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NFC Championship: A Matter of Luck For Two Snakebitten Franchises and Cities Starving for a Title.

20 Jan
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Can the Eagles rely on Nick Foles to take them to the Super Bowl? The Birds will take on the Minnesota Vikings in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game at Lincoln Financial Field. Photo By Webster Riddick.

This weekend’s NFC Championship matchup between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Minnesota Vikings pits two hard luck franchises against each other.

By Chris Murray

For the Chris Murray Report and The Philadelphia Sunday Sun

Sunday’s NFC Championship game between the Minnesota Vikings and the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field will be a matchup of two franchises that have lost six Super Bowls in total and have had more than their share of post-season disappointments.

From 2001 to 2008, the Eagles went to five NFC title games, losing four of them. When the team did win the NFC Championship in the 2004 season, they went on to lose to the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XXXIX. Meanwhile, the Minnesota Vikings haven’t won a NFC title game since the 1976 season, where they lost to the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl XI. Since then, they’ve lost four title games, three of which were lost in the final minute or in overtime.

(In other words, they know exactly how the New Orleans Saints, whom they defeated on Sunday on a fluke play with seconds left in the game, feel…)

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Minnesota Vikings quarterback Case Keenum looking to lead his team to a win over the Eagles.

Since neither team has won the Super Bowl—the Eagles won a pre-Super Bowl NFL Championship in 1960—something has to give, right? The football gods are going to reward one of these long suffering fan bases with a trip to the Super Bowl and another chance to win an elusive championship.

But now that we’ve talked about all that history, let’s talk about the game itself.

Neither of the quarterbacks participating in Sunday’s game is going to make anyone forget former Eagles great Donovan McNabb, Vikings Hall of Famer Fran Tarkenton or even Vikings short-termer Brett Favre. But Nick Foles and Minnesota’s Case Keenum, two guys who didn’t distinguish themselves as part of the Los Angeles or St. Louis Rams squads in the early Oughts, have managed to get their teams to the conference final despite pronouncements to the contrary.

Foles is coming off a solid performance in the win over the Atlanta Falcons in the divisional round in which he completed 23-of-30 passes for 246 yards with no touchdown passes, but also no interceptions.  He was efficient and kept the Eagles offense moving at key stretches, mixing passes to tight-end Zach Ertz, and wide receivers Alshon Jeffery and Nelson Agholor with screens to running backs Jay Ajayi and   Corey Clement and smash mouth running from running back LeGarrette Blunt.

That’s something the Eagles will have to do against a Vikings defense that ranks at the top of the NFL.

“The quick, short passing game obviously can help, the running game can help,” said head coach Doug Pederson. “Somewhere in there, if you can take a shot, you take a shot and whether you hit, like first play of the game, if you hit it or not, that kind of gets your blood flowing a little bit. And sometimes even tempo, hurry-up, no-huddle offense can get your quarterback into that kind of rhythm.”

It also helps that the Eagles running game, while not great, moved the ball well enough to keep the Falcons defense off balance. The Eagles as a group rushed for 96 yards including a couple of 10-yard plus runs on jet sweeps by Agholor.  Ajayi also averaged close to four yards per carry.

It kept the Eagles from being one-dimensional, Ertz, the tight end, said.

“Yeah, I thought we were really good on first and second down in the second half of that game last week,” he said “We kind had the RPOs (run pass options) early on first down that put us in those positions to be successful. I thought Doug [Pederson] a really good job. One of the things that stood out is that we never got in those third-and-really long situations, third-and-11-plus situations where you have to have the running back and the tight-end chip. You never want to be in those situations and we kind of stayed out of those, so that was definitely huge for us.”

Meanwhile, the Eagles defense is not taking Keenum and the Vikings offense lightly. This is an offense coming off the high of the “Minneapolis Miracle”, when Keenum hit Stefon Diggs on a 61-yard touchdown with 10 seconds left to defeat the New Orleans Saints.

Keenum, who was the NFL’s 12th rated passer, has been efficient. In the game against the Saints, Keenum was 25-of-40 for 318 yards with one touchdown and one interception.

But the Eagles defense is no slouch—they are the fourth ranked defense in the league and are first against the run.  The Vikings running game ranked seventh during the regular season despite the loss of rookie Dalvin Cook. Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon are averaging close to four yards per carry.

Defensive end Brandon Graham recognizes this and says the defense does as well.

“Oh, yeah, you can’t take nobody lightly and I think Case does a good job as far as moving in the pocket, being able to extend plays with his legs and you know just being able to trust himself going out there,” he said. “You know, going out there, making plays because he’s got the receivers. He’s got the running game that’s been helping him take a lot of pressure off of him.”

The Eagles, who managed to become the Number One seed despite a slate of injuries that includes MVP-candidate quarterback Carson Wentz, are once again the underdog despite this being a home game.

So expect the return of the Dog Masks. And a shoulder chip you can see from space.

