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December 29, 2021

The top 10 Philadelphia sports moments of 2021

It wasn't the best year in Philly sports, but there were some moments we'll never forget

On the grand scale of Philadelphia sports seasons, the year 2021 was not particularly special in any way.

All four of the city's major sports teams are — or were for most of their respective seasons — pretty much .500 teams. Which means no high draft picks to contemplate in the new year, and not a lot of championship potential either.

The Phillies missed the playoffs at 82-80. The Flyers missed them in 2020-21 and are playing .500 hockey this season. The Eagles heading into 2021 are 8-7. And the Sixers, who were NBA title threats in the first half of 2021 have been saddled with a Ben Simmons crisis that will just not go away and are a .500 team heading into 2022.

The following list will likely make you smile, just a bit, only until you realize that this is the best the city had to offer. In contrast to when we made these rankings in 2020, or to almost any other year in the history of this storied sports town.

Here's our best crack at finding 10 of these moments from 2021 and ranking them accordingly:

1. Bryce Harper's MVP season (and Zack Wheeler's near Cy Young season)

The Phillies, on the surface, appear to have underachieved in 2021, as they boasted the NL MVP in Harper and arguably the best pitcher in the NL in Wheeler (he lost Cy Young honors to Corbin Burns, whom he pitched 46 more innings than and had 2.0 more WAR than). But a closer look reveals a completely mediocre team that was lifted onto the cusp of relevancy by two of the National League's most spectacular performances.

If you went to the ballpark in August or September, you were rewarded by getting to see Harper singlehanded put the Phillies on his back and keep them in the mix for a playoff spot until the last week of the season. His numbers — .309/.429/.615 with 35 homers, 42 doubles and a Silver Slugger award — are only made more impressive when you put his play under the eye test. Here's hoping the front office doesn't hang its biggest stars out to dry with each star poised to return and make big bucks in 2022.

2. Eagles learn to run, win five of six to get in playoff position

After trying to win games with Jalen Hurts' arm for the first few weeks of the season, rookie head coach Nick Sirianni discovered that the Eagles offensive line is both huge and hugely talented, and the team's run-first attack turned a 2-5 start into team currently slotted in a wild card spot with two games to play. It's remarkable if you look at the numbers:

Rush yards per game163.21st
Rushes per game32.21st
Yards per rush5.1T-1st
 Offensive DVOA9.0%10th
Rush DVOA8.7%4th

Interestingly, it's not Miles Sanders or Jordan Howard or even Hurts (who has been good, not great) fueling the ground domination. It's Jason Kelce and the offensive line. If they make the playoffs and do any damage there, it'll be because of the hogs up front.

3. Philly Union nearly pull off impossible

The Union haven't been particularly good since entering the MLS in 2008, but the 2021 season was almost a storybook ending for the ages. After a compelling regular season that saw them compile the second most points in the Eastern Conference, the club beat the Red Bulls and Nashville to advance to the conference finals.

And then COVID struck. With a remarkable 11 players out due to positive tests, the team had to sign Academy players. The inexperienced roster somehow went toe to toe with New York City FC and lost a heartbreaking home playoff game, 2-1, with fans left wondering what could have been.

4. Sixers win 10 of last 12, secure No. 1 seed in 2021 playoffs

The Sixers' would have found themselves higher on this list if not for their continued postseason futility. The team has still yet to find its way past the second round of playoffs since 2001. There were a lot of bright spots in a 2020-21 that many will be quick to forget after the seven-game upset loss to the Hawks, including Tyrese Maxey, Joel Embiid's near MVP campaign and Dwight Howard rallying the fans for free Frosties. But the fact that the Sixers were able to earn the top overall seed in the East — thanks to killer play down the stretch — brought about a feeling of optimism. 

The Sixers controlled their own destiny and would have benefited from facing a short-handed Nets roster. But alas, Ben Simmons and company failed to handle the Hawks and it all fell apart.

