8 Biggest Takeaways of the Birds 2-0 Start

So, here we are through two rather interesting games of the Eagles season, and the Birds sit at 2-0, including a shaky home win against a really bad team and an impressive road win over a pretty good team.  It doesn’t matter how you get there, as long as you get there, but let’s take a look at what we have seen so far in these 120 minutes of game action.  Here are my biggest takeaways through the first two games:

1). Nick Foles looks shaky
I know, it is strange for the #1 takeaway for a 2-0 team to be a negative one.  It is even stranger for that negative to be about the QB who is 2nd in the league in passing yards and is in charge of the league’s highest scoring offense.  I have come around and am officially a “Foles guy” now, but we have to be honest – he looks a bit shaky.  The first half against Jacksonville was abysmal, and the first half against Indy wasn’t all that much better.  He has missed open receivers and has misthrown several short passes and bubble screens.  While he did rally both times and showed some real resiliency, he does not seem to have the same poise and accuracy that he had last year.  But, let’s remember, it’s early.  They’re 2-0.  And, they lead the league in points scored, so we will take 19 of those “shaky” games if they turn out the same result.  I am actually encouraged by the fact that both Foles and McCoy have been relatively quiet and they have 64 points and 2 wins in two games.

2). The two guys picked ahead of Foles look FANTASTIC
Foles – the 3rd-round pick – may be the most nationally well-known Eagle drafted in the 2012 draft, but the two guys the Eagles drafted before their franchise QB have are on the brink of legit stardom – and they are both on the other side of the ball.  Mychal Kendricks has shown flashes of brilliance in each of his first two seasons in the NFL, but he was annoyingly (at least to me) inconsistent.  This year, he looks like a total stud across the board.  Now, we don’t really know the extent of the calf injury he suffered Monday night, but before he left, he had put in 7 incredible quarters of football in 2014 – making plays all over the field.  He can cover tight ends and even some slot receivers when needed, but he can also get to the QB and is a killer against the run.  Now, I haven’t been as high on him as most in his first 2 years, but right now, he looks like the centerpiece of a potentially outstanding defense for the next decade.

The other budding superstar is a guy that I have actually been higher on than most since being drafted #11 overall in 2012 – Fletcher Cox.  I know that he didn’t exactly “pop” in either of his first two years, but it is happening now right before our eyes.  He still leaves a little to be desired in his ability to get to the QB (which is always going to make the casual observer mark him down a peg), but his ability to set the edge in the run game and pursue ballcarries (or scrambling QBs) is incredible.  And, I think that his lack of consistent QB pressure has more to do with the fact that he is still learning the ins and outs of the 3-4 (he is much more natural in the 4-3).  This year, however, he is starting to eat up multiple blockers in the pass game, which will, hopefully, lead to more QB pressure across the defense.  Either way, Fletcher Cox is becoming a real star in this league and, along with Kendricks, the ridiculously underrated Connor Barwin and the ever-steady Demeco Ryans, could be the centerpiece of a defense that has actually looked very, very good through two games.

3).They do miss D-Jax…schematically…but are a significantly better football team without him
This is no real surprise, as he is a dynamic playmaker who makes a lot of things happen even when he doesn’t get the ball.   All his big plays aside, maybe the true value of DeSean Jackson on the field was the impact he had on everyone else in the passing game.  Countless D-coordinators have said, flat-out, that they used to completely tailor their defensive gameplans around containing DeSean.  Safeties would always have to cheat his way, and the #1 corners that “travelled” would always find their way to his side.  Without him out there, the safeties are more free to roam in pass coverage and help in the run game.

