The Boys are Back in Town: Dallas Is Hot, But Can They Keep it Going?

17 Oct

By Chris Murray
For the Chris Murray Report and the Philadelphia Sunday Sun

Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray leads the NFL in rushing.

Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray leads the NFL in rushing.

PHILADELPHIA—Like it or not, love them or hate them, the Dallas Cowboys (5-1) are among the league’s best teams and no doubt one of the NFL’s biggest surprises so far in the 2014 season. Much to the chagrin of Eagles fans, the Cowboys are tied with the Birds for first place in the NFC East and for the league’s best record.

Last Sunday, the Cowboys raised more than a few eyebrows with a stunning road upset of the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks. Not only did Dallas escape with a 30-23 win, they did it by rolling 401 yards of offense against one of the league’s most physical defenses.

Much-maligned Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo likes the balance on offense. Photo by Webster Riddick.

Much-maligned Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo likes the balance on offense. Photo by Webster Riddick.

The reason for the Cowboys success so far this season was best exemplified in the win over Seattle when they ran the ball more than they passed it. Dallas has shown a tremendous amount of balance on offense so far this season and that’s taken some of the workload off quarterback Tony Romo.

“The best thing that we’ve done as an organization is we’ve very purposely tried to take the burden off our quarterback,” said Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett during his Monday after-game press conference. “At different times in his career in Tony’s career, he’s had a lot of burden on him—we haven’t played good defense, we haven’t been great on the offensive line, we haven’t run the ball well.”

The Cowboys rushing attack gained 162 yards against the Seahawks with 115 coming from running back DeMarco Murray, the NFL’s leading rusher. As a team, the Cowboys are averaging 160 yards per game, which also leads the league.

That’s thanks to the outstanding performance by the Dallas offensive line which was so good against the Seahawks that left tackle Tryon Smith garnered NFL Offensive Player of the Week honors. The 6-foot-5, 320-pound tackle helped to open holes for Dallas runners and allowed just one sack of Romo.

Murray, who has 785 yards rushing, is the Cowboys closer late in the game. He scored the go-ahead touchdown late in the game through a tough Seattle defense.

With the Cowboys running game chewing up yardage, Romo has been more efficient in the passing game. Since tossing three interceptions in the season-opener against the San Francisco 49ers, Romo has completed 70 percent of his passes for 1,229 yard, 10 touchdowns and two interceptions.

When they do pass the ball, Romo has been effectively getting the ball out to Dez Bryant, Terrence Williams, who leads the team in touchdown receptions, and Pro Bowl tight end Jason Witten. He also has better protection because teams have to respect the run.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is the performance of a Cowboys defense that all the experts said would be the worst in the league. Granted, they’re not the second-coming of those great Cowboys defenses of the 1970s or the 1985 Chicago Bears, but they’re getting the job done.

They are 21st in total defense (12th against the pass and 18th against run) and eighth in scoring defense, a vast improvement from last season.

“We really emphasized the importance of team defense,” Garrett said. “I just think everybody does—gap discipline, tackling, coverage responsibility, doing your job, playing with the right spirit and mentality. I think we’ve done a lot of those things. We’re a work in progress on defense and offense throughout our football team.”

In their latest NFL power rankings, ESPN elevated the Cowboys to No.3 behind the San Diego Chargers and Denver Broncos. The challenge for the Cowboys is not to get ahead of themselves or get caught up in the hype of their own headlines.

“It’s such a long season,” Romo said. “When you win you enjoy it that night and move on to the next game. When you lose, you’re disappointed that night, you move on to the next game. You find that if you keep doing that over and over again, you give yourself the best chance to succeed. That approach has been there all season.”

The Cowboys have a home game against a New York Giants squad smarting from an embarrassing shutout loss to the Eagles. The G-men will no doubt be fired up to redeem themselves.

“I know they’re coming to play,” Bryant said. “We know it’s going to be a battle and we’re going to come out there and put it on the line.”

Contrary to owner Jerry Jones belief that the team should smell the roses and enjoy the win over Seattle, Bryant said his teammates are doing no such thing, especially considering the team’s failures in December over the last couple of years.

