The past year in Philadelphia sports was a weird and warped one, as if we were following the action through a funhouse mirror. The lowly Sixers made an unexpected playoff run, while the much-hyped Phillies, Eagles and Flyers all crumbled. Those surprises are what keep us coming back, despite the letdowns and disappointments. (Plus, we’ve spent way too much on jerseys, commemorative coin sets and dangle hats to give up now.)
Prognostication is also one of the joys of fandom—predicting what lies ahead and uniting behind the rallying cry of “We’ll get ’em next year.” Well, next year is officially here, and my crystal ball has revealed how it will all shake out for Philadelphia sports fans in 2013. These are take-it-to-the-bank, cash-in-the-kids’-college-tuition-fund, book-a-flight-to-Vegas picks, folks:
1. The Eagles hire a guy named Chucky.
Unless Jeffrey Lurie brings on some snipers and builds a moat around the NovaCare Complex to fend off hordes of enraged Eagles fans, we’ve finally seen the end of the Andy Reid era. Now the task of putting players in a better position to win falls on the owner and his choice for a new head coach. Though the franchise has developed a reputation for being a little too smart for its own good, this is not the time for outside-the-box thinking—no plucking a coach from the college ranks or trying to turn a dark-horse coordinator into the next Vince Lombardi. The Birds need a bold-face name, and Lurie needs to right a wrong that dates back to 1998, when he stuck with Ray Rhodes for one last failed campaign. By hiring Jon Gruden, he’ll accomplish both.
Here’s what Gruden (a.k.a. “Chucky,” thanks to his resemblance to the crazed horror-movie doll) has done since Lurie let Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis woo him away from his post as the Eagles offensive coordinator: won a Super Bowl and compiled a better playoff winning percentage than almost any Eagles coach ever. And though he’s taken his ADHD-kid-off-his-meds routine to television, he still eats and sleeps football like he’s on the sidelines on Sundays. Gruden is a nut job—and I mean that as a compliment. The guy wakes up every morning before dawn to watch game tapes, clicker in hand, dissecting slo-mo replays of nickel blitzes and quarterback reads. In its profile of Gruden as a TV analyst, the New Yorker said, “There is no rational explanation for the amount of preparation that Gruden does.” That’s exactly the kind of coach this city needs for its football team—a borderline psychotic obsessive who knows what it takes to win a championship because he’s been there and done that. He also has a personality that’s custom-tailored for this fan base. There’s a manic aggression to his metaphors—if your division is up for the taking, you “grab ahold of it and choke it!” Did I mention he won a Super Bowl?
Granted, it won’t be easy to pry Gruden out of the Monday Night Football booth. His contract with ABC runs through 2016, and his joy in describing a Drew Brees two-minute drill is almost irrational. But money talks, and Gruden has never ruled out a return to the NFL. You may question Lurie’s football acumen, but the guy ain’t blind—like us, he can see this Eagles squad is awfully soft around the middle, especially during gut-check time. He needs a leader who can light fires and pump some adrenaline into both the locker room and the Linc. Look for Lurie to write one of those Publishers Clearing House-size checks—and maybe hock his Oscar on eBay—to bring Chucky back to the nest.
2. Sixers fans celebrate a new star.
When Andrew Bynum arrived, you might have thought Will Smith or Bradley Cooper was in town signing autographs, judging by the frenzied reaction to the Sixers’ new marquee attraction. Yet it looks like Bynum has leading-man stats but the knees of Abe Vigoda. As of this writing, there’s still no guess as to when—if ever, shudder to think—Bynum will suit up as a Sixer. Some of the squad’s many new faces have already stepped up in his absence, and my gut says it’s Jrue Holiday who will end the season as the team’s MVP.
That might seem like a stretch for a fourth-year guard who still has a tendency to turn the ball over. But one thing is a lock—with the departure of Andre Iguodala and Lou Williams, the front office and Doug Collins have appointed Holiday as the engine that will drive this train as far as it will go. The proof is everywhere, from Holiday’s new contract extension, to his being named a team captain at just 22, to his role on the court, where the offense now flows through him. The first part of the season provided a snapshot of Holiday’s upside and flaws: He has double-double potential on a nightly basis, but he’s still learning how to be a floor general and mesh with his new teammates. There will be growing pains, sure, but it’s the homegrown point guard, not the splashy Hollywood center with the Tin Man joints, who’ll be the team’s All Star contender this year.
3. The best era of Phillies baseball ever sputters to a conclusion.
Prepare yourself for the official end of the golden era of the Phillies. The once-glorious roster is now more about trips to the ER and DL than ERA and RBI: Utley’s bum knees, Howard’s rebuilt Achilles and busted toe, Doc’s aching shoulder. Charlie Manuel’s contract runs out this season, and with Ryne Sandberg, his heir apparent, coaching third base, this is likely the 68-year-old skipper’s final voyage. General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. will be aggressive, as usual, and young talent like Darin Ruf, Cody Asche and Phillippe Aumont should help make the rebuilding process a short one, not a flashback to the baseball wasteland of the late ’90s. But this season won’t be much better than the last. The Phils simply have too many holes to fill. With Stephen Strasburg set for a full year in Washington’s rotation, the Nats will win the division again, leaving the Phils to claw their way to a wild-card berth—and lose.