PHILADELPHIA'S WINDOW TO SUCCESS IS SLOWLY CLOSING

Friday, January 20, 2006

LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE BEFORE 1995
Team Year Result
Phillies Phillies 1993 World Series loss to TOR in six games
Eagles Eagles 1993 NFC Divisional loss to DAL, 34-10
Flyers Flyers 1989 Wales Conference loss to MON in six games
76ers 76ers 1991 Conference semifinals loss to CHI in five games

Ten years ago, the thought of having a Philadelphia sports team winning it all was mere wishful thinking. 1995 saw the departure of beloved Eagles quarterback Randall Cunningham, who brought the Eagles to the playoffs five times in 1988, '89, '91, '93, and '95, establishing a mere 2-5 playoff record in that time. 1995 also saw the loveable bunch of Phillies, who reached the World Series in '93 (for the first time in ten years), decline in talent, and eventually retired or were traded by the time 1997 rolled around. The Flyers were actually competitive between 1995-1999, making the playoffs in each of those years, which was unfortunately highlighted by the four-game sweep by the Detroit Red Wings in the Stanely Cup Finals in 1997. The Sixers only recently started being a playoff contender in 1999, when Allen Iverson had a couple years' experience under his belt. They made the playoffs every season from 1999-2003, interrupted by a mediocre 2004 season, and resumed again in 2005, only to be squashed by the Detroit Pistons in five games.

That leaves us where we are today: almost one year removed from the Eagles' first Super Bowl appearance since 1980; almost a quarter year removed from the Phillies one-game-short postseason push; a half-year removed since the NHL resumed play after a 310-day lockout; almost nine months removed from the Sixers' early playoff exit at the hands of the Pistons. Besides the seemingly endless theme of coming up short, what do all of these teams have in common? Their eventual rise into the playoffs was started by young players. Examples? For the Phillies: Kevin Stocker, Curt Schilling, Tommy Greene. For the Eagles: Charlie Garner, Mike Mamula, Bobby Taylor. For the Flyers: Eric Lindros, Garth Snow, Mikael Renberg. For the Sixers: Allen Iverson, Jerry Stackhouse, Derrick Coleman.

The story is just now beginning to come full circle, as those players that gave those teams the initial push that led to the playoff momentum are reaching the peaks of their careers if they haven't retired already. Iverson currently is having one of the best seasons he's ever had, but he's 30 years old and all but packed his bags to get out of Philadelphia, especially after leaving the court in frustration several seconds before the game with the New Jersey Nets officially ended on Wednesday. Curt Schilling is near his twilight, a season removed from his bloodied-sock, Game 6 win over the New York Yankees in the most unforgetable playoff series in baseball history. Eric Lindros cried his way out of Philadelphia, and Charlie Garner hasn't played in the NFL since he started in 3 games with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2004, gaining an unspectacular 111 yards.

Pat Gillick, the general manager of the 1993 Toronto Blue Jays that defeated the Phillies in the World Series, was recently handed the general maning duties of the Phillies following the dismissal of Ed Wade. Yes, the story truly is coming full circle, and the luminaries we have come to love -- and hate -- over the last ten years will dim into retirement, or exile from Philadelphia, whichever comes first. Five-tool rightfielder Bobby Abreu has been the subject of scantily-clad trade rumors and could be wearing a different uniform by the time the 2006 trading deadline passes. Terrell Owens, in a sad twist of Philadelphia lore, has worn out his welcome in Philadelphia after miraculously coming back from an ankle injury to lead the Eagles to a near-victory in the Super Bowl against the New England Patriots. Jeremy Roenick has already left Philadelphia in a trade that returned Peter Forsberg, the Flyers prospect that originally brought us Lindros, to Philly. And, as previously mentioned, Iverson could very well be on his way out of the City of Brotherly Love.

Philadelphia Sports Circle
Circle

Scott Rolen, Jim Thome, Billy Wagner, Duce Staley, Troy Vincent, Dikembe Mutombo, Eric Snow, Eric Desjardins, Rod Brind'Amour, John LeClair. We have seen talented player after talented player come into Philadelphia and tease us into joining in the excitement of a potential Broad Street victory parade. They left when the curtains closed for intermission, and now the tragic play that is recent Philadephia sports history is about to come to a close. There will be no celebratory bow; there will be no roses thrown upon the stage. Fans will look forward while shedding a tear, knowing that the cycle is about to start again.

