December 19, 2016

The Flyers are the best team in Philadelphia – and it isn't even close

If you’re a Philadelphia sports fan spending your money intelligently this holiday season, the gifts under the tree should have a distinct orange-and-black theme. Over the next five years, the jersey that will be most fashionable will be that of the Flyers.

In our Eagle-centric town, sometimes we ignore the obvious. The Flyers are the best team in Philadelphia, with the best young players, the best coach and the best front office. By far, they give us our best chance for a championship parade.

Granted, the timing of this declaration is too easy, coming right after our still-rebuilding hockey team recorded a 10-game winning streak. Fair-weather fans like me are usually better at hiding their fickle nature than this. But even a casual hockey observer cannot miss what’s happening right now.

With a core of quality veterans like Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek and Brayden Schenn and a growing throng of young stars like Ivan Provorov, Shayne Gostisbehere and Travis Konecny, the Flyers offered merely a glimpse into the future with their recent winning ways. They will not contend for the Stanley Cup this season, not yet.

But soon, they will. As early as next year, they will have a legitimate chance to end their current 41-year championship drought. Under GM Ron Hextall, they have a plan, and it is working. Somewhere, the late chairman Ed Snider is smiling.

What makes the current success of the Flyers so compelling is the contrast between them and the other pro teams in our city. The Eagles are a glaring example. They have a franchise quarterback in Carson Wentz, but they have no actual plan to build a fortress around him.

The offensive line is comprised of a declining 34-year-old left tackle (Jason Peters) a mediocre left guard (Alan Barbre), an undersized, erratic center (Jason Kelce), an anxiety-plagued right guard (Brandon Brooks), and a twice-suspended right tackle (Lane Johnson). For the foreseeable future, Wentz will be under assault.

The Phillies claim to have a plan, but do they? They have shed the big salaries from the core of the 2008 champions, but there isn’t a player on the roster worthy of a big-money deal right now. Arguably, their best potential star is Odubel Herrera, and he just signed a five-year, $30-million extension – relative chump change.

And then there are the Sixers, a roster crafted by the bizarre mind of ex-GM Sam Hinkie. That asset-acquisition approach Hinkie masterminded currently offers three promising centers – and holes at every other position. There’s a very good reason why Hinkie is unemployed.

Meanwhile, the Flyers just keep showing the other teams how to build a winner. Under Hextall, they have drafted brilliantly, spent their money wisely and have constructed a sturdy foundation that should lead to many seasons of success, and – we can only hope – a championship.

It’s very rare that all four franchises in a major city are rebuilding at the same time, and it’s even rarer when one of them clearly has a plan that is better than the others. The Flyers have a logical blueprint. The Eagles, Phillies and Sixers do not. It’s really that simple.

So, when you’re shopping for that young sports fan who wants to be fashionable in the years to come, your best investment is orange and black this holiday season.

Everybody loves a winner.

Especially Philadelphia.

***

The Eagles clinched a losing season in Baltimore on Sunday, but — for a change — handled themselves like winners. With nothing at stake against the desperate Ravens, the Birds charged back in the frantic final seconds against an elite defense, ultimately losing, 27-26, on a failed two-point conversion.

Coach Doug Pederson decided the outcome when he chose not to kick an extra point with four seconds left, triggering a hot debate throughout the Delaware Valley. Well, here’s one loud vote in favor of the decision. Against that opponent, in that situation, the best chance to win was trying to pick up two yards on that final play.

Should the coach have tried another dive over the line by Ryan Matthews, the same way the running back converted the first conversion? Maybe. Should Pederson have called a play with more room for the rookie quarterback to maneuver than that quick toss over the middle? Probably.

But the loss doesn’t change the message of the decision, nor does it negate the exhilarating work by Wentz in that final quarter. Against the fourth-ranked defense in the NFL, Wentz marched the Eagles down the field twice, never forcing the ball into coverage the way he did on his first throw of the game.


The run into the end zone that capped the final drive was his single best moment so far as Eagles quarterback. In that one play, with 12 seconds left, he displayed his athleticism, his ability to make good decisions under pressure, and his determination to succeed. The kid is going to be good. Very, very good. Bet on it.

