Sunday, January 29, 2012

Practice Plan for 5th and 6th Grade Basketball

Of all the posts I've put up over the years, the one that has drawn the most comments has been one on coaching second-grade basketball. It's not the easiest to find a practice plan -- there are books (Dave Faucher, one-time coach at Dartmouth, wrote a good book on coaching youth basketball) and videos (Sysko has some good ones), and there are many books on plays, but not necessarily any on how to run a one-hour practice. I figured I'd take this time to tell you what we do with our rec league team, a fifth and sixth grade team that practices one hour a week and plays one game on the weekend.

First, a key decision that you'll have to make is whether to run scripted plays. Last year, we did, but we had a group with a very high basketball IQ, with every kid having played for years. Even then, it was a struggle, if only because we practice one hour a week and there is little time for reinforcement. This year, we started out with running plays, but figured out that of the ten kids we have on the roster, four just don't have the experience to run the plays well. So, after five games, we decided to scrap the plays, keep the kids in a 1-4 stack, and then freelance depending on what the point guard does (I'll explain the 1-4 stack a bit later on).

Second, you probably won't have an optimal space to practice at. We're fortunate in that we have a half court of a middle-school gym, and this half-court also has baskets on each side, so that we can divide the group of kids into smaller groups for individual instruction. Most of the time we do not do that (nor does the team that practices at the same time). We tend to work with the group as one, trying to develop skills.

Third, we try to give the kids a few guiding principles to go on. Some, of course, will pick up the principles faster than others. Some have played more, some are better learners, some watch the game in addition to playing it and figure out what to do. But others show up because their parents make them, because it's something to do. Yet others don't want to show that they don't know, so they'll nod, not ask questions, and then make the wrong type of mistakes -- traveling, double-dribbling, three- and five-second violations. And, depending on their attention spans, they might make repeated mistake of this type during the season. All this comes with the rec league.

What are the basic principles? Here goes:

  • Defend hard. No matter how skilled or unskilled a kid is with the ball, each kid has the ability to stay with the man he is assigned, guard him tightly, put a hand in his face, deflect the ball way. At this level, teams will have a chance in each game if they defend vigorously (teaching "switching" or "help" defense is something you'll need to do at some point, too).

  • Play under control. Or, to quote John Wooden, "be quick, but don't hurry." Translated, play under control, don't force things, and take what's given to you. Translated further, don't try to throw a chest pass through the lane, pick up your dribble in the corner (where the baseline and sideline act as additional defenders) and don't try to dribble between two defenders.

  • Use space well. Meaning, don't run right next to a fellow offensive player, unless a) to set a screen under the right circumstances (but not when the teammate has stopped dribbling!) or b) to take a handoff from a teammate who has stopped dribbling.

  • Finish a play well. The teams who insist upon drilling on plays end up missing a lot of shots because the kids don't practice shooting. Teach the kids not to shoot when under the basket (as the basket poses an additional defender) and to take a good angle to the basket to enable them to use the backboard (you'd be surprised as to how many kids go straight at the basket, toss up a prayer and have it bounce out or miss totally).

There are probably others, but remember, if you have one hour per week, you are limited in what you can convey and teach. With that principle in mind, try to think of Mr. Miyagi in the original Karate Kid movie and create drills with enough repetition that the kids might just deep down remember to draw on one of them in a game. So, with that in mind, we separate our practices into 3 twenty-minute sessions, as follows:

Part I

  • Talk with the kids about what you're trying to accomplish. Use "we" and not "you," remind them that everyone can make a contribution beyond scoring points, emphasize a few themes, encourage questions. Even ask whether you're being clear, whether something is working. It's okay not to know everything and to show them that you might be wrong on occasion. Take a few minutes for this.

  • Three-man weave (sideways on your half of the court). The kids absolutely love this drill. The basic principle, as I learned from my junior high school's gym teacher, is "behind the man I pass it to and head down court." You probably can find this drill on YouTube, but it involves movement, precision passing and finishing. It also helps the kids get loose and get into better shape. I usually run this for five minutes.

  • Two-on-none passing drill. (Four minutes). Here you have two lines that start under the basket, and they make quick chest passes to each other, halting between the top of the key and half court, then they do the same back toward the basket, with one player throwing a bounce pass to the other at the and for a layup. This helps them move quickly, make good decisions, and finish.