“The disrespect continues,” said Eagles Pro Bowl defensive tackle Fletcher Cox. “For us to be the No 1 seed and to have this championship run through the Linc, what more do you want? At the end of the day, respect is not given, we gotta go out and take it like we’ve been doing all year. I think we’ll go out and dominate.”

The NFC Championship game between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Minnesota Vikings will be played on Sunday night at 6:40 p.m. at Lincoln Financial Field in South Philadelphia. Tickets are sold out, but if you want to catch the game, it’ll be on Fox-29, beginning with the Fox NFL-Sunday pregame show at 6 p.m.

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NFC Divisional Playoffs: “Underdog” Top-Seeded Birds ready for Atlanta

12 Jan
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The Eagles will need a huge effort from running back Jay Ajayi (36) to keep the pressure off quarterback Nick Foles for Saturday’s NFC Divisional Playoff matchup against the Atlanta Falcons. Photo by Webster Riddick.

By Chris Murray

For the Philadelphia Sunday Sun and the Chris Murray Report.

Despite being the number one seed with a 13-3 record, the Philadelphia Eagles are a two-point underdog to the sixth-seeded Atlanta Falcons in their NFC Divisional Playoff game on Saturday.EaglesFalconsPlayoffLogo

This perception, based mainly on the belief that next to no one believes that the team has a snowball’s chance in hell of winning with quarterback Nick Foles at the helm, has fans (and a few players) smarting a little.

The disrespect is real, and the Birds have had enough of it.

“It’s surprising … But we ain’t worried about underdog, overdog; none of the that,” Eagles defensive tackle Tim Jernigan. “It comes down to us versus them. You can’t shake it. You can’t look at it any other way.”

Added Eagles wide receiver Alshon Jeffery: “I’m done talking about it. I don’t care nothing about Vegas and underdogs.”

Despite their denials to the contrary, the Birds are motivated by the apparent disrespect.

“They can all pick them if they want to, but at the end of the day, we know what we got here,” said running back Jay Ajayi. “Our mindset is we all we got. We’re all we got, we’re all we need.”

The team’s protestations notwithstanding, the perception of the Birds as a shaky number one seed comes from the fact that Foles hasn’t inspired a lot of confidence.

Foles struggled against the Oakland Raiders in week 16, completing just 50 percent of passes and threw one interception. He also didn’t look sharp In an abbreviated performance against the Dallas Cowboys, going 4-of-11 for 39 yards and one interception.

But Eagles head coach Doug Pederson said he and the rest of the offense has confidence in Foles ability to lead them against a Falcons defense that was ranked ninth against the run and 12th against the pass.

Pederson wants Foles to be himself, he said.

“My message to Nick is: Listen, we have a great opportunity.  Let’s go be Nick. Let’s go play. Let’s go execute the offense,” Pederson said at his press conference on Tuesday. “[My message] to the team is the same thing: We have a great opportunity. Back’s against the wall. Let’s come out swinging and see what happens.”

Pederson is hoping to find the Foles who completed 24-of-38 passes and threw four touchdown passes against the New York Giants in a week 15 win.  Now if the Foles that threw 27 touchdown passes against four interceptions back in 2013, they really could make a strong run to the Super Bowl.

It’s not like the former Arizona star doesn’t have playoff experience. In the Eagles’ 26-24 loss to the New Orleans Saints back in 2013, Foles completed 69 percent of his passes and threw two touchdown passes and left the game with the lead before Saints quarterback Drew Brees drove his team to the game-winning field goal.

Meanwhile, Foles said having the last two weeks of practice has helped him to regain his focus and belief that he can lead this team to victory over Atlanta.

“I haven’t executed as well as I wanted to in the last couple of weeks,” Foles said. “Having this time to self-scout, go through practice and everything, you realize that you just go out there and play. Maybe I wasn’t do that as much in those games. It’s as simple as that. Sometimes, the hardest things are the simple things. Basically, get out of your own head and play the game you know how to play.”

What’s going to help Foles stay on his feet and have time to find receivers downfield is consistency in the running game.  The Eagles might have an advantage with Ajayi. When Ajayi was with the Miami Dolphins back in week five, he rushed for 130 yards on 26 carries. He averaged five yards per carry.

The Eagles also have Pro Bowl offensive lineman in Brandon Brooks and right tackle Lane Johnson to open up holes for Ajayi, LeGarrette Blount and Corey Clement.

For the Birds to win this game, they have to establish a consistent running game against Falcons defense that’s going to have eight men in the box.

“We’re going to need our room (running backs) to produce. It’s been that way all year,” Ajayi said. “When we’re successful, the running back room is successful because we’re helping to keep the tempo of the game, keep the defense off the field, making big plays. That’s not going to change. All of us are going to be counted to make big plays.”

The Eagles and Falcons take the field at Lincoln Financial at 4:35 pm on Saturday.

 

NFL Players Continuing What Kaepernick Started and They’re Not Backing Down

2 Sep
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Members of the Cleveland Browns participating in a silent protest during the national anthem before their preseason game against the New York Giants on Aug. 21.  Photo  by Cleveland.com 

If the whole idea behind not signing Colin Kaepernick to an NFL contract was to end the movement he started, it’s not working.