“Aw, man nobody’s smelling the roses,” Bryant said. “Man we all know in this locker room that we haven’t done nothing, we haven’t achieved nothing. It’s just a 5-1 record. We have to continue to play that we playing the way we’ve been playing …Hoping that we come out on top on Sunday.”

2014 Royals Taking Their Place in Baseball’s History of Improbable Post Season Runs

17 Oct

By Barry Federovitch

For the Chris Murray Report

Kansas City Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas makes an incredible catch in the stands in Game 3 of the 2014 American League Championship Series.

Kansas City Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas makes an incredible catch in the stands in Game 3 of the 2014 American League Championship Series.

The most natural inclination when the Kansas City Royals stunned the Baltimore Orioles in four straight to sweep the 2014 American League Championship Series was to draw comparisons to the 1969 Mets.

Inferior team wins. Said team catches lightning in a bottle, fueled by a bevy of incredible defensive plays. And yet it’s important to remember several pieces of data in the comparison beginning with the realization that the Mets didn’t sweep that series. The Orioles won Game 1 and one of the great what-ifs in baseball history is what might have happened had Baltimore won just one of the four games the Mets juggernaut snagged that week.

New York Mets outfielder makes a diving catch against Baltimore in Game 4 of the 1969 World Series. The Kansas City Royals made similar plays against the Orioles in the 2014 American League Championship Series.

New York Mets outfielder Tommy Agee makes a diving catch against Baltimore in Game 4 of the 1969 World Series. The Kansas City Royals made similar plays against the Orioles in the 2014 American League Championship Series.

Would the Orioles, with Jim Palmer and Mike Cuellar slated to go in games 6 and 7 at home, won the series in seven? Or would the Mets have won anyway with more magic from players like Tommie Agee, Donn Clendenon or Al Weis?

To that question we will never know the answer. But as remarkable as that week was, it wasn’t the standard for postseason sweeps, which ironically happened exactly 100 years ago. Since then we’ve had a bevy of great lightning-in-the-bottle stories this time of year and the 2014 Royals may not even rank near the top.

You decide.

1914 Boston Braves: Connie Mack’s Philadelphia A’s were a dynasty, fueled by great pitching and their $100,000 infield (yeah, that was a long time ago). They were heavy favorites against the Boston Braves, whose manager George ‘’Tweedy’’ Stallings is best remembered for wearing out the seat of his suit pants on the bench. The Braves were in last place on the Fourth of July and then proceeded to go 60-16 to not only win their first pennant, but do so in double digits.

That should have been a warning to pundits of a potential upset, but both the A’s and experts were stunned over four days as Hank Gowdy (an underrated catcher whose career lasted until 1930) hit .545.

1966 Orioles: Once upon a time the Orioles were on the other side of an incredible four-game sweep. This is often forgotten in history since Baltimore went on to win three pennants and another world title only a few years later with much of the same cast. But understand the rep of the 1966 Dodgers: led by 27-game winner Sandy Koufax, the Dodgers were defending champs and had won their third pennant in four years. The Orioles were making their first postseason appearance. But paced by Moe Drabowsky’s amazing relief performance in Game 1, the Dodgers’ offense was shut down, never to reawaken in the most stunning display of four-game pitching in World Series history.

1980  Kansas City Royals: The 1980 Yankees won more regular-season games (103) than either the 1977 or 1978 teams that won it all. Both teams defeated the Royals en route to the crown and the Bombers had a run going of three consecutive postseason series victories over KC. So this was the ultimate grudge match. With homefield advantage, the Yanks were leading at home in Game 3 until George Brett’s long homer off Goose Gossage cemented the three-game sweep.

The 1990 Cincinnati Reds: Lest we forget. The 1988-1990 A’s were very close to being recognized as one of the great dynasties of the last 30 years. But they ran into a hot Dodger team in 1988 and even hotter Cincinnati team two years later. Reds pitchers held the Bash Brothers to only eight runs in four games, but the MVP was Billy Hatcher, whose .750 mark represents one of the great short-series hot streaks in postseason history.

