Don't expect a championship anytime soon

Posted: February 28, 2014

THE ANSWER, sadly, is none.

The question: Which of Philadelphia's four major sports teams is closest to winning a championship?

It's an annual question, one that reached a ferocious crescendo around 2008, when it had been 25 years since the city's last title. The Sixers provided the championship that began the drought; then, inexplicably, dismantled themselves.

For a generation, the teams went through cycles of respectability, of competitiveness. They built three new arenas and spent nearly as many millions on talent, but, until 2008, still nothing: Three Stanley Cup finals for the Flyers; a World Series glimpse for the 1993 Phillies; an NBA Finals for the 2000-01 Sixers; a Super Bowl for the 2004 Eagles.

The Phillies' surprising World Series run in 2008 buried the region's frustrations . . . but, 6 years later, those frustrations are surfacing again.

The question arises now, in particular, because, from this past Wednesday through March 8, all of the franchises will make decisions or begin processes that will determine their long-term futures.

Last Wednesday, the NFL Scouting Combine began in Indianapolis. There, the Eagles will examine prospects in hopes of finding players who actually fit Billy Davis' 3-4 defensive scheme, and can better gauge their strategy as the free-agent negotiating period begins March 8.

Last Thursday, at the NBA trade deadline, the Sixers decided to scuttle the ship, trading starters Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes and backup center Lavoy Allen.

Yesterday, the Phillies begin spring-training games.

Tonight, after the Olympic break, the Flyers resume their thrill ride of a season, which began with three losses and the firing of coach Peter Laviolette and continues with the team on a four-game winning streak. How things go over the subsequent three games in 4 days will determine their status as buyers or sellers at the March 5 trade deadline.

Almost certainly, the Flyers will be buying. It is their DNA, their mission statement, to kill whatever wave of momentum they are on until it's long past dead. They will ignore the fragility and speed dropoff of defenseman Kimmo Timonen; the routine disappearances of captain Claude Giroux; the limitations of Scott Hartnell; the streakiness of goalie Steve Mason; the injury history of newcomer Vinny Lecavalier.

They will overrate the contribution of Wayne Simmonds, the team's most consistent player, and they will ignore their astounding lack of depth.

And they will teeter on the playoff bubble as winter turns to spring, and, likely, they will teeter there next season, too.

The Flyers are nearly as stymied as the Phillies; hamstrung by ill-conceived contracts, invested in players whose output cannot be predicted.

With a franchise-record payroll of about $180 million, they are beginning another odyssey toward October, having dropped a hefty $16 million on a 36-year-old pitcher who lost more than he won last season and who considered retiring. A.J. Burnett is this year's Roy Halladay; Cliff Lee; Jonathan Papelbon, only older, and less accomplished.

This likely will be their last such odyssey, should it fail. And it will be expected to fail.

Both Washington and Atlanta, younger and better last season, will be favored over the Phillies in the NL East. That prediction has every chance of being untrue, depending on, in order: Ryan Howard's legs; Cole Hamels' arm (an injury put him behind schedule); Domonic Brown's progress; Jimmy Rollins' attitude; Chase Utley's knees; Mike Adams' comeback, so he can set up Papelbon, the closer whose mouth made bigger news last season than his fading arm.

So, yes, the Phillies could win the division.

They also could suffer a key injury, say, to Howard, or to Lee, and struggle to be a 70-win team.

The Eagles walk a similarly thin line.

They have five utterly irreplaceable players; in order, if you like: left tackle Jason Peters; running back LeSean McCoy; wide receiver DeSean Jackson; linebacker Connor Barwin; and quarterback Nick Foles.

Foles comes last only because defenses scheme first to stop McCoy; then to keep Jackson from deep-route success. Peters, the best left tackle in the game for 5 years, protects Foles. The Eagles' modest defense works only if Barwin is able to do the work of three men. Foles is crucial, too, however. His size, his decision-making and his competence at running Chip Kelly's offense make him only marginally less important than any of the other four. Since he always has the ball in his hands, there is merit to an argument that he is the most important.

Ranked importance doesn't really matter.

The fact that the Eagles have no viable replacements for any of them on the roster - that matters.

If the Eagles expect to contend for something more than a playoff spot, they need to replace their safeties, find at least one more cornerback, acquire a decent pass-rushing defensive lineman and linebacker, develop depth on the offensive line and find a viable backup for Foles. They also must determine whether pending free-agent receiver Riley Cooper is worth his price (after just one productive season); and if pending free-agent receiver Jeremy Maclin is worth the risk, coming off a knee injury. And they need to draft a receiver, too.

Does this sound like the formula for a championship?

No.

It sounds like a formula for respectability; a team flawed, but one with potential.

At least the Flyers, Phillies and Eagles have made it that far.

The Sixers present the least danger of ending the city's current run of also-running. They are in the depths of a rebuilding movement, a movement at least a half-decade from bearing fruit. They don't know if big man Nerlens Noel, taken sixth overall in the 2013 draft, can play in the NBA, since he apparently will spend all of his first season rehabilitating a knee injury suffered in college. They cannot predict who will fall to them in June's draft, in which they currently hold two first-round picks.

They cannot tell how much Rookie of the Year favorite Michael Carter-Williams will grow as a player and as a leader after enduring one of the franchise's more ridiculous seasons.

They can tell, however, that they probably won't be hosting a championship parade before any of their South Philly neighbors.


On Twitter: @inkstainedretch

Blog: ph.ly/DNL

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