HOWEVER…while Chip & Co. are too classy to come out and say it, I think that the team is much better because he is gone.  If you ever get a chance to hear guys like Adam Caplan talk about it (and, very few know more about the inner workings of the Eagles than Caplan), the real problem with Jackson came down to attitude.  Now, that seems like an obvious comment, but Caplan puts a different spin on it and provides stark examples.  Caplan talks about how Chip Kelly had decided midway through last season that they were going to move on without Jackson because he was holding back a lot of what they wanted to do around there.  It wasn’t the gang ties; it wasn’t the cursing out of the coaching staff; it wasn’t even his stark refusal to buy-in to the smoothies and sleep monitors.  It was simple – the thing that Kelly’s offense gets the most press for is its tempo.  And, Jackson was slowing them down.  That tempo doesn’t just come from “hurrying up” on Sunday afternoon when you have the ball.  That tempo comes from intricate practice schemes, where the players practice over and over getting tackled, jumping up, throwing the ball to the ref, and running back to the line.  Jackson never wanted to do that – particularly in practice.  Kelly believes (according to Caplan) that Jackson’s refusal to take this uptempo style at practices (and oftentimes games) seriously enough slowed the whole team down.  So, he cut him.  And, the tempo is soaring through two games and is possibly the reason that this team is the only team in NFL history to be 2-0 after trailing both games by 14+ points in the second half.

4). Practice matters
With today’s CBA, practice times have been slashed.  Coaches have less ability to mold their players the way they want.  But, the Eagles and Genius Kelly have found a way to combat this.  While practice “time” is regulated, there is no restriction, obviously, on practice “reps.”  And, by all accounts, Chip Kelly’s practices are the most efficient practices this sport has ever seen.  Dick Vermeil estimated that Kelly gets 3x as many reps in any given 2-hour practice than Vermeil’s teams ever did.  And, what does this do?  Well, for one, it allows Chip’s teams to get more work on their gameplans than anyone else in the league, but, secondly – and maybe more telling so far – is that it makes the Eagles the most well-conditioned team in the league.  You look around the league in these two weeks, and you will see an avalanche of games that turned drastically in the second halves.  Both Eagles wins, the Bears on Sunday night, the Patriots loss in Week One, the Browns nearly winning two games after bad first halves, etc., etc., etc.  Early in the season, conditioning matters at the end of games, particularly in the heat.  Late in the season, it matters in keeping guys healthy (the Eagles were the healthiest team in the league in Chip’s first year).  This stuff matters – and that is why this coach makes more of a difference on his team than any coach I have ever followed closely.

5). These WRs are not very good
I know we are only two games into his shiny new contract, but Riley Cooper looks like he is straight stealing $25 million out there.  He is not getting open and not making plays.  He looks like the lost, mediocre receiver that he was his entire career other than the second half of 2013.  Why do we think that he “figured something out” again?

Jeremy Maclin looks a little better, but he does not look anything close to a #1 receiver right now – nor does it look like he ever will be, to be honest.  He has good speed, but nothing game-changing, and he has a willingness to go get the tough catch, but I am not sure he has the ability.  I said it all offseason, they should have given Houston a 2nd-rounder for Andre Johnson – and, I really value high draft picks and do not value WRs on the wrong side of 30 – I just think that was the last piece of this offensive puzzle.  But, again, this is the top-scoring team in the NFL, so who’s complaining.

6). That “silent killer” is gone this year
People talk about return and coverage production as “hidden yardage.”  Well, does anyone notice how much better the special teams’ coverage is this year than last?  The front office made significant free agent investments in Bryan Braman and Chris Maragos as well as personnel decisions seemingly driven completely by coverage ability.  And, through two games, it seems to have paid off.  And, by “paid off” I mean that I have not noticed the coverage teams…at all.  Coverage teams are like referees or offensive linemen – typically, the more you notice them, the worse they are.  Just think back to last year and just how hair-pullingly frustrating the coverage teams (and lack of touchbacks, by the way) were.  You don’t have that same feeling this year, do you?  Ya, me neither…and, I like it.

7). How can we go this far without mentioning…?
Darren Sproles and Zach Ertz!  No, seriously, how amazingly do these two fit into this offense?  The personnel matchups are so hard to defend.  Such versatility combined with brilliant play design means that, short of playing nickel or dime packages, it is almost impossible to avoid having LBs covering either Ertz or Sproles or both – and that is the perfect recipe for big play after big play.  And, the more that Ertz and Sproles dominate games this way, the more teams will have to go into sub-packages meaning LeSean McCoy may be running into nickel and dime packages…yes, please.  This offesnse is just going to get harder and harder to defend as it goes.

