Finally, a game with meaning - even if it's preseason

Eagles head coach Chip Kelly. (David Maialetti/Staff Photographer)
Eagles head coach Chip Kelly. (David Maialetti/Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 09, 2014

The clock ran out - or filled up, depending on one's preference for the bipolar way in which time is kept in hockey periods - on April 30 for the Flyers. The end arrived in the seventh game of their opening-round playoff series with the Rangers, and that loss drew a thick curtain around meaningful sporting events in Philadelphia. Even by our standards, it has been a while.

The 100 days of solitude since the Flyers were eliminated will be broken Friday night at Soldier Field when the Eagles open their preseason schedule against the Chicago Bears. Maybe it's a stretch to even call this a meaningful game, but after a season of watching the Phillies stumble around, we'll take it.

For those who don't follow hockey, the wait has been even longer, of course, dating from before the second half of the fallow 76ers season, all the way to Jan. 4, when the Saints kicked a field goal as time expired at Lincoln Financial Field and Chip Kelly's first season as Eagles coach came to an close. That's more than 200 days without anything worth watching.

In the interim, the distractions mostly have been about the process that leads up to the games, a side alley of sausage making that somehow has become almost as popular as the actual games. Sports fans watch the NFL combine to see potential draft picks take part in mundane drills. Many fans hang onto every moment of the NFL and NBA drafts, and - in a recent development - the NBA even shows its summer-league games on TV, which is very nearly the equivalent of televising shirts and skins from the courts at Venice Beach.

Kelly said that the hype and attention given the NFL draft was his biggest surprise upon taking a job in the league. He equated it to the buildup around signing day for college football, even though both, according to Kelly, are vastly overrated.

"How many guys on signing day actually contribute?" Kelly said. "The hype in general about the draft [was surprising]. Literally from the day the Super Bowl ends until the draft . . . that's all anybody talks about. In football, it seems to be the biggest thing in the world."

You mean it's not?

Kelly thinks it is overblown, and says he doesn't understand how people can tune in just to watch players run the 40-yard dash.

"There's times at the combine I fall asleep," he said.

If that's not important - and we're talking about some sacred stuff now - what is the level of importance of those summer-league games from Orlando and Las Vegas that were given the full production treatment by the NBA Network? Play-by-play announcers, color commentators, sideline interviews, and the works - all for games mostly contested by players with no hope of making any meaningful contribution to an NBA team.

In the stone age, the summer-league concept for professionals started with the Southern California Pro Summer League, better known as the L.A. Summer League, and it was a very loose operation indeed. Some NBA teams sent players to the league, some combined with other teams to form an entry, and some combed the sidewalks to put together a whole team. But, basically, it operated with very little outside attention.

The Sixers took part when the league was held at Loyola Marymount University and, as the beat guy, I went out once or twice to write offseason features. On one occasion, I was interviewing Bob Weinhauer, who was coaching the Sixers team by himself, and our interview continued on the bench as the game began in the nearly empty Marymount gym.

"Sit down. I need someone to talk to, anyway," Weinhauer said.

At halftime, the team of strangers gathered around for Weinhauer's advice, which was understandably brief and ended with, "Coach Ford, you have anything to add?" They didn't know any better.

Telling the truth, one would say to them that the time between the real league games doesn't matter very much. All the running and jumping and hoping to get noticed won't make an appreciable difference as to which players get on the big roster and which are left behind. Whatever dreams you have, however much you might want them to happen, none of that will change the minds of that small clutch of scouts in the stands who see you as a summer player and not a winter player. That would be telling the truth. Instead, I think I said something about boxing out.

The same goes for the long-term importance of all these time-fillers. The recent history of the NFL is littered with the unfulfilled expectations put on players who were combine superstars but couldn't make it on the field. Still, people watch. The NFL and NBA drafts are very unreliable predictors of success, but the ratings are through the roof. And, yes, watching Nerlens Noel block the shot of someone who will be cut soon by a second-division team in the Philippines is better than watching nothing.

Our long civic wait is over, however. The 100 Days War ends with a real event Friday night, even if it isn't. The starters will be on the field for only a couple of drives, but there will be real tackling, unlike training camp, and real competition, and, well, it will be real enough for us.

And, after that, there will be one fewer day remaining - just 30 total - until a game comes along that no one will have to pretend is important.


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