Eagles 2015 Training Camp Preview: Several Unanswered Questions

2 Aug

By Chris Murray
For the Chris Murray Report and the Philadelphia Sunday Sun

Eagles running back Darren Sproles ability to make plays in space makes the Eagles an exciting offense.  Photo by Webster Riddick.

Eagles running back Darren Sproles ability to make plays in space makes the Eagles an exciting offense. Photo by Webster Riddick.

PHILADELPHIA –With the Phillies playing out a bad season, sports fans in the City of Brotherly Love are now focused on the only team that has a chance to have a winning season and make a run to the postseason.

As Philadelphia Eagles training camp approaches, fans have a lot to be excited about and also a lot of reasons to be concerned. The Birds situation is arguably better than that of the city’s other three teams because despite all of the changes, there’s some light at the end of the tunnel.

One thing that Eagles fans have to feel good about is that DeMarco Murray, the NFL’s leading rusher last season, will be their starting running back. They will also have good change of pace backs in Ryan Matthews and Darren Sproles.

But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t still a whole lot of question marks on the offense. After cutting offensive linemen Evan Mathis and Todd Herremans, the Birds are hoping that Allen Barbre (6-4, 310 pounds), likely the new left guard, and Matt Tobin (6-6, 290), whose expected to win the starting job at right guard, will be upgrades at these positions.

The team also signed John Moffitt (6-4, 319) last month. Moffitt, who took a year away from football to deal with substance abuse issues, gives Eagles some much need depth along the offensive line in case someone gets hurt. The way things have gone for the Eagles in terms of injuries last year that might be important. Dennis Kelly (6-8, 321), Andrew Gardner (6-6, 308) and Kevin Graf (6-6, 309) also have to be ready to go are among the guys that need to be ready even if you have injuries to the starters.

Having a solid offensive line is crucial because the Eagles have to protect starting quarterback Sam Bradford, who hasn’t played a full season since 2012. If he can survive the season, fans will definitely be optimistic. But if Bradford gets hurt, can head coach Chip Kelly or the fan base stomach the idea of the mistake-prone Mark Sanchez running the Eagles offense for a sustained period of time?

Among the Eagles wide receiver corps, will second-year wide receiver Jordan Matthews become the go-to-guy in the passing game? Will rookie Nelson Agholor, with his 4.4 speed, be able to find his way on the field and be an important part of the Eagles passing game? It’ll be interesting to see what happens.

On defense, the Eagles will have a solid front-seven that includes linebackers DeMeco Ryans and newly acquired inside linebacker Kiko Alonso. This could also be a breakout season for defensive end Fletcher Cox, who is coming off a 2014 season in which he had a career-high in tackles with 70 (59 solo) and four sacks.

The sticking point for the Eagles defense coming into the 2015 season is the secondary, which got torched quite often late in the season. The inability of the Birds secondary to keep opposing receivers from piling up yards and lighting up the scoreboard kept them out of the playoffs despite a 10-6 record.

The Eagles ranked 31st in net passing yards per game in 2014 and the most touchdowns of 20 yards or more and the only holdover from that unit is safety Malcolm Jenkins.

The Birds got former Seattle Seahawks cornerback Byron Maxwell, who played well during the Seahawks’ Super Bowl run. But there’s uncertainty about Nolan Carroll and Eric Rowe, the other two guys vying for cornerback spots. Carroll is a pro that couldn’t get much playing time in the other places he’s played and Rowe is a second-round draft pick who hasn’t played a down as a pro.

Meanwhile at the other safety spot, Kelly is counting on former Seahawks cornerback Walter Thurmond. Thurmond is a converted cornerback who has never played at the safety spot and has been injury-prone throughout his five-year career.

If the Eagles fail to shore up this part of their defense, New York Giants receiver Odell Beckham, Washington Redskins receiver DeSean Jackson and Dallas Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant could be licking their chops.

Eagles Training Camp 2015: Who Will be the Birds Next Go-to Receiver?

25 Jul

By Chris Murray
For the Chris Murray Report and the Philadelphia Sunday Sun

Eagles wide receiver  Jordan Matthews had a big game as a rookie against Washington last season. The former Vanderbilt star caught two touchdown passes. Will he be the go-to guy in 2015? Photo by Webster Riddick.

