Who Will Be Top Dog in the NFC East?

Who Will Be Top Dog in the NFC East?

It's a simple truth, one there is really no need to debate: right now the NFC East is the toughest division in pro football. No division can claim to have four bigger market teams with more ravenous fan bases than the Eagles, Giants, Cowboys, and Redskins, and no division can claim to have four teams that play competitive football more routinely. Simply put, there aren't many gimmes in the NFC East.

Predicting who is going to come out on top isn't a whole lot easier. Last season, the Giants edged Philly and Dallas by one win, with their division championship boiling down to the final game of the season against the Cowboys on Sunday Night Football. Only the Redskins were also-rans, and they figure to be vastly improved this year.

The question is, who do you think will take it this year? We took a quick look at each team in the division, and we want to hear what you think.

Philadelphia Eagles

One thing you have to understand, the Eagles are traditionally very good within their own division. Last season they went 5-1 against NFC East opponents. In 2009 and '10, they were 4-2. It's a hallmark of Andy Reid teams, who are 38-22 against their rivals since the league went to four-team divisions in 2002.

They split with the Giants last season, but as we detail below, have been very strong against the team to the north. They demolished the Cowboys twice by a combined score of 54-14, granted Dallas was waving the white flag after the first quarter in meeting number two. They similarly pounded the Redskins 54-23, though they were already waving the white flag when the season began.

None of that necessarily means anything for next year. The Giants are the reigning world champions, the Cowboys are improved, and the Redskins could be a whole new team. Still, it's comforting to know there is something Reid does that gets his team prepared for these games. In 2011, the team that wore the crown last year finished 4-2 or better in six of eight divisions, at least 5-1 in five.

That looks good for the Eagles if they can continue to have success against the East, which is not a given. Two of their opponents got better over the offseason, and the other just won the Super Bowl.

Washington Redskins

The Redskins have had exactly four winning seasons in the last 19 years, and last reached the playoffs in 2007. However, there is reason to believe Washington could soon step out of the shadow that's been cast by the rest of the NFC East.

The Skins front office paid a steep price to move up four spots in April's draft to second overall, sending their first-round picks for the next two years and more to St. Louis to acquire Robert Griffin III. For a team that's won 15 games in the last three seasons combined, it will have been worth it if he becomes their franchise quarterback.

It's too early to anoint RG3 anything, but he instantly transforms Washington into a more credible opponent on any given Sunday. As we've seen in the past, whether it was Cam Newton in 2011, or Michael Vick when he entered the league with the Falcons, the combination of a pass-run threat under center can prove very difficult to defend even when it's a rookie. And Griffin is more advanced as a passer than either of those guys at this stage of their career, making him especially dangerous.

The Redskins are going to win more games this year, that much we're confident about. As far as climbing out of the basement and making a playoff bid is concerned, they are likely a few pieces away. The pieces around Griffin are lacking, and while the defense has a very good front seven, that secondary looks abysmal. They'll give teams trouble though, and it's a big reason why the East will once again be the toughest division in the NFL.

Dallas Cowboys

The Cowboys and Tony Romo remind us of the Eagles under Donovan McNabb in a manner of speaking. Obviously Dallas has been far less successful, but as outside observers, there's that appearance of Here they go again with a guy who hasn't won the big one. Heck, forget winning THE big one -- it seems Romo still hasn't won any big games.

To be fair, last season was one of Romo's best, and the fact the Cowboys finished 8-8 can hardly be blamed on him. That seems to be the problem in Dallas though. They finally get their quarterback to cut back on the horrible, hilariously ill-timed turnovers, mistakes, and all-around lousy performances, but they haven't seemed to complete the puzzle around him.

Which isn't to say Dallas won't have a good team this season, in fact they have one that could certainly win the East. They have tremendous talent at the skill positions, although none of them can seem to stay healthy, but the bigger problem is the interior of the offensive line still hasn't been addressed. The running game has suffered for years as a result, and Romo is constantly injured. He played 16 games last year, but battled rib injuries, plus missed 10 games in 2010 and three in '08.

That said, if Romo can survive a full season, one area that should see some improvement is the defense. The Cowboys completely revamped a secondary that ranked 23rd against the pass last season, which was seemed to be the primary source for the unit's issues. They've bolstered the ranks through free agency and the draft, so we'll see if it clears things up for Rob Ryan's group.

