Two For the Road: Sixers Swipe Another in Sac-Town

Two For the Road: Sixers Swipe Another in Sac-Town

Who's getting excited for a new decade of Sixers basketball? OK, not really: The team we beat last night was a sub-.500 club missing their starting back court, who also happen to be the team's two stars--not exactly a reason to start buying playoff tickets. But two wins in a row is two wins in a row, and the Kings are a good team (especially at home) even without their big guns. And most importantly, like on Monday night, it was a convincing win--not one in which the Sixers barely escaped a late surge, or pushed ahead on a last-minute bucket, but one in which they were control for the entire fourth quarter, and simply looked like the better team on the floor.

It started off inauspiciously enough, with the Sixers making unforced errors early and the Kings getting out to a 14-4 lead that should have actually been much bigger, and then Eddie Jordan compounding issues by  subbing in an entire second unit that proceeded to play even worse (2WJ not exactly killing it this year), minus a few nice layup drives by the Damaja. Things started to click in the second, though, as the Liberty Ballers tied things up for halftime, and officially pulled away in the fourth, scoring 37 points in the quarter. Final Score: Sixers 116, Kings 106--the 116 marking a season-high for the Sixers against a non-D'Antoni-coached opponent.

The offensive heroes last night were numerous, but let's start with an unexpected one--off-season re-acquisition Rodney Carney, who poured in four second-half three-pointers to help the Sixers finally start to achieve a little lift-off. I knew for a fact that Carney was capable of games like this, because he had one of them against us last year as a member of the Timberwolves, but given that his exceptionally shitty shooting (36% from the field, 28% from three) had earned him much-deserved extended bench minutes of late, I was wondering if we were going to get to see any from him this year. Well, you showed up right on time, Rod, and it would be really nice if you could stick around for another game or two.

Credit must also go to Andre Iguodala, who flirted with a triple-double for the second straight game with a 19-7-9 line. Best of all, his scoring came on only ten shots--I had really hoped that the return of Iverson and Williams would help take some of the pressure off 'Dre offensively, and so far, he's really responded, hitting his jumper with a regularity we haven't seen from him all year. Speaking of Sweet Lou and AI, they wasn't too shabby neither, scoring 42 points between the two of them, and grabbing an impressive nine boards as well. A half-dozen Sixers reached double figures last night, a good reflection of how dangerous this team can be when loaded with their full offensive arsenal.

Good as I'm feeling about the last two games, it's important not to overlook something--there's no way this team keeps up their hot shooting. Yes, they're better now with their full roster back, but they're not 59% from the field-type better (as they were on Monday), nor are they 57% from deep-type better (as they were last night). Karma owed them a couple games like this, but it's not going to last--the team will creep back closer to their regular season totals of 45% and 34%, respectively, and when they do, we better hope they're also willing to grind out a couple W's the hard way, too. Those'll be the games that show if this recent stretch is just a pleasant fluke, or the real sign of a team developing some character.

Still, two wins in a row--been a couple of months since we were treated to that, huh? Let's enjoy it while we can, and maybe try to press our luck tomorrow night against the Clips in LA. It is a new year. Hopefully.

Howie Roseman: Darren Sproles signing about culture, which is expensive to build

Howie Roseman: Darren Sproles signing about culture, which is expensive to build

The Eagles didn’t need to sign Darren Sproles to a one-year contract extension on Friday morning. 

Sproles is 33, not getting any younger, and his production dropped off significantly in 2015, at least from an offensive standpoint. Sure, he’s still quick and elusive and a dynamic punt returner, but he’s a running back well on the wrong side of 30. 

The Eagles could have waited. They could have gambled — with decent odds — that Sproles, by season’s end, wouldn’t be worth the reported $4.5 million extension they handed him on Friday. If they still wanted him after this year, they could have re-signed him then. 

But they didn’t wait. They signed him now (see story).

Why? 

“I think it’s the message that you’re sending to the team and the players,” vice president of football operations Howie Roseman said on Friday after practice, inside the bubble. “That you do the right thing here, and you’re productive, and you have a chance to stay here. And we want people to feel that way on and off the field, that this is a place that, if you do the right thing, you have an opportunity to continue to be here. And when you look around the team, he’s a great example of that. 

