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.

Cubs reward Theo Epstein for turnaround with 5-year extension

Cubs reward Theo Epstein for turnaround with 5-year extension

CHICAGO -- Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts had dinner with president of baseball operations Theo Epstein in Arizona around the start of spring training.

If Epstein had any doubt about a contract extension, it ended right there. And on Wednesday, it became official.

Chicago announced a five-year extension, rewarding Epstein for an overhaul that has the long-suffering franchise eyeing its first championship since 1908.

"He started it off by saying some really nice things about me that might have hurt his leverage a little bit, and then I returned the favor by telling him that even if we couldn't work out a contract it would get awkward because I would just keep showing up to work," Epstein said. "As an employee, I will. I kept ruining my leverage."

The deal comes with the Cubs wrapping up one of the greatest seasons in franchise history and their fans believing this just might be the team to end the 108-year World Series title drought.

Chicago reached 100 wins for the first time since 1935 and was a major league-leading 101-56 heading into Wednesday's game at Pittsburgh. The Cubs clinched the best record in the majors with more than a week left in the regular season.

"In the five years under Theo's leadership, he has brought in a strong executive team and acquired and developed some of the best players in the game," Ricketts said. "Now, the results are on the field."

Terms were not disclosed.

It looks like Epstein isn't the only Cubs executive with a new deal. He said contract extensions for general manager Jed Hoyer and senior vice president of scouting and player development Jason McLeod will probably be announced in the next day or two.

Epstein, who was in the final season of a five-year deal when he left Boston in October 2011, had repeatedly said a new contract was a formality, that there were more immediate priorities. Ricketts had echoed that and indicated in the spring that he was prepared to make him one of the highest-paid executives in baseball.

"There was never any real drama throughout the summer," said Ricketts, adding the agreement was finalized a few days ago.

What took so long?

"We sat down at spring training, had a nice dinner, talked about getting an extension done," Ricketts said. "Basically, I told him I thought he was the best in the game at what he did. He told me no matter what I paid him he wasn't going to leave Chicago, so we were off to a good start. We checked back in on it a couple times during the summer. There was no real time pressure."

The new deal is a reward for a striking transformation that began with the arrivals of Epstein along with Hoyer and McLeod -- his friends from Boston -- following the 2011 season.

The Cubs tested some fans' patience by taking the long approach rather than going for a quick fix, but they have seen the benefits the past two years. Chicago is eyeing even bigger things after breaking out with 97 wins and reaching the NL Championship Series last season.

"When you have great leadership at the top, it usually filters through the rest of the group," manager Joe Maddon said. "A successful organization has that. We have that. I was very happy to hear the news. I'm very happy for Theo and his family and of course, us. It is great. It's a feel-good story. He deserves it. He's earned it. I'm very happy for him."

High draft picks such as 2015 NL Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant made big impacts, as did a number of trade acquisitions, including last season's NL Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta, All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo and potential Gold Glove shortstop Addison Russell.

The hiring of NL Manager of the Year Joe Maddon and signing of starter Jon Lester before the 2015 season showed just how serious the Cubs were about jumping into contention. And the additions of three-time Gold Glove outfielder Jason Heyward, pitcher John Lackey and veteran infielder Ben Zobrist along with the re-signing of outfielder Dexter Fowler this past offseason added to an already deep roster.

Throw in the emergence of Kyle Hendricks as a Cy Young candidate, and the Cubs are widely considered a postseason favorite.

There were missteps along the way, but the Cubs are in a far different and far better place than they were five years ago. And if they win it all under Epstein, it won't be the first time he helped end a long championship drought.

Before he took aim at the Billy goat curse, he took down the Bambino.

Epstein oversaw two World Series winners in nine seasons as Boston's general manager.

In Chicago, Epstein parted with high-priced veterans and loaded up the minor league system while expanding the team's scouting and analytics operation as part of an overhaul that saw the organization get stripped to its studs.

The Ricketts family also invested heavily in infrastructure in recent years, including new training facilities in the baseball-rich Dominican Republic and the spring training home in Arizona. They are also overhauling Wrigley Field and the surrounding neighborhood.

"There really wasn't anything important to me besides finding common ground, making sure that we could stay and see this thing through," Epstein said. "Our mission has not been accomplished yet."

Roman Quinn likely done for season; Aaron Nola is throwing in Fla.

Roman Quinn likely done for season; Aaron Nola is throwing in Fla.

ATLANTA – Roman Quinn spent Wednesday getting treatment on his freshly strained left oblique. The rookie outfielder will try to gauge his condition by doing some jogging and light throwing on Thursday, but all signs point to his being shut down for the remaining days of the season and continuing his bid to make the opening day 2017 roster in spring training.

“He’ll let me know tomorrow and be honest with me if he still feels it,” manager Pete Mackanin said Wednesday. "There’s no sense in him getting hurt with only four or five games left in the season.”

Quinn injured himself taking a swing in the fifth inning Tuesday. He blew out the same oblique at Double A Reading this summer and missed six weeks.

“I think he’s more scared than anything that it’s going to recur and he’s going to make it worse,” Mackanin said.

That should be enough to shut down Quinn right there.

“It’s definitely frustrating,” Quinn said.

Quinn was 15 for 57 (.263) with four doubles, six RBIs, eight walks and five stolen bases in 15 games before going down. He struck out 19 times but had a .373 on-base percentage on a team that struggles to get on base.

Mackanin sees Quinn as a player who could make the jump to full-time duty in the Phillies’ outfield as soon as April, but first Quinn must clear the injury hurdle that has cost him so much time since he was picked in the second round of the 2011 draft. Quinn has missed time with a ruptured Achilles tendon, a torn quad muscle, a broken wrist and oblique issues.

“He mentioned to me that because he’s so lean and doesn’t have a lot of body fat that might be part of the issue,” said Mackanin, referring to Quinn’s oblique issues. “They have so much health food available for the players that this could be a good way to make a change, so we can have a pizza and a burger once in a while.”

Mackanin got serious.

“With him, his big question mark is staying on the field,” the manager said. “That’s always going to be in the back of everybody’s mind because he doesn’t seem to stay on the field as much as you’d like him to. Resilience and reliability are important. So that’s going to be a big test for him next year. It’s obvious what he brings to the table as far as making things happen. He’s a catalyst for a lot of things, the least of which is coverage in the outfield, so it’s a matter of whether he can stay on the field or not.”

In other health matters ...
Reliever Edubray Ramos has a sore elbow and is day to day, and day to day at this time of the year might mean he’s done for the season. Mackanin said the elbow issue is not serious and could be a result of Ramos' pitching longer than he ever has in a season.

Also, Aaron Nola has begun to test his ailing elbow by throwing on flat ground in Florida. He will progress to a mound and eventually face hitters in the coming weeks as the club gauges whether he is fully recovered from his elbow strain or will require surgery that could cost him the 2017 season.