New York Giants

Like it or not, when they're the reigning Super Bowl champions, you have to admit the road to the top of the NFC East food chain goes through New York.

It was a traditional championship season for the Giants. Play just well enough to be a fringe Wild Card team only to watch the competition drop the ball, slip into a playoff spot, then get hot at the right time. That's how they did it in '07, that's how they did it last year. What it demonstrates is as long as they have Eli Manning and that destructive front four on defense, they will be in the mix.

The good news for the Eagles is they've had a great deal of success against the Giants recently. The Birds have taken seven of the last eight off of Big Blue -- eight of nine if you include postseason -- a run that goes back to 2008. New York finally broke up the winning streak with a W last season, then proceeded to lose the next tilt when Vince Young was under center.

So while the Giants are clearly the team to beat, the Eagles have had their number. That doesn't mean they will continue to own them in 2012, but New York is heading into the season with essentially the same squad as last season. It suggests the Birds can control their own destiny within the division as long as they take care of business elsewhere, just like last year.

One more Eagles victory, and the Giants don't even make the tournament -- now they're champions. Can't change history, but you can learn from it.

Eagles Training Camp Preview: We’re So Screwed  

usatsi_9331205_138566172_lowres.jpg

Eagles Training Camp Preview: We’re So Screwed  

The Eagles’ full training camp got underway Thursday and I’m already worried. In fact, I have seen nothing from this team thus far in training camp that gives me any confidence that they can compete this season. 

The Sam Bradford/Carson Wentz thing hasn’t been resolved at all. We already had no running backs to speak of, and now Ryan Mathews is hurt. And then Nigel Badham got arrested for assaulting a hotel employee in Miami -- I know I’ve been saying for awhile that the Eagles need guys on defense who “punch people in the mouth,” but that’s not what I meant. 

There’s another thing that makes me question what the hell the Eagles are doing: I don’t care if he’s the long snapper -- letting a player report late to training camp because he’s doing magic tricks on a talent show? A morning show caller the other day suggested the Eagles try some trick plays involving Dorenbos making the ball disappear -- but if there’s any hope for that, Jon needs to be at practice, instead of gallivanting in Hollywood with Simon Cowell. What would Buddy say? 

The last straw may have been Tuesday, when veteran wide receiver Anquan Boldin signed with the Detroit Lions, even though the Eagles had pursued him. I for one have been calling for the Eagles to acquire Boldin since 2005, but this time hurts the most. What is Howie doing? 

Should Doug Pederson be on the hot seat in Philadelphia? Should Howie Roseman? After two days of training camp, my answer is, “yes” and “absolutely yes.” If the Eagles lose the first week to Cleveland, the clock will be ticking, if it isn’t already. 

__

The streets of Philadelphia this week were chockfull of angry people, agitating loudly on behalf of the guy who had already been defeated, wearing T-shirts with his likeness and refusing to give up on him even though he already issued a lengthy statement giving up himself. Please, people: Let Sam Hinkie go. 

Still, though: When it comes to Sam Hinkie and Bernie Sanders, things just keep getting more curious: 

Exhibit A: Chuck Todd said on NBC News Friday that, "Bernie Sanders is here to land the plane."

Exhibit B: 

Exhibit C:

Exhibit D: 

And Exhibit E taken, at a post-DNC Party: 

I’m not exactly sure what this all means, but between the national media once again making a big deal about people booing at a Philadelphia sports arena -- and the President of the United States actually said “don’t boo” --  it can’t be good news. First Dario Saric came to Philly because of his foreknowledge of the coup attempt in Turkey, and now this. 

Other Philly sports takes: 

- As @petesbigtwit pointed out on Twitter, the first female major party presidential nominee accepted the nomination on the very spot where Wing Bowl is held each year. It’s the greatest moment for women in that stage in at least five months, since Molly Schuyler ate 429 wings in 26 minutes at Wing Bowl XXIV. 

- Why shouldn’t the Eagles sign Ray Rice? I see no downside -- and he’s only been on the shelf a couple of months longer than Joel Embiid. 

- I wish the Phillies had someone passionate enough to carve up all the team’s throwback uniforms with a knife. 

- Can you believe Joel Embiid was caught using his phone on the sidelines during summer league? This would be like if Andrew Bynum had actually gone bowling next to the court during a game. 

- Who cares if the Pikachu guy flipped the bird at Citizen’s Bank Park? The Phanatic averages three obscene gestures per game. 