“That’s part of it, we’re trying to kind of build that culture of having guys here who feel like, ‘Hey, I can be here if I do the right thing and I play well.’ For us, Darren, we had been having these discussions for a while and to get it done is a great relief on our part.”

This isn’t the first time we’ve heard about the “message” or the “culture” the Eagles are trying to breed by sending it. In fact, since Roseman reascended into his power position, it’s been a theme of the offseason. The Eagles are trying to keep their own, instead of ousting them the way Chip Kelly once did. 

During the offseason, the Eagles went out and signed some free agents; Brandon Brooks, Leodis McKelvin and Nigel Bradham, just to name a few. But Roseman has continually said the most important moves the team made were the ones that brought back their own players, like Brent Celek, Zach Ertz, Vinny Curry, Lane Johnson, and, of course, Fletcher Cox. 

In Sproles and Celek, the Eagles have now extended two players over 30, and they’ve elected to keep Jason Peters, who is 34 (more on Peters here).

“I think we’re kind of looking at each individual case as it comes,” Roseman said. “And when you talk about those guys, we know they still bring to our football team on and off the field. When you’re implementing some young players, it’s good to have a nice mix of guys who have done it before and also understand what it was like when teams have had success.”

With all the contracts the Eagles have handed out over the last several months, they’ll be up against the cap soon enough. As PhillyVoice.com pointed out, the Eagles, as of now, will have the least amount of salary cap space in 2017. 

Roseman is aware. 

“Yeah, I think for us, when you’re looking at this, it’s never in a one-year window,” he said. 

The contract Sam Bradford signed this offseason is pretty easy to get out of this year, but if he goes out and has a Pro Bowl season and the Eagles want to keep him on the roster next year, he’ll have a $22.5 million cap hit. It seems like it would be tough for the Eagles to keep him at that number, but Roseman said there’s “no question” they’d be able to figure out a way to do it. 

Aside from Bradford, several players, most notably starting defensive tackle Bennie Logan, will be free agents at the end of 2016. 

“We love Bennie Logan,” Roseman said. “Bennie Logan’s a heckuva player and a great person off the field. He’s someone that we see here. Just because, like I said, someone doesn’t have a contract right now, it doesn’t mean that they’re not in our plans going forward.”

Doug Pederson Q&A: Coaching philosophy, off-field Issues, QBs & more

Doug Pederson Q&A: Coaching philosophy, off-field Issues, QBs & more

As Eagles training camp kicked into gear, head coach Doug Pederson sat down with Comcast SportsNet's Quick Slants crew earlier this week at the NovaCare Complex and addressed a number of Eagles topics with co-hosts Derrick Gunn and Reuben Frank.

In a nine-minute interview, Pederson talked about his philosophy of handling off-the-field issues when they arise, he spoke of how he wants this team to be different than a Chip Kelly team and — of course — he talked about his quarterbacks.

Here are some highlights of that conversation:

Quick Slants: What do you feel needs to change the most about the team from last year to this year?

Doug Pederson: "The biggest thing and really what I want to get across is we need to be a smarter football team, a tougher football team and we need to be a better-conditioned football team. That said, that covers a lot of ground, but it’s very simple when you break it down. Smarter means we need to eliminate penalties, a tougher football team is just that, we’ve got to find ways to win football games. And conditioning is just how well you perform in the fourth quarter and down the stretch. We need to be a better-conditioned football team and it’s something for them to work on."

QS: A lot of people are going to doubt you because of your lack of coaching experience. How do you handle that?

Pederson: “I’m OK with that. My life’s always been that way. Sort of been the underdog and sort of come out swinging. You just go day by day and you just work hard and you study tape and you put your players in great positions and you build relationships with your guys and eventually they’re going to run through walls for you and that’s what you want and that’s the type of coach I want the team and the players to see. And at the same time you’re fair and you’re honest and you’re up front with guys and when you come to Sundays, man, those guys are eager and ready to go.”

