Meltdown in Minneapolis: Eagles streak snapped in 48-30 loss to Vikings

Meltdown in Minneapolis: Eagles streak snapped in 48-30 loss to Vikings

This had “trap game” written all over it. Shades of Joe Webb some fans even lamented in the lead-up to Sunday. Whether this loss will be remembered similarly in Philadelphia Eagles lore probably depends on how they finish the season, but today, it feels devastating.

After holding nine straight opponents to 21 points or fewer, the Eagles were absolutely smoked by a shorthanded Minnesota Vikings squad missing its best player. No Adrian Peterson? No problem. Leave it to Matt Cassel, the veteran quarterback who led the purple and gold to a 48-30 win over the Birds in Minneapolis, snapping Philly's five-game winning streak.

The Eagles had absolutely no answer for the Vikings’ passing attack from the opening kickoff. Named the starting signal-caller earlier this week, Cassel completed 26 of 35 passes for 382 yards, two touchdowns, and one interception. He also ran one in for a score.

That was without the benefit of a productive running game, mind you. Third-string back Matt Asiata, who entered the game with three career carries, wound up punching the ball into the end zone three times, but ran 30 times for just 51 yards filling in for the injured AP. That’s less than two yards per attempt.

The bulk of the blame for this debacle lies with Philly’s secondary, obviously. Patrick Chung was torched on a 57-yard touchdown pass to Greg Jennings in the first quarter—Jennings finished with 11 catches for 163 yards. Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher were beaten repeatedly on the outside by the likes of Jarius Wright and Jerome Simpson.

The Eagles’ front seven was stifled for much of the afternoon too, which didn’t help the defensive backs. Cassel was also on point though, getting rid of the football quickly and making precise throws. Give him credit for playing a smart game. His only turnover was deflected at the line of scrimmage by Bennie Logan.

Chip Kelly’s game plan didn’t do his defense many favors, either. The Eagles didn’t want to kick it deep to dangerous Cordarrelle Patterson, the NFL leader in kick returns, so they squibbed numerous times instead, which often resulted with the Vikings starting near midfield anyway.

Nor was it the greatest of play-calling days on offense for the Birds head coach. For some reason, LeSean McCoy only carried the ball eight times coming off of a franchise-record 217 yards the week before. McCoy finished with 38 yards for a 4.8 average to go with 68 yards through the air.

Shady’s lack of involvement might’ve been mitigated had Nick Foles been sharp, but it was another up-and-down performance for the third week in a row for the second-year passer.

Foles threw for 428 yards and three touchdowns and completed 62.5 percent of his 48 attempts, but the big numbers are a little deceiving. He missed several receivers badly, quite a few of them wide open. He threw his second interception of the year, a terrible decision. Plus, he was sacked four times, several of them drive-killers, all of them avoidable.

The pass-heavy approach was undoubtedly meant to expose a Vikings secondary that was missing its top three players on the depth chart due to injury, and it did to a degree. DeSean Jackson in particular had a big day, hauling in 10 receptions for 195 yards and a score.

Unfortunately, Foles was too inconsistent from series to series. The Eagles also were not proficient in the red zone, converting just two of their five trips into six points. Running the ball a bit more might’ve helped.

Clearly, the defense finally falling apart was the biggest factor in the loss however. Minnesota racked up 455 yards of total offense, and went 8 for 13 on third downs. In fact, the Eagles forced just two punts all day.

In many respects, it was the defense’s worst game of the season. Take away Denver’s two special teams scores, and 48 is the most points the unit has allowed in 2013.

It will be an issue to watch going forward as well. Earl Wolff is nearing a return, but missed his fourth-consecutive game. Kurt Coleman replaced Chung at one point, but then Coleman got hurt. So did Colt Anderson. Cary Williams was benched at the end of the game, and Brandon Boykin was injured as well on a kick return.

Suddenly, an area that has been one of the club’s most consistent strengths the last two-and-a-half months will face loads of scrutiny for at least the next week. So will the Eagles as a team, as they drop to 8-6 on the year and still have Dallas hot on their heels in the NFC East.