2014 Royals: KC trailed 7-3 late in the wild-card playoff before stunning Oakland. Since that point, they have hardly trailed in their first postseason appearance in 29 years. They wiped out a veteran Angels team, but the nature of their four-game sweep over the Orioles was invigorating and incredible: Baltimore hit well in two games (games 1 and 2), but not enough.

Then it pitched well in the next two, but again it wasn’t enough as the Royals won two games by two runs and two others by one each. Lorenzo Cain was the Royals series MVP, but collectively KC played perhaps the best series defense since the 1969 Mets, using several diving or unlikely catches to shut down every potential Baltimore rally. Can the Royals sustain this momentum into the World Series? A national bandwagon of underdog lovers await in what is becoming one of the great October sagas in recent years.

Talk is Cheap: Eagles Defense Puts the Smackdown on Eli Manning and the Giants

13 Oct

By Chris Murray
For The Chris Murray Report and the Philadelphia Sunday Sun

Eagles linebacker Connor Barwin Gets one of his three sacks of Eli Manning in the Birds 27-0 win over the New York Giants at Lincoln Financial Field Sunday Night. Photo by Webster Riddick.

Eagles linebacker Connor Barwin Gets one of his three sacks of Eli Manning in the Birds 27-0 win over the New York Giants at Lincoln Financial Field Sunday Night. Photo by Webster Riddick.

PHILADELPHIA—The New York Giants found out in their loss to the Eagles on Sunday that it’s much easier to talk trash and sell woof tickets. No matter how times you deface another team’s logo, backing it up on the field on gameday is a whole lot harder and the only thing that really matters.

As the late great  Baltimore Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas used say, “Talk is cheap, let’s the play game.”

The Eagles, especially the defense, did all the talking in a resounding 27-0 shutout victory over the Giants at Lincoln Financial Field.

Contrary to Giants defensive Jason Pierre-Paul’s contention that the Birds could easily be 0-5, the Eagles are 5-1 and tied with the Dallas Cowboys (5-1) for first place in the NFC East. New York is now 3-3.

For the first time this season, there was no need for a second-half comeback nor was there a frantic run of points by the other team to make the final score closer than the game itself. Going into the bye week, the Eagles wanted to come out and play a complete game where the outcome was never in doubt.

The Eagles defense dominated a hot Giants squad that came into the contest riding the wave of a three-game winning streak.

“That was the biggest thing we wanted to play quarter straight of clean football,” said Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins. “When we got up, coming off of last week (against the St. Louis Rams) we wanted to finish the game the right way. I think all three phases did that.”

Eagles outside linebacker Trent Cole collars Eli Manning. It was one of eight sacks by the Birds against the Giants. Photo by Webster Riddick

Eagles outside linebacker Trent Cole collars Eli Manning. It was one of eight sacks by the Birds against the Giants. Photo by Webster Riddick

Defensively, the Eagles gave Eli Manning and the Giants offense a good old-fashioned beatdown. The Birds held the Giants to just 253 yards of total offense. They sacked Manning eight times with three coming from linebacker Connor Barwin.

The key to the sacks was the tight coverage of the Giants receivers by the Eagles secondary that disrupted Manning’s timing and forced him to hang onto the ball longer than he wanted.

“Our secondary did a tremendous job jamming their receivers, giving them different looks because the last three weeks what we’ve seen on film is Eli catching the ball and throwing it,” Barwin said. “Today, he was catching the ball and getting to his second or third read and that’s how we were able to get pressure on him.”

After completing 70 percent of his passes last week against the Atlanta Falcons, Manning was 13-of-23 for 151 yards and zero touchdowns.

“(Eagles) did a good job,” Manning said. “They got good pressure and we didn’t win many one-on-one matchups. … They just had good coverage and I held the ball a little too long and I have to do a better job on some instances of getting the ball out and getting through my progressions a little quicker.”

Eagles cornerback Cary Williams said the goal of the secondary was to come out and establish a physical presence against the Giants receivers to help throw of Manning’s timing and allow the front seven the chance to attack the quarterback.