Follow @FakeWIPCaller on Twitter. And don’t vote- boo! 

Union's homegrown program produces latest signing Derrick Jones

union-derrick-jones-signing.jpg
Philadelphia Union

Union's homegrown program produces latest signing Derrick Jones

CHESTER, Pa. — Long after most of the Union players retreated from the heat Wednesday, Derrick Jones remained on the practice field. Not even his new rookie responsibility of carrying the bag of balls could dampen the 19-year-old’s enthusiasm of participating in his first official training as a member of the Union.

“I was just excited,” said Jones, who signed a homegrown contract with the Union a day earlier. “I was just happy. I didn’t know where I was going to be four years ago.”

Jones' path to the pros was certainly an interesting one as he came from Ghana to South Philly in 2012, and at the time, “didn’t know anything about the Union.” But he soon found his way to YSC Academy, the Union-run high school in Wayne, and after graduating from there, was the first player ever signed by the Bethlehem Steel, the team’s expansion minor-league affiliate.

He then played well enough for Bethlehem this season to ink a deal with the Union on Tuesday as their first Homegrown signing since 2012 and just the fourth in franchise history.

“It's a proud moment for me as a coach, a former academy coach,” Union head coach Jim Curtin said. “I’d like to thank (YSC Academy head and Union part owner) Richie Graham and (academy director) Tommy Wilson for the job they did developing Derrick, and also (Bethlehem Steel head coach) Brendan Burke sprinkling in that extra polish for the half a season that Derrick put in. I'd also like to thank the players because the one thing people don't always get to see is how valuable it is with our first-team players being around Derrick in the preseason and putting him under their wing and all of those little things. 

“As a club, it's a proud moment because everybody has played a role, from our medical staff to our trainers to our equipment guys, all the way through our academy to Bethlehem to now our first team.”

Ever since the franchise’s inception, Union coaches and executives have always said how they wanted to build a team from their youth ranks with several players hailing from the Philadelphia area. But, as it turned out, it was easier said than done.

Zach Pfeffer was the first player to sign a homegrown contract (an MLS mechanism that allows teams to directly sign youth players from their own development academies) as a 15-year-old Upper Dublin High School sophomore in December of 2010. And although he showed some promise, the teenager was never able to become a regular and was traded to the Colorado Rapids this past offseason. Former manager Peter Nowak signed two other homegrown players — Jimmy McLaughlin and Cristhian Hernandez — during his tenure but neither played much and they're no longer with the club.

You can certainly argue that Pfeffer, McLaughlin and Hernandez were all victims of an old system that didn’t allow them to properly develop at such a young age. In many ways, that’s why the Union launched YSC Academy and the Bethlehem Steel: to create a more surefire pathway from high school to the pros without throwing teenagers directly into the fire.

And Jones, the only current homegrown player on the roster, is the first to truly benefit from that improved structure — and will very likely usher in a new, better era of youth development for the Union.

“Everyone likes to compare who's doing it the best, and there's a lot of really good things being done right now in the U.S. Developmental Academy and specific MLS academies, but I can say with confidence, having coached in it and lived through it and having seen it up close, our academy is the one that prepares these kids for life more so than any,” Curtin said. “So everyone wants to talk about the successful homegrowns and how many each team has, but no one writes the article about a lot of the homegrowns that are out of this league in a year and no one cares about them anymore.

“It does need to be said that our structure, in the way Richie Graham has set it up, is holistic in every way. The school and the things that they do there, it is amazing. It’s a special environment, and it’s one that is based on each individual kid and their needs, because every kid has different spurts in their development, highs and lows. And the support system that they provide at our academy is second to none in this country.”

Curtin’s glowing praise of YSC Academy is not hyperbole. The school is the first in the country to fully integrate a college-preparatory education with an MLS-affiliated youth soccer development program with practice time embedded into the school day. And although Jones is the first from the school to sign with the Union, many others in the first two graduating classes have moved on to play high-level Division I soccer (and can still sign with the Union, or the Steel, as a homegrown player if they shine at the collegiate level). 

“They helped me a lot,” Jones said of YSC Academy. “It was good. I got to train twice a day. I spent my whole day over there. In terms of working on my fitness, it really helped me.”

The school also helped Jones adapt to the United States away from the field, and even though he’s a quiet kid, his new teammates made sure to greet him with a lot of smiles this week. MLS veteran Chris Pontius said he expects Jones’ personality to come out in a few months and praised his soccer skills, calling him “a good two-way player” in the midfield.

