The SportsTalk Shop: Biggest Philly/DC Disappointments

Many national pundits had the Eagles going to the Super Bowl this year, and the Nationals were odds-on favorites to win the pennant.

The Birds were flirting with what could have been a catastrophic 1-4 start to their season (it was looking that way following Sam Bradford‘s second red-zone interception in the first half against the Saints on Sunday).  That combined with the fact that the Nats had already crash-landed well before the MLB playoffs got underway last week, got me thinking about some of the major sports disappointments that both Philadelphia and Washington, DC residents have had to endure.

Without question, there have been some horrendous teams in both of these cities.  But I’m talking about having even the most stoic fans getting caught up in a frenzy, ready to ride a sea of momentum to glorious new heights, only to have one’s hopes dashed to smithereens, leaving you feeling emotionally drained when your team failed to live up to the extraordinary expectations.

Just how does this year’s Nationals season and the Eagles slow start compare with the other major sports catastrophes in the region?  For argument’s sake—and to avoid using up too much of the internet’s bandwidth–I thought I better limit my Philly/DC-based disappointments to not more than the last 15 years.

Here are my thoughts on what have been the “other” biggest pro sports disappointments for fans in the RCN viewing area.

The Phillies 2011 Playoffs
From December, 2010 until the final week of the regular season, it seemed like it was a magic carpet ride for Phillies fans.  Launched into a frenzy over the signing of Cliff Lee, the regular season and preliminary playoff rounds were a mere formality, and everyone wanted to see the “Aces” baffling hitters right and left en route to another World Series appearance…and presumed victory.

For reasons I’ll never completely understand, nor agree with, Phillies Manager Charlie Manuel decided to play all of his regulars the final weekend of the season, instead of giving a couple blows to his everyday players, who had started advancing in years (by athletes’ standards, that is).  By playing their top players, and ultimately sweeping the series, the final three of those meaningless games (the Phillies had long since clinched the division title), the team missed an opportunity to rest its players, and knocked its opponents, the struggling Braves, out of the playoff race.  While the last three Phillies wins set a new club record for regular season victories for Manuel, it also gave rise to the hard-charging St. Louis Cardinals, a team the Phils did not match up against well, and positioned the Redbirds into the opposing slot to face the Phillies in the wild card playoffs.

Philadelphia’s tired hitters struggled to gain any traction against the Redbirds after the first game, and the team that everyone assumed would become the greatest Phillies team of all-time, went out with a game-five whimper—a 1-0 loss to St. Louis.  That team might have been the most talented club in the organization’s history on paper, but they failed to bring home a single playoff series win, and started what has become an incredibly long, drawn-out, rebuilding cycle.

The Redskins 2000 season
In 1999, the Skins were coming off a 10-6 season and had won the NFC East.  Mix in a renewed belief that the front office was “all in,” and that a promise of spending money in the offseason fueled the fervor that Washington was beginning to build another dynasty in DC.

They did, in fact, spend money and added some great players, including LaVar Arrington, Bruce Smith, Jeff George, Mark Carrier, Chris Samuels and–last and certainly not least flamboyant–Deion Sanders.  This complemented the return of the core of a talented offensive unit and a number of their defensive players.  Many expected another division title was a no-brainer with many people banking on Washington to at least get to the Super Bowl.  The Redskins won six of its first eight games, before the injuries set in to some of its key offensive players and…of all people, their kicker (sound familiar, Eagles fans?).   Then, Head Coach Norv Turner was let go (perhaps foreshadowing, Philadelphians, especially if the Birds don’t at least get back to 8-8?).

Instead of building on the ’99 team’s success and establishing a string of winning campaigns, Washington ended up losing six of its final eight games and failed to cash in on all the revitalized excitement that the ’99 team brought.

Marty Shottenheimer would then take over the head coaching reins for one fateful season the following year, going 8-8 that fall.  But the failure of 2000 started a seemingly endless cycle of revolving coaches over the last 15 years, with none of the seven subsequent head coaches to follow Turner owning a winning record while at the helm of the Redskins.

The Wizards’ “Michael Jordan Era”
After failing to win a playoff game for over 12 years, it seemed like the Wizards were finally headed back in the right direction when, in January 2000, Michael Jordan became the part owner and President of Basketball Operations.   Aside from his baseball experiment, everything that “MJ” had touched during his career had turned to gold.  His basketball playing career, his merchandising and advertisement campaigns…heck, I even liked “Space Jam.”  With his playing days finally behind him, he could focus completely on revamping the franchise using his acute basketball knowledge and business savvy.  Surely, Jordan would have the Midas touch to turn this franchise around and at least get Washington back into the NBA playoffs—whose eight-team format allows for even the most mediocre teams to have a shot at reaching the post-season.

In a short time, he made some positive moves by shedding payroll and unloading some of the dead weight that existed on the team and it looked like he was moving the franchise in the right direction.  Then came the 2001 NBA Draft and the selection of Kwame Brown (who ended up being traded to the Lakers after four inconsistent seasons).  Jordan brought in his former head coach in Chicago, Doug Collins, as the head coach, followed by his announcement that he, himself, would return as a player.

