Fun Extreme Sport

Le foto di surf e di altri sport estremi

Five Key Legal Issues in the NFL's Investigation into Jerry Richardson

Less than 48 hours after the Carolina Panthers launched an internal investigation into whether their founder and principal owner, Jerry Richardson, engaged in workplace misconduct, the NFL announced that it has taken over the investigation. The Panthers’ decision to investigate was a response to a Sports Illustrated investigative story, published on Sunday, concerning Richardson’s aberrant behavior as an owner and his treatment of employees. As revealed by Jon Wertheim and Viv Bernstein in an exclusive story, Richardson’s alleged misconduct primarily concerns sexual harassment and inappropriate physical contact with women.

Multiple witnesses told Wertheim and Bernstein that Richardson would often objectify the women who worked for him. To illustrate, Richardson allegedly took a peculiar and active interest in female grooming, such as by asking his female employees if he could shave their legs. Richardson, witnesses say, also liked to give female employees invasive back rubs and he insisted on buckling their seatbelts so that he could brush his hand across their breasts. In addition, Richardson reportedly made a racial slur against an African-American man who, until earlier this year, worked for the team as a scout.

In a statement explaining its decision to investigate Richardson, the team expressed a firm commitment to “ensuring a safe, comfortable and diverse work environment where all individuals, regardless of sex, race, color, religion, gender, or sexual identity or orientation, are treated fairly and equally.” Panthers limited owner Erskine Bowles, who served as Chief of Staff to President Bill Clinton, had been tapped to oversee the investigation. Attorneys from the law firm Quinn Emanuel Urquhart and Sullivan were expected to assist Bowles.

It is unclear at this time whether the NFL will retain a law firm to assist in the Richardson investigation. In recent years the league has turned to outside attorneys—most notably Ted Wells of the law firm Paul Weiss—to lead or co-lead investigations into teams. Wells was tapped with investigating bullying allegations connected to the Miami Dolphins and equipment tampering allegations connected to the New England Patriots.

The investigation into Richardson, and the abrupt change in how the investigation will be conducted, raises five key legal issues:

1. The NFL’s investigation could be hindered by a non-disclosure agreement

One critical issue in the investigation is whether the accusers can fully detail their claims while remaining in compliance with contract law. Wertheim and Bernstein note that the accusers signed non-disclosure agreement (NDA) with the Panthers. They did so as part of their employment with, and subsequent severance from, the Panthers. NDAs forbid employees and former employees from disclosing various categories of trade secrets and other proprietary information to persons from outside of the company. NDAs also frequently bar individuals from disparaging the employer and its officers (sometimes called non-disparagement clauses). Current and former employees who violate NDAs can be sued for breach of contract and required to payback employers.

At the moment, it does not appear that the Panthers have waived the accusers’ NDAs. Such waivers would authorize them to speak with NFL investigators and any attorneys retained by the league. Since the accusers were employees of the Panthers, not the NFL, any waiver would likely require assent by the Panthers. In other words, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell likely lacks the legal capacity to unilaterally modify the complainants’ contractual arrangements with the Panthers. However, Goodell might require the Panthers to do so upon threat of punishing the team for failing to cooperate in a league investigation.

So long as the NDAs remain in effect, it is worth discussing how they might impact the Richardson investigation. As a starting point, NDAs are not immune from legal scrutiny. Like other states, North Carolina requires that the scope of NDAs be limited to specific topics and to knowledge reasonably necessary to protect the company. An overly broad NDA can be deemed unenforceable. NDAs can also become unenforceable when confidential information becomes publicly known, such as through whistleblowers or media investigations. Likewise, NDAs can be overcome by a subpoena and other compulsory requests for evidence and witness testimony. In some states, including North Carolina, NDAs also usually require that the employer compensate the employee for signing an NDA.

NDAs have come under scrutiny in recent months for suppressing discussion of harassment and assault of women in the workplace. Victims of such misconduct are often dissuaded from talking about their experiences for fear that doing so would violate an NDA and lead to being sued. NDAs in this context also create something of a feedback loop problem, where each victim of one perpetrator might not know there are other victims. Each of the perpetrator’s victims is thus less inclined to challenge or breach their NDAs, thereby making it less likely the perpetrator is stopped and less likely that potential future victims are sparred.

To that end, NDAs are viewed as an influential reason why numerous sexual assault allegations against film producer Harvey Weinstein remained out of public view for years. Dozens of women who worked for Weinstein at Miramax and The Weinstein Company reportedly signed NDAs. Some of them did so as part of settlements in which they received financial compensation in exchange for relinquishing any potential legal claims they had against Weinstein and his companies. Their motivations to sign NDAs were not exclusively financial. Many wanted to protect their privacy, which would have been compromised if they pursued a lawsuit, and some may have been deterred by the prospect of drawn out and stressful litigation.

The use of NDAs to silence victims of workplace sexual offenses may soon encounter legal barriers. This is true in New York, where the NFL is headquartered. New York state senators Martin Malavé Dilan and Brad Hoylman have co-sponsored a bill, Senate Bill S6382A, which targets NDAs that mute victims of workplace sexual violence and harassment. If it became law, the bill would render contract provisions that “have the purpose or effect of concealing details relating to a claim of discrimination . . . harassment or violation of public policy in employment” void and unenforceable.

A potential legal change in New York might prove irrelevant in the Richardson investigation. North Carolina law presumably governs the accusers’ NDAs, meaning any change to New York law would seemingly not impact the investigation. On the other hand, since the NFL has taken over the investigation, New York law may play a more meaningful role.

2. Reasons why the NFL was likely skeptical of the Panthers running the investigation

It’s not at all surprising that the Panthers rushed to launch an investigation before the NFL launched one. For one, the Panthers wanted to get ahead of Sports Illustrated publishing the Wertheim and Bernstein story. The Panthers announced the investigation on a Friday night—a day and time often used to dump unflattering news while the public is preoccupied by the start of the weekend. By the time the Wertheim and Bernstein story ran on Sunday, the Panthers probably hoped the news wouldn’t be as alarming to the public.

Further, by conducting the investigation on their own, the Panthers would have controlled how information is shared both internally and externally. The team would thus not be dependent on the league in how the investigation played out. Along those lines, the Panthers knew the NFL had attracted substantial criticism for how they investigated the Patriots in the Deflategate controversy. Many believe that the NFL’s findings were inaccurate. Unflattering leaks from the NFL’s office about the Patriots and Tom Brady also raised questions of bias and maladministration. By conducting the investigation on their own, the Panthers have excluded the possibility of the NFL mishandling the investigation.

An internal investigation would have also allowed Richardson’s attorneys to become better prepared for any findings of unlawful or unethical conduct. Obtaining those findings prior to an opposition party—or the NFL—doing so would have allowed the Panthers to strategize how to best mitigate the findings’ impact.

Chances are, the Panthers believed that they had preempted both Sports Illustrated and the NFL by announcing the Richardson on Friday. The plan obviously didn’t work out. And the NFL had good reasons to be skeptical of an internal Panthers investigation into Richardson. For one, the target of the investigation—Richardson—owns the team that would have paid the investigators’ fees and expenses. Such an arrangement is inherently vulnerable to bias and partiality. While internal investigators may be thorough and diligent, they may also be inclined to portray any findings of wrongdoing in the most favorable light possible. Panthers’ investigators would have known that a very negative report on the 81-year-old Richardson could potentially expose him to liability or force him to sell the team. The NFL does not want investigators into team wrongdoing to be influenced by financial interests that discourage deep probing.

The NFL may have also been concerned that the law firm retained by the Panthers—Quinn, Emanuel—had presumably entered into an attorney-client relationship with the Panthers. As part of this relationship, attorneys from Quinn Emanuel would have served as advocates for the team and its owner. Stated differently, by virtue of their occupation, attorneys can’t be neutral referees between Richardson and any possible workplace victims. Attorneys paid by the Panthers to investigate Richardson would have known that if they found and publicly shared evidence of Richardson engaging in unlawful conduct, such a disclosure might have undermined their ability to advocate for Richardson. They may have thus sidestepped providing a complete but damning disclosure and instead offer a more muted depiction of wrongdoing. For the NFL, a credible investigation into an owner may require more distance between the investigators and the owner’s team.

3. The NFL conducting the investigation instead of the Panthers does not guarantee objectivity

While the NFL investigating Richardson creates more distance between the accusers and Richardson, there remains the possibility of a conflict of interest. The NFL knows that if a team owner engaged in some sort of wrongdoing, the owner’s misconduct would reflect poorly on the league. It’s also possible that the league is worried about its own liability exposure for the misdeeds of an owner. Further, the league is no doubt aware of developments in Hollywood and politics during this #MeToo era. Once one victim is willing to share her story, other victims from the same industry are more willing to come forward. Will other team owners be implicated? Therefore, some of the aforementioned concerns of the Panthers investigating Richardson seemingly also apply to the NFL running the Richardson investigation.

There are also structural limitations to an internal investigation. This is true whether the NFL or a team conduct the investigation. Most notably, investigators lack the full scope of investigatory powers enjoyed by law enforcement. Private investigators, be they attorneys or forensic accountants, possess neither the subpoena power nor the capacity to obtain search and arrest warrants. This can frustrate investigators when trying to compel employees to turn over videos, texts, emails and other evidence that might confirm or deny wrongdoing. Along those lines, while investigators likely have access to the Panthers’ email server, their access to employees’ phones and other devices is far less certain.

Witnesses who speak with investigators are also not under oath. Some of those witnesses will undoubtedly include Panthers employees, whose employment duties likely require them to adopt a forthcoming and truthful approach when dealing with investigators. Others, however, may not perceive an advantage to be cooperative or candid with the investigators. In fact, some may have incentives to direct blame onto others. NDAs, as discussed above, can also impede disclosure of information. Collectively, these dynamics might limit the completeness and accuracy of the Richardson investigation.

4. Potential legal fallout for Richardson

Richardson is accused of harassment, which, if they occurred within the relevant statutes of limitation, can give rise to several kinds of civil claims. Sexual harassment, racial discrimination and hostile work environment are among them. They center on a contention that an employee was subjected to offensive and harmful behavior because of gender or race. Such an uncomfortable workplace culture also made the job more difficult. Typically, a plaintiff who alleges such misconduct recalls how complaining about the situation to her superiors or to human resources led to no improvement. Sometimes raising the issue can also lead retribution in the form of a de facto demotion or firing.

If Richardson made any physical contact with the accusers, they could sue him for battery, which refers to non-consensual and offensive contact. Further, if Richardson caused the complaints mental distress, they could include claims for intentional infliction of emotional distress. Also, if Richardson ever made it difficult for the complaints to a leave a room—or the backseat of a car—they could also add claims for false imprisonment.

Whether the accusers can sue and win is partly dependent on the enforceability of the NDAs. If the NDAs are considered effective, then those who may have been victimized by Richardson may have contractually waived the opportunity to take him to court.

It is extremely unlikely that Richardson, a billionaire, would go to court against his accusers or hope that the NDAs save him from liability. Defending against a lawsuit would risk the dangers of pretrial discovery. Along those lines, Richardson and Panthers employees would have to testify about sensitive topics. They would also be required to share potentially unflattering texts and emails with attorneys who represent the accusers. Richardson’s long history of handwritten notes would also be relevant in pretrial discovery. Such notes would be of great interest to plaintiffs’ attorneys.

To avoid such an aftermath, Richardson would probably try to reach financial settlements with the accusers long before they sue. Such settlements would entail Richardson agreeing to pay the accusers a significant amount of money in exchange for them agreeing to drop any possible claims against him and to refrain from speaking about him. Mindful of its own potential exposure, the NFL would likely encourage Richardson to reach an out-of-court resolution with his accusers.

5. Potential NFL fallout for Richardson: will he become the NFL’s Donald Sterling?

While Richardson has the financial wherewithal to avoid a lengthy legal process, he has much less suasion over how the NFL and its fellow billionaire owners treat any findings of wrongful conduct. Under the league constitution, Goodell could fine or suspend Richardson. Goodell has punished an owner before: in 2014, Goodell suspended Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay six games after Irsay pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of operating a vehicle while intoxicated.

Richardson is not the only person associated with the Panthers who could face discipline. If team officials are implicated as facilitating or failing to stop Richardson’s alleged misconduct, Goodell could punish those officials. He could also conclude that the Panthers as a franchise warrant discipline in the form of a fine or forfeited draft picks.

In an extreme case of misconduct, the NFL could move to suspend or terminate Richardson’s ownership in the Panthers. Under Article VIII of the NFL constitution, Goodell can issue charges against an owner on grounds that the owner is guilty of conduct detrimental to the league. Owners would discuss those charges and their accompanying evidence in a trial-like hearing. A minimum of 23 of the remaining 31 NFL ownership groups would need to sustain the charges and accompanying punishment in order for Richardson’s ownership of the Panthers to be suspended or terminated.

Given that the league has previously refrained from stripping a team from an owner—and given that owners may worry about the precedential effect of imposing such a punishment—it seems unlikely that a super-majority of Richardson’s fellow owners would vote to remove him.

That said, even talk of being kicked out of the league could motivate Richardson to leave on his own accord. Richardson certainly does not want to be remembered as the NFL’s version of Donald Sterling, the disgraced former Los Angeles Clippers owner whom NBA commissioner Adam Silver took steps to remove in response to Sterling’s racist comments. Although Sterling’s fellow owners never voted since Shelly Sterling wrestled control of the team away from her husband, many believe Silver had the votes.

SI.com will keep you posted on any developments in the Richardson investigation.

Michael McCann is SI’s legal analyst. He is also an attorney and the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at the University of New Hampshire School of Law, and co-author with Ed O'Bannon of the forthcoming book Court Justice: The Inside Story of My Battle Against the NCAA.

Foot - BRE - Le parti extrémiste Patriota dément tout accord avec Ronaldinho

Ronaldinho n'a passé aucun accord avec Patriota, selon le parti brésilien d'extrême droite qui a répondu aux rumeurs via un communiqué.

Brésil: un parti d'extrême droite dément tout accord avec Ronaldinho

Patriota, le parti d'extrême droite brésilien, a démenti tout accord avec Ronaldinho ce vendredi. La veille, l’ancien joueur du PSG et du Barça était annoncé comme futur candidat au Sénat par la presse locale.

Brésil: un parti d'extrême droite dément tout accord avec Ronaldinho

Patriota, le parti d'extrême droite brésilien, a démenti tout accord avec Ronaldinho ce vendredi. La veille, l’ancien joueur du PSG et du Barça était annoncé comme futur candidat au Sénat par la presse locale.

Ronaldinho pourrait se lancer en politique avec un candidat d'extrême droite

L'ex-footballeur pourrait se présenter aux élections sénatoriales dans le sillage du "Trump brésilien", Jair Bolsonaro. "Il n'est pas membre de notre parti, mais la porte est ouverte", rectifie la formation.

Ronaldinho pourrait se lancer en politique avec un candidat d'extrême droite

L'ex-footballeur pourrait se présenter aux élections sénatoriales dans le sillage du "Trump brésilien", Jair Bolsonaro. "Il n'est pas membre de notre parti, mais la porte est ouverte", rectifie la formation.

Brésil : Ronaldinho pourrait se lancer en politique sous les couleurs d'un parti d'extrême droite

L'ancien joueur du PSG et du Barça s'est affiché au côté de Jair Bolsonaro, leader du parti Patriota, et connu pour ses positions en faveur de la peine de mort et de la dictature militaire.

Bowl Pick 'Em Guide: Tips to Help You Win Your Pool

Saturday’s matchup between North Carolina A&T and Grambling State, which marks the beginning of this year’s bowl season, could not be more appropriately named. It’s the Celebration Bowl, a proper moniker for a contest that kicks off a month of glorious college football madness.

In total, there are 41 games to celebrate. We’ve got everything from non-descript matchups between two middling Big 5 programs (looking at you, Heart of Dallas) to a really compelling David vs. Goliath bout (hello, Peach Bowl) to the national championship game at Levi’s Stadium on Jan. 8.

And it’s not just the games themselves that are worth celebrating. Bowl season also means it’s time for fans to fill out their bowl pick ‘em entries. Generally speaking, these are contests in which players pick a winner in each of the 41 games straight up—just the winner, no spread—and assign confidence points (from 1 to 41) to each pick. Each correct pick counts for however many confidence points were wagered on the game; thus, logic would suggest putting the most points on the pick you feel most confident in.

There are a ton of variables to sort through when constructing your entry—whether to frontload or backload your picks, whether to go with Vegas’ picks, how much to weigh a coaching change, to name just a few. Here’s a guide to help you navigate your way through the mess and assemble a moneymaking entry.

Rule number one: Avoid the alma mater bias

This seems obvious, but your bias toward your alma mater may be subconscious. For example, it could be a classic case of the mere exposure effect—a documented psychological phenomenon by which people develop a preference for things just because they are familiar with them. Thus, you might think your school’s team is better than it is simply because they’re the team you watched most this season. What’s more, this effect can be magnified if you haven’t watched the team your alma mater is playing at all. Be wary of this.

On the other, less scientific hand, don’t let your school spirit cloud your judgment when filling out your picks. Take a deep breath, perhaps a physical step back, and avoid the temptation to pick your team with 40 confidence points just because its your team.

How much should I factor in travel distance?

As a general rule, not much at all. While travel distance is definitely something to keep in mind during the season, when teams play every week and only have a few days to get accustomed to their new surroundings, every team has ample time between its last regular season game and the bowl game to get comfortable. And because the games fall during the winter, when kids are off school and a bunch of people travel for the holidays, fans are far more likely to schlep to a bowl game than a regular road game.

The one exception to this rule is if one team is playing within, say, 50 miles of its campus, because then even casual fans will make the trip. The extreme example here is Miami playing Wisconsin in the Orange Bowl, which will be played in Miami’s home Hard Rock Stadium. The Hurricanes certainly have a home-field advantage in that matchup, but there will be more Wisconsin fans there than had this been a regular-season game.

Should I just follow the Vegas spreads?

It’s definitely tempting to just play the odds and choose favorites, since these pick ‘ems give you the luxury of not having to pick games with spreads. But there will always, always, always be upsets. The key to distinguishing yourself from the pack is by correctly picking these upsets, similar to filling out a March Madness bracket. The spreads might also be not as tight because these are out of conference matchups, so oddsmakers don’t have the luxury of comparing how the teams did against a bunch of common opponents.

What about teams whose coaches have left/are leaving?

In recent years, teams playing in a bowl game with a coach who has accepted another job or with an interim coach have had a surprising amount of success. But as a general rule, it’s safe to assume that teams playing with an interim coach they know won’t be there next year—Texas A&M (Jeff Banks), Florida State (Odell Haggins), Mississippi State (Greg Knox) to name a few—will not fare as well.

This does not apply to a team like UCF, which will be coached by Scott Frost even though he’s already accepted the Nebraska job. The opposite might be the case, actually, as his players might be extra motivated to send him out on the right note. Oregon’s situation also doesn’t fall under the interim coach category, as it removed Mario Cristobal’s interim tag, so the team knows he’ll be back next season.

Should I frontload or backload my confidence points?

The distribution of your confidence points should obviously be determined by your level of assuredness in each pick. But if you’re deciding between two picks, put more confidence points in the game that takes place on a later date. Why? Because it’s no fun to be essentially eliminated just a week into the bowl season. Keep it interesting for as long as possible, within reason. Don’t leave it all until the last week, but also don’t lose the contest in the first five games.

Should I put a bunch of confidence points on the playoff games?

Probably not. These are the only bowls in which a group of educated people picked teams based on how close they are in quality to each other. You might have a strong opinion as to who will take the natty, but it’s probably prudent to limit the confidence points you wager.

It is, of course, important to take everything that was just said with a grain of salt. Bowl picks wouldn't be any fun if they were a predictable science. Stuff goes haywire during the bowl season, and that’s what makes it so irresistibly enjoyable.

Happy watching.

Ronaldinho se lance dans la politique et rejoint l’extrême droite au Brésil

Selon un journal brésilien, Ronaldinho se présenterait aux élections sénatoriales en 2018

Brésil : Ronaldinho candidat au Sénat sous une étiquette d'extrême droite

/ JORGE CABRERA/Action Images / Panoramic

Foot - BRE - Ronaldinho se lance en politique et rejoint le parti d'extrême droite de Jair Bolsonaro

Jair Bolsonaro, homme politique d'extrême-droite très controversé, a reçu le soutien de Ronaldinho, qui s'est engagé dans son parti.

Michael 'Mayday' McDonald counts his blessings ahead of headlining Bellator event in Newcastle 

Beset by hand injuries, and in the midst of three surgeries on his weapons of choice, Michael McDonald felt the 'Mayday' call in his own soul. Fighter by nature, bespoke cabinet maker by day, the thrilling bantamweight mixed martial artist wondered why his life as an elite athlete was just meandering by. Bereft after being out of action in the UFC between 2013 and 2016, only one thing kept him going, though: his faith in Christ.  Religious faith is often thrown out there by combat athletes, but in several interviews with McDonald over the last decade, there comes a time in the course of speaking that he reverts to this spiritual default setting.   McDonald came back in 2016, had two fights, and returns to headline in Newcastle tomorrow night against Peter Ligier making his debut for a new organisation in Bellator, at its No 191 event. The time away was so tough, he recalls. "I would say the hardest part about that period was just how unpredictable your life is. This was more extreme with the UFC because they operated off a bonus system. I'm not saying it's a good or bad. I've played the bonus game for a while. I did well. I didn't have a problem so much with the UFC, it was more to do with the way I got paid," explained the fighter who fought a modern Who's Who of 135lb fighters including Uriah Faber, Renan Barao, John Lineker, Brad Pickett and Miguel Torres.  "With that bonus structure you never know how much you're going to get paid, how little you're going to get paid, when the next cheque is going to come in. For example, I fought Faber and got £15,000 to show and the next fight I had was against Pickett and it was £130,000. "That's from double bonuses. It's so inconsistent. Then you don't fight for two years and then you have one fight and think you're going to have another one in four months and it turns out to be 16 months. That's the hardest part about it, how inconsistent it is, and managing your life in a main job that is inconsistent is very difficult." Michael McDonald will take on Peter Ligier in Newcastle Credit: Lucas Noonan/Bellator MMA The bottom line was issues with his hands. Serious ones, at that. "I had three surgeries on my hands. They are completely healed. There is a chance of it repeating itself if I don't make the proper changes. The very first surgery I had was because I didn't wear hand wraps properly and I would go and hit incredibly hard on these pads and stuff and then go spar without my freaking hand wraps. I was just being a dummy, being lazy. Because of that I ended up tearing a webbing that goes over your knuckles. It keeps all of your tendons in line. I ripped that in a very uncommon place. If I don't wear hand wraps again, yeah, that could happen. "I had one surgery on my knuckle because that was torn and the other two were because there are multiple bones in your hand that don't move. When you make a fist, on the top of your fist there are bones in there that don't move but they act as a cushion.  "There's bone, cartilage, bone, cartilage, stuff like that. That cartilage acts as a cushion. My cartilage was slowly worn out. Instead of cushion being between my bones it was like a rock between my bones. My bones were slowly chipping away at each other and slowly deteriorating. So what they did was actually opened up my hand and fused those multiple bones into one bone. Old school boxers used to do that and were convinced it made you punch harder. I don't think it does. They fused all my bones together and put a titanium plate in there and stuff like that. "They took some bone marrow from my wrist and put it into my hand to fuse those bones together and now it's solid. I don't have as much range of motion in my wrist but it doesn't affect my performance at all. The only thing it affects are push ups. I can't do them regularly and I have to do them on my knuckles now." McDonald makes bespoke cabinets as his day job Credit: Lucas Noonan/Bellator MMA Then there is the other alter-ego part of the 26-year-old Californian's life: as a cabinet maker. "I have a thousand square foot shop right next to my house. I'm self employed. I have my own clients and do it whenever I want. I have probably five times closed down my woodwork business and opened it up again. Fighting is so inconsistent and unpredictable, I'm never closing down my business ever again. Now, when I have a fight, I just tell people they won't get their product until after the fight, and they're cool with that. Most of the stuff I do is high quality, custom piece that people are willing to wait for. Most of them are my friends. I love working with and doing business with my friends. They are all fantastic people and are very supportive of my career. "But doing the custom cabinets and furniture is in my free time. I do it almost as a hobby. That actually pays my bills throughout the year. Fighting income is investible. For this fight I saved up enough money in the shop doing my custom work to pay for my fight camp before I actually started training. So I didn't have to go and do wood work in the middle of training sessions. I've gone two and a half months with no woodwork. Just occasional light stuff when I want to do it."  So, to Friday's fight in Newcastle, an area which had always produced - and supported - MMA. The folk of the North East are a fighting breed, and McDonald's abilities will be relished, back as he is after another 17 months away.  "I always said I'm a good loser. That's a huge part of the success I have had. I lose well. I learn a lot from my losses. I truly don't have any shame with any of the losses I've had. I feel like I can look at them very pragmatically and take from them what I need to. I'm proud of them." The move to Bellator, he explained, 'felt right'. "It was partly that I thought I was worth more to the UFC but that wasn't the biggest problem. I went to them and said if there's not this much money in it, I can't do that right now. I've got to save up the money with my woodworking and come back and do this in a little bit of time. It was just a simple numbers thing. Anyone could understand that. "It came down to me telling the UFC, hey, this is what I need to make this work. They said, I don't know if we're OK with that. I thought I was worth it. I said, if you can do it, that's great, I'll fight for you guys immediately. If not, you're just going to have to wait. Then Bellator came along and said yeah we'll give that to you. We think you're worth that. It's nice to have someone stand up and say hey we don't think you're crazy. We think that's very reasonable and you're a fantastic fighter. Come over here and work for us. It did feel nice. "I think everything kind of came together, professionally, personally, experience-wise. I think this is going to be a good time for me. Ligier will be a very decent test, he reckons. "I've watched some of his fights and a constant characteristic in all his fights is aggression. He's always coming forward, he's always very tough, he pushes the pace. Traditionally I have fared well against people who have that style. A lot of times they end up leaving a few openings when they are very aggressive like that. Historically I have put people away fast who have that style. "I'm not expecting to do that but it would be nice. I've seen a couple of people put him down and he gets up immediately and keeps coming. He reminds me of Brad Pickett a bit. I think he's going to be a very good opponent and will be very tough. I don't think he's going to be someone who is going to crumble under the lights and the idea of fighting me because I've got the higher rep. He won't be intimidated by that." Then back to that default setting, and McDonald counting his blessings. "God really has blessed my life. I'm at a good place right now. Home is a good place to be, training is a good place to be right now. I feel like I'm really coming into my own. I feel very excited about this upcoming fight." Bring it on Mayday, bring it on.

Michael 'Mayday' McDonald counts his blessings ahead of headlining Bellator event in Newcastle 

Beset by hand injuries, and in the midst of three surgeries on his weapons of choice, Michael McDonald felt the 'Mayday' call in his own soul. Fighter by nature, bespoke cabinet maker by day, the thrilling bantamweight mixed martial artist wondered why his life as an elite athlete was just meandering by. Bereft after being out of action in the UFC between 2013 and 2016, only one thing kept him going, though: his faith in Christ.  Religious faith is often thrown out there by combat athletes, but in several interviews with McDonald over the last decade, there comes a time in the course of speaking that he reverts to this spiritual default setting.   McDonald came back in 2016, had two fights, and returns to headline in Newcastle tomorrow night against Peter Ligier making his debut for a new organisation in Bellator, at its No 191 event. The time away was so tough, he recalls. "I would say the hardest part about that period was just how unpredictable your life is. This was more extreme with the UFC because they operated off a bonus system. I'm not saying it's a good or bad. I've played the bonus game for a while. I did well. I didn't have a problem so much with the UFC, it was more to do with the way I got paid," explained the fighter who fought a modern Who's Who of 135lb fighters including Uriah Faber, Renan Barao, John Lineker, Brad Pickett and Miguel Torres.  "With that bonus structure you never know how much you're going to get paid, how little you're going to get paid, when the next cheque is going to come in. For example, I fought Faber and got £15,000 to show and the next fight I had was against Pickett and it was £130,000. "That's from double bonuses. It's so inconsistent. Then you don't fight for two years and then you have one fight and think you're going to have another one in four months and it turns out to be 16 months. That's the hardest part about it, how inconsistent it is, and managing your life in a main job that is inconsistent is very difficult." Michael McDonald will take on Peter Ligier in Newcastle Credit: Lucas Noonan/Bellator MMA The bottom line was issues with his hands. Serious ones, at that. "I had three surgeries on my hands. They are completely healed. There is a chance of it repeating itself if I don't make the proper changes. The very first surgery I had was because I didn't wear hand wraps properly and I would go and hit incredibly hard on these pads and stuff and then go spar without my freaking hand wraps. I was just being a dummy, being lazy. Because of that I ended up tearing a webbing that goes over your knuckles. It keeps all of your tendons in line. I ripped that in a very uncommon place. If I don't wear hand wraps again, yeah, that could happen. "I had one surgery on my knuckle because that was torn and the other two were because there are multiple bones in your hand that don't move. When you make a fist, on the top of your fist there are bones in there that don't move but they act as a cushion.  "There's bone, cartilage, bone, cartilage, stuff like that. That cartilage acts as a cushion. My cartilage was slowly worn out. Instead of cushion being between my bones it was like a rock between my bones. My bones were slowly chipping away at each other and slowly deteriorating. So what they did was actually opened up my hand and fused those multiple bones into one bone. Old school boxers used to do that and were convinced it made you punch harder. I don't think it does. They fused all my bones together and put a titanium plate in there and stuff like that. "They took some bone marrow from my wrist and put it into my hand to fuse those bones together and now it's solid. I don't have as much range of motion in my wrist but it doesn't affect my performance at all. The only thing it affects are push ups. I can't do them regularly and I have to do them on my knuckles now." McDonald makes bespoke cabinets as his day job Credit: Lucas Noonan/Bellator MMA Then there is the other alter-ego part of the 26-year-old Californian's life: as a cabinet maker. "I have a thousand square foot shop right next to my house. I'm self employed. I have my own clients and do it whenever I want. I have probably five times closed down my woodwork business and opened it up again. Fighting is so inconsistent and unpredictable, I'm never closing down my business ever again. Now, when I have a fight, I just tell people they won't get their product until after the fight, and they're cool with that. Most of the stuff I do is high quality, custom piece that people are willing to wait for. Most of them are my friends. I love working with and doing business with my friends. They are all fantastic people and are very supportive of my career. "But doing the custom cabinets and furniture is in my free time. I do it almost as a hobby. That actually pays my bills throughout the year. Fighting income is investible. For this fight I saved up enough money in the shop doing my custom work to pay for my fight camp before I actually started training. So I didn't have to go and do wood work in the middle of training sessions. I've gone two and a half months with no woodwork. Just occasional light stuff when I want to do it."  So, to Friday's fight in Newcastle, an area which had always produced - and supported - MMA. The folk of the North East are a fighting breed, and McDonald's abilities will be relished, back as he is after another 17 months away.  "I always said I'm a good loser. That's a huge part of the success I have had. I lose well. I learn a lot from my losses. I truly don't have any shame with any of the losses I've had. I feel like I can look at them very pragmatically and take from them what I need to. I'm proud of them." The move to Bellator, he explained, 'felt right'. "It was partly that I thought I was worth more to the UFC but that wasn't the biggest problem. I went to them and said if there's not this much money in it, I can't do that right now. I've got to save up the money with my woodworking and come back and do this in a little bit of time. It was just a simple numbers thing. Anyone could understand that. "It came down to me telling the UFC, hey, this is what I need to make this work. They said, I don't know if we're OK with that. I thought I was worth it. I said, if you can do it, that's great, I'll fight for you guys immediately. If not, you're just going to have to wait. Then Bellator came along and said yeah we'll give that to you. We think you're worth that. It's nice to have someone stand up and say hey we don't think you're crazy. We think that's very reasonable and you're a fantastic fighter. Come over here and work for us. It did feel nice. "I think everything kind of came together, professionally, personally, experience-wise. I think this is going to be a good time for me. Ligier will be a very decent test, he reckons. "I've watched some of his fights and a constant characteristic in all his fights is aggression. He's always coming forward, he's always very tough, he pushes the pace. Traditionally I have fared well against people who have that style. A lot of times they end up leaving a few openings when they are very aggressive like that. Historically I have put people away fast who have that style. "I'm not expecting to do that but it would be nice. I've seen a couple of people put him down and he gets up immediately and keeps coming. He reminds me of Brad Pickett a bit. I think he's going to be a very good opponent and will be very tough. I don't think he's going to be someone who is going to crumble under the lights and the idea of fighting me because I've got the higher rep. He won't be intimidated by that." Then back to that default setting, and McDonald counting his blessings. "God really has blessed my life. I'm at a good place right now. Home is a good place to be, training is a good place to be right now. I feel like I'm really coming into my own. I feel very excited about this upcoming fight." Bring it on Mayday, bring it on.

