The (Philly Sports) World Turned Upside-Down
At the end of 2006, if you’d polled the sports-watching public of Philadelphia (plus displaced fans like me) on whether they had more faith in the procedural and operational wisdom of the Phillies or the Eagles, I think you would have gotten a very, very large majority giving the nod to the football team. Certainly all the evidence pointed in this direction: the Eagles were completing their sixth season of double-digit wins and playoff entry in the previous seven, while the Phillies had just finished a thirteenth straight season on the outside of the playoff hunt, looking in.
Good process leads to good outcomes, we might have said. The Eagles had made a plan and stuck with it, putting their faith in a core of front office, sideline and field leadership that had been in place since the turn of the decade: Joe Banner and Andy Reid, Donovan McNabb and Brian Dawkins and Jon Runyan. They’d turned draft picks like Brian Westbrook and Shawn Andrews into stars, shown a deft touch at knowing when to cut bait on fan favorites like Hugh Douglas and when to bring guys back, most prominently linebacker Jeremiah Trotter. Even decisions that seemed odd at first, like drafting defensive backs Lito Sheppard and Sheldon Brown while starters Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor were still seemingly healthy and in their primes, often turned out well. And when they did make mistakes, or things went bad—a Terrell Owens going rogue or Mark Simoneau failing to meet expectations—action was taken to protect the core of the team and preserve the winning formula.
The Phillies? They’d started with a plan around the same time that the Eagles brought in Reid and McNabb: build from within, get good and stay good. But their own biggest stars loudly doubted the team’s true commitment to winning: first Curt Schilling in 2000, then Scott Rolen in 2002 essentially talked their way out of town, and in both cases GM Ed Wade misread the situation and failed to extract a valuable return from his trade partners. Maybe worse, they lurched from one management style to another, as low-key outsider Terry Francona gave way to high-strung Phils lifer Larry Bowa, who was canned when—actually well after—he lost the clubhouse, in favor of laconic Charlie Manuel.
The drift was everywhere. Manuel’s big qualification seemed to be that he was personally close to the team’s highest-profile player, Jim Thome; but in Manuel’s first season, 2005, Thome got hurt and then was traded to create space for young slugger Ryan Howard. Everyone knew that the Phillies made the same mistakes again and again, operating in an environment of isolated, self-deluding management that failed to demand accountability from anyone in the executive suites or the dugout. The team's putative leaders, homegrown veterans like Pat Burrell and Jimmy Rollins, were blasted for their evident lack of a champion’s desire and other intangibles.
The Phillies never seemed more discombobulated than in 2006. Yet another lousy first half led to fan and media calls for Manuel’s firing, probably in favor of another Bowa-like hardass. GM Pat Gillick, who had replaced Wade, traded away many of his veterans in late July for virtually no return. Gillick himself publicly gave up on the season, suggesting that maybe by 2008 his Phillies could contend… and then the team went on a tear. Ryan Howard hit out of his mind from mid-summer on, rewriting the team record book and ultimately winning the MVP award. With a week to go, the Phils led for the wild-card spot—only to fall just short once again. Two months later, the Eagles wrote the same book with a much happier ending, overcoming a series of devastating injuries to rebound from a 5-6 start, win their final five regular season games, claim a division title and defeat the Giants in the playoffs before narrowly losing in the conference semifinals.
Since then, however, almost everything has gone right for the Phillies while the Eagles have fallen into a pit dug about equally from bad luck and bad judgment. Like the 2006 Eagles, the 2007 Phils roared back from a seemingly insurmountable deficit to win their division; like the 2006 Phillies, the 2007 Eagles started slowly, missed the playoffs and wasted a spectacularly great season from their biggest star, Brian Westbrook.
This year, of course, the Phillies are World f$^% Champions… and it’s the Eagles, who once declared themselves the NFL’s “gold standard,” who seem blind to their own shortcomings and spectacularly adrift. Where Jimmy Rollins is praised as the heart of his team, it’s Donovan McNabb whose blasé attitude gets blasted in print and on air; Charlie Manuel is now revered for supporting his players and increasingly respected as a tactician, while Andy Reid is on the hot seat for his stunning flaws on the sideline and his clichéd incoherence at the press conference podium. The Same Old Phillies have given way to the Same Old Eagles as the team fans hate to love and love to hate.
I’m not sure what we can take away from any of this, though. Did the Phillies suddenly smarten up or pass some test of character in September 2007? Did the Eagles as an organization lose their grip at around the same time? Or was it all just luck—that the Phillies could have made the playoffs in 2001, or 2003, or 2006, and succeeded once there, while the Eagles caught a ton of breaks earlier in this decade?
Perhaps the only solid conclusion is that we all should be less sure of what we “know.” In sports as in much else.