Shaggy's Hotbird Huck: Week 4

May 18, 2023 

By Shaggy Shragis

How do you destroy an Empire? That’s the question the Philadelphia Phoenix (0-3) will need to answer as they host the New York Empire (3-0) Saturday evening for a rematch of the opening game of the season. That game was a disaster for the Hotbirds, who were outscored 8-1 in the first quarter and eventually lost the game 17-8. Just as the score went in opposite directions during that night in New Rochelle, this season has gone in opposite directions for Philly and New York, with the latter beating everyone in their path and the former falling apart in increasingly distressing ways.

Philadelphia’s big problems this year have come on offense, where they are averaging a league worst 6.6 holds per game. To put that in perspective, the 2015 Chicago Union had the fewest holds per game of any team in a season in league history with 10.7, nearly twice what Philadelphia has in 2023. To put that in even more perspective: New York—with a defense so smothering that hardly anyone seems to be able to hold the disc against them—has the second fewest holds per game this season with 10.3. If the Phoenix offense was just the worst, and not the historically least efficient offense of all time, they would be 2-1, and one of the most formidable teams in the league.

Compensating for Philly’s historically bad offense is the most efficient defense the Phoenix have ever put together. Philadelphia is converting on 42% of break chances, top five in the league, and nearly twice the lifetime average for the Hotbirds. But that efficiency isn’t enough if the defense isn’t on the field. With such an inefficient offense—Philly’s offensive conversion rate is just 24%—the defense hasn’t had enough opportunities to enforce their will on the opposition. It looked like the Glory game might have been that chance, but the Phoenix squandered a 9-2 lead and lost by three, with the offense unable to maintain the cushion the defense had created.

The New York Empire will give Philadelphia break chances, no team is perfect, but there will not be many. The Empire are averaging just 15 turns per game, and that is including their 20 turnover performance in a rainy-drenched opener in New rochelle. Their offense is designed to patiently work the disc between the highly efficient Ruschmeyer-Bailey and Elliot Chartock before finding Jack Williams or Ryan Osgar for chunk plays downfield, who can then take a shot to matchup nightmares in John Lithio and Jeff Babbitt. The one opening to take advantage of is that the Empire can become impatient if forced to swing the disc long enough. It was this impatience that let the DC Breeze squeak back into the game last week against New York.

For Philadelphia to have a shot at beating New York, their offense will need to reach its most efficient mark ever. Obviously the team with more breaks will win the game, but the Phoenix need to give their defense a chance to get those breaks, something they have not done all season. One route would be to throw more hucks. After leading the league in hucks per game last season, opposing defenses have stifled the Phoenix long range attack, and the Hotbirds are averaging just 6 hucks per game. A lack of vertical threats has led to less room underneath for Sean Mott and James Pollard, leading to forced throws and backfield turnovers. Another option would be to shift playing time towards players that aren’t throwing the disc away. Only two Hotbirds have more than 10 throws this season and a 100% completion rate: Brandon Pastor on offense and Max Trifillis on defense. 

It is possible no amount of adjustments will make the offense look good this week, as New York has one of the most stifling defenses in the league. John Randolph is making a case for defensive player of the year at just 24, and the Empire are holding opponents to a 44% hold rate. That means that when the Empire pull, they are more likely to score than the team they are pulling to. Never mind the fact that if the game gets close, they have the option to pull All-World defenders like Jeff Babbitt or Jack Williams over from the O-line to bolster an already stout D. The weakness of the New York defensive unit, if you can call it that, is that their coaches, Charlie Hoppes and Anthony Nunez, seem distrustful of the D-line on offense, despite their already gaudy numbers. New York’s coaches are very quick to call timeouts, particularly if the disc is on the sideline or in the hands of Antoine Davis, and a crucial timeout at the end of the game might be out of reach if Charlie uses it for an earlier opportunity.

None of that matters if the game is a blowout however. Despite their comeback against DC, it does not feel like a game where Philadelphia can fall behind early and battle their way back into it. For the home opener in a brand new stadium, the Hotbirds will need to start hot and keep the crowd engaged in order to build momentum and topple the Empire. I don’t have the recipe for that particular success, but I know what it will look like, and that is a highly efficient game from Philly’s handlers. Jordan Rhyne, Alex Thorne, and Calvin Trisolini are spectacular players having a spectacularly bad season, and a hot start from Philadelphia will require them to be both aggressive enough to take advantage of small New York windows and efficient enough to not turn the disc over. There is not very much room for error.

My prediction: I was close on the DC game, and let my love for the team and belief in the players blind me for the NY and Boston games. That said, I don’t lose anything for being wrong, and I am going with the more exciting and less likely outcome. Philadelphia beats New York 19-18 when the Empire’s buzzer beating luck runs out, and they spend a minute and a half waiting to take the last shot only for it to backfire. This would require an enormous amount of things to go right for Philly, but I think Philadelphia is due some good sports fortune as a city after the last few months we’ve endured. I’m not saying all my mental health and wellbeing is tied to Philadelphia sports, and we still have the Surge (who seem to be the only Philly sports team succeeding at the moment), but actually all my mental health and wellbeing is tied to Philadelphia sports and I’m really struggling right now.