Michael 'Mayday' McDonald counts his blessings ahead of headlining Bellator event in Newcastle 

Beset by hand injuries, and in the midst of three surgeries on his weapons of choice, Michael McDonald felt the 'Mayday' call in his own soul. Fighter by nature, bespoke cabinet maker by day, the thrilling bantamweight mixed martial artist wondered why his life as an elite athlete was just meandering by. Bereft after being out of action in the UFC between 2013 and 2016, only one thing kept him going, though: his faith in Christ.  Religious faith is often thrown out there by combat athletes, but in several interviews with McDonald over the last decade, there comes a time in the course of speaking that he reverts to this spiritual default setting.   McDonald came back in 2016, had two fights, and returns to headline in Newcastle tomorrow night against Peter Ligier making his debut for a new organisation in Bellator, at its No 191 event. The time away was so tough, he recalls. "I would say the hardest part about that period was just how unpredictable your life is. This was more extreme with the UFC because they operated off a bonus system. I'm not saying it's a good or bad. I've played the bonus game for a while. I did well. I didn't have a problem so much with the UFC, it was more to do with the way I got paid," explained the fighter who fought a modern Who's Who of 135lb fighters including Uriah Faber, Renan Barao, John Lineker, Brad Pickett and Miguel Torres.  "With that bonus structure you never know how much you're going to get paid, how little you're going to get paid, when the next cheque is going to come in. For example, I fought Faber and got £15,000 to show and the next fight I had was against Pickett and it was £130,000. "That's from double bonuses. It's so inconsistent. Then you don't fight for two years and then you have one fight and think you're going to have another one in four months and it turns out to be 16 months. That's the hardest part about it, how inconsistent it is, and managing your life in a main job that is inconsistent is very difficult." Michael McDonald will take on Peter Ligier in Newcastle Credit: Lucas Noonan/Bellator MMA The bottom line was issues with his hands. Serious ones, at that. "I had three surgeries on my hands. They are completely healed. There is a chance of it repeating itself if I don't make the proper changes. The very first surgery I had was because I didn't wear hand wraps properly and I would go and hit incredibly hard on these pads and stuff and then go spar without my freaking hand wraps. I was just being a dummy, being lazy. Because of that I ended up tearing a webbing that goes over your knuckles. It keeps all of your tendons in line. I ripped that in a very uncommon place. If I don't wear hand wraps again, yeah, that could happen. "I had one surgery on my knuckle because that was torn and the other two were because there are multiple bones in your hand that don't move. When you make a fist, on the top of your fist there are bones in there that don't move but they act as a cushion.  "There's bone, cartilage, bone, cartilage, stuff like that. That cartilage acts as a cushion. My cartilage was slowly worn out. Instead of cushion being between my bones it was like a rock between my bones. My bones were slowly chipping away at each other and slowly deteriorating. So what they did was actually opened up my hand and fused those multiple bones into one bone. Old school boxers used to do that and were convinced it made you punch harder. I don't think it does. They fused all my bones together and put a titanium plate in there and stuff like that. "They took some bone marrow from my wrist and put it into my hand to fuse those bones together and now it's solid. I don't have as much range of motion in my wrist but it doesn't affect my performance at all. The only thing it affects are push ups. I can't do them regularly and I have to do them on my knuckles now." McDonald makes bespoke cabinets as his day job Credit: Lucas Noonan/Bellator MMA Then there is the other alter-ego part of the 26-year-old Californian's life: as a cabinet maker. "I have a thousand square foot shop right next to my house. I'm self employed. I have my own clients and do it whenever I want. I have probably five times closed down my woodwork business and opened it up again. Fighting is so inconsistent and unpredictable, I'm never closing down my business ever again. Now, when I have a fight, I just tell people they won't get their product until after the fight, and they're cool with that. Most of the stuff I do is high quality, custom piece that people are willing to wait for. Most of them are my friends. I love working with and doing business with my friends. They are all fantastic people and are very supportive of my career. "But doing the custom cabinets and furniture is in my free time. I do it almost as a hobby. That actually pays my bills throughout the year. Fighting income is investible. For this fight I saved up enough money in the shop doing my custom work to pay for my fight camp before I actually started training. So I didn't have to go and do wood work in the middle of training sessions. I've gone two and a half months with no woodwork. Just occasional light stuff when I want to do it."  So, to Friday's fight in Newcastle, an area which had always produced - and supported - MMA. The folk of the North East are a fighting breed, and McDonald's abilities will be relished, back as he is after another 17 months away.  "I always said I'm a good loser. That's a huge part of the success I have had. I lose well. I learn a lot from my losses. I truly don't have any shame with any of the losses I've had. I feel like I can look at them very pragmatically and take from them what I need to. I'm proud of them." The move to Bellator, he explained, 'felt right'. "It was partly that I thought I was worth more to the UFC but that wasn't the biggest problem. I went to them and said if there's not this much money in it, I can't do that right now. I've got to save up the money with my woodworking and come back and do this in a little bit of time. It was just a simple numbers thing. Anyone could understand that. "It came down to me telling the UFC, hey, this is what I need to make this work. They said, I don't know if we're OK with that. I thought I was worth it. I said, if you can do it, that's great, I'll fight for you guys immediately. If not, you're just going to have to wait. Then Bellator came along and said yeah we'll give that to you. We think you're worth that. It's nice to have someone stand up and say hey we don't think you're crazy. We think that's very reasonable and you're a fantastic fighter. Come over here and work for us. It did feel nice. "I think everything kind of came together, professionally, personally, experience-wise. I think this is going to be a good time for me. Ligier will be a very decent test, he reckons. "I've watched some of his fights and a constant characteristic in all his fights is aggression. He's always coming forward, he's always very tough, he pushes the pace. Traditionally I have fared well against people who have that style. A lot of times they end up leaving a few openings when they are very aggressive like that. Historically I have put people away fast who have that style. "I'm not expecting to do that but it would be nice. I've seen a couple of people put him down and he gets up immediately and keeps coming. He reminds me of Brad Pickett a bit. I think he's going to be a very good opponent and will be very tough. I don't think he's going to be someone who is going to crumble under the lights and the idea of fighting me because I've got the higher rep. He won't be intimidated by that." Then back to that default setting, and McDonald counting his blessings. "God really has blessed my life. I'm at a good place right now. Home is a good place to be, training is a good place to be right now. I feel like I'm really coming into my own. I feel very excited about this upcoming fight." Bring it on Mayday, bring it on.

Chris Froome Fails Doping Test, Found to Have Double the Legal Limit of Asthma Drug

Chris Froome failed a doping test during the Spanish Vuelta in September and is facing a suspension from cycling ahead of his attempt to win a record-equaling fifth Tour de France title next year.

Froome won his fourth Tour title this year and followed it with a victory at the Vuelta. But Team Sky said Wednesday that Froome, who has not been suspended, had a concentration of asthma drug salbutamol two times higher than the World Anti-Doping Agency's permitted levels.

"Analysis indicated the presence of salbutamol at a concentration of 2,000 nanograms per milliliter (ng/ml), compared with the WADA threshold of 1,000 ng/ml, Team Sky said

Team Sky said it has been informed by the International Cycling Union that the urine test was taken on Sept. 7, during the three-week Spanish Vuelta.

Froome said the UCI has asked him to provide information about the failed test, which was taken after Stage 18.

Froome's use of asthma medication has been well documented, and the Kenyan-born rider has often been spotted using inhalers in the peloton. He has repeatedly faced questions on whether he is a clean rider, especially during the Tour de France, and has always denied wrongdoing.

Salbutamol is a drug that helps expand lung capacity and can be used as a performance-enhancing drug to increase endurance. Commonly marketed as Ventolin, salbutamol is classified as a beta-2 agonist and WADA allows it to be taken through inhalation only, in limited amounts.

Sky said Froome had to take an increased dosage of salbutamol without exceeding the permissible dose after he "experienced acute asthma symptoms" during the final week of the Vuelta.

If found guilty of doping, the 32-year-old Froome could lose his Vuelta title and be suspended for a long period. Sprinter Alessandro Petacchi was suspended for one year for testing positive for salbutamol during the 2007 Giro d'Italia.

Vuelta organizers said they are waiting for "official conclusions" from the UCI about the case.

"The position of La Vuelta's organizer is one of extreme caution, as it hopes for this issue to be resolved as quickly as possible," they said in a statement.

Froome was expected to attempt to join cycling greats Eddy Bernard Hinaul and Miguel Indurain on the list of five-time Tour de France champions in July. Lance Armstrong won seven titles, but all of them were stripped because of doping.

Team Sky has been dominating the field at the Tour de France in recent years, but has been targeted by doping accusations. Britain's anti-doping agency last month closed an investigation into the team without bringing charges. The case centered on the contents of a medical package dispatched to former Tour champion Bradley Wiggins at a key pre-Tour race in 2011.

Team Sky was established in 2009 by Dave Brailsford, the man behind Britain's 14 medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, with the target of producing the country's first Tour champion — a feat accomplished by Wiggins in 2012. Froome, his former teammate, has taken over since as Britain's most successful road rider.

After successfully defending his Tour de France title in July, Froome went on to win the Spanish Vuelta for the first time.

"My asthma got worse at the Vuelta so I followed the team doctor's advice to increase my Salbutamol dosage," Froome said. "As always, I took the greatest care to ensure that I did not use more than the permissible dose. I take my leadership position in my sport very seriously. The UCI is absolutely right to examine test results and, together with the team, I will provide whatever information it requires."

The UCI said in a statement that Froome's "B'' sample confirmed the result, but stressed that "the presence of a specified substance such as salbutamol in a sample does not result in the imposition of such mandatory provisional suspension against the rider."

Sky stressed the abnormal result does not mean Froome has breached anti-doping rules and Brailsford insisted he has the "utmost confidence that Chris followed the medical guidance in managing his asthma symptoms, staying within the permissible dose for Salbutamol."

According to Swiss physiologist Raphael Faiss, intense effort, fatigue and dehydration can affect urine concentrations of salbutamol in doping tests.

Quoting a scientific study from 2015, Faiss, a researcher in anti-doping at Lausanne University, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview that "between 10 and 30 percent" of the people tested may have readings beyond the permitted thresholds when inhaling the legal quantity of salbutamol.

Froome said last month that he wants to ride in next year's Giro d'Italia in an attempt to win his third Grand Tour in a row. A victory at the Italian race would make him the seventh rider to win all three Grand Tours, and only the third to hold the three titles at the same time.

Bundesliga: Diekmeier: "Das war eine extreme Scheißphase"

Bei Trainer Markus Gisdol und den Profis des Hamburger SV herrschte nach der 1:2-Heimniederlage gegen Eintracht Frankfurt am Dienstagabend großer Frust. Nach dem Spiel äußerte sich auch Rechtsverteidiger Dennis Diekmeier deutlich zur schlechten Phase des HSV.

Defeat, Victory and a Brutal Loss: Eight Days on the West Coast With the Eagles

LOS ANGELES — A few minutes before 4 p.m. local time on Sunday, the blue medical tent went up on the Eagles’ sideline at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. This was the clearest sign that something was not right with Carson Wentz.

A team security officer blocked the entrance to the tent as medical staff examined Wentz inside. Just a few yards behind, in the first few rows of the stands, fans in Philadelphia gear—the same fans whose presence made it impossible to tell which was the home team and which was the away team—looked on with pained expressions. There was one young man in the first row wearing a Wentz jersey, mouthing something that could be assumed to be a desperate prayer or call of encouragement, while holding up his cell phone as if he were waiting, and hoping, to take a picture of his team’s quarterback emerging from the tent, ready to go back in.

Wentz did emerge a few minutes later. Except instead of picking up his helmet, he started the long walk back to the locker room, baseball cap on, towel draped over his head. The Eagles were one quarter away from beating the resurgent Rams and winning the NFC East, but suddenly, with the news that Wentz had been ruled out of the game—and possibly the rest of the season—with a knee injury, the city of Philadelphia had been sent into a panic.

A week earlier in Seattle, on the first stop of the Eagles’ eight-day road trip, they hit their biggest bump of the season, a 14-point loss—only their second of the year—in a notoriously difficult stadium. The MMQB spent the week following the Eagles, chronicling a stretch of the season that would serve to measure just how good this young team really is. The Eagles emerged 11-2, sitting alone atop the NFC—but, as the news broke on Monday that Wentz had indeed torn his ACL and was gone for the year, they now face their greatest challenge of all. It’s impossible to predict what’s next, but a look inside their locker room, during an unusual and ultimately bittersweet week, gives some clues as to how they handle challenges—small, big or unexpected. Eight days with the Eagles ...

Sunday, Dec. 3

9:15 p.m.
CenturyLink Field, Seattle

The loudest noise in the visitors’ locker room is the running water splashing against the floor of the showers. Walking into this stadium hours earlier, the Eagles hadn’t lost a game in 77 days. But the nine-game win streak, which had the city of Philadelphia letting down the guard built up over 57 championship-less Eagles seasons, ended against a familiar slayer in the NFC.

“We haven’t lost a game in so long,” says defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, “you forget what it feels like to lose. That kind of puts knots in your stomach.”

So, too, did the antics of Russell Wilson, dubbed by Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins as the “human joystick.” He tore the game open on a third-and-10 play midway through the third quarter, when Eagles defenders say he changed the snap count to get them to tip their defensive call, a cover-zero blitz that sells out to get to the quarterback and keeps no defenders deep. He shifted the protection, kept the tight end in to block and threw a 47-yard pass to Doug Baldwin to the Philly 1, leading to the touchdown that would put the Seahawks up 17–3. Perhaps the most crucial play, though, came on a third-and-8 in the fourth quarter. Wilson escaped through a crease in the pocket and, five yards past the line of scrimmage, pitched the ball laterally—or was it forward?—to his running back as two defenders were closing in. The Seahawks went on to score on that drive, all but securing their 24-10 win.

“He caught me off guard,” defensive end Chris Long says at his locker afterward, still shaken by his empty lunge at Wilson right as he took off running.

Post-game, a common adversary emerges: a bad week of practice, in which the Eagles say they made mistakes like turnovers and penalties that are starting to show up on Sundays. Wentz, whose heroics carried the team for much of the season, is particularly hard on himself. He overthrew Nelson Agholor, underthrew him another time and fumbled the ball away on the goal line while diving in for a score. Knowing his penchant for extending plays with his legs, the Seahawks are not shy about hitting him. “He likes to find the extra yards,” says Sheldon Richardson, who forced the fumble. A few times through the night, Wentz appears to wince and one time signals back to the sidelines with a thumbs-up that he’s OK to keep going.

During their late-night flight to Southern California, head coach Doug Pederson will check on his quarterback on account of all the hits—12 in total—he took in the game. The players file out to the team buses, stopping to fill up to-go containers with salmon, short ribs, ratatouille and potatoes au gratin, to go along with their thin sliver of humble pie.

“We’ve been playing great up until this point,” center Jason Kelce cautions, “but this thing can change very easily.”

Monday

3:30 a.m.
Costa Mesa, Calif.

In the middle of the night, the Eagles arrive at their home for the next six days, a hotel in Orange County across the street from a luxury shopping mall. In the NFL, familiarity is held in high regard—this is the same place where the Eagles stayed for their Oct. 1 game against the Chargers. “I do well in hotels,” Long says later, “so I’m not stressed.” The second and third floors have been converted into meeting rooms, training rooms and coaches’ offices. While the players and coaches head to their rooms, the equipment staff has gone straight to Angel Stadium in Anaheim, where the team will practice all week, to begin their load-in. The Angels crew is amused to see the heavy parkas the Philly staffers had brought down from Seattle—there would be no use for those in the 70-degree Southern California weather.

2 p.m.
Costa Mesa, Calif.

Pederson stands bleary-eyed behind a hotel podium adorned with a makeshift Eagles sign printed on computer paper. As is typical for coaches in the NFL, he clearly hasn’t gotten much sleep since the game. A Sunday night game, a body clock still set to East Coast time and a loss make for a tough combination.

Pederson answers seven straight questions about the non-challenge of Wilson’s lateral; slightly miffed, he defends his decision. With the same resolve, he declares this will be a “normal” week—as normal as possible some 2,700 miles from the NovaCare Complex in South Philadelphia. He does, however, say he’ll change his messaging to the team in light of the self-inflicted mistakes he believes began in practice and lurked under the surface during the win streak.

“Winning can kind of cover up or mask some things, some deficiencies, a little chink in your armor, if there is any,” Pederson says. “There's no substitute for the preparation and the hard work. ... The guys have to know that, and it's my job to make sure that they understand that.”

While Pederson addresses the media, safety Malcolm Jenkins—who will be announced as the team’s Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee later in the week—is sitting in the hotel lobby, meeting with his San Diego-based philanthropic strategist about the next steps for his social justice work through the Players Coalition. Defensive end Brandon Graham, also taking advantage of the players’ off day, takes his wife and 22-month old daughter, Emerson, to the Museum of Ice Cream in Los Angeles. “Best gummy bears I had in a minute,” he reports back. Sidney Jones, the second-round pick who is out with an Achilles tear, drives 40 miles north to his hometown, West Covina, to pick up his younger brother from school. In the late afternoon a group of seven players heads to a housing development in Santa Ana to install siding on two homes being built through Habitat for Humanity for Orange County. “It was fun to get some handiwork in,” receiver Torrey Smith says, “and have a good time together.”

Tuesday

8:45 a.m.
Equinox, Irvine, Calif.

Ninety-minute team lift, on an outdoor roof deck. “Everybody seems like they were in a good mood,” Graham says. “They understand what [the Seattle loss] was, and we move forward.” At the same time, the players are turning their clocks backward. The Eagles stayed on Eastern time for the Seattle game but switch to Pacific time for the week in California. It’s an adjustment: Graham sheepishly admits he hit the hay at 8:30 p.m. PT on Monday night.

3:30 p.m.
Ronald McDonald House, Orange, Calif.

After a 30-minute walkthrough in street clothes centered on game corrections—offense at Angel Stadium, defense at the hotel—the team’s 14 rookies bus to Orange County’s Ronald McDonald House. Fred Hill, the former Eagles tight end, helped found the original Ronald McDonald House in Philadelphia in 1974 after his 3-year-old daughter was diagnosed with leukemia. The rookies spend about an hour with Hill and the people the house serves, families of seriously ill children, playing cornhole and decorating picture frames. “As soon as we got off the bus, they were so cheerful and almost, like, starstruck,” says receiver Mack Hollins. “We are all rookies, we are not big-time guys, but they didn’t care.” During a week when the Eagles would go to great lengths to eliminate their own distractions, for the Ronald McDonald House families, the Eagles serve as a welcome one.

• DAY BY DAY WITH THE EAGLES: Catch up on The MMQB’s daily stories from the Eagles’ West Coast trip.

Wednesday

9 a.m.
Costa Mesa, Calif.

Rams week officially begins. The Eagles quarterbacks—Wentz, backup Nick Foles and third-stringer Nate Sudfeld—start with a 45-minute quarterback blitz meeting in the hotel’s Douglas board room. The Eagles QBs are guided by three former college or NFL quarterbacks: Pederson, offensive coordinator Frank Reich and quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo. On game day, Pederson and Reich on the sideline and DeFilippo up in the coaches’ box are keeping track of the hits Wentz is taking. After the Seahawks game, the ongoing conversation about him protecting himself would continue.

“That’s the fine line, that you’ve got to be careful of [not] taking the aggression away from your quarterback … because I don’t ever want to do that,” Pederson says. “But at the same time, we’ve got to continue to educate and talk to him about sliding and protecting himself, getting down, all of that; the longevity of the season and his well-being. It’s a fine line, but we'll just continue to talk to him about those issues.”

12:37 p.m.
Angel Stadium, Anaheim, Calif.

Welcome Eagles!
Hope you guys have a great week at the Big A.
From,
The Los Angeles Angels

Waiting in each player’s locker stall as they arrive for practice is a note and gift from their hosts: a bobblehead of the Eagles’ most famous season-ticket holder, Angels star outfielder Mike Trout. “Gotta put that up in the house somewhere,” says right tackle Lane Johnson.

A baseball stadium might seem like an unusual place for the Eagles to practice, but in fact, the Los Angeles Rams (version 1.0) played here from 1980 to 1994. The goalposts the Angels put up for the Eagles are the same ones used by the Rams back then and stored for decades in a hallway in the bowels of the stadium. The venue also regularly hosts high school football playoffs, though this year’s games were moved because of ongoing renovations to the stadium’s scoreboards and sound system.

The conversion process is relatively simple: The pitcher’s mound is removed and a laser is used to lower the infield dirt, over which a thick layer of sod is laid down. Early in the week Eagles players commented on the slick grass and having to wear their longer, screw-in cleats. The Angels adjusted—they stopped watering the grass so that the players would have better footing. The Eagles had flown their groundskeeper out the previous week, and the field was lined and painted before the Eagles kicked off in Seattle.

When the Eagles’ 2017 schedule was set to include three West Coast road games—against the Rams, Chargers and Seahawks—they made a request to the league that their Los Angeles games be scheduled back-to-back, to save one round-trip. They got the next best thing, back-to-back games in Seattle and Los Angeles. But where would they practice? With the Chargers moving to L.A., the StubHub Center in Carson was no longer an option. The Rams hold training camp at UC-Irvine, but when they break camp they load out all the football equipment. Plus, there’s no privacy on the open practice fields, something that didn’t pass muster for the Eagles.

Kathy Mair, an Eagles football operations employee who used to work for the Angels, suggested reaching out to her old team. The stadium’s calendar in December was wide open, practices would be closed and they could offer the infrastructure of a professional sports team: weight room, kitchen facilities and even clubhouse attendants. Since NFL rosters are more than double the size of MLB rosters, the Eagles set up in both the home and visitors’ clubhouses. The honor of using Mike Trout’s corner locker? That went to linebacker Nigel Bradham.

The only question for the Angels was, how much to charge? What’s the going rate for an NFL team to practice in an MLB stadium for a week? Sam Maida, the Angels’ director of baseball operations, settled on a flat fee of $50,000 for the week—a bargain considering the Angels draw that same amount for a group renting the parking lot for a one-day event. Maida didn’t want to overcharge another pro sports franchise, and he also hopes it opens the door to other NFL teams looking for a place to practice on the West Coast. “Mostly it just seemed like a fun thing to do,” Maida says. “Back when we originally scheduled this, before the season even started, we didn’t know the Eagles were going to be 10-2 and one of the best teams in football.”

2:41 p.m.
Angel Stadium

Spotted on the practice field: Darren Sproles. The 34-year-old Eagles running back has been on injured reserve since tearing his ACL and breaking his forearm on the same play in Week 3 against the Giants. He’s been rehabbing in San Diego, where he lives with his wife and two daughters. But with the Eagles so nearby, he’s spending the week on the practice field and in meeting rooms. Wearing a black sleeve on his injured left leg, Sproles is working with the running backs during position drills, holding up a tackling bag to help running backs coach Duce Staley run a drill.

“His presence brings the energy up for everybody,” says fellow running back LeGarrette Blount. “It’s something you can’t replace. As far as playing, he left a huge void. We don’t have anybody with his skill set.”

Days later, at his Monday press conference after the Rams game, Pederson will note the loss of vital players like Sproles, and left tackle Jason Peters, and linebacker Jordan Hicks, and special-teams ace Chris Maragos–and send a message by pointing out the Eagles’ ability to keep winning despite those circumstances.

5:24 p.m.
Angels clubhouse

Chris Long, perched on the edge of the leather wraparound couch in the Angels home clubhouse, wants to clarify the identity of the frothy, amber-colored beverage he just poured out of a tap and is sipping from a plastic cup.

“It’s not beer, it’s Kombucha,” Long says. “Nobody knows what it does, but everybody is drinking it.”

8:25 p.m.
Costa Mesa, Calif.

Cell phones in the Eagles team hotel buzz with an emergency alert: Strong winds over night creating extreme fire danger. Stay alert. Listen to authorities. About 12 million people across seven counties in Southern California receive the same alert, according to the Associated Press, the widest broadest ever issued by the state’s Office of Emergency Services. As devastating fires sweep through parts of the region, the National Weather Service forecast an extreme Santa Ana event, with the dry, downslope flame-spreading winds expected to gust up to 80 miles an hour over the next 18 to 24 hours. The Rams, whose Thousand Oaks headquarters are close to the fires, turn their Wednesday practice into a walkthrough at an indoor gym at Cal-Lutheran. But Angel Stadium is about an hour away from the nearest fires; the only evidence is a very faint burning smell in the evening air.

Thursday

2:52 p.m.
Angel Stadium

It’s eerily quiet at practice. The renovations at Angel Stadium include the sound system, so the only soundtrack is the 20 mph winds. The voices of players and coaches carry—someone calls out, “Hey, act like the music is here!” During a week when the Eagles needed to refocus, shaking things up isn’t a bad thing.

“We have a chance to hear each other’s voices, which is a plus,” Cox says. “We are used to having music, practice being really hype. We are doing a good job this week of bringing the energy on our own. Sometimes you need that, especially on the road.”

7:45 p.m.
Costa Mesa, Calif.

It’s the end of the workday—two full hours later than it would be back in Philadelphia. At the NovaCare Complex, the final film session of the day usually wraps at 5:45 p.m. on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Built into the schedule in California is the 20-minute drive to and from the team hotel to Angel Stadium, though that’s not much different from most players’ commutes in Philly. Veteran players guess there’s another reason for the longer workdays out here. One night the receivers went out for a position group dinner at Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles, but other than that, “we haven’t really had time,” Torrey Smith says. “They tailored the schedule that way.”

Friday

10:27 a.m.
Costa Mesa, Calif.

Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie is loitering in the hotel lobby. So is general manager Howie Roseman. Upstairs in a meeting room, the entire roster is preparing to fan-boy, hard. Due any minute now is a special guest who happens to be a self-proclaimed “neurotic” Eagles fan.

When the guest pulls up in a black SUV, former Eagles great Brian Dawkins, now in the team’s front office, heads outside to greet him. Hotel staffers scramble to prevent photos as the guest walks inside, his slim 6’6” frame unmistakable, and even more so the nickname printed on the back of his black T-shirt: BLACK MAMBA. He leans in for a bro hug with Lurie and then Roseman.

“Good to see you,” Kobe Bryant says.

The 18-time NBA All-Star and five-time NBA champion was nervous about speaking to the team. Like any true Eagles fan, “I didn’t want to jinx anything,” admits Bryant, who attended high school in Lower Merion, just outside of Philadelphia. He was never superstitious as a player, but when he’s watching the Eagles he’ll stay in one spot as long as they’re doing well—and then switch as soon as something goes wrong.

“I’m not going to begin by talking about what a big fan I am,” Bryant says, standing up in front of the team. “I’m not even going to say that.”

For 30 minutes Bryant tells a room of hopeful champions about the ingredients of his own championship teams. Focus on the smallest details, he says. Don’t let the hype distract you. Hours later, players would still be shouting in the locker room about the so-called Mamba Mentality he imparted to them: Kill everything! Make the guy across from you wish he were an accountant! (Not that there’s anything wrong with being an accountant). Bryant only stops his address when it’s time for the team to leave for practice.

“Guys, 11 o’clock, buses are leaving!” Pederson calls out. “11 o’clock!”

Before hopping into his car, Bryant puts on a midnight green No. 8 jersey given to him by the team. “I think the character of this team is special, and that’s what wins championships, is the character of the team, the spirit of the team,” Bryant says as the team buses speed off toward State Route 55. “You have certain moments where you go up and down, but when the spirit of the team is a strong one, it’s a collective one, then you have something that’s really special. Fingers crossed.”

2 p.m.
Culver City, Calif.

On a football field somewhere among the colony of TV studios in Culver City, an Eagles contingent films an episode of “The Goldbergs,” the ABC comedy set in Jenkintown, Pa, in the 1980s. Roseman, team president Don Smolenski, play-by-play announcer Merrill Reese and former Eagles receiver Mike Quick are all on set. “What I loved about it is, they were nervous, and I was heckling them,” says WIP morning show host Angelo Cataldi, who came by to watch. “They did fine.”

3 p.m.
Angel Stadium

An In-N-Out truck is waiting downstairs after practice. Coaches, who leave the stadium early to review practice tape at the hotel, grab a meal on the way out. Players sit in a stadium box upstairs, chowing down on Double-Doubles. “It’s the same with baseball players,” says Maida, the local. “All these guys want In-N-Out.”

Saturday

11:31 a.m.
Angel Stadium

A team of six California Highway Patrol officers leads the Eagles caravan up to the home-plate entrance of Angel Stadium. Pederson hops off Bus 1. Carson Wentz unloads from Bus 2. It’s the last day of preparation for the Rams, and the team will run a 30-minute “mock game” just after noon.

There’s a private entrance for buses that enters through the back of the stadium and underground, but the Eagles preferred this way in, to minimize the distance their players have to walk to the clubhouse. A smattering of fans is lined up waiting for them, including a quartet of Eagles supporters who flew in from Utah for the game. Earlier today they went to the L.A. Coliseum hoping to spot the team. A security guard told them the team would instead be at Angel Stadium, so they made the 30-mile drive to Anaheim for a 90-second glimpse of the players filing in.

It’s surprisingly busy at the stadium—and not just because the parking lots are being used for Disney characters working at nearby Disneyland. On Friday, just as the Eagles were about to begin practice, the Angels landed free-agent crown jewel Shohei Ohtani, the Japanese star who is both a starting pitcher and a slugger.

The Eagles will leave the stadium by 1:30 p.m. At 3, just feet from where their team buses pull up, the Angels will introduce Ohtani in a press conference open to the public outside the stadium. Meanwhile, back in New Jersey, Trout—Ohtani’s new teammate and Eagles megafan—is getting married in the snow. “Just a quiet Saturday,” Maida says, just before the Eagles begin unloading.

1:17 p.m.
Brittania Pub, Santa Monica, Calif.

When the old Eagles bar in Santa Monica—yes, there is absolutely an Eagles bar in Santa Monica—closed down a few years back, there was a scouting process to see which other hangout was worthy of taking its place. The winner was Brittania Pub, located on Santa Monica Boulevard, steps from the 3rd Street Promenade. On NFL Sundays, only Eagles fans are let through the doors, and only Eagles games are shown on the TVs. Today, with thousands of Eagles fans in town, the bar is already filling up just after lunchtime. The drink special—$3 Miller Lites starting at 9 a.m.—doesn’t hurt, either.

On the TV is the snow-covered Army-Navy game at the Linc, a reminder of the winter weather fans left back East. At the bar a group of three friends and rec basketball league teammates from Philadelphia discuss the implications of tomorrow’s game on the chances of a parade down Broad Street. Over by the window are two brothers, Kent and Brent, North Dakota State alums dressed in Bisons colors. They grew up Vikings fans, but since native son Wentz was drafted to Philadelphia No. 2 overall last year, Brent has been to at least five Eagles games all over the country. A playoff game between the Eagles and Vikings, they explain, could rip the state of North Dakota apart. Then, they raise their Miller Lites to the success of the pride of North Dakota. “Dilly, dilly!” they toast.

Just then, Cataldi, the WIP host, walks in. Brent’s wife, despite never living in the Philly area, immediately recognizes him—they are loyal listeners of Philly sports talk radio now. “E … A … G…” he calls out, starting the Eagles chant. Then, he adds, “Pace yourself! There’s a game tomorrow.”

Cataldi is bummed that his co-host, Al Morganti, was stuck in Philadelphia due to the snow. He’s going to be depressed, he says, if the Coliseum isn’t like an Eagles home game. Earlier this season Eagles fans overtook the Chargers’ StubHub Center—and for Sunday he’s predicting 25,000 to 30,000 loud Eagles fans, “who are going to drown out the far more apathetic Rams fans,” he says. In his 28 years as a radio talk show host in Philadelphia, he says he’s never seen the city more excited about an Eagles team—a bold proclamation. But like much of the city, which has been waiting for a championship for 57 years, a part of him is waiting for the other shoe to drop.

“I’m nervous for tomorrow, really nervous, because we are a little bit in uncharted territory,” Cataldi says. “This is such a young team, that we didn’t expect to be this good this fast, especially Wentz. So, after what happened in Seattle, everyone is going, uh oh. Is that the beginning of the inevitable decline? Because we have been conditioned for 57 years that the Eagles don’t win it all. At some point, they break your heart. Is this the start of that? That’s why a lot of people are out here to say, well, we are going to make it a home game. If they lose, they are going to lose on a home field, 3,000 miles from their actual home.”

By 6 p.m., the bar is so packed that the doorman is turning people away—they’re at capacity and cannot fit any more people inside. Out in front, the Green Legion fan club is set up at a picnic table, passing out pre-purchased wristbands and passes for tomorrow’s festivities. They’ve sold 1,500 fan packages to this game; tickets to the game were long gone weeks ago, and on Friday night they finally cut off selling spots even just to their Sunday morning “festival” (The City of Santa Monica, clearly not a football town, doesn’t like to use the word “tailgate”). The club’s website announces in capital letters: ALL LA PACKAGES ARE 100% SOLD OUT. PLEASE DO NOT CONTACT US. THERE ARE NO EXCEPTIONS.

Peeking out of one of the boxes is an envelope labeled WENTZ. Is that ... the same Wentz? “Distant, distant relative,” says the president of the fan club.

Sunday

11:25 a.m.
L.A. Coliseum

FOX began building this set six days earlier to host its NFL Sunday studio show live from the Coliseum. It’s not common practice, but there’s so much hype around Eagles-Rams that the network decided it deserved the College GameDay treatment. If the Eagles fans at the set don’t outnumber the Rams fans in number, they certainly do in volume (this would be true at the game, too). The FOX hosts are doing the halftime show for the early slate of games, and while they’re on air, it seems 10 seconds don’t go by without someone breaking out into the E-A-G-L-E-S chant or the “Fly, Eagles, Fly” fight song. One fan hoists a sign saying HI TO UNCLE SAL BACK IN PHILLY. Another, presumably another member of Wentz’ traveling Bisons herd, holds up one that reads BRINGIN THE <3 FROM NORTH DAKOTA.

3:51 p.m.
L.A. Coliseum

It’s one of those plays—and there were many by the Eagles on Sunday—that makes you to do a double-take (the good kind). How, exactly, did the ball get there? On a fourth-and-goal, the strong hands of Alshon Jeffery sandwich the end points of the football that Wentz had knifed in between traffic, and the receiver pits it against his left quad in the end zone. Philadelphia had lost the lead coming out of halftime, giving up two touchdowns to the Rams in a span of 1:34, a throw to Sammy Watkins and a blocked punt returned for a score. The 2-yard pass to Jeffery gives Philadelphia back a 31-28 lead late in the third quarter. It’s Wentz’s fourth passing touchdown of the day and 33rd of the season, breaking the single-season franchise record set by Sonny Jurgensen in 1961.

All afternoon Wentz had been making the kinds of throws that were almost too good to believe. There was the 20-yard touchdown pass to tight end Trey Burton in which Wentz defined the concept of a quarterback threading the needle, locating the ball precisely between the Rams safety on top of Burton and the linebacker underneath. Or the third-and-1 play early in the second quarter when Wentz dodged a rushing linebacker, juked a defensive lineman and made a 12-yard throw off his back foot with another linebacker bearing down on him. Ball placement and pocket awareness are two of the attributes that separate the best quarterbacks from the rest of the pack, and Wentz, at 24, is already demonstrating mastery of both.

But on the drive that ended in the Jeffery score, something was not right. Four plays earlier, Wentz had run the ball in for a touchdown—nullified by a suspect holding call on Lane Johnson—and his lower body got sandwiched by safety Mark Barron and defensive end Morgan Fox as he dove across the goal line. After a third-down incompletion, Wentz looked hobbled as he walked to the sideline and then back out to go for it on fourth down. Even on the throw to Jeffery, he stood rooted in place as he scanned the field—not his usual m.o.

Following the touchdown, Wentz walks off the field and ducks inside the blue medical tent. He then walks slowly to the locker room, escorted by two staffers. Nine minutes later, the team makes the announcement: QB Carson Wentz (knee) will not return. Foles is warming up on the sideline.

5:42 p.m.
L.A. Coliseum

In the locker room, Eagles players are sporting new hats—black and gray, stickers still affixed—that read NFC EAST CHAMPIONS. Today, with a 43-35 win against the Rams, the Eagles are now 11-2, alone atop the conference and well-positioned for home-field advantage in the playoffs.

The game turned on a play by Chris Long. Soon after Wentz left the field, the Rams had retaken the lead on a run by Todd Gurley. The defense hadn’t been at its best all day, yielding more than 24 points for just the second time this season. But in a sequence that is representative of the Eagles locker room culture, the savvy veterans took advantage of an opportunity. With the Rams holding a one-point lead midway through the fourth quarter, L.A. right tackle Rob Havenstein left the field injured. Graham went against backup Darrell Williams on the next snap. Then it was Long’s turn. Graham, watching from the sideline after subbing out, knew Long would take advantage. Sure enough, he beat Williams upfield and looped around the pocket to Jared Goff, who was on a deep play-action drop. With his right hand, Long swiped the ball out.

Safety Rodney McLeod recovered the forced fumble and returned the ball to the offense. The play set up the field goal that put the Eagles back on top, 37-35, with 3:50 left.

“If we were worth a damn on defense, we had to make a stop,” Long says in the locker room. “We owed it to the offense.”

