What a year it's going to be

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Ryan Howard and Joel Embiid. (Getty Images file photos)

These things never work out the way you think they will.

Go back to Dec. 31, 2013. A fresh year in Philadelphia sports was about to begin, and at the time, you're thinking that while the Eagles may not be Super Bowl contenders yet under Chip Kelly, they certainly are collapse-proof under him. You're thinking that the Phillies will figure out, maybe before spring training ends, that trying to coax another competitive season out of their aging core is sheer lunacy. You're thinking that the Flyers will hop off that orange-and-black hamster wheel that they've been on for 39 years, catch their breath, and be more prudent in their pursuit of a Stanley Cup. And you're thinking that the 76ers, if nothing else, will draft two players in the first round who might help them next season.

So yeah, 2014 was surprising in those regards, and 2015 will be surprising in entirely new ways. But at least we can pinpoint what, at the moment, ought to be the most interesting and important story lines in Philadelphia sports over the next 12 months. Here are 10, in order of increasing importance.

10. The end of Ryan Howard's career with the Phillies.

For a player who was so integral to the Phillies' greatest era, who created such excitement when he was at his best, who generally carried himself with grace, Howard has experienced as steep a decline - both in production and public esteem - as any athlete in this city's history.

When the Phillies finally do either release him or find a team willing to trade for him, the reaction here will be fascinating.

9. Penn State's - and Christian Hackenberg's - progress under James Franklin.

The Nittany Lions went 7-6 and won a bowl game in Franklin's first season as head coach, and given the state of the program, those results can be considered successful.

But Hackenberg, the team's sophomore quarterback, seemed an ill fit for Franklin's offensive system, and since it was Bill O'Brien - not Franklin - who had recruited Hackenberg, it's natural to wonder whether Hackenberg would transfer to a program better suited to his drop-back, deep-throwing style. The question is not whether Hackenberg is an NFL-caliber quarterback. He is. The question is whether he'll remain one under Franklin.

8. The Sixers and the 2015 NBA draft.

The Sixers have two first-round picks and four second-round picks already in next year's draft, and that stockpile gives general manager Sam Hinkie flexibility to add more picks and acquire players. Or, depending on what happens in the lottery, he may just select Duke's Jahlil Okafor and call it a day.

7. The Eagles' quarterback situation.

The simplest solution for the Eagles is the best: allow Nick Foles' collarbone to heal. Let him enter the final year of his rookie contract as the team's presumptive starter. Draft a quarterback in the first three rounds.

Any other course of action is too risky, especially considering the other areas that the Eagles have to improve.

6. How long does Ron Hextall's patience last?

When Hextall succeeded Paul Holmgren as the Flyers GM, he spoke about their future with a refreshing perspective. He was not taking over an elite team, he said, and it would take time for the Flyers to become one.

Lately, though, Hextall hasn't hidden his frustration over the Flyers' being exactly what everyone expected them to be this season: a mediocre, inconsistent club that will struggle to make the playoffs. It would be disappointing to see him continue the FIX THIS NOW! cycle that has characterized the franchise's previous four decades.

5. LeSean McCoy's future with the Eagles.

Consider: The Eagles might release the most prolific running back they've ever had because he will cost them a lot of salary-cap space, and he knows they might release him.

4. Villanova's bids for an unbeaten season and a Final Four berth.

Villanova coach Jay Wright has pointed out that the beauty of coaching college basketball in Philadelphia - because its fan base is so fixated on major pro sports - is that few people notice if you lose a game you should have won.

The flip side is that few people notice when your team is really, really good. The Wildcats are.

3. The dynamic between Chip Kelly and Howie Roseman.

Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie is loyal to his GM, Roseman, who rose through the franchise's ranks without the football-first background that Kelly appears to prize. We haven't reached the power-struggle stage of this relationship yet, but it may not take long to get there.

2. The ramifications of a Cole Hamels trade.

To turn things around for the Phillies, all Ruben Amaro Jr. may have to do is trade the best homegrown pitcher that the organization has produced in the last 60 years. No big whoop.

1. Joel Embiid's debut with the Sixers.

As soon as Embiid steps onto to the floor, whether it's late this season or early next season, the entire debate about the Sixers' tanking changes.

If he stays healthy, and if he's as good as advertised, Embiid will validate the entire approach. If he doesn't, or if he isn't, whatever patience people have for the franchise's plan will likely run out.

 


msielski@phillynews.com

@MikeSielski