Post Super Bowl Depression: Joe’s 4 Reasons to Look Forward to Philadelphia Sports

The NFL gods picked Mrs. Robinson. Why?

Watching the Giants win the Super Bowl in the year of “The Dream Team” felt like some sort of sick distortion of the 1967 hit The Graduate. It was like Dustin Hoffman struggling to choose between Mrs. Robinson and Elaine only instead of choosing the smoking hot 19 year old, like Hoffman does in the end, he picks the 45-year-old Mrs. Robinson.

Yep, you heard right, the NFL gods picked the older, psychotic, alcoholic woman and it’s a damn shame.

So after punching several holes in my wall, setting fire to any Sports Illustrated cover that featured Vince Young, and yelling “WE COULDA BEEN CONTENDERS. WE COULDA BEEN SOMETHING. INSTEAD WE’RE BUMS!” I settled on the all too familiar refrain here in Philadelphia: There’s always next year.

So here are my Top 4 reasons to look forward to Philadelphia sports.

1.     The Good Omen

I’ll say it right now: I like the 2012 Phillies’ title chances.

Of course, you might be sitting there thinking, “How can you ever be encouraged about this coming baseball season? This team is offensively challenged and Chase Utley has the hips of Betty White! They are coming off their best regular season ever, and they couldn’t get it done in the postseason. They’ll be another year older and only more likely to get injured.”

That is all very true, but while last year’s group was full of professional veterans who quietly and admirably went about their business; it is my belief that they were without a very important element of a championship winning team. They were missing the bit of fun needed to break the tension of the long season.

It seems like the teams that win championships usually have a couple of characters that keep the clubhouse loose. In ’08 the Phillies had Myers, Burrell, Romero, and Greg Dobbs. These were guys who were a little more engaging (especially Myers). When the Yankees won in ’09 they had virtually the same team that missed the playoffs in ’08 but added AJ Burnett, Nick Swisher, and Mark Teixeira. Teixeira was great but the 2008 Yankees did not lack the offense needed to win titles. They were missing the characters. Burnett struggled at the end of the season and in the playoffs (racking up a 7.00 ERA in the World Series), and Swisher hit .249 for the year and around .120 for the playoffs. Still, the team got better and won the World Series. Much was made about the way these guys changed the clubhouse culture, helping teammates deal with the pressures of a big market along the way.

Obviously, health and production have the biggest roles in success but I do think that a crucial piece in winning is a little clubhouse personality. People forget: baseball, like any sport, is a game. It was made for little kids. It’s supposed to be fun. The Phillies have Victorino and Rollins who are very upbeat. They added Pence last year and I think he definitely brings a refreshing energy. Ty Wigginton, who they brought in to spell Polanco a little at third is an older guy, but by all accounts he is very energetic and Pence described him as “one of the best teammates I’ve ever had.” No word on whether or not Wigginton also hangs out with Playboy playmates, but that would also bring the team a big boost on the awesomeness scale. Thome was added and, while he probably won’t produce a ton on the field, I do think he’ll play a Jamie Moyer-like role in the clubhouse as the sage. Thome will be the guy the rest of the team can lean on for advice and support. He’ll be the guy who the team rallies around when they realize that he’s played his entire Hall of Fame career searching for a title. Finally, Papelbon, while undeniably overpaid, is the eccentric closer who knows how to win. Like most closers, he’s a different guy and is known to clown around.

Oh and what about ‘The Good Omen’? Well, the last time the Giants beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl; the Phillies won the World Series. That’s got to count for something, right?

No?

Well I say it does…I hope.

2.     The Nowhere to Go But Up Factor

Yep, it’s safe to say that this Eagles season went about as awful as a season could go. Not only did the Iggles fail to meet expectations, but they also finished strong enough to miss a high draft pick. DAMN YOU STRONG FINISHES!!!!

Now, I am by no means a fan of tanking the season, and they were one win away from taking the Super Bowl champion Giants’ place as the proverbial “team that faced adversity all year, staggered through the season, was much criticized, caught fire, and then beat everybody in the playoffs.” If anything, that in and of itself is very encouraging.

What I am saying is that it stinks that while the season was such a disappointment, the Birds will go into the draft with a very mediocre 15th overall pick.

What makes next season exciting, or at least bearable, is the concept that we really cannot be any more disappointed next year than we were this year. Short of finishing 0-16, LeSean McCoy retiring to Africa with Ricky Williams, and Andy Reid cooking his challenge flag, there’s nowhere to go but up, right? Right?!? RIGHT?!?!