Nothing about the final minutes lacked drama. The defense needed another stop. Got it. The offense needed another first down. Got it. Foles, who himself has 36 games of starting experience, delivered a gutsy 9-yard throw to Agholor, the third-year receiver who’s in the midst of a redemptive season. Foles spotted the Rams in two-man coverage; he knew Agholor would have a one-on-one matchup inside; and he placed the ball away from the defender. With a single second left the Rams got the ball back trailing by two, as a red sunset overtook the sky. Graham, the pass rusher who’s having a career season, snatched a desperation lateral by the Rams out of the air and ran it into the end zone, setting off a charge of at least 10 Eagles players doing Lambeau-style leaps into the traveling Eagles party.

The adrenaline carried the Eagles while the game was still going on, and up the Coliseum tunnel, and into the locker room. But when they enter the locker room—where Wentz is waiting to congratulate them—reality sets in: They’ll have to try to achieve the rest of their goals, beyond a division title, without not only their MVP, but “arguably the MVP of the league,” says receiver Torrey Smith. In a quiet moment, McLeod finds his quarterback. “We did that for you, man,” he tells him. Wentz smiles back and tells him, good job.

Eventually, Wentz emerges from the locker room, wearing the division championship hat and a black brace on his left knee. He rides a cart through the tunnel, head down, typing on his phone, then gets off gingerly at the checkpoint for the team buses. As he walks the short distance to the buses, a stadium employee offers to carry his postgame Qdoba meal for him, then gives him a warm hug. Wentz boards Bus 1 and takes a seat across from Reich, and the Eagles settle in for the uncertain journey ahead.

Introducing SPORTS ILLUSTRATED TV, your new home for classic sports movies, award-winning documentaries, original sports programming and features. Start your seven-day free trial of SI TV now on Amazon Channels.

Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.

Defeat, Victory and a Brutal Loss: Eight Days on the West Coast With the Eagles

LOS ANGELES — A few minutes before 4 p.m. local time on Sunday, the blue medical tent went up on the Eagles’ sideline at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. This was the clearest sign that something was not right with Carson Wentz.

A team security officer blocked the entrance to the tent as medical staff examined Wentz inside. Just a few yards behind, in the first few rows of the stands, fans in Philadelphia gear—the same fans whose presence made it impossible to tell which was the home team and which was the away team—looked on with pained expressions. There was one young man in the first row wearing a Wentz jersey, mouthing something that could be assumed to be a desperate prayer or call of encouragement, while holding up his cell phone as if he were waiting, and hoping, to take a picture of his team’s quarterback emerging from the tent, ready to go back in.

Wentz did emerge a few minutes later. Except instead of picking up his helmet, he started the long walk back to the locker room, baseball cap on, towel draped over his head. The Eagles were one quarter away from beating the resurgent Rams and winning the NFC East, but suddenly, with the news that Wentz had been ruled out of the game—and possibly the rest of the season—with a knee injury, the city of Philadelphia had been sent into a panic.

A week earlier in Seattle, on the first stop of the Eagles’ eight-day road trip, they hit their biggest bump of the season, a 14-point loss—only their second of the year—in a notoriously difficult stadium. The MMQB spent the week following the Eagles, chronicling a stretch of the season that would serve to measure just how good this young team really is. The Eagles emerged 11-2, sitting alone atop the NFC—but, as the news broke on Monday that Wentz had indeed torn his ACL and was gone for the year, they now face their greatest challenge of all. It’s impossible to predict what’s next, but a look inside their locker room, during an unusual and ultimately bittersweet week, gives some clues as to how they handle challenges—small, big or unexpected. Eight days with the Eagles ...

Sunday, Dec. 3

9:15 p.m.
CenturyLink Field, Seattle

The loudest noise in the visitors’ locker room is the running water splashing against the floor of the showers. Walking into this stadium hours earlier, the Eagles hadn’t lost a game in 77 days. But the nine-game win streak, which had the city of Philadelphia letting down the guard built up over 57 championship-less Eagles seasons, ended against a familiar slayer in the NFC.

“We haven’t lost a game in so long,” says defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, “you forget what it feels like to lose. That kind of puts knots in your stomach.”

So, too, did the antics of Russell Wilson, dubbed by Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins as the “human joystick.” He tore the game open on a third-and-10 play midway through the third quarter, when Eagles defenders say he changed the snap count to get them to tip their defensive call, a cover-zero blitz that sells out to get to the quarterback and keeps no defenders deep. He shifted the protection, kept the tight end in to block and threw a 47-yard pass to Doug Baldwin to the Philly 1, leading to the touchdown that would put the Seahawks up 17–3. Perhaps the most crucial play, though, came on a third-and-8 in the fourth quarter. Wilson escaped through a crease in the pocket and, five yards past the line of scrimmage, pitched the ball laterally—or was it forward?—to his running back as two defenders were closing in. The Seahawks went on to score on that drive, all but securing their 24-10 win.

“He caught me off guard,” defensive end Chris Long says at his locker afterward, still shaken by his empty lunge at Wilson right as he took off running.

Post-game, a common adversary emerges: a bad week of practice, in which the Eagles say they made mistakes like turnovers and penalties that are starting to show up on Sundays. Wentz, whose heroics carried the team for much of the season, is particularly hard on himself. He overthrew Nelson Agholor, underthrew him another time and fumbled the ball away on the goal line while diving in for a score. Knowing his penchant for extending plays with his legs, the Seahawks are not shy about hitting him. “He likes to find the extra yards,” says Sheldon Richardson, who forced the fumble. A few times through the night, Wentz appears to wince and one time signals back to the sidelines with a thumbs-up that he’s OK to keep going.

During their late-night flight to Southern California, head coach Doug Pederson will check on his quarterback on account of all the hits—12 in total—he took in the game. The players file out to the team buses, stopping to fill up to-go containers with salmon, short ribs, ratatouille and potatoes au gratin, to go along with their thin sliver of humble pie.

“We’ve been playing great up until this point,” center Jason Kelce cautions, “but this thing can change very easily.”

Monday

3:30 a.m.
Costa Mesa, Calif.

In the middle of the night, the Eagles arrive at their home for the next six days, a hotel in Orange County across the street from a luxury shopping mall. In the NFL, familiarity is held in high regard—this is the same place where the Eagles stayed for their Oct. 1 game against the Chargers. “I do well in hotels,” Long says later, “so I’m not stressed.” The second and third floors have been converted into meeting rooms, training rooms and coaches’ offices. While the players and coaches head to their rooms, the equipment staff has gone straight to Angel Stadium in Anaheim, where the team will practice all week, to begin their load-in. The Angels crew is amused to see the heavy parkas the Philly staffers had brought down from Seattle—there would be no use for those in the 70-degree Southern California weather.

2 p.m.
Costa Mesa, Calif.

Pederson stands bleary-eyed behind a hotel podium adorned with a makeshift Eagles sign printed on computer paper. As is typical for coaches in the NFL, he clearly hasn’t gotten much sleep since the game. A Sunday night game, a body clock still set to East Coast time and a loss make for a tough combination.

Pederson answers seven straight questions about the non-challenge of Wilson’s lateral; slightly miffed, he defends his decision. With the same resolve, he declares this will be a “normal” week—as normal as possible some 2,700 miles from the NovaCare Complex in South Philadelphia. He does, however, say he’ll change his messaging to the team in light of the self-inflicted mistakes he believes began in practice and lurked under the surface during the win streak.

“Winning can kind of cover up or mask some things, some deficiencies, a little chink in your armor, if there is any,” Pederson says. “There's no substitute for the preparation and the hard work. ... The guys have to know that, and it's my job to make sure that they understand that.”

While Pederson addresses the media, safety Malcolm Jenkins—who will be announced as the team’s Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee later in the week—is sitting in the hotel lobby, meeting with his San Diego-based philanthropic strategist about the next steps for his social justice work through the Players Coalition. Defensive end Brandon Graham, also taking advantage of the players’ off day, takes his wife and 22-month old daughter, Emerson, to the Museum of Ice Cream in Los Angeles. “Best gummy bears I had in a minute,” he reports back. Sidney Jones, the second-round pick who is out with an Achilles tear, drives 40 miles north to his hometown, West Covina, to pick up his younger brother from school. In the late afternoon a group of seven players heads to a housing development in Santa Ana to install siding on two homes being built through Habitat for Humanity for Orange County. “It was fun to get some handiwork in,” receiver Torrey Smith says, “and have a good time together.”

Tuesday

8:45 a.m.
Equinox, Irvine, Calif.

Ninety-minute team lift, on an outdoor roof deck. “Everybody seems like they were in a good mood,” Graham says. “They understand what [the Seattle loss] was, and we move forward.” At the same time, the players are turning their clocks backward. The Eagles stayed on Eastern time for the Seattle game but switch to Pacific time for the week in California. It’s an adjustment: Graham sheepishly admits he hit the hay at 8:30 p.m. PT on Monday night.

3:30 p.m.
Ronald McDonald House, Orange, Calif.

After a 30-minute walkthrough in street clothes centered on game corrections—offense at Angel Stadium, defense at the hotel—the team’s 14 rookies bus to Orange County’s Ronald McDonald House. Fred Hill, the former Eagles tight end, helped found the original Ronald McDonald House in Philadelphia in 1974 after his 3-year-old daughter was diagnosed with leukemia. The rookies spend about an hour with Hill and the people the house serves, families of seriously ill children, playing cornhole and decorating picture frames. “As soon as we got off the bus, they were so cheerful and almost, like, starstruck,” says receiver Mack Hollins. “We are all rookies, we are not big-time guys, but they didn’t care.” During a week when the Eagles would go to great lengths to eliminate their own distractions, for the Ronald McDonald House families, the Eagles serve as a welcome one.

• DAY BY DAY WITH THE EAGLES: Catch up on The MMQB’s daily stories from the Eagles’ West Coast trip.

Wednesday

9 a.m.
Costa Mesa, Calif.

Rams week officially begins. The Eagles quarterbacks—Wentz, backup Nick Foles and third-stringer Nate Sudfeld—start with a 45-minute quarterback blitz meeting in the hotel’s Douglas board room. The Eagles QBs are guided by three former college or NFL quarterbacks: Pederson, offensive coordinator Frank Reich and quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo. On game day, Pederson and Reich on the sideline and DeFilippo up in the coaches’ box are keeping track of the hits Wentz is taking. After the Seahawks game, the ongoing conversation about him protecting himself would continue.

“That’s the fine line, that you’ve got to be careful of [not] taking the aggression away from your quarterback … because I don’t ever want to do that,” Pederson says. “But at the same time, we’ve got to continue to educate and talk to him about sliding and protecting himself, getting down, all of that; the longevity of the season and his well-being. It’s a fine line, but we'll just continue to talk to him about those issues.”

12:37 p.m.
Angel Stadium, Anaheim, Calif.

Welcome Eagles!
Hope you guys have a great week at the Big A.
From,
The Los Angeles Angels

Waiting in each player’s locker stall as they arrive for practice is a note and gift from their hosts: a bobblehead of the Eagles’ most famous season-ticket holder, Angels star outfielder Mike Trout. “Gotta put that up in the house somewhere,” says right tackle Lane Johnson.

A baseball stadium might seem like an unusual place for the Eagles to practice, but in fact, the Los Angeles Rams (version 1.0) played here from 1980 to 1994. The goalposts the Angels put up for the Eagles are the same ones used by the Rams back then and stored for decades in a hallway in the bowels of the stadium. The venue also regularly hosts high school football playoffs, though this year’s games were moved because of ongoing renovations to the stadium’s scoreboards and sound system.

The conversion process is relatively simple: The pitcher’s mound is removed and a laser is used to lower the infield dirt, over which a thick layer of sod is laid down. Early in the week Eagles players commented on the slick grass and having to wear their longer, screw-in cleats. The Angels adjusted—they stopped watering the grass so that the players would have better footing. The Eagles had flown their groundskeeper out the previous week, and the field was lined and painted before the Eagles kicked off in Seattle.

When the Eagles’ 2017 schedule was set to include three West Coast road games—against the Rams, Chargers and Seahawks—they made a request to the league that their Los Angeles games be scheduled back-to-back, to save one round-trip. They got the next best thing, back-to-back games in Seattle and Los Angeles. But where would they practice? With the Chargers moving to L.A., the StubHub Center in Carson was no longer an option. The Rams hold training camp at UC-Irvine, but when they break camp they load out all the football equipment. Plus, there’s no privacy on the open practice fields, something that didn’t pass muster for the Eagles.

Kathy Mair, an Eagles football operations employee who used to work for the Angels, suggested reaching out to her old team. The stadium’s calendar in December was wide open, practices would be closed and they could offer the infrastructure of a professional sports team: weight room, kitchen facilities and even clubhouse attendants. Since NFL rosters are more than double the size of MLB rosters, the Eagles set up in both the home and visitors’ clubhouses. The honor of using Mike Trout’s corner locker? That went to linebacker Nigel Bradham.

The only question for the Angels was, how much to charge? What’s the going rate for an NFL team to practice in an MLB stadium for a week? Sam Maida, the Angels’ director of baseball operations, settled on a flat fee of $50,000 for the week—a bargain considering the Angels draw that same amount for a group renting the parking lot for a one-day event. Maida didn’t want to overcharge another pro sports franchise, and he also hopes it opens the door to other NFL teams looking for a place to practice on the West Coast. “Mostly it just seemed like a fun thing to do,” Maida says. “Back when we originally scheduled this, before the season even started, we didn’t know the Eagles were going to be 10-2 and one of the best teams in football.”

2:41 p.m.
Angel Stadium

Spotted on the practice field: Darren Sproles. The 34-year-old Eagles running back has been on injured reserve since tearing his ACL and breaking his forearm on the same play in Week 3 against the Giants. He’s been rehabbing in San Diego, where he lives with his wife and two daughters. But with the Eagles so nearby, he’s spending the week on the practice field and in meeting rooms. Wearing a black sleeve on his injured left leg, Sproles is working with the running backs during position drills, holding up a tackling bag to help running backs coach Duce Staley run a drill.

“His presence brings the energy up for everybody,” says fellow running back LeGarrette Blount. “It’s something you can’t replace. As far as playing, he left a huge void. We don’t have anybody with his skill set.”

Days later, at his Monday press conference after the Rams game, Pederson will note the loss of vital players like Sproles, and left tackle Jason Peters, and linebacker Jordan Hicks, and special-teams ace Chris Maragos–and send a message by pointing out the Eagles’ ability to keep winning despite those circumstances.

5:24 p.m.
Angels clubhouse

Chris Long, perched on the edge of the leather wraparound couch in the Angels home clubhouse, wants to clarify the identity of the frothy, amber-colored beverage he just poured out of a tap and is sipping from a plastic cup.

“It’s not beer, it’s Kombucha,” Long says. “Nobody knows what it does, but everybody is drinking it.”

8:25 p.m.
Costa Mesa, Calif.

Cell phones in the Eagles team hotel buzz with an emergency alert: Strong winds over night creating extreme fire danger. Stay alert. Listen to authorities. About 12 million people across seven counties in Southern California receive the same alert, according to the Associated Press, the widest broadest ever issued by the state’s Office of Emergency Services. As devastating fires sweep through parts of the region, the National Weather Service forecast an extreme Santa Ana event, with the dry, downslope flame-spreading winds expected to gust up to 80 miles an hour over the next 18 to 24 hours. The Rams, whose Thousand Oaks headquarters are close to the fires, turn their Wednesday practice into a walkthrough at an indoor gym at Cal-Lutheran. But Angel Stadium is about an hour away from the nearest fires; the only evidence is a very faint burning smell in the evening air.

Thursday

2:52 p.m.
Angel Stadium

It’s eerily quiet at practice. The renovations at Angel Stadium include the sound system, so the only soundtrack is the 20 mph winds. The voices of players and coaches carry—someone calls out, “Hey, act like the music is here!” During a week when the Eagles needed to refocus, shaking things up isn’t a bad thing.

“We have a chance to hear each other’s voices, which is a plus,” Cox says. “We are used to having music, practice being really hype. We are doing a good job this week of bringing the energy on our own. Sometimes you need that, especially on the road.”

7:45 p.m.
Costa Mesa, Calif.

It’s the end of the workday—two full hours later than it would be back in Philadelphia. At the NovaCare Complex, the final film session of the day usually wraps at 5:45 p.m. on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Built into the schedule in California is the 20-minute drive to and from the team hotel to Angel Stadium, though that’s not much different from most players’ commutes in Philly. Veteran players guess there’s another reason for the longer workdays out here. One night the receivers went out for a position group dinner at Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles, but other than that, “we haven’t really had time,” Torrey Smith says. “They tailored the schedule that way.”

Friday

10:27 a.m.
Costa Mesa, Calif.

Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie is loitering in the hotel lobby. So is general manager Howie Roseman. Upstairs in a meeting room, the entire roster is preparing to fan-boy, hard. Due any minute now is a special guest who happens to be a self-proclaimed “neurotic” Eagles fan.

When the guest pulls up in a black SUV, former Eagles great Brian Dawkins, now in the team’s front office, heads outside to greet him. Hotel staffers scramble to prevent photos as the guest walks inside, his slim 6’6” frame unmistakable, and even more so the nickname printed on the back of his black T-shirt: BLACK MAMBA. He leans in for a bro hug with Lurie and then Roseman.

“Good to see you,” Kobe Bryant says.

The 18-time NBA All-Star and five-time NBA champion was nervous about speaking to the team. Like any true Eagles fan, “I didn’t want to jinx anything,” admits Bryant, who attended high school in Lower Merion, just outside of Philadelphia. He was never superstitious as a player, but when he’s watching the Eagles he’ll stay in one spot as long as they’re doing well—and then switch as soon as something goes wrong.

“I’m not going to begin by talking about what a big fan I am,” Bryant says, standing up in front of the team. “I’m not even going to say that.”

For 30 minutes Bryant tells a room of hopeful champions about the ingredients of his own championship teams. Focus on the smallest details, he says. Don’t let the hype distract you. Hours later, players would still be shouting in the locker room about the so-called Mamba Mentality he imparted to them: Kill everything! Make the guy across from you wish he were an accountant! (Not that there’s anything wrong with being an accountant). Bryant only stops his address when it’s time for the team to leave for practice.

“Guys, 11 o’clock, buses are leaving!” Pederson calls out. “11 o’clock!”

Before hopping into his car, Bryant puts on a midnight green No. 8 jersey given to him by the team. “I think the character of this team is special, and that’s what wins championships, is the character of the team, the spirit of the team,” Bryant says as the team buses speed off toward State Route 55. “You have certain moments where you go up and down, but when the spirit of the team is a strong one, it’s a collective one, then you have something that’s really special. Fingers crossed.”

2 p.m.
Culver City, Calif.

On a football field somewhere among the colony of TV studios in Culver City, an Eagles contingent films an episode of “The Goldbergs,” the ABC comedy set in Jenkintown, Pa, in the 1980s. Roseman, team president Don Smolenski, play-by-play announcer Merrill Reese and former Eagles receiver Mike Quick are all on set. “What I loved about it is, they were nervous, and I was heckling them,” says WIP morning show host Angelo Cataldi, who came by to watch. “They did fine.”

3 p.m.
Angel Stadium

An In-N-Out truck is waiting downstairs after practice. Coaches, who leave the stadium early to review practice tape at the hotel, grab a meal on the way out. Players sit in a stadium box upstairs, chowing down on Double-Doubles. “It’s the same with baseball players,” says Maida, the local. “All these guys want In-N-Out.”

Saturday

11:31 a.m.
Angel Stadium

A team of six California Highway Patrol officers leads the Eagles caravan up to the home-plate entrance of Angel Stadium. Pederson hops off Bus 1. Carson Wentz unloads from Bus 2. It’s the last day of preparation for the Rams, and the team will run a 30-minute “mock game” just after noon.

There’s a private entrance for buses that enters through the back of the stadium and underground, but the Eagles preferred this way in, to minimize the distance their players have to walk to the clubhouse. A smattering of fans is lined up waiting for them, including a quartet of Eagles supporters who flew in from Utah for the game. Earlier today they went to the L.A. Coliseum hoping to spot the team. A security guard told them the team would instead be at Angel Stadium, so they made the 30-mile drive to Anaheim for a 90-second glimpse of the players filing in.

It’s surprisingly busy at the stadium—and not just because the parking lots are being used for Disney characters working at nearby Disneyland. On Friday, just as the Eagles were about to begin practice, the Angels landed free-agent crown jewel Shohei Ohtani, the Japanese star who is both a starting pitcher and a slugger.

The Eagles will leave the stadium by 1:30 p.m. At 3, just feet from where their team buses pull up, the Angels will introduce Ohtani in a press conference open to the public outside the stadium. Meanwhile, back in New Jersey, Trout—Ohtani’s new teammate and Eagles megafan—is getting married in the snow. “Just a quiet Saturday,” Maida says, just before the Eagles begin unloading.

1:17 p.m.
Brittania Pub, Santa Monica, Calif.

When the old Eagles bar in Santa Monica—yes, there is absolutely an Eagles bar in Santa Monica—closed down a few years back, there was a scouting process to see which other hangout was worthy of taking its place. The winner was Brittania Pub, located on Santa Monica Boulevard, steps from the 3rd Street Promenade. On NFL Sundays, only Eagles fans are let through the doors, and only Eagles games are shown on the TVs. Today, with thousands of Eagles fans in town, the bar is already filling up just after lunchtime. The drink special—$3 Miller Lites starting at 9 a.m.—doesn’t hurt, either.

On the TV is the snow-covered Army-Navy game at the Linc, a reminder of the winter weather fans left back East. At the bar a group of three friends and rec basketball league teammates from Philadelphia discuss the implications of tomorrow’s game on the chances of a parade down Broad Street. Over by the window are two brothers, Kent and Brent, North Dakota State alums dressed in Bisons colors. They grew up Vikings fans, but since native son Wentz was drafted to Philadelphia No. 2 overall last year, Brent has been to at least five Eagles games all over the country. A playoff game between the Eagles and Vikings, they explain, could rip the state of North Dakota apart. Then, they raise their Miller Lites to the success of the pride of North Dakota. “Dilly, dilly!” they toast.

Just then, Cataldi, the WIP host, walks in. Brent’s wife, despite never living in the Philly area, immediately recognizes him—they are loyal listeners of Philly sports talk radio now. “E … A … G…” he calls out, starting the Eagles chant. Then, he adds, “Pace yourself! There’s a game tomorrow.”

Cataldi is bummed that his co-host, Al Morganti, was stuck in Philadelphia due to the snow. He’s going to be depressed, he says, if the Coliseum isn’t like an Eagles home game. Earlier this season Eagles fans overtook the Chargers’ StubHub Center—and for Sunday he’s predicting 25,000 to 30,000 loud Eagles fans, “who are going to drown out the far more apathetic Rams fans,” he says. In his 28 years as a radio talk show host in Philadelphia, he says he’s never seen the city more excited about an Eagles team—a bold proclamation. But like much of the city, which has been waiting for a championship for 57 years, a part of him is waiting for the other shoe to drop.

“I’m nervous for tomorrow, really nervous, because we are a little bit in uncharted territory,” Cataldi says. “This is such a young team, that we didn’t expect to be this good this fast, especially Wentz. So, after what happened in Seattle, everyone is going, uh oh. Is that the beginning of the inevitable decline? Because we have been conditioned for 57 years that the Eagles don’t win it all. At some point, they break your heart. Is this the start of that? That’s why a lot of people are out here to say, well, we are going to make it a home game. If they lose, they are going to lose on a home field, 3,000 miles from their actual home.”

By 6 p.m., the bar is so packed that the doorman is turning people away—they’re at capacity and cannot fit any more people inside. Out in front, the Green Legion fan club is set up at a picnic table, passing out pre-purchased wristbands and passes for tomorrow’s festivities. They’ve sold 1,500 fan packages to this game; tickets to the game were long gone weeks ago, and on Friday night they finally cut off selling spots even just to their Sunday morning “festival” (The City of Santa Monica, clearly not a football town, doesn’t like to use the word “tailgate”). The club’s website announces in capital letters: ALL LA PACKAGES ARE 100% SOLD OUT. PLEASE DO NOT CONTACT US. THERE ARE NO EXCEPTIONS.

Peeking out of one of the boxes is an envelope labeled WENTZ. Is that ... the same Wentz? “Distant, distant relative,” says the president of the fan club.

Sunday

11:25 a.m.
L.A. Coliseum

FOX began building this set six days earlier to host its NFL Sunday studio show live from the Coliseum. It’s not common practice, but there’s so much hype around Eagles-Rams that the network decided it deserved the College GameDay treatment. If the Eagles fans at the set don’t outnumber the Rams fans in number, they certainly do in volume (this would be true at the game, too). The FOX hosts are doing the halftime show for the early slate of games, and while they’re on air, it seems 10 seconds don’t go by without someone breaking out into the E-A-G-L-E-S chant or the “Fly, Eagles, Fly” fight song. One fan hoists a sign saying HI TO UNCLE SAL BACK IN PHILLY. Another, presumably another member of Wentz’ traveling Bisons herd, holds up one that reads BRINGIN THE <3 FROM NORTH DAKOTA.

3:51 p.m.
L.A. Coliseum

It’s one of those plays—and there were many by the Eagles on Sunday—that makes you to do a double-take (the good kind). How, exactly, did the ball get there? On a fourth-and-goal, the strong hands of Alshon Jeffery sandwich the end points of the football that Wentz had knifed in between traffic, and the receiver pits it against his left quad in the end zone. Philadelphia had lost the lead coming out of halftime, giving up two touchdowns to the Rams in a span of 1:34, a throw to Sammy Watkins and a blocked punt returned for a score. The 2-yard pass to Jeffery gives Philadelphia back a 31-28 lead late in the third quarter. It’s Wentz’s fourth passing touchdown of the day and 33rd of the season, breaking the single-season franchise record set by Sonny Jurgensen in 1961.

All afternoon Wentz had been making the kinds of throws that were almost too good to believe. There was the 20-yard touchdown pass to tight end Trey Burton in which Wentz defined the concept of a quarterback threading the needle, locating the ball precisely between the Rams safety on top of Burton and the linebacker underneath. Or the third-and-1 play early in the second quarter when Wentz dodged a rushing linebacker, juked a defensive lineman and made a 12-yard throw off his back foot with another linebacker bearing down on him. Ball placement and pocket awareness are two of the attributes that separate the best quarterbacks from the rest of the pack, and Wentz, at 24, is already demonstrating mastery of both.

But on the drive that ended in the Jeffery score, something was not right. Four plays earlier, Wentz had run the ball in for a touchdown—nullified by a suspect holding call on Lane Johnson—and his lower body got sandwiched by safety Mark Barron and defensive end Morgan Fox as he dove across the goal line. After a third-down incompletion, Wentz looked hobbled as he walked to the sideline and then back out to go for it on fourth down. Even on the throw to Jeffery, he stood rooted in place as he scanned the field—not his usual m.o.

Following the touchdown, Wentz walks off the field and ducks inside the blue medical tent. He then walks slowly to the locker room, escorted by two staffers. Nine minutes later, the team makes the announcement: QB Carson Wentz (knee) will not return. Foles is warming up on the sideline.

5:42 p.m.
L.A. Coliseum

In the locker room, Eagles players are sporting new hats—black and gray, stickers still affixed—that read NFC EAST CHAMPIONS. Today, with a 43-35 win against the Rams, the Eagles are now 11-2, alone atop the conference and well-positioned for home-field advantage in the playoffs.

The game turned on a play by Chris Long. Soon after Wentz left the field, the Rams had retaken the lead on a run by Todd Gurley. The defense hadn’t been at its best all day, yielding more than 24 points for just the second time this season. But in a sequence that is representative of the Eagles locker room culture, the savvy veterans took advantage of an opportunity. With the Rams holding a one-point lead midway through the fourth quarter, L.A. right tackle Rob Havenstein left the field injured. Graham went against backup Darrell Williams on the next snap. Then it was Long’s turn. Graham, watching from the sideline after subbing out, knew Long would take advantage. Sure enough, he beat Williams upfield and looped around the pocket to Jared Goff, who was on a deep play-action drop. With his right hand, Long swiped the ball out.

Safety Rodney McLeod recovered the forced fumble and returned the ball to the offense. The play set up the field goal that put the Eagles back on top, 37-35, with 3:50 left.

“If we were worth a damn on defense, we had to make a stop,” Long says in the locker room. “We owed it to the offense.”

Nothing about the final minutes lacked drama. The defense needed another stop. Got it. The offense needed another first down. Got it. Foles, who himself has 36 games of starting experience, delivered a gutsy 9-yard throw to Agholor, the third-year receiver who’s in the midst of a redemptive season. Foles spotted the Rams in two-man coverage; he knew Agholor would have a one-on-one matchup inside; and he placed the ball away from the defender. With a single second left the Rams got the ball back trailing by two, as a red sunset overtook the sky. Graham, the pass rusher who’s having a career season, snatched a desperation lateral by the Rams out of the air and ran it into the end zone, setting off a charge of at least 10 Eagles players doing Lambeau-style leaps into the traveling Eagles party.

The adrenaline carried the Eagles while the game was still going on, and up the Coliseum tunnel, and into the locker room. But when they enter the locker room—where Wentz is waiting to congratulate them—reality sets in: They’ll have to try to achieve the rest of their goals, beyond a division title, without not only their MVP, but “arguably the MVP of the league,” says receiver Torrey Smith. In a quiet moment, McLeod finds his quarterback. “We did that for you, man,” he tells him. Wentz smiles back and tells him, good job.

Eventually, Wentz emerges from the locker room, wearing the division championship hat and a black brace on his left knee. He rides a cart through the tunnel, head down, typing on his phone, then gets off gingerly at the checkpoint for the team buses. As he walks the short distance to the buses, a stadium employee offers to carry his postgame Qdoba meal for him, then gives him a warm hug. Wentz boards Bus 1 and takes a seat across from Reich, and the Eagles settle in for the uncertain journey ahead.

Introducing SPORTS ILLUSTRATED TV, your new home for classic sports movies, award-winning documentaries, original sports programming and features. Start your seven-day free trial of SI TV now on Amazon Channels.

Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.

Defeat, Victory and a Brutal Loss: Eight Days on the West Coast With the Eagles

LOS ANGELES — A few minutes before 4 p.m. local time on Sunday, the blue medical tent went up on the Eagles’ sideline at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. This was the clearest sign that something was not right with Carson Wentz.

A team security officer blocked the entrance to the tent as medical staff examined Wentz inside. Just a few yards behind, in the first few rows of the stands, fans in Philadelphia gear—the same fans whose presence made it impossible to tell which was the home team and which was the away team—looked on with pained expressions. There was one young man in the first row wearing a Wentz jersey, mouthing something that could be assumed to be a desperate prayer or call of encouragement, while holding up his cell phone as if he were waiting, and hoping, to take a picture of his team’s quarterback emerging from the tent, ready to go back in.

Wentz did emerge a few minutes later. Except instead of picking up his helmet, he started the long walk back to the locker room, baseball cap on, towel draped over his head. The Eagles were one quarter away from beating the resurgent Rams and winning the NFC East, but suddenly, with the news that Wentz had been ruled out of the game—and possibly the rest of the season—with a knee injury, the city of Philadelphia had been sent into a panic.

A week earlier in Seattle, on the first stop of the Eagles’ eight-day road trip, they hit their biggest bump of the season, a 14-point loss—only their second of the year—in a notoriously difficult stadium. The MMQB spent the week following the Eagles, chronicling a stretch of the season that would serve to measure just how good this young team really is. The Eagles emerged 11-2, sitting alone atop the NFC—but, as the news broke on Monday that Wentz had indeed torn his ACL and was gone for the year, they now face their greatest challenge of all. It’s impossible to predict what’s next, but a look inside their locker room, during an unusual and ultimately bittersweet week, gives some clues as to how they handle challenges—small, big or unexpected. Eight days with the Eagles ...

Sunday, Dec. 3

9:15 p.m.
CenturyLink Field, Seattle

The loudest noise in the visitors’ locker room is the running water splashing against the floor of the showers. Walking into this stadium hours earlier, the Eagles hadn’t lost a game in 77 days. But the nine-game win streak, which had the city of Philadelphia letting down the guard built up over 57 championship-less Eagles seasons, ended against a familiar slayer in the NFC.

“We haven’t lost a game in so long,” says defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, “you forget what it feels like to lose. That kind of puts knots in your stomach.”

So, too, did the antics of Russell Wilson, dubbed by Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins as the “human joystick.” He tore the game open on a third-and-10 play midway through the third quarter, when Eagles defenders say he changed the snap count to get them to tip their defensive call, a cover-zero blitz that sells out to get to the quarterback and keeps no defenders deep. He shifted the protection, kept the tight end in to block and threw a 47-yard pass to Doug Baldwin to the Philly 1, leading to the touchdown that would put the Seahawks up 17–3. Perhaps the most crucial play, though, came on a third-and-8 in the fourth quarter. Wilson escaped through a crease in the pocket and, five yards past the line of scrimmage, pitched the ball laterally—or was it forward?—to his running back as two defenders were closing in. The Seahawks went on to score on that drive, all but securing their 24-10 win.

“He caught me off guard,” defensive end Chris Long says at his locker afterward, still shaken by his empty lunge at Wilson right as he took off running.

Post-game, a common adversary emerges: a bad week of practice, in which the Eagles say they made mistakes like turnovers and penalties that are starting to show up on Sundays. Wentz, whose heroics carried the team for much of the season, is particularly hard on himself. He overthrew Nelson Agholor, underthrew him another time and fumbled the ball away on the goal line while diving in for a score. Knowing his penchant for extending plays with his legs, the Seahawks are not shy about hitting him. “He likes to find the extra yards,” says Sheldon Richardson, who forced the fumble. A few times through the night, Wentz appears to wince and one time signals back to the sidelines with a thumbs-up that he’s OK to keep going.

During their late-night flight to Southern California, head coach Doug Pederson will check on his quarterback on account of all the hits—12 in total—he took in the game. The players file out to the team buses, stopping to fill up to-go containers with salmon, short ribs, ratatouille and potatoes au gratin, to go along with their thin sliver of humble pie.

“We’ve been playing great up until this point,” center Jason Kelce cautions, “but this thing can change very easily.”

Monday

3:30 a.m.
Costa Mesa, Calif.

In the middle of the night, the Eagles arrive at their home for the next six days, a hotel in Orange County across the street from a luxury shopping mall. In the NFL, familiarity is held in high regard—this is the same place where the Eagles stayed for their Oct. 1 game against the Chargers. “I do well in hotels,” Long says later, “so I’m not stressed.” The second and third floors have been converted into meeting rooms, training rooms and coaches’ offices. While the players and coaches head to their rooms, the equipment staff has gone straight to Angel Stadium in Anaheim, where the team will practice all week, to begin their load-in. The Angels crew is amused to see the heavy parkas the Philly staffers had brought down from Seattle—there would be no use for those in the 70-degree Southern California weather.

2 p.m.
Costa Mesa, Calif.

Pederson stands bleary-eyed behind a hotel podium adorned with a makeshift Eagles sign printed on computer paper. As is typical for coaches in the NFL, he clearly hasn’t gotten much sleep since the game. A Sunday night game, a body clock still set to East Coast time and a loss make for a tough combination.