  • Two-on-one drill. (Four minutes). We have found that scrimmaging or playing two-on-two or three-on-three ends up having the kids in a major defensive scrum that doesn't yield many baskets. So, we have the kids form two layup-like lines near where the key starts, and they try to get by the defender with crisp movement and passing (we switch the defender every 5 plays or so). The goal is to work a lopsided advantage and finish well. This drill also deals with too much unselfishness, because sometimes you'll find that kids are so unselfish that the last pass is under the basket, goes out of bounds. We also have the defender lay back or charge upon our instruction, to make the kids think.

  • Jab Step Drill. (5 minutes). You might need to search this on Google or YouTube, but this drill involves a ballhandler with a defender up close on him. The ballhandler then establishes a pivot foot and jabs his foot in one direction, then the other, trying to get the defender to bite and move in the opposite way of where he wants to put the ball on the floor and then try to make a basket. We've had great contests of will, some good finishes and a lot of fun. You never know who can smoke who and who can defend. It's a great drill to get the kids more confident in their abilities both to handle the ball and be an up-close defender.


Part II

  • Shoot off the Blocks. (5 minutes) Both sides of the lane have a square about 5 feet from the basket. We line 5 kids on a diagonal (45-degree angle) from the blocks and have them shoot off the backboard from both sides, trying to get them so focus on finishing, to speed up the line and to make shots. The importance of this drill? Many teams cannot finish. We've taught the weakest players to shoot using this drill, and some of the best athletes figure out that using the backboard makes sense. Interestingly, our less athletic teams fare better at this drill than the most athletic teams. At one point in practice this year, our kids hit 18 of 20 shots. Good stuff. Each line has 1 basketball.

  • "Princeton" shooting drill. (5 minutes). We saw Princeton use this drill before a game, and we adopted it. Basically, you have two horizontal lines, one starting on each side of the lane, both about 8-10 feet from the basket. The kids on left dash to the center of the lane, and the kids on the right hit them with a chest pass. The receiver then shoots it. We teach the "LEEF" principle (push with your Legs, Eyes just slightly beyond the front of the rim, Elbow beneath the ball and Follow through). Using this drill, the kids learn to catch and shoot and adopt a shooting philosophy (shoot it slightly beyond the front of the rim). We use two balls in this drill.

  • Chase drill. (5 minutes). We have two "layup" lines, one on the right near the top of the key, one a few feet to the left of the left lane line between halfcourt and the top of the key. We give the ball to the player in the right line, and then yell "go." The kid in the left lane "chases" the player with the ball, in order to pressure him. The goal is for the kid in the right line to make the basket under pressure.


Part III

  • Rebounding drill. (5 minutes). There are two lines. One is under the basket, the other at about 12 feet (3 feet before the foul line). The player in the lane under the basket throws a chest pass to the player in the other line, who then takes a shot. The passer "rushes" the shooter, but is instructed not to try to block the shot. The two players are supposed to jostle for the rebound, trying to box each other out.

  • Switching drill (3 minutes). One coach plays the role of a player near the low post. The other coach plays the role of the defender of the point guard. There are two lines -- the point guards near the top of the key, and then the low-post defenders. We let the point guard blow by his defender, and then the low-post defender is supposed to dash before the point guard to cover him. Not a very complicated drill, but it's important to make sure the kids keep their heads on a swivel.

  • Situational Matters (10 minutes). We'll typically work on an inbounds play and showing kids some basic concepts out of our 1-4 stack offense (two wings, two posts and a point guard). We try to work with the kids on passing and screening, passing and moving and screening and moving. This isn't easy; some kids get it, some don't, but it's the best we can do in a short time. Even if you don't run plays, you must show the kids what to do when they do not have the ball. After this, we wrap up practice.

There are more drills that you can run. You can have all sorts of dribbling drills (dribbling the length of the floor with the good hand and then back with the bad, have the kids shout out the number of fingers you put up (so that they keep their heads up when dribbling), play dribble "tag" -- dribbling the ball with one hand while trying to steal their "tag" partner's ball with the other) and passing drills (basics of overhead passes and bounce passes). We also on occasion run pick-and-roll, give-and-go and handoff drills.

We tend to review the prior week's game closely and then figure out what we need to work on. Each week, it's something different, whether it's setting a high screen, fundamentals of a defensive stance, figuring out what the opponent's "bad" hand is and forcing him in that direction, foul shooting, something. The key thing is to be organized, make it fun and plan every precious minute. The kids will appreciate the discipline, they will try to keep up with each other, and they will see themselves getting better.

Have fun!

