Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Hartnell's heart still intact despite heel turn

Like it or not, Scott Hartnell is a Blue Jacket.

While acknowledging that the fans who once feted him in Orange and Black can be tough on those who return in enemy colors, he admitted that the ties no longer bind, towards the end of his introductory press conference, held Monday morning in Ohio's capital.

"I don't know ... Mike Richards when he came back with L.A. for the first time, I think they cheered him right off the bat," Hartnell said with a sly smile when asked the million-dollar question about Philadelphia's hockey faithful. He kinda had the puck for 10 seconds going up the ice and there were some boos going on. I'm sure that'll happen. That's part of the game. That's the fun of the game. I'm sure I'll be as hated (in Philly) as in Pittsburgh ... it means you're doing the good things if you're hated, so hopefully I could be just as hated there that I am in Pittsburgh."

Unlike the exoduses of Richards, Jeff Carter and Simon Gagne, Flyers fans will have plenty of time to let the 31-year-old know exactly where he stands. A packed house in full throat will get their first chance to acknowledge Hartnell the villain come November 14, and then again only eight days later. The last of three home dates against their Metropolitan Division rivals will occur on February 17.

"Seven years is a long time, and on the deal I signed there a couple years ago, I thought I would retire there. So it was a hard few days. I was emotional to begin with. Kimmo Timonen is my best friend, we played together in Nashville and got traded there together. To play against him for the first time, that would be a little shocking. I'm excited about going into Philly for the first time and getting two points."

However, in that same presser, Hartnell reassured those who know him for his charitable ventures, that it won't change despite the move seven hours to the West. #Hartnelldown lives.

"I'm going to start in Columbus here, we're going to take 10 or 12 kids from hockey programs and come up to Minnesota hockey camps," he stated. "Mr. Snider, we had a couple kids come up from Philadelphia all the way to Minnesota and they trained with players like myself, Wayne Simmonds, T.J. Oshie. It's pretty cool for those young kids who never left Philadelphia to experience a pro training camp, so to speak.

"I never thought in a million years that I'd have a foundation. I've done things before in Nashville and Philly without recognition, but this foundation is pretty cool. To give back to the sport of hockey and less fortunate kids ... and just kinda have fun doing sports ... and to be active and fit and have fun is all part of the deal."

Hartnell might have had his heart ripped out once the Flyers notified him he wouldn't be part of their plans going forward back in late June. That doesn't mean he's about to totally turn against his former club and city now that he's building a future with Columbus. He had a couple of now former teammates who vouched for his new location.

"It took about three or four days when I got the call from Philadelphia that the trade went through. I didn't want to involve my teammates in getting into the middle of it. I did talk to Mase and Jake and they said you'll love the city. You're going to love the fans. And just watching the playoffs last year, they seemed to be as loud as anywhere."

Bullard and Prospal, ships passing in the night

On this date 23 years ago, the Flyers made a deal which seemed unremarkable at the time, but eventually provided the franchise with a center they'd been looking for to match the skills of the declining Pelle Eklund.

The rights to Mike Bullard, then a veteran of 11 professional seasons, were shipped to the Toronto Maple Leafs for a third-round draft pick in 1993. That pick ended up becoming Vaclav "Vinny" Prospal, who is one of the more than three dozen players to take more than one turn in the Orange and Black.

At the time, Bullard had spent the 1990-91 season in Switzerland, lighting up its top division with 41 goals and 78 points in only 41 games. He was not offered a contract the year prior though the Flyers still held his rights. With new GM Russ Farwell angling to make over the roster into something a bit younger, Bullard (along with Ilkka Sinisalo and Ken Linseman) were left to seek employment elsewhere.

Carrying a rightful reputation for carousing and perhaps an undeserved one for not bowing to authority, Bob Clarke picked up Bullard from the St. Louis Blues in a straight-up swap for Peter Zezel on November 29, 1988. It was Bullard's fourth stop since November of 1986, when he was traded to Calgary from Pittsburgh for Dan Quinn a day after cursing out Pens head coach Bob Berry. Despite a 103-point season with the Flames in 1987-88, he was moved to the Blues.