Pederson answers seven straight questions about the non-challenge of Wilson’s lateral; slightly miffed, he defends his decision. With the same resolve, he declares this will be a “normal” week—as normal as possible some 2,700 miles from the NovaCare Complex in South Philadelphia. He does, however, say he’ll change his messaging to the team in light of the self-inflicted mistakes he believes began in practice and lurked under the surface during the win streak.

“Winning can kind of cover up or mask some things, some deficiencies, a little chink in your armor, if there is any,” Pederson says. “There's no substitute for the preparation and the hard work. ... The guys have to know that, and it's my job to make sure that they understand that.”

While Pederson addresses the media, safety Malcolm Jenkins—who will be announced as the team’s Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee later in the week—is sitting in the hotel lobby, meeting with his San Diego-based philanthropic strategist about the next steps for his social justice work through the Players Coalition. Defensive end Brandon Graham, also taking advantage of the players’ off day, takes his wife and 22-month old daughter, Emerson, to the Museum of Ice Cream in Los Angeles. “Best gummy bears I had in a minute,” he reports back. Sidney Jones, the second-round pick who is out with an Achilles tear, drives 40 miles north to his hometown, West Covina, to pick up his younger brother from school. In the late afternoon a group of seven players heads to a housing development in Santa Ana to install siding on two homes being built through Habitat for Humanity for Orange County. “It was fun to get some handiwork in,” receiver Torrey Smith says, “and have a good time together.”

Tuesday

8:45 a.m.
Equinox, Irvine, Calif.

Ninety-minute team lift, on an outdoor roof deck. “Everybody seems like they were in a good mood,” Graham says. “They understand what [the Seattle loss] was, and we move forward.” At the same time, the players are turning their clocks backward. The Eagles stayed on Eastern time for the Seattle game but switch to Pacific time for the week in California. It’s an adjustment: Graham sheepishly admits he hit the hay at 8:30 p.m. PT on Monday night.

3:30 p.m.
Ronald McDonald House, Orange, Calif.

After a 30-minute walkthrough in street clothes centered on game corrections—offense at Angel Stadium, defense at the hotel—the team’s 14 rookies bus to Orange County’s Ronald McDonald House. Fred Hill, the former Eagles tight end, helped found the original Ronald McDonald House in Philadelphia in 1974 after his 3-year-old daughter was diagnosed with leukemia. The rookies spend about an hour with Hill and the people the house serves, families of seriously ill children, playing cornhole and decorating picture frames. “As soon as we got off the bus, they were so cheerful and almost, like, starstruck,” says receiver Mack Hollins. “We are all rookies, we are not big-time guys, but they didn’t care.” During a week when the Eagles would go to great lengths to eliminate their own distractions, for the Ronald McDonald House families, the Eagles serve as a welcome one.

• DAY BY DAY WITH THE EAGLES: Catch up on The MMQB’s daily stories from the Eagles’ West Coast trip.

Wednesday

9 a.m.
Costa Mesa, Calif.

Rams week officially begins. The Eagles quarterbacks—Wentz, backup Nick Foles and third-stringer Nate Sudfeld—start with a 45-minute quarterback blitz meeting in the hotel’s Douglas board room. The Eagles QBs are guided by three former college or NFL quarterbacks: Pederson, offensive coordinator Frank Reich and quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo. On game day, Pederson and Reich on the sideline and DeFilippo up in the coaches’ box are keeping track of the hits Wentz is taking. After the Seahawks game, the ongoing conversation about him protecting himself would continue.

“That’s the fine line, that you’ve got to be careful of [not] taking the aggression away from your quarterback … because I don’t ever want to do that,” Pederson says. “But at the same time, we’ve got to continue to educate and talk to him about sliding and protecting himself, getting down, all of that; the longevity of the season and his well-being. It’s a fine line, but we'll just continue to talk to him about those issues.”

12:37 p.m.
Angel Stadium, Anaheim, Calif.

Welcome Eagles!
Hope you guys have a great week at the Big A.
From,
The Los Angeles Angels

Waiting in each player’s locker stall as they arrive for practice is a note and gift from their hosts: a bobblehead of the Eagles’ most famous season-ticket holder, Angels star outfielder Mike Trout. “Gotta put that up in the house somewhere,” says right tackle Lane Johnson.

A baseball stadium might seem like an unusual place for the Eagles to practice, but in fact, the Los Angeles Rams (version 1.0) played here from 1980 to 1994. The goalposts the Angels put up for the Eagles are the same ones used by the Rams back then and stored for decades in a hallway in the bowels of the stadium. The venue also regularly hosts high school football playoffs, though this year’s games were moved because of ongoing renovations to the stadium’s scoreboards and sound system.

The conversion process is relatively simple: The pitcher’s mound is removed and a laser is used to lower the infield dirt, over which a thick layer of sod is laid down. Early in the week Eagles players commented on the slick grass and having to wear their longer, screw-in cleats. The Angels adjusted—they stopped watering the grass so that the players would have better footing. The Eagles had flown their groundskeeper out the previous week, and the field was lined and painted before the Eagles kicked off in Seattle.

When the Eagles’ 2017 schedule was set to include three West Coast road games—against the Rams, Chargers and Seahawks—they made a request to the league that their Los Angeles games be scheduled back-to-back, to save one round-trip. They got the next best thing, back-to-back games in Seattle and Los Angeles. But where would they practice? With the Chargers moving to L.A., the StubHub Center in Carson was no longer an option. The Rams hold training camp at UC-Irvine, but when they break camp they load out all the football equipment. Plus, there’s no privacy on the open practice fields, something that didn’t pass muster for the Eagles.

Kathy Mair, an Eagles football operations employee who used to work for the Angels, suggested reaching out to her old team. The stadium’s calendar in December was wide open, practices would be closed and they could offer the infrastructure of a professional sports team: weight room, kitchen facilities and even clubhouse attendants. Since NFL rosters are more than double the size of MLB rosters, the Eagles set up in both the home and visitors’ clubhouses. The honor of using Mike Trout’s corner locker? That went to linebacker Nigel Bradham.

The only question for the Angels was, how much to charge? What’s the going rate for an NFL team to practice in an MLB stadium for a week? Sam Maida, the Angels’ director of baseball operations, settled on a flat fee of $50,000 for the week—a bargain considering the Angels draw that same amount for a group renting the parking lot for a one-day event. Maida didn’t want to overcharge another pro sports franchise, and he also hopes it opens the door to other NFL teams looking for a place to practice on the West Coast. “Mostly it just seemed like a fun thing to do,” Maida says. “Back when we originally scheduled this, before the season even started, we didn’t know the Eagles were going to be 10-2 and one of the best teams in football.”

2:41 p.m.
Angel Stadium

Spotted on the practice field: Darren Sproles. The 34-year-old Eagles running back has been on injured reserve since tearing his ACL and breaking his forearm on the same play in Week 3 against the Giants. He’s been rehabbing in San Diego, where he lives with his wife and two daughters. But with the Eagles so nearby, he’s spending the week on the practice field and in meeting rooms. Wearing a black sleeve on his injured left leg, Sproles is working with the running backs during position drills, holding up a tackling bag to help running backs coach Duce Staley run a drill.

“His presence brings the energy up for everybody,” says fellow running back LeGarrette Blount. “It’s something you can’t replace. As far as playing, he left a huge void. We don’t have anybody with his skill set.”

Days later, at his Monday press conference after the Rams game, Pederson will note the loss of vital players like Sproles, and left tackle Jason Peters, and linebacker Jordan Hicks, and special-teams ace Chris Maragos–and send a message by pointing out the Eagles’ ability to keep winning despite those circumstances.

5:24 p.m.
Angels clubhouse

Chris Long, perched on the edge of the leather wraparound couch in the Angels home clubhouse, wants to clarify the identity of the frothy, amber-colored beverage he just poured out of a tap and is sipping from a plastic cup.

“It’s not beer, it’s Kombucha,” Long says. “Nobody knows what it does, but everybody is drinking it.”

8:25 p.m.
Costa Mesa, Calif.

Cell phones in the Eagles team hotel buzz with an emergency alert: Strong winds over night creating extreme fire danger. Stay alert. Listen to authorities. About 12 million people across seven counties in Southern California receive the same alert, according to the Associated Press, the widest broadest ever issued by the state’s Office of Emergency Services. As devastating fires sweep through parts of the region, the National Weather Service forecast an extreme Santa Ana event, with the dry, downslope flame-spreading winds expected to gust up to 80 miles an hour over the next 18 to 24 hours. The Rams, whose Thousand Oaks headquarters are close to the fires, turn their Wednesday practice into a walkthrough at an indoor gym at Cal-Lutheran. But Angel Stadium is about an hour away from the nearest fires; the only evidence is a very faint burning smell in the evening air.

Thursday

2:52 p.m.
Angel Stadium

It’s eerily quiet at practice. The renovations at Angel Stadium include the sound system, so the only soundtrack is the 20 mph winds. The voices of players and coaches carry—someone calls out, “Hey, act like the music is here!” During a week when the Eagles needed to refocus, shaking things up isn’t a bad thing.

“We have a chance to hear each other’s voices, which is a plus,” Cox says. “We are used to having music, practice being really hype. We are doing a good job this week of bringing the energy on our own. Sometimes you need that, especially on the road.”

7:45 p.m.
Costa Mesa, Calif.

It’s the end of the workday—two full hours later than it would be back in Philadelphia. At the NovaCare Complex, the final film session of the day usually wraps at 5:45 p.m. on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Built into the schedule in California is the 20-minute drive to and from the team hotel to Angel Stadium, though that’s not much different from most players’ commutes in Philly. Veteran players guess there’s another reason for the longer workdays out here. One night the receivers went out for a position group dinner at Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles, but other than that, “we haven’t really had time,” Torrey Smith says. “They tailored the schedule that way.”

Friday

10:27 a.m.
Costa Mesa, Calif.

Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie is loitering in the hotel lobby. So is general manager Howie Roseman. Upstairs in a meeting room, the entire roster is preparing to fan-boy, hard. Due any minute now is a special guest who happens to be a self-proclaimed “neurotic” Eagles fan.

When the guest pulls up in a black SUV, former Eagles great Brian Dawkins, now in the team’s front office, heads outside to greet him. Hotel staffers scramble to prevent photos as the guest walks inside, his slim 6’6” frame unmistakable, and even more so the nickname printed on the back of his black T-shirt: BLACK MAMBA. He leans in for a bro hug with Lurie and then Roseman.

“Good to see you,” Kobe Bryant says.

The 18-time NBA All-Star and five-time NBA champion was nervous about speaking to the team. Like any true Eagles fan, “I didn’t want to jinx anything,” admits Bryant, who attended high school in Lower Merion, just outside of Philadelphia. He was never superstitious as a player, but when he’s watching the Eagles he’ll stay in one spot as long as they’re doing well—and then switch as soon as something goes wrong.

“I’m not going to begin by talking about what a big fan I am,” Bryant says, standing up in front of the team. “I’m not even going to say that.”

For 30 minutes Bryant tells a room of hopeful champions about the ingredients of his own championship teams. Focus on the smallest details, he says. Don’t let the hype distract you. Hours later, players would still be shouting in the locker room about the so-called Mamba Mentality he imparted to them: Kill everything! Make the guy across from you wish he were an accountant! (Not that there’s anything wrong with being an accountant). Bryant only stops his address when it’s time for the team to leave for practice.

“Guys, 11 o’clock, buses are leaving!” Pederson calls out. “11 o’clock!”

Before hopping into his car, Bryant puts on a midnight green No. 8 jersey given to him by the team. “I think the character of this team is special, and that’s what wins championships, is the character of the team, the spirit of the team,” Bryant says as the team buses speed off toward State Route 55. “You have certain moments where you go up and down, but when the spirit of the team is a strong one, it’s a collective one, then you have something that’s really special. Fingers crossed.”

2 p.m.
Culver City, Calif.

On a football field somewhere among the colony of TV studios in Culver City, an Eagles contingent films an episode of “The Goldbergs,” the ABC comedy set in Jenkintown, Pa, in the 1980s. Roseman, team president Don Smolenski, play-by-play announcer Merrill Reese and former Eagles receiver Mike Quick are all on set. “What I loved about it is, they were nervous, and I was heckling them,” says WIP morning show host Angelo Cataldi, who came by to watch. “They did fine.”

3 p.m.
Angel Stadium

An In-N-Out truck is waiting downstairs after practice. Coaches, who leave the stadium early to review practice tape at the hotel, grab a meal on the way out. Players sit in a stadium box upstairs, chowing down on Double-Doubles. “It’s the same with baseball players,” says Maida, the local. “All these guys want In-N-Out.”

Saturday

11:31 a.m.
Angel Stadium

A team of six California Highway Patrol officers leads the Eagles caravan up to the home-plate entrance of Angel Stadium. Pederson hops off Bus 1. Carson Wentz unloads from Bus 2. It’s the last day of preparation for the Rams, and the team will run a 30-minute “mock game” just after noon.

There’s a private entrance for buses that enters through the back of the stadium and underground, but the Eagles preferred this way in, to minimize the distance their players have to walk to the clubhouse. A smattering of fans is lined up waiting for them, including a quartet of Eagles supporters who flew in from Utah for the game. Earlier today they went to the L.A. Coliseum hoping to spot the team. A security guard told them the team would instead be at Angel Stadium, so they made the 30-mile drive to Anaheim for a 90-second glimpse of the players filing in.

It’s surprisingly busy at the stadium—and not just because the parking lots are being used for Disney characters working at nearby Disneyland. On Friday, just as the Eagles were about to begin practice, the Angels landed free-agent crown jewel Shohei Ohtani, the Japanese star who is both a starting pitcher and a slugger.

The Eagles will leave the stadium by 1:30 p.m. At 3, just feet from where their team buses pull up, the Angels will introduce Ohtani in a press conference open to the public outside the stadium. Meanwhile, back in New Jersey, Trout—Ohtani’s new teammate and Eagles megafan—is getting married in the snow. “Just a quiet Saturday,” Maida says, just before the Eagles begin unloading.

1:17 p.m.
Brittania Pub, Santa Monica, Calif.

When the old Eagles bar in Santa Monica—yes, there is absolutely an Eagles bar in Santa Monica—closed down a few years back, there was a scouting process to see which other hangout was worthy of taking its place. The winner was Brittania Pub, located on Santa Monica Boulevard, steps from the 3rd Street Promenade. On NFL Sundays, only Eagles fans are let through the doors, and only Eagles games are shown on the TVs. Today, with thousands of Eagles fans in town, the bar is already filling up just after lunchtime. The drink special—$3 Miller Lites starting at 9 a.m.—doesn’t hurt, either.

On the TV is the snow-covered Army-Navy game at the Linc, a reminder of the winter weather fans left back East. At the bar a group of three friends and rec basketball league teammates from Philadelphia discuss the implications of tomorrow’s game on the chances of a parade down Broad Street. Over by the window are two brothers, Kent and Brent, North Dakota State alums dressed in Bisons colors. They grew up Vikings fans, but since native son Wentz was drafted to Philadelphia No. 2 overall last year, Brent has been to at least five Eagles games all over the country. A playoff game between the Eagles and Vikings, they explain, could rip the state of North Dakota apart. Then, they raise their Miller Lites to the success of the pride of North Dakota. “Dilly, dilly!” they toast.

Just then, Cataldi, the WIP host, walks in. Brent’s wife, despite never living in the Philly area, immediately recognizes him—they are loyal listeners of Philly sports talk radio now. “E … A … G…” he calls out, starting the Eagles chant. Then, he adds, “Pace yourself! There’s a game tomorrow.”

Cataldi is bummed that his co-host, Al Morganti, was stuck in Philadelphia due to the snow. He’s going to be depressed, he says, if the Coliseum isn’t like an Eagles home game. Earlier this season Eagles fans overtook the Chargers’ StubHub Center—and for Sunday he’s predicting 25,000 to 30,000 loud Eagles fans, “who are going to drown out the far more apathetic Rams fans,” he says. In his 28 years as a radio talk show host in Philadelphia, he says he’s never seen the city more excited about an Eagles team—a bold proclamation. But like much of the city, which has been waiting for a championship for 57 years, a part of him is waiting for the other shoe to drop.

“I’m nervous for tomorrow, really nervous, because we are a little bit in uncharted territory,” Cataldi says. “This is such a young team, that we didn’t expect to be this good this fast, especially Wentz. So, after what happened in Seattle, everyone is going, uh oh. Is that the beginning of the inevitable decline? Because we have been conditioned for 57 years that the Eagles don’t win it all. At some point, they break your heart. Is this the start of that? That’s why a lot of people are out here to say, well, we are going to make it a home game. If they lose, they are going to lose on a home field, 3,000 miles from their actual home.”

By 6 p.m., the bar is so packed that the doorman is turning people away—they’re at capacity and cannot fit any more people inside. Out in front, the Green Legion fan club is set up at a picnic table, passing out pre-purchased wristbands and passes for tomorrow’s festivities. They’ve sold 1,500 fan packages to this game; tickets to the game were long gone weeks ago, and on Friday night they finally cut off selling spots even just to their Sunday morning “festival” (The City of Santa Monica, clearly not a football town, doesn’t like to use the word “tailgate”). The club’s website announces in capital letters: ALL LA PACKAGES ARE 100% SOLD OUT. PLEASE DO NOT CONTACT US. THERE ARE NO EXCEPTIONS.

Peeking out of one of the boxes is an envelope labeled WENTZ. Is that ... the same Wentz? “Distant, distant relative,” says the president of the fan club.

Sunday

11:25 a.m.
L.A. Coliseum

FOX began building this set six days earlier to host its NFL Sunday studio show live from the Coliseum. It’s not common practice, but there’s so much hype around Eagles-Rams that the network decided it deserved the College GameDay treatment. If the Eagles fans at the set don’t outnumber the Rams fans in number, they certainly do in volume (this would be true at the game, too). The FOX hosts are doing the halftime show for the early slate of games, and while they’re on air, it seems 10 seconds don’t go by without someone breaking out into the E-A-G-L-E-S chant or the “Fly, Eagles, Fly” fight song. One fan hoists a sign saying HI TO UNCLE SAL BACK IN PHILLY. Another, presumably another member of Wentz’ traveling Bisons herd, holds up one that reads BRINGIN THE <3 FROM NORTH DAKOTA.

3:51 p.m.
L.A. Coliseum

It’s one of those plays—and there were many by the Eagles on Sunday—that makes you to do a double-take (the good kind). How, exactly, did the ball get there? On a fourth-and-goal, the strong hands of Alshon Jeffery sandwich the end points of the football that Wentz had knifed in between traffic, and the receiver pits it against his left quad in the end zone. Philadelphia had lost the lead coming out of halftime, giving up two touchdowns to the Rams in a span of 1:34, a throw to Sammy Watkins and a blocked punt returned for a score. The 2-yard pass to Jeffery gives Philadelphia back a 31-28 lead late in the third quarter. It’s Wentz’s fourth passing touchdown of the day and 33rd of the season, breaking the single-season franchise record set by Sonny Jurgensen in 1961.

All afternoon Wentz had been making the kinds of throws that were almost too good to believe. There was the 20-yard touchdown pass to tight end Trey Burton in which Wentz defined the concept of a quarterback threading the needle, locating the ball precisely between the Rams safety on top of Burton and the linebacker underneath. Or the third-and-1 play early in the second quarter when Wentz dodged a rushing linebacker, juked a defensive lineman and made a 12-yard throw off his back foot with another linebacker bearing down on him. Ball placement and pocket awareness are two of the attributes that separate the best quarterbacks from the rest of the pack, and Wentz, at 24, is already demonstrating mastery of both.

But on the drive that ended in the Jeffery score, something was not right. Four plays earlier, Wentz had run the ball in for a touchdown—nullified by a suspect holding call on Lane Johnson—and his lower body got sandwiched by safety Mark Barron and defensive end Morgan Fox as he dove across the goal line. After a third-down incompletion, Wentz looked hobbled as he walked to the sideline and then back out to go for it on fourth down. Even on the throw to Jeffery, he stood rooted in place as he scanned the field—not his usual m.o.

Following the touchdown, Wentz walks off the field and ducks inside the blue medical tent. He then walks slowly to the locker room, escorted by two staffers. Nine minutes later, the team makes the announcement: QB Carson Wentz (knee) will not return. Foles is warming up on the sideline.

5:42 p.m.
L.A. Coliseum

In the locker room, Eagles players are sporting new hats—black and gray, stickers still affixed—that read NFC EAST CHAMPIONS. Today, with a 43-35 win against the Rams, the Eagles are now 11-2, alone atop the conference and well-positioned for home-field advantage in the playoffs.

The game turned on a play by Chris Long. Soon after Wentz left the field, the Rams had retaken the lead on a run by Todd Gurley. The defense hadn’t been at its best all day, yielding more than 24 points for just the second time this season. But in a sequence that is representative of the Eagles locker room culture, the savvy veterans took advantage of an opportunity. With the Rams holding a one-point lead midway through the fourth quarter, L.A. right tackle Rob Havenstein left the field injured. Graham went against backup Darrell Williams on the next snap. Then it was Long’s turn. Graham, watching from the sideline after subbing out, knew Long would take advantage. Sure enough, he beat Williams upfield and looped around the pocket to Jared Goff, who was on a deep play-action drop. With his right hand, Long swiped the ball out.

Safety Rodney McLeod recovered the forced fumble and returned the ball to the offense. The play set up the field goal that put the Eagles back on top, 37-35, with 3:50 left.

“If we were worth a damn on defense, we had to make a stop,” Long says in the locker room. “We owed it to the offense.”

Nothing about the final minutes lacked drama. The defense needed another stop. Got it. The offense needed another first down. Got it. Foles, who himself has 36 games of starting experience, delivered a gutsy 9-yard throw to Agholor, the third-year receiver who’s in the midst of a redemptive season. Foles spotted the Rams in two-man coverage; he knew Agholor would have a one-on-one matchup inside; and he placed the ball away from the defender. With a single second left the Rams got the ball back trailing by two, as a red sunset overtook the sky. Graham, the pass rusher who’s having a career season, snatched a desperation lateral by the Rams out of the air and ran it into the end zone, setting off a charge of at least 10 Eagles players doing Lambeau-style leaps into the traveling Eagles party.

The adrenaline carried the Eagles while the game was still going on, and up the Coliseum tunnel, and into the locker room. But when they enter the locker room—where Wentz is waiting to congratulate them—reality sets in: They’ll have to try to achieve the rest of their goals, beyond a division title, without not only their MVP, but “arguably the MVP of the league,” says receiver Torrey Smith. In a quiet moment, McLeod finds his quarterback. “We did that for you, man,” he tells him. Wentz smiles back and tells him, good job.

Eventually, Wentz emerges from the locker room, wearing the division championship hat and a black brace on his left knee. He rides a cart through the tunnel, head down, typing on his phone, then gets off gingerly at the checkpoint for the team buses. As he walks the short distance to the buses, a stadium employee offers to carry his postgame Qdoba meal for him, then gives him a warm hug. Wentz boards Bus 1 and takes a seat across from Reich, and the Eagles settle in for the uncertain journey ahead.

Introducing SPORTS ILLUSTRATED TV, your new home for classic sports movies, award-winning documentaries, original sports programming and features. Start your seven-day free trial of SI TV now on Amazon Channels.

Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.

Defeat, Victory and a Brutal Loss: Eight Days on the West Coast With the Eagles

LOS ANGELES — A few minutes before 4 p.m. local time on Sunday, the blue medical tent went up on the Eagles’ sideline at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. This was the clearest sign that something was not right with Carson Wentz.

A team security officer blocked the entrance to the tent as medical staff examined Wentz inside. Just a few yards behind, in the first few rows of the stands, fans in Philadelphia gear—the same fans whose presence made it impossible to tell which was the home team and which was the away team—looked on with pained expressions. There was one young man in the first row wearing a Wentz jersey, mouthing something that could be assumed to be a desperate prayer or call of encouragement, while holding up his cell phone as if he were waiting, and hoping, to take a picture of his team’s quarterback emerging from the tent, ready to go back in.

Wentz did emerge a few minutes later. Except instead of picking up his helmet, he started the long walk back to the locker room, baseball cap on, towel draped over his head. The Eagles were one quarter away from beating the resurgent Rams and winning the NFC East, but suddenly, with the news that Wentz had been ruled out of the game—and possibly the rest of the season—with a knee injury, the city of Philadelphia had been sent into a panic.

A week earlier in Seattle, on the first stop of the Eagles’ eight-day road trip, they hit their biggest bump of the season, a 14-point loss—only their second of the year—in a notoriously difficult stadium. The MMQB spent the week following the Eagles, chronicling a stretch of the season that would serve to measure just how good this young team really is. The Eagles emerged 11-2, sitting alone atop the NFC—but, as the news broke on Monday that Wentz had indeed torn his ACL and was gone for the year, they now face their greatest challenge of all. It’s impossible to predict what’s next, but a look inside their locker room, during an unusual and ultimately bittersweet week, gives some clues as to how they handle challenges—small, big or unexpected. Eight days with the Eagles ...

Sunday, Dec. 3

9:15 p.m.
CenturyLink Field, Seattle

The loudest noise in the visitors’ locker room is the running water splashing against the floor of the showers. Walking into this stadium hours earlier, the Eagles hadn’t lost a game in 77 days. But the nine-game win streak, which had the city of Philadelphia letting down the guard built up over 57 championship-less Eagles seasons, ended against a familiar slayer in the NFC.

“We haven’t lost a game in so long,” says defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, “you forget what it feels like to lose. That kind of puts knots in your stomach.”

So, too, did the antics of Russell Wilson, dubbed by Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins as the “human joystick.” He tore the game open on a third-and-10 play midway through the third quarter, when Eagles defenders say he changed the snap count to get them to tip their defensive call, a cover-zero blitz that sells out to get to the quarterback and keeps no defenders deep. He shifted the protection, kept the tight end in to block and threw a 47-yard pass to Doug Baldwin to the Philly 1, leading to the touchdown that would put the Seahawks up 17–3. Perhaps the most crucial play, though, came on a third-and-8 in the fourth quarter. Wilson escaped through a crease in the pocket and, five yards past the line of scrimmage, pitched the ball laterally—or was it forward?—to his running back as two defenders were closing in. The Seahawks went on to score on that drive, all but securing their 24-10 win.

“He caught me off guard,” defensive end Chris Long says at his locker afterward, still shaken by his empty lunge at Wilson right as he took off running.

Post-game, a common adversary emerges: a bad week of practice, in which the Eagles say they made mistakes like turnovers and penalties that are starting to show up on Sundays. Wentz, whose heroics carried the team for much of the season, is particularly hard on himself. He overthrew Nelson Agholor, underthrew him another time and fumbled the ball away on the goal line while diving in for a score. Knowing his penchant for extending plays with his legs, the Seahawks are not shy about hitting him. “He likes to find the extra yards,” says Sheldon Richardson, who forced the fumble. A few times through the night, Wentz appears to wince and one time signals back to the sidelines with a thumbs-up that he’s OK to keep going.

During their late-night flight to Southern California, head coach Doug Pederson will check on his quarterback on account of all the hits—12 in total—he took in the game. The players file out to the team buses, stopping to fill up to-go containers with salmon, short ribs, ratatouille and potatoes au gratin, to go along with their thin sliver of humble pie.

“We’ve been playing great up until this point,” center Jason Kelce cautions, “but this thing can change very easily.”

Monday

3:30 a.m.
Costa Mesa, Calif.

In the middle of the night, the Eagles arrive at their home for the next six days, a hotel in Orange County across the street from a luxury shopping mall. In the NFL, familiarity is held in high regard—this is the same place where the Eagles stayed for their Oct. 1 game against the Chargers. “I do well in hotels,” Long says later, “so I’m not stressed.” The second and third floors have been converted into meeting rooms, training rooms and coaches’ offices. While the players and coaches head to their rooms, the equipment staff has gone straight to Angel Stadium in Anaheim, where the team will practice all week, to begin their load-in. The Angels crew is amused to see the heavy parkas the Philly staffers had brought down from Seattle—there would be no use for those in the 70-degree Southern California weather.

2 p.m.
Costa Mesa, Calif.

Pederson stands bleary-eyed behind a hotel podium adorned with a makeshift Eagles sign printed on computer paper. As is typical for coaches in the NFL, he clearly hasn’t gotten much sleep since the game. A Sunday night game, a body clock still set to East Coast time and a loss make for a tough combination.

Pederson answers seven straight questions about the non-challenge of Wilson’s lateral; slightly miffed, he defends his decision. With the same resolve, he declares this will be a “normal” week—as normal as possible some 2,700 miles from the NovaCare Complex in South Philadelphia. He does, however, say he’ll change his messaging to the team in light of the self-inflicted mistakes he believes began in practice and lurked under the surface during the win streak.

“Winning can kind of cover up or mask some things, some deficiencies, a little chink in your armor, if there is any,” Pederson says. “There's no substitute for the preparation and the hard work. ... The guys have to know that, and it's my job to make sure that they understand that.”

While Pederson addresses the media, safety Malcolm Jenkins—who will be announced as the team’s Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee later in the week—is sitting in the hotel lobby, meeting with his San Diego-based philanthropic strategist about the next steps for his social justice work through the Players Coalition. Defensive end Brandon Graham, also taking advantage of the players’ off day, takes his wife and 22-month old daughter, Emerson, to the Museum of Ice Cream in Los Angeles. “Best gummy bears I had in a minute,” he reports back. Sidney Jones, the second-round pick who is out with an Achilles tear, drives 40 miles north to his hometown, West Covina, to pick up his younger brother from school. In the late afternoon a group of seven players heads to a housing development in Santa Ana to install siding on two homes being built through Habitat for Humanity for Orange County. “It was fun to get some handiwork in,” receiver Torrey Smith says, “and have a good time together.”

Tuesday

8:45 a.m.
Equinox, Irvine, Calif.

Ninety-minute team lift, on an outdoor roof deck. “Everybody seems like they were in a good mood,” Graham says. “They understand what [the Seattle loss] was, and we move forward.” At the same time, the players are turning their clocks backward. The Eagles stayed on Eastern time for the Seattle game but switch to Pacific time for the week in California. It’s an adjustment: Graham sheepishly admits he hit the hay at 8:30 p.m. PT on Monday night.

3:30 p.m.
Ronald McDonald House, Orange, Calif.

After a 30-minute walkthrough in street clothes centered on game corrections—offense at Angel Stadium, defense at the hotel—the team’s 14 rookies bus to Orange County’s Ronald McDonald House. Fred Hill, the former Eagles tight end, helped found the original Ronald McDonald House in Philadelphia in 1974 after his 3-year-old daughter was diagnosed with leukemia. The rookies spend about an hour with Hill and the people the house serves, families of seriously ill children, playing cornhole and decorating picture frames. “As soon as we got off the bus, they were so cheerful and almost, like, starstruck,” says receiver Mack Hollins. “We are all rookies, we are not big-time guys, but they didn’t care.” During a week when the Eagles would go to great lengths to eliminate their own distractions, for the Ronald McDonald House families, the Eagles serve as a welcome one.

• DAY BY DAY WITH THE EAGLES: Catch up on The MMQB’s daily stories from the Eagles’ West Coast trip.

Wednesday

9 a.m.
Costa Mesa, Calif.

Rams week officially begins. The Eagles quarterbacks—Wentz, backup Nick Foles and third-stringer Nate Sudfeld—start with a 45-minute quarterback blitz meeting in the hotel’s Douglas board room. The Eagles QBs are guided by three former college or NFL quarterbacks: Pederson, offensive coordinator Frank Reich and quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo. On game day, Pederson and Reich on the sideline and DeFilippo up in the coaches’ box are keeping track of the hits Wentz is taking. After the Seahawks game, the ongoing conversation about him protecting himself would continue.

“That’s the fine line, that you’ve got to be careful of [not] taking the aggression away from your quarterback … because I don’t ever want to do that,” Pederson says. “But at the same time, we’ve got to continue to educate and talk to him about sliding and protecting himself, getting down, all of that; the longevity of the season and his well-being. It’s a fine line, but we'll just continue to talk to him about those issues.”

12:37 p.m.
Angel Stadium, Anaheim, Calif.

Welcome Eagles!
Hope you guys have a great week at the Big A.
From,
The Los Angeles Angels

Waiting in each player’s locker stall as they arrive for practice is a note and gift from their hosts: a bobblehead of the Eagles’ most famous season-ticket holder, Angels star outfielder Mike Trout. “Gotta put that up in the house somewhere,” says right tackle Lane Johnson.

A baseball stadium might seem like an unusual place for the Eagles to practice, but in fact, the Los Angeles Rams (version 1.0) played here from 1980 to 1994. The goalposts the Angels put up for the Eagles are the same ones used by the Rams back then and stored for decades in a hallway in the bowels of the stadium. The venue also regularly hosts high school football playoffs, though this year’s games were moved because of ongoing renovations to the stadium’s scoreboards and sound system.

The conversion process is relatively simple: The pitcher’s mound is removed and a laser is used to lower the infield dirt, over which a thick layer of sod is laid down. Early in the week Eagles players commented on the slick grass and having to wear their longer, screw-in cleats. The Angels adjusted—they stopped watering the grass so that the players would have better footing. The Eagles had flown their groundskeeper out the previous week, and the field was lined and painted before the Eagles kicked off in Seattle.

When the Eagles’ 2017 schedule was set to include three West Coast road games—against the Rams, Chargers and Seahawks—they made a request to the league that their Los Angeles games be scheduled back-to-back, to save one round-trip. They got the next best thing, back-to-back games in Seattle and Los Angeles. But where would they practice? With the Chargers moving to L.A., the StubHub Center in Carson was no longer an option. The Rams hold training camp at UC-Irvine, but when they break camp they load out all the football equipment. Plus, there’s no privacy on the open practice fields, something that didn’t pass muster for the Eagles.

Kathy Mair, an Eagles football operations employee who used to work for the Angels, suggested reaching out to her old team. The stadium’s calendar in December was wide open, practices would be closed and they could offer the infrastructure of a professional sports team: weight room, kitchen facilities and even clubhouse attendants. Since NFL rosters are more than double the size of MLB rosters, the Eagles set up in both the home and visitors’ clubhouses. The honor of using Mike Trout’s corner locker? That went to linebacker Nigel Bradham.

The only question for the Angels was, how much to charge? What’s the going rate for an NFL team to practice in an MLB stadium for a week? Sam Maida, the Angels’ director of baseball operations, settled on a flat fee of $50,000 for the week—a bargain considering the Angels draw that same amount for a group renting the parking lot for a one-day event. Maida didn’t want to overcharge another pro sports franchise, and he also hopes it opens the door to other NFL teams looking for a place to practice on the West Coast. “Mostly it just seemed like a fun thing to do,” Maida says. “Back when we originally scheduled this, before the season even started, we didn’t know the Eagles were going to be 10-2 and one of the best teams in football.”

