Friday, March 19, 2010

A Nod to Tebow

I'm admittedly a Tim Tebow-hater. I am rooting for him to fail, so that he doesn't have a platform to spout his ultra-religious views. Besides, it's pure joy when someone as universally loved as Tebow falls on his face, and legions of genuflecting fans are left heartbroken.

But even though I want him to fail, and I've predicted that he'll never play QB in the NFL, his recent pro day has shaken my conviction.

Both his footwork and his throwing motion are vastly improved, in only a six-week period. Of course, he was throwing against air - he wasn't playing in the fourth-quarter of a high-pressure game with bodies flying around him - but still, his improvement was called "ridiculous" by respected college scout Mike Mayock.

The history of QBs changing their throwing motion is stacked against Tebow. I can't think of a single example of a quarterback who was able to drastically alter their mechanics while maintaining accuracy...but during Florida's Pro Day, Tebow looked more accurate than he did during his college career. It's normal for QBs to make tweaks, but sometimes even minor changes can cause problems, since throwing motions are instinctual, formed the first time a boy picks up a stone and tosses it at a stop sign.

The workout wasn't perfect - according to Todd McShay, there were four times he reverted to his waist-high, windmill delivery - but when NFL coaches see that much improvement over a six-week timespan, they'll be very excited to get him into their systems and give him a year or two of practice to solidify the new mechanics.

He's still got work to do, and he certainly isn't going to be an impact player as a rookie, but I now definitely believe he'll be drafted by the end of the second a quarterback. It will not surprise me if he plays, and wins games, as a QB in the NFL. His arm strength and athletic ability, combined with an unbelievable determination and work ethic, will earn him a chance to prove himself.

Let's just hope it's not with the Eagles.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Bye Shawn

Shawn Andrews, the brohawk-sporting, nonsense-tweeting, Phelps-rapping Big Kid, is today (finally) an ex-Eagle.

A one-time Pro Bowler and first-round pick, Andrews has missed three full years of his career due to injury. The last two were caused by back problems, exacerbated by depression, lack of motivation, and overall flakiness. Football players with eccentric personalities are one thing, but Andrews is an unstable knucklehead that is no longer worth the big contract extension he signed. Comedically, I'll miss him, but from a football standpoint, the Eagles are well rid of his distraction.

In other news, they've traded a fourth-round draft pick and Chris Clemons for Darryl Tapp, and underperforming DE from Seattle. It's a depth move with possible upside, but nothing to get overly excited about. Tapp is a former second-rounder who has not lived up to his potential...the Eagles obviously believe that a change of system and change of scenery will help him improve. I hope they are right, but I won't be holding my breath for a breakthrough.

Additionally, RB Mike Bell has signed an offer sheet, and will become an Eagle if the Saints to do not match the offer. I don't know why they decided to sign him instead of Justin Fargas, but I do think Bell is a decent player. They definitely needed a veteran RB, and he's a bigger back that should complement McCoy, but Bell is not a difference-maker. 3.8 ypc last year, and a career short-yardage conversion percentage that is slightly below average.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Eagles off-season: DBs

I was going to do DL first, but they signed Marlin Jackson today, so by reviewing the defensive backs instead, I can incorporate that news into this post.

The secondary was one of the more interesting positions on the team last year...they were near the top of the league in INTs, but gave up huge plays and too many points. Sheldon Brown looked like a Pro Bowler one week and a rookie the next. Asante Samuel was a Pro Bowler, but he couldn't knock over a house of cards. The safety position was an absolute mess, as Macho Harris, Quintin Demps, and Sean Jones rotated through a carousel of incompetence. Ellis Hobbs got injured, and Joselio Hanson didn't play very well after his suspension.

Samuel and Brown have excellent anticipation and ball skills, but they don't have great cover ability. If the Eagles' blitz scheme generates the pressure it is designed to, they will garner interceptions at an All-Pro rate...but if they are forced to cover for long stretches while the blitz falters, they will continue to be exposed. Hobbs is a solid third corner with the same gambling mentality. Hanson disappointed last season, and hopefully the Eagles will challenge him with a draft pick.

Marlin Jackson played both safety and corner for the Colts, but the Eagles are looking at him as a safety. He has a chance to be the opening-day starter at FS, but he will contribute in the nickel and dime packages regardless. He has good size (6', 200) and good speed, and will be a contributor if he can recover from back-to-back ACL injuries, one to each knee. It's the kind of low-risk, high-reward signing the Eagles favor in free agency...but if he doesn't recover as quickly as anticipated (see: Andrews, Stacy) he may not contribute at all.