Was this a collapse in the vein of the one the Birds suffered in 2010, when they were vying for a postseason bye and a moribund Vikings team with Joe Webb under center upended Philly on a Tuesday night? That remains to be seen. The Eagles did make the playoffs, but lost to the eventual champion Green Bay Packers in the first round.

It should also be noted Minnesota has posted a record of 3-2-1 over its last six games, so while the loss is still disappointing given all the absences, the perception that this team was a pushover was flawed to begin with. That said, they were without Adrian Peterson, the NFL’s reigning Most Valuable Player and a host of other starters.

As of now, the Eagles are far from a lock to make the tournament. If they don’t, this one will loom large. Hard to look at this as anything other than a missed opportunity in Minnesota.

Notes

- Another big reason the Eagles lost was penalties. Philadelphia was flagged nine times for 94 yards.

- I get kicking away from Cordarrelle Patterson, but notice Vikings kicker Blair Walsh just booted most of his right out of the end zone. Is Alex Henery really unable to do the same?

- Nick Foles finished with more run yards (41) than LeSean McCoy (38).

- Zach Ertz and Jason Avant had the Eagles' other touchdowns. Mychal Kendricks came up with the interception. Kendricks, Connor Barwin, and DeMeco Ryans had sacks. Kendricks and Cole each had three tackles for loss.

- Did anyone else feel like this was an Andy Reid coached game? Got away from running the ball. Timeout wasted before a two-point conversion. General undisciplined play. Definitely had that feel.

Phils owner John Middleton, who still wants his trophy back, reflects on the Ryan Howard era

Phils owner John Middleton, who still wants his trophy back, reflects on the Ryan Howard era

The end of an era has arrived for the Phillies.

Ryan Howard burst on the scene like a comet ablaze and powered his way to becoming the National League Rookie of the Year in just a half-season in 2005. A year later, he had one of the greatest seasons in franchise history when he clubbed a team-record 58 homers and added 149 RBIs in winning the 2006 National League Most Valuable Player award. He was the big bat — or Big Piece, as Charlie Manuel so aptly dubbed him — in the middle of the lineup for a club that won five NL East titles, two NL pennants and a World Series over a five-year run of success that ended on that October night in 2011 when Howard himself fell to the ground in pain and clutched his left ankle as his Achilles tendon exploded on the final swing of the season.

From his seat at Citizens Bank Park, John Middleton watched Howard go down that night and he knew.

Middleton had joined the Phillies ownership group in 1994 and seen his stake in the team rise to nearly 48 percent as the club was rising to the level of baseball elite. He felt elation on the night the Phillies won the World Series in 2008, disappointment on the night they lost the World Series in 2009 and frustration when the team suffered postseason failures in 2010 and 2011.

Howard’s crumbling to the ground on that October night in 2011 came to symbolize the end of the Phillies’ great run. A mighty man had been felled by injury. A mighty team had been brought down.

“They all gnaw at me,” Middleton said of the postseason failures that followed 2008 in a recent interview with CSN Philadelphia. “The opportunity to do something extraordinarily special is rare. And when it presents itself, you need to be able to take advantage of it as much as you possibly can.

“That said, I think '11 was the hardest for me.”

The Phillies won a club-record 102 games that year, but did not make it out of the first round of the playoffs and haven’t been back since.

Middleton, still in ass-kickin’ physical condition at 61, was a wrestler in college. He’d seen injuries. He’d had injuries. As soon as he saw Howard go down, he knew it was an Achilles injury and he knew it was bad. Deep down inside, he just knew that great Phillies team would never be the same, that the run was over.

“When Ryan went down with the Achilles injury at the end of that game, I knew he was going to be out for 2012 and you didn't really know when he was going to be back and how well he would come back,” Middleton said.

Howard’s injury coincided with injuries to Chase Utley and Roy Halladay.

“That was just too many people to lose,” Middleton said.