Eagles wide receiver Jordan Matthews had a big game as a rookie against Washington last season. The former Vanderbilt star caught two touchdown passes. Will he be the go-to guy in 2015? Photo by Webster Riddick.

PHILADELPHIA—When Jeremy Maclin, the Philadelphia Eagles best receiver in 2014, signed a free agent deal with the Kansas City Chiefs, Birds fans have been wondering who’s going to be the guy that replaces his numbers in the offense.
That will be one of the things to watch when Eagles training camp opens on August 1 at the team’s NovaCare facility in South Philadelphia.

Last season, Maclin had 85 receptions for 1,318 yards and 10 touchdowns, not bad for a guy who didn’t have the game-breaking speed of a DeSean Jackson.

The best returning receiver on the Eagles right now is second-year wide receiver Jordan Matthews, who had a solid rookie season. Last season, the former Vanderbilt star caught 67 passes for 872 yards and eight touchdowns. Matthews was the Eagles second-leading receiver in 2014.

At 6-foot-3, 212 pounds, Matthews picked up most of his catches from playing inside the slot where he used to his height to his advantage. Throughout minicamp, he was still lining up at the slot. But I think he has the ability to play on the outside as well.

Matthews said it doesn’t matter where they line him up, he’ll go out and do his job.

“Of course, I’m getting some reps out there, but it’s still receiver,” Matthews said during the Eagles spring organized team activities. “Our offense is so dynamic that you can’t put too much weight on who’s outside or who’s inside…who’s No. 1 or No. 2. I think that’s stuff is really irrelevant.

”We have a dynamic offense. We have a lot of weapons, I’m getting some outside work, but we’re trying to put a product on the field that’s going to win.”

While not necessarily that homerun hitter on the deep ball, Matthews can be that go-to receiver in third down situations, something the Eagles haven’t had since Terrell Owens. Not to suggest that Matthews is on par with Owens when he was in his prime just yet, but I can see him lining up in the slot or on the outside.

Meanwhile, the guy that could fill the role of a deep threat is rookie wide receiver Nelson Agholor. While the former USC star has yet to catch a pass in an NFL game, the Eagles No. 1 draft choice does come with some impressive collegiate credentials.

The 6-1, 190-pound Agholor ran a 4.42 40-yard dash, which is by no means slow. During his final year at USC, Agholor caught 104 passes, 1,313 yards and 12 touchdowns while averaging 101 yards per game. He can go deep and he can run solid routes.

Like Matthews, Agholor can run routes from the slot or from the outside receiver spots as did during his days at USC. During his freshman year at USC, Agholor was averaging a over 17 yards per catch, but during his final year with the Trojans he averaged a little over 12 yards per catch.

“During my freshman and sophomore year my yards per catch were great,” Agholor said. “All I wanted to do was move the chains and play the game right way.”

Everyone in the Eagles receiving corps—young or old will definitely learn from the wisdom of former Dallas Cowboys/ Cleveland Browns wide receiver Miles Austin.

In Cleveland last season, Austin played for a Browns squad that had instability at the quarterback spot, yet still managed to catch 47 passes for 568 yards with two touchdowns.

Second-year wide receiver Josh Huff, who showed brilliant flashes of brilliance as a kick returner, is also looking to get some reps in the passing the game. Huff has the speed to move all over the place and he’s a good blocker in the run game.

The odd man out among the veterans in this offense is Riley Cooper. Last season, Cooper did not have a good year, Cooper who saw his numbers drop in receiving yardage, average yards per catch and touchdowns.If Huff or one of the younger players has an outstanding camp, Cooper may not survive the summer.

Serena Williams Wimbledon Triumph Puts Her One Step Closer to Tennis Grand-Slam

12 Jul

Originally posted on The Chris Murray Report:

By Chris Murray

For the Chris Murray Report and the Philadelphia Sunday Sun

Serena Williams Wins her sixth Wimbledon singles title and her 21st overall. Footage courtesy of ESPN. Serena Williams Wins her sixth Wimbledon singles title and her 21st overall. Footage courtesy of ESPN. Photo by Chris Murray.