“We were able to get some hands on those guys and disrupt the timing,” Williams said. “The front seven did a tremendous job getting in those windows, putting their hands up and pressuring them and making the pocket muddy and he wasn’t getting too many lanes to throw in and that made our jobs easier.”

With the Giants best running back Rashad Jennings out with an MCL in his knee, New York could not muster a running game against the Birds defense. The Eagles held the Giants to just 85 yards rushing.

The finest moment of the game for the Eagles defense came in the third quarter. After intercepting a Nick Foles pass deep in Eagles territory, the Giants drove the ball down to the Eagles three-yard line and decided to go for it on fourth down and came up short when Manning’s pass sailed over Victor Cruz’s head.

“Our defense goes out in the field and doesn’t give them any points and then our offense goes out on the field and has a 97-yard drive for a touchdown,” said head coach Chip Kelly. “It’s something to build upon. …We’re pleased with the performance tonight.”

Meanwhile, running back LeSean McCoy found his rushing mojo, gaining a-season high 149 yards rushing on 22 carries. Foles threw touchdown a pair of first- half touchdown passes to Zach Ertz and James Casey. He was 21-of-34 for 248 yards, but also threw a pair of interceptions.

Kicker Cody Parkey added a couple of field goals to give the Eagles a 20-0 lead at halftime.

Running back Darren Sproles scored on a 15-yard touchdown in the third quarter. He left the game with a left knee injury later in the period. The severity of the injury is yet to be determined. Cruz left the game with a torn patella on the Giants failed fourth and goal play in third quarter.

An Unlikely ALCS Matchup: Baltimore and Kansas City

10 Oct
The Orioles and Royals will have plenty of run-ins like this during the 2014 ALCS.

The Orioles and Royals will have plenty of run-ins like this during the 2014 ALCS.

By Barry Fedorovitch

For the Chris Murray Report

 

Exhaust all your metaphors about Freud, melatonin and the 13 movies that go by the same name. But make no bones about it.

The 2014 American League Championship Series is the Dreamers’ Series, an unlikely clash of two teams that have gone a combined 60 years since their last World Series appearances and yet have swept their way to within four victories of ending that drought.

The wild-card Kansas City Royals travel to Camden Yards to take on the A.L. East champion Baltimore Orioles Friday night to begin a best-of-seven series that is incredibly the first time the two have met in a postseason matchup. Note the long list of near-misses between the teams in the 1970’s and 80’s:

1973: O’s win A.L. East; Royals are second in A.L. West.
1975: Both teams finish second.
1976: Royals win A.L. West; O’s are second in A.L. East.
1977: A repeat of 1976 with the O’s finishing even closer (only 2.5 games behind the first-place Yankees).
1979: O’s win A.L. East; Royals finish second in A.L. West.
1980: Royals reclaim A.L. West title, but this time the O’s fall back, finishing second in the A.L. East (behind the Yankees) despite winning 100 games.
1982: Both teams finish second by narrow margins (the O’s by one game and Royals by three games, respectively).
1983: O’s win the A.L. East; Royals finish second in A.L. West.

That’s eight times in 11 seasons where both teams were either in or on the cusp of the postseason and yet somehow didn’t meet. In all eight cases, both teams entered the season considered a good team (with the most unlikely finish probably being the Royals’ second place in 1973 when the White Sox and A’s were considered co-favorites), ironic in that few pundits would have predicted this year’s clash.

Fueled by their league-leading 153 stolen bases (the same number they pilfered in 2013), the Royals won 89 games, three more than in 2013. Even more surprisingly was the emergence of the Orioles, who actually hit one fewer homer in 2014 (211), but improved by 11 games to run away with the East.

On the surface, that means a clash of opposites: the Royals’ speed versus the Orioles’ power.

The similarities between the teams? Underrated pitching and air-tight defense, the latter which could be a deciding factor in what figures to be a very tight series.
Just look at the respective outfields and you can understand why these teams are playing for the right to play in the World Series.