Jackson cannot be the only answer. I was hoping they would sign Antrel Rolle, but instead he went to the division rival Giants. Kerry Rhodes would have helped the team, but apparently they weren't willing to give up a fourth-round pick for him. Ryan Clark was a free agent, but didn't even make a trip to Philly. Darren Sharper is still available, but it's highly unlikely the Eagles will bring in a player at his age. That leaves the draft as the only way to improve the position. A lot of draftniks have the Eagles taking Taylor Mays in the first round, but I'd prefer Earl Thomas, who's smaller and slower but has much better cover skills. I'll have more info on potential picks as we get closer to the draft...but it's vital that the Eagles address the safety position in the first three rounds.

Overall, the DBs need a good bit of work. One high-round pick and one mid-round pick must be added, at least, and could be supplemented by another second-tier free agent. How the Eagles address this weakness will go a long way toward determining their success in 2010.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Eagles off-season: WR and TE

Remember when the Eagles kept seven receivers on the opening-day roster last season? Of those seven, plus the one on the practice squad at the time, only four remain with the team today: Jackson, Maclin, Avant, and Curtis. With Curtis scheduled to earn something like $5 million this season, he's either going to be the highest-paid fourth WR in NFL history or he'll be cut (I'm surprised it hasn't happened already.)

With Jackson, Maclin, and Avant cemented in their roles, the Eagles aren't looking for a big-time free agent or high draft pick at this position. They could use a tall red zone target, as usual, which is why we may see the return of Hank Baskett. With a mid-to-low-round draft pick to compete for a spot against practice squadder Jordan Norwood, this position will be rounded out.

At TE, it's similarly cut and dried. Alex Smith was not tendered, so expect the three TEs to be Celek, Ingram, and Dorenbos. I wouldn't expect much action at this position in free agency or the draft either.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Free agency - What are they thinking?

With Big Red reiterating once again that McNabb is his QB for next season - a 33-year-old in the last year of his contract - you would have expected the Eagles to fill a few roster holes with free agents and make one more run for the Super Bowl, right? But no - Julius Peppers and Chester Taylor were signed by the Bears, safety Antrel Rolle went to the division rival Giants, safety Kerry Rhodes is a Jet, and Aaron Kampman joined the Jags.

But never fear, the Eagles did make a move to improve their team in free agency - they released their best linebacker from last season.

Surely, this means that Andy Reid is blowing smoke, and McNabb is going to be traded any day now, right? With an uncertain labor situation in 2011, I could understand going with a young team in 2010 while Kolb gains experience. But ignoring veteran free agents who could help the Eagles this year makes no sense if you're going to ride the old horse one more time.

I sure hope the Eagles have a plan, because all I've see so far is a smug belief that standing still will somehow close the gap with the Cowboys.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Eagles off-season: OL

Well, with free agency approaching tomorrow, it certainly doesn't appear like I'll get through all the position groups before then. I'm having fun with this series, though, so I'll probably continue it through the opening of free agency. So instead of inaccurate predictions, you'll get uninformed analysis instead. Seems like a wash to me.

The Eagles OL was mediocre last season, and then devolved into a complete disaster the last two games. Part of it was the injury to center Jamaal Jackson, but some of it was simply physical dominance on the part of the Cowboys. The OL disintegration played no small part in the Eagles firing of their strength and conditioning coach shortly after the season.

With the Andrews sisters both drawing high salaries without any performance to back it up, I wouldn't be surprised if they both end up cut. But even if they remain on the roster, you can't count on them for anything. Without them, the OL looks pretty shoddy, both in starting quality and depth. Peters, Herremans, and Jackson (if healthy) make up a pretty solid left side. Peters needs to improve his performance, but I think another year in the Eagles program will accomplish that. But the right side - Nick Cole and Winston Justice - is simply mediocre. Cole is a RFA who should get a 1st-round tender, and he's a passable starter, but really should be a depth player. The Eagles best back-up tackle is King Dunlap, who's shown absolutely nothing when he's on the field, and their best back-up guard is Max Jean-Gilles, who hasn't developed at all beyond a promising rookie season.

When you consider that Jamaal Jackson won't be cleared to practice again until mid-August with his torn knee, it really starts to look rocky. The Eagles need several players to shore up this position.