8). And, the heartbeat of this offense continues
All of these great matchups and brilliant play design is great and all, but this offense (and most offenses) begins and ends up front.  Jason Peters continues to be one of the best tackles of this generation, and certainly the best left tackle in football right now.  Now, I am no expert on O-line play, but I believe you would be hard-pressed to find a center better in the league than Jason Kelce.  And, there are a lot of people who believe that Evan Mathis is the best guard in the league.  That means that when (if) Mathis comes back, 3/5 of this line will be the best in the league at their position.  Throw in the solid veteran of Herremans and an athletic Top-4 pick in Lane Johnson (who will be back Week 5), and you have an ELITE offensive line – probably the best in the game – which is enabling all of that magic to happen around them.  And, I can’t wait for the next act…

Better Call Stri: The Ray Rice Fiasco Response

Those are really good questions. I agree that we can quickly rule out the theory that Goodell saw the tape and is just bald faced lying about it. If he saw the tape, he isn’t the only one who knows he saw the tape, and if it came out that he was lying about that he could kiss his job goodbye. So, that leads us to your question of why didn’t Goodell see the tape?

It wasn’t that the NFL couldn’t get the tape (it was briefly available online). It wasn’t that Goodell (or anyone else) wanted plausible deniability. Plain and simple, it was arrogance.

The day after the NFL suspended Ray Rice for 2 games, ESPN published an article about the suspension. ELEVEN paragraphs down in the article was this little tidbit: “Rice allegedly struck Palmer unconscious on Feb. 15 while in a casino elevator in Atlantic City. Video surfaced online showing Rice dragging an apparently unconscious Palmer out of the elevator. The couple has since married.”

So, you’re Roger Goodell, master of the universe, commissioner of the NFL, $44 million dollar man, highly experienced in these types of discipline issues, with a bevy of the smartest lawyers, advisors, and PR people at your disposal. You know: (i) Rice struck Palmer, (ii) the blow was allegedly so severe that it struck Palmer unconscious, (iii) he dragged her unconscious body out of the elevator, and (iv) the couple has since married. This has been widely reported by reliable sources. You have interviewed Ray Rice, who has ADMITTED to this exact series of events. Don’t you have enough information at this point to decide what the discipline will be? I mean, we’re not solving the Kennedy assassination here. There aren’t conflicting accounts to sort through. Do you have to actually witness his hand making contact with her head to figure out how many games he gets for knocking his wife unconscious?

Besides, if there were anything on that tape that dramatically changed the analysis, surely it would have come out by now. The alleged incident happened Feb. 15. The discipline happened July 24. It was well know what the admitted to facts were for almost 6 months. The damn video was briefly posted ONLINE. No protests, no boycotts, no letters from the national organization of women, no mass press coverage. Compare that to Michael Vick and Donald Sterling. DAYS after those allegations surfaced, the internet blew up. These were major, major, major stories, almost instantaneously. Roger Goodell is a prudent guy — he waited through six months of near silence (compared to Sterling and Vick anyway) before issuing the discipline…this was yesterday’s news.

The 2 game ban is issued on July 24 and ESPN reports in the story announcing the freaking bad (in paragraph 11) that he knocked his wife unconscious in an elevator. The response? Virtually crickets. No protests, no boycotts, no NOW letters. No cuts by the Ravens. At worst, the reaction was mild condemnation of the penalty as too light. But not even the critics were suggesting an indefinite ban.

Goodell didn’t see the video, because he didn’t need to see the video. He had all the facts he needed to have, and he had waited ample time to gauge public opinion.