By Chris Murray

For the Chris Murray Report and the Philadelphia Sunday Sun

With kickoff for the regular season of the National Football League a week away, free agent quarterback Colin Kaepernick still doesn’t have a job and the way things are looking right now, he probably won’t get one.

But if the 29-year-old Kaepernick never plays another down in his NFL career, what he started will be way bigger than any touchdown pass he threw or any of his long runs from scrimmage.

A year after Kaepernick began his protest, his symbolic gesture of protesting police violence and mass incarceration against African-Americans by not standing for the National Anthem is still resonating among his NFL comrades as well as fans.

Last week, about 1,500 to 2,000 protesters, led by the Kaepernick’s fraternity Kappa Alpha Psi and the NAACP, gathered outside of the NFL’s Park Avenue headquarters to protest what they see as the quarterback’s blackballing by the league’s owners because of his protest. Some Black football fans have said they will not watch another game until Kaepernick is signed.

Despite the fact that several NFL coaches, including Seattle’s Pete Carroll and Baltimore’s John Harbaugh, believe that Kaepernick is good enough to be a starter at best and a capable backup at worst, NFL owners have remained steadfast. Their goal is to make an example of him and to intimidate others from engaging in similar protests.

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(From right to left) Steven Means, Malcolm Jenkins and Ron Brooks raise their fists during the national anthem in protest of unarmed killings of Black people by the Police prior to Monday’s game against the Chicago Bears.

But if Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins, members of the Cleveland Browns and players on other teams around the league are any indication, the ploy has failed—badly.

“I think if that was the goal, it didn’t work,” said Jenkins, who raises a fist of defiance on the sidelines as the Anthem plays. “You had the largest protest (Aug.22) with the amount of players that they had. More and more guys are joining every week.”

Right now, Jenkins said, the focus needs to be on exactly why the players are protesting.

“We want to fight with those who are fighting for equal rights,” he said. “We want to make sure to keep the focus there.”

Another reason why the owner’s gambit isn’t working is because the protests have become multiracial.

Before their Aug. 22 preseason game against the New York Giants, several Black members and one white player, tight end Seth DeValve of the Cleveland Browns took a knee during the national anthem.

DeValve, whose wife is African American, was the first white player to kneel along with the African-American players.  He said that he joined his African-American teammates because he believes that while the United States is the greatest country in the world, “it doesn’t provide equal opportunity to everybody, and I wanted to support my African-American teammates today who wanted to take a knee. We wanted to draw attention to the fact that there’s things in this country that still need to change.”

Three other white players, Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr of the Oakland Raiders, offensive lineman Justin Britt and Eagles defensive lineman Chris Long expressed support for their teammates participating in the protests.

As Jenkins raised his fists in the air, Long put his arm around the Eagles safety. Britt put his hands on the shoulders of teammate Michael Bennett as he knelt during the national anthem and Carr did the same thing for Raiders defensive Khalil Mack.

While he’s not sure that the players can get Kaepernick back on the field, they can and should continue the dialogue on police brutality and racial injustice he started, Jenkins said.

“I think there’s a need for that next step,” said Jenkins, who has testified before Congress on the issue. “We’ve gained the attention, we’ve done the protests, we’ve had the stage, we have the microphones and now people are looking for solutions. I think there’s opportunities for guys to educate themselves about the system and the situation in their particular cities.”

“For instance,” Jenkins said, “In (Pennsylvania) when it comes criminal justice reform and mass incarceration, they trying re-introduce mandatory minimum sentencing. We’re trying to make sure that doesn’t happen. “

What Kaepernick started by simply is taking a knee is gradually into a movement and that’s worth more than any Super Bowl ring or accolades he will ever receive as a player.

Philadelphia Eagles Training Camp 2017: Improving Cornerback Position Critical to Birds Success This Season

29 Jul

 

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Eagles rookie cornerbacks Rasul Douglas (32) and Jomal Wiltz (30) are competing to get playing time in the Eagles secondary. Photo by Webster Riddick.

By Chris Murray

For the Chris Murray Report and the Philadelphia Sunday Sun

With a group of new players and rookies and a ton of expectations, the Philadelphia Eagles 2017 squad started training camp on Monday with more questions than answers.

But fans are hoping that once the team gets these questions answered, the Eagles will be a shoo-in for a playoff spot and possibly a Super Bowl.

Among these questions fans and coaches have is How much better will quarterback Carson Wentz play now that he has more weapons to work with? The Eagles signed wide receivers Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith in the off-season, giving Wentz two more weapons to work with. He’ll also have running back LeGarrette Blount behind him, and the team is hoping that he can duplicate his career-high 1,161 yards rushing and 18 touchdowns from last year. Coaches will also be keeping an eye on diminutive rookie running back Donnel Pumphrey to see if he can be an every-down running back despite weighing just 178 pounds.