2:41 p.m.
Angel Stadium

Spotted on the practice field: Darren Sproles. The 34-year-old Eagles running back has been on injured reserve since tearing his ACL and breaking his forearm on the same play in Week 3 against the Giants. He’s been rehabbing in San Diego, where he lives with his wife and two daughters. But with the Eagles so nearby, he’s spending the week on the practice field and in meeting rooms. Wearing a black sleeve on his injured left leg, Sproles is working with the running backs during position drills, holding up a tackling bag to help running backs coach Duce Staley run a drill.

“His presence brings the energy up for everybody,” says fellow running back LeGarrette Blount. “It’s something you can’t replace. As far as playing, he left a huge void. We don’t have anybody with his skill set.”

Days later, at his Monday press conference after the Rams game, Pederson will note the loss of vital players like Sproles, and left tackle Jason Peters, and linebacker Jordan Hicks, and special-teams ace Chris Maragos–and send a message by pointing out the Eagles’ ability to keep winning despite those circumstances.

5:24 p.m.
Angels clubhouse

Chris Long, perched on the edge of the leather wraparound couch in the Angels home clubhouse, wants to clarify the identity of the frothy, amber-colored beverage he just poured out of a tap and is sipping from a plastic cup.

“It’s not beer, it’s Kombucha,” Long says. “Nobody knows what it does, but everybody is drinking it.”

8:25 p.m.
Costa Mesa, Calif.

Cell phones in the Eagles team hotel buzz with an emergency alert: Strong winds over night creating extreme fire danger. Stay alert. Listen to authorities. About 12 million people across seven counties in Southern California receive the same alert, according to the Associated Press, the widest broadest ever issued by the state’s Office of Emergency Services. As devastating fires sweep through parts of the region, the National Weather Service forecast an extreme Santa Ana event, with the dry, downslope flame-spreading winds expected to gust up to 80 miles an hour over the next 18 to 24 hours. The Rams, whose Thousand Oaks headquarters are close to the fires, turn their Wednesday practice into a walkthrough at an indoor gym at Cal-Lutheran. But Angel Stadium is about an hour away from the nearest fires; the only evidence is a very faint burning smell in the evening air.

Thursday

2:52 p.m.
Angel Stadium

It’s eerily quiet at practice. The renovations at Angel Stadium include the sound system, so the only soundtrack is the 20 mph winds. The voices of players and coaches carry—someone calls out, “Hey, act like the music is here!” During a week when the Eagles needed to refocus, shaking things up isn’t a bad thing.

“We have a chance to hear each other’s voices, which is a plus,” Cox says. “We are used to having music, practice being really hype. We are doing a good job this week of bringing the energy on our own. Sometimes you need that, especially on the road.”

7:45 p.m.
Costa Mesa, Calif.

It’s the end of the workday—two full hours later than it would be back in Philadelphia. At the NovaCare Complex, the final film session of the day usually wraps at 5:45 p.m. on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Built into the schedule in California is the 20-minute drive to and from the team hotel to Angel Stadium, though that’s not much different from most players’ commutes in Philly. Veteran players guess there’s another reason for the longer workdays out here. One night the receivers went out for a position group dinner at Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles, but other than that, “we haven’t really had time,” Torrey Smith says. “They tailored the schedule that way.”

Friday

10:27 a.m.
Costa Mesa, Calif.

Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie is loitering in the hotel lobby. So is general manager Howie Roseman. Upstairs in a meeting room, the entire roster is preparing to fan-boy, hard. Due any minute now is a special guest who happens to be a self-proclaimed “neurotic” Eagles fan.

When the guest pulls up in a black SUV, former Eagles great Brian Dawkins, now in the team’s front office, heads outside to greet him. Hotel staffers scramble to prevent photos as the guest walks inside, his slim 6’6” frame unmistakable, and even more so the nickname printed on the back of his black T-shirt: BLACK MAMBA. He leans in for a bro hug with Lurie and then Roseman.

“Good to see you,” Kobe Bryant says.

The 18-time NBA All-Star and five-time NBA champion was nervous about speaking to the team. Like any true Eagles fan, “I didn’t want to jinx anything,” admits Bryant, who attended high school in Lower Merion, just outside of Philadelphia. He was never superstitious as a player, but when he’s watching the Eagles he’ll stay in one spot as long as they’re doing well—and then switch as soon as something goes wrong.

“I’m not going to begin by talking about what a big fan I am,” Bryant says, standing up in front of the team. “I’m not even going to say that.”

For 30 minutes Bryant tells a room of hopeful champions about the ingredients of his own championship teams. Focus on the smallest details, he says. Don’t let the hype distract you. Hours later, players would still be shouting in the locker room about the so-called Mamba Mentality he imparted to them: Kill everything! Make the guy across from you wish he were an accountant! (Not that there’s anything wrong with being an accountant). Bryant only stops his address when it’s time for the team to leave for practice.

“Guys, 11 o’clock, buses are leaving!” Pederson calls out. “11 o’clock!”

Before hopping into his car, Bryant puts on a midnight green No. 8 jersey given to him by the team. “I think the character of this team is special, and that’s what wins championships, is the character of the team, the spirit of the team,” Bryant says as the team buses speed off toward State Route 55. “You have certain moments where you go up and down, but when the spirit of the team is a strong one, it’s a collective one, then you have something that’s really special. Fingers crossed.”

2 p.m.
Culver City, Calif.

On a football field somewhere among the colony of TV studios in Culver City, an Eagles contingent films an episode of “The Goldbergs,” the ABC comedy set in Jenkintown, Pa, in the 1980s. Roseman, team president Don Smolenski, play-by-play announcer Merrill Reese and former Eagles receiver Mike Quick are all on set. “What I loved about it is, they were nervous, and I was heckling them,” says WIP morning show host Angelo Cataldi, who came by to watch. “They did fine.”

3 p.m.
Angel Stadium

An In-N-Out truck is waiting downstairs after practice. Coaches, who leave the stadium early to review practice tape at the hotel, grab a meal on the way out. Players sit in a stadium box upstairs, chowing down on Double-Doubles. “It’s the same with baseball players,” says Maida, the local. “All these guys want In-N-Out.”

Saturday

11:31 a.m.
Angel Stadium

A team of six California Highway Patrol officers leads the Eagles caravan up to the home-plate entrance of Angel Stadium. Pederson hops off Bus 1. Carson Wentz unloads from Bus 2. It’s the last day of preparation for the Rams, and the team will run a 30-minute “mock game” just after noon.

There’s a private entrance for buses that enters through the back of the stadium and underground, but the Eagles preferred this way in, to minimize the distance their players have to walk to the clubhouse. A smattering of fans is lined up waiting for them, including a quartet of Eagles supporters who flew in from Utah for the game. Earlier today they went to the L.A. Coliseum hoping to spot the team. A security guard told them the team would instead be at Angel Stadium, so they made the 30-mile drive to Anaheim for a 90-second glimpse of the players filing in.

It’s surprisingly busy at the stadium—and not just because the parking lots are being used for Disney characters working at nearby Disneyland. On Friday, just as the Eagles were about to begin practice, the Angels landed free-agent crown jewel Shohei Ohtani, the Japanese star who is both a starting pitcher and a slugger.

The Eagles will leave the stadium by 1:30 p.m. At 3, just feet from where their team buses pull up, the Angels will introduce Ohtani in a press conference open to the public outside the stadium. Meanwhile, back in New Jersey, Trout—Ohtani’s new teammate and Eagles megafan—is getting married in the snow. “Just a quiet Saturday,” Maida says, just before the Eagles begin unloading.

1:17 p.m.
Brittania Pub, Santa Monica, Calif.

When the old Eagles bar in Santa Monica—yes, there is absolutely an Eagles bar in Santa Monica—closed down a few years back, there was a scouting process to see which other hangout was worthy of taking its place. The winner was Brittania Pub, located on Santa Monica Boulevard, steps from the 3rd Street Promenade. On NFL Sundays, only Eagles fans are let through the doors, and only Eagles games are shown on the TVs. Today, with thousands of Eagles fans in town, the bar is already filling up just after lunchtime. The drink special—$3 Miller Lites starting at 9 a.m.—doesn’t hurt, either.

On the TV is the snow-covered Army-Navy game at the Linc, a reminder of the winter weather fans left back East. At the bar a group of three friends and rec basketball league teammates from Philadelphia discuss the implications of tomorrow’s game on the chances of a parade down Broad Street. Over by the window are two brothers, Kent and Brent, North Dakota State alums dressed in Bisons colors. They grew up Vikings fans, but since native son Wentz was drafted to Philadelphia No. 2 overall last year, Brent has been to at least five Eagles games all over the country. A playoff game between the Eagles and Vikings, they explain, could rip the state of North Dakota apart. Then, they raise their Miller Lites to the success of the pride of North Dakota. “Dilly, dilly!” they toast.

Just then, Cataldi, the WIP host, walks in. Brent’s wife, despite never living in the Philly area, immediately recognizes him—they are loyal listeners of Philly sports talk radio now. “E … A … G…” he calls out, starting the Eagles chant. Then, he adds, “Pace yourself! There’s a game tomorrow.”

Cataldi is bummed that his co-host, Al Morganti, was stuck in Philadelphia due to the snow. He’s going to be depressed, he says, if the Coliseum isn’t like an Eagles home game. Earlier this season Eagles fans overtook the Chargers’ StubHub Center—and for Sunday he’s predicting 25,000 to 30,000 loud Eagles fans, “who are going to drown out the far more apathetic Rams fans,” he says. In his 28 years as a radio talk show host in Philadelphia, he says he’s never seen the city more excited about an Eagles team—a bold proclamation. But like much of the city, which has been waiting for a championship for 57 years, a part of him is waiting for the other shoe to drop.

“I’m nervous for tomorrow, really nervous, because we are a little bit in uncharted territory,” Cataldi says. “This is such a young team, that we didn’t expect to be this good this fast, especially Wentz. So, after what happened in Seattle, everyone is going, uh oh. Is that the beginning of the inevitable decline? Because we have been conditioned for 57 years that the Eagles don’t win it all. At some point, they break your heart. Is this the start of that? That’s why a lot of people are out here to say, well, we are going to make it a home game. If they lose, they are going to lose on a home field, 3,000 miles from their actual home.”

By 6 p.m., the bar is so packed that the doorman is turning people away—they’re at capacity and cannot fit any more people inside. Out in front, the Green Legion fan club is set up at a picnic table, passing out pre-purchased wristbands and passes for tomorrow’s festivities. They’ve sold 1,500 fan packages to this game; tickets to the game were long gone weeks ago, and on Friday night they finally cut off selling spots even just to their Sunday morning “festival” (The City of Santa Monica, clearly not a football town, doesn’t like to use the word “tailgate”). The club’s website announces in capital letters: ALL LA PACKAGES ARE 100% SOLD OUT. PLEASE DO NOT CONTACT US. THERE ARE NO EXCEPTIONS.

Peeking out of one of the boxes is an envelope labeled WENTZ. Is that ... the same Wentz? “Distant, distant relative,” says the president of the fan club.

Sunday

11:25 a.m.
L.A. Coliseum

FOX began building this set six days earlier to host its NFL Sunday studio show live from the Coliseum. It’s not common practice, but there’s so much hype around Eagles-Rams that the network decided it deserved the College GameDay treatment. If the Eagles fans at the set don’t outnumber the Rams fans in number, they certainly do in volume (this would be true at the game, too). The FOX hosts are doing the halftime show for the early slate of games, and while they’re on air, it seems 10 seconds don’t go by without someone breaking out into the E-A-G-L-E-S chant or the “Fly, Eagles, Fly” fight song. One fan hoists a sign saying HI TO UNCLE SAL BACK IN PHILLY. Another, presumably another member of Wentz’ traveling Bisons herd, holds up one that reads BRINGIN THE <3 FROM NORTH DAKOTA.

3:51 p.m.
L.A. Coliseum

It’s one of those plays—and there were many by the Eagles on Sunday—that makes you to do a double-take (the good kind). How, exactly, did the ball get there? On a fourth-and-goal, the strong hands of Alshon Jeffery sandwich the end points of the football that Wentz had knifed in between traffic, and the receiver pits it against his left quad in the end zone. Philadelphia had lost the lead coming out of halftime, giving up two touchdowns to the Rams in a span of 1:34, a throw to Sammy Watkins and a blocked punt returned for a score. The 2-yard pass to Jeffery gives Philadelphia back a 31-28 lead late in the third quarter. It’s Wentz’s fourth passing touchdown of the day and 33rd of the season, breaking the single-season franchise record set by Sonny Jurgensen in 1961.

All afternoon Wentz had been making the kinds of throws that were almost too good to believe. There was the 20-yard touchdown pass to tight end Trey Burton in which Wentz defined the concept of a quarterback threading the needle, locating the ball precisely between the Rams safety on top of Burton and the linebacker underneath. Or the third-and-1 play early in the second quarter when Wentz dodged a rushing linebacker, juked a defensive lineman and made a 12-yard throw off his back foot with another linebacker bearing down on him. Ball placement and pocket awareness are two of the attributes that separate the best quarterbacks from the rest of the pack, and Wentz, at 24, is already demonstrating mastery of both.

But on the drive that ended in the Jeffery score, something was not right. Four plays earlier, Wentz had run the ball in for a touchdown—nullified by a suspect holding call on Lane Johnson—and his lower body got sandwiched by safety Mark Barron and defensive end Morgan Fox as he dove across the goal line. After a third-down incompletion, Wentz looked hobbled as he walked to the sideline and then back out to go for it on fourth down. Even on the throw to Jeffery, he stood rooted in place as he scanned the field—not his usual m.o.

Following the touchdown, Wentz walks off the field and ducks inside the blue medical tent. He then walks slowly to the locker room, escorted by two staffers. Nine minutes later, the team makes the announcement: QB Carson Wentz (knee) will not return. Foles is warming up on the sideline.

5:42 p.m.
L.A. Coliseum

In the locker room, Eagles players are sporting new hats—black and gray, stickers still affixed—that read NFC EAST CHAMPIONS. Today, with a 43-35 win against the Rams, the Eagles are now 11-2, alone atop the conference and well-positioned for home-field advantage in the playoffs.

The game turned on a play by Chris Long. Soon after Wentz left the field, the Rams had retaken the lead on a run by Todd Gurley. The defense hadn’t been at its best all day, yielding more than 24 points for just the second time this season. But in a sequence that is representative of the Eagles locker room culture, the savvy veterans took advantage of an opportunity. With the Rams holding a one-point lead midway through the fourth quarter, L.A. right tackle Rob Havenstein left the field injured. Graham went against backup Darrell Williams on the next snap. Then it was Long’s turn. Graham, watching from the sideline after subbing out, knew Long would take advantage. Sure enough, he beat Williams upfield and looped around the pocket to Jared Goff, who was on a deep play-action drop. With his right hand, Long swiped the ball out.

Safety Rodney McLeod recovered the forced fumble and returned the ball to the offense. The play set up the field goal that put the Eagles back on top, 37-35, with 3:50 left.

“If we were worth a damn on defense, we had to make a stop,” Long says in the locker room. “We owed it to the offense.”

Nothing about the final minutes lacked drama. The defense needed another stop. Got it. The offense needed another first down. Got it. Foles, who himself has 36 games of starting experience, delivered a gutsy 9-yard throw to Agholor, the third-year receiver who’s in the midst of a redemptive season. Foles spotted the Rams in two-man coverage; he knew Agholor would have a one-on-one matchup inside; and he placed the ball away from the defender. With a single second left the Rams got the ball back trailing by two, as a red sunset overtook the sky. Graham, the pass rusher who’s having a career season, snatched a desperation lateral by the Rams out of the air and ran it into the end zone, setting off a charge of at least 10 Eagles players doing Lambeau-style leaps into the traveling Eagles party.

The adrenaline carried the Eagles while the game was still going on, and up the Coliseum tunnel, and into the locker room. But when they enter the locker room—where Wentz is waiting to congratulate them—reality sets in: They’ll have to try to achieve the rest of their goals, beyond a division title, without not only their MVP, but “arguably the MVP of the league,” says receiver Torrey Smith. In a quiet moment, McLeod finds his quarterback. “We did that for you, man,” he tells him. Wentz smiles back and tells him, good job.

Eventually, Wentz emerges from the locker room, wearing the division championship hat and a black brace on his left knee. He rides a cart through the tunnel, head down, typing on his phone, then gets off gingerly at the checkpoint for the team buses. As he walks the short distance to the buses, a stadium employee offers to carry his postgame Qdoba meal for him, then gives him a warm hug. Wentz boards Bus 1 and takes a seat across from Reich, and the Eagles settle in for the uncertain journey ahead.

Introducing SPORTS ILLUSTRATED TV, your new home for classic sports movies, award-winning documentaries, original sports programming and features. Start your seven-day free trial of SI TV now on Amazon Channels.

Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.

Defeat, Victory and a Brutal Loss: Eight Days on the West Coast With the Eagles

LOS ANGELES — A few minutes before 4 p.m. local time on Sunday, the blue medical tent went up on the Eagles’ sideline at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. This was the clearest sign that something was not right with Carson Wentz.

A team security officer blocked the entrance to the tent as medical staff examined Wentz inside. Just a few yards behind, in the first few rows of the stands, fans in Philadelphia gear—the same fans whose presence made it impossible to tell which was the home team and which was the away team—looked on with pained expressions. There was one young man in the first row wearing a Wentz jersey, mouthing something that could be assumed to be a desperate prayer or call of encouragement, while holding up his cell phone as if he were waiting, and hoping, to take a picture of his team’s quarterback emerging from the tent, ready to go back in.

Wentz did emerge a few minutes later. Except instead of picking up his helmet, he started the long walk back to the locker room, baseball cap on, towel draped over his head. The Eagles were one quarter away from beating the resurgent Rams and winning the NFC East, but suddenly, with the news that Wentz had been ruled out of the game—and possibly the rest of the season—with a knee injury, the city of Philadelphia had been sent into a panic.

A week earlier in Seattle, on the first stop of the Eagles’ eight-day road trip, they hit their biggest bump of the season, a 14-point loss—only their second of the year—in a notoriously difficult stadium. The MMQB spent the week following the Eagles, chronicling a stretch of the season that would serve to measure just how good this young team really is. The Eagles emerged 11-2, sitting alone atop the NFC—but, as the news broke on Monday that Wentz had indeed torn his ACL and was gone for the year, they now face their greatest challenge of all. It’s impossible to predict what’s next, but a look inside their locker room, during an unusual and ultimately bittersweet week, gives some clues as to how they handle challenges—small, big or unexpected. Eight days with the Eagles ...

Sunday, Dec. 3

9:15 p.m.
CenturyLink Field, Seattle

The loudest noise in the visitors’ locker room is the running water splashing against the floor of the showers. Walking into this stadium hours earlier, the Eagles hadn’t lost a game in 77 days. But the nine-game win streak, which had the city of Philadelphia letting down the guard built up over 57 championship-less Eagles seasons, ended against a familiar slayer in the NFC.

“We haven’t lost a game in so long,” says defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, “you forget what it feels like to lose. That kind of puts knots in your stomach.”

So, too, did the antics of Russell Wilson, dubbed by Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins as the “human joystick.” He tore the game open on a third-and-10 play midway through the third quarter, when Eagles defenders say he changed the snap count to get them to tip their defensive call, a cover-zero blitz that sells out to get to the quarterback and keeps no defenders deep. He shifted the protection, kept the tight end in to block and threw a 47-yard pass to Doug Baldwin to the Philly 1, leading to the touchdown that would put the Seahawks up 17–3. Perhaps the most crucial play, though, came on a third-and-8 in the fourth quarter. Wilson escaped through a crease in the pocket and, five yards past the line of scrimmage, pitched the ball laterally—or was it forward?—to his running back as two defenders were closing in. The Seahawks went on to score on that drive, all but securing their 24-10 win.

“He caught me off guard,” defensive end Chris Long says at his locker afterward, still shaken by his empty lunge at Wilson right as he took off running.

Post-game, a common adversary emerges: a bad week of practice, in which the Eagles say they made mistakes like turnovers and penalties that are starting to show up on Sundays. Wentz, whose heroics carried the team for much of the season, is particularly hard on himself. He overthrew Nelson Agholor, underthrew him another time and fumbled the ball away on the goal line while diving in for a score. Knowing his penchant for extending plays with his legs, the Seahawks are not shy about hitting him. “He likes to find the extra yards,” says Sheldon Richardson, who forced the fumble. A few times through the night, Wentz appears to wince and one time signals back to the sidelines with a thumbs-up that he’s OK to keep going.

During their late-night flight to Southern California, head coach Doug Pederson will check on his quarterback on account of all the hits—12 in total—he took in the game. The players file out to the team buses, stopping to fill up to-go containers with salmon, short ribs, ratatouille and potatoes au gratin, to go along with their thin sliver of humble pie.

“We’ve been playing great up until this point,” center Jason Kelce cautions, “but this thing can change very easily.”

Monday

3:30 a.m.
Costa Mesa, Calif.

In the middle of the night, the Eagles arrive at their home for the next six days, a hotel in Orange County across the street from a luxury shopping mall. In the NFL, familiarity is held in high regard—this is the same place where the Eagles stayed for their Oct. 1 game against the Chargers. “I do well in hotels,” Long says later, “so I’m not stressed.” The second and third floors have been converted into meeting rooms, training rooms and coaches’ offices. While the players and coaches head to their rooms, the equipment staff has gone straight to Angel Stadium in Anaheim, where the team will practice all week, to begin their load-in. The Angels crew is amused to see the heavy parkas the Philly staffers had brought down from Seattle—there would be no use for those in the 70-degree Southern California weather.

2 p.m.
Costa Mesa, Calif.

Pederson stands bleary-eyed behind a hotel podium adorned with a makeshift Eagles sign printed on computer paper. As is typical for coaches in the NFL, he clearly hasn’t gotten much sleep since the game. A Sunday night game, a body clock still set to East Coast time and a loss make for a tough combination.

Pederson answers seven straight questions about the non-challenge of Wilson’s lateral; slightly miffed, he defends his decision. With the same resolve, he declares this will be a “normal” week—as normal as possible some 2,700 miles from the NovaCare Complex in South Philadelphia. He does, however, say he’ll change his messaging to the team in light of the self-inflicted mistakes he believes began in practice and lurked under the surface during the win streak.

“Winning can kind of cover up or mask some things, some deficiencies, a little chink in your armor, if there is any,” Pederson says. “There's no substitute for the preparation and the hard work. ... The guys have to know that, and it's my job to make sure that they understand that.”

While Pederson addresses the media, safety Malcolm Jenkins—who will be announced as the team’s Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee later in the week—is sitting in the hotel lobby, meeting with his San Diego-based philanthropic strategist about the next steps for his social justice work through the Players Coalition. Defensive end Brandon Graham, also taking advantage of the players’ off day, takes his wife and 22-month old daughter, Emerson, to the Museum of Ice Cream in Los Angeles. “Best gummy bears I had in a minute,” he reports back. Sidney Jones, the second-round pick who is out with an Achilles tear, drives 40 miles north to his hometown, West Covina, to pick up his younger brother from school. In the late afternoon a group of seven players heads to a housing development in Santa Ana to install siding on two homes being built through Habitat for Humanity for Orange County. “It was fun to get some handiwork in,” receiver Torrey Smith says, “and have a good time together.”

Tuesday

8:45 a.m.
Equinox, Irvine, Calif.

Ninety-minute team lift, on an outdoor roof deck. “Everybody seems like they were in a good mood,” Graham says. “They understand what [the Seattle loss] was, and we move forward.” At the same time, the players are turning their clocks backward. The Eagles stayed on Eastern time for the Seattle game but switch to Pacific time for the week in California. It’s an adjustment: Graham sheepishly admits he hit the hay at 8:30 p.m. PT on Monday night.

3:30 p.m.
Ronald McDonald House, Orange, Calif.

After a 30-minute walkthrough in street clothes centered on game corrections—offense at Angel Stadium, defense at the hotel—the team’s 14 rookies bus to Orange County’s Ronald McDonald House. Fred Hill, the former Eagles tight end, helped found the original Ronald McDonald House in Philadelphia in 1974 after his 3-year-old daughter was diagnosed with leukemia. The rookies spend about an hour with Hill and the people the house serves, families of seriously ill children, playing cornhole and decorating picture frames. “As soon as we got off the bus, they were so cheerful and almost, like, starstruck,” says receiver Mack Hollins. “We are all rookies, we are not big-time guys, but they didn’t care.” During a week when the Eagles would go to great lengths to eliminate their own distractions, for the Ronald McDonald House families, the Eagles serve as a welcome one.

• DAY BY DAY WITH THE EAGLES: Catch up on The MMQB’s daily stories from the Eagles’ West Coast trip.

Wednesday

9 a.m.
Costa Mesa, Calif.

Rams week officially begins. The Eagles quarterbacks—Wentz, backup Nick Foles and third-stringer Nate Sudfeld—start with a 45-minute quarterback blitz meeting in the hotel’s Douglas board room. The Eagles QBs are guided by three former college or NFL quarterbacks: Pederson, offensive coordinator Frank Reich and quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo. On game day, Pederson and Reich on the sideline and DeFilippo up in the coaches’ box are keeping track of the hits Wentz is taking. After the Seahawks game, the ongoing conversation about him protecting himself would continue.

“That’s the fine line, that you’ve got to be careful of [not] taking the aggression away from your quarterback … because I don’t ever want to do that,” Pederson says. “But at the same time, we’ve got to continue to educate and talk to him about sliding and protecting himself, getting down, all of that; the longevity of the season and his well-being. It’s a fine line, but we'll just continue to talk to him about those issues.”

12:37 p.m.
Angel Stadium, Anaheim, Calif.

Welcome Eagles!
Hope you guys have a great week at the Big A.
From,
The Los Angeles Angels

Waiting in each player’s locker stall as they arrive for practice is a note and gift from their hosts: a bobblehead of the Eagles’ most famous season-ticket holder, Angels star outfielder Mike Trout. “Gotta put that up in the house somewhere,” says right tackle Lane Johnson.

A baseball stadium might seem like an unusual place for the Eagles to practice, but in fact, the Los Angeles Rams (version 1.0) played here from 1980 to 1994. The goalposts the Angels put up for the Eagles are the same ones used by the Rams back then and stored for decades in a hallway in the bowels of the stadium. The venue also regularly hosts high school football playoffs, though this year’s games were moved because of ongoing renovations to the stadium’s scoreboards and sound system.

The conversion process is relatively simple: The pitcher’s mound is removed and a laser is used to lower the infield dirt, over which a thick layer of sod is laid down. Early in the week Eagles players commented on the slick grass and having to wear their longer, screw-in cleats. The Angels adjusted—they stopped watering the grass so that the players would have better footing. The Eagles had flown their groundskeeper out the previous week, and the field was lined and painted before the Eagles kicked off in Seattle.

When the Eagles’ 2017 schedule was set to include three West Coast road games—against the Rams, Chargers and Seahawks—they made a request to the league that their Los Angeles games be scheduled back-to-back, to save one round-trip. They got the next best thing, back-to-back games in Seattle and Los Angeles. But where would they practice? With the Chargers moving to L.A., the StubHub Center in Carson was no longer an option. The Rams hold training camp at UC-Irvine, but when they break camp they load out all the football equipment. Plus, there’s no privacy on the open practice fields, something that didn’t pass muster for the Eagles.

Kathy Mair, an Eagles football operations employee who used to work for the Angels, suggested reaching out to her old team. The stadium’s calendar in December was wide open, practices would be closed and they could offer the infrastructure of a professional sports team: weight room, kitchen facilities and even clubhouse attendants. Since NFL rosters are more than double the size of MLB rosters, the Eagles set up in both the home and visitors’ clubhouses. The honor of using Mike Trout’s corner locker? That went to linebacker Nigel Bradham.

The only question for the Angels was, how much to charge? What’s the going rate for an NFL team to practice in an MLB stadium for a week? Sam Maida, the Angels’ director of baseball operations, settled on a flat fee of $50,000 for the week—a bargain considering the Angels draw that same amount for a group renting the parking lot for a one-day event. Maida didn’t want to overcharge another pro sports franchise, and he also hopes it opens the door to other NFL teams looking for a place to practice on the West Coast. “Mostly it just seemed like a fun thing to do,” Maida says. “Back when we originally scheduled this, before the season even started, we didn’t know the Eagles were going to be 10-2 and one of the best teams in football.”

2:41 p.m.
Angel Stadium

Spotted on the practice field: Darren Sproles. The 34-year-old Eagles running back has been on injured reserve since tearing his ACL and breaking his forearm on the same play in Week 3 against the Giants. He’s been rehabbing in San Diego, where he lives with his wife and two daughters. But with the Eagles so nearby, he’s spending the week on the practice field and in meeting rooms. Wearing a black sleeve on his injured left leg, Sproles is working with the running backs during position drills, holding up a tackling bag to help running backs coach Duce Staley run a drill.

“His presence brings the energy up for everybody,” says fellow running back LeGarrette Blount. “It’s something you can’t replace. As far as playing, he left a huge void. We don’t have anybody with his skill set.”

Days later, at his Monday press conference after the Rams game, Pederson will note the loss of vital players like Sproles, and left tackle Jason Peters, and linebacker Jordan Hicks, and special-teams ace Chris Maragos–and send a message by pointing out the Eagles’ ability to keep winning despite those circumstances.

5:24 p.m.
Angels clubhouse

Chris Long, perched on the edge of the leather wraparound couch in the Angels home clubhouse, wants to clarify the identity of the frothy, amber-colored beverage he just poured out of a tap and is sipping from a plastic cup.

“It’s not beer, it’s Kombucha,” Long says. “Nobody knows what it does, but everybody is drinking it.”

8:25 p.m.
Costa Mesa, Calif.

Cell phones in the Eagles team hotel buzz with an emergency alert: Strong winds over night creating extreme fire danger. Stay alert. Listen to authorities. About 12 million people across seven counties in Southern California receive the same alert, according to the Associated Press, the widest broadest ever issued by the state’s Office of Emergency Services. As devastating fires sweep through parts of the region, the National Weather Service forecast an extreme Santa Ana event, with the dry, downslope flame-spreading winds expected to gust up to 80 miles an hour over the next 18 to 24 hours. The Rams, whose Thousand Oaks headquarters are close to the fires, turn their Wednesday practice into a walkthrough at an indoor gym at Cal-Lutheran. But Angel Stadium is about an hour away from the nearest fires; the only evidence is a very faint burning smell in the evening air.

Thursday

2:52 p.m.
Angel Stadium

It’s eerily quiet at practice. The renovations at Angel Stadium include the sound system, so the only soundtrack is the 20 mph winds. The voices of players and coaches carry—someone calls out, “Hey, act like the music is here!” During a week when the Eagles needed to refocus, shaking things up isn’t a bad thing.

“We have a chance to hear each other’s voices, which is a plus,” Cox says. “We are used to having music, practice being really hype. We are doing a good job this week of bringing the energy on our own. Sometimes you need that, especially on the road.”

7:45 p.m.
Costa Mesa, Calif.

It’s the end of the workday—two full hours later than it would be back in Philadelphia. At the NovaCare Complex, the final film session of the day usually wraps at 5:45 p.m. on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Built into the schedule in California is the 20-minute drive to and from the team hotel to Angel Stadium, though that’s not much different from most players’ commutes in Philly. Veteran players guess there’s another reason for the longer workdays out here. One night the receivers went out for a position group dinner at Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles, but other than that, “we haven’t really had time,” Torrey Smith says. “They tailored the schedule that way.”

Friday

10:27 a.m.
Costa Mesa, Calif.

Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie is loitering in the hotel lobby. So is general manager Howie Roseman. Upstairs in a meeting room, the entire roster is preparing to fan-boy, hard. Due any minute now is a special guest who happens to be a self-proclaimed “neurotic” Eagles fan.

When the guest pulls up in a black SUV, former Eagles great Brian Dawkins, now in the team’s front office, heads outside to greet him. Hotel staffers scramble to prevent photos as the guest walks inside, his slim 6’6” frame unmistakable, and even more so the nickname printed on the back of his black T-shirt: BLACK MAMBA. He leans in for a bro hug with Lurie and then Roseman.

“Good to see you,” Kobe Bryant says.

The 18-time NBA All-Star and five-time NBA champion was nervous about speaking to the team. Like any true Eagles fan, “I didn’t want to jinx anything,” admits Bryant, who attended high school in Lower Merion, just outside of Philadelphia. He was never superstitious as a player, but when he’s watching the Eagles he’ll stay in one spot as long as they’re doing well—and then switch as soon as something goes wrong.

“I’m not going to begin by talking about what a big fan I am,” Bryant says, standing up in front of the team. “I’m not even going to say that.”

For 30 minutes Bryant tells a room of hopeful champions about the ingredients of his own championship teams. Focus on the smallest details, he says. Don’t let the hype distract you. Hours later, players would still be shouting in the locker room about the so-called Mamba Mentality he imparted to them: Kill everything! Make the guy across from you wish he were an accountant! (Not that there’s anything wrong with being an accountant). Bryant only stops his address when it’s time for the team to leave for practice.

“Guys, 11 o’clock, buses are leaving!” Pederson calls out. “11 o’clock!”

Before hopping into his car, Bryant puts on a midnight green No. 8 jersey given to him by the team. “I think the character of this team is special, and that’s what wins championships, is the character of the team, the spirit of the team,” Bryant says as the team buses speed off toward State Route 55. “You have certain moments where you go up and down, but when the spirit of the team is a strong one, it’s a collective one, then you have something that’s really special. Fingers crossed.”

2 p.m.
Culver City, Calif.

On a football field somewhere among the colony of TV studios in Culver City, an Eagles contingent films an episode of “The Goldbergs,” the ABC comedy set in Jenkintown, Pa, in the 1980s. Roseman, team president Don Smolenski, play-by-play announcer Merrill Reese and former Eagles receiver Mike Quick are all on set. “What I loved about it is, they were nervous, and I was heckling them,” says WIP morning show host Angelo Cataldi, who came by to watch. “They did fine.”

3 p.m.
Angel Stadium

An In-N-Out truck is waiting downstairs after practice. Coaches, who leave the stadium early to review practice tape at the hotel, grab a meal on the way out. Players sit in a stadium box upstairs, chowing down on Double-Doubles. “It’s the same with baseball players,” says Maida, the local. “All these guys want In-N-Out.”

Saturday

11:31 a.m.
Angel Stadium

A team of six California Highway Patrol officers leads the Eagles caravan up to the home-plate entrance of Angel Stadium. Pederson hops off Bus 1. Carson Wentz unloads from Bus 2. It’s the last day of preparation for the Rams, and the team will run a 30-minute “mock game” just after noon.

There’s a private entrance for buses that enters through the back of the stadium and underground, but the Eagles preferred this way in, to minimize the distance their players have to walk to the clubhouse. A smattering of fans is lined up waiting for them, including a quartet of Eagles supporters who flew in from Utah for the game. Earlier today they went to the L.A. Coliseum hoping to spot the team. A security guard told them the team would instead be at Angel Stadium, so they made the 30-mile drive to Anaheim for a 90-second glimpse of the players filing in.

