State of the Philly sports teams is strong

YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Chase Utley has started the season in top form for the Phillies.
YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Chase Utley has started the season in top form for the Phillies.
Posted: May 19, 2014

THE PRESIDENT of the United States is required once a year to report to Congress on the "State of the Union." It is often more of a campaign speech for the policies the president wants to enact, but, in a tip of the hat to tradition, the president always ends with the reassuring words, "the state of the union is strong!"

When thinking about this, I decided that mid-May might be a perfect time for my report on the "the state of professional sports in Philadelphia."

If we polled the sports fans of our city and gave them a choice of "strong," "fair" or "weak," my guess is that "weak" would come in a solid first, followed by "fair," with "strong" in dead last. So I will surprise you and opine that the state of professional sports in Philadelphia is, in fact, strong. Let me make my case:

Football: There is no doubt that the Eagles are by far the most popular of our four major sports teams in 2014. And I believe, as the song says, the Birds' future is "so bright, they have to wear shades." I strongly believe this, because I think we have an extremely smart and innovative coach who has developed an almost unstoppable offensive scheme. He can convince his players they can do anything. Chip Kelly has made a real difference, and will continue to do so. Secondly, the NFL has become a league of game-changing playmakers and we have them - LeSean McCoy, Nick Foles, Darren Sproles, etc.

Our defense still needs work, but it has some young players who will only get better - Fletcher Cox, Bennie Logan, Mychal Kendricks, etc.

As for the draft, I'm not sure I know enough to give a reasoned opinion, but I did see Vanderbilt wide receiver Jordan Matthews play a couple of games, and he can be a real plus (although it is foolish to think that he can give us everything DeSean Jackson did.)

My optimism about the Birds' future is somewhat tempered by the fact that we have a tough schedule in front of us, but we will dominate the NFC East and, I believe, go further in the playoffs this season. And most of all, I believe another Super Bowl appearance is all but inevitable as long as Chip stays at the helm.

Baseball: The Phillies are stumbling along slightly under .500, but here, too, I believe there is reason for optimism. First and foremost, we have played woefully and are not that far out of first place in the NL East. The Braves can't seem to hit, the Nationals are without their two best players in Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman, the Marlins lost perhaps the best pitcher in baseball in Jose Fernandez (elbow), and the Mets are . . . well, the Mets.

I believe our starting rotation will be better than we had a right to expect. Cliff Lee and A.J. Burnett have pitched extremely well, and, based on his last start, it appears that Cole Hamels will be just fine. Kyle Kendrick has been his dependable self and Roberto Hernandez has been a very pleasant surprise. All and all, this rotation can take the team to the playoffs.

Our bullpen has been pretty dreadful, but it appears that, here too, that there is reason to hope. Jonathan Papelbon has been very good all year ("soreness" notwithstanding), and Mike Adams and Jake Diekman look as if they could be solid setup men this season.

The offense has been muddling along. The good news is that Chase Utley has been spectacular and Marlon Byrd has been everything we hoped. I believe that Ryan Howard will heat up, and although Domonic Brown has had a disastrous month and a half, if we platoon him with Darin Ruf, I think we can get significant production out of leftfield.

So all and all, there is reason to believe the Phils will play better, contend, and even capture the division.

Hockey: I know Flyers fans were disappointed by the Orange and Black's exit in the first round of the playoffs, but, bear in mind, they took the Rangers to seven games, and the Blueshirts, with goalie Henrik Lundqvist, are turning out to be a great clutch playoff team.

The Flyers are not far from contending for it all, and I believe that new general manager Ron Hextall can get some important pieces to take us to the next level. I also believe that Hextall will help coach Craig Berube instill more fire in the players.

When you watch the Rangers, it is incredible how their defensemen put themselves in harm's way by blocking speeding pucks without any of the protection the goalie has. It seemed as if, particularly in Game 7, they just wanted to win more than we did. I have no doubt Hextall will change the environment around the club, so a Stanley Cup is a real possibility.

Basketball: Earlier in the week, week Sixers president Scott O'Neil earned the title of most honest executive in sports when he answered a question about whether the Sixers will be a playoff team next year, and he said no. I think Scott, GM Sam Hinkie and owner Josh Harris definitely have the club going in the right direction, but this time, I think Scott is wrong.

First, because the Eastern Conference, aside from the Miami Heat, is extremely weak. Good Lord, the Toronto Raptors won the Atlantic Division!

Secondly, if we do well in the draft, and I think we will, we can have an exciting and solid team. Assume for the moment that the pingpong balls break right and we get the first or second pick. That means we will either have Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker. Assume with New Orleans' first-round pick (No. 10), we get lucky and Creighton's Doug McDermott is still available, that would mean next season the Sixers will field a team with Michael Carter-Williams at the point, McDermott at shooting guard, Nerlens Noel at center, Parker or Wiggins at small forward and Thaddeus Young at power forward.

Add to that mix Tony Wroten off the bench, a couple of decent players from free agency and our second-round pool of draft choices and you have the makings of a fast, young and aggressive team that could very well earn a playoff spot next year.

But best of all, such an array of players would guarantee a very good future, filled with exciting, competitive basketball.

So I believe "the state of union is strong" when it comes to pro sports in Philly. Of course, you can save this column and mail it back to me in a couple of years if I turn out to be wrong.


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