QS: Two of your players, Nelson Agholor and Nigel Bradham, were involved in off-the-field incidents this offseason. Agholor’s situation has been resolved but not Bradham’s. Generally speaking, what is your philosophy with this kind of thing? What message do you give to the players?

Pederson: “When the players step on the NovaCare property and they’re in the building, my message is always: ‘You’re representing the Philadelphia Eagles and the entire organization, guys, you’ve got to make smart decisions. You’re in a high-profile business. Everybody out there is a reporter, everybody’s got a cell phone, everybody wants to take your picture or antagonize you or do whatever they can do to see if you respond. You just have to be the bigger man, you’ve got to turn your back and walk away.’ And if something happens, we as a staff have to gather all the information we can and they will have to suffer the consequences if there’s going to be any down the road. So learn from your mistakes. We all make them. But let’s be smart about it and move on.”

QS: You’ve made it clear Sam Bradford is the No. 1 quarterback, Chase Daniel is No. 2 and Carson Wentz is No. 3. Why line up the depth chart that way?

Pederson: “For me, really when I evaluated the 2015 roster and the quarterback position, I felt like Sam Bradford was the guy for me. I felt like in conversations with Howie [Roseman] and when I hired [quarterback coach John DeFilippo] and [offensive coordinator Frank Reich], that he's going to be our guy. And it started there. … And then I wanted to go and get somebody. I didn't know I was going to get Chase Daniel, but I needed a quality backup and it just so happened that a Chase Daniel was there who knows the offense. So now you bring in a guy who knows the offense, who can help Sam, can help a young, third-string quarterback. At the time, I think we were picking [13th] in the draft, and then some things happened, some trades, some moves and now you're up to No. 2 and you take a quarterback. And the beauty of that is he doesn't have to play the first year right now. And we can develop him and focus our attention on Sam and getting him ready to go and get ready for Cleveland on Sept. 11.”

QS: The last 11 quarterbacks taken with a top-five pick have started at least 10 games. That goes back to JaMarcus Russell, who started just one game in 2007. So why make Wentz No. 3? What is the benefit of giving him a likely redshirt year?

Pederson: “The benefit is that he gets to learn our system, he gets to learn our players, gets to learn the city, gets to learn our fans. And gosh, coming to Philadelphia and that being your first year and you get thrown to the wolves right away? That can be very mind-blowing for a young quarterback. So being able to sort of protect him that way I think gives the longevity of his career, whether it's here or eventually somewhere else, who knows what's going to happen, but it gives the longevity and the confidence level that he'll have going into Year 2, becomes that much more important for him and really us as an organization.”

QS: What about Wentz made you think he could be the eventual franchise quarterback?

Pederson: “Well when you look at him, you kind of had flashes of Donovan [McNabb]. The athleticism, the big arm, the size, the whole thing, the way he can run and move. And the fact that he's a proven winner, he knows how to win. I know he had an injury his senior year but he was able to bounce back and win some championships. He knows how to win football games, and just watching him these last couple days with the rookies and his communication level with them, where he is mentally with our offense, is everything we sort of knew and read and studied and researched in the offseason before we drafted him and felt like he could definitely be potentially the quarterback of the future, whenever that is. But right now, like I mentioned, we're full steam ahead with Sam and we'll let everything kinda settle whenever it settles.”

QS: You’re an offensive coach and have never worked on the defensive side of the ball. Now as a head coach, what will your involvement be with the defense?

Pederson: “Yeah, I definitely want to have a hand in not necessarily game-planning but knowing and understanding the game plan and how [Jim Schwartz] plans on attacking an offense. And if there's any particular insight I have on the offense we're playing that week, I'll throw that information at him and vice versa. If he has knowledge of a defensive game plan then I'd love to hear that. Having those conversations on a weekly basis, staying plugged in, in-tune and open lines of communication and understanding how he's going about his defense that week and understanding what I'm doing.”

Jordan Matthews values impact of hard-working veterans like Darren Sproles

Jordan Matthews values impact of hard-working veterans like Darren Sproles

A year after coming just three receiving yards short of 1,000, Jordan Matthews didn’t want to talk about himself.