On the defensive side of the ball, the weakest link on the Eagles squad appears to be the secondary in general and the cornerback slot in particular. That’s because you have a group a group that hasn’t played with each other much that includes a group of talented, but untested rookies and a second-year player still trying to find his way.

“We’re going to continue to look to bring in guys, if we can, to create as much competition at that spot,” said head coach Doug Pederson during his post-practice press conference on Monday. “It’s obviously a spot we’re going to keep our eyes on throughout camp, but it gives a couple of our younger guys a chance to get some valuable reps.”

Rookie and former West Virginia star Rasul Douglas is among the group of Eagles first-year players that could crack the starting lineup or at the very least get some time on the field.  If you know something about his past, this is a young man whose motor is on all of the time.

Before transferring to West Virginia, Douglas played his collegiate ball at Nassau Community College as a walk-on and there were times he had to rely on ordering the McDonald’s dollar menu for meals because he didn’t have a lot of money. That experience fueled his determination to succeed once he got to West Virginia, he said.

Douglas will certainly need that kind of hunger (pardon the pun) to get playing time on the field, much less a starting spot. Especially since the competition appears to be really tough in his chosen slot.

“All of us have a chance to be a starting cornerback every position is open and up for grabs,” said Douglas, who intercepted eight passes in his final season at West Virginia. “We’re all trying to compete and get better every day. We’re definitely working and improving.”

The presumed starters at the cornerback positions are second-year corner Jalen Mills and 10-year veteran Patrick Robinson with Ron Brooks, who missed last 10 games with a torn quad last year, playing in the slot. The Birds also signed five-year veteran Dwayne Gratz. Also, veteran corner and former Canadian Football League standout Aaron Grymes returns to the Eagles after being cut last year.

If anything is going to prepare the Eagles young cornerback group for the upcoming season is the group of wide receivers they’ll be going up against in practice. Smith and Jeffrey are veteran receivers who know how to stretch defenses.

During the Eagles mini-camp in June, it was Jeffery who said that he liked Douglas’s potential at the cornerback spot and predicted that the rookie could have as many as five or six interceptions for the Eagles.

If that’s the case, the Birds could make a run for the division title this year.

“(Jeffery) has played against some of the best cornerbacks in the NFL,” Douglas said. “To hear something like that and being a rookie, not knowing and just playing off the athleticism means a lot.”

Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said his young corners competing  against quality wide receivers in practice can only help the maturation process.

“I think the competition helps them. Whether it helps them to develop quicker, I don’t know. But I know that competition is going to bring out the best in them,” Schwartz said. “If they make a mistake in technique, it will show. You can’t cover it up against a veteran player. So I think that’s probably the biggest part of that equation.”

But players like Douglas are going to have to learn from players like Brooks and Robinson. Douglas said there were times he struggled during OTAs, but the veteran told him that there are going to those days when receivers get their catches.

“When we first came out here, we were out here just running around, trying to make a play,” he said. “They (the veterans) were like, Look young fella, they (wide receivers) get paid like you get paid. You can’t take away everything.”

The Eagles secondary will certainly need a push from the front seven to get pressure on quarterbacks. On the defensive line, former Baltimore Raven Tim Jurnigan along with defensive end Chris Long will give the Birds a solid rotation.

Meanwhile, rookie and No. I draft pick Derek Barnett is looking to join Brandon Graham as a starting defensive end.

“OTAs were very competitive. I’m competing with guys who’ve been in the league for a while and guys who’ve been in the league for two or three years. It’s all good competition,” Barnett said.

Despite breaking former Eagles great Reggie White’s all-time sack record at the University of Tennessee and being the Eagles No. 1 pick, Barnett knows he’s still got a lot of work ahead of him.

“What I did in the past doesn’t mean nothing, being a first-round pick doesn’t mean nothing,” Barnett said. “I still gotta come and go to work every day, improving my craft and showing the coaches they can trust me and showing my teammates they trust me on the field as well.”

The road to the Philadelphia Eagles 53-man roster for the 2017 season begins with the team’s first pre-season game against the Green Bay Packers on Aug. 10.

Defying the Shield: The Blackballing of Colin Kaepernick

23 Mar

Snowflakes In Designer Suits

 When it comes to free agent NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, NFL owners appear to want a “safe space” where they don’t have to think about the racism he was protesting.

 

By Chris Murray

For the Chris Murray Report and the Philadelphia Sunday Sun

Paranoia strikes deep
Into your life it will creep
It starts when you’re always afraid
You step out of line, the man come and take you away

We better stop, hey, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down…
Buffalo Springfield

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Colin Kaepernick is still without a team and he may never get one because of his refusal to stand for the national anthem during the 2016 season. Photo courtesy of ESPN.com

The words to “For What It’s Worth”, a classic of the 1960s heyday of protest music, feels particularly relevant when we talk about athletes speaking out on social issues and the sports culture overall these days.

