Just guessing here, but if you had polled Philadelphia sports fans this month on a single question — “What do you want most for Christmas?” — the most popular response would have been “Already got what I wanted. I’m good.” The logic behind that guess is simple enough. For those fans, Christmas came 10 months and three weeks early this year — not on Dec. 25, but on Feb. 4, when the Eagles won Super Bowl LII.
That might be the popular answer, but I’m not so sure it would be the right answer. Often at this time of the year, it’s the gift you didn’t know you needed that turns out to be your favorite present, and over the last 3-4 months, the Eagles, Phillies, 76ers, and Flyers have recommitted themselves to providing what many fans around here, if not the majority of them, seek most. They want championships, yes, but that’s not really what I’m talking about. Even with the Eagles’ Super Bowl victory, those shining moments have been in short supply over the last 35 years, and the Eagles themselves, with the exception of Nick Foles’ recent excellence, have spent most of the 2018 season dulling whatever sheen was left from that glorious three-week run early this year. That’s the thing about this fan base: A championship satisfies and sustains it for only so long.
No, what Philadelphia sports fans want most, even if only at a subconscious level, is simpler: They want their teams to go for it. They want their teams to try, because it’s the trying itself that counts most. Philadelphia fans are not patient. They never have been, even when they needed to be or should have been. They expect the pilot to refuel the plane while he or she is still flying it. Maybe the plane will land safely (like the Eagles' plane did this year or the Phillies’ did in 2008), or maybe it will crash (as usually happens around here). But the one thing the pilot can’t do is wait until conditions are ideal before taking off in the first place, regardless of how sensible that plan might be. In that regard, within the last half-year, the four franchises here have done exactly what people here want. They’ve shown what Flyers CEO Dave Scott called “a bias for action.” All fans here are Tom Sizemore’s bank robber in Heat: To them, the action is the juice.
Think about it. It was an unfamiliar, uncomfortable time in these parts for a while. Chip Kelly was revamping the Eagles’ training concepts and practice schedules and the standards by which players were evaluated, and he demanded time and power to implement those and other changes. Sam Hinkie was making the crazy assertion that the Sixers ought to try to position themselves for high draft picks so they would have a better opportunity over time to acquire better players. Andy MacPhail and Matt Klentak were advising Phillies owner John Middleton to keep his checkbook locked in a drawer for a few years while the Phils tried to collect more prospects and collect more information about those prospects. And Ron Hextall put an end to a few longtime Flyers traditions — trading away draft picks for aging veterans, having former players yuck it up after games with the current team, and not treating every season as if it were the team’s only chance to win a Stanley Cup — all in the belief that an organization that hadn’t won a championship in four decades could use a fresh perspective on how it had been operating.
Yeah, crazy, crazy times.
Now, though, look around. Each of those teams has done one of two things, to varying levels of success so far: Either it decided that its rebuilding period had run its course, or it brought that experiment in endurance and patience to a hard and fast stop. The Eagles fired Kelly, put Howie Roseman back in charge of their player-personnel operation, and drafted Carson Wentz not to rebuild, but to try to win right away with a promising/low-cost quarterback. Then, after winning the Super Bowl with Foles and without Wentz, they brought Foles back this season, either because the trade market for him was too soft, they wanted to protect themselves in case Wentz injured himself again, or both. For Roseman, an executive always with his eye on the future, this was a striking approach, as all-in as he can get.
In November, the Sixers traded two founding fathers of The Process — Dario Saric and Robert Covington — for Jimmy Butler, a superstar to complement Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. They have a shot at reaching the Finals, but the irony of their condition — and the true indication of how damaging Bryan Colangelo’s tenure as general manager was — is that, despite all those years under Hinkie of losing games and hoarding draft picks and assets, they have so little roster depth that they’ll likely have to make another trade. Middleton was so eager for the Phillies to be relevant again that he boasted to USA Today that they would spend “stupid money” this offseason in pursuit of Manny Machado, Bryce Harper, and any other free agents who might tickle their fancy. And not to be outdone, the Flyers fired their GM and their head coach, then found a new goaltender in the hope of igniting a winning streak and saving this season — the kinds of moves that make their most devoted followers feel warm and solid inside, as if life was again as it is supposed to be.
No one knows, of course, whether these strategic shifts result in, say, the Phillies’ actually landing Machado or Harper or the Sixers’ upsetting the Raptors in the Eastern Conference finals. But in a way, that’s not the point. The trying is the point. The romance is in the journey, and the hope and angst that accompany it deliver many sports fans here their greatest happiness and peace.