By Bill Campbell

Phillies Pitching:

Before concentrating on the Eagles and becoming immersed in football, we should look back and attempt to understand how the Phillies’ pitching staff has eroded in such a short time.

Two years ago, in the 2011 season, the Phils’ pitching staff had an ERA of 3.02, the lowest for any major league team in 22 years. The current staff entered the weekend with a mark of 4.29 ERA. They have not ended a season with the worst figure in the league since 1992. This isn’t the only problem on the club to be sure.

Their offense has averaged 3.77 runs per game, 29th in the majors. The future is not shrouded in optimism either. Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee anchor the starting rotation, but the rest of the staff is anyone’s guess. That team of 2011 may not ever come close to being recreated. It has a bunch of impressive arms and they would have to become supremely lucky to form a competitive line.

Roy Halladay appears to have reached the end of the road. He has earned $40 million in the last 2 seasons but the erstwhile ace has pitched 209 innings to the tune of a 5.06 ERA since 2012 and is now using the month of September as a quasi-tryout in advance of free agency.

Says General Manager, Ruben Amaro, “He will have the off-season to get his proper rest and start his prodigious program that is part of his make-up and we’ll just have to wait and see what happens.”

Kyle Kendrick had an impressive first half of the season but has a 5.82 ERA in his last 15 starts. Cuban right-hander Miguel Gonzalez just signed a 3-year deal for $12 million and the Phillies are relying on him to start 2014. We really don’t know what to expect there.

Jonathan Papelbon was signed to a $50 million contract but, as the summer has worn on, he’s shown undeniable signs of fading. Papelbon’s deal is the highest ever paid for a relief pitcher in baseball history, surpassing even that of Mariano Rivera who is concluding his career at the end of this season.

Clearly, the pitching rotation and the bullpen will require major reforming over the winter. Changes will be made at other levels inside the Phillies, too. Longtime minor league pitching coordinator, Herman Heimueller, has been fired after 11 years in that job and Rich Dubee, Charlie Manuel’s pitching coach here, is in the last year of his contract and faces an uncertain future. There’s no doubt that the Phillies will be in the headlines, if not in the playoffs, over the next weeks and months.

Riley Cooper, Cary Williams and the Eagles:

There was a dust-up between Eagles receiver, Riley Cooper, and cornerback, Cary Williams, in a practice game last week leading up to the Redskins game. It seems to have been an off-shoot of the racist language that Cooper used at a security guard while attending a Kenny Chesney concert early in the summer – and the fallout which was poorly handled by Eagles management. When the story first hit, Cooper apologized to his teammates and coaches, took some time off but returned to camp within a few days. The matter seemed to have been addressed, albeit poorly, and faded away.

Last Thursday the team stated that this was just a verbal exchange between two guys during practice. Players get in screaming matches all the time and this one appeared, at first, to be just that. During a one-on-one, Cooper ran a short pass route on which Williams went over the top of the receiver to break up the play. Both players went to the ground but came up shoving one another with Williams getting Cooper’s face mask off before being separated from him by other players including Michael Vick. That might have been the end of it except that Williams compounded the problem by, according to one player, adding to his comments some racially-charged remarks which only served to remind many that Cooper was involved in the same poor choice of words not so long ago.

So this conflict wasn’t a mere “verbal exchange”.

All of this serves to remind us that, despite the racially charged nature of his language, Cooper merely was fined by management despite many calls for further discipline such as suspension or release. The Eagles were criticized for their weak handling of the incident in July and now they deserve it for their feeble handling of Williams. An African American, Cary Williams came to the Birds as a free agent from Baltimore, known for his more than aggressive play on the field and fiery temperament. The temper took over last week but Eagles took no measures against him after this melee. Apparently, they’d rather that both Cooper’s and Williams’ names fade into the background over the weekend as the 2013 season opened. Neither player had much to say after the incident, only assuring the press that all is well in the Eagles locker room. So we moved on to watch the first game in the career of new head coach, Chip Kelly.

A Look at the NFL:

Since the season is underway, it’s time to dust off the old periscope and try to determine who will be the teams to watch in the National Football League. I hope it works better than its performance in the baseball races.