It’s become especially relevant when the subject of free agent NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick comes up. As of press time, the former signal caller for the San Francisco 49ers is currently the most high profile free agent without a football home.

A lot of sports writers and commentators have speculated that the reason why Kaepernick has no football bench to sit on is because he refused to stand for the National Anthem during the 2016-2017. Shortly before the free agent period began, he announced that he wouldn’t be taking a knee during the anthem this year, something that disappointed a few people.

But in spite of that, NFL owners, fearful of getting a nasty tweet aimed at them by Recalcitrant 4-Year-Old In Chief Donald Trump, haven’t been calling Kaepernick to his services despite the tons of money being thrown at the feet of career backups and people that will never be able to include an NFC Championship or a trip to the Super Bowl on their resumes.

Because we’re not really big on remembering our history, there are probably more than a few people who are looking at the travails of the former Nevada star, who is still sending money to feed folks in Somalia and gave $50,000 to the Meals on Wheels program that the Recalcitrant 4-Year Old In Chief is looking to cut despite not having a contract, and see something new.

But in reality, Kaepernick is just the latest NFL star to get smacked down and blackballed by the league for protesting the national anthem. Defying the “Shield” has consequences no matter how talented you are.

Back in 1969, John Mackey, then a star tight end for the Baltimore Colts, helped to form the National Football League Players Association and served as it’s resident from 1969-1973.  Mackey led the first players strike in 1970 and stood up to some brutal coercion by then NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle.

According to Washington Times columnist Thom Loverro who co-authored a book with Mackey, Rozelle and then Washington Redskins owner Edward Bennett Williams tried to get Mackey to sign a document to end the players strike by blaming them for the death of Vince Lombardi, who was then dying of colon cancer.

But Mackey refused to be manipulated and won the right to receive disability and widow’s benefits and having an agent negotiate salaries for the players. Mackey also led the legal fight against the Rozelle Rule, which made a player’s new team compensate his old one when they switched.

Shortly after Mackey beat Rozelle and the NFL court in 1971, the Colts traded him  to the San Diego Chargers after the 1972 season. Mackey, who is considered one of the greatest tight ends in the history of pro football, was denied entry in the Pro Football Hall until 1992 because of his union activities.

Former American Football League star running Abner Haynes, one of the leaders of the 1965 AFL All-Star boycott that moved the league’s All-Star game from New Orleans to Houston because of the Crescent City’s racism, was traded from the Kansas City Chiefs to the Denver Broncos because of his activism.

“(The Kansas City Chiefs) wrote me a two-page letter explaining to me how a football player’s role is not to help his people. All I’m supposed to do is to keep my mouth shut and play football,” Haynes said in the Showtime documentary,“Full Color: A History of the AFL”.

That’s the message that’s being conveyed to Kaepernick and other Black players who have dared to speak out on issues pertaining to race. According to my friend and “Bleacher Report” columnist Mike Freeman, a large number of NFL executives and owners despise what Kaepernick did.

In an article Freeman wrote in “Bleacher Report”, he said that one league executive he spoke with said that the owners “genuinely hate him and can’t stand what he did [kneeling for the national anthem]. They want nothing to do with him. They won’t move on. They think showing no interest is a form of punishment. I think some teams also want to use Kaepernick as a cautionary tale to stop other players in the future from doing what he did.”

During the course of the 2017 NFL Combine, Freeman also reported that some of the players, according to their agents, were asked about the Kaepernick situation during the course of the interviews. That lends credence to the idea that the owners are saying to guys around the league and to the new guys coming in that this can happen to you if you dare to protest the racism that African-Americans live with on a regular basis.

Of course, you can point to some football reasons that there is no interest in Kaepernick. He’s got some accuracy issues. The scouts also say he has difficulty hitting receivers in tight windows and will run even when receivers are open. Even though he is 3-16 in his last 19 starts, Kaepernick still has thrown 22 touchdown passes against nine interceptions and has an 88.2 passer rating.

That said, Kaepernick is still better than guys like Josh McCown,  Mike Glennon or even Eagles backup Chase Daniel who don’t have his ability or his accomplishments.  Kaepernick led the San Francisco 49ers to two straight NFC title games and a Super Bowl.  He was one play away from pulling off a huge comeback against the Baltimore Ravens in Super XLVII (47).

Two current Philadelphia Eagles—safety Malcolm Jenkins and wide receiver Torrey Smith—took to Twitter to let the league and anyone else reading that they’re not falling for the “Kaepernick isn’t good enough” okey-doke.

Malcolm Jenkins‏Verified account @MalcolmJenkins

Following

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Malcolm Jenkins Retweeted NFL Total Access

hhhhmmmmm… @nfl GM’s you can try to act like talent is the reason @Kaepernick7 isn’t employed …but we know the real reason.

 

 

Torrey Smith‏Verified account @TorreySmithWR

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Torrey Smith Retweeted Cameron

Colin Kaepernick is not currently employed. However, his skill set vastly exceeds others who were on the market.

