won 10 and a division title. They unearthed a franchise quarterback almost everybody had overlooked at some point, and successfully transitioned from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 faster than expected.

We’ll find out just how good the Birds are right now in a matter of days. They may still be a piece or two away from the Super Bowl, but they’re in the playoffs. Anything can happen.

That’s not even the best part. The way the landscape looks at the beginning of 2014, the Eagles are poised to be contenders for a long time.

Recent drafts have produced quality contributors and budding stars all over the roster. The class of 2012 really came into its own this season, with Fletcher Cox, Mychal Kendricks, Vinny Curry and Brandon Boykin key pieces of a defensive turnaround, while ‘13’s class received promising campaigns from Lane Johnson, Zach Ertz, Bennie Logan and Earl Wolff.

Some of the game’s brightest stars are in their primes right now, such as NFL rushing champion LeSean McCoy (25), DeSean Jackson (27), Jason Kelce (26) and Connor Barwin (27).

And, of course, there’s Nick Foles. Only into his second season, the 24-year-old still has much to prove,  but it certainly appears the Eagles have found their franchise quarterback. It’s tough to win the Super Bowl without stability under center, something the organization may have unexpectedly walked into for the next decade with Foles.

Even the head coach is just getting started. The job Chip Kelly did of turning this team around in one season is amazing. Just imagine what he could do in year two.

No matter what the Eagles do in the playoffs this year, they only stand to improve with another offseason. Add a quality free agent or two and another solid draft, and Philadelphia could become an NFL powerhouse again in no time—if they aren’t already.

The Eagles are three wins away from the Super Bowl in 2014. Considering where they were last year at this time, you can’t ask for much more than that.

57 early-entry candidates withdraw from 2016 NBA draft

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57 early-entry candidates withdraw from 2016 NBA draft

NBA prospects have been testing the waters and putting out feelers to the gauge interest levels of organizations during the pre-draft process. As a result, 57 early entry-candidates have withdrawn from 2016 draft eligibility. 

Among those are Villanova’s Josh Hart, who worked out for the Sixers and made his decision close to the deadline (see story), and Kris Jenkins. Clemson’s Jaron Blossomgame also worked out for the Sixers and will return for his senior year. 

Below is a complete list of entry entry candidates that have withdrawn:

Abdul-Malik Abu, North Carolina State 
BeeJay Anya, North Carolina State 
Ian Baker, New Mexico State 
V.J. Beachem, Notre Dame 
James Blackmon Jr., Indiana 
Antonio Blakeney, LSU 
Jaron Blossomgame, Clemson 
Trevon Bluiett, Xavier 
Amida Brimah, Connecticut 
Isaiah Briscoe, Kentucky 
Dillon Brooks, Oregon 
Elijah Brown, New Mexico 
Deonte Burton, Iowa State 
Antonio Campbell, Ohio 
Conor Clifford, Washington State 
Charles Cooke III, Dayton 
Bakari Copeland, Maryland-Eastern Shore 
Moustapha Diagne, Northwest Florida State 
Tyler Dorsey, Oregon 
D’Andre Downey, Stillman College (AL) 
Vince Edwards, Purdue 
Jimmy Hall, Kent State 
Josh Hart, Villanova
Josh Hawkinson, Washington State 
Nigel Hayes, Wisconsin 
Ike Iroegbu, Washington State 
Justin Jackson, North Carolina 
Kris Jenkins, Villanova 
Que Johnson, Washington State 
Peter Jok, Iowa 
Moses Kingsley, Arkansas
Travion Kirkendoll, Centenary College (LA) 
Dedric Lawson, Memphis 
Marcus Lee, Kentucky 
Makai Mason, Yale 
Jahmal McMurray, South Florida 
Kennedy Meeks, North Carolina 
Dallas Moore, North Florida 
Jalen Moore, Utah State 
Tyrell Nelson, Gardner-Webb 
Malik Newman, Mississippi State 
Marc-Eddy Norelia, Florida Gulf Coast 
Cameron Oliver, Nevada 
Alec Peters, Valparaiso 
QJ Peterson,VMI 
Malik Pope, San Diego State 
Rodney Purvis, Connecticut 
Corey Sanders Jr., Rutgers 
Caleb Swanigan, Purdue 
Rakish Taylor, Anderson University (SC) 
Ethan Telfair, Idaho State 
Trevor Thompson, Ohio State 
Melo Trimble, Maryland 
Maurice Watson Jr., Creighton 
Andrew White III, Nebraska 
Alec Wintering, Portland 
Zeek Woodley, Northwestern State 

Phillie Phodder: The Ryan Howard drama, trade chips and bat flips

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Phillie Phodder: The Ryan Howard drama, trade chips and bat flips

CHICAGO — The Phillies are here for what figures to be the toughest test thus far in their surprising break from the starting gate — three games against the Chicago Cubs, a team built to win the World Series and so far looking as if it can do just that. The Cubs were the first team to reach 30 wins this season, are 14-6 at home, and averaging a National League-best 5.69 runs per game, over two more than the 3.3 runs the Phillies are putting on the board per contest.