The Toll That Football Takes

The year-end Sports Illustrated piece on the collective health of the Cincinnati Bengals 25 years after their good 1986 season is telling. Peter King and some colleagues talked to almost the entire roster of players. Most deal with significant health issues. Most would do it all over again. Interestingly, the toughest defender of the bunch, strong safety David Fulcher, would not.

Today, circumstances are different. The playing surfaces are more forgiving, the training methods better, the allowed hitting in practice more infrequent. But the players are bigger and faster, and the training methods that are better not only aid in recovery but in delivering an extra wallop when making a hit. Regardless of generational differences, the article confirms what we all know -- that football is a collision sport that takes its toll. You can decide, upon reading the article, whether it's worth it.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

More Bad News Out of Yale: The Story Behind a Collapsed Candidacy for a Rhodes Scholarship

Read this and then contemplate it.

Who are the real heroes?

What can you believe any more?

A QB allegedly turned town a Rhodes interview to play in the "Game" against Harvard. Gets national coverage. A possible testimony to what's right and pure about college athletics.

Except. . . that he was yanked as a Rhodes candidate ostensibly before he would have had the chance to interview. For what's it's worth, he had a disciplinary record -- both at Yale and at the university from which he transferred -- and because of football either went to three high schools in four years or four in three years.

Role model?

Yale QB. Great grade-point average. Choosing teammates over fame.

Sounded great, didn't it?

But it was too good to be true, it seems.

What are we supposed to believe anymore?

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

An Afternoon at a Volleyball Match

I'm sure that each of us prefer one or the other, depending on whether we have a team that we're rooting for, whether we know someone involved with the team and, most importantly, whether our team wins or loses the game. Clearly, you want your team, your friends, your kids, your kids' friends and your friends' kids to give a good effort and to win. That's why they keep score.

There are levels to this of course. You want your professional teams to win championships. You want your favorite college teams to do the same, or, at a minimum, beat the rivals and those over whom you want bragging rights or, perhaps better, don't want to hear bragging from. You want your kids' teams to win, yes, but you want your kids to play on the right teams for their level of ability so that they can get the level of instruction, playing time and involvement that they seek. As well as good coaches and good kids, because when it's all said and done, if the teammates aren't good kids, the experience can be dreadful.

Yesterday, I witnessed a very good volleyball match between two teams that gave it their all. My daughter happened to be on one of them, and her team, while playing hard and competing reasonably well, loses a lot more than it wins. Yet, the girls play hard, they are spirited, they support one another, and when you see them before a game you cannot tell that they lose more than they win. That's a tribute to their coach, their captains, and the girls themselves.

They were playing a team that had beaten them twice before, once in three straight games on the road, and then in their own gym in four games. They found themselves short a captain and a few upperclassmen as they ventured on the road to play this rival for a third time.

To call the opponents' gym a "band box" would be an understatement, as a shoe box would be more like it. There was barely any room on the sidelines for parents to sit, and the floor itself was very hard, not the most conducive to diving and sliding. At any rate, the teams battled mightily. The hosts got off to a quick start and won game 1, while the visitors rebounded nicely and won game 2 by a nice margin. The hosts then took game 3, and right then I figured that my daughter's team would battle gamely, lose a close game, lose the match 3 games to 1 and call it a day. That's been their modus operandi -- they simply have enough talent to go so far.

Yesterday was different. It was as though after the third game the bells in the song from Rocky "Go the Distance" started chiming, and the group of girls on the floor looked particularly game. They didn't look resigned, they looked pretty relaxed with a tinge of a sense of purpose that indicated that perhaps they had one more run in them yet. The hosts also sensed the kill, and they upped their intensity. Yes, there were some bad serves and unforced errors that gave the other team points, but by and large there were good points, hard fought. For my daughter's team, girls who had trouble serving served better, diggers dug with fewer mis-hits, hitters kept the ball inside the lines and blockers blocked pretty well. The result was a solid victory in Game 4, which meant that they'd have to play a 15-point Game 5 to decide the match.

The referee held a coin flip, which the hosts won. They promptly chose the side they wanted over serving, and the referee told me it was because the team that won each game took the side that the hosts just took. I smiled. The way I figured it, my daughter's team got to a Game 5, not a frequent occurrence. In certain ways, the pressure was on them to overcome prior odds and win. In other ways, the pressure was on the hosts not to lose to a team in their own gym that they had beaten twice before.