They’ll have a defensive coordinator in Juan Castillo, who now has a year of experience under his belt, and unlike last year, will be without the disadvantage of implementing a new system in a lockout shortened offseason.

And hey, if they’re bad, we always have…

3.     THE SIXERS!!!!

As recently as last month, no one would’ve thought that anyone would ever say those words. Think about the phrase: “If the Eagles stink, at least we have the Sixers.” That still doesn’t sound right and I can guarantee that there are plenty of you who haven’t bought into this team yet who are saying, “Wow, this guy’s an idiot. The Sixers are NOT contenders.”

Well, I hate to break it to you, but they are. This team can play with anyone simply because they play harder, smarter, and more together than just about any other team in the league. They might not have a superstar but that is not a requirement in this league. People always say that in order to win in the NBA teams need superstars. “It’s a superstar league, you don’t win without superstars,” some say.

What’s wrong with that?

Well, plenty of superstars fall short, some never winning a single title. Why? Because it is the best team, the best collection of pieces that fit together like a puzzle, that wins championships. The most talented teams do not necessarily win in basketball; it’s a fluid game. When the pieces fit together, guys sacrifice their stats, and commit themselves to 48 minutes of togetherness, teams win championships.

The Sixers can match up with any team in the league because, when healthy, they have 9 players[1] who can compete with any other team’s top 9. They have 9 players who can come in and dominate the game for stretches at a time. No other single team in the league has that.

It’s something awesome to watch, which leads me to the 4th reason to look forward to Philadelphia sports…

4.     Claude Giroux

We are watching a top 5 player in the league enjoy an MVP caliber season. Appreciate it. Too often as sports fans we long for the “old days,” while failing to fully recognize the talent before our eyes. People always talk about what LeBron James doesn’t have while neglecting to mention how truly special a 6 foot 9 260 pound wing player with absurd athleticism, soft hands, and the ability to pass as well as anybody in league history is. The same went for Elway, Lindros, Magic Johnson and pretty much any other phenomenal player who spent a majority of his career being critiqued for what he didn’t have. Only when these guys left (or declined a little) did people recognize how amazing they were. It’s cliché but it’s true: you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.

I beg you: do not take Giroux for granted. Enjoy and soak in every moment of him on the ice. I know you all love him. I do, too. We shower him with “GIROUUUUXXX” chants and the beloved adulation that so few Philadelphia

Enjoy him while you can...he's special

athletes receive.

At the same time, I know that you all are really frustrated when the team fails to bring home the Stanley Cup. We are owed one. We really are. But sometimes you just have to sit back and appreciate when you’re watching someone special.

So, forget about the Giants for a second and remember that we are enjoying a really special time in Philadelphia sports. We have the Phillies in the midst of their Golden Era, the Eagles with a talented roster getting ready to play for a desperate coach in a “nowhere to go but up” season, the Sixers emerging as a really fun, capable team, and the Flyers, always a Cup contender, led by a truly special player in Claude Giroux. Enjoy this.

Remember as recently as the late 90s when the Phillies, Eagles, and Sixers all stunk? Remember our only excitement being the Flyers getting swept by Detroit in the 1997 Stanley Cup finals?

This is a special time – appreciate it.

Yup, you never know what you’ve got til it’s gone.

Don’t believe me?

That’s fine. Just don’t scream when they pave paradises and put up parking lots.

[1] Jrue, Iggy, Lou Will, Turner, Thad, Hawes, Brand, Vucevic, and Meeks. All of these guys can take over games for a couple possessions a night. Trust me, I watch them do it all the time. When Meeks gets on a roll, forget it! So that’s 9. And I’m not even counting Philly area native Lavoy “You Voted Me the 500th Best Player in the League So Now I’ve Got a Chip on My Shoulder” Allen, who can also come in and do plenty of damage for 15 or 20 minutes a night. Just ask the Chicago Bulls.

The Sequel: Kevin’s Super Bowl XLVI Prediction

by Kevin Daly:

There are two things that make today’s Super Bowl matchup between the New York Giants and the New England Patriots a sequel.  The first is that the teams played each other in the 2008 contest, and the second is that it probably will not measure up to the original.  The latter makes me believe that this will be the Rocky II of Super Bowls – that and because there will be a different champion at the end of the rematch.  Sorry Apollo.

