Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Is Harvard Officially the Evil Empire of Ivy Men's Basketball?

You have to either subscribe to ESPN the Insider or ESPN the Magazine to get the article about Harvard's recruiting efforts, which amount to trying to lure 3- and 4-star recruits to Cambridge. It's pretty amazing as to how a) Coach Tommy Amaker (who still hasn't convinced me that he is a good technical coach, as opposed to a good recruiter) can lure these kids to Cambridge, b) how so many top players are good enough students to play at Harvard and c) how the kid featured in the article said that he liked the concept of Harvard because of the possibility of making good basketball connections and going to "an Ivy." From this article, it also sounds like talent-loaded Harvard has a bunch of recruits who could be the Ivy's version of the "Fab Five" -- AAU teammates who might choose the Cantabs over bigger-time basketball schools.

Too often in my life have I run into situations that seemed too good to be true. Sure, call me a jealous hoops zealot who is lamenting the loss of the vivid Penn-Princeton rivalry and who resents Harvard as a wannabe interloper. I can assure you that's not it. I enjoyed watching the Crimson last year and marveled at the assemblage of talent. (I also think that had Sydney Johnson coached the Crimson, they wouldn't have lost a single game). It's just that it seems hard to believe that having gone 65 years without an NCAA tournament bid and without having put a very good team on the court for decades, that all of a sudden perhaps dozens of top-notch recruits are considering Harvard over scholarship schools with good academics and traditional Ivy basketball titans Penn and Princeton, not to mention recent superpower Cornell, which had about as good a three-year run of any Ivy team in a long time.

I recall talking to a Princeton assistant about six, seven years about a top 100 recruit who had a connection to Princeton. The kid was considering Duke (he eventually went there), but word came through that he was interested in Princeton. The recruit went to the school for a visit, but he ultimately chose Duke. Commented the assistant, "We always lose kids when we go up against Stanford, Duke and schools like that." I'm sure that Penn probably would say the same thing. Yes, the schools get good recruits, but increasingly over the years both Penn and Princeton have lost players to schools that somehow Harvard is now competing against and perhaps winning.

What gives? It's not that Harvard has a winning tradition (it doesn't). It's not that Harvard has a great facility (it doesn't). It's not that Harvard has an outstanding coach (Amaker didn't do well at either Seton Hall or Michigan, and while he's recruited well at Harvard he hasn't won a title yet, although with the talent he has he should mail it in and win a title this year). Sure, Harvard has a huge name, but since when has the huge name simply been enough? Especially when you have schools with storied programs in your conference.

Something just doesn't seem to add up. It could be that Harvard finally has gotten it's men's hoops' act together and corralled the optimal combination of hoops talent that can qualify for Harvard. If so, congratulations for catching lightning in a bottle or something like that. Go on-line if you subscribe to ESPN the Insider or buy the magazine and see what you think. Is it newly found brilliance on the Charles River, or something else? And, if so, what?

Any way you slice it, Harvard is certainly defining itself as the team to beat (perhaps for years) in the Ivies. They'll still have to beat archival Yale (which has a good team this season) and take on Penn and Princeton on back-to-back nights twice this season. That's a tough challenge whether you have three- or four-star recruits -- or not.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

More Evidence That Penn State Football Is Eroding Even More

A top recruit from the Philadelphia suburbs, who once gave an oral commitment to the Nittany Lions, is going to Wisconsin.

The reason offered up is that Wisconsin is Offensive Linemen U., and the recent article in Sports Illustrated -- an elegy to the Badgers' development of offensive linemen -- had to help. Look, if a kid wants to go into a profession (and especially where there is no grad school to gain an extra credential), why shouldn't he look at the school best suited to give him the training to get to that career? Because that's precisely what J.J. Denman is doing, and, yes, Wisconsin is a good academic school too.

But here's the thing for Penn State devotees -- Penn State used to get kids like this automatically just by showing up. Penn State was the default drive, the major aspiration -- good program, kids get their degrees, chance to vie for a national title. But the first is in question and the last hasn't been true for a while. So, recruits like Denman will go to a place where not only to they have a better chance to fulfill their potential, sadly, they also will have a better chance to connect with the head coach (read the whole article and see what I mean).

