by Clark Groome

A wise and witty friend noted last Thursday that the surprising 114-110 76ers opening night victory over the NBA champion Miami Heat was as improbable as the Eagles’ offense scoring a touchdown. At the time, that was spot on.

What’s ironic is the Sixers are the one Philadelphia team that is really exciting to watch. Predicted to win no more than 16 games this season, they have already won their first three, all against higher-rated teams in the pre-season predictions. If they continue to play with the heart and the energy they have demonstrated in these first three contests, they’re likely to win more than 13 of their remaining 79 games.

The Eagles going into the season had one of the top-rated offenses in the NFL. They were expected to score a ton of points. Their leaky defense was what was likely to keep them from winning enough to make the playoffs.

So what happened? Both their quarterbacks were injured and their backup, Matt Barkley, is a rookie who has had to learn on the job.

The results are that while their offense was just about as expected for the first six games, games 7 and 8 (against Dallas and the New York Giants, teams they had the talent to beat) were an offensive disaster.

So, the offense went downhill for a couple of weeks while the previously maligned defense played well. On Sunday in Oakland, the Eagles offense was back: they beat the Raiders 49-20. Go figure.

The Flyers got off to such a horrendous start that they replaced head coach Peter Laviolette with former assistant Craig Berube after three games. Since then they’ve gone 4-6 and have played some of the most lifeless, you might say heartless, hockey imaginable.

Just when there was some hope that the team might be getting its act together, it traded Max Talbot, one of its most popular players in the stands and in the locker room, to bring back Steve Downie, a former Flyer draft choice who was traded in 2008 because he couldn’t control his behavior on the ice.

In the years since he has become a much more disciplined offensive player and has, apparently, been less volatile.

So what happened? Downie made his debut last Friday against the Washington Capitals. It turned out to be one the team’s most embarrassing defeats. Ever.

When the Flyers fell to an 0-7 deficit in the third period, several fights broke out. It was a really ugly a scene. Those fights, and one in the second period between Downie and Aaron Volpatti, had consequences that went far beyond energizing the lethargic Flyers that these things are alleged to accomplish.

In the Downie/Volpatti tilt Downie asked his opponent to stop, left the ice, and was later rushed to the hospital with a concussion.

In the melee that took place in the final stanza, Vinnie Lecavalier, one of the Flyers’ most reliable offensive players, was injured.

All during the multi-bout third period scrum the announcers and, later, the analysts seemed to be supportive of the fisticuffs, even after it was known that the newly acquired Downey and the veteran Lecavalier were injured in the fights. What the hell were they thinking?

With the NHL’s avowed intent to eliminate hits to the head and with all the medical evidence pointing to the fact that almost as much of the brain damage hockey players suffer comes from fights as it does from in-game injuries, why hasn’t the league eliminated this from the sport?

Tradition, some say. That fights serve as a safety valve for players is often cited for keeping them in the game.

If that’s the case, why are international hockey, NCAA hockey and Olympic hockey (played by many NHL players) fight-free under penalty of suspension? Because it’s safer and in no way diminishes the quality of the sport, that’s why.

Let’s hope that those who seem so hell-bent on maintaining a tradition that is clearly outdated and harmful will reconsider their positions. It would be great if those who have the eyes and ears of the fans (many of whom are kids) on TV and radio would lose their macho support for an aspect of this truly great game that is negatively affecting the players’ health when it isn’t shortening their lives.