The action was intense, and the hosts pulled ahead 11-8. It looked somewhat bleak for my daughter's team, but then they rallied to tie it and ultimately go ahead, 14-13. They needed one more point and were serving. They got a good serve, but the other team made a few good hits and won the point. Tied at 14.

The hosts' served, and there was a vigorous back and forth that led to a set for the outside hitter of the hosts, perhaps the most talented player on the floor. She might be about 5'6", but she has hops, and up she went, launch a cannon shot between two of the visitors' back line. There was no way they could return it, except. . .

it was out. By two feet, not even close. 15-14 visitors, serving for the match.


In a loud, crowded gym.

Against a team that beat them handily about a month ago, less handily several weeks ago, and without a few regulars.

The serve was in. The hosts returned it, and the visitors answered, placing a ball near the feet of a host player who just couldn't get to it.

The visitors -- my daughter's team -- won!

For the first time in a long time.

In the fifth game. On the road. In a crowded gym.

It was something to behold. A barnburner of a game. In a tight space, with young kids who gave it their all and who played their hearts out.

It wasn't the NBA, the NFL, the BCS championship game or anything close.

What it was was a hard-fought contest between two well-coached teams who gave a great effort and got a lot out of their abilities. What it also was was a victory by a team against the odds, and you seldom see that. When you do, it's pretty satisfying at many levels, a real treat.

I had texted my wife with updates all afternoon, and she offered that I really built the excitement because of the way the match unfolded. I am sure that her exclamation after my report of the final point was louder than mine, as I had developed a friendly relationship with a dad from the host team who was sitting next to me. And besides, why act like you hadn't been there before, like winning was new or rare?

Games like these are the most rewarding. Sure, part of it is because you know the kids. But perhaps a bigger part of it is that these kids play for their schools, each other and for the love of the sport -- and that's it.

And it's more than plenty.

It's pure gold.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

What Happened Between Ryan Madson and the Phillies

Madson's agent, Scott Boras, says that the Phillies and Madson had a deal and then the Phillies decided to sign someone else.

Ruben Amaro, Jr., the Phillies' GM, sharply disagrees but doesn't want to get into a public dispute with Boras.

Whom do you believe?

The story I heard was that Madson and the Phillies had agreed in principle on a four-year, $44 million deal and then it got stuck on the desk of Phillies' owner David Montgomery. Then, a few days later, voila, the Phillies inked Red Sox' closer Jonathan Papelbon to a 4-year, $50 million deal. That story would suggest that the Phillies had told agents for both players that they would go hard after both and try to sign them fast, so that they both should be ready to deal. What the Phillies didn't say, logic suggests, is that they wanted Papelbon all along and that either a) his agent would respond quickly or b) they would use Madson's faster response to prompt a decision from Papelbon or settle with Madson. And then they signed Papelbon (and perhaps significantly overpaid for him given that no other team gave Madson a huge deal, which means that in all likelihood there might not have been serious competition for Papelbon, either). Of course, this is plausible if you believe the initial report that the deal got stuck on Montgomery's desk -- and that's where things get murky.

To me, Boras's public statement is logical, and the Phillies' denial is logical perhaps if only to save face, because Boras's explanation hints that the Phillies used Madson to get Papelbon, and, while players use one team to leverage another all the time, the Phillies' management doesn't want to look bad to the players on the team and therefore will deny what Boras says and perhaps get away with the denial because Boras is unpopular in Philadelphia. But, there's another equally plausible explanation.

Then again, I'm an Amaro fan, so I would like to give him the benefit of the doubt. It just may be that Boras didn't have a deal but is saying what he's saying to save face before his player (Madson), his other players (many) and potential future clients. Why is that logical? Because if Madson signed with the Phillies, he would have gotten a 4-year, $44 million deal. Now he'll get a 1-year, $8.5 million deal, and that looks very bad if you are an agent.

So what really happened? That's a good question.

And one that will be forgotten pretty quickly.

Pitchers and catchers report in 5 weeks.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

On Bill O'Brien's Hiring at Penn State

Penn State alums have nothing to complain about insofar as who the powers that be chose to follow Joe Paterno as head football coach. The powers that be so screwed up any meaningful succession process because of the alums idolatry about Paterno that they just need to embrace who they got, period, and move on.

