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January 01, 2018

The bests and worsts of the 2017 Philadelphia sports year

Opinion Angelo Cataldi
010118_yearend_usat Jayne Kamin-Oncea, Mark J. Rebilas, Kim Klement, Bill Streicher/USA TODAY Sports

Joel Embiid, Carson Wentz, Clay Buchholz and Howie Roseman.

With 2017 now officially behind us, the only thing left to do is crown the winners and losers in a year that brought us some bright new hopes for 2018, and the usual frustration from the many bad acts in Philadelphia sports.

Best player – The flood of young talent created by so many losing teams (and high draft picks) has been more like a trickle so far, but there’s no denying the emergence of Carson Wentz as the next big superstar in our city, torn ACL be damned. The 13 games he did play before his injury had him among the leaders for MVP in America’s most important sport. He is amazing, on and off the field.

Worst player – Imagine blowing $13.5 million on a pitcher who ended the season with an 0-1 record, allowing 16 hits in seven pitiful innings. Phillies GM Matt Klentak did it with Clay Buchholz, who spent the last five months on the disabled list with a torn flexor tendon that required surgery. Very few GMs get away with blunders like that and hear no fan and media criticism. Somehow, Klentak did.

Best coach – Doug Pederson started the season fending off a public attack that he was unqualified to be the Eagles head coach, and ended it as a strong candidate for NFL coach of the year. He lost five main contributors to injury, including Wentz, and still won 13 games. Pederson wasn’t just our best coach last year; he was one of our best this millennium.

Worst coach – When a lack of intensity becomes the main theme of a season, all eyes should be turning toward the coach. In this case, it’s Dave Hakstol of the Flyers, a stoic figure whose sole support after two and a half floundering years here comes from his bull-headed GM Ron Hextall, who would rather scold the media then address the lack of emotion on his underachieving team.

Best rookie – Rhys Hoskins stayed in the minor leagues several months too long, but he still managed 18 home runs and 48 RBIs when he finally got promoted for the final 50 games of the season. Now he will be banished to left field because of Klentak’s signing of Carlos Santana to play first base. To Hoskins’ credit, he will handle the move with his usual professionalism. He is, by far, the best thing happening on the Phillies right now.

Worst rookie – When you are the very first pick in the draft, you need to be special from Day One. That did not happen with Markelle Fultz, who played only four games before his obvious shoulder injury sent him to the bench for two months. So far, the only lasting impression he has made is with that shot-put free-throw style caused by the injury. It’s too early to say he’s a bust, but he’s definitely on track for that label.

Best moment – It’s easy to forget the Eagles were only 1-1, coming off a discouraging loss to Kansas City, when Jake Elliott jogged onto the field to attempt a 61-yard field goal against the Giants on Sept. 24. Somehow, the young kicker snuck the football over the crossbar, catapulting the Birds to one of the best seasons in franchise history.

Worst moment – Carson Wentz took four snaps after tearing the ACL in his left knee in Los Angeles last month, managing through the sheer force of his will to get the Eagles into the end zone before hobbling off into the 2017 sunset. Four weeks later, we’re still not sure how he tore the ligament – was it before the hit or during it? – but it will haunt fans right through the playoffs, especially with a growing concern over his backup, Nick Foles.

Best executive – The coaching staff and players have received most of the credit for the 13-win season, but let’s not forget the mastermind behind the rebuild: GM Howie Roseman. It’s safe to say right now that, barring season-ending injuries to his starting quarterback, middle linebacker, best offensive lineman, best all-purpose weapon and best special-teams player, Roseman built a championship roster this season. Bravo.

Worst executive – Sixers GM Bryan Colangelo traded up for Fultz, kept him in the lineup with a serious shoulder injury and then lost him for the rest of 2017. Yes, he did sign J.J. Redick, a solid addition, but that’s really the only help he provided to a team clearly still in transition. Colangelo also said he was striving for transparency in communicating with the fans. Then he went back into hiding.

Best personality – I’ll admit I created this category because it would be ludicrous to leave out Joel Embiid, a terrific player in his fourth (and first reasonably healthy) season here, and also the most fun player we have had in Philadelphia since Charles Barkley. His zest for life has provided some much-needed laughs in an intense sports city.