It’s surprisingly busy at the stadium—and not just because the parking lots are being used for Disney characters working at nearby Disneyland. On Friday, just as the Eagles were about to begin practice, the Angels landed free-agent crown jewel Shohei Ohtani, the Japanese star who is both a starting pitcher and a slugger.

The Eagles will leave the stadium by 1:30 p.m. At 3, just feet from where their team buses pull up, the Angels will introduce Ohtani in a press conference open to the public outside the stadium. Meanwhile, back in New Jersey, Trout—Ohtani’s new teammate and Eagles megafan—is getting married in the snow. “Just a quiet Saturday,” Maida says, just before the Eagles begin unloading.

1:17 p.m.
Brittania Pub, Santa Monica, Calif.

When the old Eagles bar in Santa Monica—yes, there is absolutely an Eagles bar in Santa Monica—closed down a few years back, there was a scouting process to see which other hangout was worthy of taking its place. The winner was Brittania Pub, located on Santa Monica Boulevard, steps from the 3rd Street Promenade. On NFL Sundays, only Eagles fans are let through the doors, and only Eagles games are shown on the TVs. Today, with thousands of Eagles fans in town, the bar is already filling up just after lunchtime. The drink special—$3 Miller Lites starting at 9 a.m.—doesn’t hurt, either.

On the TV is the snow-covered Army-Navy game at the Linc, a reminder of the winter weather fans left back East. At the bar a group of three friends and rec basketball league teammates from Philadelphia discuss the implications of tomorrow’s game on the chances of a parade down Broad Street. Over by the window are two brothers, Kent and Brent, North Dakota State alums dressed in Bisons colors. They grew up Vikings fans, but since native son Wentz was drafted to Philadelphia No. 2 overall last year, Brent has been to at least five Eagles games all over the country. A playoff game between the Eagles and Vikings, they explain, could rip the state of North Dakota apart. Then, they raise their Miller Lites to the success of the pride of North Dakota. “Dilly, dilly!” they toast.

Just then, Cataldi, the WIP host, walks in. Brent’s wife, despite never living in the Philly area, immediately recognizes him—they are loyal listeners of Philly sports talk radio now. “E … A … G…” he calls out, starting the Eagles chant. Then, he adds, “Pace yourself! There’s a game tomorrow.”

Cataldi is bummed that his co-host, Al Morganti, was stuck in Philadelphia due to the snow. He’s going to be depressed, he says, if the Coliseum isn’t like an Eagles home game. Earlier this season Eagles fans overtook the Chargers’ StubHub Center—and for Sunday he’s predicting 25,000 to 30,000 loud Eagles fans, “who are going to drown out the far more apathetic Rams fans,” he says. In his 28 years as a radio talk show host in Philadelphia, he says he’s never seen the city more excited about an Eagles team—a bold proclamation. But like much of the city, which has been waiting for a championship for 57 years, a part of him is waiting for the other shoe to drop.

“I’m nervous for tomorrow, really nervous, because we are a little bit in uncharted territory,” Cataldi says. “This is such a young team, that we didn’t expect to be this good this fast, especially Wentz. So, after what happened in Seattle, everyone is going, uh oh. Is that the beginning of the inevitable decline? Because we have been conditioned for 57 years that the Eagles don’t win it all. At some point, they break your heart. Is this the start of that? That’s why a lot of people are out here to say, well, we are going to make it a home game. If they lose, they are going to lose on a home field, 3,000 miles from their actual home.”

By 6 p.m., the bar is so packed that the doorman is turning people away—they’re at capacity and cannot fit any more people inside. Out in front, the Green Legion fan club is set up at a picnic table, passing out pre-purchased wristbands and passes for tomorrow’s festivities. They’ve sold 1,500 fan packages to this game; tickets to the game were long gone weeks ago, and on Friday night they finally cut off selling spots even just to their Sunday morning “festival” (The City of Santa Monica, clearly not a football town, doesn’t like to use the word “tailgate”). The club’s website announces in capital letters: ALL LA PACKAGES ARE 100% SOLD OUT. PLEASE DO NOT CONTACT US. THERE ARE NO EXCEPTIONS.

Peeking out of one of the boxes is an envelope labeled WENTZ. Is that ... the same Wentz? “Distant, distant relative,” says the president of the fan club.

Sunday

11:25 a.m.
L.A. Coliseum

FOX began building this set six days earlier to host its NFL Sunday studio show live from the Coliseum. It’s not common practice, but there’s so much hype around Eagles-Rams that the network decided it deserved the College GameDay treatment. If the Eagles fans at the set don’t outnumber the Rams fans in number, they certainly do in volume (this would be true at the game, too). The FOX hosts are doing the halftime show for the early slate of games, and while they’re on air, it seems 10 seconds don’t go by without someone breaking out into the E-A-G-L-E-S chant or the “Fly, Eagles, Fly” fight song. One fan hoists a sign saying HI TO UNCLE SAL BACK IN PHILLY. Another, presumably another member of Wentz’ traveling Bisons herd, holds up one that reads BRINGIN THE <3 FROM NORTH DAKOTA.

3:51 p.m.
L.A. Coliseum

It’s one of those plays—and there were many by the Eagles on Sunday—that makes you to do a double-take (the good kind). How, exactly, did the ball get there? On a fourth-and-goal, the strong hands of Alshon Jeffery sandwich the end points of the football that Wentz had knifed in between traffic, and the receiver pits it against his left quad in the end zone. Philadelphia had lost the lead coming out of halftime, giving up two touchdowns to the Rams in a span of 1:34, a throw to Sammy Watkins and a blocked punt returned for a score. The 2-yard pass to Jeffery gives Philadelphia back a 31-28 lead late in the third quarter. It’s Wentz’s fourth passing touchdown of the day and 33rd of the season, breaking the single-season franchise record set by Sonny Jurgensen in 1961.

All afternoon Wentz had been making the kinds of throws that were almost too good to believe. There was the 20-yard touchdown pass to tight end Trey Burton in which Wentz defined the concept of a quarterback threading the needle, locating the ball precisely between the Rams safety on top of Burton and the linebacker underneath. Or the third-and-1 play early in the second quarter when Wentz dodged a rushing linebacker, juked a defensive lineman and made a 12-yard throw off his back foot with another linebacker bearing down on him. Ball placement and pocket awareness are two of the attributes that separate the best quarterbacks from the rest of the pack, and Wentz, at 24, is already demonstrating mastery of both.

But on the drive that ended in the Jeffery score, something was not right. Four plays earlier, Wentz had run the ball in for a touchdown—nullified by a suspect holding call on Lane Johnson—and his lower body got sandwiched by safety Mark Barron and defensive end Morgan Fox as he dove across the goal line. After a third-down incompletion, Wentz looked hobbled as he walked to the sideline and then back out to go for it on fourth down. Even on the throw to Jeffery, he stood rooted in place as he scanned the field—not his usual m.o.

Following the touchdown, Wentz walks off the field and ducks inside the blue medical tent. He then walks slowly to the locker room, escorted by two staffers. Nine minutes later, the team makes the announcement: QB Carson Wentz (knee) will not return. Foles is warming up on the sideline.

5:42 p.m.
L.A. Coliseum

In the locker room, Eagles players are sporting new hats—black and gray, stickers still affixed—that read NFC EAST CHAMPIONS. Today, with a 43-35 win against the Rams, the Eagles are now 11-2, alone atop the conference and well-positioned for home-field advantage in the playoffs.

The game turned on a play by Chris Long. Soon after Wentz left the field, the Rams had retaken the lead on a run by Todd Gurley. The defense hadn’t been at its best all day, yielding more than 24 points for just the second time this season. But in a sequence that is representative of the Eagles locker room culture, the savvy veterans took advantage of an opportunity. With the Rams holding a one-point lead midway through the fourth quarter, L.A. right tackle Rob Havenstein left the field injured. Graham went against backup Darrell Williams on the next snap. Then it was Long’s turn. Graham, watching from the sideline after subbing out, knew Long would take advantage. Sure enough, he beat Williams upfield and looped around the pocket to Jared Goff, who was on a deep play-action drop. With his right hand, Long swiped the ball out.

Safety Rodney McLeod recovered the forced fumble and returned the ball to the offense. The play set up the field goal that put the Eagles back on top, 37-35, with 3:50 left.

“If we were worth a damn on defense, we had to make a stop,” Long says in the locker room. “We owed it to the offense.”

Nothing about the final minutes lacked drama. The defense needed another stop. Got it. The offense needed another first down. Got it. Foles, who himself has 36 games of starting experience, delivered a gutsy 9-yard throw to Agholor, the third-year receiver who’s in the midst of a redemptive season. Foles spotted the Rams in two-man coverage; he knew Agholor would have a one-on-one matchup inside; and he placed the ball away from the defender. With a single second left the Rams got the ball back trailing by two, as a red sunset overtook the sky. Graham, the pass rusher who’s having a career season, snatched a desperation lateral by the Rams out of the air and ran it into the end zone, setting off a charge of at least 10 Eagles players doing Lambeau-style leaps into the traveling Eagles party.

The adrenaline carried the Eagles while the game was still going on, and up the Coliseum tunnel, and into the locker room. But when they enter the locker room—where Wentz is waiting to congratulate them—reality sets in: They’ll have to try to achieve the rest of their goals, beyond a division title, without not only their MVP, but “arguably the MVP of the league,” says receiver Torrey Smith. In a quiet moment, McLeod finds his quarterback. “We did that for you, man,” he tells him. Wentz smiles back and tells him, good job.

Eventually, Wentz emerges from the locker room, wearing the division championship hat and a black brace on his left knee. He rides a cart through the tunnel, head down, typing on his phone, then gets off gingerly at the checkpoint for the team buses. As he walks the short distance to the buses, a stadium employee offers to carry his postgame Qdoba meal for him, then gives him a warm hug. Wentz boards Bus 1 and takes a seat across from Reich, and the Eagles settle in for the uncertain journey ahead.

Introducing SPORTS ILLUSTRATED TV, your new home for classic sports movies, award-winning documentaries, original sports programming and features. Start your seven-day free trial of SI TV now on Amazon Channels.

Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.

Duke's Defense and Other Areas Where Top Teams Need to Hit the Books

This next week of college hoops looks like it could be a quiet one. Until the weekend there’s a dearth of marquee games, and most of the country’s most prominent programs don’t play at all until then or beyond. And honestly, after the kind of week the sport just had, maybe that’s just as well. There were shocking upsets, dramatic game-winners, staggering individual performances, and a significant reshuffling of the national polls. Maybe it’s good if, for the most part, we all take some time to take a breath.

There’s also a more practical and foreseeable reason why college basketball quiets down for a bit this week: A lot of schools are holding their fall semester’s final exam period. With that in mind, let’s check in with four ranked teams who should be using their study hours to prepare themselves for the daunting syllabus of conference play.

Duke: Defense, defense, defense

Mike Krzyzewski put it succinctly after his then-No. 1 Blue Devils’ out-of-nowhere loss to recent ACC doormat Boston College on Saturday: “We’re not a good defensive team.” Duke is supremely talented and its offense can verge on juggernaut status, which can mask its roster’s extreme youth—four freshmen starters are still four freshmen starters—and the deficiencies that can cause on the other end of the floor.

On Saturday, Boston College enjoyed its second most efficient offensive performance of the season (behind only its showing vs. South Carolina State), routinely finding shooters left open by Duke’s slow or forgotten defensive rotations. The Blue Devils have defended slightly better in a zone so far this season, but against the Eagles they allowed points on nine of their 12 zone possessions and shelved the zone completely after halftime. Right now Duke has the best offense in the country but ranks just 69th in defensive efficiency per Kenpom.com. There will likely need to be some significant tightening before a Blue Devils postseason run.

Florida: Finding offense inside the arc

When the Gators’ shots are falling, they can look capable of beating anybody. (Before Saturday, they’d been the closest to downing Duke, in a PK80 game they probably should have won.) Florida’s problem is that it can become over-reliant on outside shooting to the point of settling for iffy three-point tries rather than finding higher-percentage looks inside. It was cold shooting that spelled doom against Florida State (6-for-25 from three, which represented 43.1% of the Gators’ field goal tries) and Loyola Chicago (2-for-19). In both games the Gators struggled to penetrate zone defenses, which may provide a blueprint for how other teams can disrupt their offense going forward. The good news: In Saturday’s win over Cincinnati, they shot well from three (6-for-15) but were not trigger-happy or dependent on the shots for their scoring.

Kansas: Getting to the line

Perhaps the Jayhawks’ biggest issue so far is their lack of depth, as their bench has played just 22.1% of their minutes so far, the seventh-lowest share in the country. But since they can’t really study their way into getting eligibility for big men Billy Preston (held out indefinitely while the finances related to a one-car accident are investigated) and Silvio De Sousa (hoping to enroll for the next semester, pending standardized testing scores), this will have to do.

Kansas is currently getting to the line 19.6 times for every 100 field-goal attempts, which ranks 343rd in the nation and is roughly half of the average rate during coach Bill Self’s tenure. (Last year that number was 36.0, and the previous low from a Self-coached Jayhawks team was 35.3, in 2006.) This is partly a function of the team’s weakness inside, where fouls are more easily drawn, as well as its relative lack of attackers on offense. If Self’s team gets itself right after losing consecutive games for the first time in four years, that number will likely go up.

Kentucky: Taking care of the ball

The Wildcats have lost just once, to Kansas in the Champions Classic, but have played a relatively soft schedule so far while their extremely young team (the least experienced in the nation, in fact) sorts itself out and gets up to speed. One place that youth has shown up is in the turnover column: Kentucky’s turnover rate of 21.4% ranks 276th in the country and would be the worst among John Calipari’s nine teams in Lexington. This was part of their downfall against the Jayhawks in November, but in the Wildcats’ two other most turnover-prone games, against East Tennessee State and Monmouth, they had the sheer talent and physicality to push through whatever issues their turnovers may have otherwise caused. Watching the latter game this weekend, many of Kentucky’s turnovers seemed to stem from a mixture of ambition and carelessness that you might expect from a team collectively getting its feet wet. That won’t fly too often in the SEC. The Wildcats’ final three non-conference games—Virginia Tech and Louisville at home, and UCLA in New Orleans—will give some idea of how much of an issue that might be.

If you are wondering what exactly you are reading, this is the Monday Rebound, SI.com’s weekly Monday-morning column on college hoops. It’s a sort of a grab -bag of news, tidbits and opinions largely aimed at catching you up on the weekend’s (and week’s) action and being generally informative. If there’s anything you like or dislike or would want to see more of here, or if you would just like to chat and perhaps discuss the Fermi paradox, you can find me on Twitter @thedangreene. Thanks for reading.

ICYMI

Even in a week of significant upsets and a sport of regular surprises, Duke’s loss to Boston College on Saturday is worth singling out. After all, the Blue Devils were the No. 1 team in the country, with two of the best players of the country in senior Grayson Allen and forward Marvin Bagley III; the Eagles had just two ACC wins over the past two years and their most significant victory of this season had been over either La Salle or Colgate.

So if you didn’t catch the game—and we couldn’t blame you for as much, as it wasn’t exactly circled on most viewers’ calendars, and Saturdays are Saturdays—you may be wondering how in the name of Troy Bell that happened. And as much as the takeaway from Saturday’s game was (rightfully) that Duke’s defense needs a lot of work, it should be noted clearly that Boston College played a hell of a game. The Eagles began by making eight of their first 11 three-pointers and finished 15-of-26, so even after their hot start, they made seven out of the subsequent 15. Guards Ky Bowman and Jerome Robinson, who (spoiler alert) will each get their own acknowledgements below, played the games of their lives and, along with Jordan Chatman (who made five of nine threes himself), made the Blue Devils pay over and over for their mistakes. And on defense, it wasn’t some odd coincidence that Grayson Allen shot 5-for-20 and Marvin Bagley III only had 11 shot attempts. The Eagles played with an energy that helped them keep up with Coach K’s fleet of future first-rounders, made all the more impressive by the fact that BC’s rotation only went six deep.

Yes, Duke lost, but Boston College won too. Kudos to Jim Christian’s team for giving this season its biggest stunner yet.

As the scandal turns...

This week’s most significant happenings on the FBI investigation front came on the NBA side of things, as ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that super agent Andy Miller is no longer certified by the NBA Players Association. According to a subsequent Yahoo! report, “the common belief in the NBA agent world is that he’d been pushed out” in the wake of his ties to the probe, in which he has not been directly implicated but one of his former employees, Christian Dawkins, was arrested and indicted. Miller’s computer was seized as part of the probe, and while it’s not known what if any evidence it may have yielded, these further developments suggest it’s at least something to keep in mind when following the situation going forward.

Also worth keeping an eye on: In discussing guard Rawle Alkins returning to the court after offseason foot surgery this week, Arizona coach Sean Miller said he “really can’t comment” on Alkins, prompting Bruce Pascoe of the Arizona Daily Star to ask if Alkins’s absence was solely related to his injury. Miller nodded, and when Pascoe later asked if all of Miller’s players had been cleared in relation to the investigation—in which one of Miller’s assistants, Emanuel Richardson, was charged—Miller told him “my focus is coaching our team.” Miller would understandably not want to draw too much attention to the investigation, but such obfuscation on those subjects from the coach of an implicated program is worth noting.

Lastly, Rick Pitino’s victimhood campaign has now extended to airing grievances against Papa John, who left the coach feeling “very humiliated, very hurt.” We’ll be tracking who’s been unfair to Pitino all season long.

High Five

Each week, we’ll be highlighting five teams on the rise. Here’s who stood out over the past week.

1. Arizona State: Yes, the shine of downing Kansas on Sunday was diminished somewhat by the Jayhawks having lost to Washington earlier in the week. But by having won in Lawrence after waxing Xavier two weeks earlier, the Sun Devils are making their case as perhaps the rising team of the season’s first month.

2. Florida State: A week ago in this space, the Seminoles were cited as an undefeated team that had yet to be really tested. Their first test arrived in Monday night’s trip to Florida and it’s safe to say that, by whooping the Gators 83–66, Florida State passed with flying colors.

3. TCU: While neither was as marquee as the Seminoles’, the undefeated Horned Frogs are also looking increasingly legit after defeating SMU and Nevada. Jamie Dixon’s got a nice cadre of shooters and one of the most efficient offenses in the country.

4. Seton Hall: The Pirates edged Louisville on the road and took care of VCU at home, and senior wing Desi Rodriguez again had himself a nice week: 46 points on 19-of-28 shooting and 15 rebounds over two games.

5. Ball State: What a week for Cardinals guard Tayler Persons, who first hit a game-winning three at No. 9 Notre Dame on Tuesday, then finished off Valparaiso with a Saturday encore. North Florida better hope he cools off in the 10 days before Ball State’s next game.

Top of the Classes

Senior: Jock Landale, Saint Mary’s center

The big Aussie went for 37 points and 18 rebounds against Sacramento State, then 20 and 10 against Seattle while chipping in three assists.

Junior: Jerome Robinson, Boston College guard

In BC’s lone game this week—perhaps you were aware of it—Robinson shot a perfect 5-for-5 from three and 8-for-11 overall, adding up to 24 points, while chipping in four rebounds.

Sophomore: Ky Bowman, Boston College guard

Yes, another Eagle. Bowman neared a triple double on Saturday, finishing with 30 points, 10 rebounds, and nine assists. The 10 rebounds were tied for the second most he’d had in college, and the nine assists matched a career high.

Freshman: DeAndre Ayton, Arizona forward

His 13 points and 10 rebounds in the Wildcats’ get-right win against Texas A&M were nice; his 29 and 18 against Alabama were downright dominant. Arizona may be underachieving so far, but its star freshman isn’t.

Bests of the Best

Each week, we’ll get to know a standout player a little better by asking them about some of the best things in the world. This week we welcome Oklahoma freshman guard Trae Young, a hometown hero who has begun his college career by averaging 28.8 points and 8.8 assists per game, thresholds no player has met simultaneously in more than two decades. So, Trae, tell us about the best...

...fruit. “I’m a fruit guy. That’s tough. I’d probably say oranges. I love oranges. My mom used to always give them to me for a snack. I used to love to eat bad foods, so whenever I got hungry, she just gave me a small orange that I could eat. So I fell in love with those. I still eat them to this day. I have them all the time.”

...cartoon. “Gotta be Spongebob. I still laugh like a little kid. I’m a big Spongebob fan. [My favorite character is] Patrick, for sure. He doesn’t have any common sense. That’s my guy.”

...nickname someone’s given you. “Probably Young Gun, just because my last name’s Young and I shoot. I like that one. My grandfather gave it to me. A lot of my family calls me that since I was four, five years old. I would always shoot on my little goal at my grandparents’ house and they would say, ‘This is gonna be a shooter.’ So they called me Young Gun.”

Social Media Post of the Week

Assigned Viewing: North Carolina at Tennessee, Sunday at 3 p.m. Eastern on ESPN

The defending champs have played just one true road game thus far, at Stanford on Nov. 20, and in their trip to Knoxville the Tar Heels will be facing the toughest opponent of their non-conference slate outside of Michigan State. The Volunteers knocked off Purdue and lost to Villanova in the Bahamas and can use the test North Carolina will provide before venturing into league play in an SEC that looks stronger overall than it has in years. One thing to watch: Tennessee is not a great defensive rebounding team (Villanova cleaned up on the offensive boards in their meeting) and the Tar Heels collectively crash the glass fairly well. The Volunteers will need to limit their visitors’ second chances.

Before You’re Dismissed...

• If you somehow missed the hubbub and didn’t get Dana O’Neil’s joke posted above, LiAngelo Ball withdrew from UCLA last week. His father, LaVar, has said that LiAngelo and youngest brother LaMelo will be exploring professional options overseas. That means college basketball would be Ball-free forever. React to that however you wish.

Kenny Jacoby has an interesting look at how phone records suggest Oregon coach Dana Altman may have known more about the rape allegations against Kavell Bigby-Williams than he has said.

• Washington’s win over Kansas in St. Louis (originally scheduled as a would-be homecoming for Michael Porter Jr. when he had committed to the Huskies) is a strong addition to Mike Hopkins’s early head coaching résumé. While yes, the Huskies then went out and got drubbed by Gonzaga, winning a semi-road game against a highly ranked opponent with such a young team should lend some real credibility.

• Just seven undefeated teams remain: Villanova, Miami, TCU, Florida State, Arizona State, Mississippi State and Georgetown. The biggest hurdle for any of them this week will be Mississippi State’s trip to Cincinnati on Tuesday. And when Georgetown hosts Syracuse on Saturday, we might finally get some idea of how good the Hoyas, dominators of the country’s easiest schedule, actually are.

• In a little over a month of play, Arizona State went from being picked sixth in the Pac-12 to (likely) top 10 in the country and potentially the league favorite. They might have to simply out-duel teams some nights, but the Sun Devils aren’t going away.

• Wofford guard Fletcher Magee proved he’s more than just an All-America-level name by stunning Georgia Tech in the final seconds in a shot you should check out.

• Miami is looking like a legit contender, but that 57.1% mark from the free-throw line is gonna haunt them.

• After such a strong start, this was a rough week for Minnesota, which lost at Nebraska and Arkansas. The Golden Gophers have six consecutive home games to get things straightened out.

• I will boop any nose I see on my Instagram feed, and I suggest you should too.

Duke's Defense and Other Areas Where Top Teams Need to Hit the Books

This next week of college hoops looks like it could be a quiet one. Until the weekend there’s a dearth of marquee games, and most of the country’s most prominent programs don’t play at all until then or beyond. And honestly, after the kind of week the sport just had, maybe that’s just as well. There were shocking upsets, dramatic game-winners, staggering individual performances, and a significant reshuffling of the national polls. Maybe it’s good if, for the most part, we all take some time to take a breath.

There’s also a more practical and foreseeable reason why college basketball quiets down for a bit this week: A lot of schools are holding their fall semester’s final exam period. With that in mind, let’s check in with four ranked teams who should be using their study hours to prepare themselves for the daunting syllabus of conference play.

Duke: Defense, defense, defense

Mike Krzyzewski put it succinctly after his then-No. 1 Blue Devils’ out-of-nowhere loss to recent ACC doormat Boston College on Saturday: “We’re not a good defensive team.” Duke is supremely talented and its offense can verge on juggernaut status, which can mask its roster’s extreme youth—four freshmen starters are still four freshmen starters—and the deficiencies that can cause on the other end of the floor.

On Saturday, Boston College enjoyed its second most efficient offensive performance of the season (behind only its showing vs. South Carolina State), routinely finding shooters left open by Duke’s slow or forgotten defensive rotations. The Blue Devils have defended slightly better in a zone so far this season, but against the Eagles they allowed points on nine of their 12 zone possessions and shelved the zone completely after halftime. Right now Duke has the best offense in the country but ranks just 69th in defensive efficiency per Kenpom.com. There will likely need to be some significant tightening before a Blue Devils postseason run.

Florida: Finding offense inside the arc

When the Gators’ shots are falling, they can look capable of beating anybody. (Before Saturday, they’d been the closest to downing Duke, in a PK80 game they probably should have won.) Florida’s problem is that it can become over-reliant on outside shooting to the point of settling for iffy three-point tries rather than finding higher-percentage looks inside. It was cold shooting that spelled doom against Florida State (6-for-25 from three, which represented 43.1% of the Gators’ field goal tries) and Loyola Chicago (2-for-19). In both games the Gators struggled to penetrate zone defenses, which may provide a blueprint for how other teams can disrupt their offense going forward. The good news: In Saturday’s win over Cincinnati, they shot well from three (6-for-15) but were not trigger-happy or dependent on the shots for their scoring.

Kansas: Getting to the line

Perhaps the Jayhawks’ biggest issue so far is their lack of depth, as their bench has played just 22.1% of their minutes so far, the seventh-lowest share in the country. But since they can’t really study their way into getting eligibility for big men Billy Preston (held out indefinitely while the finances related to a one-car accident are investigated) and Silvio De Sousa (hoping to enroll for the next semester, pending standardized testing scores), this will have to do.

Kansas is currently getting to the line 19.6 times for every 100 field-goal attempts, which ranks 343rd in the nation and is roughly half of the average rate during coach Bill Self’s tenure. (Last year that number was 36.0, and the previous low from a Self-coached Jayhawks team was 35.3, in 2006.) This is partly a function of the team’s weakness inside, where fouls are more easily drawn, as well as its relative lack of attackers on offense. If Self’s team gets itself right after losing consecutive games for the first time in four years, that number will likely go up.

Kentucky: Taking care of the ball

The Wildcats have lost just once, to Kansas in the Champions Classic, but have played a relatively soft schedule so far while their extremely young team (the least experienced in the nation, in fact) sorts itself out and gets up to speed. One place that youth has shown up is in the turnover column: Kentucky’s turnover rate of 21.4% ranks 276th in the country and would be the worst among John Calipari’s nine teams in Lexington. This was part of their downfall against the Jayhawks in November, but in the Wildcats’ two other most turnover-prone games, against East Tennessee State and Monmouth, they had the sheer talent and physicality to push through whatever issues their turnovers may have otherwise caused. Watching the latter game this weekend, many of Kentucky’s turnovers seemed to stem from a mixture of ambition and carelessness that you might expect from a team collectively getting its feet wet. That won’t fly too often in the SEC. The Wildcats’ final three non-conference games—Virginia Tech and Louisville at home, and UCLA in New Orleans—will give some idea of how much of an issue that might be.

If you are wondering what exactly you are reading, this is the Monday Rebound, SI.com’s weekly Monday-morning column on college hoops. It’s a sort of a grab -bag of news, tidbits and opinions largely aimed at catching you up on the weekend’s (and week’s) action and being generally informative. If there’s anything you like or dislike or would want to see more of here, or if you would just like to chat and perhaps discuss the Fermi paradox, you can find me on Twitter @thedangreene. Thanks for reading.

ICYMI

Even in a week of significant upsets and a sport of regular surprises, Duke’s loss to Boston College on Saturday is worth singling out. After all, the Blue Devils were the No. 1 team in the country, with two of the best players of the country in senior Grayson Allen and forward Marvin Bagley III; the Eagles had just two ACC wins over the past two years and their most significant victory of this season had been over either La Salle or Colgate.

So if you didn’t catch the game—and we couldn’t blame you for as much, as it wasn’t exactly circled on most viewers’ calendars, and Saturdays are Saturdays—you may be wondering how in the name of Troy Bell that happened. And as much as the takeaway from Saturday’s game was (rightfully) that Duke’s defense needs a lot of work, it should be noted clearly that Boston College played a hell of a game. The Eagles began by making eight of their first 11 three-pointers and finished 15-of-26, so even after their hot start, they made seven out of the subsequent 15. Guards Ky Bowman and Jerome Robinson, who (spoiler alert) will each get their own acknowledgements below, played the games of their lives and, along with Jordan Chatman (who made five of nine threes himself), made the Blue Devils pay over and over for their mistakes. And on defense, it wasn’t some odd coincidence that Grayson Allen shot 5-for-20 and Marvin Bagley III only had 11 shot attempts. The Eagles played with an energy that helped them keep up with Coach K’s fleet of future first-rounders, made all the more impressive by the fact that BC’s rotation only went six deep.

Yes, Duke lost, but Boston College won too. Kudos to Jim Christian’s team for giving this season its biggest stunner yet.

As the scandal turns...

This week’s most significant happenings on the FBI investigation front came on the NBA side of things, as ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that super agent Andy Miller is no longer certified by the NBA Players Association. According to a subsequent Yahoo! report, “the common belief in the NBA agent world is that he’d been pushed out” in the wake of his ties to the probe, in which he has not been directly implicated but one of his former employees, Christian Dawkins, was arrested and indicted. Miller’s computer was seized as part of the probe, and while it’s not known what if any evidence it may have yielded, these further developments suggest it’s at least something to keep in mind when following the situation going forward.

Also worth keeping an eye on: In discussing guard Rawle Alkins returning to the court after offseason foot surgery this week, Arizona coach Sean Miller said he “really can’t comment” on Alkins, prompting Bruce Pascoe of the Arizona Daily Star to ask if Alkins’s absence was solely related to his injury. Miller nodded, and when Pascoe later asked if all of Miller’s players had been cleared in relation to the investigation—in which one of Miller’s assistants, Emanuel Richardson, was charged—Miller told him “my focus is coaching our team.” Miller would understandably not want to draw too much attention to the investigation, but such obfuscation on those subjects from the coach of an implicated program is worth noting.

Lastly, Rick Pitino’s victimhood campaign has now extended to airing grievances against Papa John, who left the coach feeling “very humiliated, very hurt.” We’ll be tracking who’s been unfair to Pitino all season long.

High Five

Each week, we’ll be highlighting five teams on the rise. Here’s who stood out over the past week.

1. Arizona State: Yes, the shine of downing Kansas on Sunday was diminished somewhat by the Jayhawks having lost to Washington earlier in the week. But by having won in Lawrence after waxing Xavier two weeks earlier, the Sun Devils are making their case as perhaps the rising team of the season’s first month.

2. Florida State: A week ago in this space, the Seminoles were cited as an undefeated team that had yet to be really tested. Their first test arrived in Monday night’s trip to Florida and it’s safe to say that, by whooping the Gators 83–66, Florida State passed with flying colors.

3. TCU: While neither was as marquee as the Seminoles’, the undefeated Horned Frogs are also looking increasingly legit after defeating SMU and Nevada. Jamie Dixon’s got a nice cadre of shooters and one of the most efficient offenses in the country.

4. Seton Hall: The Pirates edged Louisville on the road and took care of VCU at home, and senior wing Desi Rodriguez again had himself a nice week: 46 points on 19-of-28 shooting and 15 rebounds over two games.

5. Ball State: What a week for Cardinals guard Tayler Persons, who first hit a game-winning three at No. 9 Notre Dame on Tuesday, then finished off Valparaiso with a Saturday encore. North Florida better hope he cools off in the 10 days before Ball State’s next game.

Top of the Classes

Senior: Jock Landale, Saint Mary’s center

The big Aussie went for 37 points and 18 rebounds against Sacramento State, then 20 and 10 against Seattle while chipping in three assists.

Junior: Jerome Robinson, Boston College guard

In BC’s lone game this week—perhaps you were aware of it—Robinson shot a perfect 5-for-5 from three and 8-for-11 overall, adding up to 24 points, while chipping in four rebounds.

Sophomore: Ky Bowman, Boston College guard

Yes, another Eagle. Bowman neared a triple double on Saturday, finishing with 30 points, 10 rebounds, and nine assists. The 10 rebounds were tied for the second most he’d had in college, and the nine assists matched a career high.

Freshman: DeAndre Ayton, Arizona forward

His 13 points and 10 rebounds in the Wildcats’ get-right win against Texas A&M were nice; his 29 and 18 against Alabama were downright dominant. Arizona may be underachieving so far, but its star freshman isn’t.

Bests of the Best

Each week, we’ll get to know a standout player a little better by asking them about some of the best things in the world. This week we welcome Oklahoma freshman guard Trae Young, a hometown hero who has begun his college career by averaging 28.8 points and 8.8 assists per game, thresholds no player has met simultaneously in more than two decades. So, Trae, tell us about the best...

...fruit. “I’m a fruit guy. That’s tough. I’d probably say oranges. I love oranges. My mom used to always give them to me for a snack. I used to love to eat bad foods, so whenever I got hungry, she just gave me a small orange that I could eat. So I fell in love with those. I still eat them to this day. I have them all the time.”

...cartoon. “Gotta be Spongebob. I still laugh like a little kid. I’m a big Spongebob fan. [My favorite character is] Patrick, for sure. He doesn’t have any common sense. That’s my guy.”

...nickname someone’s given you. “Probably Young Gun, just because my last name’s Young and I shoot. I like that one. My grandfather gave it to me. A lot of my family calls me that since I was four, five years old. I would always shoot on my little goal at my grandparents’ house and they would say, ‘This is gonna be a shooter.’ So they called me Young Gun.”

Social Media Post of the Week

Assigned Viewing: North Carolina at Tennessee, Sunday at 3 p.m. Eastern on ESPN

The defending champs have played just one true road game thus far, at Stanford on Nov. 20, and in their trip to Knoxville the Tar Heels will be facing the toughest opponent of their non-conference slate outside of Michigan State. The Volunteers knocked off Purdue and lost to Villanova in the Bahamas and can use the test North Carolina will provide before venturing into league play in an SEC that looks stronger overall than it has in years. One thing to watch: Tennessee is not a great defensive rebounding team (Villanova cleaned up on the offensive boards in their meeting) and the Tar Heels collectively crash the glass fairly well. The Volunteers will need to limit their visitors’ second chances.

Before You’re Dismissed...

• If you somehow missed the hubbub and didn’t get Dana O’Neil’s joke posted above, LiAngelo Ball withdrew from UCLA last week. His father, LaVar, has said that LiAngelo and youngest brother LaMelo will be exploring professional options overseas. That means college basketball would be Ball-free forever. React to that however you wish.

Kenny Jacoby has an interesting look at how phone records suggest Oregon coach Dana Altman may have known more about the rape allegations against Kavell Bigby-Williams than he has said.

• Washington’s win over Kansas in St. Louis (originally scheduled as a would-be homecoming for Michael Porter Jr. when he had committed to the Huskies) is a strong addition to Mike Hopkins’s early head coaching résumé. While yes, the Huskies then went out and got drubbed by Gonzaga, winning a semi-road game against a highly ranked opponent with such a young team should lend some real credibility.