Penn State fans shouldn't be mad at J.J. Denman. He's doing the right thing for himself. If they're frustrated, they should direct their disappointments and dissent to the Penn State administration, which has let the entire issue of succession planning for Joe Paterno get out of hand. Look, I've written this before -- Paterno's body of work is tremendous in every way -- but how far is the administration supposed to let the program slip because they're honoring the past -- extremely so -- at the expense of the present?

No, of course, Penn State won't put together two consecutive 0-12 seasons and fall off the proverbial cliff, but the Nittany Lions are a far cry from what they used to be -- a dominant presence as to the right way to run a major college program that can win championships. Perhaps Penn State fans are okay with the current state of play, and that's okay if the majority of them are.

It's just that they, the university, Coach Paterno and his friends -- they all can do a lot better.

And everyone knows it.

Former Buffalo Bills Center Kent Hull Dead at 50

There have been some wonderful testimonials about Kent Hull.

We all should aspire to have similar things said about us.

Friday, October 14, 2011

On the NBA Lockout

Required Reading: Michael Wilbon's post on yesterday.

I am not an economist, but in a world saturated with alternatives -- whether in music, theater, movies or sports -- I do wonder how many discretionary dollars are out there for the average person to spend. Tickets are not cheap, and we all go through scaling back when funds become more scarce or, alternatively, when we perceive that in the near future there might be a time where funds might become more scarce.

And it's easiest to cut either the biggest ticket items or the recurring items that add up to be the biggest tickets. You might not take a vacation, make that extra improvement to your home, buy a car or a computer or a sofa, you might eat out less, cancel the health club membership and go to the barest bones cable TV subscription, among other things. You also might give up your tickets, opting to go onto StubHub, Craig's List or eBay to buy single-game tickets. If you live in a town where the team isn't vying for a title, there's a good chance that you might be able to buy tickets for below face value. And for the games that you want. You'll do, in essence, what Apple did to the recorded music business with iTunes. Instead of having to buy an entire album -- one with 1.5 songs that you want and 7.5 songs that make you wonder why they were recorded -- you'll be able to zero in on what you want.

All that is background to a general observation that the NBA is in big trouble. To begin with, it already has too many teams and too many teams make the post-season. Because there are too many teams, there are too many bad teams. A few years ago I was in Washington to see the Wizards play the Pacers, and more than half the luxury boxes were unlit and the arena was less than half full. That situation repeats itself around the league more often than the league would like to admit. And now there's the lockout, and, as Michael Wilbon points out, the NBA pales in comparison to the NFL. A lot of people would have suffered withdrawal symptoms had the NFL not started on time. It seems like few are noticing that the NBA might not start on time. Atop that, there's college basketball, which has a very big following and which many conferences play at a high level. Of course, it's not the NBA, but it's still good basketball, sometimes very good fundamental basketball, too.

I don't know whether this still holds true or not, but I have heard it said that in supermarkets if a bread company misses a delivery, it will lose its shelf space to the company that delivers timely that day. Analogously, if the NBA fails to deliver a product when its season is supposed to begin, the consumers will fill up their time with other entertainment options -- other sports, for example. Now, of course, some will miss the NBA terribly and hurry back, but others will attrite simply because they'll have allocated that time to something that they enjoy -- a different brand, a different flavor, so to speak. And then where will the NBA be?

The NBA is facing a perfect storm -- a lockout, a bad economy, intense competition for the discretionary entertainment dollar, a product that has needed improvement for years and a league economy that has more teams losing money than making it. Unless if figures out a way to have some good come out of this and perhaps turn itself into the basketball version of the English Premier Soccer League, the product that returns after what seems to be looking like a long lockout might be significantly weakened.

Michael Wilbon is right -- there is plenty of money to go around, so the parties should figure out a way to settle the dispute and get back to work.