In Nick Markakis, the Orioles have the only regular right fielder in the American League who didn’t make an error this season. Markakis also led the league in putouts at the position and is flanked by Adam Jones, a Gold Glove centerfielder.
And yet has any recent outfield looked any more impressive in the field than the Royals did in the ALDS against the stunned Angels? In Nori Aoki, Lorenzo Cain and Alex Gordon, Kansas City offered a defense that would have made Seattle’s Legion of Boom proud, stealing would-be bloop hits by the bushel and denying extra-base hits at every turn to the point of completely dominating the team with baseball’s best record.

During the regular season, the Royals won four of seven, but it’s almost as if they didn’t meet at all since it’s been so long; their last matchup was May 18. Four of those seven games were decided by one or two runs, which could hint at the tense nature of the series that lies ahead.

It’s not the marquee big-market series television may have wanted, but it could be exciting and at the very least will be the end of a long drought for one city that dares to dream of a championship.

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2014 ALCS: Who Will End Their World Series Drought? Orioles or Royals

10 Oct

By Barry Federovitch

For The Chris Murray Report

Baltimore;s Adam Jones and Alex Gordon for the Royals.

Baltimore;s Adam Jones and Alex Gordon for the Royals.

Somebody’s gonna hurt someone before the night is through. Somebody’s gonna come undone. There’s nothing we can do – The Eagles ‘’Heartache Tonight’’

Whose misery will end this week?

Do you prefer the Kansas City Royals, who haven’t won the World Series in 29 years, since George Brett was their regular third baseman and Bret Saberhagen was their ace? Or are you pulling for the Baltimore Orioles, who haven’t won since they took down the Phillies’ Wheeze Kids in 1983, but haven’t played in the Fall Classic in 31 years?

Underdog vs. Underdog in the 2014 American League Championship Series. But only one can win and given what we just saw in twin sweep upsets in the ALDS, it’s not readily apparent who that will be. The more you look at the best-of-seven series that begins at Camden Yards Friday, the more you can become confused.

But all emotion aside, these are very different teams with diametrically opposed reasons for optimism that they will represent the A.L. in the 2014 World Series.

WHY THE ORIOLES WILL WIN

1. They’re the better team- The most debatable point. They’re missing Manny Machado, Chris Davis and Matt Wieters, all key components, but they won the ever-tough A.L. East going away, while the Royals had to scramble to claim a wild-card berth. The O’s won 96 games, tied with the Nationals for second-best record in baseball behind the Angels (compared to 89 for the Royals) and really have done the most to this point.

2. They have the best manager- Royals skipper Ned Yost has done a nice job, but is frequently under criticism for his moves (particularly in the wild-card playoff against Oakland). Buck Showalter? Considered the best bet for the Manager of the Year Award, masterfully manipulating a lineup all season that on paper doesn’t even look like a playoff team. When push comes to shove, who will make the moves that make the difference? This year, no one’s been better than Buck.

3. The Orioles have homefield advantage- Rarely a key point, but possibly significant in a series where the two teams will have strong sentiment on their side. The O’s were a healthy 50-31 at Camden Yards this year and should the series go seven games would have the deciding game at home. The Royals were a strong 47-34 on the road (so this could be a push), but at a mediocre 42-39 at the K could have a tough time sweeping the middle three games in Kansas City.

4. The Orioles have the power edge: The Royals may preach speed, but would not have gotten past the Angels without timely homers by Eric Hosmer and Matt Moustakas in the ALDS. Continuing hot streak or brief aberration? The Royals only hit 95 homers this year, fewer than half of Baltimore’s 210, which is usually fully exploited by Camden Yards.

5. Chris Tillman gives the O’s an edge- Both bullpens are great and intuitively the better bullpen wins most series. But in Game 1 starter Chris Tillman, the O’s may have a pitcher who can stymie the Royals. In his lone start against KC this year, he spun a five-hit shutout. Tillman also beat the Royals in one outing in 2013 and hasn’t lost to them in over two years, possibly a key factor since he should start twice in the series.