It might be unfair to expect Jones to play right away for the Union, but the 19-year-old will certainly be ready if called upon, as early as Sunday’s home game vs. Real Salt Lake (7 p.m., CSN).

“I don’t know what that’s going to be like,” Jones said. “Maybe I’ll get nervous since it’s my first game. But I’m looking forward to it.”

Phillies-Braves 5 things: Chance for Nola to respond vs. worst offense

matchup-phillies-braves.png

Phillies-Braves 5 things: Chance for Nola to respond vs. worst offense

Phillies (46-57) at Braves (35-66)
7:10 p.m. on CSN

The Phillies were throttled Wednesday, 11-1, as they dropped their fourth straight series coming out of the All-Star break. 

The Phils have gone 2-4 through the first two stops of their three-city, 10-game road trip which now takes them to Atlanta. It's a winnable series against the majors' worst team that could get the ice-cold Phillies' offense back on track.

Let's take a look at the opener:

1. Important night for Nola
Aaron Nola came out of the All-Star break with six shutout innings of the Marlins. It didn't mean he was all the way back. Sure enough, his next start was a struggle, just like his five before the break.

Nola allowed six runs in four innings to the Pirates last weekend as his ERA rose again to 4.75. He's allowed four runs or more in six of his last seven starts, five runs or more in five of his last seven, and he's pitched more than five innings just once in that span.

His command is just gone right now. And that's why this is such an important start for him. Facing the worst offense in baseball in a pitcher-friendly environment could build back Nola's confidence and result in a quality start, even if he's not locating perfectly. There is one dangerous hitter in Atlanta's lineup, Freddie Freeman. Other than that, Nola should be able to get away with a curveball that hangs a bit or a fastball that doesn't perfectly nip the outside corner.

His focus tonight should be attacking. Nola has faced the Braves four times and gone 2-1 with a 1.73 ERA.

2. Situational struggles
The Phillies went 2 for 21 with runners in scoring position in the Marlins series. On Wednesday, they had 10 hits but left 10 men on base. 

Rarely do you see a team come an out away from being shut out when its first two hitters reach base seven of 10 times. Cesar Hernandez was 3 for 4 with a walk, Odubel Herrera was 2 for 4 with a walk, and Maikel Franco also had a multi-hit game batting third.

But the Phils have just been unable to come up with the one big hit since the break and it's why they're averaging 2.6 runs per game.

3. Scouting Wisler
The Phils get another look at young Braves right-hander Matt Wisler (4-10, 4.92), whose ERA is much higher than it was the last time they faced him.

Wisler, like Nola, has been pounded lately. He ended May with a 3.16 ERA, but has a 7.40 ERA in nine starts since, allowing his opponents a .329 batting average and .934 OPS. 

Wisler faced the Phils twice in a 10-day span on May 10 and May 20 and allowed four runs in 14⅔ innings.

Wisler's fastball averages 94 mph, but he doesn't strike many batters out (6.8 per nine this season). He usually uses three pitches: four-seam fastball, sinker and slider.

Current Phillies have hit .299 against him in 67 at-bats with seven doubles and three home runs. Franco has done the most damage, going 5 for 9 with two doubles and a homer.

4. Bullpen blunders
The Phillies' bullpen has a 5.14 ERA since the All-Star break, another reason they've struggled. The main culprits have been Andrew Bailey (seven runs in four innings) and Brett Oberholtzer (four in five). 

The Phillies have three legit bullpen pieces in Jeanmar Gomez, Hector Neris and Edubray Ramos, but none of the others have been reliable, which is a problem when the Phils don't carry a lead into the later innings. 

Expect to see a lot of bullpen turnover next season. The Phils have two promising young relievers in the minors in Jimmy Cordero (Double A) and Victor Arano (High A) who could turn this unit into one of the hardest-throwing in the game when they're ready to join Neris and Ramos. 

Bailey and Oberholtzer are not long for this organization. Both are free agents after the year and both could be designated for assignment to make room for another player over the next month.

5. This and that
• The Phillies are 6-3 vs. the Braves this season after going 30-45 against them from 2013 to 2015.

• Atlanta is a majors-worst 14-36 at home.

• Freeman is hitting .280 with 18 home runs and an .881 OPS, but he has just 41 RBIs because the Braves barely get on base ahead of him.