“Why not us?”
That became Charlie Manuel’s motto in the second half of the 2007 season when his underdog Phillies had the chance to make the playoffs for the first time in 14 seasons. And they did.
In 2008, Manuel was at it again. He said it all the time because he thought his underdog Phillies could win the World Series. And they did.
Manuel, the man who led the town to its last championship, believes the next one is around the corner. The Eagles and Vikings play Sunday night in the NFC championship game for the right to play the AFC champion, either the Patriots or the Jaguars, in the Super Bowl on Feb. 4.
“Why not the Eagles?” Manuel asked Wednesday.
He was driving through central Florida to the Phillies’ annual Fantasy Camp, in Clearwater. He hasn’t managed the Phillies since 2013, but he remained as a front-office adviser. That means he’s still a Philly guy, and that means he’s invested in the football team; this year, more than usual.
“They’re like we were in 2008. They’re a team. They play the game hard. They play right. We played right. They’re resilient,” Manuel said. “Tough.”
Manuel, who turned 74 two weeks ago, knows tough. He’s survived a heart attack, quadruple bypass surgery, kidney cancer and diverticulitis, which infected his colon, which eventually ruptured and required surgery to remove 8 inches of it.
Manuel also has been living with a hernia for the past 17 years. Last month, his doctor determined he finally needed surgery. On Dec. 2, Manuel underwent what was supposed to be a quick, minor procedure and leave a 2 1/2-inch scar, but doctors found more damage than they expected. He woke up hours later with a 12-inch zipper from his sternum to his groin.
That ruined his offseason golfing plans, but it gave him the chance to become an Eagles expert. For the past six weeks he’s been hunkered down at his Winter Haven home, convalescing … and counting the hours between football games. He fell in love with the team as soon as the baseball season ended.
“I started watching them real close when they went on that nine-game winning streak,” Manuel said. “Reminded me of us. They’ve got a lot of life. A lot of energy.”
They do not, of course, have their version of “The Big Piece,” Manuel’s nickname for Ryan Howard. Like many fans, Manuel worried when franchise quarterback Carson Wentz tore his left ACL in Game 13: “I was doubtful then, like everybody else.”
Those doubts dissolved a week later after Nick Foles threw four touchdown passes at the Giants. Manuel’s confidence grew after Foles then beat the Raiders to lock up home field throughout the playoffs, and, last week, beat the sixth-seeded Falcons — the first team ever favored to win a divisional game against a No. 1 seed. He doesn’t care that the Birds are 3 1/2-point ‘dogs Sunday.
“I definitely think they can make it. I’m picking ’em,” Manuel said. “I think it’s going to be a close game, but the fans will play a big role. It’ll be a real good game. A great atmosphere.”
Manuel recalled how the atmosphere at raucous Citizens Bank Park helped the Phillies roll over the competition for five years, and how, at first, no one expected them to roll anywhere. The parallels are intriguing.
In September, Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie refused to set the playoffs as a goal for 2017. Lurie sounded a lot like former Phillies general manager Pat Gillick, who, at the 2006 trade deadline, held a fire sale of veterans and said the Phillies shouldn’t be expected to win for three years.
Manuel ignored that prediction. He and the Phils were 14 games over .500 the rest of 2006. A year later, they surged past the collapsing Mets to win the first of five straight National League East titles. They won the World Series in 2008.
This year, the Eagles didn’t look great after their first three games; a win at Washington, a loss at Kansas City and a last-second win over an atrocious Giants team. Manuel liked what he’d seen.
“They showed me something. They play together. They’ve got swagger. Pep,” Manuel said. “Like we did. We expected to win. They expect to win.”
Not everyone expects them to win. In fact, most don’t.
Not everyone expected the Phillies to win, either. In fact, most didn’t. Not in 2007, when the Mets outspent them by 22 percent, or in 2008, when the Mets outspent them by 28 percent. Las Vegas didn’t like the Phillies back then, and Vegas doesn’t like the Eagles now.
Manuel does, despite his ties to Minnesota. He was signed by the Twins in 1963. He spent almost two decades either playing or coaching for the organization. He became buddies with former Vikings coach Bud Grant. No matter. Manuel’s loyalties lie in Philadelphia.
“I think they match up well with the Vikings,” Manuel said, “and they definitely can beat them.”
A win Sunday would likely mean a rematch of Super Bowl XXXIX, when the Patriots beat the Eagles after the 2004 season. The Eagles’ odds to beat the Pats would again be pretty long.
Then again, the Jaguars scored 45 points and upset Pittsburgh last week. What if they put up 45 on Sunday, and win?
“Oh, man, if they won a Super Bowl in Philadelphia,” Manuel said, “the town would go crazy for a long time.”
He rode in the last parade down Broad Street.
He should know.