The burly winger had brought offense -- five seasons of at least 30 goals, two of at least 40 and one of 51 -- to a club desperately trying to turn itself out of a tailspin. For a franchise in transition and a rogue on his last chance, Bullard performed well here, picking up 50 goals and 113 points over 124 games from 1988-90, including 23 in his 54-game stint for the remainder of the 1988-89 season.

Two of his iconic career moments occurred during the Flyers' memorable run to the Wales Conference Finals in the Spring of '89. One was sweet and the other sour.

First, following a surprise 4-1 victory over the Penguins at the Civic Arena in Game 7 of the second round, Bullard finally responded to the formerly friendly fans turned hecklers who jibed him for the entire series by "gesturing" to them with single digits on each hand raised. He scored two of his three tallies that postseason against his former franchise, with the final one being a power-play goal which put Philly ahead 3-1 only 40 seconds into the third period.

Then, in Montreal the day before Game 5 of the Wales Finals at the Forum, and with the Flyers trailing 3-1 in the series, Jay Greenberg described the scene in Full Spectrum:

"(Holmgren) told his team the Canadiens couldn't keep it up. He wanted the Flyers to be loose, but Bullard took him too literally, seeking relaxation in the Montreal night. When Pat Croce saw Bullard come in well after curfew, Holmgren took the opportunity to make a point. As he charged up the troops the next day, the coach suddenly wheeled around on Bullard and picked him up by the throat.

"You, out late drinking the night before a playoff game!" Holmgren grunted.

"Urrrgh," said Bullard.

"One of the scariest things I've ever seen," admitted Mark Howe later on.  

"Clarke talked Holmgren out of benching Bullard. The veteran center felt lucky to be alive and Holmgren wanted the Flyers to feel the same way."

Bullard had been goose-egged the entire series, and that did not change over the final two contests until the season concluded. His three goals and 12 points were accumulated in the first 13 games through two rounds.

From his days as the best player on a historically desolate Penguins franchise, Bullard was dogged by the label that he couldn't come through when it counted. He tallied six points in six games for Calgary in a first-round loss to Winnipeg in '87, then produced just two assists in six games the next year before a Marty McSorley spear put him out of commission during an Oilers' four-game second-round sweep.

Prospal arrived in North America, having been born behind the Iron Curtain in Czechoslovakia, at the age of 18, after Russ Farwell used the pick, at No. 71, to take the skinny puck-mover from Ceske Budejovice.

His play during the first three years with Hershey steadily improved, from 35 to 45 to 51 points in 1995-96, but things took off once the Flyers decided to abandon their affiliate agreement with the Bears in favor of creating the expansion Phantoms to play at the Spectrum.

All Prospal did, at the age of 22, was finish second on the club (behind Peter White) with 95 points and dish out a team-high 63 assists for a club which saw four players record at least 50 helpers. In their first year of existence, the Phantoms ran away with the Mid-Atlantic Division, but their dreams of Calder Cup glory were short-circuited in a Game 7 second-round loss to Hershey -- now an affiliate for the defending Cup champion Colorado Avalanche.

Why the Phantoms lost could be directly attributable to Prospal's absence, not due to injury but to a call-up to the Flyers in early March of 1997 due to the loss of Dale Hawerchuk with recurring hip issues that helped end his career. He scored twice in his second NHL game, and went on to add three more goals and 15 total points in 18 appearances before adding four points (1G, 3A) in a five-game, first-round victory against the Penguins. There was little question Prospal would be the heir apparent.

Then, things went off the rails.

