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Conroy: The Top Ten Most Important Athletes In Philadelphia

Michael Conroy is a freelance sportswriter and Flyers fan, and a guest writer for Spike Eskin Dot Com. You can find him on Twitter @MichaelConroyPM.

Summer is here in Philadelphia, and the sports landscape is barren as can be. So I thought I’d take a minute or 360 to examine who the most important athletes in Philly are right now. I based my rankings on how much of an impact each athlete could potentially have on our sports world in the next year. Who holds the keys to the city?

10. Chris Pronger

The boys call him (Cap)tain down at the Wells Fargo Center and in a lot of ways, Chris Pronger represents what Philly has been about in recent years. A huge name free agent signing that was heralded as the “answer” to our championship problem. Though in previous years his importance might hinge on his play on the ice, this year the focus should be on his employment status.

The NHL salary cap is pretty confusing in a lot of areas and the rule concerning retirement is certainly one of them. Unlike in the NFL, if Chris Pronger decides to retire, his massive cap hit will remain with the Flyers. With the team in need of an overhaul on defense, that cap space could be seminal to the success of the team.

If Pronger should decide to return to hockey, a serious question looms about his ability as a defensemen going forward. If he can be pursuaded to remain here with “Long Term Injury” status, the Flyers would be better off. The team can find a replacement who’s salary does not exceed that of the injured player which, in this case, is humangus beeg right?

Whatever Pronger decides will directly impact the Flyers’ ability to return their defense to just a league-average level. We’re gonna need that to even begin to evaluate our 9-year franchise goalie … which is kind of important.

9. Nnamdi Asomugha

Hey look, another money pit!

While I may detest the infatuation Philly has developed with big name free agents recently, I really couldn’t find anything wrong with this signing at the time of the announcement.

Nnamdi Asomugha was absolutely one of the best two cornerbacks and top ten defensive players in the entire NFL. He is a consumate professional with a fantastic work ethic and attitude. Last year, however, he just wasn’t the same player. Don’t get me wrong, I believe he actually played pretty well considering the circumstances but Nnamdi was not brought here to play “pretty well”.

This is the kind of player that a coach designs an entire game plan around on most weeks, rotating his receivers and creating new formations just to avoid him. The Eagles were coined the “Dream Team” based on that reputation; Asomugha’s reputation. He did not live up to the hype.

If the Eagles have even a thought about playing in the Super Bowl in 2013, Nnamdi Asomugha needs to stop being a great cover corner and return to being a black hole occupying an entire half of the field.

8. Cole Hamels

Much like Chris Pronger, Cole Hamels’ importance to Philadelphia is based entirely on his decisions off of the field. Most assume he will sign elsewhere at the end of this season. I will tell you that I don’t think the Phillies can contend in this division if that happens.

Call me an optimist, but I still believe there is a chance he stays.

With all of the talent the Phillies have had at pitcher in the past few seasons, a case can be made that our very own, home grown King Cole has been the best. Keeping him on the roster is the biggest personnel move the front office could possibly make this season.

If the Phillies can get out from under the Roy Halladay contract due to his current injury, signing Cole Hamels is entirely possible. With our World Series MVP (Just like Roy Halladay Cliff Lee) as the center piece, a quick re-tooling and getting some key players back in the lineup may put the Phillies right back in the discussion for a title. Otherwise, it could be a while before the next Red October.

7. Andre Iguodala

“Nowadays, everybody wants to talk like they’ve got something to say but nothing comes out when they move their lips. It’s just a bunch of jibberish and (Philly fans) act like they forgot about ‘Dre”.

I’m about 80% sure that hip-hop artist Eminem wrote those words over a decade ago about Andre Iguodala’s situation with the 76ers. I could be wrong though.

Iggy (sorry, Dre) certainly had his moments this season. As the much-maligned leader of our island of misfit toy 76ers, Andre has proven his worth. Still, as valuable a player he is, he may be an even more valuable asset.

Rumors surfaced last week about a potential deal involving Andre Iguodala and the Toronto Raptors. Essentially the trade would net the 76ers a top ten draft pick…in a so-so draft.

I guess what Sixers fans should be asking themselves is whether that draft pick has any shot whatsoever at bringing Philly a title before Andre could. I’d say we’d be lucky to grab a player the caliber of Iguodala at that spot in this draft. Regardless of the salary difference, this would most likely be an immediate downgrade.

The 76ers’ playoff success and general direction in the coming years will depend heavily on what is done with Iguodala. Questions remain about whether this team will be blown up despite this season’s success. You’d have to believe this decision will help to determine how long Doug Collins’ tenure in Philadelphia lasts. Making this trade will toss everything up in the air and once that happens, there’s no telling what will come back down.

6. DeMeco Ryans

The quarterback of the Philadelphia Eagles’ defense has arrived. Having demonstrated his leadership and defensive skills for years as a Houston Texan, acquiring Demeco Ryans has created a Nnamdi-like buzz around the Novacare Complex right now. This guy (Gruden voice) brings a level of experience to this linebacking core that cannot be over-emphasized.

In a scheme like the wide 9, the responsibilites of the linebackers are magnified because gaps open much (wide)r along the defensive line.