 

But if you’re one of the folks agreeing with the owners that Kaepernick should have just “shut up and played”, I have a question for you. Are you going to hold Denver Broncos General Manager John Elway to that standard? Elway not only wrote a letter supporting President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Justice Neil Gorsuch, but did it on the team’s letterhead. I’d also like to know if you’re going to, at long last, tell New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady to stick to sports in light of his support of Trump and his refusal to accompany his teammates to visit the White House when President Barack Obama was president.

To quote a line from George Orwell’s Animal Farm: “All animals are created equal, but some are more equal than others.”

But when it comes to the NFL, the treatment of Colin Kaepernick might be the incident that forces Commissioner Roger Goodell to look at his Animal Farm a little more closely.

Black Girl Magic, LeBron James, Deaths of Sports Icons Defined 2016 Sports Year

30 Dec
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Simon Biles won gold medals at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

The Last Hurrah for Ryan Howard and Bernard Hopkins, LeBron James-Male Athlete of the Year 

By Chris Murray                                                                                                                 

For the Chris Murray Report and the Philadelphia Sunday Sun

If there’s one thing that everyone can agree on about 2016, it was a year where the one constant was death.

While the pop culture world got hit the hardest with the losses of such icons as Prince and David Bowie, the Sporting World got knocked around a bit as well. We lost boxing icon

ImustbetheGreatest

Muhammad Ali Shook up the world with his stunning upset of Sonny Liston in 1964. His death in 2016 highlighted was the most visible in  year when a number icons in sports and entertainment passed away.

Muhammad Ali this year. The General of Arnie’s Army, golf legend Arnold Palmer, also left us. So did basketball coach extraordinaire Pat Summit and former Philadelphia Eagles coach Buddy Ryan.

Even sports media felt the sting with the losses of John Saunders, host of ESPN’s “The Sports Reporters” and Craig Sager, easily the most colorful man in the NBA.

Although we’re still in mourning over the loss of these shining stars, and cherishing the memories of their brilliance, the Sporting World gave us more than a few reasons to cheer in 2016. It was an up year for some and a down year for others, but one thing it wasn’t was boring.

Here’s a look at 2016 in Sports…

One Last Hurrah for the Big Piece: Ryan Howard

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Ryan Howard played his last season in a Phillies uniform in 2016. Photo by Webster Riddick.

This year, we said goodbye to a man who played a big part in breaking Philadelphia’s longtime championship drought, Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard.

Because 2016 marked the end of his contract, Howard will be a free agent and will most likely leave the team that he led with his bat from 2005 to 2016.

During his tenure with the Phillies, Howard’s ability to hit towering home runs and drive in runs helped lead the team to the 2008 World Series title, two National League pennants, and five consecutive National League East titles.  Howard was the Most Valuable Player of the 2009 National League Championship Series and was also winner of the National League Rookie of the Year, and National League MVP awards.

Unfortunately, a combination of age, injuries and a team in rebuilding mode mandated that Howard and the Phillies part ways. Howard will most likely play for someone else and while it’s a shame that he won’t be allowed to retire here, Phillies fans will always appreciate the Glory Days he brought to the franchise.

The Year of Black Girl Magic

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Claire Smith is the first woman to receive the Baseball Hall of Fame’s A.G. Spink Award and will be honored during in Hall of Fame weekend in July. Photo courtesy ESPN.com

In December, former Philadelphia Inquirer baseball columnist Claire Smith became the first woman to win the prestigious J.G. Taylor Spink Award from Major League Baseball’s Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. She was honored for her pioneering work, which included paving the way for women to enter MLB locker rooms to do interviews, just like their male counterparts.

That Smith received the award this year makes perfect sense because 2016 was the year that the Sporting World was hit with all kinds of Black Girl Magic.

Black female athletes from Africa and the African Diaspora (which includes the United States and the Caribbean), served notice to the world that they were a force to be reckoned with, most prominently during the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio.

There, Black women excelled in everything. And I do mean everything.

Gymnast Simone Biles was named the Associated Press’s Female Athlete of the Year.

If you watched one minute of her gymnastic performances during the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, the reason she won this award became obvious.

The diminutive Texan was the darling of the games, leading the Final Five—Biles, Laurie Hernandez, Madison Kocian, Aly Reisman, and 2012 Individual all-around Gold Medalist Gabby Douglas—to a team Gold Medal and also winning three individual gold medals including the individual all-around. Biles stunning performances in the floor exercise dazzled audiences around the world and her grace and athleticism were definitely a joy to watch.

But while she responsible for a nice chunk of the Black Girl Magic on display in Rio, Biles was only the beginning. Black women also showed that they could excel in places they’re not normally associated with like the swimming pool and fencing ring.

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Simone Manuel became the first Black American woman to win a gold medal in swimming at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro,

Stanford University’s Simone Manuel became the first Black woman to win a gold medal in swimming when she tied with Canada’s Penny Oleksiak to win the 100-meter freestyle, setting Olympic and American records in the process. She also helped the 4X100 meter medley relay team take home a gold medal and won silver medals in the 50-meter freestyle and the 4X100 meter freestyle relay.

