24 Hours in Death Valley: 8,000 Pounds of Pork and Saturday Football

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On a weekend with a Clemson home game, The Smoking Pig, a barbecue joint in Pendleton, SC, will dish out over 8,000 pounds of pork in just three days.

In fact, the restaurant is only open for those three days of the week – Friday, Saturday, Sunday – because they cannot keep enough food in stock to properly function for a seven days per week schedule. Due to the sheer volume in business, they don’t even answer the phone on the weekends.

Luckily, we made it there on a Friday night so it was prime business hours. And be ‘we’ I mean myself along with four other writers for The Daily Orange, Syracuse University’s student-run newspaper, as well as a SU beat-writer for the Post-Standard.

We piled out of the 1999 red Ford Explorer, stretching our legs and yawning, dragging and in need of food after a 14-hour car-ride from Syracuse, NY to Clemson, SC. We were in town to cover the SU-Clemson football game the next night, and decided to eat at this place, dubbed “The Best BBQ in South Carolina,” to taste the locale.

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The waitress told us it’d be a 90-minute wait – at minimum – to get inside the restaurant. Initially, we balked at the idea, but eventually decided to wait it out because, really, how many times would we be here?

Resolving to stay, we drove down the street to a gas station to pick up supplies and, after returning to the “parking lot,” which was really a grassy field behind the small, ranch-style house-turned-BBQ-hotbed, we laid down a blanket, popped the trunk, and waited.

That’s right: We tailgated a meal.

And it was well worth it.

My beef brisket fell apart at the touch of a plastic fork, the pork sandwich was tender, and the sweet roll – 51% bread, 49% butter – topped it all off. After a few bites, aside from the occasional gulps of delicious, genuine sweet tea, I more or less blacked out from an overload of incredible southern cooking.

Following the meal, the guys dropped me off at the University where I reunited with Chandler Peterson, my friend from back home in New Hampshire. I hadn’t seen him since early this past summer, so it was great to catch up.

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Chandler is furthest left. He’s not the Geico gecko, unfortunately.

Chandler showed me the wonderful southern hospitality you hear so much about and showed me around the next day. The campus’ appeal was significantly increased by the fact that it was 75-degrees, which compared nicely to the frigid SU campus that was hovering around 40-degrees when we had left at 2 A.M. on Friday morning.

It was with Chandler that I first got a sense for what southern life was like.

South Carolina is a place where sweet tea may as well run from the tap and the drawl softens every word, like butter liberally slathered on a sweet roll.

And the people there are as hospitable as advertised.

A few of us, leaving The Smoking Pig on Friday, were actually thanked by Clemson-clad fans on a table by the door for coming and they wished us to have the best time while we were down here.

Uh, what. This was quite a different environment than Buffalo a few weeks ago.

When Chandler and I left his dorm on Saturday afternoon, one of the kids in his hall smirked once he saw my orange wasn’t the “right kind” and said, “You know you’re gonna lose, right?”

Later, a six year old girl was walking past me outside the stadium and when she saw my Syracuse tee-shirt she yelled, “Go Tigers!” with a toothy grin, then shyly buried her face in her father’s purple-and-orange plaid button-up. She waited about five paces before glancing back. She smiled, and then stuck her tongue out.

Seriously, a six-year old girl and a very factual, “You’re going to lose” guy was all the trash-talk I heard in South Carolina.

Some people even wished SU good luck. What a strange, friendly place.

I found this out as I walked around with Chandler and his friends before the game. At Syracuse, a few people try to stake out a patch of grass near the parking lot and cook up a burger or two before heading into the Carrier Dome. In Clemson, tailgating was the main event.

As far as I could see there were Clemson tents next to trucks as grill smoke wafted into the air. If a plane flew overhead, the people above would think the grass was replaced by carpets of purple and orange emblazoned with paw prints.

The tailgating scene was a legitimate as it gets as people converted buses, U-Hauls, and, in one case, a retired fire truck to meet their needs. In the bed of each truck there were two, sometimes three, separate televisions all playing the different college football games of the day. And while the parents sat around, watching and drinking beer while their kids slid down grassy hills on flattened cardboard boxes. Music blasted from every direction. It was the end of October, yet 75-degrees.

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One of the smaller fields for tailgating.