They resisted any meaningful call for a decent succession plan, going so far as to get nasty to anyone who suggested otherwise, even on these pages (where I have touched upon this point for years). And while the passage of time has proven that Jerry Sandusky was far from fit, a toxic cocktail of nepotism (in the form of the overemphasis on Jay Paterno's role, thus impeding any succession planning process), pushing out one possible candidate years ago (Fran Ganter, who might not have been perfect but who did all the right things), Paterno's stubbornness on the question and the pretentious fawning of alums over all things Paterno led to the combustion of the Penn State program and its "we're better than you" image. So, when you have a disaster on your hands, you do the best you can.

By enabling the Paterno aura beyond reason, the powers that be created a situation where the most viable of candidates wouldn't want to enter because how could they "replace" Joe Paterno (as it turns out, given what we believe has happened, that might be much easier to do than anyone thought). By waiting this long, they missed out on some good candidates. By having the scandal on their hands, many people who otherwise would have jumped at the chance probably passed. Say goodbye to Kirk Ferentz, Urban Meyer, James Franklin, Gary Patterson, Chris Petersen, Al Golden and others. So, it's not as though Penn State had its pick, which is a shame, because years ago it would have. What it was left with was a group of risers who might be great be who offer less certainty than an "A" list that would have emerged had those who ran Penn State at the time run it well and not permitted anyone to become bigger than the institution.

Enter Bill O'Brien. Symmetrically ironic in that he went to the same school that Joe Paterno did, Brown University. Interesting in that he's the offensive coordinator for one of the best coaches in the history of the NFL, Bill Belichick. But a question mark because none of Romeo Crennel, Charlie Weis, Eric Mangini or Josh McDaniels has succeeded as a head coach. And that makes the selection of O'Brien the triumph of hope over experience. At least for now.

And, to a degree, it shows how deep the Penn State administration had to dig to find the right candidate. To LaVar Arrington, Brandon Short and those who are upset, they should ask themselves why they are upset. Are they angry because someone shattered their myth? And, if that's the case, are they angry with themselves for believing in the myth so deeply, perhaps more so than their own religion or self-worth? Are they angry with the guy who sold them the myth? That would make sense. And are they hurting? Of course. They, like the rest of the Penn State faithful, should reflect as to why this happened, why they let any one person have such a disproportionate emphasis on their extracurricular activities and self-esteem, and why their institution -- which should be in charge first and foremost of the betterment of society and the individuals who go there, individually and as a whole -- let everyone down?

But they should not be angry at those who were left to pick up the pieces, to make some sense out of everything and to move the institution forward. When you look at all the problems in the world today, this is a relatively high-class one. We're not talking about avoiding a nuclear war, the overthrow of a government, a plague, massive hunger or double-digit unemployment. We're talking about a state university's football program, and that's all that it is, ever was, or should be. So to get all lathered up about the selection of Bill O'Brien as opposed to someone who has Penn State somewhere in his pedigree doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

Because that culture was flawed.

Bill O'Brien will try to play nice, and he'll say all the right things. He'll be diplomatic with those with whom he has to be, but if he's smart he'll try to put his own image on things quickly. He'll use the intellect that gained him admission to Brown in the first place and the passion that he's demonstrated on the sidelines to create a program that not only talks about how good it is, but that really is good and stands up where it counts. I don't have any qualms with Arrington or Short -- they are hurting and like the rest of us lost something late last year -- but O'Brien cannot rebuild a program by worrying about the feelings of anyone with a history with the program.

No sir. Bill O'Brien must create a vision and lead toward it. It shouldn't be about a P.R. machine, about image building and defending, the building of statues or anything else.

It should be about the values that we all hold dear and that led to the ripping asunder of the same institution that disappointed everyone so completely because in the end, it forgot those values and didn't live them.

O'Brien may or may not be the right choice, but it doesn't really matter now. He is the choice, he deserves the full support of all Penn State faithful, and he should be given every chance to succeed. Comparisons to his predecessor might be inevitable, but they for right now are very much unwarranted.

The quicker Penn State moves forward into the next chapter of its football history, the better.

It's time for the alums to end their mourning period. What happened was terrible.

Let a new chapter begin.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

What Jeffrey Lurie Really Said

His press conference was a mixed bag, but listening closely, one concept keeps coming back to me -- he's the best coach for us to win a championship next year. That's what Lurie said, so let's consider the comment.

First, if you agree with the premise that this team can win a championship next year, then logically it might follow that Reid knows the personnel the best and, therefore, is best situated to continue with his team and win a championship.

Second, if you agree with the premise that over the past couple of years the Eagles needed to shift gears, get younger and re-tool, you might be more patient with Reid than others because at some point the team did need to get younger. But that doesn't mean that you agree with the next premise, that the re-tooled team is in a position to win a championship.