The cycle has already begun for the Flyers, led by youthful goalie Antero Niittymaki, who is filling in for the injured Robert Esche. He is joined by fellow young contributors Jeff Carter, Mike Richards, and Simon Gagne. The 2005-06 Flyers are eerily reminiscent of the 1993 Phillies in that they are not led by any true superstars, but by the collective effort of all the members of their team. The Flyers recently enjoyed abundant success while on the longest road trip in NHL history (tied with the 1968-69 Canadiens) with a record of 8-2-1 and found themselves first in the league with 62 points. They earned 17 of those points on that road trip, which spanned three weeks and ten cities.

On the other side of the spectum of the Flyers are the Eagles, whose cycle is beginning anew. They will rely on veteran quarterback Donovan McNabb the same way they did Randall Cunningham, as well as keen draft picks and surprising outlets of production until they can once again have a dominating team of veterans, as they did when their postseason streak started in 2000. Their Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor may very well be Sheldon Brown and Lito Sheppard; their Charlie Garner may very well be their Brian Westbrook.

CHAMPIONSHIPS
Team Amount
Phillies Phillies 1
(1980)
Eagles Eagles None
Flyers Flyers 2
(1974, 1975)
76ers 76ers 1
(1983)

Also with a cycle on rerun are the Sixers, who have a young nucleus of Andre Iguodala, Kyle Korver, and Samuel Dalembert. Iverson, who averages almost 68 games per season and over 41 minutes per game, has been injured plenty of times throughout his career. The 6'0" point guard has played through the majority of his injuries -- which have been plenty -- and at 30, his ability to play through injuries will decrease with every season. Similar to the Abreu situation with the Phillies, the Sixers are at the point where they should maximize on Iverson's value and trade him in an effort to complement that young nucleus. Considering his public showing of frustration in leaving the court less than 10 seconds away from the official end of regulation on Wednesday against the Nets, Sixers GM Billy King may have been designing Iverson's exit plan.

That leaves the Phillies, who posted back-to-back-back winning seasons from 2003-2005 for the first time since they had nine straight winning seasons from 1975-1983. Catcher Mike Lieberthal, the longest-tenured athlete in Philadelphia, will enter his thirteenth season -- all with the Phillies -- which is presumably his last. The Phillies' Minor League system is ripe with prospects that can potentially replace Lieby, such as Carlos Ruiz and Jason Jaramillo. David Bell, another over-the-hill veteran, is also likely to switch locales after the '06 season, if not before. Abraham Nunez can fill his spot until prospect third-baseman Mike Costanzo progresses enough to earn the trip to the big show. The aforementioned Abreu situation could come to a head at any time in the '06 calendar year, and if he is not replaced as a direct result of a trade, youngsters Shane Vicorino and Michael Bourn could take his spot in right field, especially if Jason Michaels is also unloaded. Victorino has already seen Major League action and Bourn still needs to define himself in the Minors. As for the starting rotation, if the rotation of Jon Lieber, Brett Myers, Cory Lidle, Ryan Franklin, and their #5 starter yet to be named (and Randy Wolf in mid-August), there could be a dramatic shift in the composition of the rotation. "Untouchables" Gavin Floyd and Cole Hamels could soon find themselves as Major League constants, with Scott Mathieson not far behind. Robinson Tejeda and Eude Brito, who both filled in rather well last season when injuries took a bite out of the rotation, are next in line. Ryan Madson will definitely become a fixture in the Phillies' rotation within the next two years; however, he is currently the Phillies' setup man for Tom Gordon until further notice.

The Phillies are in a peculiar situation. They are almost at a level where they can give it a go with the cut-and-pasted Mets, but if they falter, they have a rich farm system to fall back on. They are neither high nor low in their status, and won't be for years to come. Their peculiar situation may be the one that breaks the cycle of highs and lows, successes and failures, but no championships, and it can be done either by a team of familiar faces, or by a team of fresh faces.

2006 will be a telling year of where Philadelphia's sports teams stand. Whether they continue to play in that continuous loop is up to the puppeteers pulling the strings. Will they notice the patterns that have led to the eventual sinking of the proverbial ship? At some point, the compass will need to be tossed aside and the team navigated on instinct alone.