Brandon Duckworth signed a Minor League contract with the Phillies this week, which reminded me of something I hadn’t thought about in a while.
Philadelphia sports used to really suck.
Philadelphians used to talk themselves into things constantly. Things like, “Sure, Jeremiah Trotter was good, but I bet Levon Kirkland will really sure up our run defense, and if he doesn’t work out we have studs like Barry Gardener and Ike Reese waiting in the wings.” Or, “Yeah, Chris Webber’s knees are as weak as Kyle Korver’s post game, but he’s a 20-and-10 guy and you just don’t get them these days. Plus he’s really good at jumpers from the elbow.” Or even, more recently, “Yeah, Elton Brand’s knees are as questionable as Sam Dalembert’s skill level and effort, but he’s a 20-and-10 guy and you just don’t get them these days. Plus…” you get the idea.
In those days—the late 1990s and early 2000s—Philly fans had one thing to hold on to, and that was the perceived dominance and inevitable championship run of the Philadelphia Eagles with the Donovan McNabb/Andy Reid combo at the controls. Certainly the Sixers were able to captivate us as they made an unlikely run at a Finals Championship in 2001 behind the magic of Allen Iverson’s MVP campaign and the dumping of Theo Ratliff’s carcass for the best defensive center in basketball and the subject of countless Larry Brown wet dreams, Dikembe Mutombo. But when they were forced to face the harsh reality that Shaquille O’Neal was 100 pounds heavier than Deke and Kobe was 8 inches taller than AI and Tyrone Hill actually sucked as much as he resembled Skeletor, it was obvious that they just did not have what it took to deliver the title that had so long eluded the city.
Then came the Rise of McNabb. In the NFL season that started in September of 2002, with an onside kick and a pickle juice-fueled drubbing of the hated Cowboys and finished with a loss in the playoffs to the Superbowl runner-up Rams that was one last-minute drive away from ending the other way, Philly fans saw a young team with a relentless defense, a multi-faceted quarterback just coming into his own, and a front office that stressed the importance of moderation in spending. The team was a dynamic receiver away from unstoppability (it’s a word if I say it is). Unfortunately, the best the frugal front office could come up with for several years was a mish-mash of bargain bin no-names (James Thrash, Todd Pinkston, Na Brown) and high-round draft wastes (Freddie Mitchell, Todd Pinkston, eventually Reggie Brown). Sure they would occasionally splurge on washed-up former Pro-Bowlers (Antonio Freeman, Dorsey Levens, Blaine Bishop), but it was never enough to turn around the offense. Luckily they had Jim Johnson and Brian Dawkins leading a defense that finished in the top 10 of overall defense statistically every year from 2001-2009. Pretty boss.
Their one blockbuster move came when the Eagles stole Terrell Owens from the Baltimore Ravens. Owens’ agent Drew Rosenhaus—whose idiocy is only outweighed by his sleaziness, which is doubly outweighed by his ego—forgot to file the papers to make Owens a free agent after the 2003 season and thus the notoriously outspoken and homophobic receiver could only be acquired via trade. A few days after this news broke, Owens was traded to the Baltimore Ravens, pending a physical. Soon after though, without much legitimate explanation, Owens’ former team the 49ers decided they would rather trade him to the Eagles for Brandon Whiting’s zip code of a rear end and a second round pick. The Eagles ended up with one of the best receivers in football, and convinced perennial Pro-Bowler Jevon Kearse to hop on the bandwagon, and even brought back failed expatriates Jeremiah Trotter and Hugh Douglas just to prove that Jim Johnson is the man and the whole reason that anyone thought these players were any good in the first place.
One horse-collar tackle, a Superbowl trip, a vomit-covered final drive, a TO contract dispute, a whole lot of mudslinging, and a locker-room fight later and Terrell Owens was kicked off the Eagles like a kid who pooped in the hallways of his high school. The Birds were sidetracked for a year, missing the playoffs amid all the TO turmoil, but continued through the duration of the decade teasing their fans tantalizingly with perennial playoff appearances but ultimately upsetting endings.
It was frustrating for Philadelphia fans to watch. But with the Sixers hovering in the hellhole that is NBA playoff purgatory (just in the playoffs, just out of the draft lottery), the Phillies finding new and exciting ways to finish one to three games out of the playoffs, and the NHL either striking or slipping into irrelevance, the Eagles’ repeated trips to the NFC Championship Game were the only show in town that was truly worth seeing.
They flashed just enough pigskin to arouse the local sports scene, but came up just short of the red-and-white explosion that would come in the fall of 2008. Having lived through it I can say with certainty that sports blueballs is one of the most debilitating experiences in the world. And after 8 years of sports blueballs at the hands of the Eagles, it was about time Philadelphia got itself a happy ending.
The Phillies have changed this outlook though. With two straight World Series appearances, the ’08 WFC title under their belts, and a lineup that attracts former Cy Young winners and future Hall of Fame inductees, the Phillies are arguably the hottest franchise in baseball and have spoiled a fan base that had become accustomed to identifying itself with dubious milestones like the Phillies’ 10,000 losses in the history of the franchise and the Sixers’ record for losingest single season in NBA history.
The Philadelphia fan expects more today than they did ten years ago. McNabb and Reid appear destined to split up either this offseason or next with rampant trade rumors swirling around McNabb as he enters the final year of his contract.
Maybe it’s for the best: McNabb and Reid don’t cut it anymore.
Brandon Duckworth doesn’t cut it anymore.
What a great sign for Philadelphia sports.