The series will be interesting even beyond the test the Phillies will receive because we could see another progression in the raging Ryan Howard drama.

In Tommy Joseph, the Phillies have a player worthy of taking away playing time from the struggling Howard. Joseph started at first base the last three games in Detroit, hit in the middle of the lineup and did so with authority. Phillies management is on record as saying it needs an injection of offense to support the good pitching the team has gotten. If it is committed to that idea, then Joseph needs to keep playing. He will start Friday afternoon against lefty Jon Lester. He should start again on Saturday and Sunday when the Phillies face right-handed pitchers.

Will he?

The guess here is that Joseph starts one of the weekend games with Howard getting the other. That right there would be a continuation of the phasing out of Howard from the lineup. If Joseph delivers against right-handed pitching, the Phillies owe it to their fans and the players who have put together this quick and entertaining start to keep playing him.

But this whole drama remains a sticky situation on a lot of levels. Howard is not walking away from the more than $25 million that remains on his contract and he shouldn’t. But there’s no way he’s going to be happy sitting on the bench and it’s difficult to envision him contributing as a reserve player/bat off the bench. He has a tough enough time making contact while getting regular at-bats. How’s he going to hold up as a reserve?

Poorly.

If Joseph continues to emerge, the Phillies will have to consider releasing Howard. Either that or they ride out the final four months of his contract with him sitting on the bench. Neither solution is comfortable. As one of the franchise’s greatest players and a champion, Howard is going to end up on the team’s Wall of Fame someday and it would be nice if he showed up at the induction. Would a release sour his relationship with the organization forever? It’s a factor that the Phillies can consider because they are still in a rebuild and, as well as they’ve played so far, it’s tough to see them staying in contention for the long haul. If this team was projected to win, then it’s a different story. If there was ever a year to suck it up and let Howard leave with dignity, it’s this one. But if carrying Howard as a reserve leads to a cumbersome situation in a young clubhouse, maybe parting is the best solution.

Regardless of the endgame, Joseph needs to keep getting regular at-bats because the baseball still matters.

                                                                      ***

While Odubel Herrera’s three-run home run and subsequent bat flip dominated Wednesday’s win over Detroit, several other players made contributions. Andres Blanco, with his typical booster shot of energy, plus two hits, an RBI, two runs scored and the team’s first steal of home since 2009, was one of them. Jeanmar Gomez, who only out of Pete Mackanin’s desperation got a shot at closer in early April, was another with his 17th save.

If the Phillies’ lack of offense catches up with them and they fall out of the race, Blanco and Gomez could be trade chips for the team. Blanco’s ability to come off the bench and contribute on both sides of the ball could be attractive to a team that is ready to win in October. He won’t bring back a game-breaking talent, but it would be worth taking a chance on a young minor-league arm, a lottery ticket, that could ultimately develop into something.

Gomez’s big season has the feel of lightning in a bottle. He’s done a terrific job getting saves without typical closer’s stuff. He relies on touch, feel, location and pitching savvy. He makes hitters get themselves out. How long can it last? Who knows? But Gomez deserves kudos and very well could ride his unexpected success to a spot in the All-Star Game. Shortly after that, if the Phillies are out of the race, the front office should look to cash in on his unforeseen value, which will never be higher, and deal him to one of the many teams that will be looking for bullpen help. Gomez could help a contender in the seventh, eighth or ninth inning and if he keeps pitching well, might bring back a decent return.

Jeremy Hellickson and Carlos Ruiz could also be trade chips in July — if the Phils fall out of the race. We talked about that recently with Ruiz.

If the Phils stay in the race, the front office would probably have to hang on to at least several of these players. Trading players, even role players, could send a bad message to fans if the team still has a chance at the postseason. The exception would be Hellickson. It could make sense to deal him either way and use his departure as an opportunity to bring up the next young arm from the minors. Hellickson has pitched well lately and it would benefit the team in more ways that one if he continued to do so.

Switching over to the glass-half-full side … there is a chance the Phillies will pursue a bat to boost their anemic offense, but the decision to even make that move is still a ways away. Matt Klentak made it pretty clear that he needs to see more from this club over the next month or so before he goes after a bat in a trade. And Klentak is not about to compromise the rebuild to add a bat for short-term contribution. In other words, he’s not about to trade away prospects for outfield bats that might get in the way of Nick Williams, Roman Quinn or Dylan Cozens rising to the majors in the next year. The Phillies do have money. If an opposing team wants to move an expiring contract — someone like a Jay Bruce — and it would cost the Phillies more on the money side than the prospect side, that could be a fit for the Phillies.

If they stay in the race.