Wentz came of age in the loss on Sunday, and, in a way, so did Pederson. A fourth-down gambler by nature, the coach sent a message to his players when he kept the offense on the field for the conversion. He showed a belief in them that an extra-point and even an overtime win would not have accomplished.

The Eagles have lost five straight games now, and are 2-9 in the last 11. But the feeling after Sunday’s loss was nothing like the failures that preceded it. Pederson cost him team a win with one bold decision, but he let no one down this time.

Once in a while, a loss feels more like a win. Sunday’s game in Baltimore was one of the rare occasions.

***

Nerlens Noel has injured most of his body in the past three seasons with the Sixers, but his mouth is still working just fine, thank you. In fact, upon his return from his latest injury (a sprained ankle), last weekend, he made yet another appeal to leave town as soon as possible.

This time, his public whining came after he played only eight minutes in a loss to the Lakers last Friday night. Basically, coach Brett Brown is still trying to find a way to use two centers, Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor, on the court at the same time. Working a third center, Noel, into the mix is not a priority at the moment.

I’m too good to be playing eight minutes,” Noel said after the game. " Nah, that's crazy, that's crazy, that's crazy. Need to figure this sh*t out. F*ck out of here."

This complaint was hardly Noel’s first since Embiid was cleared to play four months ago after two seasons of inactivity. “You have three starting-caliber centers, and it’s just not going to work having that on the same team,” Noel said at training camp in September.

Since then, Noel has done what he does best – get hurt. He lost the first two-plus months of the season to another knee injury, and then hurt his ankle in his first game back on Dec. 11. By my unofficial count, he has sustained no less than a dozen injuries or illnesses that have cost him playing time since his Sixers’ debut.

Nevertheless, he has a point. On those rare occasions when he is able to play, there is no room for him in the lineup. Reclusive GM Bryan Colangelo acknowledged as much the last time he spoke publicly, months ago. But Colangelo seems no more inclined to balance the roster than his predecessor, Sam Hinkie.

In the end, Brown is left to manage this unmanageable situation, both in public and behind closed doors. The coach actually said he considered it “an extreme challenge” to use all three centers regularly. Noel was quick to make that point, too.

“It's just too much on the coach's plate,” Noel said.

Does Bryan Colangelo care? Is it asking too much for the GM to address it, either with a trade or some well-chosen words?

And finally ...

     · DeShazor Everett committed vicious illegal hits that knocked Brent Celek and Darren Sproles out of a game, and the Redskins’ defensive back did not get suspended? The innocent victims paid a higher price than the $48,000 Everett was fined? If the NFL’s on-field disciplinarian (and a former co-host of mine at WIP), ex-Eagle Jon Runyan, thinks this is justice, he might want to consider another run for Congress. Obviously, he was better at that job than this one.

     · One of the greatest competitors in the past generation, Bernard Hopkins, needs to stop the insanity, right now. He was knocked out of the ring Saturday night, losing on a TKO the last fight of his career. The only problem is, this has been about the tenth last fight of his career. This time he has to make a smart, and final, decision – while his brain is still capable of doing that.

     · Former head of NFL officials Mike Pereira revealed last week that refs are consulting the replay crews before making decisions on challenged plays, a direct violation of the rules. There are two problems here. First, why is this against the rules? And second, why do the refs still get so many replays wrong? It seems to me the NFL needs some new rules or some new officials. Or both.

· Now that the Eagles are toast, my sole rooting interest is the Cowboys blowing this magical season with a quick playoff exit. And there’s hope there. Owner Jerry Jones’ absurd love of Tony Romo means rookie quarterback Dak Prescott is just a couple of bad games – maybe even just a couple of bad throws – away from the bench. How great would it be if Romo blew this season? Hey, we need something to keep us going, don’t we?

     · Good wishes in this holiday season to all of the PhillyVoice readers, including those who read (endure?) this column every week. There is no passion like that of the Philadelphia sports fan. Here’s hoping 2017 is the year we’ll find what we really want under the tree, a truly great team. We deserve it, don’t we?

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