Middleton has stepped out of the background and taken a more up-front role with the club over the past two years. He was a leader in making the decision to move away from past glory and commit to a full rebuild two years ago, and he remains committed to it today.

The reconstruction of the Phillies has coincided with the deconstruction of the club that won all those games and titles from 2007-2011. Hamels, Rollins, Utley, Ruiz, Werth, Halladay, Lee and others are gone. All that remains is Howard and his time in red pinstripes will come to an end after this final weekend series against the New York Mets at Citizens Bank Park.

While the failure to do something “extraordinarily special” — i.e., win multiple World Series — still gnaws at Middleton, he will remember the good times that Howard provided.

There were lots of them.

“This wasn't just a guy who was good or very good, this was an elite player,” Middleton said.

Howard has not been an elite player since the Achilles injury. There were times in recent seasons when his union with the club became uncomfortable. He was mentioned in trade rumors, but the fact is there wasn’t much interest in him from other teams. He went from being a full-time player and a star to being a part-time player.

Middleton appreciates the way Howard handled things as his role diminished.

“I think he’s a wonderful human being,” Middleton said. “He's been a terrific player and an even better person. I really will miss him when he's gone.

“Ryan made it easy because he was the consummate teammate. And not only for the other 24, 25 guys on the roster, but for his coaches, for the front office, for the owners. This guy has just been fabulous about it.”

In April 2010, a year and a half before Howard would have been a free agent, the Phillies gave him a five-year, $125 million contract extension. The idea was to lock up a key, productive player and gain some cost certainty. Critics said the Phillies acted too early and they were proven right when Howard blew out his Achilles before the extension even officially kicked in.

Middleton was not the architect of that extension. Former club president David Montgomery and general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. were at the helm then. Both have stood by the decision and pointed to Howard’s productivity — he averaged 44 homers and 133 RBIs from 2006 to through 2011 — as a reason the deal made sense. Both have acknowledged that injuries can change everything in a blink of an eye and, in this case, one did.

“Hindsight is 20/20,” Middleton said. “Had you asked a question and had a crystal ball and knew Ryan was going to have an Achilles injury in October of ‘11 and that would probably limit his effectiveness going forward … that's one question.”

Middleton rattled off some of Howard’s accomplishments: The top 10 finishes in the MVP voting, including the win, the fastest player to 100 and 250 home runs in baseball history …

“This guy was a truly terrific player,” he said. “Over the past 10 years, there's been a strategic move on the part of teams to identify young talent and lock it up early. Ryan's contract was just that. We were trying to identify young talent and lock it up before it hit free agency. Unfortunately, it didn't work out. And in large part, it didn't work out because he had that crippling injury in 2011.”

Howard was still healthy in 2009. In fact, he hit 45 homers and led the NL with 141 RBIs that year. He was the MVP of the NLCS but struggled badly in the World Series against the Yankees, going 4 for 23 with 13 strikeouts.

The performance crushed Howard.

After the Phillies lost Game 6 in Yankee Stadium, Middleton stood outside the clubhouse and wondered if he should go in and comfort the disappointed players.

He finally did and a story that will forever link him and Ryan Howard was born.

Yes, the “I want my (bleeping) trophy back” story is true.

“Completely true,” Middleton said with a laugh.

“We have to go back to that night. Losing the World Series is excruciatingly painful. As great as they have to be to get to the World Series, when you lose, it's just crushing. It really is. I don't know any other word for it.

“So I went into the locker room, obviously very emotional, and there's tons of media around, and I'm trying to talk to each player quietly and privately. I'm trying to thank them for their contribution to the year. I'm trying to get them focused for the offseason and 2010 because I thought we had a great opportunity in 2010. And I look around, and I see Ryan kind of sitting in front of his locker, slumped over with his head in his hands.

“This is my opportunity to go up to Ryan and talk to him without anyone around so I did that. I knelt down beside him and we were talking about the season, the postseason, just a very emotional moment for the two of us and it became more emotional as we talked.