Regardless of who wins this game, the champion will have arguably the worst defense of any Super Bowl winner – ever.  While the much-maligned Patriots defense ranked 31st in yards allowed, the Giants, while gathering 48 sacks, only ranked 27th in yards allowed.  Maybe surprisingly, Big Blue also gave up 56 MORE points than the Patriots in the regular season.  The strength of schedule clearly had an impact on this point differential (Patriots did not play a team with a winning record in the regular season), but 400 points would still be a record for most points surrendered in the regular season by a Super Bowl winning team.  The regular season obviously has no bearing on the game today; however, it’s hard to fathom that the Giants defense – with all its hype – may still go down as the poorest defensive team in Super Bowl history.  These defensive deficiencies will be soon forgotten (or forgiven) by whichever team ends up raising the Lombardi Trophy when the confetti falls.

A lot has been made of the battle that will ensue between Tom Brady and the Giants defensive line.  Rightly so – it’s pretty simple.  If JPP, Osi, and Co. can get pressure on Brady early and prevent him from consistently setting his feet in the pocket, he will get erratic and make a few inaccurate passes.  If the offensive line can give Brady 4 or 5 seconds to throw, he will dissect the Giants linebacking corps and secondary.  It is for this reason that left tackle Matt Light and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer are the Patriots’ X-factors.

If such a thing exists for a player of Brady’s caliber, this is a statement game for Brady.  He’s been taking mental notes of all his past postseason failures since the Patriots’ 2005 Super Bowl victory over the Eagles – including his under-par performance in the Conference Finals against the Ravens 2 weeks ago.  He promised owner Robert Kraft that he will play better today, and he will deliver.  Even with a limited Rob Gronkowski, Tom Brady has the weapons to make enough plays against the Giants’ vulnerable cornerbacks.  

As talented as the Giants’ defensive line is, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien will have had two weeks to formulate a game plan to counter the Giants’ constant pressure.  They will be ready.  Expect a heavy dose of early screen passes and run draws with Aaron Hernandez and Benjarvus Green-Ellis.  I believe that Green-Ellis will take advantage of the Giants’ focus on pass defense and that he will combine with Kevin Faulk – yes, Kevin Faulk – to pick up critical first downs for the Patriots offense throughout the game.

Along with the battle between the Giants’ defensive ends and Patriots’ offensive tackles, the Giants’ ability to run the ball is the key to the game.  Big Blue finished last in running offense this season and relied on Eli Manning and the passing attack throughout the season.  While Eli Manning is much more consistent than his 2007-2008 self, the Earth, Wind, and Fire days are long gone.  Even without a running game this season to help him, Eli has finally become recognized as an “elite” quarterback – whatever the hell that means.  He will not have a problem consistently making completions to Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz, and Mario Manningham against the Expendables, a.k.a. the Patriots’ secondary.  His offensive line will have their hands full against a defensive front that has really stepped up this postseason.

The ailing Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs – a.k.a. Fire and Earth – are the X-factors for the Giants.  If they can run well against the mountainous Vince Wilfork, the effect will be two-fold.  Pass-rushers Mark Anderson and Rob Ninkovich – two guys who have really been unsung heroes in the New England defense – will have to respect the run, compromising the Patriots’ pass rush.  Additionally and, more importantly, running the ball effectively keeps Tom Brady off the field.

If the Patriots control possession, they will win the game.  With Rob Gronkowski’s ability to run deep seam routes presumably hampered by his sprained ankle, the team’s only deep threat will be Chad Ochocinco.  In other words, the Patriots don’t have a deep threat.  As a result, third-down plays will be in abundance.  If the Giants’ defense prevents third-down conversions, that means more time in the hands of Eli – something that the Giants undoubtedly prefer.  If Tom Brady stays upright and finds a way to convert on third downs, the Patriots have to like their chances.

Kevin’s pick: This is the first time in the postseason that the Giants are playing an opponent that they have beaten in the regular season.  Does that mean anything?  Probably not, but we’ll see.  I will not be surprised if the Giants’ pass rush can get to Brady and the Giants’ offense tears the Patriots’ defense apart.  With that being said, I believe that Bill Belichick and his Evil Empire have been dormant in postseason play for long enough.  The Patriots will have the game’s superior pass rush (my bold prediction), and Tom Brady will make enough plays to secure his 4th Super Bowl victory.  His all-time supremacy will be declared, angels will cry, and I will die a little inside. Score: Patriots 32, Giants 27

Demon Days in the Soccer World

by Kevin Daly:

I understand this is Super Bowl week – the 7 days during which ESPN presents the highest volume of unnecessary headlines in the entire year.  I get it.  Not much excites me more than the possibility of Bill Belichick’s Evil Empire missing out on Super Bowl Shangri-la for a 2nd consecutive time (even if the “Can’t say elite without Eli” talk will reach sickeningly high levels as a result).

