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.

Thinking man's pitcher, Phillies prospect Cole Irvin enjoying time with Clearwater

Thinking man's pitcher, Phillies prospect Cole Irvin enjoying time with Clearwater

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Clearwater Threshers pitcher Cole Irvin is a student of baseball, but maybe the word “student” – simply stated and in its base meaning – describes the young left-hander best.

A graduate of the University of Oregon who completed his undergraduate degree in sociology in just 3½ years, Irvin has applied a studious, methodical approach to his work on the mound, where he starred as a freshman and senior for the Ducks as a regular Friday night starter.

His 2014 collegiate season was marred by Tommy John surgery, but he reflects on it now as being an important part of him staying in college and obtaining his degree. He remained in Eugene another semester after getting drafted by Pittsburgh in the 32nd round, his second time getting selected.

“I look at it as a positive. I wouldn’t have been able to finish my degree at Oregon if I didn’t have the surgery,” said Irvin, who was drafted in the fifth round by the Phillies last June.

“Sociology covers so many topics. It’s a great degree to have. My studies varied from the population of salmon affecting society to the study of social media. There was so much I learned in so many diverse topics. I like interacting because everyone’s opinion mattered.”

The sociological background also easily translates to the diamond for the 6-foot-4, 190-pound Irvin.

“It’s the same in baseball. The more information you have about the opposing team, our team, if we’re doing the shift and other things… now you have all that collected information. Now you just go do your thing. I think I apply (sociology) to so many different aspects of what I do,” he said.

Sociology aside, Clearwater pitching coach Aaron Fultz has been impressed with the mental approach Irvin has displayed.

“Very (much so),” replied Fultz when asked if the southpaw is the quintessential cerebral pitcher. “He’s a no frills guy and he’s here to work.”

Fultz broke in to MLB and played three seasons with the San Francisco Giants – 2000 to 2002 – and the former big leaguer said Irvin reminds him from a work ethic standpoint of a Bay Area teammate of his.

“He kind of reminds me of Jeff Kent. He comes here and he wants to work and get better,” said Fultz of Irvin, who also bears a slight resemblance to the five-time all-star and 2000 NL MVP of the Giants.

That industrious attitude worked well for Irvin in his first spring training camp in the Grapefruit League in February. He broke camp by bypassing Low A Lakewood and joining the Threshers. Then he proceeded to overwhelm hitters in the Florida State League.

Irvin, 23, was 3-1 in four starts in April, posting a 1.04 ERA. In 26 innings, he allowed 22 hits, struck out 20 and walked just three. His WHIP stood at 0.96.

“His first four or five starts, I thought he was the best pitcher in the league,” Fultz said. “Since then, we’ve had a little hiccup here and there about location and just giving up some hits. He’s had some bad luck, too.

“But I love the way he goes about his business. He gets the ball and he’s ready to pitch. He has a very good idea and is a smart kid. He doesn’t throw 95, but he’s left-handed – that helps – and he has a really good change-up. His stuff is better than average, but his tenacity and the way he goes after hitters is a really good selling point for him.”

Irvin said he tries not read what is written about him or the multitude of numbers baseball produces.

“The past three outings haven’t gone the way I’ve anticipated, especially after the first five starts of the year,” said Irvin, who is 3-5 with a 3.20 ERA after four straight losses starting on May 4 against Jupiter.

He will try to break that winless skid on Tuesday when he faces Florida back in Clearwater.

Of his standout first pro season at short-season Williamsport last year (5-1, 1.97 in 10 games), Irvin admitted he doesn’t look at the stats, saying, “Honestly, I don’t know the numbers. I don’t get ahead of myself and look at stats. Every once in a while, I’ll look at media stuff, but I try not to follow that stuff.

“Once it gets in your head, you start to get anxious about moving up and thinking about things you’re not supposed to be thinking about. I’m supposed to be thinking right now, ‘What can I do to get better and get to the big leagues?’ It’s not about being in the minor leagues; it’s about being in the big leagues.”

Irvin has enjoyed his season so far and, like a good sociology student, is harvesting his own data.

“There’s a lot to build off of. It’s my first full season, so it’s exciting to spend a whole year playing baseball and doing something you love and is fun. It’s something I’ve dreamed of as a kid,” he said.

“I never thought I’d be here this quick, so I’m taking it one day at a time. I can only focus on this day, and tomorrow will come tomorrow.”
 
Three questions with Cole Irvin

You throw a one-seam fastball. What does it do?