PHILADELPHIA—Serena Williams didn’t play her best match against Garbine Muguruza in the Ladies Singles Final at Wimbledon. She lost the first two games of the first set, had eight double faults and withstood the storm of tumultuous rally by her Spanish opponent.

Throughout the fortnight at Wimbledon, Williams has overcome losing the first set in matches and even survived an opponent’s match point in the quarterfinals. But fighting through those obstacles further magnified her legend as one of the greatest tennis players of all-time—man or woman.

In the end, Williams was the only one left standing and came away with a 6-4, 6-4 win over the game 21-year-old Muguruza. The win puts Williams one step closer to…

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Serena Williams Wimbledon Triumph Puts Her One Step Closer to Tennis Grand-Slam

12 Jul

By Chris Murray

For the Chris Murray Report and the Philadelphia Sunday Sun

Serena Williams Wins her sixth Wimbledon singles title and her 21st overall. Footage courtesy of ESPN.

Serena Williams Wins her sixth Wimbledon singles title and her 21st overall. Footage courtesy of ESPN. Photo by Chris Murray.

PHILADELPHIA—Serena Williams didn’t play her best match against Garbine Muguruza in the Ladies Singles Final at Wimbledon. She lost the first two games of the first set, had eight double faults and withstood the storm of tumultuous rally by her Spanish opponent.

Throughout the fortnight at Wimbledon, Williams has overcome losing the first set in matches and even survived an opponent’s match point in the quarterfinals. But fighting through those obstacles further magnified her legend as one of the greatest tennis players of all-time—man or woman.

In the end, Williams was the only one left standing and came away with a 6-4, 6-4 win over the game 21-year-old Muguruza. The win puts Williams one step closer to the calendar year Grand-Slam. It was her sixth singles titles at Wimbledon. At 33-years-old, Williams is the oldest winner of a Grand-Slam title and has 28 Grand-Slam matches in a row.

If she wins the U.S. Open in September, Williams will be the first single-season Grand-Slam winner since Steffi Graf did it in 1988. For the second time in her career, the 33-year-old Williams holds all four Grand-Slam titles at once. The last time she did it was back in 2002-2003. This latest run on Grand Slam titles dates back to September when she won the 2014 U.S. Open.

Williams latest Grand-Slam singles title pushed her career total to 21, one behind Graf, who has 22 (the most in the Open era) and three behind Margaret Court, who has 24.

Somehow for all the attention that was focused on a lackluster fight between Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao, LeBron James quest to take an average Cleveland Cavaliers to the NBA Finals, and the recent triumph of the U.S. Women’s soccer team at the World Cup, Williams quest to win the Grand Slam has seemingly been on the periphery of events.

Maybe it’s because Williams has been such a dominant force in tennis that it’s become routine and so boring that some may feel she’s winning too much. After all, she doesn’t have a main rival that Martina Navaratilova had in Chris Evert.

The closest thing to a rivalry for Williams has been her sister Venus and Maria Sharapova, whom she’s beaten 18 straight times. All Williams does is beat whoever they put in front of her.

To be honest, I think if Williams was a slender blond, white American woman with all her accomplishments, she would be a media darling and the whole country would be following her quest for tennis immortality in the same way the country embraced the U.S. women’s soccer team at the World Cup.

On social media and even in the mainstream media the focus has been on whether or not her body is too masculine. Williams’ body type clashes with classic notions of Western beauty and she often gets her share of vilification for it.

Maybe that’s an explanation for why Sharapova makes more money in commercial endorsements off the tennis court than Williams. She’s an assertive Black woman who is comfortable with herself and is not the self-effacing “mammy” type who goes out of her way to seek the acceptance of white people.

Whether folks like it or not, Williams is the greatest tennis player of her generation and arguably the greatest of all time. She’s got the trophies to prove it.

If you’re eyes aren’t focused on Williams now, they should be now because she is on the verge of accomplishing a rare feat in sports that’s only been accomplished just three times in the last 46 years-and just once by the men.

What will make Williams run to history compelling is that it won’t be easy, especially considering some of the tough matches she’s had at Wimbledon and the French Open. Williams has perilously come close to losing matches the closer she gets to pulling off a major milestone.