Third, if you listened closely, does Reid pretty much have an ultimatum -- push the rock up to the top of the hill or leave town?

I don't agree that this team can win a championship. The team lacks linebacking, had iffy safety play, has some holes in its offensive line, needs a seasoned defensive coordinator and more consistent play from its quarterback, who, yes, must learn how to slide to protect the team's investment. He also must learn how to play in the pocket more, because it's hard to name a QB who won a Super Bowl by not staying in the pocket. One does not exist. The team does have a bunch of talent, should improve next year, but win a title? Unlikely.

I do think that in saying that he did without being very blunt, Lurie has told us that if Big Red doesn't win a title, he might be gone. Or, perhaps the impression he wanted to give off, but no fan bit. And the reason that no fan has bit is because had the Birds gone 4-12 this year, Lurie might have had no choice but to fire Reid. But the Birds went 8-8, and, well, it's tough to argue with Reid's entire body of work. Especially if you are Jeffrey Lurie. So, it stands to reason that despite this "ultimatum," were the Birds to go 11-5 next year and lose in the NFC Championship game, well, Reid might just get another 5-year deal.

So. . . tea-leaf readers might infer that Lurie gave Reid and ultimatum. Or they just might infer that Lurie is bullish that the combination of the re-tooled team, another year of experience and Reid's helmsmanship might be able to win a title next year. That's probably the most logical inference.

But not one that makes any Birds' fan happy at all.

It's Lurie's team, the fans will keep on coming back and buying merchandise and expensive beer no matter what, so Eagles' fans shouldn't expect any dramatic changes. Drama, yes, but dramatic changes at the top? Probably not.

What they can expect is a steady state of 8-8 to 11-5 finishes, perhaps an appearance in a conference championship game, etc.

But not a Super Bowl title.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Eagles' Fans Should Vote With Their Feet

They cannot fire owner Jeffrey Lurie, but they can try to make him look bad, not buy the team's merchandise, and so forth.

Lurie's announcement today that he will bring back head coach Andy Reid means that the owner has the following thoughts -- he thinks with his heart and not his head. Reid has been with the Eagles for 13 years, and Lurie is loyal to him, even though a) they haven't been to the Super Bowl in 7 years, b) Reid made a boneheaded decision in naming Juan Castillo his defensive coordinator, c) the team has only had one good linebacker during Reid's tenure and d) inking Michael Vick to a long-term deal doesn't look like a good decision now. Oh, and there's another one -- Lurie probably feels bullet proof because the demand for his tickets and merchandise is such that his fan base would probably re-up even if Joe Kuharich or Jerry Williams were coaching the team and guys like King Hill were still playing quarterback.

Ugh. Aargh.

Will this prompt the second "WTF?" headline from The Philadelphia Daily News, second only to the one that the people paper inked when Reid named Castillo his defensive coordinator after having served as the o-line coach since Bill Clinton was elected for his second term? Look, Reid is a good coach -- his record proves that. But there is a difference between someone who can manage the team to make the playoffs and someone who can win a championship. Reid has had plenty of opportunities to win a championship, and he hasn't gotten there. And look, this past season he put together a team more designed to draw headlines than to win games. The team lacked good coaching, lacked good leaders and blew 5 second-half leads. Win 2 of those 5 games and you make the playoffs. Lose all 5 and then win your last 4 and have a 5-1 record against divisional opponents and try to rationalize the season wasn't all that bad.

It was a train wreck. And it's been a series of train wrecks frequented by blind spots about positions (such as going into a season once without a punt returner and then without a fullback and almost never with linebackers who can come close to make a Pro Bowl save Jeremiah Trotter), bad time management, and, this season, almost no leadership among the players, no one holding DeSean Jackson accountable for his attitude or Michael Vick accountable for his, yes, stupid unwillingness to slide to avoid hits. I like Vick, but where is a leader who will tell him that the team needs him to avoid getting hit?

Sorry, but I just don't get it. And the only way for Eagles' fans to send Lurie a message that his head coach is the fourth best among the four major teams in the city -- is to vote with their feet. Don't buy the merchandise, don't buy the tickets, and don't go for being teased that almost is good enough. Every year, we get pumped up that "this is the year" and every year we hear sanitized nonsense about how the Eagles are improving and how it's Reid's fault when they don't and you hear Howard Eskin arrogantly dictate to us that football is complicated, we don't know the game and the Eagles obviously know more than we do. Huh?