So why was the punishment so light? Here is the dirty little secret we just uncovered: Absent a obvious risk to the image (and, thus, bottom line of the league), the powers that be in the NFL think that knocking your fiancé unconscious in an elevator really deserves a two game ban. If Roger Goodell and the rest of the entire world HAD seen the video in February, and there was no public uproar about it by July 23, Ray Rice would have been banned 2 games on July 24. It wasn’t that Goodell got the suspension wrong because he didn’t see the video. He got the suspension wrong because he didn’t anticipate that the video could (or would) change public opinion so completely.

Logically, this all kind of makes sense. I admit to burning down your house in open court. You agree that’s what I did. Does the jury need to see a video of me lighting the match and actually placing it on your house to sentence me? Intellectually, you want to say no. But then you see the video and maybe I’m stumbling around drunk when I do it. Or maybe I’m stone cold sober and laughing like a maniac. Well, now it matters. A lot. Who knew?

Ray Rice got off with a light 2 game ban because that is what Goodell and the rest of the NFL bigwigs thought that his conduct deserved, given all the factors (including public reaction and damage to the NFL’s brand) that existed on July 23. Then, public reaction shifted dramatically, and now they say they “got it wrong” because they “didn’t see the tape.” So they do a 180 and give the customers what they want. Because nobody ever got rich actually telling the American public that they’re wrong. Not seeing a tape is just a fig leaf they’re using. Because “we didn’t give a crap, tape or no tape, until the public freaked” may be true, but it isn’t the PR message you want to be sending out right now.

The stark and sobering reality is that Goodell seeing that tape before issuing the first suspension wouldn’t have made one whit of difference. The only thing that would have changed anything is if the mass public saw — and reacted — before the first suspension came down.

Two other quick points. First, I do think that it mattered greatly that Janay forgave him and married him. To quote Paul George, Goodell was (at least partially) thinking: “I don’t condone hitting women or think it’s cool, but if she ain’t trippin then I ain’t trippin.”

Second, I’ve done my share of internal investigations. They’re not easy. They’re constantly evolving and they never quite end up where you think they will. That’s why these leagues sometimes hire serious people: $2500 lawyers, former U.S. attorneys, former director of the fbi, to conduct the investigations. You’re absolutely right that the cardinal rules are: get out in front of the controversy and get ALL the information. But those two things ALWAYS conflict. Getting out in front requires you to move fast. Getting all the information requires you to move slow, to subpoena video tapes, to fight out those subpoenas in court if need be. Sometimes you can’t do both.

Goodell’s primary sin wasn’t failing to watch the video tape (although that certainly was A sin). His primary sin was thinking that a 2 game ban was appropriate for a player knocking out his fiancé in an elevator. Some of the most damaging scandals occur when you get caught saying something you really believe.

Better Call Stri: The Ray Rice Fiasco

Have a legal question?  Better call Stri.

And, sports these days are full of legal questions.  It’s a good thing we now have one of the best legal minds on the payroll here at BSB.  So, here’s the first installment of “Better Call Stri,”  where try and get some insight into the legal rationale of some of these crazy off-the-field sports stories that seem to be coming up at a ridiculous rate these days (I “blame” social media and the 24-hour news cycle, but we can blame them for everything, right?)

Anyway, this whole Ray Rice thing has been run into the ground, so I will save any soapboxing or pointless self-aggrandizing comments like “where I come from, we don’t hit our women” or “my parents raised me to treat all people with respect.”  Those serve no purpose in useful conversations other than to waste time with the obvious.

No, what I am fascinated by – and want to get Stri’s legal opinion on – is just how could the most powerful sports league in the nation (if not the world) screw this up so badly?

To me, there are two key aspects of this story – (1) why did Goodell come down on Rice so lightly in the first place, and (2) why is he now claiming not to have seen the tape?

So, counselor, mind if we start with the second one first because this is the part that I honestly cannot even wrap my head around?

First, let us establish some givens before we embark here.  One, let us assume that Roger Goodell – for whatever you think of him – is a highly intelligent man or, at the VERY least is surrounded by highly intelligent people.  Two, let us also assume that his $44 million annual salary does actually ensure that everything he does is keeping the best interests of the league (and by “league,” I simply mean its 32 owners) paramount.  So, why would he say he didn’t see the tape?