Elsewhere in the water, Ashleigh Johnson, the first Black woman to make the U.S. Water Polo team, helped lead the team to a gold medal. In the gold medal game against Italy, Johnson, the team’s goalie, had eight saves.

Ibtihaj Muhammad made news when she competed with the U.S. Sabre Fencing team while wearing the hijab of her Muslim faith. The team took home a bronze medal and Muhammad’s performance showed that you can be an observant Muslim and an athlete simultaneously.

But while Black women in non-traditional sports took center stage, that didn’t mean that Black women didn’t continue to excel in places where they’ve traditionally ruled, such as in track and field. Led by the United States, the Bahamas, Colombia, Jamaica and the African continent, Black women won gold medals in all but three track and field events at the Olympics.

From Michelle Carter’s gold in the shot put to Brianna Rollins, Kristi Castlin and Philadelphia’s own Nia Ali sweeping the 100-meter hurdles to the exploits of the Jamaican track team, Black women showed, to paraphrase Emmy-award winning actress Viola Davis, that all that’s needed for them to excel is opportunity. They made the most of it…and then some.

All Hail The King (James)

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Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James, center, celebrates with teammates after Game 7 of basketball’s NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors in Oakland, Calif., Sunday, June 19, 2016. The Cavaliers won 93-89. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

With the Cleveland Cavaliers went down 3-1 in the NBA Finals to the defending champion Golden State Warriors, LeBron James put his Cleveland Cavaliers on his back and helped them win three-straight elimination games to give the City of Cleveland its first pro sports title since 1964.

James, the Associated Press’s Male Athlete of the Year, became the Finals Most Valuable Player by performing the historical feat of leading in scoring, rebounding, steals, blocked shots, and assists. What makes this feat even more remarkable is that it’s something that neither Magic Johnson, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Oscar Robertson nor the athlete James compared to most often, Michael Jordan, was able to do.

They’re all Hall of Famers. This year, his achievements put LeBron James in the same rarefied air.

No Joy In Mudville

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Can Ben Simmons lead the 76ers back to glory? He was the Sixers No. 1 draft pick in 2016.

Because the Philadelphia Eagles, the Phillies, the 76ers, and the Philadelphia Flyers are all in some form of rebuilding mode, the closest that Philadelphia sports fans got to the World Series, the Super Bowl, the NBA Finals and the Stanley Cup was the couch in front of their television sets.

While the Eagles, who will miss the NFL playoffs for the third straight year, made some noise when rookie Carson Wentz went undefeated in his first three starts, they came back to earth with a deafening thud after the bye week. Coming into the season finale against the Dallas Cowboys, Wentz has completed 62 percent of his passes for 3, 537 yards with 14 touchdowns and 14 interceptions.

The Sixers also gave their fans hope by picking LSU’s Ben Simmons with their first-round lottery pick. The good news is, Simmons can handle and pass the ball like Magic Johnson.

The bad news is, and this should be no surprise to Sixers fans, he’s injured. And as if often is in Sixers World, it’s a foot injury.

But there is some hope for optimism now that Joel Embiid has finally recovered from his foot injury and has emerged as the team’s best big man.

Villanova Wins the National Championship, Penn Wins Ivy League Crown, Penn State Temple Football Bowl Bound Again

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Villanova won its first national championship since 1985 with a buzzer-beater win over North Carolina.

In one of the most exciting games in the history of the NCAA Tournament, the Villanova Wildcats won the men’s basketball national championship on a last-second three-point shot by Kris Jenkins.  It was probably the greatest championship game of all time and they were honored by the city with a parade down Broad Street. Although I know one Philly sports fan who thinks that parade should have gone to an actual Philly team, but the Wildcats do play some of  their games at the Wells Fargo Center and they were embraced by the entire Delaware Valley during their run to the title.

Like, for example the University of Pennsylvania Quakers and the Temple University Owls.

For the second straight season, the Quakers won a share of the Ivy League football title. They became league co-champs with Princeton by defeating Cornell University 42-40. Junior running back Tre Solomon gained 173 yards to lead the 7-3 (6-1 in the Ivy League) Quakers.

The Owls proved that the team’s 2015 football season was no fluke by winning the American Athletic Conference championship with a 34-10 win over Navy and notching it’s second straight 10-win season. The effort was enough to get head coach Matt Rhule noticed by the Big 12’s Baylor University, and he left to try and salvage a program that’s been in the news for all the wrong reasons over the last couple of years. The Owls also lost the Military Bowl to Wake Forest when the comeback they were mounting fell short.

But this doesn’t take anything away from an outstanding year for the Owls. If anything, it gives new Temple head coach Geoff Collins something to shoot for.