At this year’s French Open, Williams was involved in three-set matches five times, four came after she lost the first set.

In the third round at Wimbledon this year, Britain’s Heather Watson won the first three games of the third set, was up 5-4, and had Williams at match point. The young Brit was on the verge of a historic upset. But a fired-up Williams stormed back to win the last three games to close out the match.

Then Serena had to take on her sister Venus in a tough emotional match in the round of 16. In the quarterfinal against Victoria Azarenka, Williams dropped the first set and came back to win the next two sets.

And so the stage for the 2015 U.S. Open is set, Serena will be battling to add another chapter to her legend as one of the greatest-if not the greatest tennis players of all time.

So grab your popcorn and your favorite beverage, but please leave your racism and sexism outside and enjoy Williams’ quest for tennis immortality.

Rebuilding the Colossal Wreck That is the Phillies

8 Jul

By Chris Murray
For the Chris Murray Report and the Philadelphia Sunday Sun

New Phillies Team President Andy MacPhail has the monumental task of making the Phils a contender again.

New Phillies Team President Andy MacPhail has the monumental task of making the Phils a contender again.

PHILADELPHIA—During the Phillies run to five straight playoff appearances, crowds packed Citizens Bank Park and wondered what newcomers might be in red and white pinstripes at the July 31st trade deadline.

All was right in South Philly as Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley led a potent offense and a young Cole Hamels was part of a group of aces that shut down hitters right and left and included Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee.

Fast forward to the present and the 2015 All-Star Break.

Today, the Phillies once mighty empire is in ruins. They have the worst record in baseball, finding a seat at Citizens Bank Park isn’t hard and the fans that do come see the team don’t have a lot to cheer about. In fact, as football season draws closer and the losses continue to mount, expect to hear E-A-G-L-E-S chants.

The star players from the team won the World Series in 2008 are shadows of their former selves thanks to a combination of age and injuries. Howard is batting just .218 with 14 homers and 41 runs batted in, boy wonder Utley is batting just .179 with just four homeruns and 25 RBIs, and catcher Carlos Ruiz is hitting .225 with one homer and 15 RBIs.

Heck, on Monday night, former Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins, the former MVP that proclaimed the Phightins “The Team To Beat”, added insult to injury by helping his new team, the Los Angeles Dodgers, win the game by driving in two go-ahead runs.
Before that at-bat, Rollins was batting a paltry .208.
The Dodgers, contenders in the NL West, are probably in search of additional pieces to help them make a run at the post season.
Maybe they need to bring their shopping list to Philadelphia.

It’s time for the Phillies to start moving folks. Howard has only one year left on a large contract that probably sounded like a good idea at the time. Meanwhile, Hamels is 5-6 with a 3.02 ERA that includes several outings where run support was hard to come by.

And contenders like the Dodgers and the New York Yankees could use a closer like Jonathan Papelbon to get them over the postseason hump.
You see, the Phillies need prospects. They need good, young players to bolster a thin farm system. And you can’t get those prospects when you have a bunch of guys that are not only a part of the past, but have become a pretty ineffective part of the present.

The long-term rebuilding process of turning the Phillies back into a contender will come under the watch of new team president Andy MacPhail, a man who comes from a long line of Hall of Fame front office guys. MacPhail was the general of the Minnesota Twins during their 1987 and 1991 World Series championship teams season and most recently reviving a moribund Baltimore Orioles team.

The challenge for MacPhail will be to find a general manager that really knows talent because I get the feeling that Ruben Amaro Jr.’s contract will not renewed.

You’ll also need a good manager to turn a bunch of young players into a contender. With all due respect to Ryne Sandberg, who resigned as Phillies’ manager last month, a laid-back, milquetoast approach won’t get the job done.

From what I understand, Los Angeles Angels manager Mike Scioscia, a Philadelphia-area native, is in the final year of his contract. He has a World Series ring and the Angels have finished no worse than third during his 15-year tenure as a manager. If I’m MacPhail or the new GM, I am on the phone with Scioscia at the end of the season.