In one group of about 40 tailgaters, only four people actually had tickets. That’s how big tailgating is: You drive in from an hour away to sit outside the stadium and watch the game on TV while listening to the distant roar of the crowd.

The crowd in Death Valley didn’t have much to cheer for at the start, though. I’ll leave the logistical recap to one of the guys from the trip, Phil D’Abbraccio, and his solid gamer in The Daily Orange, but from a perspective where the experience superseded the game, it couldn’t have gone better.

From touching Howard’s Rock to seeing the Tigers storm the field via the hill to sitting ten feet away from the field to hearing a stadium packed full of 80,031 fans thunderously yell at 110 decibels on third down…it was incredible.

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It’s a widely-known fact that football in the south is an end-all, be-all for many people, but being there made me realize how all-encompassing it really is.

The Daily Orange Sports Editor Jesse Dougherty, one of the guys on the trip, wrote a great column about how Syracuse will never be as good as Clemson simply because the football culture between the two is just so different.

The Clemson faithful stand during the entire game. They have a booming loudspeaker for one student to bark instructions on chants and cheers to his classmates. They allow every student to come on the field, put arms around one another and sing the alma mater after every game.

That’s what separates Clemson from Syracuse.

Phil D’Abbraccio put it best when we pulled into campus for the first time on Friday night.

“Oh man,” he said. “Where do I get my transfer papers?”

Sam Fortier is a freshman at Syracuse University. He likes baseball, crunchy peanut butter, and Kanye West. He’s not a fan of purposefully misspelt business names (“Kathy’s Kut & Kurl”). You can follow him on Twitter @Sam4TR or email him at sam.fortier@yahoo.com

Additional pictures:

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Respect – Not #Re2pect – For Derek Jeter

Derek Jeter has left the game of baseball in all the wrong ways.

The on-field product has severely slipped, the 2014 MLB Postseason was just the third time in the last 18 years that Jeter did not play October baseball, and the media send-off missed the mark.

When J.R. Moehringer’s article on Jeter appeared in the October 13 issue of ESPN the Magazine, I was disappointed.

A teary elegy, sobbing the farewell of ‘The Captain’, is a 9000-word behemoth which fails to capture tone and tenor of retirement, as well as why Jeter is great.

To be clear: I usually like J.R. Moehringer’s writing. As the 2013 Guest Editor of Best American Sports Writing – one of my favorite series – he did a phenomenal job in choosing an excellent array of work to read. “Resurrecting the Champ” is also a classic.

But I did not like this profile.

To start off, Moehringer launches into a reflection about death.

He acts as if Jeter is physically wasting away, not just as a ballplayer, but as a person.

He compares Jeter to Lou Gehrig, as if Gehrig’s neurodegenerative disease somehow equates to Derek Jeter naturally aging past his prime.

Speaking statistically, in their last full seasons, Gehrig got on base at a rate 37 points lower than his career average. Jeter’s OBP fell by 73 points. Gehrig was 35; Jeter, 40. Gehrig was gone too soon, Jeter left too late.

The drastic writing – “After his final game at Fenway Park we’ll never see him again” – only serves to build the hype that Jeter will disappear completely once he leaves the field. But in this digital age, no one can truly disappear, except for maybe Steve Bartman.

This abandonment insecurity is even less rational because Jeter’s publicly stated multiple times that he’d like to own a team someday. Plus, he’s already started a book-publishing side business. Most likely we’ll see him.

Then he begins eulogizing Jeter.

“RIP, Captain,” he writes. “Requiéscat in pace, amen.”

We won’t, as Moehringer puts it, see Jeter until the sun burns out.

Doesn’t this seem just a little over-dramatic? Exaggeration, maybe? Doesn’t this seem as if one player has been glorified until he’s bigger than the game?

This summer, Jeter did supersede baseball when before games he received a bronze bat here, some cowboy boots there as well as cuff links, crabs, stadium seats, a paddleboard, and a kayak. Why did everyone start giving him gifts?

Those presents from different MLB franchises are like that distant Aunt who gets you socks. It’s slightly awkward because you don’t want them, but they felt inclined to get you something.

Those presents and the final at bats in each park this season contributed to what Moehringer calls the “Long Goodbye”, giving a name to the agonizingly slow, eight-month crawl around the bases toward retirement.