Worst personality – There are many good candidates for this dubious distinction – Hextall, Hakstol, Colangelo – but my vote goes to Odubel Herrera, the lazy outfielder who never responded to the constant cajoling of ex-manager Pete Mackanin to play the game the right way. A bonehead on the bases and moody in the clubhouse, Herrera is my choice to be the first Phillie traded now that there’s a glut of talent in the outfield. Herrera is just not worth the trouble.

***

The unexpected success of the Eagles this season offered some valuable insights into the psyche of the Philadelphia sports fan. Sometimes, the worst thing a team can do here is win.

Think about it. For a team that won 81 percent of its games in the regular season, has any group of players and coaches faced greater scrutiny, or a more negative narrative, than the Eagles? In just the past four months, while winning most of their games, the Eagles were torched by fans and media for:

• The horrible play by the cornerbacks, Ronald Darby and Jalen Mills.

• The inconsistency of backup quarterback Nick Foles.

• Doug Pederson’s poor judgment on officiating challenges.

• The entire team’s inability to overcome the noise in Kansas City and Seattle.

• The subpar blocking of the left side of the offensive line, especially backup tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai.

• The failure on passes beyond 20 yards, third-down conversions on offense (when Foles was quarterback), third-and-long conversions on defense, the lack of blitzing, and the spotty work on special teams (after Chris Maragos was injured).

This flood of negativity came into full view after the 13-10 win over Oakland last Monday when the sky suddenly appeared to be falling on the NFL team with the best record. Hey, they won the game. They clinched home field throughout the playoffs. They had more wins than anyone predicted.

How was that performance not good enough?

Meanwhile, the other three pro teams have skated (in one case, literally) through another disappointing season. In case you haven’t noticed, the Sixers and Flyers are going nowhere against this year. They both define mediocrity right now. And the Phillies are even worse.

Where is the same kind of scrutiny for GMs Bryan Colangelo and Ron Hextall, or the Sixers’ medical staff, or — above all — the uninspired, convoluted rebuilding plan (if there is one) of Phillies GM Matt Klentak?

How can a 13-3 team get more criticism than a 66-96 team? It has happened in the past year, right here in Philadelphia, with the Eagles and Phillies.

Now I know what you’re thinking. Who am I to talk, having offered all of the above criticisms of the Eagles? Well, there’s one difference between me and the other critics. If you’ve been reading this column every week, you know I have been relentless in pointing out the failures of our three other teams.

I have no objection to the fans and media holding the Eagles to a high standard. What does bother me is that the other three teams are not facing the same scrutiny, Regardless of how this Eagles’ season ends, the Sixers, Flyers and Phillies should have to meet an equally high standard.

And if they don’t, they should face the wrath of a city that has become too forgiving of failure, too accepting of mediocrity. When the other three teams fail again in the near future — it is inevitable — there should be cries of anguish and demands for change.

It’s the Philadelphia way.

And finally ...

     • For the next two weeks, that sound you hear will be the gnashing of teeth by Eagles fans who watched Nick Foles flounder in the past two games and who now expect a one-and-done appearance in the playoffs. Not here. When he had to perform well, Foles did it against the Rams and Giants. Meanwhile, the defense – even the scrubs against Dallas – was phenomenal. The Eagles will be fine. You read it here first.

     • Is there anything worse than an Eagles-Cowboys game with very little relevance? That’s what we all experienced yesterday at Lincoln Financial Field. It’s too bad that the Eagles didn’t win their 14th game this season – a franchise record – and it’s cool that Dallas will get a lower draft position. Otherwise, who cares? When is the last time we said that about a game between these two blood rivals?

     • Chris Long has had a terrific season as a backup defensive end for the Eagles, and the year got even better when former president Barack Obama honored him in a tweet last week. Long has played this entire season for charity, pledging all of his $1-million-plus salary to his embattled hometown of Charlottesville, Va. The good news is, Long signed a two-year deal last spring, so he should be back again in 2018.

     • Life is so unfair to DeSean Jackson. First, was the victim in a very shady home invasion here a few years ago when he played for the Eagles, and now his truck was abandoned in Florida last week with over six grams of marijuana and two .38-caliber hollow-point bullets inside. Of course, once again Jackson pleaded his innocence, saying he had lent the vehicle to a friend. Some guys just never catch a break.

     • Brian Elliott is working out better than expected in the Flyers’ net so far, but coach Dave Hakstol tempted fate by playing the goalie in all 13 games in December. Back from injury, Michal Neuvirth needs some work, if for no other reason than the possibility that Elliott could get hurt. Backups are important. Just ask the Eagles.

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