During a practice before an anticipated second-round meeting with the Buffalo Sabres, Prospal suffered a badly broken wrist when trying to absorb a hit during a fight for the puck along the boards. Video of the unfortunate circumstance was recorded by Channel 6 and broadcast that night, as Prospal was lost for the remainder of that postseason. He went scoreless in six, and then eight straight games under Wayne Cashman the following season, then missed four games due to injury just prior to the All-Star break, when a bombshell exploded in front of a national audience and thousands of jaws dropped in unison.

One day before the game, scheduled for Vancouver, and during the skills competition, ESPN broadcasters broke news that Bob Clarke swapped Prospal along with Pat Falloon and a second-round pick in the 1998 draft to the Ottawa Senators for struggling former second-overall selection Alexandre Daigle. It was a devastating move for a team that had risen to the top of the Eastern Conference standings.

That wrong wasn't righted until Paul Holmgren dipped into the well of ex-Flyers talent and pulled Prospal from the Lightning at the 2008 trade deadline for defenseman Alex Picard and a 2009 second-round choice. A puck mover for the trigger man Danny Briere on the power play, Prospal had 14 points (4G, 10A) in 18 regular-season games, then added 13 points over 17 playoff contests to stoke the surprise run to the 2008 Eastern Finals.

As Bullard did 19 years before, Prospal enjoyed prosperity in the opening rounds before being shut down to the tune of one assist over a five-game loss to the Penguins. His 12 points represented one of the top scorers through victories against Washington and Montreal.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Nick Foles: Day 1, Year 2

By John McMullen

Philadelphia, PA -- Seeing is believing or so the idiom tells us.

The exception who proves that rule is evidently Nick Foles.

Peyton Manning earned his record fifth MVP award in 2013 after perhaps the best statistical season in NFL history, breaking multiple NFL passing records, most notably the single-season marks for touchdowns (55) and passing yards (5,477), while piloting an offense which led the NFL in scoring (37.9 points
per game) and totaled the most points (606) in league lore.

Manning, however, didn't lead the league in passer rating. That honor belonged to the Philadelphia Eagles quarterback, who put together the third-best mark in history, 119.2, four-plus points better than Manning's 115.1.

Foles threw a gaudy 27 touchdowns of his own (29 if you add the playoffs) versus just two interceptions in his second NFL season. He tied an NFL record with seven scoring tosses against Oakland in November of last year and snared an MVP award of his own, the 2014 Pro Bowl accolade.

"Those numbers from last year won't do anything for me this year," Foles said Saturday after the team's first practice of training camp. "They do absolutely nothing.

"I had a great coach once tell me that one play won't affect the next play, good or bad. And that's the same thing for one season: you can't let one season affect you, good or bad. The next year, you start off clean. Everybody is starting off fresh. Everybody is 0-0 and everybody has got high expectations. That's just the way I think. If you play in a new year, it's a new year."

A new year in which Foles remains on the outside, looking in at all those elite lists.

So, why are so many taking a wait-and-see approach when it comes to the University of Arizona product?

Some point to the pedigree. Foles was no top-10 can't miss prospect. He was a third-round selection in the 2012 draft, a 6-foot-6 guy  with prototypical size but under whelming arm strength and below average foot speed.

Of course many consider Joe Montana to be the best quarterback who ever lived and he was also a third-round pick, as was last season's Super Bowl-winning signal caller, Russell Wilson so you can scratch all that.

Others point to Eagles coach Chip Kelly and his history in college at Oregon where it seemed like the innovative offensive mind was all about having a movement-based signal caller, not a statuesque, pocket thrower with a mediocre fastball.

Part of that narrative was fueled by Kelly's own hesitation to believe what was going on with Foles in 2013. Remember Kelly picked Michael Vick to be his QB until the now familiar injury and consistency problems with him left a crack open in the door for Foles, who promptly kicked it in with his play on
the field.

Kelly signaled his acceptance of Foles in the 2014 draft when he had the opportunity to select Johnny Manziel, who Kelly recruited heavily at Oregon, and turned his nose up at the former Heisman Trophy winner.