When he assumes command, MacPhail needs to definitively show Phillies fans some that there’s going to be light at the end of what has been become a dark and gloomy tunnel.

Or the only memories that the Phillies will have are those of an empty stadium.

Forty Years After Arthur Ashe’s Milestone Win at Wimbledon, Serena Williams Looks to Add to Her Legacy

25 Jun

By Chris Murray

Serena Williams is halfway to tennis's Grand Slam.  She renews her chase for immortality at Wimbledon.

Serena Williams is halfway to tennis’s Grand Slam. She renews her chase for immortality at Wimbledon.

For the Chris Murray Report and the Philadelphia Sunday Sun

PHILADELPHIA—This year’s Wimbledon Championships will spotlight the both the 40th anniversary of a significant milestone in the tournament’s history and a player’s attempt to achieve a rare feat in the history of tennis.
In 1975, Arthur Ashe became the first African-American male tennis player to win a professional singles title when he came away with a four-set victory over Jimmy Connors, at that time the world’s No. 1 player. It was a crowning achievement for Ashe, who went on to become as recognized for his leadership in the movement to end apartheid in South Africa, and his advocacy for more research dollars for HIV/AIDS research.

Arthur Ashe was the first Black male tennis player to win a Wimbledon singles title.

Arthur Ashe was the first Black male tennis player to win a Wimbledon singles title.

Now, 40 years after Ashe’s triumphant, color-line breaking win at Wimbledon, another African-American tennis player, Serena Williams, is looking to accomplish a rare feat that would make her one of the greatest female tennis players of all-time without question.
Williams is trying to become first tennis player since Steffi Graff to win the game’s Grand Slam– the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open—in a single season. So far, she’s won the Australian and the French. Because she ended 2014 with a win at the U.S. Open, a win at Wimbledon would give Williams a calendar year Grand-Slam.

But while winning a calendar year Grand Slam may take doing, winning a single season Grand Slam is a lot easier said than done, even for someone with Williams’s talent. To give some perspective on how difficult a task she faces, you need only look at the numbers.

Since the start of the Open Era in 1968, only three people have ever won it. Australian Rod Laver, who won all four events in 1969, is the last male tennis player to accomplish the feat. Considering that a whole raft of tennis greats such as Connors, Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, Ivan Lendl, Boris Becker, Pete Sampras and Roger Federer have all stints where they were the most dominant players in the sport, and yet none of them was able to do it, that’s significant.

On the women’s side, Margaret Court was the first to do it in 1970. It took another 18 years before Steffi Graf won the Grand Slam and no one else has done it since. Jennifer Capriati came close, winning the Australian and French Opens in 2001, but by winning Wimbledon that year, Venus Williams stopped her from accomplishing the milestone.

Right now, no one in the world is playing better than Serena Williams and that’s why some tennis experts believe that the Grand Slam is within her grasp. In an article on Wimbledon.com, former women’s tennis star and ESPN tennis analyst Chris Evert said she likes Williams’ chances to pull it off.

“When she is at her best she is better than anybody,” Evert said. “She’s got a great shot. To me her game is better suited to the grass courts than it is to the clay… But her game, just because of her serve, she’s going to get free aces. … It should be one of the easier Grand Slams for her.”

Williams would probably tell you herself that it’s not going to be easy at all. Even though she came away victorious in Paris, Williams had a tough time at Roland Garros, battling the flu and opponents Timea Bacsinszky and Lucie Safarova.

Still, despite looking like she was ready to pass out, using cold compresses during the changeovers, and guzzling water to stay hydrated, Williams managed to win the French Open and serve notice that she’s better than much of the women’s draw even when she’s sick.

With the win at the French, Williams has won 20 major singles, two away from Steffi Graff (22) and four away from Margaret Court who has 24. She has won 21 straight matches and is on the verge of making history as the fortnight at Wimbledon begins.
Like Arthur Ashe, Serena Williams learned how to play tennis on public courts in the inner city.

When he won the All-England title 40 years ago, Ashe made history.

Williams manages to get one step closer to winning the Grand Slam by winning the Wimbledon title, she stands a chance of making history as well.

And somewhere, Arthur Ashe will be smiling.