• Just seven undefeated teams remain: Villanova, Miami, TCU, Florida State, Arizona State, Mississippi State and Georgetown. The biggest hurdle for any of them this week will be Mississippi State’s trip to Cincinnati on Tuesday. And when Georgetown hosts Syracuse on Saturday, we might finally get some idea of how good the Hoyas, dominators of the country’s easiest schedule, actually are.

• In a little over a month of play, Arizona State went from being picked sixth in the Pac-12 to (likely) top 10 in the country and potentially the league favorite. They might have to simply out-duel teams some nights, but the Sun Devils aren’t going away.

• Wofford guard Fletcher Magee proved he’s more than just an All-America-level name by stunning Georgia Tech in the final seconds in a shot you should check out.

• Miami is looking like a legit contender, but that 57.1% mark from the free-throw line is gonna haunt them.

• After such a strong start, this was a rough week for Minnesota, which lost at Nebraska and Arkansas. The Golden Gophers have six consecutive home games to get things straightened out.

• I will boop any nose I see on my Instagram feed, and I suggest you should too.

Duke's Defense and Other Areas Where Top Teams Need to Hit the Books

This next week of college hoops looks like it could be a quiet one. Until the weekend there’s a dearth of marquee games, and most of the country’s most prominent programs don’t play at all until then or beyond. And honestly, after the kind of week the sport just had, maybe that’s just as well. There were shocking upsets, dramatic game-winners, staggering individual performances, and a significant reshuffling of the national polls. Maybe it’s good if, for the most part, we all take some time to take a breath.

There’s also a more practical and foreseeable reason why college basketball quiets down for a bit this week: A lot of schools are holding their fall semester’s final exam period. With that in mind, let’s check in with four ranked teams who should be using their study hours to prepare themselves for the daunting syllabus of conference play.

Duke: Defense, defense, defense

Mike Krzyzewski put it succinctly after his then-No. 1 Blue Devils’ out-of-nowhere loss to recent ACC doormat Boston College on Saturday: “We’re not a good defensive team.” Duke is supremely talented and its offense can verge on juggernaut status, which can mask its roster’s extreme youth—four freshmen starters are still four freshmen starters—and the deficiencies that can cause on the other end of the floor.

On Saturday, Boston College enjoyed its second most efficient offensive performance of the season (behind only its showing vs. South Carolina State), routinely finding shooters left open by Duke’s slow or forgotten defensive rotations. The Blue Devils have defended slightly better in a zone so far this season, but against the Eagles they allowed points on nine of their 12 zone possessions and shelved the zone completely after halftime. Right now Duke has the best offense in the country but ranks just 69th in defensive efficiency per Kenpom.com. There will likely need to be some significant tightening before a Blue Devils postseason run.

Florida: Finding offense inside the arc

When the Gators’ shots are falling, they can look capable of beating anybody. (Before Saturday, they’d been the closest to downing Duke, in a PK80 game they probably should have won.) Florida’s problem is that it can become over-reliant on outside shooting to the point of settling for iffy three-point tries rather than finding higher-percentage looks inside. It was cold shooting that spelled doom against Florida State (6-for-25 from three, which represented 43.1% of the Gators’ field goal tries) and Loyola Chicago (2-for-19). In both games the Gators struggled to penetrate zone defenses, which may provide a blueprint for how other teams can disrupt their offense going forward. The good news: In Saturday’s win over Cincinnati, they shot well from three (6-for-15) but were not trigger-happy or dependent on the shots for their scoring.

Kansas: Getting to the line

Perhaps the Jayhawks’ biggest issue so far is their lack of depth, as their bench has played just 22.1% of their minutes so far, the seventh-lowest share in the country. But since they can’t really study their way into getting eligibility for big men Billy Preston (held out indefinitely while the finances related to a one-car accident are investigated) and Silvio De Sousa (hoping to enroll for the next semester, pending standardized testing scores), this will have to do.

Kansas is currently getting to the line 19.6 times for every 100 field-goal attempts, which ranks 343rd in the nation and is roughly half of the average rate during coach Bill Self’s tenure. (Last year that number was 36.0, and the previous low from a Self-coached Jayhawks team was 35.3, in 2006.) This is partly a function of the team’s weakness inside, where fouls are more easily drawn, as well as its relative lack of attackers on offense. If Self’s team gets itself right after losing consecutive games for the first time in four years, that number will likely go up.

Kentucky: Taking care of the ball

The Wildcats have lost just once, to Kansas in the Champions Classic, but have played a relatively soft schedule so far while their extremely young team (the least experienced in the nation, in fact) sorts itself out and gets up to speed. One place that youth has shown up is in the turnover column: Kentucky’s turnover rate of 21.4% ranks 276th in the country and would be the worst among John Calipari’s nine teams in Lexington. This was part of their downfall against the Jayhawks in November, but in the Wildcats’ two other most turnover-prone games, against East Tennessee State and Monmouth, they had the sheer talent and physicality to push through whatever issues their turnovers may have otherwise caused. Watching the latter game this weekend, many of Kentucky’s turnovers seemed to stem from a mixture of ambition and carelessness that you might expect from a team collectively getting its feet wet. That won’t fly too often in the SEC. The Wildcats’ final three non-conference games—Virginia Tech and Louisville at home, and UCLA in New Orleans—will give some idea of how much of an issue that might be.

If you are wondering what exactly you are reading, this is the Monday Rebound, SI.com’s weekly Monday-morning column on college hoops. It’s a sort of a grab -bag of news, tidbits and opinions largely aimed at catching you up on the weekend’s (and week’s) action and being generally informative. If there’s anything you like or dislike or would want to see more of here, or if you would just like to chat and perhaps discuss the Fermi paradox, you can find me on Twitter @thedangreene. Thanks for reading.

ICYMI

Even in a week of significant upsets and a sport of regular surprises, Duke’s loss to Boston College on Saturday is worth singling out. After all, the Blue Devils were the No. 1 team in the country, with two of the best players of the country in senior Grayson Allen and forward Marvin Bagley III; the Eagles had just two ACC wins over the past two years and their most significant victory of this season had been over either La Salle or Colgate.

So if you didn’t catch the game—and we couldn’t blame you for as much, as it wasn’t exactly circled on most viewers’ calendars, and Saturdays are Saturdays—you may be wondering how in the name of Troy Bell that happened. And as much as the takeaway from Saturday’s game was (rightfully) that Duke’s defense needs a lot of work, it should be noted clearly that Boston College played a hell of a game. The Eagles began by making eight of their first 11 three-pointers and finished 15-of-26, so even after their hot start, they made seven out of the subsequent 15. Guards Ky Bowman and Jerome Robinson, who (spoiler alert) will each get their own acknowledgements below, played the games of their lives and, along with Jordan Chatman (who made five of nine threes himself), made the Blue Devils pay over and over for their mistakes. And on defense, it wasn’t some odd coincidence that Grayson Allen shot 5-for-20 and Marvin Bagley III only had 11 shot attempts. The Eagles played with an energy that helped them keep up with Coach K’s fleet of future first-rounders, made all the more impressive by the fact that BC’s rotation only went six deep.

Yes, Duke lost, but Boston College won too. Kudos to Jim Christian’s team for giving this season its biggest stunner yet.

As the scandal turns...

This week’s most significant happenings on the FBI investigation front came on the NBA side of things, as ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that super agent Andy Miller is no longer certified by the NBA Players Association. According to a subsequent Yahoo! report, “the common belief in the NBA agent world is that he’d been pushed out” in the wake of his ties to the probe, in which he has not been directly implicated but one of his former employees, Christian Dawkins, was arrested and indicted. Miller’s computer was seized as part of the probe, and while it’s not known what if any evidence it may have yielded, these further developments suggest it’s at least something to keep in mind when following the situation going forward.

Also worth keeping an eye on: In discussing guard Rawle Alkins returning to the court after offseason foot surgery this week, Arizona coach Sean Miller said he “really can’t comment” on Alkins, prompting Bruce Pascoe of the Arizona Daily Star to ask if Alkins’s absence was solely related to his injury. Miller nodded, and when Pascoe later asked if all of Miller’s players had been cleared in relation to the investigation—in which one of Miller’s assistants, Emanuel Richardson, was charged—Miller told him “my focus is coaching our team.” Miller would understandably not want to draw too much attention to the investigation, but such obfuscation on those subjects from the coach of an implicated program is worth noting.

Lastly, Rick Pitino’s victimhood campaign has now extended to airing grievances against Papa John, who left the coach feeling “very humiliated, very hurt.” We’ll be tracking who’s been unfair to Pitino all season long.

High Five

Each week, we’ll be highlighting five teams on the rise. Here’s who stood out over the past week.

1. Arizona State: Yes, the shine of downing Kansas on Sunday was diminished somewhat by the Jayhawks having lost to Washington earlier in the week. But by having won in Lawrence after waxing Xavier two weeks earlier, the Sun Devils are making their case as perhaps the rising team of the season’s first month.

2. Florida State: A week ago in this space, the Seminoles were cited as an undefeated team that had yet to be really tested. Their first test arrived in Monday night’s trip to Florida and it’s safe to say that, by whooping the Gators 83–66, Florida State passed with flying colors.

3. TCU: While neither was as marquee as the Seminoles’, the undefeated Horned Frogs are also looking increasingly legit after defeating SMU and Nevada. Jamie Dixon’s got a nice cadre of shooters and one of the most efficient offenses in the country.

4. Seton Hall: The Pirates edged Louisville on the road and took care of VCU at home, and senior wing Desi Rodriguez again had himself a nice week: 46 points on 19-of-28 shooting and 15 rebounds over two games.

5. Ball State: What a week for Cardinals guard Tayler Persons, who first hit a game-winning three at No. 9 Notre Dame on Tuesday, then finished off Valparaiso with a Saturday encore. North Florida better hope he cools off in the 10 days before Ball State’s next game.

Top of the Classes

Senior: Jock Landale, Saint Mary’s center

The big Aussie went for 37 points and 18 rebounds against Sacramento State, then 20 and 10 against Seattle while chipping in three assists.

Junior: Jerome Robinson, Boston College guard

In BC’s lone game this week—perhaps you were aware of it—Robinson shot a perfect 5-for-5 from three and 8-for-11 overall, adding up to 24 points, while chipping in four rebounds.

Sophomore: Ky Bowman, Boston College guard

Yes, another Eagle. Bowman neared a triple double on Saturday, finishing with 30 points, 10 rebounds, and nine assists. The 10 rebounds were tied for the second most he’d had in college, and the nine assists matched a career high.

Freshman: DeAndre Ayton, Arizona forward

His 13 points and 10 rebounds in the Wildcats’ get-right win against Texas A&M were nice; his 29 and 18 against Alabama were downright dominant. Arizona may be underachieving so far, but its star freshman isn’t.

Bests of the Best

Each week, we’ll get to know a standout player a little better by asking them about some of the best things in the world. This week we welcome Oklahoma freshman guard Trae Young, a hometown hero who has begun his college career by averaging 28.8 points and 8.8 assists per game, thresholds no player has met simultaneously in more than two decades. So, Trae, tell us about the best...

...fruit. “I’m a fruit guy. That’s tough. I’d probably say oranges. I love oranges. My mom used to always give them to me for a snack. I used to love to eat bad foods, so whenever I got hungry, she just gave me a small orange that I could eat. So I fell in love with those. I still eat them to this day. I have them all the time.”

...cartoon. “Gotta be Spongebob. I still laugh like a little kid. I’m a big Spongebob fan. [My favorite character is] Patrick, for sure. He doesn’t have any common sense. That’s my guy.”

...nickname someone’s given you. “Probably Young Gun, just because my last name’s Young and I shoot. I like that one. My grandfather gave it to me. A lot of my family calls me that since I was four, five years old. I would always shoot on my little goal at my grandparents’ house and they would say, ‘This is gonna be a shooter.’ So they called me Young Gun.”

Social Media Post of the Week

Assigned Viewing: North Carolina at Tennessee, Sunday at 3 p.m. Eastern on ESPN

The defending champs have played just one true road game thus far, at Stanford on Nov. 20, and in their trip to Knoxville the Tar Heels will be facing the toughest opponent of their non-conference slate outside of Michigan State. The Volunteers knocked off Purdue and lost to Villanova in the Bahamas and can use the test North Carolina will provide before venturing into league play in an SEC that looks stronger overall than it has in years. One thing to watch: Tennessee is not a great defensive rebounding team (Villanova cleaned up on the offensive boards in their meeting) and the Tar Heels collectively crash the glass fairly well. The Volunteers will need to limit their visitors’ second chances.

Before You’re Dismissed...

• If you somehow missed the hubbub and didn’t get Dana O’Neil’s joke posted above, LiAngelo Ball withdrew from UCLA last week. His father, LaVar, has said that LiAngelo and youngest brother LaMelo will be exploring professional options overseas. That means college basketball would be Ball-free forever. React to that however you wish.

Kenny Jacoby has an interesting look at how phone records suggest Oregon coach Dana Altman may have known more about the rape allegations against Kavell Bigby-Williams than he has said.

• Washington’s win over Kansas in St. Louis (originally scheduled as a would-be homecoming for Michael Porter Jr. when he had committed to the Huskies) is a strong addition to Mike Hopkins’s early head coaching résumé. While yes, the Huskies then went out and got drubbed by Gonzaga, winning a semi-road game against a highly ranked opponent with such a young team should lend some real credibility.

• Just seven undefeated teams remain: Villanova, Miami, TCU, Florida State, Arizona State, Mississippi State and Georgetown. The biggest hurdle for any of them this week will be Mississippi State’s trip to Cincinnati on Tuesday. And when Georgetown hosts Syracuse on Saturday, we might finally get some idea of how good the Hoyas, dominators of the country’s easiest schedule, actually are.

• In a little over a month of play, Arizona State went from being picked sixth in the Pac-12 to (likely) top 10 in the country and potentially the league favorite. They might have to simply out-duel teams some nights, but the Sun Devils aren’t going away.

• Wofford guard Fletcher Magee proved he’s more than just an All-America-level name by stunning Georgia Tech in the final seconds in a shot you should check out.

• Miami is looking like a legit contender, but that 57.1% mark from the free-throw line is gonna haunt them.

• After such a strong start, this was a rough week for Minnesota, which lost at Nebraska and Arkansas. The Golden Gophers have six consecutive home games to get things straightened out.

• I will boop any nose I see on my Instagram feed, and I suggest you should too.

Duke's Defense and Other Areas Where Top Teams Need to Hit the Books

This next week of college hoops looks like it could be a quiet one. Until the weekend there’s a dearth of marquee games, and most of the country’s most prominent programs don’t play at all until then or beyond. And honestly, after the kind of week the sport just had, maybe that’s just as well. There were shocking upsets, dramatic game-winners, staggering individual performances, and a significant reshuffling of the national polls. Maybe it’s good if, for the most part, we all take some time to take a breath.

There’s also a more practical and foreseeable reason why college basketball quiets down for a bit this week: A lot of schools are holding their fall semester’s final exam period. With that in mind, let’s check in with four ranked teams who should be using their study hours to prepare themselves for the daunting syllabus of conference play.

Duke: Defense, defense, defense

Mike Krzyzewski put it succinctly after his then-No. 1 Blue Devils’ out-of-nowhere loss to recent ACC doormat Boston College on Saturday: “We’re not a good defensive team.” Duke is supremely talented and its offense can verge on juggernaut status, which can mask its roster’s extreme youth—four freshmen starters are still four freshmen starters—and the deficiencies that can cause on the other end of the floor.

On Saturday, Boston College enjoyed its second most efficient offensive performance of the season (behind only its showing vs. South Carolina State), routinely finding shooters left open by Duke’s slow or forgotten defensive rotations. The Blue Devils have defended slightly better in a zone so far this season, but against the Eagles they allowed points on nine of their 12 zone possessions and shelved the zone completely after halftime. Right now Duke has the best offense in the country but ranks just 69th in defensive efficiency per Kenpom.com. There will likely need to be some significant tightening before a Blue Devils postseason run.

Florida: Finding offense inside the arc

When the Gators’ shots are falling, they can look capable of beating anybody. (Before Saturday, they’d been the closest to downing Duke, in a PK80 game they probably should have won.) Florida’s problem is that it can become over-reliant on outside shooting to the point of settling for iffy three-point tries rather than finding higher-percentage looks inside. It was cold shooting that spelled doom against Florida State (6-for-25 from three, which represented 43.1% of the Gators’ field goal tries) and Loyola Chicago (2-for-19). In both games the Gators struggled to penetrate zone defenses, which may provide a blueprint for how other teams can disrupt their offense going forward. The good news: In Saturday’s win over Cincinnati, they shot well from three (6-for-15) but were not trigger-happy or dependent on the shots for their scoring.

Kansas: Getting to the line

Perhaps the Jayhawks’ biggest issue so far is their lack of depth, as their bench has played just 22.1% of their minutes so far, the seventh-lowest share in the country. But since they can’t really study their way into getting eligibility for big men Billy Preston (held out indefinitely while the finances related to a one-car accident are investigated) and Silvio De Sousa (hoping to enroll for the next semester, pending standardized testing scores), this will have to do.

Kansas is currently getting to the line 19.6 times for every 100 field-goal attempts, which ranks 343rd in the nation and is roughly half of the average rate during coach Bill Self’s tenure. (Last year that number was 36.0, and the previous low from a Self-coached Jayhawks team was 35.3, in 2006.) This is partly a function of the team’s weakness inside, where fouls are more easily drawn, as well as its relative lack of attackers on offense. If Self’s team gets itself right after losing consecutive games for the first time in four years, that number will likely go up.

Kentucky: Taking care of the ball

The Wildcats have lost just once, to Kansas in the Champions Classic, but have played a relatively soft schedule so far while their extremely young team (the least experienced in the nation, in fact) sorts itself out and gets up to speed. One place that youth has shown up is in the turnover column: Kentucky’s turnover rate of 21.4% ranks 276th in the country and would be the worst among John Calipari’s nine teams in Lexington. This was part of their downfall against the Jayhawks in November, but in the Wildcats’ two other most turnover-prone games, against East Tennessee State and Monmouth, they had the sheer talent and physicality to push through whatever issues their turnovers may have otherwise caused. Watching the latter game this weekend, many of Kentucky’s turnovers seemed to stem from a mixture of ambition and carelessness that you might expect from a team collectively getting its feet wet. That won’t fly too often in the SEC. The Wildcats’ final three non-conference games—Virginia Tech and Louisville at home, and UCLA in New Orleans—will give some idea of how much of an issue that might be.

If you are wondering what exactly you are reading, this is the Monday Rebound, SI.com’s weekly Monday-morning column on college hoops. It’s a sort of a grab -bag of news, tidbits and opinions largely aimed at catching you up on the weekend’s (and week’s) action and being generally informative. If there’s anything you like or dislike or would want to see more of here, or if you would just like to chat and perhaps discuss the Fermi paradox, you can find me on Twitter @thedangreene. Thanks for reading.

ICYMI

Even in a week of significant upsets and a sport of regular surprises, Duke’s loss to Boston College on Saturday is worth singling out. After all, the Blue Devils were the No. 1 team in the country, with two of the best players of the country in senior Grayson Allen and forward Marvin Bagley III; the Eagles had just two ACC wins over the past two years and their most significant victory of this season had been over either La Salle or Colgate.

So if you didn’t catch the game—and we couldn’t blame you for as much, as it wasn’t exactly circled on most viewers’ calendars, and Saturdays are Saturdays—you may be wondering how in the name of Troy Bell that happened. And as much as the takeaway from Saturday’s game was (rightfully) that Duke’s defense needs a lot of work, it should be noted clearly that Boston College played a hell of a game. The Eagles began by making eight of their first 11 three-pointers and finished 15-of-26, so even after their hot start, they made seven out of the subsequent 15. Guards Ky Bowman and Jerome Robinson, who (spoiler alert) will each get their own acknowledgements below, played the games of their lives and, along with Jordan Chatman (who made five of nine threes himself), made the Blue Devils pay over and over for their mistakes. And on defense, it wasn’t some odd coincidence that Grayson Allen shot 5-for-20 and Marvin Bagley III only had 11 shot attempts. The Eagles played with an energy that helped them keep up with Coach K’s fleet of future first-rounders, made all the more impressive by the fact that BC’s rotation only went six deep.

Yes, Duke lost, but Boston College won too. Kudos to Jim Christian’s team for giving this season its biggest stunner yet.

As the scandal turns...

This week’s most significant happenings on the FBI investigation front came on the NBA side of things, as ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that super agent Andy Miller is no longer certified by the NBA Players Association. According to a subsequent Yahoo! report, “the common belief in the NBA agent world is that he’d been pushed out” in the wake of his ties to the probe, in which he has not been directly implicated but one of his former employees, Christian Dawkins, was arrested and indicted. Miller’s computer was seized as part of the probe, and while it’s not known what if any evidence it may have yielded, these further developments suggest it’s at least something to keep in mind when following the situation going forward.

Also worth keeping an eye on: In discussing guard Rawle Alkins returning to the court after offseason foot surgery this week, Arizona coach Sean Miller said he “really can’t comment” on Alkins, prompting Bruce Pascoe of the Arizona Daily Star to ask if Alkins’s absence was solely related to his injury. Miller nodded, and when Pascoe later asked if all of Miller’s players had been cleared in relation to the investigation—in which one of Miller’s assistants, Emanuel Richardson, was charged—Miller told him “my focus is coaching our team.” Miller would understandably not want to draw too much attention to the investigation, but such obfuscation on those subjects from the coach of an implicated program is worth noting.

Lastly, Rick Pitino’s victimhood campaign has now extended to airing grievances against Papa John, who left the coach feeling “very humiliated, very hurt.” We’ll be tracking who’s been unfair to Pitino all season long.

High Five

Each week, we’ll be highlighting five teams on the rise. Here’s who stood out over the past week.

1. Arizona State: Yes, the shine of downing Kansas on Sunday was diminished somewhat by the Jayhawks having lost to Washington earlier in the week. But by having won in Lawrence after waxing Xavier two weeks earlier, the Sun Devils are making their case as perhaps the rising team of the season’s first month.

2. Florida State: A week ago in this space, the Seminoles were cited as an undefeated team that had yet to be really tested. Their first test arrived in Monday night’s trip to Florida and it’s safe to say that, by whooping the Gators 83–66, Florida State passed with flying colors.

3. TCU: While neither was as marquee as the Seminoles’, the undefeated Horned Frogs are also looking increasingly legit after defeating SMU and Nevada. Jamie Dixon’s got a nice cadre of shooters and one of the most efficient offenses in the country.

4. Seton Hall: The Pirates edged Louisville on the road and took care of VCU at home, and senior wing Desi Rodriguez again had himself a nice week: 46 points on 19-of-28 shooting and 15 rebounds over two games.

5. Ball State: What a week for Cardinals guard Tayler Persons, who first hit a game-winning three at No. 9 Notre Dame on Tuesday, then finished off Valparaiso with a Saturday encore. North Florida better hope he cools off in the 10 days before Ball State’s next game.

Top of the Classes

Senior: Jock Landale, Saint Mary’s center

The big Aussie went for 37 points and 18 rebounds against Sacramento State, then 20 and 10 against Seattle while chipping in three assists.

Junior: Jerome Robinson, Boston College guard

In BC’s lone game this week—perhaps you were aware of it—Robinson shot a perfect 5-for-5 from three and 8-for-11 overall, adding up to 24 points, while chipping in four rebounds.

Sophomore: Ky Bowman, Boston College guard

Yes, another Eagle. Bowman neared a triple double on Saturday, finishing with 30 points, 10 rebounds, and nine assists. The 10 rebounds were tied for the second most he’d had in college, and the nine assists matched a career high.

Freshman: DeAndre Ayton, Arizona forward

His 13 points and 10 rebounds in the Wildcats’ get-right win against Texas A&M were nice; his 29 and 18 against Alabama were downright dominant. Arizona may be underachieving so far, but its star freshman isn’t.

Bests of the Best

Each week, we’ll get to know a standout player a little better by asking them about some of the best things in the world. This week we welcome Oklahoma freshman guard Trae Young, a hometown hero who has begun his college career by averaging 28.8 points and 8.8 assists per game, thresholds no player has met simultaneously in more than two decades. So, Trae, tell us about the best...

...fruit. “I’m a fruit guy. That’s tough. I’d probably say oranges. I love oranges. My mom used to always give them to me for a snack. I used to love to eat bad foods, so whenever I got hungry, she just gave me a small orange that I could eat. So I fell in love with those. I still eat them to this day. I have them all the time.”

...cartoon. “Gotta be Spongebob. I still laugh like a little kid. I’m a big Spongebob fan. [My favorite character is] Patrick, for sure. He doesn’t have any common sense. That’s my guy.”

...nickname someone’s given you. “Probably Young Gun, just because my last name’s Young and I shoot. I like that one. My grandfather gave it to me. A lot of my family calls me that since I was four, five years old. I would always shoot on my little goal at my grandparents’ house and they would say, ‘This is gonna be a shooter.’ So they called me Young Gun.”

Social Media Post of the Week

Assigned Viewing: North Carolina at Tennessee, Sunday at 3 p.m. Eastern on ESPN

The defending champs have played just one true road game thus far, at Stanford on Nov. 20, and in their trip to Knoxville the Tar Heels will be facing the toughest opponent of their non-conference slate outside of Michigan State. The Volunteers knocked off Purdue and lost to Villanova in the Bahamas and can use the test North Carolina will provide before venturing into league play in an SEC that looks stronger overall than it has in years. One thing to watch: Tennessee is not a great defensive rebounding team (Villanova cleaned up on the offensive boards in their meeting) and the Tar Heels collectively crash the glass fairly well. The Volunteers will need to limit their visitors’ second chances.

Before You’re Dismissed...

• If you somehow missed the hubbub and didn’t get Dana O’Neil’s joke posted above, LiAngelo Ball withdrew from UCLA last week. His father, LaVar, has said that LiAngelo and youngest brother LaMelo will be exploring professional options overseas. That means college basketball would be Ball-free forever. React to that however you wish.

Kenny Jacoby has an interesting look at how phone records suggest Oregon coach Dana Altman may have known more about the rape allegations against Kavell Bigby-Williams than he has said.

• Washington’s win over Kansas in St. Louis (originally scheduled as a would-be homecoming for Michael Porter Jr. when he had committed to the Huskies) is a strong addition to Mike Hopkins’s early head coaching résumé. While yes, the Huskies then went out and got drubbed by Gonzaga, winning a semi-road game against a highly ranked opponent with such a young team should lend some real credibility.

• Just seven undefeated teams remain: Villanova, Miami, TCU, Florida State, Arizona State, Mississippi State and Georgetown. The biggest hurdle for any of them this week will be Mississippi State’s trip to Cincinnati on Tuesday. And when Georgetown hosts Syracuse on Saturday, we might finally get some idea of how good the Hoyas, dominators of the country’s easiest schedule, actually are.

• In a little over a month of play, Arizona State went from being picked sixth in the Pac-12 to (likely) top 10 in the country and potentially the league favorite. They might have to simply out-duel teams some nights, but the Sun Devils aren’t going away.

• Wofford guard Fletcher Magee proved he’s more than just an All-America-level name by stunning Georgia Tech in the final seconds in a shot you should check out.

• Miami is looking like a legit contender, but that 57.1% mark from the free-throw line is gonna haunt them.

• After such a strong start, this was a rough week for Minnesota, which lost at Nebraska and Arkansas. The Golden Gophers have six consecutive home games to get things straightened out.

• I will boop any nose I see on my Instagram feed, and I suggest you should too.

Garoppolo, 49ers playing to a new, winning tune

"He's a natural leader. He doesn't struggle at any point in the game. When you see that in a position that he's in, it gives you extreme confidence."

The Eagles Have Held It Together on the O-Line, With Some Help From Jason Peters

ANAHEIM, Calif. — While the Eagles are spending the week in Southern California, practicing on a custom-made gridiron at Angel Stadium in between two of their biggest games of the season, Halapoulivaati Vaitai will make sure to make a specific call back to Philadelphia at least every other day.

Vaitai is a newlywed, having married his college sweetheart, Caitlin, this past summer. He’s from a big, close-knit Tongan family. But this call he makes doesn’t have to do with either. After practice, on the Saturday night before the game and in the hours before kickoff on Sunday, the Eagles’ young left tackle will either text or speak to the person who’s been in the position he’s in some 176 times before.

“If we have any doubt in our mind,” Vaitai says, “we just call on Jason Peters.”

Antonio Brown has Call God. The Eagles offensive line has Call J.P. Peters, who is rehabbing a season-ending knee injury, did not travel with the team for its eight-day West Coast road trip between games in Seattle and Los Angeles, but his 6’4”, 328-pound presence is still very much felt.

Not much about this week is ordinary for the Eagles. Their practice space is the outfield usually patrolled by Mike Trout, the Angels centerfielder and Eagles superfan. The baseball grass is more slippery than football grass, so players chose to practice with the longer metal screw-in cleats. But as the Eagles returned to practice trying to rebound from their 24-10 loss to Seattle, for Vaitai there was something that has been a constant since he was drafted by the Eagles about 19 months ago: He had the advice of Jason Peters running through his head.

One of the most indelible moments of the Eagles’ 10-2 season came early in the third quarter of the team’s Monday night win against Washington in Week 7. While blocking on a passing play, Peters—the nine-time Pro Bowl left tackle who began his career as an undrafted free agent out of Arkansas—toppled to the ground as a defender crashed into his right knee. While the medical staff zipped up Peters’ leg in an air cast, the entire Philadelphia bench emptied onto the field—and some of Washington’s, too—and the home crowd began chanting Peters’ name in tribute.

But what happened next was even more remarkable. Peters, while being carted off the field with a torn ACL and MCL that would throw some doubt on the 35-year-old’s playing future, started calling out specific instructions for his replacement, Vaitai, to finish out the game.

“He was telling me two things,” Vaitai says. “The first was, get off the ball. Playing left tackle is not an easy job, but he said, get off the ball. And the second was just calm down. He says to treat everything like practice.”

Last season the Eagles’ hot start hit a speed bump after right tackle Lane Johnson began serving his 10-game PED suspension. Between starting a rookie quarterback, and replacing one of the offense’s best players, Johnson, with another rookie, Vaitai, the offense stumbled. This year, after Peters went down, the veteran was determined to do everything he could to make sure his injury didn’t derail the 2017 Eagles season.

So far, it hasn’t: Vaitai’s play since stepping in for Peters in late October has been a welcome improvement over 2016, when the fifth-round pick out of TCU was pushed into a starting role, subbing for Johnson, for which he wasn’t quite ready. A few weeks ago, Eagles coach Doug Pederson praised the play of Big V—his nickname in the locker room, for the obvious reasons of his 320-pound frame and his tongue-twisting first name—and said he’d been giving him less help in protection schemes. This year, Vaitai says, the difference is simply the experience he gained from playing last year.

But like the team overall, Vaitai is coming off a difficult night in Seattle. Drawing a tough matchup against explosive Seahawks pass-rusher Frank Clark, he gave up two sacks and several quarterback hurries. One of the sacks came on a third-down stunt that the Seahawks ran against Vaitai and left guard Stefen Wisniewski, with defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson pressing outside and Clark looping back inside, where he had a free lane to Carson Wentz. Vaitai could only chase after him. On the second sack, Clark beat Vaitai with a move to the inside, after earlier in the game setting him up with the outside rush.

Seattle has a disruptive defensive front, and the offensive line had the added challenge of playing in one of the NFL’s noisiest venues. The Eagles offense used a silent count, triggering the snap through signals relayed from Wentz to right guard Brandon Brooks to center Jason Kelce. Keeping one eye on the signal coming through the guard on the opposite side of the line and the other on the defensive end is no small task. (Noise will not be an issue this week, in front of a Los Angeles crowd that is likely to have more Eagles fans than Rams fans.) No matter the circumstances, though, Vaitai was disappointed in his performance. So he sought out Peters, who told him to calm down, first of all.

“He says, ‘You look like you are all over the place, but that’s easily fixable,’ ” Vaitai says. “It was just all technique. [Clark’s] job is to get through me, and my job is to block him. I’m making it hard on myself, because I am doing a lot of things. Sometimes, I go off [course]. Because of nerves; I don’t know. But J.P. always says, trust the process. You are still young, and you don’t learn from your mistakes if you don’t make them.”

This kind of support system on the Eagles’ offensive line extends beyond just Peters and his 24-year-old replacement. Last season Brooks was diagnosed with an anxiety condition that manifested itself in extreme nausea and stomach pain, causing him to miss two games. “[Peters] was the first dude to step up and really have my back to be like, I know it is happening, I get it,” Brooks says. "Just being that positive voice, that rock to lean on when I was going through it. Someone you can really open up to and tell exactly what’s going on. He really helped me through that.”

Another example: Last Friday, the day before the team charter left for Seattle, Kelce stopped at the locker of Chance Warmack. The former No. 10 overall pick by the Titans played earlier this season in a left guard platoon with Wisniewski but now serves as a backup. Warmack would not even enter the game last Sunday, but that didn’t stop Kelce from going over with Warmack his spacing on a pass play they’d run on the practice field that day.

“Honestly, that’s why I think we have so much success—because we just communicate all the time,” Warmack says. “There’s no dumb question. And that’s not just limited to the offensive line; that’s everybody. I could go to the defensive line, and ask them a question about something, and they’re going to tell me. There’s always information floating around this locker room, so if you need help with something, you can get it anywhere.”

For Vaitai, the first resource is Peters, whom he’d grown up watching and randomly met in a Dallas-area shopping mall while Vaitai was still playing for TCU. Never did Vaitai imagine that Peters would become his mentor, much less that he’d be replacing him for an Eagles team at the top of the NFC. As both Vaitai and the Eagles offense try to get back on track this week, they have another tough challenge against Wade Phillips and a talented Rams defensive front. But instead of letting doubt creep in, Vaitai is intent on learning from his mistakes. Always at the top of his mind is that same, simple piece of advice he’s heard every week from Peters: Get off the ball. To win on the offensive line, you have to beat the defensive end to the spot he’s trying to beat you to.

By the time the Eagles finished practice Wednesday night, the powerful Santa Ana winds had started to carry down a faint smell of the raging fires about 50 miles north in Los Angeles. Players finished their post-practice workouts and treatment; showered and drank Kombucha; and boarded buses for the 20-minute ride back to the hotel. Vaitai had one remaining part of his routine: making that call back to Philadelphia.

Introducing SPORTS ILLUSTRATED TV, your new home for classic sports movies, award-winning documentaries, original sports programming and features. Start your seven-day free trial of SI TV now on Amazon Channels.

Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.

The Eagles Have Held It Together on the O-Line, With Some Help From Jason Peters

ANAHEIM, Calif. — While the Eagles are spending the week in Southern California, practicing on a custom-made gridiron at Angel Stadium in between two of their biggest games of the season, Halapoulivaati Vaitai will make sure to make a specific call back to Philadelphia at least every other day.