I'd start with Hank Fraley, just released by the Browns today. A 10-year vet who started as the Eagles center for several seasons, he can step right in and play until Jackson is ready. He'll also provide depth at both guard positions. While I love the Eagles pick-up of A.Q. Shipley out of PSU, I'm not ready to count on him right away. A veteran presence who knows the offense is the perfect fit.

On top of that, we need a tackle in the draft. Someone who can at least challenge Dunlap for the back-up job, and hopefully beat him out for it. The Eagles have had success with mid-round draft picks on the OL, and it's definitely something they should consider again, unless one of the top tackles falls into their lap in the first round.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Eagles off-season: RBs

When Big Red felt like running the ball last season, the combo of Weaver and McCoy worked very well. With Westbrook gone, can we count on a similar performance in 2010?

Weaver is a RFA, and he'll be tendered a one-year contract if the Eagles can't work out an long-term deal by tomorrow. I'm pulling for the latter, because Weaver is a perfect fit for this team. He blocked, ran, and caught the ball better than expected, and demonstrated that a FB can be an effective offensive weapon.

McCoy looked good at times last year, but he still has a long way to go. I saw him miss too many blocks in pass protection and he didn't always run decisively enough. He should also beef up a little - ten pounds of lean muscle would be good - to increase his effectiveness between the tackles and improve his durability. All of these issues are common in rookie RBs, so it's nothing to panic about. Still, the team would benefit greatly from a veteran presence to share the load with Shady.

Eldra Buckley performed well when given the chance, but he didn't flash a lot of talent. A solid special-teamer and goalline back, but nothing more. I'd bring in a rookie to compete for his roster spot.

I have no comment on the two practice-squad guys, Dwayne Wright and Martell Mallett, since I haven't seen them play.

I'm not comfortable heading into the season with only those backs, and I don't believe the Eagles are either. I'd address the position twice: once through a veteran FA signing, and again through a mid-to-low-round draft pick.

Chester Taylor is the back the Eagles should target. A solid, veteran back who runs well but blocks and catches even better, he'd be the ideal complement for the lightning-quick McCoy. Taylor does not have breakaway speed, so I doubt anyone will break the bank to sign him, which means the Eagles could sign him to a reasonable contract. If that falls through, Thomas Jones is my second choice. Rumors abound that the Eagles may target Darren Sproles, but I'd prefer a workhorse back instead of a second slasher. Still, it's hard to argue with his explosiveness.

With Weaver, McCoy, and a veteran FA, the RB corps would be set for 2010. The last roster spot could be up for grabs between Buckley, Mallett, and the low-round draftee.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Eagles off-season position review: QBs

The new NFL season begins at the end of this week. Restricted free agents must be tendered by Thursday, and unrestricted free agent signings can start on Friday. I'd like to review each position on the Eagles roster before then, but I'm not sure I'll actually follow through.

We'll start with the quarterback position. Three players in the last year of their contracts, McNabb, Kolb, and Vick.

First, dump Vick. That's the easy one. A conditional pick, starts out as a fifth with the potential to move up to a two. Carolina, St. Louis, and the Raiders are likely fits...although Arizona would be wise to consider it as well, since they have no backup to Matt Leinart.

Second, I'm ready to trade McNabb. I watched the playoffs, and the QB troika of Brett Favre, Peyton Manning, and Drew Brees reminded me just how far #5 is from an elite QB. He has his moments, and can pile up stats with the best of them, but the inaccuracy and indecision always catch up to him in the playoffs.

But the question is: who can we trade him to, and for what? I would gladly take two draft picks: a second-rounder to start along with a conditional pick...let's say it starts as a fourth and can move up to a second if he leads his new team to the playoffs. At that price, I think the Eagles could find several dance partners - Buffalo, Cleveland, San Francisco. Carolina at least...possibly St. Louis, Denver, and Minnesota (if Brett retires) as well. But two things to keep in mind: the Eagles are unlikely to trade him to a contending NFC team, which rules out Carolina, Minnesota, and San Fran. Meanwhile, Donovan is unlikely to want to play for a crappy team, so he wouldn't sign a contract extension with Buffalo, Cleveland, or St. Louis...and without a contract extension, no team will give up two draft picks. So while I want to see him traded, and probably several people in the Eagles' front office do too, it's not going to be simple to get a deal done.

So where does that leave Kolb? I'd dearly love to sign him to a long-term deal, but as long as McNabb is on the roster, it will have to be an incentive-laden contract. You can get away with as much as $3 million base salary for a back-up QB, and then pile on incentives for playing time, passing TDs, etc. Kolb may not go for that, however, which would put the Eagles in a really tough spot. They might be forced to trade Kolb, if they can't find a partner for McNabb, because he'd be a lot less picky about who he signed an extension with. Kolb would be happy to be a starter on a crappy team at this point in his career.