How Ya Like Me Now: Former Sixer Andre Iguodala Basks in the Glow of a Championship

18 Jun
NBA Finals MVP Andre Iguodala takes questions from reporters after the Golden State Warriors defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers in six games for the NBA crown.  Photo by New York Daily News.com

NBA Finals MVP Andre Iguodala takes questions from reporters after the Golden State Warriors defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers in six games for the NBA crown. Photo by New York Daily News.com

By Chris Murray

For the Chris Murray Report and the Philadelphia Sunday Sun

PHILADELPHIA—When Andre Iguodala was traded to the Denver Nuggets in 2012 as a part of the four-way deal that landed the 76ers Andrew Bynum, most Philly fans said good riddance.

After all, the Sixers were getting a legitimate impact center in Bynum and Iguodala never really panned out as a No. 1 scoring option. At the time, the 76ers and their fans were so giddy about Bynum that they threw him a big party at the National Constitution Center. It was like Andre-who?

It’s funny how things turned out.

Bynum, a man with bum knees, never played a minute in a Sixers uniform. Iguodala, who got traded to the Golden State Warriors a year later, ended up having the last laugh.

On Tuesday night, there was Iguodala holding two trophies—the NBA Finals trophy and the Bill Russell Finals MVP Trophy. The guy the Sixers sent packing a few years ago is now on top of the world with Golden State while his old team has struggled to put out reputable starting five on a nightly basis.

Oddly enough, Iguodala said it was his time with the Sixers prepared for him for his championship run with the Warriors.

“I think all those years and going through everything I went through, the good and the bad, can prepare you for this moment.  Being in Philly I had some teams‑‑ we were a very close group.  I think we maximized our talent,” Iguodala said. “I’ve been on teams that we’ve been close knit and it helped us just getting to the playoffs because we weren’t the most talented, but we got there because we played so hard together.”

What makes this Finals MVP award special for Iguodala is that he didn’t have to be the top scorer for his team. That’s Stephen Curry’s job to put the offense on his shoulder and he certainly did that, especially in the fourth quarter of the Warriors last three wins over the Cleveland Cavaliers to win the title.

Iguodala had the most important job in this series—slow down Cleveland’s LeBron James. He held James to 38. 1 percent shooting after Game 3. No, Iguodala didn’t complete shutdown James, who was having an MVP series, but he kept him from having one for the ages.

“LeBron doesn’t have any weaknesses, or he doesn’t have a glaring weakness,” Iguodala said. “ So you’ve got to pick up on the smaller things to try to make him uncomfortable.  Like knowing which side he likes to shoot threes off the dribble, which side he likes to drive.  One side he’ll drive left more often, and the other side he’ll drive right more often.”

Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said he admired Iguodala’s willingness to contribute as the sixth man was important to Golden State’s run to the NBA title.

“You could make an argument that it could have gone to Steph, it could have gone to LeBron,” Kerr said.  “But for us, it’s really fitting that the award went to Andre because he sacrificed his starting role from the first game of the season.

“He had never come off the bench once in his entire career, and he sacrificed that job to make Harrison better, to make our bench better, and that set the tone for our whole season.  An All‑Star, an Olympian saying, okay, I’ll come off the bench.”

Iquodala also came up with some big three-point buckets in both Game 5 and Game 6 of the series that halted the Cavaliers attempt to comeback in the game. In the series finale, Iguodala scored 25 points, pulled down five rebounds and added five assists. For the series, Iguodala averaged 16 points per game.

Not bad for a guy who was supposedly a 100-1 shot to win the Finals MVP over 2015 league MVP Curry and a four-time MVP in James.

Iguodala is proof that you don’t have to be the leading scorer or the star to be valuable to your team. Playing your role-whether you are a defensive stopper, scorer off the bench, or a rebounder like Hall-of-Famer Dennis Rodman—is just as important to your team’s success as being the superstar.

Curry, whose scoring led the Warriors to the NBA’s best record, said he definitely appreciated Iguodala’s efforts.

“Obviously he deserved that Finals MVP for the way he impacted the game on both ends and was always ready,” Curry said. “Andre stepped up to that challenge every single night and a huge reason why we’re celebrating right now.”

 

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