WHY THE ROYALS WILL WIN

1. They are the hottest team- Among the four remaining playoff teams, no one is clicking all-around like the Royals right now. They can steal seven bases in a game, hit big extra-inning homers, get dominant starting pitching and/or strong relief. They beat the Angels by winning in many ways, which is the easiest path to a championship.

2. Speed doesn’t slump- A key unpredictable factor in any postseason series is weather. Will the wind blow in during key games and neutralize the power of both clubs? Or will wet conditions slow the track and take away the stolen base? More likely the Royals, who led the A.L. in stolen bases, are less prone to slumps. They have speed up and down their lineup (compared to the O’s, who virtually never utilize the stolen base) and are great at making something out of nothing (they were second in baseball in infield hits with 158). Neither team walks a lot, but if you keep the ball in the park, the Royals have a clear edge.

3. The Royals know they can beat the O’s- It was a small sample size, but the Royals won the season series (4-3). Most significant in this was that the Royals won two of three in Baltimore (where the series begins and may end). KC has already shown that it isn’t intimidated by loud postseason road crowds, but it helps to have a positive history in Baltimore.

4. Big Game James- Neither side is long on postseason experience, but it may help the Royals to have James Shields, a veteran of many big September and October clashes during his time with the Rays. Shields could be matched up twice with Chris Tillman this series and just a split in the first two games in Baltimore will go a long way toward giving the Royals the edge in the series.

5. Greg Holland- Most postseason series come down to who blows a game or two in the later innings. In Greg Holland, the Royals possess what may be the best closer in the game. Holland was 1-3 with a 1.44 ERA and 46 saves this year and hasn’t given up a hit in four postseason innings. Going back to last year, Holland has been as good as any reliever in the Junior Circuit and could be the difference if games are decided in the ninth inning.

Conclusion: One hidden factor is homers allowed, an area KC had a clear edge this season (Royals pitchers allowed 128 homers compared to 151 surrendered by the O’s). Add the league’s best eighth-inning man (Wade Davis, 9-1, 1.00) and it might just be enough for the Royals to take the series in seven games.

NFC East More Competitive Than Anticipated

10 Oct

By Chris Murray
For the Chris Murray Report and the Philadelphia Sunday Sun

Both LeSean McCoy and Nick Foles have struggled so far in 2014. Photo By Webster Riddick.

Both LeSean McCoy and Nick Foles have struggled so far in 2014. Photo By Webster Riddick.

PHILADELPHIA—When we looked at the NFC East before the 2014 season, all the sports pundits (myself included) and experts said it would be among the NFL’s weakest divisions and it was given that the Eagles were going to win the division easily.

Five games into the season, it’s starting to look like the NFC East race is going to be a lot more competitive than what we thought and it’s definitely not the worst division in the NFL.

On Sunday night at Lincoln Financial Field, the Eagles (4-1) will take on a resurgent New York Giants (3-2) squad that’s won three straight after losing their first two games.

Meanwhile, the Dallas Cowboys are the hottest team in the division with four straight wins after losing their season-opener to the San Francisco 49ers.

The Eagles are at the top of the division despite a struggling offense that’s missing center Jason Kelce and guard Evan Mathis. The Birds are winning despite the fact that quarterback Nick Foles hasn’t played as well this year as he did last year.

So far, Foles is having an up and down year. He has eight touchdown passes and he’s averaging 276 yards per game. But he has nine turnovers-five interceptions and four fumbles. Foles has also had some bad starts in games and he has missed open receivers.

“There’s been times when he’s had to get the ball in a little quicker manner than we’d like,” said Eagles offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur. “There are times where he’s had some bad footing. I’d go to one area of the game (against the Rams) where we missed what appeared to be an easy throw to Jordan Matthews, then he followed it up by ripping a seam ball to Mac (Jeremy Maclin) on the next play.”

The Birds running game has not been the explosive force that it was last season. McCoy has yet to rush/ for over 100 yards in five games this season. He’s averaging just 2.9 yards per carry and just one touchdown. He had his best game of the season in

Sunday’s win over the St. Louis Rams when he gained 81 yards rushing on 24 carries
Running back Darren Sproles has provided a spark for the Eagles—both catching the football, running the ball and on special teams. Two of the Eagles wins have been sparked big plays by Sproles.