He admits that it’s mostly been a downer what with the severe drop-off in individual production and team’s futility. But, it has been broken up by special moments – Nike and Gatorade’s ad spots, the All-Star game, and what Moehringer perfectly calls the five goodbyes. Still, those special moments were few, far between, and lessened by their volume.

Moehringer mentions how he hears everyone around the stadium talking about how Jeter’s final days are ‘bittersweet’.

“The Long Goodbye was not sweet. It was bitter,” Moehringer writes. “And now it’s sad. Period.”

I’m not saying Jeter’s departure is not sad, because it is, but it’s not as one-sided as Moehringer claims.

He says the term ‘bittersweet’ is “soulless”, but he couldn’t be more wrong.

The word ‘bittersweet’ is a perfect description. There’s something to be said for mourning the final days of watching something you loved, but knowing it’ll all change.

Yes, it was sad to see Derek Jeter leaving the field for the last time, but it wasn’t all despair.  It was enjoyable to see that tug on the brim of the cap, that punchy swing, the grace at shortstop.

It’s a lot like college. I left my home of 18 years two months ago to come to Syracuse. I vividly remember my last day at home, of living there. It was sad. I’m close with my family and I love my house – I still call it my house. Simultaneously though, leaving home exhilarated me; expanding horizons and new ventures ahead. Life as I knew it was ending with tears one moment, smiles the next.

As Moehringer wrote, “Youth doesn’t bother to say goodbye.”

That farewell is bittersweet, with plenty of soul.

***

We should all celebrate Jeter because he was a good guy.

This is one facet of Moehringer’s argument.

He points out that Jeter was never involved in any of the sordid transgressions his teammates were.

Domestic abuse, check kiting, banned substances, drunken driving, assaulting a bartender, assaulting a security guard, perjury, probation violation, child sex abuse have all been connected to Jeter’s teammates in the past two decades.

I struggle to follow the logic that the absence of bad behavior should make fans like a player more.

This reminds me of another example. In high school, some kids leveraged a deal with their parents to earn rewards for good grades. An ‘A’ meant $50, and so on. When I asked for the same thing, my parents said I would never receive money for good grades, simply because good grades were a part of the expectation.

Alex Rodriguez, Jeter’s teammate for nine years, said in ESPN that Jeter’s stats were hard to achieve, “But being undefeated for 20 years? In New York City? That’s remarkable.”

It’s not his fault that we do so, but why do we celebrate Jeter just because he’s a good dude? Shouldn’t that be the expectation rather than the surprising reality?

Just as my satisfactory performance in school was expected, shouldn’t everyone be held to the expectation of being a good person?

***

Moehringer differentiates that Jeter isn’t guarded, just ‘not open’ – but to what extent?

The most telling example of Jeter’s coy nature comes from a different story: Sports Illustrated’s cover piece on Jeter, written by Tom Verducci.

When interviewing him, Verducci asked about the perception which states that if you betray Jeter’s trust once, you’ll never have his allegiance again.

Verducci mentions Chad Curtis, a teammate who publicly criticized Jeter for being friendly with the opposition. Curtis was traded four months later.

“Don’t bring it up,” Jeter said.

He continued saying that there are more to the stories than we knew, but didn’t comment further.

Jeter had the same response when Verducci tried to probe further on this issue with the popular belief that Jeter and co-star Alex Rodriguez didn’t get along in the mid-2000s.

Jeter motioned to have the recorder turned off and didn’t speak on it.

Moehringer reflects on this.

“How else do you write an appreciation of a man almost everyone already appreciates … (who) won’t tell you squat … and will somehow make you respect him for telling you squat?”

This is mind-boggling. I understand it’d be hard to write a negative feature on Derek Jeter – perhaps PR suicide – in the last few games of his career, but you could criticize his unwillingness to share anything with reporters.

***

Another thing Moehringer points out is that Jeter’s ‘Long Goodbye’ reminds us all of impending mortality, which baseball is supposed to make us forget.

This is a good point, but Jeter’s career ending on an awkward, incorrectly struck piano note after a beautiful concerto is fitting because it’s a microcosm for life. Moehringer, like the rest of us, wishes that good things would never pass. He wants to hang on Jeter because for so long he’s been reassuringly there. Understandable though it may be, Moehringer should be thrilled because Jeter’s given baseball all he can give. But sports writers are crying for themselves.