If we can find a partner, McNabb should be traded for a couple picks and Kolb signed to a long-term deal. If not, see if Kolb will accept an incentive-heavy deal and let him back up #5 for a couple more seasons. The last resort would be trading Kolb and signing McNabb. Under no circumstances should the Eagles enter the season with both McNabb and Kolb playing the last year of their contract - that would be disastrous.

In any case, we'll likely need to sign a veteran back-up for 2010, and draft a mid-round QB to develop.

Monday, March 01, 2010

One goal short

I underestimated the US Hockey team. I didn't think they were good enough to win a medal, but they took Canada to overtime in the final game. These Olympics were an incredible stage for hockey, as teams of All-Stars competed against each with a passion consistently absent from All-Star games. I've never seen better hockey than the two US-Canada matches, and the idea that the NHL might not approve an Olympics break again in four years is beyond farcical. You couldn't have a better advertisement for a struggling sport than what was on display in Vancouver.

In between hockey matches, I've been playing Dante's Inferno. Sadly, I'm not impressed. It looks fantastic as you journey through Hell, accompanied by Virgil and his recitation of lines from the immortal poem. You battle legendary creatures on a quest to save your love (Beatrice) from Lucifer's eternal embrace. But with all this going for it, the game still falls well short of what it should be.

Imagine a battle against Death himself, with his Scythe as the prize. Sounds epic, doesn't it? But what if I told you this battle occurs two minutes into the game, while you're still mashing buttons trying to figure out what's going on? That there is no suspense, no buildup to this epic moment, but instead you are whisked into it before you've learned anything about the character, invested in a single skill, or discovered your first combo move? Suddenly, it's a lot less than epic.

The form holds throughout the game. You're whisked from boss fight to boss fight, and while you're battling Charon, Cerberus, the Judge of the Damned, and Cleopatra, your world is reduced to a tiny sliver of Hell and a series of repeated moves. There's no mystery, no suspense, and thus no climax. It's just a series of 'epic' battles with some puzzles and routine slaying in between.

The interface is annoying, as well. It breaks the basic contract of "left-stick move, right-stick rotate camera" that almost all platform games conform to. In Dante's Inferno, the RS instead causes the player to dodge...and while I appreciate how integral that function is to the game, and how important it is to be able to dodge quickly, I get really annoyed when I can't turn my fucking head. I want to look around and experience the environment, especially one as well-crafted as this, but instead I only get to see the viewpoint that the developers thought I should see (which in certain corners, is nothing at all.) This half-assed camera treatment, along with the word Exalted! appearing on my screen when I perform several combos in a row, reminds me far too much of the worst video game I've ever played. Additionally, the interface is extremely contextual, and you're reminded constantly of these contextual changes by little buttons that appear above your target...reminding you that now is the time to mash 'B'.

Finally, several memories of Dante are not built with the game engine, but instead remembered through cartoonish animation - it must have been a stylistic choice, but it doesn't work at all. If you want me to become immersed in your gaming world, you need to avoid 1) cartoon memories, 2) floating button reminders, and 3) the inability to move my fucking neck. When you lovingly craft the nine planes of Hell, with walls of screaming souls, raining fire, and monstrous bosses...player immersion seems like a logical goal, right?

This game would have worked so much better if it was slightly should drop into Hell with no idea how to find Beatrice, and you need to make discoveries and alliances in addition to slaughtering your way through. (Surely, Hell must be political.) When you're linearly dragged from tiny area to tiny area, you never get a sense of scope, discovery, or accomplishment. And contextual clues about the interface should work into the game believably - instead of knowing it's time for a finishing move by seeing a flashing tombstone reading RT hovering above an enemy's head, how about bleeding wounds, staggering, or even something artificial but less obtrusive - like a status bar? I don't want to be constantly reminded that I'm sitting on my couch with a controller; I'd like to believe for a few minutes that I'm actually a scythe-wielding hero beating back the legions of Hell. Sadly, Dante's Inferno rarely affords me that opportunity.

Still, it's mildly entertaining, and I can't help but smile as I re-live one of the first pieces of classic literature that I actually enjoyed. And there's been some hints that the entire adventure has been set up by Lucifer himself, as part of a nebulous plan to break the seals which imprison him in Hell. So there's a chance yet for some suspense and an epic confrontation, but so far the game has been a huge disappointment.