The Eagles special teams have been a big factor in the team’s wins. The Birds have produced four special teams touchdowns—a kickoff return by Chris Polk and a punt return by Sproles. They’ve also had two blocked punts for touchdown. Rookie placekicker Cody Parkey is 10-for-11 in field goals including two from beyond 50 yards.

While the Eagles defense rank 29th in the NFL in total defense, they have forced turnovers-two have turned into scores. But they are missing linebacker Mychal Kendricks, who has a sore calf and DeMeco Ryans who has a groin injury, but had limited participation in practice on Thursday.

Meanwhile, the New York Giants will come into Sunday’s game against the Birds on a roll. Thanks to the performance of Eli Manning, who’s starting to get the hang of offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo’s West Coast offense.

After struggling in losses to the Detroit Lions and the Arizona Cardinals, Manning has tossed eight touchdown passes against one interception in wins over the Houston Texans, Washington and the Atlanta Falcons. His quarterback rating has been above 100 in each of the last three games. He completed 70 percent of his passes against the Falcons.

Eli Manning has had a passer rating 100 or better in three straight Giants wins.

Eli Manning has had a passer rating 100 or better in three straight Giants wins.

Manning also has a variety of receivers including Victor Cruz, who leads the team in receiving yards. Grambling State alum Larry Donnell is having a breakout year at the tight end position and leads the team in receptions (25) and receiving touchdowns with four.

The Giants can also run the football as well. Rashad Jennings leads the team in rushing with 396 yards on the ground and is averaging 4.4. yards per game. Those numbers make him fourth in the NFL in rushing. Jennings will probably miss Sunday’s games against the Eagles because of an MCL sprain.

Rookie Andre Williams will start in his place against the Eagles. The former Boston College star and Heisman Trophy finalist has 131 yards rushing and two touchdowns so far this season.

Defensively, New York ranks 11th in the NFL against the run, but 27th against the pass. Despite that stat, the Giants secondary leads the league in interceptions.

Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray has 670 yards rushing.

Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray has 670 yards rushing.

Meanwhile in Dallas, the Cowboys are even on a bigger roll than the Giants, with four straight wins thanks to a powerful rushing attack led by DeMarco Murray, who leads the NFL in rushing with 670 yards.

With the exception of last Sunday’s overtime win over the Houston Texans when the Cowboys have run the ball more than they pass, they’ve won games including a big 38-17 a New Orleans Saints squad that blew them out last year.

Because Murray is chewing up yards on the ground, Romo can get the ball out to players Dez Bryant and Jason Witten. The Cowboys are going to make plays in the passing game, but they don’t have to do it on every down and put all the burden of winning on Romo.

The success of the running game has also made it easier for the Cowboys’s 24th ranked defense that everyone said would be the worse in the NFL. It’s still not the best in the world, but it’s not as bad as we thought.

While we still have a long way to go, the NFC East is going to be a dogfight again and there’s always a strong possibility that Washington (1-4) could run off a few wins before it’s said and done.

It’s not going to be a cakewalk for anybody and it’s going to be a dogfight that could go down to the wire.

Phillies Need to Face the Reality of Rebuilding

1 Oct

By Chris Murray
For the Chris Murray Report and the Philadelphia Sunday Sun

Cole Hamels had a career best 2.46 ERA, but didn't get enough run support in 2014. Photo by Webster Riddick.

Cole Hamels had a career best 2.46 ERA, but didn’t get enough run support in 2014. Photo by Webster Riddick.

PHILADELPHIA—During the early part of the 2014 season, the Phillies left you with the impression that they could just have timely hitting, good defense and good pitching on a consistent basis, they were close to being a contender in the National League East.

It was something General Manager Ruben Amaro Jr. believed and it was something manager Ryne Sandberg talked about even after nights when the Phillies offense came up short or the starting pitching put them in a deep hole from which they could not recover.

That was not only wishful thinking on part of Amaro and Sandberg, it was downright delusional.