In his first year back (which followed his second retirement, for those keeping score at home), he battled injuries and the team he assembled was just not good enough to compete.  To his credit, he was active from a personnel standpoint prior to the 2002 season and tried to bring in headline names to improve the team.  While he continued to add talent and even agreed to take a reserve role for the betterment of the team (although he ended the year as the team’s top scorer), the chemistry never worked, and the team failed to finish at or above the 500-mark during his tenure, much less had a chance to make the playoffs.

Jordan was then unceremoniously fired as the team President and left the organization in disgust, pushing back the organization’s rebuild efforts for years.

The team finally has made great strides over the last few seasons, a trend I am fully expecting to continue this winter.  But the failures of Michael Jordan left Washington fans, along with MJ supporters around the world, with an empty feeling, and tainted the final on-court chapter of one of the greatest basketball players of all-time.

The 76ers 2001 Playoff Run
I know.   Philly sports fans could just as easily identify this team as one of its brightest moments over the last 15 years.

To be honest, I don’t remember glorious preseason expectations for the 76ers.  However, the way that the team played in the fall of 2000, led by the gutsy, and largely, very focused efforts of Allen Iverson that year, the 76ers quickly captured the attention of the entire Delaware Valley.  Iverson was living up to all his glorious potential, and the team won 41 of its first 55 games.  Even when starting center Theo Ratliff came down with an injury (he was initially supposed to miss 16-20 games per ESPN), it still seemed like the old-time Philly basketball mojo was flowing strong.  The Lakers were heavily favored to win the championship, but if Ratliff could get healthy, he could combine with Todd MacCulloch, Matt Geiger and Nazr Mohammed to form a formidable “hack-a-Shaq” tandem that could neutralize Shaquille O’Neil, and the Sixers speed could push the tempo and have an advantage against most teams in the post-season.

Until….

February 23, 2001, when the Sixers traded Ratliff, Toni Kukoc (one of just two players with NBA Championship experience) and others to Atlanta for Dikembe Mutombo.

Don’t get me wrong.  Mutombo is not only a wonderful person (he was incredibly gracious the few times I had the opportunity to interview him), a great humanitarian, and one of the best centers—when he was at his peak—of that era.  He was still one of the better centers in the game, but his slow, plodding-style kept the 76ers from utilizing its speed against Los Angeles in the championship round.  Furthermore, while that trade might have looked good on paper, the team never quite recaptured the swagger that it had before the Mutombo trade (the Sixers were 15-12 the rest of the regular season).

Iverson’s late game-one jumper and subsequent iconic stomp over Tyronn Lue became a sports moment few Philadelphians will ever forget.  But I remembered thinking when it happened, something along the lines of “yea, we weren’t suppose to be here, and we’re winning tonight’s game, and all things considered, we’re going to be proud of that moment.”  But the adrenaline rush soon subsided, and the O’Neil/Bryant pairing led Los Angeles to four consecutive victories, in which they outscored the slow-footed Sixers by 40 points in the final four games.

In retrospect, the Sixers certainly exceeded what most people had expected out of that team before the season started.  Much like the 1993 Phillies team, the entire Delaware Valley had gotten swept up in the blue-collar efforts and good vibes through that entire fall and winter season, but the feeling was never quite the same as the 76ers finished out their spring playoff run.  Did they overachieve?  Certainly.  It featured a tremendous team effort and the gritty performances of Iverson, Eric Snow, George Lynch and company.  But the team has never really been the same since, and what could have been still lingers among those long-time fans patiently waiting for the “Hinkie Plan” to develop.

Final Eagles game at the Veteran’s Stadium
If there ever was a time in my life when I thought I could bet the house—literally—on a game, it had to be the Eagles/Buccaneers game in January, 2003.  As someone who grew up—both as a fan and a reporter—at what had become an old, rundown ball field, I thought the “Vet” would work some magic one last time for its final professional football game.  And what a game it was.  The Birds were 12-3 coming in.  Donavan McNabb, the franchise quarterback, was living up to what Head Coach Andy Reid had envisioned when he drafted him.  The Birds had the defense, the offensive playmakers, and special team stars.  Even Mother Nature seemed to be helping out—and Tampa Bay had struggled mightily in cold conditions in previous games, and a wind chill in the teens seemed to be the final signal that the Eagles were finally going to advance to the Super Bowl.

Instead, Philadelphia looked flat, was manhandled physically and truly sent Eagles fans home dejected and with lumps in their throats—and not just because of the sorry way the team closed out its tenure at a worn-out stadium.

That game may be lost in an era of missed opportunities and “what could have beens.”  While optimists can say it was the golden era for Eagles football, one can also point examples of post-season futility.  During a ten-year span where the Birds won six division titles and finished second two more seasons, they lost two Wild Card games, two divisional round playoff games, three conference final losses and a pitiful end to the 2004 Super Bowl.

What are your thoughts on this list?  Should other pro sports teams be included, and where would you rank these, along with the 2015 Eagles and Nationals seasons?  Email your opinions to RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com and we might just read your comments on an upcoming “SportsTalk” program.

Chris Michael About Chris Michael

Chris handles play-by-play for RCN sports events, including baseball, football & basketball games and produces/hosts the station’s 60-minute live call-in show. Among Chris’s other responsibilities include reporting on local news & sports stories, conducting “Take 5” interviews with community and political leaders, producing commercials, voiceovers and promos; and generating blog entries and videos on the internet. Click here to listen to the weekly Sports Talk podcast.

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