5. Howie Roseman trades back, trades up (for DeVonta Smith, extra first)

Roseman's draft day decisions look just as good today as they did in May, and that's a really good sign for the GM who often gets harsh criticism for his decisions in the first round. In 2021, Roseman traded back with the Dolphins — netting an extra draft pick for next year (that will probably be in the 20s... but oh well). Then, without surrendering much draft capital he moved up ahead of the Giants to take Smith, who is clearly the Eagles' best receiver and has a sparkling, bright future. In all it was a pretty good draft for Roseman and company, and the Eagles look like a team on the rise, out of the ashes...

6. Eagles get rid of Carson Wentz

Oh yes, the ashes. Before there was Ben Simmons demanding a trade, there was Carson Wentz. The Eagles franchise quarterback had a god-awful season in 2020 following the drafting of second-round QB Jalen Hurts. Wentz was benched late in the season and after a cat and mouse game with the media, demanded out of Philly.

With Doug Pederson somewhat surprisingly fired early in the offseason, the team followed suit with Wentz, trading him for a conditional pick that is going to be a first rounder in the 20s in 2022. Why is this trade on our list of top 10 moments? Well, Wentz was just a catalyst for drama ever since he watched Nick Foles win a Super Bowl for the team he was drafted to lead. That the Eagles were able to get a first-round pick for him, and shed his massive salary is a huge feather in Roseman's GM cap and could welcome a new era of competitiveness for Philly.

7. Flyers offseason shakeup leads to fast start

It's really a shame the Flyers couldn't be more prominently featured in our top 10 moments. But the last year on the ice (and off it) has been really tough for a franchise that is desperately trying to find its footing, and a way to compete. After a disappointing spring in 2020-21, the Flyers shook things up majorly.

• They traded Nolan Patrick and Phil Meyers for Ryan Ellis

• They traded Robert Hagg for picks

• They traded Jakob Voracek for Cam Atkinson

• They signed Keith Yandle, Derek Brassard and Martin Jones

The team started red hot and looked like it was heading for contention. They are currently 12-12-5 and had a 10-game winless streak earlier in the 2021-22 season. We'll see if these aggressive moves wind up paying off.

8. Philly was well represented at the 2020 (technically 2021) Olympics

Depending on how you define Philly (does it include south Jersey and the PA burbs?), there were at least 35 locals competing in the 2020 Olympics, which took place in 2021 in Tokyo. These strong performances ranged from players in team sports, like Carli Loyd (soccer) and Haleigh Washington (volleyball) to individuals like Valarie Allman (discus) and David Taylor (wrestling). In all, this group won nine medals including five golds, representing the area with pride on sports' biggest stage.

9. Drexel hoops goes dancing

There wasn't a lot of great college basketball in the storied City Six over the last year, with just two teams making the NCAA Tournament in 2021, and the typically title-minded Wildcats faltering prematurely in the Sweet 16. However, there was a bright spot for Dragon alums across the Delaware Valley, as Drexel qualified for the big dance for the first time in 25 years. That the 16-seeded team was demolished in the first round is a foot note to a point of pride for the West Philly team.

10. Embiid is an MVP — when he plays

It was really, really hard to come up with even 10 things that were positive and memorable about the 2021 season surrounding Philly sports. We decided to toss Joel Embiid on here to wrap things up because he's one of the best two athletes (with respect to Bryce Harper) in the city right now — and if not for missing a handful too many games he would probably have rightfully been voted the 2021 NBA MVP.

He is back at it in 2021-22. When not battling back, knee or COVID issues, the big man has been the one consistently productive and reliable piece on a Sixers team that has battled an absurd amount of injuries and health issues, while missing their second All-Star as he continues to, I don't know, play chicken with the Sixers to get traded?

We'll end our synopsis of the year that was with a plea to the powers that be (mostly Daryl Morey) to get JoJo some help so his prime isn't totally wasted. And while we're at it, Dave Dombrowski, do the same thing please.

We'll toast to a brighter 2022 in Philly sports. Happy New Year, all.

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