There are many things that are hanging in the balance for the four major Philadelphia sports teams. The beginning of spring is traditionally a hotbed of activity amongst the four professional leagues, and 2014 is no exception. A trend that has defined the Flyers, 76ers, Eagles, and Phillies over the last 18 months or so is a transition in philosophy. With coaching turnover across the board, Philadelphia sports fans have had a front row seat to one of the most active transitioning periods the city has ever seen with its teams. What is especially unique about this phenomenon, is that within the last few weeks, each of the four teams have faced their own potential crossroads that could dictate the immediate and long-term future for the organization depending on how they go about things. To fight or flight is a decision that, to everyday people like you and me, might bring about 24 hours or a few days of second-guessing. When a professional sports team, worth millions and even billions of dollars, is faced with this dilemma the hindsight can haunt them for decades.
The Eagles drew a firm line in the sand with receiver DeSean Jackson and, when the chips were on the table, did not waver in their approach to a player who did not adhere to the type of culture the team was trying to foster. Whatever the reasoning for the release, we may never know, Jackson had done enough to make himself dispensable to Chip Kelly. The choice to release the receiver, who ultimately ended up staying in the division as a member of the Washington Redskins, is one that has the potential to shape the opinion of the current regime for years to come. Either way, it says something about the fortitude of Kelly and GM Howie Roseman that they did not welch on whatever ‘breaking point’ they had set in place that, if Jackson stepped beyond, would force their hand in releasing the pro bowler.
The Flyers, all of a sudden, find themselves sweating their once-assumed position in the NHL postseason. Despite two of them being via shootout against arguably the two best teams in the league, the Flyers have lost three straight and sit third in the Metropolitan Division by four points behind the New York Rangers. Though it is not time to panic, the Orange-and-Black have seen the exceptional play that built up a comfort level in the standings deteriorate and teams are taking advantage. Their last goal came in the closing seconds of last Sunday’s matinée affair against the Bruins, and the team’s power play has squandered countless opportunities during the three-game skid. The Blackhawks saved the Flyers’ skin, for the time being, with a late regulation win over Columbus to keep the Blue Jackets two points back in the division with Philadelphia holding a game in hand. As impressive as it is that the Flyers were able to fend off their miserable start to the season and inject themselves into the playoff conversation, the resiliency will be considered moot if they find themselves on the outside looking in again. One must wonder where the inspiration and sense of urgency will come from to get this thing back on track. Whatever that source is, it better step forward quickly before the Flyers see playoff hockey snatched out from under them.
A week ago, the 76ers throttled the Detroit Pistons 123-98 to snap a 26-game losing streak. Friday night, the sizzling Sixers went into Boston and beat the Celtics 111-102 to win their second game in four tries! In all seriousness, though I have been on board with how the team has gone about their 2013-2014 season, it is impossible for me to cheer for a team to lose. Perhaps none of the other teams in the city are constantly faced with the flight-or-fight dilemma like the 76ers are. Not only has the organization made it fairly clear that they prefer to find themselves toward the top of the lottery, but often times the collective talent that the 76ers put on the floor on a nightly basis is not at a level where they can compete even when they are giving maximum effort. The reason why I can’t cheer against this 76ers team is the same reason they opt to ‘fight’ every game as losses pile up: Brett Brown. The first-year coach of the 76ers has taken every front-office maneuver and ‘precautionary measure’ in stride as most nights he is putting his heart on the line for a lost cause. Yet when the team does perform well and is able to capture a win, the reaction by Brown is enough to help give you faith that he was the right choice for the job. Brown and the 76ers have been beat down to a pulp like Rocky when he first fought Apollo. Much like the Italian Stallion though, Brown and the Sixers keep standing, taking punches, and occasionally delivering a blow that raises an eyebrow and has you thinking of the future.
I must admit, most of what I have seen from the Phillies in the early portions of the 2014 season have come as a surprise to me. For the most part, the entire team is hitting. The starting pitching, aside from Cliff Lee of all people, has been good to exceptional. The fielding has left some to be desired, but does not appear close to the trainwreck it was last season. Even the bullpen has a couple of hurlers, most notably Jake Diekman, who look as if they might be able to help the team should they emerge as a contender. There is, however, a $58 million elephant in the room that is as much a deterrence to the Phillies becoming contenders as any of the aforementioned factors are a contributor: Jonathan Papelbon. Quickly becoming the worst free agent signing of Ruben Amaro Jr.’s career, Papelbon has been a negative presence within the organization since day one. This offseason, Papelbon spoke like a team leader who was ready to ramp things up to another level after admittedly dialing things down as the Phils hemorrhaged losses last season. Instead, we see a fading star whose God-given talents have abandoned him and is unable to re-invent himself as a pitcher. Papelbon’s stubbornness to try to blow people away like he did in the mid-2000s was on full display in the team’s walk-off loss to the Rangers, a game they led 3-1 heading into the bottom of the 9th. The mercurial closer blew the save in such an economical fashion, one had to wonder if the Rangers gave him a script as to how they wanted to win the game. His fastball struggles to break the 90 MPH mark and his inability to develop a dependable array of secondary pitches forces him into using it in situations that call for a different strategy. Manager Ryne Sandberg appears to be using the early parts of his first full season with the organization to find out just what he has in the cupboard and how best to use it. A few more performances like the one his closer turned in against Texas, and ‘Cinco-Ocho’s’ time on Broad Street could be coming to an end.