Matthews wasn’t willing to discuss the possibility of 100 receptions, 1,000 receiving yards or other lofty personal goals when asked about his individual ambitions for this season following Friday’s training camp session at the NovaCare Complex (see Day 5 observations).

“I don’t even talk about that,” Matthews said. “This is a city where we ain’t about talking, we’re about working.”

As soon as Darren Sproles’ name was mentioned, however, Matthews started gushing about the versatile 33-year-old veteran, whom the Eagles signed to a one-year, $4.5 million extension on Friday (see story).

“I love D, that’s my boy,” Matthews said.

“He comes out here and practices hard every single day. He’s a great role model, not just for the running backs but for me, when I see him go out there and make plays I’m like, ‘Shoot, I need to do that.’ I know Zach [Ertz] looks up to him, too. It’s crazy, we look up to a guy that comes up to our knee, but all of us were excited that he was able to sign back with us. He’s a tremendous asset to this team, great teammate, great brother, so I’m excited to have him back.”

Matthews repeatedly stressed the importance of veterans such as Sproles who set a great example for their teammates. For this Eagles team in particular, Matthews believes that Sproles’ elusive running style and versatility will be a tremendous model for several of the team’s young running backs to follow.

“If you look at all of our backs, Kenjon [Barner], Byron [Marshall], [Wendell] Smallwood — they’re versatile guys, and they can all learn from Sproles," Matthews said. "They got some shiftiness to them, especially Byron, I like what I’ve seen from him, so I think all those guys can learn a lot from Sproles.”

The Eagles would also love if one of those backs shows some ability as a returner and eventually assumes Sproles’ duties in that department. Sproles led the NFL in both punt return yards (446) and punt return touchdowns (two) last season. At the moment, the team is trying out a handful of players during return drills, including Oregon products Barner and Marshall, though we’ll have to wait until the pads appear on Saturday to start seriously evaluating talent in that role.

Another unique attribute of Sproles is his skill as a receiver. Since 2007, he ranks No. 1 in the league in receiving yards (4,146) and receiving touchdowns (28) out of the backfield. In the team’s new West Coast-hybrid system, there should be more opportunities for running backs, especially Sproles, to thrive catching the ball. Running backs coach Duce Staley, a dual threat out of the backfield the last time the Eagles ran a West Coast scheme, took several of the young backs aside during drills Friday to tweak their route-running techniques. 

In the competition for the final one or two running back spots on the roster next to Sproles and Ryan Mathews, who missed practice for a second straight morning and is day to day with a mild ankle injury, small distinctions between players as receivers and returners could determine who makes the team.

“We got a lot of talent there,” Pederson said. “Kenjon Barner is a kid who has shown some good strides this offseason, picking up the offense. You got Ryan there, you got Darren, and you got the young kids — Wendell we picked up, Byron Marshall, we got some guys with some talent.”

Returning his focus to his own position, Matthews continued to highlight the impact of veterans passing on their knowledge to younger players. According to Matthews, the offseason signings of Chris Givens and Rueben Randle, each of whom has four years of NFL experience, should help Nelson Agholor’s progression after a disappointing rookie season in which the USC product posted just 23 receptions. 

“[Agholor] didn’t have a Jeremy [Maclin] when he came in, a guy that was older, who had played five years, like I did," Matthews said. "But now you got Rueb, he’s got some experience, Chris has been around so he knows a couple things … he’s learned from guys like Steve Smith and other guys he’s played with, so we’re going to continue to help bring him along, but Nelson’s done a great job, he had a great practice today, so I’m definitely really optimistic about his maturation.”

For all his emphasis on first- and second-year talent learning from experienced players like Randle, Sproles or even the 24-year-old Matthews himself, don’t confuse Matthews’ reverence for Sproles and the veterans on the Eagles' roster with the sentiment that this year will be more about “maturation” than competitive success.

“I don’t look at this as a rebuilding thing or like a lot of chemistry has to get rebuilt,” Matthews said. “We’ve secured a lot of guys and it really does feel like family. … Guys genuinely love to be around each other.”

Matthews probably won’t get to spend more than two more years with his role model Sproles (see story), but the consistent work ethic and knowledge the 11-year veteran has passed on should definitely serve Matthews and his next generation of teammates well.