The Super Bowl has become a mainstay in American culture.  Just about any way you look at it, it is a media monster that feeds off hype, commercials and, of course, food.  By no means do I think I’m above this celebration – I am a coach-class, wing-devouring Super Bowl bandwagoner  – but the nature of a culture that demands advertisements as entertainment, excessive consumption, and an endless supply of hype basically responds to every American stereotype with a request for another refill.  The Super Bowl will never be just about the game.  It’s become a national jackpot across corporate boards, and that seems to be just fine with us consumers.

What got me thinking about all this was the recent tragedy in Egypt, where 79 people reportedly died on Wednesday in the aftermath of a fan invasion onto the pitch at Port Said.  For those who don’t know, Al-Masry defeated the best team in the Egyptian football association – Cairo’s al-Ahly – with a score of 3-1. When the whistle blew, the game ended, but one of the greatest recent tragedies in sports was only in its infancy.  Al-Masry fans – many wielding knifes – charged the field as both teams and al-Ahly supporters ran for their lives.  As police and security reportedly stood by as spectators to the violence and the stadium doors to the streets were locked, fans were trapped, attacked, and trampled within the chaos.

One al-Ahly supporter outside the club, Khaled Gad, told U.K. newspaper The Guardian that, “There is a strong political connection. What happened today was not just about trouble at a football match, it’s related to other events in the country.”  Was the government’s and police’s indifference to the violence all part of a scheme to get back at the Cairo people for last year’s anti-Mubarak uprisings?  We’ll probably never know.  We do know that the political unrest within Egypt has been world news, as the African country is only one of several nations that has experienced bloody political revolutions.  For Americans, revolution has a poetic, nobel connotation.  For the rest of the world, revolution doesn’t spell freedom.  It means upheaval, uncertainty, and fear.  If the American Revolution was “Song of Myself,” the ongoing revolutions in Libya, Syria, and Egypt have been “Howl.”

In the past 40 years, there have been several international sports-related tragedies: last September’s plane crash carrying the entire Kontinental Hockey League’s Lokomotiv Yaroslavi team, the 1996 stampede in Guatemala City that left around 80 people dead, the 1993 crash of the plane carrying most of the Zambian men’s national soccer team, and the 1972 Munich Olympics in which 11 Israeli athletes were assassinated by Palestinian gunmen.  The Port Said tragedy, however, was the child of revolution and retaliation.  Soccer was merely the vehicle by which agitation amongst sects of people, police, and the government reached its breaking point.  The sport – and its athletes – have been victims, lambs in a national riot that resulted in chaotic slaughter.

This tragedy of events was only compounded when the Egyptian prime minister dissolved the Egyptian Football Association in the direct aftermath of the riot.  With the riot being only the most apparent example of political infiltration within the soccer sphere, this move wasn’t exactly unforeseeable.  Nevertheless, the fact that this country, in utter need of guidance and hope, lost one of its few outlets for entertainment and temporary escape from the political disarray – regardless of its corruption – is the equivalent of adding blocks to a fallen Jenga tower.  Like football here, soccer – and the spirit of sport itself – has the potential to offer positivity for spectators and young people alike.  For any country, sports teams promote pride within their home environments.  The absolute corruption, destruction, and eventual dissolution of this source of pride and pleasure speaks volumes to the country’s current total loss of direction.

As Al-Ahly player Mohammed Abu Trika reflected on the police’s inactivity while over 1000 people were injured in the melee, he said, “People are dying and no one is doing a thing…Is life this cheap?”  As fans across the nation get ready for the Super Bowl and all of its trivialities and celebrations of excess, Egypt mourns as another exhibit of barbaric violence moves the nation further away from political and social stability.  This has been, and will probably continue to be, another international tragedy in sports swept away by round-the-clock Super Bowl previews, updates, and analysis – the uncomfortable, complicated, and unknown cramping the style of what is comfortable, simple, and all-too-well-known.

If you are reading this, please think about the people of Egypt, especially those affected by the riots, at some point, any point, on Super Bowl Sunday.  For all my complaints about the Super Bowl, it is one of the finest examples of how sports can bring people together.  In Egypt, the Port Said riots and ensuing chaos signal the opposite – how sports have just become another vehicle by which a nation divides.  Only time will tell the reaction of FIFA (the mothership of sports’ corruption) to the crisis, or how Egypt will try to move forward from here.  We can only hope that the worst is over, and that soccer will find its way, over time, as a vehicle for unity – not division.