Where are Bob Lanier and Larry O'Brien when you need them?*

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Reflections on the Phillies' Season and Post-Season

Most Phillies' fans would have told you two things -- that failing to reach the World Series would be a disappointment and that they had their doubts that the team would get there. As to the former, well, the Phillies and the media pumped out that expectation ever since the team signed Cliff Lee in the off-season. As to the latter, forget the ghosts of Chico Ruiz stealing home against them down the stretch in '64 and the pinch-hitting of ageless wonders Manny Mota and Vic Davalillo in the '77 playoffs against the Dodgers, no these concerns were more real -- inconsistent hitting, a young bullpen, and an aging core of position players.

So, was I disappointed that the team lost to the Cardinals? Yes.

Was I shocked? No.

Will it take me a while to get over it? Thankfully, I have other interests, but it stings a little.

But let's go through the roster, the season and the post-season in no great order.

1. The Team Paid Cliff Lee the Huge Bucks To Win Game 2 of the NLDS. I hope that this point doesn't get lost in the vortex of blame that's getting thrust upon Ryan Howard, Hunter Pence and any Phillie not named Rollins, Utley, Victorino or Francisco. The Phillies trashed the Cards in Game 1, just slammed them around, and took a 4-0 lead in the first inning of Game 2 with Cliff Lee on the mound. Check mate was in the offing, not just for the game but for the series, because teams down 2-0 have something like a 4-37 record in the post-season. The Phillies needed Cliff Lee not only to shut down the Cards in the bottom of the first (which he did not do), but for the rest of the game. Win that game, and the series is all but over. Let the Cards come back against a guy who will come in no lower than fourth in the NL Cy Young voting, and, well, the irony is that a Philadelphia team turned the Cards into Rocky. So, as much as Phillies' fans love Cliff Lee, he's among the top of the list for goats in this series.

2. Businesses Make Decisions When They're On Top That Can Cause Them to Lose Their Edge. You have to remember that despite all the accolades tossed Pat Gillick's way (including the accolade to end all accolades, a spot in the Hall of Fame), as Baseball Prospectus has pointed out, all of his big signings failed (see, e.g., Adam Eaton), but his genius lay in the fact that he kept on tinkering to find a piece here and a piece there. So, while to compare Ruben Amaro, Jr. to him right now isn't fair (as Amaro has many years to go in his career), Amaro made some big moves that might turn out to be questionable, such as a) signing Raul Ibanez in the first place (despite Phillies' fans love of chanting his name, there didn't seem to be much logic in adding a 36 year-old player to an aging team) and b) perhaps what will prove to be the biggest error (and might have proven to be even if he hadn't ripped his Achilles) signing Ryan Howard to a huge deal at $25 million per year (when at the time the reports were that the new contract made him untradeable and that most other GMs thought the Phillies seriously overpaid). Look, I like Ryan Howard enough, but in the end, baseball is a stone-cold business, and the Phillies aren't the only team that makes this type of mistake (see, e.g., the Yankees and Derek Jeter). These moves might have foretold the results of this season (but only if you're a sharpshooter of a soothsayer).

3. The Team's Plan Didn't Include Getting Younger. I will be the first to admit that baseball mystifies me, at least in terms of the health of the players. Baseball isn't nearly as physical for its players the way football, hockey, soccer and even basketball are. But position players (save catchers) don't have the physical demands that the other sports' players do. Pitchers do have physical demands, because pitching is an unnatural motion and because of the "repetitive motion" aspects that peck at all sorts of workers (including those who work at keyboards). Yet, even with that -- the swinging and the throwing -- baseball players seem to get nicked up at an alarming rate, with the types of injuries that linger. And it's typically the older players who get hurt more and whose injuries linger. A look at the Phillies' injuries this season would have revealed a damaged infield particularly. By having the oldest roster in baseball, the Phillies exposed themselves to both roster depletions and day-to-day flaws that younger teams (within reason, as a team of rookies won't win much) did not have. Put simply, they need to get younger -- and fast -- or risk suffering more of the same problems in the upcoming years. (Yes, you can surmise all you wish that the elimination of steroids might contribute to the injury problem, but unless anyone can prove anything now, it's probably not worth it because that comment could apply to every team).