Instead, the Phillies did what bad teams usually do, play well in one aspect of their game and suck in some other part. That was the most consistent aspect of the Phillies in 2014 and it resulted in the team’s last place finish (73-89) in the NL East.

To be honest, this season was doomed from the start, going back to the off-season when the most significant free agents signings were aging, over 30-something veterans like pitcher A.J. Burnett and outfielder Marlon Byrd.

While the latter actually had a decent season, the former pitched like the 37-year-old man he was during the season.

Burnett won just two games after the All-Star break and finished the season 8-18 with a 4.59 earned run average. The team also didn’t have left-handed starter Cliff Lee, who finished his season on the disabled list, for most of the season.

Right-handed starting pitcher Kyle Kendrick (now a free agent) was hot and cold, often struggling to get out of the first inning.

The only bright spots for the Phillies in 2014 were Cole Hamels, who got little help from his offense, and the young bullpen. Hamels had a career best 2.46 ERA, but finished 9-9 and often lacked run support. He also had a no-hitter he shared with two other pitchers.

The Phils offense was a constant problem all year outside of Byrd, who led the team in home runs and lead-off hitter Ben Revere, who batted .307 and tied for the National League lead in hits.

Unfortunately, Amaro’s resurgence of the “Wheez Kids” was a monumental failure and it’s painfully obvious that change has to come, especially on offense.

That means that it’s time for the Phillies to come to the realization that Amaro has been avoiding for a long time—it’s time to say a fond farewell to the now 30-something guys who won the 2008 World Series whose best days are collectively behind them.

Ryan Howard struggles hurt the Phillies offense in 2014. Photo by Webster Riddick.

Ryan Howard struggles hurt the Phillies offense in 2014. Photo by Webster Riddick.

Of course, the hardest player for the Phillies to move will be first baseman Ryan Howard, who will be 35 in 2015, because the team still owes him $60 million. No one around baseball wants to take on that salary.

Howard is coming off a season where he batted just .223 with 23 homeruns and 95 runs batted in with a league-leading 190 strikeouts. It was the first time since 2011 that Howard has played more than 150 games in a season.

After struggling through a myriad of leg injuries over the last couple of years, it was an accomplishment for Howard to finish the season. While those injuries are fully healed, I don’t think Howard was ever 100 percent back to himself from a baseball perspective.

That said, I think a change of scenery to an American League team where he can be a designated hitter might do him some good and even bring about resurgence in his career.

Meanwhile, shortstop Jimmy Rollins and second baseman Chase Utley have no-trade clauses in their contract. Rollins, the Phillies all-time leader in hits, told reporters back in June that he would be open to a trade if the team goes into complete rebuilding mode.

Guess what? That time is here.

Utley, who struggled in the second half of the season, should consider waiving his no-trade clause as well because it’s going to be a long time before this team is a contender again. I don’t know if Utley will like playing for a young, rebuilding team.

Out of the Phillies younger players that have come out of their system in the last year or so, third baseman Cody Asche was the only one who solidified a starting spot next year in the Phils starting lineup. There’s also talk that prospect Maikel Franco could be on the roster next year.

The Phillies will likely part ways with Domonic Brown, who had an awful season and regressed as a hitter. He batted .235 with just 10 home runs, 63 runs batted in and an on-base percentage of .285. In 2013, Brown had a .272 average with 27 homers, 83 RBI, and a .324 on-base percentage.

The Phillies will have a solid bullpen next year with a solid corps of young arms led by hard-throwing righthander Ken Giles, who will be the team’s next closer if they can’t find a suitor for Jonathan Papelbon, who served a seven-game suspension near the end of the season for an obscene gesture. He saved 39 of 43 games in 2014.

Giles, whose fast ball was clocked at 100 miles per hour, had a 1.18 earned run average in 44 games and had a 3-1 record with one save.

Amaro himself is on the clock in 2015—the final year of his contract. He has to figure out a way to get this ship going in the right direction for next year and beyond.

If he doesn’t, Amaro will be given his walking papers the same way former assistant general manager for amateur scouting Marti Worlever got his near the end of the 2014 season.

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