As painful as it is to see, this is what happens. Things break down and regress with age, a felicitous finale for a guy celebrated for playing clean in the steroid era.

If I have been unclear: I don’t dislike Derek Jeter. But, simultaneously, I don’t like him either. I respect – not #Re2pect – him. As a baseball fan, I recognize his contributions, admire his leadership, and appreciate his loyalty, but I do not specifically like him.

So why is mourning Derek Jeter a thing every baseball fan is being forced to do?

Tom Verducci said on NBC Sports radio, “If you don’t like Derek Jeter, you don’t like baseball.”

… Or you could just not like Derek Jeter?

Derek Jeter has achieved the same status as soccer during World Cup time in the way that soccer fans are affronted you don’t appreciate the beauty of the sport.

Moehringer displays the same attitude here, as he addresses all the critics.

“… The haters, the anti-Jeterites, haw-hawing and pooh-poohing … All this piety, they say … the legend thing, the icon thing, it’s all just a function of Jeter playing in New York. Jeter is good, they say, not great, and the Long Goodbye has been too long by half …”

But, are the critics wrong?

Particularly, they are right about the function of playing in New York.

One of Moehringer’s biggest arguments is that Jeter’s greatness derives from coupling good statistics with being a good person, and I totally agree. Great numbers, World Series titles, being a good person, and representing a franchise is a cause for celebration.

But another player that fits this description: Paul Konerko.

Why was he not even mentioned in this piece? Because he didn’t play in New York.

Shamefully, Konerko has barely been mentioned this whole season.

Plus, consider this: Yankees fans faithfully follow Jeter, who appreciates them from a distance; Konerko considers Chicago White Sox fans.

This isn’t to prove Konerko is better, but to show they’re nearly the same except for the city they play in. But who has the cover of both major sports magazines in the country on the week of October 13?

Not Paul Konerko.

Why is that? Because he plays in Chicago.

***

Derek Jeter is not a polarizing figure.

He went to work every day, kept to himself, obeyed the rules, and consistently produced great results.

You don’t have to love Jeter, but you must respect him.

The media – ESPN the Mag and Sports Illustrated in particular – told its consumers over the past eight months that they must love Jeter, a man purported to have been synonymous with baseball itself. This is where the chalk-line should be etched in dirt.

Jeter’s accomplishments are worthy of respect, but not to be forced upon every baseball fan as transcendent of the game.

Sam Fortier is a Freshman Journalism student at Syracuse University. He likes baseball, peanut butter, and Kanye West. You can follow him on Twitter here, if you’d like. He recently ran his first race – a 5K – and can’t understand why people do it. Explanatory emails are welcome at sjfortie@syr.edu

Hostile in Buffalo

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It was the most overtly hostile environment I’ve ever been in for a sporting event – ever.

Last Sunday, when my team – the New England Patriots – traveled to Buffalo to take on the Bills, I was there to see it unfold.

My two friends, one a Pats fan and one not, joined me.

None of us had any idea what the football culture was like in Buffalo.

We questioned if “Buffalo’s” hometown team, which plays in Orchard Park, New York about 15 miles south of Buffalo, were going to have the presence that a team in the city did.

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KYLE STEVENS PHOTOGRAPHY/A panoramic shot of Ralph Wilson

It was strange to walk through a suburban area just before a professional sporting event. Although, a benefit was community members using their lawns as parking lots, charging just $5 – a pittance compared to the lower-end $40 lots in downtown Boston for Red Sox games.

Three kids, all looking younger than 12 years old, were security for the “parking lot” which we parked in. As they gave us directions, it sounded more like a map to their elementary school.

“Go out here, take a left, go to the stoplights and take a right, it should be about a half-mile up on your left…”

As we walked to the stadium, we realized Patriots fans were need not have worried about presence. We were out-numbered – heavily.

Also, the majority of Bills fans were vocal. They let us know we were encroaching upon their territory and that it wasn’t much appreciated. It was actually quite impressive to see the number of Bills fans who swarmed the stadium in order to cheer on their Bills.

My awe at their numbers faded, however, when they saw what jersey I was wearing.

Other than an, “Aww. We’re going to beat you guys today” kind of exchange every once in a while, I’ve never been berated by an opposing teams fan before as harshly as we were Sunday.