Football is a game, it's easy to understand because it is a game, and it's not higher math, rocket science or neurosurgery. Not even close. If it were, it wouldn't have so many fans. And what the fans see is accurate -- and that is that the team was flawed, that it's head man cannot handle the dual role of coach and GM, and that under his leadership it won't go any further than say 10-6 any more, perhaps a division title and perhaps to a conference championship game. Reid has had an owner who has given him carte blanche, and he hasn't delivered.

True, I've written before that a fundamental tenet of human resources is that you shouldn't can someone without a better alternative as a replacement. That said, there must be better alternatives out there. Duke didn't hire Coach K knowing that he'd be the most successful college hoops coach ever. He was a young head coach with a career record of 1 win over .500 at Army when he got the Duke job. Dick Vermeil was the Eagles' 6th choice in the 70's when he got the job, and for a while he had the highest rating as a celebrity on Philadelphia-area commercials because of his success as a coach (okay, he didn't win a Super Bowl in Philadelphia, but he was a much more straightforward communicator).

There is another Mike Tomlin or Mike McCarthy out there. Jeffrey Lurie should have taken the time to check around, figure that out and go get the guy. 14 years ago he thought he had another Shula or Noll in Reid, but it just didn't work out that way. And it doesn't look like it's going to work out any time soon.

So, instead of change, we'll have to listen to the likes of Cullen Jenkins telling us that the defense finally jelled, despite the fact that they did so when they were 4-8 (or, put differently, garbage time for their season), that the players like Juan Castillo (sure, because if you have a coach who doesn't know what he's doing, he won't hold you as accountable as one who does), that Castillo will be back, that DeSean inexplicably won't be despite what he means to the team, that linebacking isn't all that important to their scheme, that somehow they'll figure out a way to play Nnamdi Asomugha, and that their safeties are actually pretty good. Worse yet, you'll have media types buy into the hype and tell us that they should be a favorite to win the division. The whole rap will be so saccharine that if you don't brush after listening you might just get a cavity.

Sorry to be so tough, but clarity can be offensive, and Jeffrey Lurie made it perfectly clear that somehow, after watching this regression, Andy Reid can rebound and turn the franchise around and get the team a championship. I suppose that if you tell yourself something like that enough, you'll be able to convince yourself of anything. The will not to believe is always strong, and, in Lurie's case, the will not to believe is that Lurie refuse to believe that his chosen coach cannot win a championship. That's a dangerous way of thinking, and Lurie's stubbornness not to admit what many of us believe is either courage or folly.

And most fans would argue folly.

I hope that Lurie is proven right, but I don't think that he will be.

And where will the accountability be if the linebackers stink again, the safeties can't cover, and the offensive line has holes in it?

Because we'll hear, "well, we've been working to get the team younger, and I'm looking forward to having Andy return for another year."




Reflections from the Winter Classic

When they announced that Philadelphia would be hosting the Winter Classic, my sixth grader offered that it might be neat to go. Well, have a partial season ticket plan to the Phillies, and, presto, I got a chance to enter a lottery to buy two tickets to the event, "won" the lottery, got two tickets underneath the cover on the third-base line that gave me an obscured view of the scoreboard (but a good view of the rink) for the same amount of money that third-row seats to the NBA Finals featuring the 76ers about 10 years ago cost (for some perspective; I was a guest at that game). My wife and I decided to surprise my son for this birthday, so when he opened a relatively light box inside was an email touting the game and a warm pair of Wigwam socks. That was about four weeks ago.

The build-up was fun, what with the alumni game and a 66 year-old Bernie Parent, who lives on a houseboat in Wildwood, NJ, strapping on the pads for the first time since perhaps Ronald Reagan was President (first term) (the team hasn't won a Stanley Cup since 1975). The coverage of that was pretty cool and set the backdrop for yesterday's game.

The powers that be postponed the game from 1 to 3 p.m., owing to weather patterns, sun angles, glare, possible sun melt and whatever combination of meteorology and outdoor ice hockey would have not blinded the players and turned the playing surface into what the average Center City street corner looks like the day after a snow storm. So, my son and I ate lunch at home, foregoing the opportunity for a quick stop at John's Roast Pork for a cheesesteak (among the best in the city and featured in, of all things, Zagat's national restaurant guide). The traffic to Citizens Bank Park was okay, and when we arrived at the stadium complex we noted how early the tailgaters got there. We parked in our usual lot, albeit a bit further from the Bank because where we normally park was full of tailgaters who seemed content hanging out in 40-degree weather in little more than a turtleneck and a $199 commemorative jersey over it drinking much cheaper beer than they would find inside.