“And at the end, I said, ‘Ryan, I want my … trophy back.’"

The Phillies are still looking to get that trophy back.

Ryan Howard will not be on the team when they finally do.

But he was a big reason they got one in the first place and in a town that loves winners, well, that should not be forgotten as he heads out the door.

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Jeremy Hellickson enjoyed his time with Phillies, now he'll look for free-agent riches

Jeremy Hellickson enjoyed his time with Phillies, now he'll look for free-agent riches

BOX SCORE

ATLANTA — Jeremy Hellickson made his final start of the season for the Phillies on Thursday night.

Now he becomes the team’s first big offseason decision.

Hellickson had long left the game with a sore right knee by the time struggling reliever Jeanmar Gomez was tagged for four runs in the bottom of the eighth inning in what ended up as a 5-2 loss to the Atlanta Braves (see Instant Replay). The Phillies were swept in their final trip to Turner Field — the Braves will move into a new ballpark in April — and have lost six of their last seven games heading into the final weekend of the season and a three-game series against the New York Mets at Citizens Bank Park.

“It’s a bad time to be in a rut and we’re in a rut,” manager Pete Mackanin said. “We’ve got to go home and snap out of it.”

Besides supporting his rotation mates, Hellickson won’t make any contributions this weekend. The 29-year-old right-hander, acquired in a November trade with Arizona, finished his season 12-10 in a career-high 32 starts. He tied a career high with 189 innings. His final ERA of 3.71 was his best since he recorded a 3.10 ERA in 31 starts for Tampa Bay in 2012.

Though he left the game in the fourth inning after tweaking his knee while running the bases (see story), Hellickson achieved his season goal.

“This isn’t anything that’s going to linger,” he said, looking down at his knee. “So I came out healthy. That was my main thing, try to throw 200 innings — I fell just short of that — and stay healthy. So as far as those two goals go, it was good.”

By staying healthy and pitching well, Hellickson built himself a nice free-agent platform. But before Hellickson heads out on the open market, the Phillies must make a decision: Do they offer him $17 million to retain him in 2017 or simply let him go. As a rebuilding team, the Phils would love to get a draft pick as compensation for Hellickson’s leaving. But to get that pick, they must make Hellickson that one-year qualifying offer and he must reject it and sign elsewhere. 

It seems likely that the Phils will make the offer to Hellickson. If he takes it, he will return in 2017 and fill the same veteran stabilizer role he did this season. If he rejects, the team will get a pick between the first and second rounds of next year’s draft. The value of that draft pick is significant and was seen as a reason the Phillies did not trade Hellickson in July.

Qualifying offers go out in early November, but general manager Matt Klentak isn’t ready to tip his hand on what he’ll do.

“Both are valuable,” he said, weighing Hellickson's returning on a one-year deal versus picking up a draft selection between the first and second rounds. “For the same reason Jeremy Hellickson was valuable to us this year, Jeremy Hellickson or a player like that could be valuable to us again next year. The draft pick at the end of the first round has a real, measurable, tangible value.”

After Thursday night’s game, Hellickson was asked if he believed he’d made his final start with the Phillies.

“I hope not,” he said. “But I don’t really know how to answer that. I would love to be back here next year. I think everyone knows how much I’ve enjoyed my time here and I think we’re moving in the right direction.”

The pitcher was pressed as to whether he could envision himself accepting the qualifying offer if the Phillies made one.

“Yeah, I mean I definitely could see it,” he said. “But …"

Hellickson paused. Then a reporter broke the silence by suggesting the pitcher would rather get a multi-year deal on the open market.

“Yeah, I would love that actually a little bit more,” he said.

The Phillies could look to strike a multi-year deal with Hellickson before he hits the open market five days after the World Series, but that does not appear to be in the club’s plans. The Phils seem to be interested mostly in short-term deals for veterans as they let their kids develop.

In time, this thing will play out.

But for now, the Phillies head home looking to stop a losing streak and scuttle the Mets’ postseason hopes.

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