4. The Team Was Built to Pack a Stadium with Big Names and Sell Merchandise, But the Front Office Didn't Evolve Its Thinking to Include Continuing to Win World Series. Go through the roster -- Howard, Utley, Rollins, Victorino, Halladay, Lee, Hamels, Oswalt -- and those are some pretty big names. You see them on replica jerseys and jersey shirts around Citizens Bank Park, which has had something like 200 consecutive sellouts in a football town in a down economy. At the beginning of the season, fans boasted that if you had a ticket to a game, you had an 80% chance to see one of the "Phour Aces." (The fifth pitcher, Vance Worley, actually outpitched the fourth -- Oswalt -- much of the year). The signing of Cliff Lee -- which came as a big surprise -- the lingering aura of 2008, the four straight division titles -- all of them pumped up the team and the fans. But a deeper dive beneath the surface revealed an untested bullpen (which got old -- fast, too -- with early injuries to Jose Contreras and Brad Lidge and the final falling off the table by J.C. Romero) and a lineup with players whose on-base percentages weren't exactly dazzling if you weren't named, say, Utley or Ruiz. Lots of wild swinging, lots of impatience at the plate, lots of question marks that existed beneath the veneer of confidence, accountability and teamwork. In the end, despite the big names, the one thing that concerned everyone -- consistent hitting -- came back to bite the Phillies. They just didn't have it.

5. Vanity Hurt the Phillies Too. Two years ago, they carried a Rule 5 player on the roster -- David Herndon -- for no good reason, costing more worthy minor leaguers spots on the Major League roster. This year, they "found' a utility player named Michael Martinez on the Rule 5 draft, but, get this, he was 28 and was on the Nationals' roster. And they decided to keep him, despite a weak bat and a glove that got increasingly iffy as the season wore on. Put simply, neither player belonged in the Majors at the time he was there. Worse than that, they carried two players this year with injuries that deprived them of their effectiveness -- pinch-hitter Ross Gload and third baseman Placido Polanco. It's pretty gutsy to think that you can win with folks with bad hips and sports hernias. Sorry, but while a fan can accept that many players have nagging injuries, it's hard to accept carrying players with very much diminished offensive capacities. That hurt the team more than the team let on.

6. For All the Big Money, Ryan Howard Must Evolve. The Phillies had a rookie, many years ago, who hit .198 his first year, struck out about 180 times, showed some pop and walked enough. That player got more selective at the plate, to the point where by the middle and end of his career his strikeouts were "acceptable" and far less than his rookie year, his walks were up, and his on-base percentage -- batting third -- was about .400 every year. Several years later, they had another infielder who had the looks of a Hall of Famer -- he could run, hit for power, hit for average -- but after a few good years he suffered a downward spiral that made him into a super-utility player for other teams, owing to the fact that he just couldn't lay off sliders that were sometimes horribly out of the strike zone. The former player -- a third baseman -- is in the Hall of Fame, a guy by the name of Mike Schmidt. The latter player -- is now the team's third base coach, a guy by the name of Juan Samuel. But ask anyone who saw Samuel in his first year or two, and he thought that he saw someone who would be a very special player.

But Samuel failed to evolve, didn't figure out how to become more selective at the plate, and became exposed as an everyday player. He had a nice career, but baseball requires continuous adjustments. Hit inside pitches, they'll throw you pitches outside and in the dirt. Murder fastballs, and you'll see slop. The greats continue to adjust.

Ryan Howard is between those two players. Unlike Schmidt, he wasn't born with the great batting eye that led to on-base percentages that were dazzling. But Schmidt did get more selective as his career unfolded. Unlike Samuel, while outside "slop" breaking balls do paralyze him, Howard rebounds from downward spurts within a season to seem plateaued with a batting average below .270, an OBP around to slighly below .350 and with similar (and very good) power numbers. That's pretty impressive given that he appears to be the same hitter that he was when he came up, albeit less effective because of injuries and because other teams now know how to pitch him.

So, the Phillies have what they have. A cleanup hitter who is not an elite hitter, but a dangerous one who will continue to put up among the best power numbers. Regrettably, the human mind focuses on memorable failures and spectacular successes, and, with well-known professional athletes, the former seem to stick in fans' minds more than the latter. But if Howard were to try to take a page out of Schmidt's book regarding selectivity and approach, he might be able to put up even better results. It does seem kind of late in his career to do that, though.

