Philadelphia has long been a do-or-die sports town. Yet, somehow, both the Eagles and Phillies managed to raise the stakes. Will a sports town’s ultimate doomsday be avoided?
In case you have no clue what I’m referring to, let’s revisit key acquisitions made by both teams in recent months.
After being eliminated by the San Francisco Giants in last year’s NLCS, Phillies GM, Ruben Amaro Jr., pushed his chips to the middle of the table, shocking the baseball world and signing the most sought after free agent, Cliff Lee. The addition itself was a huge move. Adding Lee to a rotation of Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, and Roy Oswalt, however, was even bigger.
Fast forward to the July 2011 trade deadline. In desperate need of a right-handed bat, Amaro again stepped up, selling the farm (literally) to bring in coveted outfielder Hunter Pence from the Houston Astros. The message was clear: The 2011 season would bring home a World Series title or, you guessed it, bust.
The Eagles found themselves in a similar, albeit significantly more frustrating, position. Throughout the Andy Reid era, the Eagles have almost always been contenders. On the other hand, they’ve reached the Super Bowl only once. (It’s also no secret fans in the city have abandoned the Eagles in droves in favor of the title-winning, fan friendly, Phillies.) After the Eagles came unglued down the stretch and failed to win a playoff game following the 2009 and 2010 seasons, management doubled down heading into 2011.
First, the Eagles traded backup quarterback Kevin Kolb for Pro Bowl cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and a 2nd round draft pick. Then, they brought in the best defensive end available in Jason Babin. After that, the Eagles won the services of the most prized free agent, Nnamdi Asomugha. It didn’t stop there. The organization continued adding to its arsenal by bringing in Cullen Jenkins, Vince Young, and receiver Steve Smith from NFC East rival, New York Giants.
Normally a conservative, “build from within” franchise, the Eagles are making a run at the Super Bowl title that has eluded the Andy Reid regime for the better part of a decade. However, unlike the Phillies, the Eagles have exhausted their fans’ patience. The city wants a parade or a new coach. While a Super Bowl appearance may save Reid’s job, only a championship will finally ease the natives.
Here’s where the story gets ugly. Despite major additions, and in the Phillies’ case, a successful regular season, both teams are hardly a lock to reach their respective championship round, let alone bring home a title.
Yes, the Phillies have been unstoppable nearly all season. They’re running away with the NL East. (The Mets are so far back; they can’t even read the Phillies’ record.) The rotation, despite injuries, has lived up to expectations and carried the team through its all-too-frequent hitting slumps. Still, there’s something missing.
While strong all season, the bullpen has begun to show signs of fatigue and/or weakness. Brad Lidge still has not regained form and probably won’t in 2011. Ryan Madson, while adequate as a closer, hasn’t faced closing in an atmosphere as tense as the NLCS or World Series. Plus, closing is on an entirely different level from being the setup man. On top of the bullpen worries are the mounting injuries. Cole Hamels’ shoulder. Jimmy Rollins’ nagging leg injuries. The day-to-day status of Placido Polanco’s back.
However, none of these issues are my chief concern. Hitting is. Let’s not forget why the Phillies were humiliated by the Giants last fall; they couldn’t hit. To win in October, you need two things and only two things. 1. Great pitching. 2. Timely hitting. Obviously, the Phillies can already put a big, whopping check mark next to “Great pitching.” Timely hitting? Not even close.
Whether or not the Giants even reach the postseason remains uncertain. However, this much we know: The Phillies can’t hit the top of San Francisco’s rotation. Fans can point to winning three of four in San Fran in August all they want. I’m not sold. Besides, only one of those wins came against Matt Cain or Tim Lincecum. In that victory, the Phillies mustered two early runs against Cain, one as the result of an error. After the first inning, Cain settled in, and that was it. In four combined outings against Lincecum and Cain (29 innings) this season, the Phillies squeezed out 17 hits, 4 runs (only 2 were earned), and went 1-3. To make matters worse, Philadelphia has yet to face the Giants’ third best starter, surprise sensation Ryan Vogelsong (10-4, 2.54 ERA).
To be fair, the Giants can’t hit worth a lick this year, so it’s not as if they’re going to punish Philadelphia for missing opportunities. So, let’s say the Phillies win the National League. It’s true; no American League team has the same rotation depth as the Phillies or Giants. Instead of pitching, though, the Yankees, Red Sox, and Rangers boast offense, and lots of it. Does great pitching typically trump great hitting? Absolutely. But you can’t expect Halladay, Lee, and Hamels to limit Boston, New York, or Texas to less than 3 runs on a nightly basis. (Notice I said expect. Is it possible? Of course, but hardly realistic.) At some point, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and the rest of the offense need to step up. Considering the flashy names on the roster, it’s not necessarily a good thing that Shane Victorino has been the Phillies’ most consistent and reliable offensive player the past two seasons. Pitching and Victorino alone won’t bring another parade down Broad Street.
If the Phillies (by far the best team in the National League) aren’t a sure thing, I’m not sure what to call the Eagles. While the media and fans continue to play up the “Dream Team” angle, pessimists like myself just stare blankly at a roster with obvious flaws.
For example, when have the Eagles EVER properly estimated their linebacking core under Andy Reid? Do names like Ernie Sims, Mark Simoneau, and Levon Kirkland ring a bell? Hearing the Eagles claim they’re confident with their linebackers is as comforting as President Obama telling me universal healthcare is a good idea.
How about the offensive line? This just in: Quarterbacks, even Michael Vick, need time to be successful. We’re two weeks from kickoff and the starting left guard just got moved to right tackle. To make matters worse, the entire line is learning a new system under a new offensive line coach and possibly starting two rookies on top of that.
Also, when was last time an Eagle defense was able to get off the field in a critical moment late in the game? Or better yet, when did the defense last pressure a quarterback into countless mistakes in December or January? Unfortunately, the Hugh Douglas era is the correct answer. Juan Castillo has his work cut out.
Then there’s Michael Vick himself. I think I’m alone on this, but I’m not totally convinced he can be the pocket passer that Reid (and even Vick himself) wants him to be. Scrambling quarterbacks are exciting. They may even carry you to the playoffs. But quarterbacks who hang in the pocket and beat defenses with their arms win Super Bowls. If Vick doesn’t improve and develop as an accurate quarterback who can make all the necessary throws (a-la Rodgers or Brady), the Eagles are a 10-6 or 11-5 team waiting to be bounced in the Wildcard round for the third year in a row.
In case it’s not obvious, decades of Philadelphia sports failures have forced me to expect whatever can go wrong, will go wrong. The Phillies and Eagles made moves that appear to put their respective teams in better position to win a championship. While I would obviously be overjoyed at either (or both) winning a title, the reality of the situation is difficult to ignore. After all, how often to the heavy favorites go wire-to-wire and bring home the hardware? …That’s what I thought.
Get ready, the apocalypse is upon us.