AS THE 2011 sports calendar sputters to an end, permit us to ask a question that perhaps you've wondered yourself: What in the hell happened?
Championships were supposed to have been won this year in Philadelphia. With the exception of the Sixers - who had an energetic new coach but were far from the upper echelon of NBA - three of the four pro teams appeared primed to give us a parade this year, especially the Phillies and the Eagles. In fact, if you were to dial back to late July, you would have sworn that there was no better place on earth to be a sports fan.
You have heard the expression: "Wait till next year"?
This was "next year"!
Arguably, July 29 was the apex of our expectations. To begin with, the Phillies had a five-game lead on the second-place Braves and, with Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and the emergent Vance Worley, the strongest starting rotation in baseball. But July 29, the ever-creative general manager, Ruben Amaro Jr., acquired outfielder Hunter Pence from Houston in what appeared to be the key extra piece that would pave the way to the World Series. In the 2 weeks that followed that acquisition, the Phillies expanded their lead to nine games, at which point the Fall Classic became a foregone conclusion. The only question that remained was: Would we get a chance to avenge that 2009 loss to the Yankees?
But July 29 also held what appeared promising implications for the occupants at Lincoln Financial Field. On that day, the Eagles signed heralded free-agent cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, who became part of a spending spree by the club that would be anointed by backup quarterback Vince Young as "The Dream Team." Of course, it had seemed screwy when head coach Andy Reid tapped seasoned offensive-line coach Juan Castillo to take over as defensive coordinator in February. But as Reid surrounded a core of exceptional skill players in quarterback Michael Vick, wide receiver DeSean Jackson and running back LeSean McCoy with Asomugha and others, hopes began to soar that this would be the year for the Eagles to overcome the assorted shortcomings of their head coach and finally win a Super Bowl.
As we know only too well, none of that came to pass. The bottom line: Great expectations, poor execution.
The Phillies won a club-record 102 games, yet performed in the NLDS against the eventual world champion Cardinals as if they had never held a bat before. Lee coughed up a 4-0 lead in Game 2 - something no one ever would have expected - and the Cardinals beat Halladay, 1-0, in the decisive game. In what would become a metaphor for the thwarted destiny of the team, slugger Ryan Howard grounded out to second base and collapsed with a torn left Achilles' tendon. He had struck out looking against the Giants to end the Phillies' championship run the previous year.
And "The Dream Team" the Eagles had supposedly assembled? Believe it or not, they still have an outside shot of landing a playoff berth. But even if they do, it will be only by virtue of the fact that they play in a division they should have run away with. With the exception of McCoy and a few others, the Eagles have been an underachieving team led by a coach whose arrogance, obstinacy and inability to adjust has been a stale act for a few years now. Even if this team somehow ends up in the playoffs, 2011 will not be looked upon with any degree of favor.
Oh, and then there are the Flyers. By July 29, they had set the tone for the flops to follow by the other teams by being swept, 4-0, in the second round of the playoffs by the Bruins. This is the same team that a year before had played in the Stanley Cup finals, and the same team that had spent the early part of 2011 in first place in the Eastern Conference. By July 29, general manager Paul Holmgren had moved to address this dismal outcome by shipping out parties Mike Richards and Jeff Carter; stabilizing his erratic goaltending situation with the acquisition of Ilya Bryzgalov; and adding a veteran hand in free agent Jaromir Jagr.
And the Sixers? Coming off a 27-victory season under their previous coach, Eddie Jordan, the expectations were that they had to be better under Doug Collins, but not this much better. Thus, they were the big surprise of the year: They were a .500 team (41-41) and earned a playoff berth, only to be beaten by the Miami Heat.
So . . . what do the fans think?
Well, put it like this: At this time last year, there was a big, enticing box decorated with a bow and ribbons under the tree, but when opened revealed the "gift" inside . . . a three-pack of underwear.
Shall we begin with the Phillies?
"The Phillies season was a total disappointment," said Tim Whelan, of Bensalem. "Poor at-bats and the complete inability to work opposing pitchers in the postseason ultimately led to their demise."
Tony Bruno, of Garnet Valley, added: "This year is full of disappointment, if living up to your full potential is how you measure success. For the second year in a row we saw Ryan Howard at the plate when we needed him the most and [he] let us down."
The Eagles fared no better.
Here is Hap McManus, of Philadelphia, on what he calls "the indifference" that has settled upon him: "I truly believe that Andy Reid is a fantastic person and the players tend to love him [but] enough is enough. The arrogance, pomposity and flat-out poor attitude he has concerning moves he has made have been draining . . . When Andy talks in a press conference, he needs to know that he is not talking to the reporters, whom he obviously has contempt for, but to me and the 1 million other fans who bleed green on a weekly basis."
And Marty Kenney, of Paoli: "Only a last burst gives us a remote hope but, in general the season was a universal, self-inflicted flop."
Paul Groffie, of Marlton, N.J., referred to the Eagles' woes this year as "The Dream Team debacle," which he likened to "throwing salt on a slug and watching all our hopes evaporate." Groffie added, "The disappointment hangs like a long night of drinking - you remember some of it, try to forget other parts of it and deal with the pain of a horrible headache."
Hope appears to have been reborn in the Flyers, who sit atop the Atlantic Division with a 21-8-4 record.
Thomas Kincade, of Philadelphia, said, "This is a young energetic team with great promise."
Whelan added, "Shaking up the team like they did in the offseason was a gutsy move but one that needed to be made. I have to give Paul Holmgren a ton of credit for assembling this current team . . . The younger guys that are stepping in for the injured players are great role-fillers. You can only hope that they are able to do that through the grind of the season and keep at it in the playoffs."
Hope also seems to be stirring insofar as the Sixers are concerned. With the NBA labor problems resolved and new ownership in place, there is some optimism that the Sixers will continue to flourish under Collins, even if they lack the superstar like those who headline the more elite teams in the league. Bruno said Collins has been "a breath of fresh air."
Whelan echoed that but had some reservations regarding the talent with which Collins has to work. "I love what Doug Collins has done to this team, but it is going to be impossible to compete against the top four teams in the league."
Philadelphia also liked what it saw of its pro soccer team, the Union, which played to big crowds and earned a playoff berth in only its second year of existence. Whelan said they have found "the formula to succeed: Put an exciting, competitive team on the field in a new stadium with a fun atmosphere and you will sell out every night. They are really fun to watch down there. Their only downfall is that 'down there' is Chester."
So . . . 2011?
Good year? Bad year? Somewhere in between.
Rob Kilby, of Bordentown, N.J., said "it probably depends on your point of view.
"If sports is just another outlet to spend your leisure, equivalent to going to a movie, you probably enjoyed yourself," said Kilby, who added that he has been following the local sports teams for 50 years. Consequently, Kilby said "for this old-timer the story is getting old. The years may be growing short for me, and I may be running out of seasons to celebrate that ultimate victory."