When we set foot on Ralph Wilson property, nothing was off-limits.

Thunder storms of “Boo’s” rained upon us, chants of “Tom Brady takes it up the a**!” followed us all the way down the pedestrian parking block, and one Bills fan, shotgunning a beer, saw us and chucked his half-full brew, spiking it at us and nearly hitting my legs.

I also felt something hit my back in the middle of the first quarter, after the Patriots first touchdown. I looked around to see what had hit me, but found nothing. At halftime I discovered a AAA battery under my seat. I’m not saying it was thrown at me, but there’s a possibility.

Also, there were several tee-shirts screen-printed with Tom Brady’s face on them that were emblazoned with vulgar slogans which were chorused the entire way into the game.

CensoredThe man wearing the shirt pictured left ran up to a security guard, yelling about the sexual orientation of Patriots’ players to which the guard responded, “O.K. yell now. I’ll see you when I eject you a little later.” It was a great one-liner from the cop.

The final hurdle before we got into the stadium was the corral, herding the fans to the gates to check tickets. Air may be 70-percent nitrogen, but in that line it was 95-percent smoke from the various cigarettes and cigars from other fans, getting their last light in before entering the “Smoke-free” facilities of Ralph Wilson.

It was in this line that Kyle, one of my friends who accompanied me to the game, started to attract some heckles.

He was dressed in a Chandler Jones shirsey (combination of shirt and jersey) and one Bills fan took exception to Kyle’s preference of a tee-shirt to the mesh garb real NFL players wear.

“If you weren’t poor, you’d buy a real jersey!” He yelled.

I had on my Roosevelt Colvin jersey, but that too was unsatisfactory because another fan yelled at me, “Your shirt sucks! That dude doesn’t even play anymore!”

Kyle kept a steady stream of dialogue open with the fans behind us – conversing mostly as New England did well – as their continuous trash-talk sounded-off from about three rows up.

Before the game started that day, though, Buffalo was dizzily happy.

Terry and Kim Pegula, owners of the NHL team the Buffalo Sabres, walked on to the field for the first time as new owners of the team and unveiled a neatly done card trick in the stands. The owners, who promised to keep the Bills in Buffalo, were one of many groups trying to buy the team, some of which intended to move the Bills to Toronto.

Fast-forward to 0:55 to hear Pegula ask, “Has anyone seen my dog?” after she got spooked by pyrotechnics, and 1:50 to see the card trick that revealed “ONE BUFFALO” as a slogan.

They weren’t as happy as that for the rest of the game however as – and I admit they were questionable – some calls certainly went against them and they gave away the ball three times as Tom Brady picked them apart for 316 yards and four touchdowns.

At halftime, a man, who had consumed quite a bit of alcohol, slept off his grogginess on the bleachers while we waited for play to resume.

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As far as the stadium itself goes, Ralph Wilson seemed smaller than both of the other football stadiums I’ve been in (Gillette, MetLife). It is smaller than MetLife, but 5,000-seat capacity larger than the one in New England. The small-feel could come from the under-belly of the stadium. There were only a few food options, and other than food and “team stores” that were no bigger than a food truck, there wasn’t much else to the stadium other than the football.

This is a direct contrast to Gillette Stadium, which my Uncle Carl has always been fond of referring to as, “A shopping mall with a football team.”

Towards the end of the game, when the Patriots seemingly put the game away with a 18-yard touchdown strike from Tom Brady to Brandon LaFell, I stood up and started a maybe-ill-advised rendition of “Hey Hey Hey Goodbye”. This was met with glares, suggestions of where I could remove my head from, and invitations to leave myself.

But Buffalo Bills fans stuck it out until the final whistle to see Tom Brady’s record against the Bills improve to 23-2.

And they hate Tom Brady.

Shadily Suspicious: Is Everything O.K. With the NFL’s Reigning Rushing Champ?

This season, you can’t help but thing one of two things about LeSean “Shady” McCoy.

One, every time I hear “Levon” by Elton John, I just replace it with “LeSean” and then make up other lyrics about football instead of making money. It’s great.

Two, this year he kind of is not so great at playing football. At least not as good as years previous – right? As a McCoy owner in fantasy football, the dude’s been abiding to bide his time in the backfield and do squat.