Can we first dismiss out of hand that he saw it and is now lying about it?  That would be inanely stupid, and if that is the case, then it is not worth talking about anything else because we are just dealing with flat stupidity.  There is no way he would think he could get away with a bald-faced lie of that caliber.

So, now we are working under the assumption that he actually did not see a tape of which he admits to having knowledge at the time of his ill-fated decision to suspend Rice for 2 games.  Why didn’t he see the tape?  Are we really to believe that he – and all the power/money that his league wields – was simply unable to get his hands on it?  We know that the casino had it.  We know that the police had it.  We know that Rice (or, at least his lawyers) had it.  And, we know that it only took TMZ less than a month to get it.  So, can we really believe that they COULD NOT get it?  At the very least, they could have said to Rice, “you are suspended until you show us the tape and then we will decide on when to reinstate you.”

So, the only next logical step is that they CHOSE not to view the tape.  This is the part that I really need some input here, Stri.  Why would they choose not to see it?  They know it is out there.  They probably know that it is going to come out.  And, they know that their level of punishment will be – fairly or unfairly – judged based almost exclusively on the level of emotional reaction that this tape will stir up in the general public.  So, why not?

The only logical conclusion I can come up with here is plausible deniability.  Am I right here, counselor?  Did Goodell decide that he wanted plausible deniability about the contents of the tape before taking action on the suspension.  And, if so, why?

That “why” is the perfect segue into the first question posed at the beginning here – Why did Goodell come down so lightly on Ray Rice in the first place – tape or no tape?  Why did the guy who has legitimately earned a reputation of unwavering commitment to “law and order,” to the point of nearly alienating his entire labor force, now come down so SOFT on a player?!?  Who is Ray Rice and why is Goodell picking Rice as the one for whom he risks it all?  Why is he so hellbent on giving Rice a punishment that is, AT BEST, on the LIGHTEST possible side of defensible and, at worst, a conscious slap in the face to all those affected and/or appalled by domestic violence in any form?  Why is this so important to him to let Rice off easy that he had to go out of his way to attain plausible deniability of a potential “smoking gun?”

Stri, any ideas?

Did they think that they could get away with letting the facts come out, weighing public opinion, and then thinking they could just alter their course to maintain alignment with public sentiment?  The “new” policy on domestic violence may be evidence of this way of thinking – along with the indefinite suspension of Rice after the tape riled up such an incredible reaction.

Did Goodell, a strong family man, just get swayed by the pleadings of a victim – a wife – to not be punished more by taking away her livelihood?  Did he believe that her husband had never done it before and would certainly never do it again.  Or, did he just find a soft spot for a “first-time offender,” who was, by all accounts, a pillar in the community (which seemed definitely to be true to me, living here during his entire career) and his pleading wife?  Was this punishment just a lenient judgment from a bleeding-hearted family man?  While it sound unlikely that this is the case, I guess it is not out of the realm of possibility that Goodell simply felt bad that this happened, saw it as a heat-of-the-moment mistake by an otherwise good man.  BUT… even if Goodell was swayed by the soon-to-be Mrs. Rice and her “first-time-offender” of a husband, doesn’t he have advisors?  Isn’t he surrounded be a swath of people whose only job is to “protect the shield,” particularly from negative publicity?  Where were they?

Or, maybe we should get all “conspiracy theory” here and say that this all had to do with Jim Irsay.  Maybe Goodell wanted to go light on Irsay, but did not want to risk total mutiny by continuing to levy harsh penalties to players, while not doing the same to those who pay his salary?  So, he let Rice of light, thought it would blow over before he gave Irsay a slightly harsher punishment (though much lighter than he probably deserves), and that’s that.

Or, is it something else that I have not even thought of?

Either way, there is not a reason that I can think of that could possibly explain the fact that this very savvy and experienced public leader broke the ultimate tenets of restoring and retaining public image:  (a) get out in front of a controversy and, going hand-in-hand with that, (b) always make sure that you have ALL the information.  Right?  What am I missing here, esteemed gentleman of the law?