Vaitai is a newlywed, having married his college sweetheart, Caitlin, this past summer. He’s from a big, close-knit Tongan family. But this call he makes doesn’t have to do with either. After practice, on the Saturday night before the game and in the hours before kickoff on Sunday, the Eagles’ young left tackle will either text or speak to the person who’s been in the position he’s in some 176 times before.

“If we have any doubt in our mind,” Vaitai says, “we just call on Jason Peters.”

Antonio Brown has Call God. The Eagles offensive line has Call J.P. Peters, who is rehabbing a season-ending knee injury, did not travel with the team for its eight-day West Coast road trip between games in Seattle and Los Angeles, but his 6’4”, 328-pound presence is still very much felt.

Not much about this week is ordinary for the Eagles. Their practice space is the outfield usually patrolled by Mike Trout, the Angels centerfielder and Eagles superfan. The baseball grass is more slippery than football grass, so players chose to practice with the longer metal screw-in cleats. But as the Eagles returned to practice trying to rebound from their 24-10 loss to Seattle, for Vaitai there was something that has been a constant since he was drafted by the Eagles about 19 months ago: He had the advice of Jason Peters running through his head.

One of the most indelible moments of the Eagles’ 10-2 season came early in the third quarter of the team’s Monday night win against Washington in Week 7. While blocking on a passing play, Peters—the nine-time Pro Bowl left tackle who began his career as an undrafted free agent out of Arkansas—toppled to the ground as a defender crashed into his right knee. While the medical staff zipped up Peters’ leg in an air cast, the entire Philadelphia bench emptied onto the field—and some of Washington’s, too—and the home crowd began chanting Peters’ name in tribute.

But what happened next was even more remarkable. Peters, while being carted off the field with a torn ACL and MCL that would throw some doubt on the 35-year-old’s playing future, started calling out specific instructions for his replacement, Vaitai, to finish out the game.

“He was telling me two things,” Vaitai says. “The first was, get off the ball. Playing left tackle is not an easy job, but he said, get off the ball. And the second was just calm down. He says to treat everything like practice.”

Last season the Eagles’ hot start hit a speed bump after right tackle Lane Johnson began serving his 10-game PED suspension. Between starting a rookie quarterback, and replacing one of the offense’s best players, Johnson, with another rookie, Vaitai, the offense stumbled. This year, after Peters went down, the veteran was determined to do everything he could to make sure his injury didn’t derail the 2017 Eagles season.

So far, it hasn’t: Vaitai’s play since stepping in for Peters in late October has been a welcome improvement over 2016, when the fifth-round pick out of TCU was pushed into a starting role, subbing for Johnson, for which he wasn’t quite ready. A few weeks ago, Eagles coach Doug Pederson praised the play of Big V—his nickname in the locker room, for the obvious reasons of his 320-pound frame and his tongue-twisting first name—and said he’d been giving him less help in protection schemes. This year, Vaitai says, the difference is simply the experience he gained from playing last year.

But like the team overall, Vaitai is coming off a difficult night in Seattle. Drawing a tough matchup against explosive Seahawks pass-rusher Frank Clark, he gave up two sacks and several quarterback hurries. One of the sacks came on a third-down stunt that the Seahawks ran against Vaitai and left guard Stefen Wisniewski, with defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson pressing outside and Clark looping back inside, where he had a free lane to Carson Wentz. Vaitai could only chase after him. On the second sack, Clark beat Vaitai with a move to the inside, after earlier in the game setting him up with the outside rush.

Seattle has a disruptive defensive front, and the offensive line had the added challenge of playing in one of the NFL’s noisiest venues. The Eagles offense used a silent count, triggering the snap through signals relayed from Wentz to right guard Brandon Brooks to center Jason Kelce. Keeping one eye on the signal coming through the guard on the opposite side of the line and the other on the defensive end is no small task. (Noise will not be an issue this week, in front of a Los Angeles crowd that is likely to have more Eagles fans than Rams fans.) No matter the circumstances, though, Vaitai was disappointed in his performance. So he sought out Peters, who told him to calm down, first of all.

“He says, ‘You look like you are all over the place, but that’s easily fixable,’ ” Vaitai says. “It was just all technique. [Clark’s] job is to get through me, and my job is to block him. I’m making it hard on myself, because I am doing a lot of things. Sometimes, I go off [course]. Because of nerves; I don’t know. But J.P. always says, trust the process. You are still young, and you don’t learn from your mistakes if you don’t make them.”

This kind of support system on the Eagles’ offensive line extends beyond just Peters and his 24-year-old replacement. Last season Brooks was diagnosed with an anxiety condition that manifested itself in extreme nausea and stomach pain, causing him to miss two games. “[Peters] was the first dude to step up and really have my back to be like, I know it is happening, I get it,” Brooks says. "Just being that positive voice, that rock to lean on when I was going through it. Someone you can really open up to and tell exactly what’s going on. He really helped me through that.”

Another example: Last Friday, the day before the team charter left for Seattle, Kelce stopped at the locker of Chance Warmack. The former No. 10 overall pick by the Titans played earlier this season in a left guard platoon with Wisniewski but now serves as a backup. Warmack would not even enter the game last Sunday, but that didn’t stop Kelce from going over with Warmack his spacing on a pass play they’d run on the practice field that day.

“Honestly, that’s why I think we have so much success—because we just communicate all the time,” Warmack says. “There’s no dumb question. And that’s not just limited to the offensive line; that’s everybody. I could go to the defensive line, and ask them a question about something, and they’re going to tell me. There’s always information floating around this locker room, so if you need help with something, you can get it anywhere.”

For Vaitai, the first resource is Peters, whom he’d grown up watching and randomly met in a Dallas-area shopping mall while Vaitai was still playing for TCU. Never did Vaitai imagine that Peters would become his mentor, much less that he’d be replacing him for an Eagles team at the top of the NFC. As both Vaitai and the Eagles offense try to get back on track this week, they have another tough challenge against Wade Phillips and a talented Rams defensive front. But instead of letting doubt creep in, Vaitai is intent on learning from his mistakes. Always at the top of his mind is that same, simple piece of advice he’s heard every week from Peters: Get off the ball. To win on the offensive line, you have to beat the defensive end to the spot he’s trying to beat you to.

By the time the Eagles finished practice Wednesday night, the powerful Santa Ana winds had started to carry down a faint smell of the raging fires about 50 miles north in Los Angeles. Players finished their post-practice workouts and treatment; showered and drank Kombucha; and boarded buses for the 20-minute ride back to the hotel. Vaitai had one remaining part of his routine: making that call back to Philadelphia.

Introducing SPORTS ILLUSTRATED TV, your new home for classic sports movies, award-winning documentaries, original sports programming and features. Start your seven-day free trial of SI TV now on Amazon Channels.

Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.

California fires: Ventura residents take stock of losses

Scores of homes have been destroyed by an inferno in Ventura, California in the United States. Residents of the neighborhood hit hardest by the flames arrive to take stock of their losses as authorities issue a "purple" alert -- never used before -- in the Los Angeles region because of the extreme danger with winds.

California fires: Ventura residents take stock of losses

Scores of homes have been destroyed by an inferno in Ventura, California in the United States. Residents of the neighborhood hit hardest by the flames arrive to take stock of their losses as authorities issue a "purple" alert -- never used before -- in the Los Angeles region because of the extreme danger with winds.

California fires: Ventura residents take stock of losses

Scores of homes have been destroyed by an inferno in Ventura, California in the United States. Residents of the neighborhood hit hardest by the flames arrive to take stock of their losses as authorities issue a "purple" alert -- never used before -- in the Los Angeles region because of the extreme danger with winds.

California fires: Ventura residents take stock of losses

Scores of homes have been destroyed by an inferno in Ventura, California in the United States. Residents of the neighborhood hit hardest by the flames arrive to take stock of their losses as authorities issue a "purple" alert -- never used before -- in the Los Angeles region because of the extreme danger with winds.

Tom Brady, Bill Belichick Not Impressed By Bills In Latest ‘TB Times’

Tom Brady and Bill Belichick both are perfectionists. The New England Patriots quarterback and head coach each have an extreme... Read More »

India vs Sri Lanka: We had players coming off the field and vomiting, says Nic Pothas

Pollution stopped play Sunday in the third Test between India and Sri Lanka, and visiting coach Nic Pothas said the smog was so extreme that his players.

India vs Sri Lanka: We had players coming off the field and vomiting, says Nic Pothas

Pollution stopped play Sunday in the third Test between India and Sri Lanka, and visiting coach Nic Pothas said the smog was so extreme that his players.

Top 10 Takeaways From the 2018 World Cup Draw

The draw for World Cup 2018 took place on Friday, and there’s plenty to talk about. Here are my 10 thoughts on the event, starting with the shadow hanging over it all in these parts of the world, where it was yet another gut punch for USA fans given the painful reminder that their team won't be participating.

If the night of October 10 was the worst night for fans of the United States—that, after all, was the night the U.S. lost to Trinidad and Tobago and failed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1986—then Friday was the second-worst feeling. Seeing all 32 World Cup teams learn their group opponents reminded everyone that the U.S. somehow couldn’t advance from one of the world’s easiest qualifying regions and somehow couldn’t advance from a group that provided an enormous margin for error. It’s still a surreal feeling that the U.S. won’t be in Russia next year, but as Friday showed, it’s very much real, indeed.

As for the nations that will be participating:

There is no true Group of Death, and that’s a good thing

FIFA changed the rules for this World Cup draw and for the first time seeded all 32 teams (according to the FIFA rankings) instead of just the top eight. For the first time in recorded history, I find myself writing: Good idea, FIFA! Instead of using a format that produced wildly imbalanced groups over the years, this FIFA draw created much more balanced groups that are in the interest of sporting equality and good soccer. Yes, there are some difficult groups (like Group D with Argentina, Croatia, Iceland and Nigeria), and there are some easier ones (like Group A with Russia, Uruguay, Egypt and Saudi Arabia), but nobody truly got screwed, and nobody got a truly gift draw. Except for …

Well, yes, Russia did get a gift draw

You can start up the conspiracy theory machine for FIFA and the Russian hosts, who boast the lowest-ranked team in the entire 32-nation field. Of the 24 teams that Russia could have drawn for its opening-game opponent, it just so happened to get Saudi Arabia—the next-to-lowest-ranked team in the 32-nation field. If Russia can bag three points in its first game with the whole world watching, its chances of advancing will increase dramatically. Nor is it inconceivable that the Russians could follow that up with another couple of points against Group A opponents Uruguay and Egypt. World Cups are always more fun when the host country does well, and the chances of the host country to survive group play increased dramatically on Friday.

Mexico faces a big challenge in search of the elusive Fifth Game

El Tri has gone out in its fourth game of the last six World Cups, and so its quest for El Quinto Partido has taken on a mythical significance. Friday’s draw didn’t help, however. I think Mexico will advance from a group that includes Germany, Sweden and South Korea—although Sweden could improve dramatically if Zlatan Ibrahimovic comes out of international retirement—but the problem for Mexico is who stands in its way. It will be awfully hard to take first place in its group ahead of defending champion Germany, and if Mexico finishes second it will likely have to face Brazil in the round of 16. If Mexico fulfills its quest for the Fifth Game, it will have to earn it.

The opening days of the World Cup have some terrific games

Forget the stinker on the very first day between Russia and Saudi Arabia. The three days after that each have some mouth-watering matchups. Day Two features Portugal against Spain, which will pit Cristiano Ronaldo’s European champions against my pick to win the tournament. Let’s just say there will be plenty of familiarity between the Spanish club-based players in this game. Day Three brings us Argentina-Iceland, which will have Lionel Messi (going after his elusive World Cup triumph) coming up against the tournament’s most popular underdog. Day Four gives us Germany-Mexico, an opportunity for El Tri to measure itself up against the defending champs.

African teams are set up for a resurgence

Back in the 1990s, everyone said it wouldn’t be long before an African team won the World Cup. We’re still waiting for it, and in fact African teams have greatly underperformed in recent World Cups (and have yet to put a team in the semifinals). That could change this time around. I have Egypt, Nigeria and Senegal emerging from their groups, and I would be stunned if one or more of them doesn’t make the quarterfinals. (Morocco, which didn’t give up a goal in six final-round qualifying games, could also make a run.) In fact, this tournament could see Egypt’s Mohamed Salah break out into becoming a legit global superstar. The Egyptians should be one of the happiest teams from Friday’s draw after being put in a group with Russia, Uruguay and Saudi Arabia.

Introducing SPORTS ILLUSTRATED TV, your new home for classic sports movies, award-winning documentaries and original sports programming such as Planet Futbol TV, SI TV’s weekly soccer show. Start your seven-day free trial now on Amazon Channels.

Can Belgium break its quarterfinal curse?

Based on talent alone, this glorious Belgium team is one of the top four nations in the tournament. But will it become one of the top four teams by making the semifinals? Belgium went out in the quarterfinals of both World Cup 2014 (to Argentina) and Euro 2016 (to Wales), and if it fails to make a deep run this time around, there will be plenty of questions about whether this amazing generation has run out of chances. Perhaps the biggest problem in the last two major tournaments was coach Marc Wilmots, who was hopelessly out of his depth. Roberto Martínez is an upgrade. Belgium drew a relatively easy group (England, Tunisia, Panama), and even the second round shouldn’t be a killer, but a potential quarterfinal game against Brazil would be a real measuring stick of whether Belgium can win the World Cup.

A few groups are remarkably balanced

Consider Group H, with Poland, Colombia, Senegal and Japan. Nobody in the group will be seen as a real threat to win the tournament, but you could envision scenarios in which any of the four advance to the knockout rounds. It’s not a Group of Death, but rather a Group of Extreme Parity. That should make things fun for neutrals, who simply want to see as much entertaining soccer as possible. The same type of parity can be seen in Group D (Argentina, Croatia, Iceland, Nigeria). The only team that most would think has a chance to win the World Cup is Argentina—and even that point is debatable—but all four are good teams. Why it took so long for FIFA to seed all 32 teams at the draw is beyond me, but I’m glad it finally happened.

One challenge at this World Cup will be for international soccer to get its mojo back

With more balanced groups, one hopes that the international game will begin to have a resurgence in comparison to the club game. One unfortunate development in recent times has been the suffering in quality of international soccer, which has fallen significantly below that of club soccer. The measuring stick for quality these days is the UEFA Champions League, not the World Cup, and that’s a shame. We could use a World Cup that excites the masses around the world with the style of its play, but there’s certainly no guarantee that will happen.

Asia is the new Africa

I don’t have a single team from Asia advancing from its group. The current editions of Australia, Japan and South Korea just aren’t as good as the predecessors from their countries, and Saudi Arabia’s goal should be simply not to be as awful as the 2002 Saudi World Cup team was. One potential ray of hope for Asia is Iran, which was dominant in World Cup qualifying and could throw a scare into Portugal (just as Morocco could, too). But don’t look for the days of South Korea making the 2002 World Cup semifinals to repeat themselves in 2018.

Larry Walker Deserves Hall of Fame Enshrinement, but Faces a Difficult Road to Cooperstown

The following article is part of my ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2018 Hall of Fame ballot. Originally written for the 2013 election, it has been updated to reflect recent voting results as well as additional research, and was expanded for inclusion in The Cooperstown Casebook. For a detailed introduction to this year's ballot, please see here. For an introduction to JAWS, see here.

A three-time batting champion, five-time All-Star and seven-time Gold Glove winner—not to mention an excellent base runner—Larry Walker could do it all on the diamond. Had he done it for longer, there’s little question that he’d be en route to a plaque in the Hall of Fame, but his 17 seasons in the majors were marred by numerous injuries as well as the 1994–95 players’ strike.

Yet another great outfielder developed by the Montreal Expos—Hall of Famers Andre Dawson and Tim Raines and current ballot-mate Vladimir Guerrero being the most notable—Walker was the only one of that group who was actually born and raised in Canada, yet he spent less time playing for the Montreal faithful than any of them. He starred on the Expos' memorable 1994 team that compiled the best record in baseball before the strike that would curtail their championship dreams. After that, he took up residence with the Rockies, putting up eye-popping numbers at high altitude—numbers that, as we'll see, hold up well even once they’re brought back to earth.

Walker's relatively short career, high peak and extreme offensive environment put the JAWS system to the test. Via his excellence at the plate, in the field and on the bases, he compares favorably to the average Hall of Fame rightfielder even after all the adjustments are made, but for all of that, he's been lost in the shuffle on the overcrowded ballot. After getting 20.3% of the vote in his 2011 debut and gaining a few votes in '12 and '13, his support plummeted below 12% for two cycles, and only in 2017 climbed back above 20% (to all of 21.9%). Given the Hall’s 2014 rule change that shrunk candidacies from 15 years to 10, his likelihood of reaching 75% via the writers’ ballot is exceedingly slim since he has just two years of eligibility remaining after this one. That doesn’t mean it’s worth giving up on him, though finding space on yet another crowded ballot won’t be easy.

Walker was born in Maple Ridge, British Columbia in 1966, the offspring of Larry Sr. and Mary, who gave birth to sons Barry, Carey and Gary—I’m not making this up—before Larry Jr. As a youngster, he was more focused on playing hockey than baseball as a youth. In fact, he aspired to be an NHL goalie, and honed his skills by blocking the shots of friend and future Hockey Hall of Famer Cam Neely. Given that his high school didn’t even field a baseball team, the sport was a secondary focus, something he’d play for 10–15 games a year, until he was cut from a pair of Junior A hockey teams.

Walker wasn't drafted by a major league club, but he caught the eye of Expos scouting director Jim Fanning while playing for the Canadian team at the 1984 World Youth Championships in Saskatchewan,; his impressive home run with a wooden bat stood out among so many aluminum-swinging players.

Particularly willing to take a chance on a Canadian kid, the Expos signed Walker in November 1984 via a $1,500 bonus—paltry but not inappropriate given the rawness of his game. Walker described his background to Jonah Keri for the latter's 2014 history of the Expos, Up, Up, & Away:

“I played more fast-pitch [softball] than I did baseball for a little while there [as a teenager] ... My approach to hitting was, ‘Guy throws the ball, I try to hit it. If I hit it, I run.’ But the hard part was hitting something with a wrinkle in it. I had never seen a forkball before. Sliders and curves killed me.”

Walker’s outstanding athleticism, freakish hand-eye coordination and mental approach stood out to his first minor league manager, Ken Brett (older brother of Hall of Famer George Brett), who oversaw him in Utica in 1986. “He was just so tough,”?recalled Brett in 1993 of the 18-year-old who hit just .223 with two homers in 62 games. He had yet to master the game’s basic rules; once he cut across the diamond from third to first after a hit-and-run resulted in a fly out, failing to stop and re-touch touch second. “He was as fast a learner as I’ve ever seen. He never made the same mistake twice,”? said third base coach Gene Glynn.

Because of his inexperience, Walker took some time to rise through the minors. His progress was further slowed by a cartilage tear in his right knee, suffered while playing winter ball in Mexico in the 1987–88 off-season. Reconstructive surgery cost him all of the 1988 campaign, and even in the final year of his career, the knee still bothered him. After hitting .270/.361/.421 with 12 homers and 36 steals at Triple A Indianapolis in 1989, he made his major league debut on Aug. 16 of that year, singling off the Giants’ Mike LaCoss, walking three times and scoring twice. Walker could have retired with that 1.000 on-base percentage, but instead he pressed on. He hit just .170/.264/.170 in his 56-plate-appearance cup of coffee that season, finishing in a 1-for-22 slump.

Ranked No. 42 on Baseball America’s top prospects list the following spring, Walker claimed the regular rightfield job, at times playing in an outfield that featured Raines and Marquis Grissom. His rate stats weren't great at first glance (.241/.326/.434), but that was good for a 112 OPS+, to which he added 19 homers and 21 steals en route to a 3.4 WAR season. Walker continued to develop into a potent threat, hitting a combined .293/.366/.501 for a 134 OPS+ over the next four seasons with an average of 20 homers, 19 steals, excellent defense (+10 runs per year) thanks to his sure hands and strong arm and 4.5 WAR. He did this all despite averaging just 130 games due to DL stints in 1991 and '93, not to mention the ’94 strike. Like fellow ballot-mate Vladimir Guerrero, he probably wasn't helped by playing on Olympic Stadium's notoriously hard artificial turf.

Walker’s 1992 season was his most valuable in Montreal; he hit .301/.353/.506 with 23 homers, 5.4 WAR and his first All-Star and Gold Glove honors. He was heading toward another good year in 1994 despite suffering a torn right rotator cuff, which forced him to first base. Before moving from rightfield, he made one of the season’s most memorable gaffes during an April 24 Sunday night game on ESPN. He handed a foul ball caught off the bat of Mike Piazza to a child in the stands, forgetting that there were only two outs; the two-base error became moot after Pedro Martinez yielded a homer on the next pitch. The Expos lost that night, but the team was a major league best 74–40 (.649) when the players struck on August 11, with Walker batting .322/.394/.587, running eighth in both batting average and slugging percentage.

Alas, that marked the end of his time in Canada. With general manager Kevin Malone under strict orders to cut payroll in the wake of the strike, the Expos didn't even offer Walker arbitration, and traded Grissom, staff ace Ken Hill and closer John Wetteland once the strike ended. The 28-year-old Walker signed a four-year, $22.5 million deal with the Rockies shortly after the stoppage ended.

In Colorado, Walker stepped into the most favorable hitting environment of the post-World War II era. He hit 36 homers for the wild-card-winning Rockies in 1995, his first season in Denver, to go with a .306/.381/.607 line. Still, in an environment that featured 5.4 runs per game, his OPS+ fell by 20 points—that's 20% relative to the league—from 151 to 131. After missing over two months of the 1996 season due to a broken collarbone, he returned to full strength in ’97 and hit a staggering .366/.452/.720 for a 178 OPS+, leading the league in on-base and slugging percentages as well as home runs (49). Only Tony Gwynn's NL-best .372 batting average prevented Walker from the rare slash-stat Triple Crown, but his 409 total bases were the most since Stan Musial's 429 in 1948. He also swiped 33 bases in 41 attempts, making him the 18th player in the 30–30 club to that point; his home run total remains the highest of the 38 players to accomplish the feat through 2017.

Even after adjusting for the scoring environment, Walker's 1997 campaign was worth an NL-best 9.8 WAR thanks to the peripheral value he added via defense (+10 runs), baserunning and double play avoidance (+9 runs). In the 21 seasons since, only Barry Bonds (three times), Mike Trout (twice), Sammy Sosa, Alex Rodriguez and Bryce Harper have topped that mark. Walker won the NL MVP award going away, receiving 22 of 28 first-place votes.

That year also produced one of the indelible highlights of Walker’s career, and a reminder of his reputation as a clubhouse cut-up. Facing lefty Randy Johnson—a former minor league teammate—in the All-Star Game, Walker watched the Big Unit’s first pitch sail over his head and to the backstop. Reprising John Kruk’s similar approach in the 1993 All-Star Game, he turned his batting helmet backward and took the next pitch as a righty before returning to the lefthanded batter’s box and working a walk, to the amusement of fans as well as both teams.

Walker’s 1997 performance proved impossible for him to top, but he won batting titles in each of the next two years, hitting .363/.445/.630 (158 OPS+) in 1998 and .379/.458/.710 (164 OPS+) in '99. All three triple-slash stats led the league in the latter year, putting him in select company as the first player to lead the league in all three categories since 1980 and the first of a new wave of players to do it during the game's high-offense years. Unfortunately, trips to the DL for elbow and rib cage injuries limited him to 257 games and a combined 10.8 WAR for those two seasons—still All-Star caliber, but not good enough to crack the league top 10.

After signing a six-year, $75 million extension with the Rockies, Walker continued to battle injuries, missing major time in 2000 with a stress fracture in his elbow. He rebounded in 2001, playing 142 games and hitting .350/.449/.662 (160 OPS+) for his third and final batting title. His 38 homers were the second-highest total of his career, as was his 7.8 WAR, which placed fourth in the league. He played two more seasons in Denver, but spent the first 2 1/2 months of the 2004 season on the disabled list with a groin strain. After returning to play 38 games with Colorado, he was traded to the Cardinals in a waiver-period deal.

Coming down from altitude, Walker hit a robust .280/.393/.560 with 11 homers—including two grand slams in a five-game span—in just 44 games for St. Louis, then hit a combined .293/.379/.707 with a pair of homers in each of the three rounds of the postseason as St. Louis made it all the way to the World Series before being swept by the Red Sox. He lasted just one more year, battling a herniated disc in his neck but hitting a very respectable .289/.384/.502 in 100 games, though he went 3-for-28 in the postseason. Nonetheless, his teammates spoke of his career in glowing terms, as did manager Tony La Russa: “Most people know the kind of player that he has been his whole career. I mean, just a gifted, all-around everything. In fact, I think he probably would be in the top three of just about every category: baserunning, defense, handling the bat.”?

?

Is that a Hall of Fame career? Walker's key counting stats (2,160 hits, 383 home runs) are low for the era, particularly when one considers the advantages gained from taking 31% of his career plate appearances at Coors Field., where Walker put up video-game numbers: .381/.462/.710 with 154 homers in 2,501 plate appearances. Elsewhere, he hit a still-respectable .282/.372/.501. In other words, Coors added 28 points of on-base percentage and 64 points of slugging percentage to his lifetime batting line.

Looking at it a different way, the 203-point gap between his overall home OPS (1.068 including his time in Montreal and St. Louis) and his road OPS (.865) is the third-largest among players with at least 7,000 career PA, trailing only Klein (1.027 at home, .813 on the road, for a .214 difference) and fellow Hall of Famer Bobby Doerr (.929 at home, 716 on the road, for a .213 difference). Five of the other seven players in the top 10—Earl Averill, Ron Santo, Wade Boggs, Jimmie Foxx and Kirby Puckett—are also enshrined, and 2019 candidate Todd Helton, a former teammate of Walker’s, is close to the JAWS standard at first base.

Baseball-Reference.com has a statistic called AIR that indexes the combination of park and league offensive levels into one number to provide a measure of how favorable or unfavorable the conditions a player faced were, as just OPS+ or ERA+ adjust a player’s stats for his environment. According to the site's definition, AIR "measures the offensive level of the leagues and parks the player played in relative to an all-time average of a .335 OBP and .400 Slugging Percentage. Over 100 indicates a favorable setting for hitters, under 100 a favorable setting for pitchers." Walker's AIR is tied for the fifth-highest among players with at least 4,000 plate appearances, with everyone above him carrying a distinctly purple tinge to their careers:

Even after letting the air out of Walker's hitting, he's tied with Chipper Jones, David Ortiz and Slidin’ Billy Hamilton for 43th all-time in OPS+ at 141 (7,000 plate appearance minimum). That's certainly Cooperstown caliber as he's right ahead of Hall of Famers Duke Snider (140) and Reggie Jackson (139) and ballot-mades Vlad Guerrero and Gary Sheffield (both 140). The problem is that many of the players on that list accumulated around 30% more plate appearances over the courses of their careers than did Walker, who just couldn't stay on the field consistently enough. He topped 143 games just once (153 in 1997), and even excluding the strike years, averaged just 129 games a year from '90 through 2003 before he really started to break down at age 37. In his seven best seasons according to OPS+, he averaged just 125 games.

Moving from a rate stat to a counting stat, batting runs—the component of WAR that measures a player relative to the average hitter in his league—upholds Walker’s elite standing. Walker’s total of 420 ranks 63rd, slightly ahead of four players with 3,000 hits (Dave Winfield, Eddie Murray, Tony Gwynn and Rod Carew), the first two with over 400 homers, the last two with a combined 15 batting titles. In other words, he created as much value with his bat as players routinely lauded for major milestones.

Batting runs is included within WAR, and so are all of the other things that Walker did—and did well. He was 40 runs above average in baserunning and another 10 in double play avoidance. The extra 50 runs—roughly five wins—rank 53rd among players in the post-1960 expansion period. He sits between Alex Rodriguez and Bonds and within 10 runs of five players who stole at least twice as many bases as Walker’s 230, namely Cesar Cedeno, Roberto Alomar, Bonds, Omar Moreno and Delino DeShields. Those players all had more apparent speed than Walker, but scouts saw above-average baserunning potential in him as early as 1984, and two scouting reports from the 1993–94 period in the Hall of Fame’s Diamond Mines database graded him as a 6 (“plus”) in both speed and baserunning. On the defensive side, according to Total Zone and (from 2003 onward) Defensive Runs Saved, Walker was 94 runs above average for his career thanks to his strong arm, range and instincts, a total that ranks eighth all-time among rightfielders.

Add it all up, and Walker's 72.6 career WAR ranks 11th among rightfielders, the highest of any player from that position who is currently outside the Hall of Fame and ahead of 14 out of the 24 who are enshrined. It’s 0.6 below the average enshrined rightfielder because the top-heavy list includes Musial, Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Mel Ott and Frank Robinson, all of whom are over 100 WAR; the rightfield standard (73.2) is the highest in my system, 1.3 wins higher than the next-highest position (centerfield, 71.9) and nearly nine wins higher than leftfield (64.5). Meanwhile, Walker’s peak WAR of 44.6 ranks 11th, the highest of any rightfielder outside the Hall except Shoeless Joe Jackson and 1.6 wins above the standard. He’s 10th in JAWS, the best rightfielder outside Cooperstown by this measure, and 0.5 points above the standard.

The Bill James Hall of Fame Standards and Hall of Fame Monitor stats—which dish out credit for things like seasons or careers with batting averages above .300, leagues led in key stats and playoff appearances (Walker hit .230/.350/.510 in 121 postseason plate appearances, good but hardly exceptional)—place Walker above the bar of the average Hall of Famer. In the latter metric, his score of 148 considers him “a virtual cinch.” Those metrics, though, weren't designed with Coors Field or the sustained scoring levels of the 1993–2009 period as a whole in mind. That alone is a major reason why JAWS came into being: I wanted a tool that could adjust accordingly.

Initially, I came down on the side of a "definite maybe" on Walker, but with further study I've become increasingly convinced that he is worthy of a spot in Cooperstown. That said, the 10-slot ballot has been so crowded in recent years that I left him off my virtual one (I don’t get a real one until the 2021 cycle, by which time his eligibility will have lapsed) in both 2015 and 2016 before finding room again last year. Even virtually, those were agonizing cuts, because I’m convinced Walker belongs.

Actual BBWAA voters have similarly struggled to find a spot on the ballot for Walker. He debuted at 20.3% in 2011, with subsequent percentages of 22.9, 21.6, 10.2, 11.8, 15.5 and then 21.9% in 2017. That’s no-man’s land when it comes to voting history. Since 1966, the lowest percentage any candidate has received in year seven while still being elected by the writers is Bert Blylven (35.4%), who needed 14 years to gain entry, time that Walker doesn’t have given an eligibility window that’s been truncated to 10 years. Blyleven also has the distinction of the lowest such percentage by any writer-elected candidate in his fourth-to-last year of eligibility, 62.7%. Walker is a long ways off from either figure.

Why is there so much resistance to Walker? Beyond the ballot crowd and the injuries, he’s in something of a perfect storm. As a great all-around player, a significant chunk of his value—the part stemming from on-base percentage, baserunning and defense—isn’t reflected in his traditional counting stats, and even in this day and age, some voters never get beyond those. Candidates as varied as Ron Santo, Bobby Grich, Kenny Lofton and Jim Edmonds have struggled to an even greater degree in getting attention from the voters, falling off the ballot with less than 5% in their first years of eligibility. To be fair, offense is more easily measured than defense, which helps to explain why Edgar Martinez, who spent 72% of his career as a DH, has gotten two or three times as much support as Walker.

And then there’s the Coors effect, which is more unique. Voters—particularly those on the Veterans Committee—were easily suckered by shiny offensive stats from the 1920s and ’30s, but today they’re more wary, in part because of the inflated offensive levels throughout the game during Walker’s time as well as the presumption that PEDs had something to do with it. Walker, it should be noted, has never been connected to such allegations, but his numbers may not stand out next to some of his contemporaries who have.

With just two years of eligibility remaining after this one, Walker would appear to have almost no shot at getting to 75% in that span. Still, even getting to 50%—gaining 10 points a year, roughly—could make his candidacy stand out among those eligible for the Today’s Game Era Committee ballot, particularly given that the pool of eligible players will largely consist of those who received single-digit support during short stays on the ballot. Even so, the various small-committee processes haven’t elected a former player since Bill Mazeroski in 2001, and so long as the Hall of Fame insists on considering executives and managers side-by-side with players, there’s a danger that the voters’ focus will always fall there first. In other words, any road Walker travels to Cooperstown is likely to be a rocky one.

Russian tourism chiefs warn England fans to drink just 'a pint' before and after games to avoid World Cup violence

Russian tourism chiefs have warned England fans their safety will be at risk if they get drunk at the World Cup, advising them to limit themselves to “a pint” before and after games there. Ahead of Friday's draw for next summer’s finals, Visit Russia’s Igor Karzov also revealed his country’s security services would closely monitor British supporters, who he claimed “love to drink a lot”. Britain’s most senior football police officer last month told The Daily Telegraph England fans travelling to the World Cup they were in danger of being subjected to an “extreme level of violence”. Karzov sought to play down the threat highlighted by Mark Roberts, of the National Police Chiefs’ Council, following the brutal attacks on England fans by Russian hooligans at last year’s European Championship. But he added: “It’s very important to know what you should do and what you can do and shouldn’t do in Russia because the culture is different. “Let’s say, British fans love to drink a lot. We know that and I can’t guarantee safety if fans are really, really drunk and offensive. “We can’t guarantee everything’s going to be okay in that case. But, in general, I think there shouldn’t be any precautions. “I would recommend to try to make sure that you don’t drink a lot when you’re in Russia. It’s okay to have a pint before or after the game. “The security services will have a high level of control in Russia so they will try to make sure that people are not drunk so they will be watching and set up control if something is going. “They will restrict alcohol to avoid any possible conflicts. The police will make sure everything is okay.” Roberts last month warned Russian hooligans posed a genuine threat to visiting fans next summer, despite a crackdown on football violence by the country’s authorities. England supporters were specifically targeted by hammer and iron bar-wielding thugs ahead of the nations’ Euro 2016 opener in Marseille last year, which left two men in comas fighting for their lives. UK Government officials feared the attacks were state-sanctioned after a senior Russian parliamentarian posted on Twitter: “Well done lads, keep it up!”, and president Vladimir Putin joked: “I don’t know how 200 fans could hurt several thousand Englishmen.” But Karzov said: “I don’t want to correspond the thing that happened in France to the World Cup because, in general, people in Russia are very hospitable and, for them, this is the biggest event in their life. “So they’re going to try, most of them, to make sure the foreign fans coming to Russia are feeling awesome and would enjoy the game and also enjoy the cities and the country.”

Chelsea manager Conte sent to stands after arguing decision

The Chelsea boss was booted from the touchline after an extreme reaction to one of referee Neil Swarbrick's decisions

Chelsea manager Conte sent to stands after arguing decision

The Chelsea boss was booted from the touchline after an extreme reaction to one of referee Neil Swarbrick's decisions

Usando Yahoo accetti che Yahoo e i suoi partners utilizzino cookies per fini di personalizzazione e altre finalità