"He's still young," Kelly said when talking about Foles on Saturday.  "He had an outstanding season last year that everybody was excited about. But he knows as an individual he can still get better."

Getting significantly better on and off the field is important to some like Pulizer-Prize winning authors who leave the lights on Friday night.

Buzz Bissinger took things off the rails by claiming Foles is too "chickens#$%" to be star in the NFL.

Bissinger took aim at Foles in Philadelphia Magazine, lambasting him for being the anti- Manziel, avoiding the limelight and any kind of self-promotion at all costs in favor of spending time with his family.

That, along with Foles' privileged background and the fact the Texas native refused to talk to Bissinger for the piece left the writer questioning the manhood of a 245-pound man whose job description includes getting hit by Jason Pierre-Paul and Brian Orakpo.

"You try to make it all about me and you lose track of what it's really about," Foles said when asked about Buzz's bizarre take, "and that's the Philadelphia Eagles and this city."

Foles is a gym rat, who doesn't drink and turned down at least two rather high-profile sponsorship opportunities in the offseason, preferring instead to focus on his job and his new wife.

When asked what his greatest love besides football was in the Eagles' training camp media guide Foles responded with "Family and Faith." When asked about his pregame ritual, the signal caller responded "Reading the Bible."

To professional cynics like Bissinger and yours truly for that matter, that kind of thing doesn't often play that well but Buzz and I will part paths there because he jumps to the inane conclusion that Foles can't succeed
because he's a teetotaling fan of some pretty successful fiction who wants to stay home at night.

"I don't agree with it," Foles sad of Bissinger's conclusion. "A quarterback and a leader - it's not necessarily what you do in the limelight. Handling yourself in the appropriate manner is very important for the organization for yourself and your teammates. I've always believed that you need to be who you

And who Foles is happens to be a guy who thinks football first until it's time to go home to the wife.

Ask the Cleveland Browns if they would rather have that or the overgrown 14-year-old who is more concerned with taking selfies of himself with Justin Bieber and Playboy models instead of learning Kyle Shanahan's playbook.

"If you're a guy who loves to go out and be at everything, and you can be a great player as well, that's awesome. That's naturally what you want to do," Foles said. "That's out of my norm. I've always been sort of a laid-back, Texas boy. I love being with my family. That's what I stick to. I love football. I love getting better."

Friday, July 25, 2014

Crystal Ballin: Predicting the path of the 2014 Eagles

by Hal Greenblatt
Phanatic Football Writer 

Well, well, well…here we are again. Another football season is upon us as the Philadelphia Eagles begin training camp today just a couple blocks from their home field.

As the Eagles embark on Year 2 of the Chip Kelly era, expectations, as they have been for many years here, are sky high. In Kelly’s first year, he helped guide the revamped Birds to a 10-6 record and an NFC East championship. Although the team lost in the first round of the playoffs, at home to the New Orleans Saints, it appears Kelly’s Eagles are built for the long term.

Last season, the Eagles finished with the NFL’s second-ranked offense. The speed demons who challenged the play clock averaged 417.2 yards per game (2nd) and scored an average of 27.6 points per game (4th). LeSean McCoy led a vaunted running attack that was the NFL’s best, as the team ran for 160.4 yards per contest and McCoy himself led the league in rushing with 1,607 yards and nine touchdowns. Nick Foles led a passing attack that ranked ninth in the NFL with 256.9 yards per game. Foles’ personal numbers were also outstanding, as the Arizona product threw for 2,891 yards, 27 touchdowns and only two interceptions, while starting just 10 contests.

Defensively, however, the Eagles were amongst the worst in the NFL. The prevention unit ranked 29th overall, giving up an average of 394 yards and just shy of 24 points per game. Against the pass, the Birds ranked dead last in the league, giving up 289.8 yards per game and a whopping 25 touchdowns. The front line was much better versus the run, allowing just 104.2 yards per game, which ranked the unit 10th out of 32.