The much-maligned James Franklin became the Big Ten’s Coach of the Year by leading the Nittany Lions of Penn State to the Big Ten Football Championship. The team scored a come from behind win against Wisconsin thanks to the performance of running back Saquon Barkley and a stout defense. While many thought that Penn State should have gotten into the College  Football Playoff thanks to its victory over Ohio State, the teams two losses mean they’ll be going to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California on New Year’s Day against the University of Southern California.

Bernard Hopkins Falls to Father Time

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Bernard Hopkins looked as old as the 51-year-old man he is in his loss to Joe Smith Jr. Photo courtesy of sportingnews.com

After getting literally knocked out of the ring by Joe Smith Jr. in his most recent fight, some say it should be.

From the moment he turned 40, Hopkins has waged a valiant and sometimes successful against Father Time.  But in the end, the 51-year-old Hopkins found out what every athlete eventually does: time is undefeated.

While Hopkins hasn’t said whether or not he’ll retire, the prevailing hope is that he will. To do otherwise will probably do him more harm than good long term.

Like I said, 2016 has been an up and down year. But now that it’s over, it’ll be interesting to see what 2017 will bring to the Sporting World.

No matter what it is, I’ll have it for you.

Happy New Year!

 

 

 

 

Loss to Redskins Reflective of an Awful 2016 for Eagles

12 Dec
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It’s been a tough year for Carson Wentz and Jordan Matthews. Photo by Webster Riddick

By Chris Murray

For the Chris Murray Report and the Philadelphia Sunday Sun

With the playoffs obviously out of the picture for the Philadelphia Eagles (5-8), the only thing that diehard Birds fans can hope for is that the team can finish a respectable .500 and not have a second straight losing season.

Considering how this team has struggled, finishing at 8-8 is going to be a struggle for the Eagles because they face three playoff contenders to close out the season starting with Sunday’s road game against the Baltimore Ravens.  The Eagles may not win another game if those games are must-wins for those teams.   The Birds close out the season at Lincoln Financial Field against the New York Giants and the first-place Dallas Cowboys.

The Eagles 27-22 loss to the Washington Redskins was quite simply a microcosm of an entire season has gone wrong. The Birds certainly had their chances to win the game, but couldn’t get out of their own way with turnovers and penalties.

“Yes, those are the things that we talk about during the week,” said head coach Doug Pederson. “Again, I mentioned it to the team at the end in the locker room that if we figure out a way to eliminate those things, great things are going to happen to your team.”

Eventually, just not this year.

Throw in injuries at key spots and that’s your 2016 Eagles season in a nutshell. In this game, the Eagles lost long snapper Jon Dorenbos to a right wrist injury, which meant long-snapping duties were split between tight ends Brent Celek and Trey Burton. Right tackle Allen Barbre left the game with a left hamstring injury and right tackle Brandon Brooks was sidelined with an illness.

One of the most devastating blows to the Eagles was the loss of punt returner Darren Sproles who got hurt fielding a punt on a vicious hit by Washington defensive back Deshazor Everett, who drew unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and several members of the Eagles wanting to kick his ass. Sproles will likely undergo the concussion protocol.

With all the reshuffling on the offensive line, Matt Tobin, who normally plays guard, was moved to right tackle. It was his inability to block Washington linebacker Ryan Kerrigan that sealed Eagles fate. Kerrigan’s sack and forced fumble of quarterback Carson Wentz deep in Washington territory halted the Eagles comeback.

On offense, the Eagles outgained Washington but gave up two turnovers inside the red zone that might have made a difference.   On their second possession of the game, the Birds, who were leading 3-0,  had the ball at the Washington three-yard line only to have Wentz throw an interception in the end zone.  Wentz ‘s fumble after the sack by Kerrigan put the nail in the coffin.

The Eagles had another chance to put seven points on the board when Darren Sproles ran a punt back 72 yards for an apparent touchdown, but it was called back because Zach Ertz was flagged for an illegal block in the back.  With the other two turnovers, the Eagles blew a potential 21 points that could have tilted the game in their favor.

“Obviously, we’ve had a handful mistakes, little things here and there,” Wentz said after the game.  “And a lot of these losses, we’re just one play away, two plays away. … It’s kind of frustrating, but we have to learn from it.”

If there’s a silver-lining in this latest Eagles loss, the team did play with a lot of effort after they were criticized by Pederson earlier last week.  Just not enough to walk away with a win.

Unfortunately, these are the games you lose when you are a bad team. It’s always shoulda, woulda, I wish I coulda when you find yourself at the end of another loss.

One final note-One of the enduring symbols of the debacle that was the Chip Kelly era returned to bite the Eagles again. Redskins and former Birds wide receiver DeSean Jackson caught three passes for 102 yards including an 80-yard touchdown pass.

Strangely, enough Jackson wasn’t booed or jeered by fans. That’s because there’s a sentiment around Philly that they want D-Jax, who turns 30 next year, back when he becomes a free agent after this season. He’s definitely better than what they have now at the wide receiver position.

Jackson left open the possibility that he could be back.

“I don’t know man, shoot,” Jackson said. “We’ll see what happens. You never know how it’ll play out.”

Stay tuned.