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.
4. Flyers fans prove once again that they’re lemmings.
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, must be a Flyers fan. I say this partly as a journalist, but also as someone who’s been forged of orange and black since the 1987 Stanley Cup run (and who owns an autographed Ron Hextall jersey). As tough as Philadelphia can be with its teams, Flyers devotees are an anomaly—loyal to a fault. Goalies come and go, coaches are fired too soon, general managers aren’t fired soon enough, the tickets are the seventh most expensive in the National Hockey League, and only the Eagles have eclipsed the Flyers’ championship drought—yet through all this, the fans still come out in droves. Even my jersey is a depressing symbol—the last net-minder who showed superstar potential had his best season some 25 years ago. Flyers fandom is a Sisyphean existence—we buy into the promise of greatness each winter, only to be knocked back down the mountain and out of the playoffs in the spring. Our reward for such devotion? A lockout that has led to the league’s second suspended season in less than a decade.
Let’s face it—hockey is really the fifth biggest sport in the country, behind football, baseball, basketball and NASCAR. Yet the NHL and its players seem to think they’re getting NFL ratings and can absorb another lost year. This labor battle isn’t a David-vs.-Goliath slugfest between the owners and the athletes—it’s mega-millionaires vs. plain old millionaires, with their lawyers playing a game of chicken. Fans should be outraged. In some markets, where hockey ranks lower than drag racing and pro wrestling, they’ll lose attendance. In this town, owner Ed Snider knows he can survive a lockout because he’ll still sell tickets. When the league does resume play, angry puckheads are calling for a protest—stay home for one game and send a message that the fans deserve better. It’s a great idea—for once, hockey would be the lead on SportsCenter, and the lasting image would be teams skating in empty arenas. Sending that message is well worth absorbing the price of one ticket. But if there’s any hockey in 2013, you can be sure the Flyers faithful will be in their seats for every game.
5. Ed Rendell stops leering into the camera like he’s undressing us with his eyes on Eagles PostGame Live.
Wishful thinking, part one.
6. The Union fails—again—to save Chester.
Though I’m not a soccer hater, writing this ensures me an inbox full of angry emails from the Sons of Ben. But consider the return on investment for the $85 million in public funding that helped build the Union’s stadium in Chester. In three seasons, the team has kept its winning percentage well below .500, and was swept out of the playoffs in its only appearance. Meanwhile, Chester is still … well, Chester. The transformative power of Major League Soccer has yet to turn the crime-and-poverty-stricken city into something more than Camden West. Politicians and Union leaders promised a greater cultural impact in bringing a pro sport to the city. Instead, Chester’s motto should be “Come for the Gambling and Soccer—Then Get the Hell Out.” No reason to think the team’s relevance—in the community, if not in the standings—will change anytime soon.
7. The Birds make a serious playoff run.
I know this sounds like crazy talk, considering the bulldozing that’s bound to happen when this season is over. Consider, however, what will be left when the dust settles. A healthy offensive line with Jason Kelce, Todd Herremans, and Jason Peters, the one-man wrecking crew who will improve both the running and passing games. Nick Foles, who might actually be the guy we were told we had in Kevin Kolb. One of the league’s most elusive running backs in LeSean McCoy (and, hopefully, a new coaching staff that will turn him loose). Goodbye wide nine, and with the right moves in free agency and the draft, hello to a much-improved defense (because really, could it be any worse?). The Giants are beatable, and the division is there for the taking. Let’s just hope they bring in a coach who’s ready to make some ballsy moves and put the NFC East in a choke hold (see Gruden, Jon, above).
8. The Sixers make history.
For the first time, a t-shirt cannon sends a fan to the hospital. Have you seen Big Bella? She fires 100 tees in 60 seconds. Even the NRA would consider restrictions on that thing. And what’s the background-check process on the guy who pulls the trigger? I’d love to see what the Phanatic could do with that swag bazooka and a case of hot dogs.
9. Darin Ruf wins Rookie of the Year.
Everyone loves a slugger cut from the Babe Ruth cloth, but for a while, the Phils were short on stout long-ball specialists. Then Jim Thome came to town, like Paul Bunyan with a Louisville Slugger, and instantly became a folk hero. Ryan Howard followed, and late last season, we caught a glimpse of the future in 26-year-old Darin Ruf. He won’t be a Gold Glove contender, but as he proved in September, the kid can hit: .333 with 10 RBIs and three bombs in just 12 games in the majors. Ruf’s hot streak continued in the Venezuela winter league, where he racked up nine homers and 19 RBIs in less than a month. Don’t expect the second coming of Mike Trout. (I get verklempt just thinking about the alternate universe where the Millville native is a Phillie.) Do expect to see Babe Ruf in left field on opening day and reprising Howard’s 2005 rookie-of-the-year performance.
10. Donovan McNabb is recognized, at long last, for what he is.
Quarterbacks are like exes—some don’t stick around for long and are quickly forgotten, while others never really go away. Our breakup with Donovan McNabb falls in the latter category. It was an ugly split. We were both a little bitter at the time, and now that he’s on Daily News Live and the NFL Network, we keep running into each other. That’s been awkward, because the conventional wisdom on McNabb has focused on the negatives—questions about leadership, lack of touch on short passes, injuries. That was before this disastrous Eagles season, and to paraphrase a local ’80s hair-metal band, sometimes you don’t know what you got till it’s gone. Compare Michael Vick to McNabb, and there’s really no comparison. Even at the end of his Eagles career, McNabb was a steady presence in the huddle—not capable of his old magic, but not the liability Vick has become.
Then there was Donovan 1.0, the all-pro who once chucked four touchdowns on a broken ankle en route to a win. Remember all of those seasons when he was throwing to guys with names like Thrash, Pinkston and Brown? Reid’s mantra back then was that the Eagles receivers were fine. Then Terrell Owens came in and blew that company line to pieces. Young McNabb had the talent, but not the weapons, to win a Super Bowl. That wasn’t his fault—it was Reid’s, and his stubborn refusal to improve his wideout corps wasted McNabb’s most productive years. Among Big Red’s mistakes over the years, that may be the one that cost the Birds a Super Bowl more than any other. And in doing so, it also altered our perception of McNabb for the worse. This year, as the team continues to search for McNabb’s heir, fans will begin to see him for what he is—flawed, for sure, but still the best quarterback in franchise history.
11. Philly fans don’t make a single national headline for assaulting, vomiting, streaking or being tasered.
Wishful thinking, part two.