With that, it is time to take an in depth look at the 2014 schedule to make a bold (and most likely inaccurate) prediction of how the Eagles will finish without the benefit of seeing a single practice.

Week 1: Jacksonville Jaguars (September 7)

After watching the mockery of football that Jacksonville played last year, many pundits would be quick to write this game up as a win for the Eagles. What many may not notice was how competitive the Jaguars were over the final eight games of the season, winning four of those games and losing two by seven points or less.

Despite the work that Jags head coach (and Eagles target) Gus Bradley did in his first year, the Eagles will start the season 1-0 at home behind a renovated and excited Lincoln Financial Field crowd.

Prediction: Eagles 27 – Jaguars 13 (1-0)

Week 2: at Indianapolis Colts (September 15)

The Birds travel to Lucas Oil Stadium for a Monday night showdown against Saint Andrew of Luck and the Colts. Last season, the Colts sported a 6-2 at home record with wins over both Super Bowl entrants, Seattle and Denver. Although Kelly always has his teams prepared, this time Eagles will fall on the road.

Prediction: Colts 34 – Eagles 30 (1-1)

Week 3: Washington Redskins (September 21)

In a game that will be completely overhyped thanks in part to the return of wide receiver DeSean Jackson, the main story will be the return to prominence of Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III. There is no doubt that Jackson will help the Team with the Nickname that Shall not be Spoken, but if the ‘Skins want any chance to compete with the Eagles, it will be a healthy Griffin leading the way.

In the final analysis of DeSean Bowl I, it will be the play of the Eagles defense that steals the show. Jackson will put up big (albeit hollow) numbers, as the Eagles improve to 2-1 on the season and 1-0 in the NFC East.

Prediction: Eagles 30 – Washington 17 (2-1)

Week 4: at San Francisco 49ers (September 28)

A cross-country road trip following an emotional divisional game sets the Eagles up for a let down. The game will be dependent on how well the Birds defense can keep 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick in the pocket. Expect no Hulk-out from Jim Harbaugh on this Sunday afternoon.

Prediction: 49ers 23 – Eagles 16 (2-2)

Week 5: St. Louis Rams (October 5)

If this game were in St. Louis, I would have the Eagles bookmarked for a loss. The Rams are an underrated team with a very strong defense. The key for the Rams success will come with the health of quarterback Sam Bradford.

This game has all the makings of an early-season trap, but I think the Eagles will pull out a hard fought defensive battle. No word on whether Tony Dungy will have a comment on Michael Sam’s actual performance by this point.

Prediction: Eagles 24 – Rams 20 (3-2)

Week 6: New York Giants (Sunday Night Football – October 12)

Chip Kelly’s teams tend to show up and put on special performances on national television. In what will be another heated division battle, Kelly’s Birds will remain undefeated in the division. The Giants recently lost offensive lineman Chris Snee to retirement. The loss of Snee is a huge hit to an already unstable offensive line. I expect the Eagles to have their first big win of the season and be the first team to officially pave the way for Tom Coughlin’s retirement.

Prediction: Eagles 38 – Giants 24 (4-2)

Week 7: BYE (October 19)

Week 8: at Arizona Cardinals (October 26)
The Eagles entered the bye with a 4-2 record and two weeks to prepare for a talented Cardinals team. Arizona boasts one of the league’s best defensive units, which includes perhaps the best defensive back in the league in Patrick Peterson. Arizona will be without standout linebacker Daryl Washington, who was suspended for the year following another substance violation.

Arizona, playing in the “Toaster,” finished with a 6-2 record at home last season, and will display little reason for anyone to think they will not continue to be strong at home in 2014.

Prediction: Cardinals 27 – Eagles 17 (4-3)

Week 9: at Houston Texans (November 2)

Bill O’Brien is a good coach. He will do very good things with the Texans. The one thing he does not have to worry about in Houston will be the defensive. All-pro JJ Watt will be teamed with first overall pick Jadeveon Clowney. Houston will not be nearly as bad as they were last year, but I do not see the Eagles falling for the trap game after a loss to Arizona the week before.