7. There are Good Things, Too. So Let's Focus on Them for a Moment. Skipper Charlie Manuel and the team's leaders have created a culture of hard work and accountability. Watch a game and you normally can see the bounce in the players' steps, their passion for the game (both on the field and in the dugout). I don't expect that to change much. John Mayberry, Jr., emerged as someone who might be able to play every day in left field or at first base (to spell the injured Howard, who might be gone until July). The top three starting pitchers are as good as any in baseball. Some of the young relievers -- Bastardo (despite his late-season woes, which should be fixable) and Stutes (despite his late-season fatigue) -- showed promise, as did Herndon in his relatively limited role in his second year in the big leagues. The (rapid) aging of the team might overshadow these developments, but remember that the front office has a lot of money going off payroll and will tinker with the roster in a way to improve it -- by getting younger and signing some hitters who are more selective at the plate. Those sellouts and all that merchandise portend that a bold GM will get the green light from ownership to make more moves to fortify the team.

8. So, Let's Look at the Team.

There are lots of decisions to be made. Presumably, Brad Lidge ($12 million per) and Raul Ibanez ($11 million per) will not be back. The club has a $16 million option for Roy Oswalt, and I don't think that they'd take him for half the salary. He was too inconsistent, and it would look like after Halladay, Lee and Hamels two of Kyle Kendrick, Vance Worley and Joe Blanton will be the starters. Most likely, it will be the latter two, but don't count out the possibility of a trade involving Worley. Also, Kendrick had a very good year (period) and made $2 million last season and is eligible for arbitration again. You have to wonder whether the Phillies will let him go rather than risk paying him say $4 million as a sixth starter and long man in the bullpen.

As for the bullpen, Jose Contreras and Brad Lidge should not return even if for low numbers. Both are up there in years and injury-prone, and their best days are behind them. Ryan Madson in all likelihood will not return, leaving a huge hole in the bullpen (and showing the first break in the "core" group that has been with the team since '08 and before). The reason is simple -- his agent, Scott Boras -- delivers for his clients, and one of the 30 MLB teams out there will overpay for Madson the way the Nats did for Jayson Werth. The rest of the 'pen is relatively young, needs some veteran leadership, but somehow, some way, teams constitute bullpens. Sure, the Phillies' 'pen might not rival Atlanta's, but it won't have to. I have full confidence on this score that the team will have a bullpen sufficient to do the job in 2012.

But pitching isn't the biggest worry. The everyday lineup is.

Catching seems to be in reasonably good shape, even with Carlos Ruiz's failure to hit in the post-season. He has some pop, he has a good on-base percentage, and while he isn't Joe Maurer or Yadier Molina, he is pretty good. Back-up Brian Schneider deserves a return, if only because the team was something like 28-6 or so when he started this year. The Phils don't have a young catcher who Schneider is blocking, as their best catching prospect, Sebastian Valle, is about 21 years old and years away.

Infield is the biggest question mark. Howard, ripped Achillies and all, might be out until July. Utley showed that he's a gamer in the post-season, but he's brittle and seemingly not his old self (his skipper offered in the post-season that he's about 75% of his old self). The leader, Rollins, is 32, had a good year after two bad ones, but is injury-prone. A team like the BoSox, big payroll and all, is likely to overpay for him to provide leadership in the clubhouse. The Red Sox would be wise to do so; the Phillies also would miss Rollins greatly. But the Phillies are in a pickle because of the Howard injury, their commitment to starting pitchers who are here to win now, their need to continue to sell out, their need for leadership and the fact that their best SS prospect (Freddy Galvis) isn't ready. Given the Howard injury and despite the team's need to get younger, look for the Phillies to (perhaps) overpay for Rollins. Placido Polanco at third is the big question mark -- he looks to be through, but the team owes him $8 million for 2012. Clearly, he's not the answer, and clearly, third would be a spot where the team could get younger.

