It has been difficult to comment on the Philadelphia sports scene these last few years without sounding like Howard Beale, the mad prophet of the airwaves in the film Network. I don’t have to tell you things have been bad. Everybody knows things have been bad around here. So go to your window (or your favorite sports-talk station, or the comments section of your favorite website, or the best seat at your favorite neighborhood pub), open it, stick your head out, and yell, etc.
The Eagles had the nightmarish Dream Team and the Chip Kelly Experiment and confusion at quarterback that Carson Wentz is charged with resolving. The 76ers have been Processing, which might yet pay dividends but, when it comes to watching the team play basketball, has been akin to sitting through a four-year-long, anesthesia-free dental procedure. The Flyers are rebuilding. They haven’t been good. They haven’t been terrible. They’ve just been dull. The Phillies have been bad since 2013, but this season, it’s not just that they’re bad. It’s that they’re dumb: baserunning blunders, undisciplined approaches at the plate, a failure to understand situational baseball. Lately, the two events that have generated the most excitement among fans have been the Sixers’ summer-league schedule and Wentz’s voluntary passing camp in North Dakota. In terms of satisfaction and sustenance, it’s the sports equivalent of a starving man sucking down ketchup packets for dinner and sugar packets for dessert.
Rough times, no doubt. And it’s tempting to suggest that, even for all the suffering and frustration that the region’s sports fans have gone through over the years, this has been the lowest of the low, the pits, the worst stretch in Philadelphia sports history.
Is it? Is it really that bad? It’s a fair question. To answer it, I reviewed the 50-plus years, from 1967 to today, that Philadelphia has had four major sports franchises and devised a highly sophisticated, color-coded system of determining whether each franchise’s season was excellent (red), good (green), disappointing or mediocre (blue), or downright terrible (black).
The highly sophisticated formula/graphic is devised to write my column today. pic.twitter.com/uYWKBOL3J4
— Mike Sielski (@MikeSielski) July 13, 2017
To make those judgments, I established some admittedly subjective criteria. I didn’t rely merely on winning percentage (though, obviously, I took win-loss records into consideration) to determine how bad a particular period was. The sheer number of games that the Phillies, Sixers, and Flyers play would give their results more weight than the Eagles’, and any reasonable person would acknowledge that Philadelphia is a football town first, foremost, always. I also considered two other factors: “hopelessness,” which I defined as the general sense both in the context of a specific period and in hindsight that things were getting better or worse for a particular franchise at a particular time, and “heartbreak,” the definition of which is self-evident. Finally, I defined a “period” as any stretch of time of at least 365 days (e.g. Jan. 1, 1977-Dec. 31, 1977; June 3, 1995-Nov. 14, 1998).
So, here you are, one man’s list of the Five Worst Stretches in Philadelphia Sports History Since 1967, in order of increasing awfulness:
5. June 7, 1997 to Feb. 4, 1999
From the moment Flyers coach Terry Murray uttered the words “choking situation” during the 1997 Stanley Cup Finals until the Sixers (thanks to Allen Iverson) emerged rejuvenated from the NBA lockout, things were bleak here. The Eagles went 9-22-1 over Ray Rhodes’ final two seasons and tried to persuade everyone that Bobby Hoying was a potential franchise quarterback. The Phillies lost 94 games in 1997 and 87 in 1998. And who knew then that the Flyers’ last, best chance to win a Cup with Eric Lindros was already gone?
4. Oct. 23, 1993 to Feb. 8, 1995
Once Joe Carter sent that half-slider, half-fastball from Mitch Williams over the left-field wall at SkyDome, the magic of the 1993 Phillies immediately dissipated, and if you were realistic, you had no illusions about the Phils’ recapturing it in 1994. Meanwhile, Rich Kotite was struggling to read the writing on the wall and the writing on his rain-smeared play sheet, and the Sixers’ most promising player was an undersize power forward whose first name began with a C. No, not Charles Barkley. Clarence Weatherspoon. At least there was Lindros, and he began to fulfill his promise once the Flyers acquired John LeClair and Eric Desjardins.
3. Jan. 1, 1991 to Sept. 6, 1992
Man, the ’90s were hard around here. Consider the events that transpired during this period: Jerome Brown’s death, Lenny Dykstra and Darren Daulton’s car crash, Randall Cunningham’s season-ending Week 1 knee injury in Green Bay, the Sixers’ trading Barkley to the Phoenix Suns, and the Flyers’ trading for Lindros (which seemed a masterstroke at the time, before anyone knew anything about Peter Forsberg). Oh, and the Phillies, the Sixers, and the Flyers were lousy. One small indication of how crummy these days were: The Sixers had no first-round draft pick in 1991 because they had traded it to the Golden State Warriors the previous year — for Manute Bol.
2. Dec. 7, 2014 to July 13, 2017
Yeah, it really has been pretty bad.
1. April 5, 1969 to April 10, 1973
Now this was hopelessness. The Eagles went 15-37-4 during this period, part of 11 consecutive sub-.500 seasons, more than a decade’s worth of decrepitude. From 1969 through 1972, the Phillies averaged 65.5 victories. They won just 59 in 1972, and they were that good only because Steve Carlton pitched as if he were wielding the left arm of God. The Sixers, having traded Wilt Chamberlain, were in decline, and their regression culminated with their infamous 1972-73 season, in which they went 9-73. But finally, after the Flyers had gone without a winning season in their first five years of existence. Gary Dornhoefer’s overtime goal in Game 5 of the NHL quarterfinals helped them eliminate the Minnesota North Stars in six games. It was the first glimpse of the glory to come.