Prediction: Eagles 20 – Texans 13 (5-3)

Week 10: Carolina Panthers (Sunday Night Football – November 10)

Ron Rivera did a tremendous job to turn downtrodden Carolina into the NFC South division winners last season. Quarterback Cam Newton may be the most dangerous signal caller in the league with his dual throwing and running abilities. Last time Newton played in Philadelphia, he led the Panthers to a victory, while throwing and running for a combined four touchdowns.

This year’s Panthers team will not be nearly as dominant as last seasons. Carolina lost some key defensive pieces as well as former receiving stalwart Steve Smith and will be facing the requisite tougher schedule. The Panthers will be offensively challenged and that will affect the result of the game.

Prediction: Eagles 24 – Panthers 20 (6-3)

Week 11: at Green Bay Packers (November 16)

I’m going to go ahead and assume that Aaron Rodgers will be healthy. That’s all that needs to be said. Lambeau Leaps aplenty for the other squad sporting green.

Prediction: Packers 38 – Eagles 27 (6-4)

Week 12: Tennessee Titans (November 23)

I don’t believe in Titans quarterback and former Washington Huskies QB Jake Locker. Tennessee also finds itself in rebuild mode, as it jettisoned former franchise running back Chris Johnson in the offseason. A long season is in the making for the ex-Oilers, which will include a bad loss on the road to the Eagles. LeSean’s running performance will underscore Johnson’s absence on the other side.

Prediction: Eagles 33 – Titans 17 (7-4)

Week 13: at Dallas Cowboys (Thanksgiving - November 27)

It’s not December yet, and Tony Romo tends to put up amazing numbers during the Thanksgiving game. As much as it pains me, the Cowboys will come away with the win following a short week for the Birds. No Bounty Bowl III here folks, just good, clean Texas football with “America’s Team” winning.

Prediction: Cowboys 27 – 21 (7-5)

Week 14: Seattle Seahawks (December 7)

Something just feels fishy about this game. The Super Bowl champions traveling cross-country to Philadelphia in December. Seattle, traditionally not the best road team, faces an Eagles club that has improved while playing at the Linc. Seattle, like Philadelphia, has this game sandwich between a division rival (San Francisco for Seattle, Dallas for Philadelphia).

This game has a feeling of a Philadelphia miracle. Somewhere in the distance, Freddie Mitchell’s ears will perk up.

Prediction: Eagles 17 – Seattle 16 (8-5)

Week 15: Dallas Cowboys (Sunday Night Football - December 14)

The Eagles will not lose to the Cowboys twice. Plus, it’s another national broadcast. Foles will avenge his poor performance against Dallas at home from the 2013 season. Plus, like Reggie Jackson in October, so shall Romo be in December.

Prediction: Eagles 33 – Cowboys 17

Week 16: at Washington Redskins (December 20)

DeSean Bowl II will go to the home team, but it will not be because of the fleet feet and elegant hands of the former Eagles wide receiver. While the Birds secondary tries to double team Jackson, it will be Washington’s tight end Jordan Reed who will lead the Future Potatoes to a victory, and an outside shot at dethroning the Eagles as NFC East champions.

Prediction: Redskins 27 – Eagles 20 (9-6)

Week 17: at New York Giants (December 28)

Just like last season -- when the NFC East crown was on the line during the last regular-season matchup -- the Eagles will prevail against a division rival in hostile territory. As it has been many times during the Andy Reid era, playing in the Meadowlands becomes an advantage when the pressure is on. Coughlin rides into the sunset an angry man.

Prediction: Eagles 27 – Giants 14

So there you have it. Your Philadelphia Eagles will finish the 2014 regular season with a 10-6 record and will repeat as NFC East division champions – the first time the club has gone back-to-back since winning four in a row from 2001-04.