BY PAUL MANCANO—If winning cures all ills, losing causes them. And in 2015, the four major Philadelphia sports teams all caught something bad, and incredibly contagious.
By December, the regime of Eagles head coach Chip Kelly, once sparkling and promising, lay in shambles, and the Super Bowl dreams of August quickly turned to nightmares. The team lacked competitiveness from the start of the season, and an overhauled roster gave the fans few players to trust. Kelly’s failures in overseeing player personnel blurred with his failures as a play-caller, and the end result was dreadful.
In what was a billed as a rebuilding year, the Flyers seemed to fit the mold early in the season. Even the NHL’s weakest teams proved a tough task for the Flyers on a nightly basis. GM Ron Hextall’s sometimes puzzling moves and the team’s failure to grasp new head coach Dave Hakstol’s system led outside observers to question the direction of the franchise.
Meanwhile, Sixers general manager Sam Hinkie’s patented Process was faring no better. During the 2015-16 season, the Sixers’ roster ceased to become a hostel for Development League-level players and instead became a home for them. Joel Embiid, whose name was once spoken in the same breath as that of Hakeem Olajuwon, was confined to a boot for the second-straight season. It took until December for the team to win its first game, and the Sixers avoided the all-time record for impotency by one win.
Over in Citizens Bank Park, the roster Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. had overseen for years was finally becoming the disaster most saw coming from a mile away. A 100-loss season seemed a certainty from the start. Even the glory of Cole Hamels’ midsummer no-hitter faded quickly once he was sporting a new uniform. Despite a surprisingly strong final third, the Phillies’ 2015 season ended in the Fightin’s owning the MLB’s worst record for the first time since 2000.
By the end of November, Philadelphia’s shame reached historic proportions as the Eagles, Sixers and Flyers combined for two wins—both overtime victories by the Flyers—during the calendar month. The national media took notice, too, as Philly was dubbed the “saddest city in pro sports.”
Fans demanded blood in an attempt to quench their thirst for relevancy. The ax came down on Amaro in September, then on Kelly three months later. Hinkie, seeing the writing on the wall, fell on his sword. None of them lasted until the end of their teams’ regular season. Hextall became the last man standing. Bodies were strewn about in a manner resembling the conclusion of a Shakespearean tragedy.
The cliché “there’s always next year” wasn’t enough to console the destitute fans. Nor was “It could be worse,” because, really, how could it?
Oh, what a difference a year makes.
This past April, the Eagles, partly by undoing Kelly’s mistakes, maneuvered their way to the second-overall pick in the NFL Draft, where they selected Carson Wentz, a quarterback prospect with a high ceiling.
Aided by a young core, the Flyers caught fire midseason to make an improbable run to the second Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference and the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
On Thursday night, Sixers won the NBA Draft lottery, giving new GM Bryan Colangelo his choice between potential franchise cornerstones Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram.
And the Phillies—yes, the Phillies—sit just one game out of the top spot in the NL East, ahead of the 2015 NL champions, the New York Mets.
With a combination of skill and dumb luck, things in Philly have turned quickly.
All four teams have exceeded expectations, in their on-field performance or in their front office maneuverings. Of course, it helped that expectations were exceedingly low.
A critic might look at the upheaval that the city’s teams have undergone and note that revolution rarely leads to stability. There was unrest amongst fans after Roseman was given back the keys to his old office and when Jerry Colangelo chose to Corleone-ishly tap his son, Bryan to inherit Hinkie’s throne. Sam Bradford and his agent Tom Condon stormed into Lurie’s office with unjustified fury following the selection of Wentz.
Yet, in their current forms, all four franchises appear to have found sturdy foundations.
In addition to reviving the careers of several players, the new-look Flyers have proven they can groom young talent like defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere. And with impressive prospects waiting in the wings, the team looks primed to stay in the postseason for years to come.
Whether you like the trade up or not, the Eagles’ bet on a young quarterback is smarter than placing hope in Bradford. If Wentz can dissect NFL defenses with the dexterity he displayed at the FCS level, he’ll be the long-term answer at QB for a franchise in desperate need of one.
The Phillies’ remarkable run likely won’t last very long, but it has given fans an entertaining team to follow while they wait for the young guns to arrive. With some gems
on the roster and a glut of talent in the pipelines, the Phillies may once again own the NL East.
With plenty of cap space and a front office guarantee to use it, the Sixers are looking forward to finishing the work Hinkie started and making the team a winner. Simmons or Ingram should complement a burgeoning gaggle of gifted big men to form the cornerstone of the Sixers’ rotation for years to come.
There’s no guarantee any of these teams will soon prove to be serious contenders, and there’s certainly no guarantee they’ll climb all the way to the mountain top and win a title in the next few years.
But there is hope in Philadelphia sports, something that could not have been said a mere five months ago.