Outfield isn't without its issues. Ibanez will be gone, although some AL team might ink him to a 1-year deal to be a part-time DH, and that would be a good investment. He's also a class act. Victorino is sold in center, but you have to wonder about Hunter Pence. Sure, he was an energy boost after Domonic Brown played fairly at best, but he's a wild swinger on a team that needs to show more plate discipline. Brown should figure in the mix next year, as should John Mayberry, Jr.

Overall, it's an aging lineup, injury prone, with many on the declining side of their careers, and lacking in plate discipline. Ruben Amaro, Jr. is a former Major Leaguer with a degree from Stanford, and he'll need to summon all of his smarts and best instincts to pivot this team into a state where it can contend for not one or two more years, but many. But while Amaro has proven to be a pretty good trader, at some point it also would be nice to see some home-grown talent populate the roster.

My view is that the team can contend for perhaps as many as three more division titles with this nucleus (and particularly with the starting pitching, assuming they ink Hamels to a well-deserved long-term deal), but it might be hard for them to get to or even win another World Series, thereby more so resembling the Braves who won 14 straight division titles but only 1 World Series than the Yankees, who won a fist full of World Series titles in the late 1990's.

This particular off-season will be one to watch closely.

Friday, October 07, 2011

What Good Luck Charms are Phillies' Fans Trotting Out Tonight?

My pessimistic cousin -- who despaired mid-season before the Phils were en route to winning 102 games -- says the game's a lock for the Phillies.

The reason?

The steam patters from the red rocks in his sauna somewhere in the desert foretell a Phillies' victory. It's the calmest he's been about the Phillies since the beginning of the season. He said he might not even watch the game. Somehow, I think he will.

At any rate, Game 5's in divisional series are big games, and they are humbling games. They reveal that a journeyman like Don Kelly can be a hero, while a Hall of Famer like Derek Jeter can struggle with runners in scoring position. What's in store for the Cardinals and Phillies tonight?

That's why they play the games. Both are good teams, and their play to date has warranted a Game 5. Based on my sense of momentum, I think that the Cardinals should be favored -- they have played more consistently and have been more patient at the plate. Yet, the Phillies are home, they are trotting out their ace, and all will expect a big game from him tonight. But he's facing his old, good friend in Chris Carpenter, an ace himself, and, unlike in Game 2 where he was pitching on 3 days' rest for the first time in his career, Carpenter will be pitching on full rest. This game has the makings of a great one, as all deciding games do.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

At the Bank on Saturday Night: The Old Masters


1. I did learn from the Weather Channel that when they say there's a 50% chance of rain what they mean is that with the weather patterns presented, it has rained 50 times out of 100. Thankfully, we were on the favorable side of that prediction last night.

2. We sat in the second deck in right field, about 10 feet on the "foul" side of the foul pole. Good seats, under cover, although the wind was whipping something fierce.

3. The pre-game environment was exciting, and, yes, Lance Berkman's bomb in the first inning deflated the crowd a bit. I'm not sure that I agree with newspaper reports that the homer sucked the energy out of the place, because it happened so early in the game. Yes, the fans did get quieter, but I didn't hear despair or cursing about Halladay. The fans were patient.

4. Kyle Lohse did his best Don Larsen imitation for the first five or so innings, going perfect for about the first four and dazzling the Phillies with his off-speed stuff. Lohse is a good if not great starter, and while he was outdueling Roy Halladay deep down I felt that the faithful thought that they'd get to him.

5. Credit Tony LaRussa for pulling out the stops on Halladay early. In recent starts, Halladay was vulnerable to yielding first-inning runs before settling down, and LaRussa made sure he maximized that weakness by running leadoff hitter Rafael Furcal early.

6. Lohse was so brilliant that after 5 innings he might have thrown 50 pitches. The Phillies weren't patient, but when Ryan Howard worked the count off Lohse in the sixth and hit his three-run homer, the place erupted about as loudly as I've ever heard it. And then when Raul Ibanez homered two at bats later, the place was just pumped up. Ibanez is in the last year of his contract, and it would behoove some AL team to ink him to a 1-year contract to be at least a part-time DH. Sure, his OBP was bad this year, but he had a bunch of key hits and overcame a terrible start. He has some more gas in the tank. I doubt that the Phillies will re-sign him (even if at 1 year for $1 million), only because they need to make room for younger players.