Our contribution to the great sale of all things Flyers was the purchase of two wool hats, the one for me being relatively standard, the one for my son being the type with the flaps that go over the cheeks. As we were walking to the stadium, we started chatting with a couple who presumably was doing the same thing. The man had on a Claude Giroux jersey, and my son offered that the Flyers' star was his favorite player. To which he got this response, "That's nice to hear. We're his parents." And then we got to chatting about how Claude likes Philadelphia (loves it) and whether they've had cheesteaks (plenty of times -- remember, I'm with a 12 year-old -- and that they had been to Geno's just the other day). They ended up peeling off to go to a get-together near the Wachovia Center, and we made our way to the stadium.

My son honored me and the old Flyers by wearing, as his fourth layer atop cold-weather Under Armour, a long-sleeved Flyers t-shirt and a hooded sweatshirt the Moose DuPont #6 jersey that my father bought for me at Mitchell & Ness (well before they made the vintage jerseys) when the Flyers went to the Stanley Cup for the first time in 1974. Under those layers, it looked pretty good on him, and it was neat to see him where it. Despite the fervence of the fans and some near misses, the Flyers haven't won a Cup since 1975. It was cool to see him in this garb, even if the temperature dictated pretty quickly that he needed to don his winter jacket to stave off the cold.

The whole area was jammed, a sea of orange and black, with some New York Rangers' red and blue interspersed (Flyers' fans take note -- the average Rangers' fan spent a lot more for his tickets than you). The weather was okay to start, but got colder as the sun began to set and the winds kicked in. It was electric to a degree, and here are some observations:

1. The "experience", as it were, lacked two things that the Phillies add that would have made it a little more fun -- a) having photographers take commemorative photos of you that you can purchase on the website and b) giving out towels for the fans to wave. The former would have created revenue and keepsakes; the latter, well, a more electric environment akin to a Phillies' playoff game.

2. It's amazing how many beers people will drink in a below-freezing wind-chill factor environment.

3. The bathrooms seemed much more crowded than at any Phillies' game. Is it because the crowd is more male, or because people can go 18 times between innings, and only twice between periods?

4. People who wore only a turtleneck beneath a $199 dollar commemorative Winter Classic jersey found out how cold it can get and were cold.

5. We counted 20 different Flyers jerseys, at least from the names and numbers on the back. the most prominent were Giroux jerseys, but we also saw Hextall, Clarke, Powe, Sinisalo, Boucher and a dozen or so others.

6. I wore about 4 layers, we had blankets, and the "warmers" that hunters use that we kept in our gloves to keep our hands as warm as we could. We sat under cover, and the wind kicked up pretty strongly for most of the game.

7. We had pretty good seats, sitting behind the goal where the Flyers shot at twice. Henrik Lundquist, the Rangers' goalie, was terrific as the Rangers sleep-skated through the first period. The crowd stood for the entire first period.

8. Yes, it was hard to see the puck and the average fan cheered not at a score, but when he/she saw the players from his favorite team celebrating a goal. Remember, baseball stadiums are designed for baseball viewing, not ice hockey. So while it was exciting, it wasn't like every seat was a good one (and the purist could debate how many seats really gave the viewer a great shot at the action -- perhaps the luxury boxes along the third base line, which were high up enough to see above all the boards).

9. The Flyers need a goaltender.

10. People were generally pumped up to be there, as most people in most cities like to go to events, spend a lot of time at them and a lot of money on them. We had fun, we were cold, and we wished that the outcome were different. Overall, it was a good experience and showed a city that favors football and baseball that hockey can appeal to a group that's larger than the core of diehards that has subscribed to season tickets for years.

11. As for prices. . . beers were $7.75, programs $10, and parking $25 ($50 for larger vehicles).

12. We saw Barry Melrose walk by us as we walked into the stadium. The grey mullet kind of works on him, but he's not as big as he looks on camera.

13. Is it me, or have they grown bigger hockey players since, say, 30 years ago? The Rangers have a 6'7" center, and there were a bunch of players over 6'4" out there.

14. By my count, players from about 10 different countries were represented.

It was, in many ways, a classic, and, of course, when you go to a main event with your son for his birthday present, it's all the more special.