“It’s literally across one seam, holding it with one finger. It depends on the wrist. If it’s on the side of the ball, it’s going to fade (versus righty batters). But if your wrist is more on the inside toward your body, it’s going to cut. I only use it as a strikeout pitch. [Laughing] I’d say it’s a wipe-out pitch, but I don’t have wipe-out stuff like most of the guys on this team. It’s an effect pitch, where there’s a little uncertainty where it’ll go.”

You’re from Yorba Linda, CA, the birthplace of Richard Nixon and home of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum. Have any good Nixon stories?

“Actually, I do. When I was 12, I had to do community service for the high school I was going to go to. I had to have so many hours. The library was looking for someone to clean the helicopter – Air Force One helicopter or whatever it was called. Every Sunday morning I’d show up at 5:30 a.m. to clean that helicopter. I had to go through the Secret Service back door and security checks. I was 12, so there wasn’t much information on me. I spent four or five Sundays cleaning that helicopter. It was so much fun.”

As an Oregon Duck, you were able to play in the Civil War against the Oregon State Beavers and New York Mets outfielder Michael Conforto. Any success?

“My senior year was the first time we’ve ever gone to Goss Stadium and won a series at Oregon State. I pitched against Conforto and also played with him on the Team USA collegiate team that had (Chicago Cubs star Kyle) Schwarber. Honestly, Michael’s one of the great guys to know and talk to. He’s just a world-class, awesome guy.”

Now on Phillies' bench, Ty Kelly looks back fondly on Team Israel experience

Now on Phillies' bench, Ty Kelly looks back fondly on Team Israel experience

Ty Kelly is currently the 25th man on the Phillies' roster, a utility man who has all of two starts with the club this year.

But two and a half months ago, he was one of the headlining players on the Cinderella squad of the 2017 World Baseball Classic.

Kelly was the starting third baseman for Team Israel, which made a surprising run to the second round with a perfect run through Pool A. The team began the WBC with an upset over host South Korea before wins over Chinese Taipei and the Netherlands. Israel beat Cuba in the next round in Japan but fell to Japan and the Netherlands handily.

Unlike most MLB players who spent their spring in Florida, Kelly got to experience two major Asian cities -- Seoul and Tokyo -- while getting his preseason at-bats.

"It was a great experience, trying the food and all that and seeing all the sights," Kelly said.

However, he wasn't too adventurous with trying the local cuisine compared to his teammates.

"Some of the guys were really trying to seek out the native food," Kelly said. "I wanted to do that as much as I could, but at the same time, you're still trying to get ready for baseball games in a tournament, so you've got to do what's best for your body.

"Chicken sandwiches for me were the way to go for the most part," he added with a laugh.

Kelly's participation with the squad began in the middle of 2016, when Peter Kurz, the President of the Israel Association of Baseball, emailed him and asked if he had a Jewish grandparent. Kelly's mother's side of the family is Jewish, making Kelly eligible.

Last year was also the end of Kelly's long road to the major leagues. Drafted by the Orioles in 2009 out of UC Davis, Kelly was traded multiple times, once straight up for current Brewers slugger Eric Thames before Thames went to Korea and back. Kelly wound up with the Mets and finally made his MLB debut two months shy of his 28th birthday. He played 39 games for the Mets at six different positions and got a hit in his only postseason at-bat, which came vs. Madison Bumgarner no less.

Kelly still had to make the Mets this spring, which could have made joining the WBC a tough decision. However, the organization was on board with Kelly playing in the tournament.

"It made it difficult, but I talked to the Mets about it and they were all for me going over there and still playing and getting experience," he said. "People were still watching, so once I got the go-ahead from them, it was an easy decision."

Kelly made the Mets out of the spring but had just one at-bat before he put on waivers and was claimed by the Blue Jays. Eight days later, he was traded to the Phillies. He has four hits (three doubles) in 19 at-bats with the Phillies and had the game-winning RBI single two weeks ago in the front end of the Phils' doubleheader with the Nationals.

He's the only player from Team Israel to have played in the majors this season. Ryan Lavarnway and former Mets 1B Ike Davis are in Triple A while the roster also included former MLBers Nate Freiman, Sam Fuld and Jason Marquis.

While none of his WBC teammates have parlayed Team Israel's run into MLB time, Kelly still thinks the team caught the eye of people in the game.

"There was definitely a lot of fandom around our team," Kelly said. "A lot of people rallied around us, including people in front offices I think. Of Jewish descent or not, I think a lot of people liked what we did.

"Being a part of that definitely looks good for me, which is just an added bonus."