Last season, teams exploited our young linebackers’ lack of experience with those gap responsibilities ad nauseum. The hope is that in bringing in Ryans, a linebacker familiar with responsibility management, the younger players will have a lot less thinking to do pre-snap.

Imagine the difference between having to find out which guy you’re about to run into at full speed and just having someone grab you on the shoulder and point. Demeco Ryans’ direction of the Eagles’ front seven will be a major key to success and development in the upcoming season.

5. Claude Giroux

Remember that this list is not of my top ten “favorite” players in Philly. If it were, you can rest assured that Mr. Orange Jesus would be a firm #1. Instead, I want to point out an elephant in the room after almost any successful season in the NHL.

As Flyers fans can vividly recall, superstars in hockey are often a mirage. Moreso than with any other major sport, talent on the ice can vanish as suddenly as it appears. Claude Giroux was an absolutely electric playmaker in the 2011-2012 season but it was his first season with this level of responsibility. It is imperative that the star center does not take a step back next year.

It was his leadership and vastly improved play on the ice that made the preceding off-season’s controversial overhaul a success. Be it for injury or over-confidence, Giroux cannot allow his team mates to face another season without their probable captain. Next year will be the difference between “G” becoming a cornerstone of this storied franchise or just another flash in the pan.

4. Ryan Howard

As the fourth most important athlete in the city, Ryan Howard sort of symbolizes the downfall of the 2008-2011 Phillies juggernaut. His massive contract was the first thing we were able to complain about after that World Series Championship held our negativity hostage for so long.

Howard’s injury this season has been the only worthwhile storyline concerning the Phillies’ aging core. If you have an opinion at all, you either believe or do not believe Ryan Howard can help to put the team back in playoff contention.

This is an important distinction to make. When you consider what this Phillies team has meant to Philadelphia, it’s hard to imagine blowing it up. That, however, is precisely what will happen if this group does not improve after Howard’s return to the lineup.

Ryan Howard needs to come back. He needs to hit early and often to validate those who still believe in this current roster. If this last gasp isn’t enough, it will most likely be the dying breath of our World Champion Philadelphia Phillies.

3. Evan Turner

E.T. phone home already. We’ve all been waiting for so long to hear from you and Philly is growing restless. It would be too easy to write off Turner as a bust at this point in his young career, especially when he has shown such flashes of brilliance in a 76ers uniform. Unfortunately time is running out and the franchise needs to know where this team is and where it is going.

The young shooting guard’s upcoming season could have very easily been ranked as the city’s most important. Regardless, if Evan Turner does not develop some sort of consistency this year, we’ll stop caring about his potential and moves will be made in the Sixers’ front office to cut bait and move on.

As passionate as I am about allowing players to develop and excercising patience, the 2012 baskeball season will be a make or break scenario and I do think that’s justified. It’s time for dis dude to get it done!

2. Ilya Bryzgalov

I enjoyed our first year with Bryz. as rocky as the road seemed at times, he survived the initiation by fire that is goaltending for the Flyers. From opening the season with a win over the defending champions in their house to that defining shootout victory in Calgary,¬† Ilya’s season had some potent high moments.

Playing behind as undisciplined a defense as I’ve ever seen on ice for most of the year, Bryzgalov still managed to set a franchise record for consecutive shut out minutes in a season. Still, the low moments were just as memorable. His benching for the Winter Classic may live on in Flyers lore forever.

In the NHL, a hot goalie can win you a Stanley Cup. Bryzgalov has shown us how hot he can be but the peaks and valleys in his performance need to level out going forward. If the defense is fixed in the off-season, there will be no excuse for this team falling short in the Playoffs again.

With an elite offense, and the resources to make the defense better, a goalie who’s shown he is capable needs to step up. If Bryzgalov can make that last leap, the Philadelphia Flyers will win a Stanley Cup or two in the next five years. There is no doubt in my mind.

1. Michael Vick

Well who were you expecting at number one? As entertaining as I’ve tried to make this list, my hands were tied here. The most important athlete in Philadelphia is Michael Vick. I took a trip to the Novacare complex recently for the Eagles’ Academy for Men and had the opportunity to chat with several members of the organization.

From the faux press conference with Howie Roseman to the scouting lesson in the locker room, one message remained consistent. Every member of the organization believes this team is good enough to win a Super Bowl. From top to bottom on defense, offense, special teams and coaching, there just aren’t any excuses for failure…except for one.

Michael Vick needs to be on the field. Since entering the league, Vick has consistenly been sacked more frequently than any other quarterback. This hasn’t always been his fault but this year, if it continues, it will be.

When Michael Vick plays every snap of a game for the Philadelphia Eagles, they can compete with any team in the NFL. That is why every decision he makes to turn upfield instead of getting to the sideline; every extra second taken waiting for Desean Jackson to come open sixty yards downfield matters.

Each irresponsible decision Vick makes this year will be and should be married to him. How our quarterback handles that pressure will likely define his entire career. It could define how we view the careers of Howie Roseman and even Andy Reid.

Last season, I wrote that Vick was no longer playing with house money. This season, all he’s got is the deed to his house and a very nice watch. He should think long and hard about when to hold and when to fold the fantastic hand he’s been dealt.

Posted in Eagles, Flyers, Phillies, SixersComments (1)

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