                                                                      ***

Getting to Herrera’s bat flip … it was fun. And this scribe believes the kid when he says it was natural. But there’s risk involved in something like that. Herrera is a kid that loves to play the game and loves to be on the field. But he needs to beware that if he flips his bat on the wrong guy, he’s going to end up with a broken batting helmet or a broken rib. You can talk about new-school ways and making the game fun again — as if it ever stopped being fun — but pitchers are competitors and they don’t like being shown up, be it intentional or not. They didn’t in the old school and they don’t in the new school. This scribe loves players who play with emotion, energy and exuberance, and there’s nothing wrong with celebrating your successes. Heck, Babe Ruth used to tip his hat rounding the bases. But there is a limit. Herrera is the Phillies’ best player and he has a responsibility to stay on the field. He might want to think twice before he goes with a “big air” bat flip on his next home run because if he does it on the wrong pitcher, he might get hurt.

Jim Schwartz's defense path was molded, in part, by Jevon Kearse

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Jim Schwartz's defense path was molded, in part, by Jevon Kearse

Jim Schwartz is famous for his use of the wide-9 alignment and the 4-3 defense in general. That's the scheme he's had success with in the NFL. That's what he brings to the Eagles.

Yet somewhere in an alternate universe, Schwartz is coaching a 3-4 defense right now, all because the Tennessee Titans never drafted Jevon Kearse.

OK, that might be a stretch considering Schwartz learned under coaches such as Marvin Jones and Gregg Williams, who are also known for the 4-3. Then again, the Eagles' defensive coordinator revealed when he was hired by the Titans as an assistant in 1999, the defense was actually using quite a bit of 3-4. Kearse changed everything, and is in part responsible for Schwartz's preference in scheme to this day.

"When I first went to Tennessee, we based out of a lot of 3-4, but it probably came from just the personnel we had," Schwartz recalled.

"We drafted Jevon Kearse. There was a line of thought that Jevon Kearse was gonna be a 3-4 outside linebacker or he was gonna be a defensive end. We decided to try to make it as simple as we could for him, put him at one spot and just let him attack and rush the passer and let him play the edge.

"We had some success with that, then found other guys in the scheme that fit."

Some success is putting it mildly.

Eagles fans might best remember Kearse for four injury-prone seasons between 2004-07 when he failed to live up to a massive free-agent contract, totaling just 22 sacks. As a first-round pick in 1999, however, "The Freak" burst on to the scene with 14½ sacks, earning Defensive Rookie and Player of the Year honors en route to the first of three consecutive invitations to the Pro Bowl. Kearse had accumulated 47½ sacks after five seasons in Tennessee.

Kearse's final trip to the Pro Bowl came under Schwartz, who ascended to defensive coordinator in 2001, a post he held until being named head coach of the Detroit Lions in '09. Afterward, he served one year as defensive coordinator for the Bills. In 14 NFL seasons, Schwartz has coached eight different linemen to double-digit sack seasons.

Some of that production is the result of a system that allows linemen like Kearse to play fast and attack.

"Philosophically, the thing that's guiding that has been try to make it as simple as we can," Schwartz said.

"It's a coach's job to make a complex scheme simple for the players. It's our job to make it so that they can digest it. There's a lot of things that are going on, on the field — offensive tempo, different personnel groups and formations — there's a million different things going on and they have to process all that stuff. Our job is to streamline the information and allow them to play fast, give them confidence."

Through his experiences, Schwartz has come to believe the 4-3 defense — when equipped with the right personnel up front — is the best method to attack offenses in today's NFL.

"I think that the other part of the 4-3 is when you can affect the passer with four guys, you're not forced to blitz to get pressure on the quarterback, you're in a very good position," he said. "I've been there before when you can't get pressure and you have to blitz — it's not a great feeling. You want to blitz on your terms. You want to be able to blitz when you want to, when the situation is right, not, 'We can't get any pass rush unless we do it.'

"So allowing those guys to keep it simple, to be able to pressure with four and not make yourself skinnier so to speak in coverage can also take some big plays away from offenses."

It's difficult to argue with the results. Schwartz has three previous stints as either a defensive coordinator or head coach in the NFL, during which his units have four top-10 finishes in yards allowed as well as a pair of top-five rankings in points surrendered. Perhaps most impressive of all are the three occasions in which Schwartz's defense finished third the league in takeaways.

Schwartz inherits plenty of talent on the Eagles' defense, particularly along the defensive line. Connor Barwin has twice attained doubled-digit sacks in a season, while Fletcher Cox and Vinny Curry have both eclipsed nine. Brandon Graham and Marcus Smith are former first-round picks, too.

Don't expect this defense to look identical to what Schwartz has done at previous stops, though. While he may be known for a particular approach or brand of football, Schwartz plans to tailor the Eagles' defense to the personnel he has, just like the Titans did with Kearse in Tennessee all those years ago.

"Every year will be a little bit different," Schwartz said. "Our terminology is a little bit different, cast of characters is a little different, and if we're on the right track, we'll put the players in the best position to best use their talents.

"What we did in Buffalo was a little different than what we did in Detroit, which was a little different from what we did in Tennessee, but it's all designed to try to make the most of what you have."