Carson Wentz and Joel Embiid, come on down! You’re among our award winners from the year in Philly sports. | Mike Sielski
It was a crazy year around here. Let's hand out some hardware to our overachievers ... and the underachievers, too.
So we’re about to tie a bow on another year, and you know what that means: awards time. Journalists love awards. They love getting them, and they love giving them, especially to each other. The critic Jack Shafer wrote a memorable screed for Politico in 2015 in which he blasted editors, reporters, and columnists for their obsession with winning awards, and he saved his most powerful flamethrower for the Pulitzer Prize, which he described as “the left-lane passing, high-status prize for journalists … a graven and craven honor if ever there was one.” Hear, hear!
(Note to the Pulitzer Committee: You know I don’t mean that. It’s Christmas week. I needed a quick column with an easy angle. We’re cool, right? Thanks. You so get me.)
The good part about this piece, though, is that we’re not handing out awards to other journalists. We’re handing them out to Philadelphia sports franchises and figures based on the events of 2021. And man, it was a crazy year. It began with questions about whether Doug Pederson and the Eagles had kinda-sorta tanked their regular-season finale, and it ended with COVID-19 throwing the NFL, NBA, and NHL seasons into such chaos that the 76ers briefly considered bringing Allen Iverson out of retirement to fill a roster spot. (No, they didn’t really do that, but it would have made sense if they had. They could use a point guard who doesn’t hesitate to shoot.)
Anyway, let’s not dilly-dally any longer. On to the awards …
The Eagles Fans No Longer Think Of Me As A Human Being Award goes to … Carson Wentz. And it’s not just because a sizable segment of the team’s fan base — and even some of the media who cover the team — came to regard him as a petulant traitor for signing a $128 million contract extension with the Eagles, pouting after they drafted Jalen Hurts, playing terribly, then requesting to be traded. Fun times. Nutty times. After all, while Wentz obviously deserved blame and criticism for his actions and reactions, the backlash against him did fail to meet a certain threshold for sound logic.
FANS AND MEDIA: Howie Roseman is a terrible football executive!
WENTZ: I agree! Get me out of here!
FANS AND MEDIA: What? You jerk! How can you be so spoiled and disloyal?
But after the Birds dealt Wentz to the Indianapolis Colts in February, he transformed from a flesh-and-blood quarterback into a brand-new Health app, except instead of counting steps or calories, the Eagles and their followers started counting Wentz’s snaps. Once it’s official that Wentz has played at least 75% of the Colts’ offensive snaps this season, the Eagles get a first-round draft pick, per the terms of the trade. Here’s hoping they use it on a small, fast wide receiver, just for the sake of the outrage.
The I’ve Got The Sixers By The Mesh Shorts Award goes to … Ben Simmons. Look, no one can dispute that, from his seven-game shrinkage against the Atlanta Hawks to his refusal to suit up for the Sixers again, Simmons bought himself a 2,000-square-foot penthouse in the skyscraper where this city’s all-time sports villains reside. He’ll be the butt of cheap jokes (see above) and what-ifs for generations to come.
But the anger and frustration — both from the Sixers and the public — over Simmons aren’t born merely of his flaws, his unwillingness to correct them, and his indifference toward his responsibilities as a professional and a teammate. They’re also a natural byproduct of the position in which he has placed the Sixers. They’re a mediocre team without him, which means they’re stuck between a rock and one of his jumpers. If Daryl Morey trades Simmons soon, it’s possible he’d be passing up a later deal that would have brought greater value in return. But the longer Morey waits, the more of Joel Embiid’s prime goes to waste.
The Definition of Insanity Award goes to … the Flyers, who followed up an offseason of trades, signings, and major changes to their roster by losing 10 straight games and firing head coach Alain Vigneault. When your franchise’s most innovative and popular development over the previous decade is its mascot, you know you’re stuck in the rut of all ruts.
The I Dig Philly, And You Can, Too Award goes to … Bryce Harper, who not only was voted the National League’s Most Valuable Player but highlighted the contrast between a superstar athlete who embraces Philadelphia and those who don’t.
For instance, it’s worth noting that, in the most important series of the Phillies’ season — three late-September games in Atlanta against the Braves, with the NL East crown on the line — Harper went 0-for-11 with five strikeouts, and his team got swept. I’m not suggesting that he didn’t have a great season or that he was to blame for the Phils’ failure to make the playoffs. He did, and he wasn’t. I’m suggesting that Philadelphia has been known to be hard on a star athlete who didn’t meet the measure of such a moment, yet Harper emerged mostly unscathed. There’s a reason.
Since his arrival in 2019, Harper has blunted such criticism by accepting and allowing himself to be accepted by the Phillies’ fan base. He wears Phanatic-decorated spikes. He is accommodating to the media. He makes his effort on the field plain to see. He plans to be here a while, and he’s making it easier on himself to be here a while. He has tried to bend toward the city instead of expecting, as Wentz and Simmons did, the city to bend to him.
The Rock, Paper, Scissors Redemption Award goes to … Nick Sirianni, for recovering from that cringey introductory press conference to prove himself a pretty good NFL head coach, at least through most of his first season with the Eagles.
The Col. Nathan R. Jessup Memorial You Can’t Handle The Truth Award goes to … Embiid, for saying what everyone knows to be so about Simmons and the impact of his absence on the Sixers.
The And You Thought I Was Awesome Before Award goes to … Dawn Staley, who has the South Carolina Gamecocks unbeaten and ranked No. 1 in the country. It would seem impossible for Staley to be as good a college head coach as she was as a player, but she’s giving it her best shot.
The Achievement That Everyone Forgot Award goes to … Jay Wright and the Villanova men’s basketball team, who advanced to the Sweet 16 for the seventh time in the last 16 NCAA tournaments. There was a noticeable lack of buzz around that ‘Nova run, in large part because there was a lack of buzz around this year’s tournament, which was held entirely in Indiana and at partial attendance capacity because of the pandemic. But in light of the Wildcats’ longtime excellence under Wright — that’s Naismith Hall of Famer Jay Wright to you, by the way — there’s also a ho-hum vibe to any strong Villanova season that doesn’t culminate with a Final Four berth. It’s a shame, because what Wright has accomplished with the program is a marvel.