7. Halladay was the first pitcher since Larsen to retire 21 in a row in a post-season game. Last year, when he pitched his no-hitter against the Reds, he "only" retired 14 in a row. I kept a book last night, and he just kept on mowing the Cardinals down. His rebounding from adversity was impressive.

8. Most Phillies' fans were worried about whether the team would hit in the post-season, given the lapse during the 8-game losing streak near the season's end and what happened in last year's post-season. Well, the team shook off the cobwebs and figured out Lohse and then clobberred the Cardinals. The 11-6 final score was misleading. The Cardinals scored 3 runs in garbage time -- the top of the ninth -- after the Phillies had pummeled them and led 11-3. If the Phillies can hit reasonably well, they'll get at least to the World Series and then will have the chance to win it all.

9. The Cardinals are formidable, as is LaRussa, so one game does not a series make. Remember, this is the same LaRussa that skippered a team that finished 83-79 in the regular season in 2006 to a World Series title. LaRussa has a lot of tricks up his sleeve and will be in Cooperstown some day.

10. It was a vintage night, last night at the Bank. It was like Old Masters were painting their masterpieces -- key hits by the veterans, a future Hall of Fame pitcher pitching brilliant after a bad start, and fun for the home town fans. Still, this series -- and the post-season -- is far from over.

Philadelphia Eagles: The Dream Team is a Living Nightmare

The Eagles have blown second half leads in the past three weeks.

They are 1-3.

Some dream team, perhaps a "nightmare" team.

Just because you add all the parts that you did in the off-season doesn't ensure that you have chemistry. The Phillies, who play across the street, have both the big names and the chemistry. The Eagles have the big names, but they lack leadership on the field and have some blind spots off it.

Here is the critique:

1. You don't jettison an All-Star kicker unless you're sure the replacement is better. I don't blame today's loss to the 49ers on rookie Alex Henery, but if you miss two kicks at home of less than 40 yards, you won't have a job for long if you don't figure it out. Perhaps there were chemistry issues with David Akers, but he's a better kicker than Alex Henery.

2. The team lacks leadership on the field. The Phillies abound with leaders -- Halladay, Lee, Rollins, Howard, Utley, you name it, they have them. Who are the leaders on the Eagles? Who helps fire up each of their units -- offense, defense and special teams? Can you name anyone? That's part of their problem.

3. The team lacks judgment off the field. No one stands up to Andy Reid in the organization. I mean, how can they justify moving their offensive line coach to defensive coordinator? Why did that make any sense? And, how can they justify year after year not bolstering the linebacking corps? This team cannot stop the run. I mean, the 49ers came into the game with the NFL's worst offense, and the Eagles couldn't stop them.

4. Don't they practice ball security? I've seen better ball protection in Pop Warner leagues. That's Football 101.

5. And what's with the Red Zone offense? It doesn't matter all that much if you can move the ball before the 20 if you can't punch the ball into the end zone. The team had that problem last year and didn't fix it.

The Eagles seems stuck in being above average. While there might be few coaches with Andy Reid's track record, there are a bunch of them who seem to be able to surpass him. Year after year, his teams have flaws that turn out to be fatal. This year, the flaws were a) poor linebacking, b) question marks at safety, c) question marks on the interior offensive line, d) a bust of a first-round draft pick, and e) whether they'd improve their red zone offense. Reid has done a very good job over the past 10+ year; there's not disputing that. But he also hasn't been held as accountable for his decisions as he should be, and then he was given great leeway off-season with respect to his coaching staff and to personnel moves. And, so far, they have not materialized.

This is clearly a team that can sell tickets. This is a team that would populate a fantasy team well. But it isn't necessarily a playoff team, a team with the "giddyup" to really take it to the other team, get a lead and keep them down. They aren't closers, or at least they haven't shown this much so far. You just cannot blow second half leads and consider yourself playoff material.

Horrible, horrible day for the Eagles.

The dream team right now is a living nightmare.