In the NFL East, I thought the Washington Redskins would open with a victory over the Eagles but I was, happily, wrong. I’ll discuss that game in depth next week. But the Redskins are all about their quarterback. If he can stay healthy, Robert Griffin III should have a big season and his days with his coaching staff should have served to sharpen all of his considerable skills. The Redskins should have most of their players back though they will miss cornerback, Angelo Hall. But they should welcome wide receiver Donte Stallworth and, if they don’t incur serious injuries, the Redskins could win 10 games. Their stiffest competition should come from the Dallas Cowboys who also have a shot at winning 10 this year. The New York Giants and the Eagles should play around 500 though the Birds fast start on Monday night causes me to reconsider that. It will be interesting on the local scene to see how the Eagles change on defense from a 4-3 to a 3-4 unfolds. If they can make that adjustment and also put as strong an offense on the field as some say they will, who knows? The Birds might be the surprise team, not only in the NFC East but in the NFL itself.

In the NFL North, it might be a 3-team struggle all season among Green Bay, Minnesota and Chicago. Datoine Jones at defensive end should be Green Bay’s major addition and the biggest loss is their strong safety, Charles Woodson. With Aaron Rodgers at quarterback, the Packers should be sharp. It’s their defense that has to measure up. I think they will make but not seriously dominate the playoffs. The Bears lost Brian Urlacher and he’ll also be missed. Minnesota will be in the running and do well if Christian Pander plays like he did last year. Not to mention the kind of year the Vikings could have if Adrian Peterson has another great year. If he does, they could win the division. The NFL North is hard to predict because every team but the Detroit Lions is so evenly matched.

In the NFL South, the Atlanta Falcons should dominate with New Orleans, Carolina and Tampa Bay following behind. The Panthers ended their 2012 season by winning 6 of their last 7 and could pick up where they left off. Sean Payton returns to coaching the Saints this year and will run a good offense led by the formidable Drew Brees. So the Saints could surprise you as could the Buccaneers — but Atlanta should win going away.

In the NFL West, Seattle should win easily. San Francisco has replaced quarterback, Alex Smith, with Colin Kapernick and Andy Reid, out in Kansas City, got Smith. The 49ers must contend with the Cardinals, St. Louis Rams and the Arizona Cardinals. We don’t see that division too often and the Rams lost Steven Jackson from their running game. So that’s a toss-up. Breaking down the NFC brackets geographically is enough for the first week so we’ll take on the other divisions later.

New Names on the Roster:

There is a new tight end on the Eagles’ roster who will back up Brent Celek. His name is Zach Ertz. He’s played at fullback but this season the Eagles will use a base offense that includes 2 tight ends. Ertz is expected to see a lot of action at that position. Slot receiver, Jason Avant, also should get considerable playing time. The left tackle, of course, will be Jason Peters from whom the Eagles are expecting many great moments. He missed all of last season with a twice-ruptured Achilles tendon and his return should have significant impact on Chip Kelly’s plans. The only plus in the offensive line last season was the strong play of Evan Mathis, who now is considered one of the league’s finest guards. He should be even better with the return of Peters. And we can’t forget the return of Jason Kelce, who lost time to an injury early in the 2012 season. The line struggled in his absence. Also returning from injury is right guard Todd Herremans who should strengthen play whenever he’s on the field.

After a 2 year stint at right tackle on defense you will hear the name of Fletcher Cox mentioned a lot. It will be interesting to see whether he can produce as a 3-4 defender. And you should get yourselves ready for a 31-year-old tackle named Isaac Sopoaga, who comes here after 9 seasons with the 49ers where he spent 5 years as a starter. Trent Cole, Demeco Ryans and Mychal Kendricks are familiar to us but Cole has become a stand-up pass rusher. Ryans, whom the Texans traded last year, is now a middle linebacker in the 3-4. Kendricks was one of the most impressive players at camp this summer and he’ll be put to the test. Connor Barwin, who got a 6-year, $36 million deal, will be a starter on defense and Cary Williams already has gotten more than his share of publicity this week. Nate Allen figures to be the strong safety though there are still some questions about him. Bradley Fletcher should be the left cornerback, Donnie Jones is expected to fill in at punter and Alex Henery will continue kicking off. The lowest number, 2, will belong to quarterback Matt Barkley. The highest, 98, goes to Connor Barwin. You’ll have heard all of these names during the opening game but be assured the most mention will have gone to the two quarterbacks, Michael Vick and Robert Griffin III, and to Eagles coach, Chip Kelly. All of their opening performances were under the microscope and they gave us a lot to talk about.

More about that high-flying Eagles start next week. The Birds open at home against the Chargers on Sunday afternoon at 1:00 p.m.