Seriously, diddly squat might be a better term for what this guy is – or is NOT – doing. He has, in standard leagues, 2, 1, and 6 in his last three games.

Not only is he a disappointment thus far on the virtual field this season, but also the actual one. Chip Kelly said Shady recused himself from the offense, letting Darren Sproles be the man on a crucial third down with just a little time left in the 4th quarter while the Eagles staved off a Rams comeback.

(The biggest thing I take from that article is that Chip Kelly is a mathematical wizard – how’d he calculate yards per carry – YPC – that fast?)

The Eagles may be thinking: is Shady worth $11.95 million against the cap?

You may be thinking: “Should I trade him while his value is still OK from the pre-season?”

There are several detractors from McCoy’s performance this season, but the biggest is the vulture in Darren Sproles.

LeSean McCoy has quadruple amount of rushing touches (94) to Darren Sproles (25), but just 101 more yards, 273 to 172.

Also, the number of carries follows last year’s pattern, where he had 98 rushes in Weeks 1-5.

However, he’s being significantly less productive with those rushes.

Last season, in the same time span, he averaged 5.1 YPC. This season, LeSean McCoy is averaging just 2.9 YPC. That’s the same mark Trent Richardson was mocked for last season in 14 games with the Indianapolis Colts. You remember that Richardson guy who lost his job to Donald Brown, don’t you?

Sproles, by comparison, is averaging 6.9 YPC, nearly 2.5-times better. He’s also vulturing goal-line carries. On the season it’s two TDs for Sproles, one for McCoy.

But Sproles’ full effect is felt in the passing game. McCoy, thought to be the multi-faceted, pass-catching Running Back which made him so elite for both the Eagles and your fantasy league, is suffering.

Sproles has seen 21 targets to McCoy’s 17 on the season. And while Sproles has caught 16 passes, just two more than McCoy, he has 129 more yards on catches.

McCoy’s mark of 4.9 yards per reception (YPR) is a career low – nearly two yards fewer than his next-lowest total, from 2011 (6.6). Last season, he posted a career-high 10.4 YPR.

Darren Sproles is besting Shady in yet another category this season with his own impressive YPR at 12.4.

But wait. There’s more. (Thanks Sham Wow! guy.)

A glimmer of hope can be found in McCoy’s portion of the Eagles’ carries. Out of a total of 130 rushes on the season McCoy accounts for 94 of them, a 73% clip.

Last year, when McCoy won the NFL’s rushing title, he toted the rock 314 times of an even total of 500, 63% of the time.

The Eagles have seen this movie before – last year to be precise – when the role of Darren Sproles was played by Bryce Brown.

A vulture in his own right, Brown ended the 2013 season with 75 carries. If the results of this season were extrapolated out as the norm, Sproles would end the season with just 80 carries. Shady was elite last year, would losing five more carries really dethrone him?

Is it the offensive line? G Evan Mathis, who started every game but one the past three years, is on IR, but designated to return, and OL Allen Barbre is out for the season. Barbre didn’t start, but it still hurts Philly’s depth.

But the O-Line has been good this year, too. Nick Foles has been sacked just 6 times on the year as opposed to a 48 total sacks allowed last year. (Extrapolated out that’s just 19.2 sacks over the year, an improvement over last season.)

The biggest reason LeSean McCoy has struggled thus far has been the Eagles’ play overall this season. They haven’t had a comfortable lead all season. No, not even that. They haven’t had a lead at all in a lot of their games.

They trailed Jacksonville 17-0 at halftime in Week One, then fell behind Indianapolis 17-6 at the half the next week. Philly followed that up with nearly losing to Washington 37-34, actually lost to San Francisco 26-21, and then had to make a serious push to fight off the charging Rams by a score of 34-28.

The fact that they haven’t had a comfortable lead all season means that Nick Foles has had to throw quite a bit more. In his first five starts last season, Foles attempted 132 passes. This season, 203. That’s a 54-percent increase in drop-backs.

The Eagles schedule doesn’t figure to get any easier, either. They travel to play the Arizona Cardinals, Green Bay Packers, and surprising Dallas Cowboys. They also have to face the Carolina Panthers and Seattle Seahawks.

If it happens too much over a period of time, something becomes a trend.

Give LeSean McCoy two more weeks.

But if he still hasn’t started producing like the real McCoy, something’s shady.