NFC East: A Preview

Matt CullenAnalyst IFebruary 9, 2009

It was thought by many coming into the 2008-2009 season that the NFC East was at least the best division in the conference if not the entire league. And when the Jaguars and Texans got off to rocky starts in the AFC South, it seemed like a sure thing.

There was a lot of reasons for this.

The Giants were the champs, while the Cowboys had the best record in the conference last year and also the most Pro-Bowlers. The Eagles had a lot of playoff experience, a ridiculous deep secondary to go with a good front seven and of course McNabb and Westbrook.

The Redskins had a huge overhaul in their coaching staff but still a very talented team on paper at least.

And though they didn't get three playoff teams like a lot of people seemed to think they would, I still think they are the best conference. Call me biased if you want, but I don't care, the Redskins aren't quite as good as I thought they would be before the year but the division is still very strong.

This isn't about which division is the best though, it's merely looking back at the NFC East and look ahead to the future. Lets start with the cream of the crop.


New York Giants: The reigning Super Bowl champs were expected to compete again in the NFC but the consensus seemed to be that with the departure of Michael Strahan and a season-ending injury to Osi Umenyioura, they would finish behind the Dallas Cowboys in the division.

In an almost New England Patriot-esque way, the Giants seemed to just plug players in and chug away. Lose Strahan and Osi? The Giants finished sixth in the league in sacks with Justin Tuck and Mathias Kiwanuka leading the way with 20.5 combined.

Lose Kawika Mitchell? Kawika who? The Giants still finished ninth against the run and the fifth best defense overall.

And what about that secondary? They get a good year out of rookie Kenny Phillips, Butler played well at the other safety, and contributions were received from Corey Webster and Michael Johnson to go along with Aaron Ross.

The reason why they were only almost New England Patiotesque? Plaxico Burresss accidentally shoots himself and the offense suffered dramatically from this.

Losing Plaxico was losing a guy with freakish athleticism that could out-leap corners and make great catches in the red zone as well as stretch the field. There was hope that Hixon could be the man that could stretch the field but he just is not Plaxico Burress.

Ultimately the Giants ended the regular season at 12-4 with the NFC East crown but with three of those four losses coming in the last four games. The Giants coming off a bye faced a hot Philadelphia Eagles team that was a lot more talented than their record indicated and the loss of Plaxico killed them in the end with Eli struggling mightily in the windy Meadowlands without his tall target.


What Now? 

It saddens me as a Cowboys fan to say this, but the Giants are pretty loaded. Obviously, they have to address the wide receiver solution. Plaxico Burress' potential sentence for criminal possession of a handgun carries a sentence of three years minimum and it is also starting to look like Amani Toomer may have played his last game as a Giant.

The only clear No. 1 type WR out there is TJ Houshmandzadeh & the New York Giants are one of six teams reportedly interested in the unrestricted free agent. I don't think he is the quite the safety blanket that Plaxico would be for Eli but he would be a fine addition still.

If they aren't able to land Housh, they also could look at Anquan Boldin as they are one of the few teams that are willing to give up a No. 1 for him.

Running backs Brandon Jacobs and Derrick Ward are also free agents.

In a perfect world, the Giants would love to lock them both back up. Hunch feeling is that Ward is gone as he can be offered the starters job elsewhere, the Giants need to bring Jacobs back though. He's quite a force physically weakening opposing front sevens and is faster than people give him credit for.

As long as they figure out the No. 1 wide receiver though and find a way to bring back Jacobs and OL Grey Ruegamer, they are pretty much set. The running game will still be lethal, Eli will put up solid numbers again, they will also have Osi back which allows Kiwanuka to move back to LB.

After that, just wait for Jerry Reese to put up another high-quality draft, and the Giants are a SB contender still.


Philadelphia Eagles: What did we learn this year? Do not count this group out of a playoff spot until they have been mathematically eliminated. The Philadelphia Eagles started the season expected by most to be the third best team in the NFC East and likely find themselves on the outside looking in.

Expectations raised a little after a vicious beating on the St. Louis Rams in Week One, giving the Dallas Cowboys a great game in Texas Stadium on Monday night in Week Two, and nearly sending Ben Roethlisberger to the morgue in Week Three.

They hit a little bit of a rocky patch after this though: Westbrook got hurt during the Steelers game and it would have its effect on the offense throughout the next couple of months.

The Eagles lost a close one at Chicago and a couple of divisional games against the Giants and Redskins at home, it was also taken notice that the team struggled in short yardage situations and lacked a strong running back that could get them the tough yards.

Then came Week 11 and 12. Week 11 will be remembered for their tie against a bad Bengals team, and McNabb not knowing there were ties in football. Then in Week 12, they looked all but buried after getting murdered by the Baltimore Ravens and McNabb found himself riding the bench in the second half.

This was the turning point of the season, as McNabb started to play more freely, he moved around in the pocket more, and Westbrook was healthy. They caught the Arizona Cardinals traveling to Philly on a short week and embarrassed them.

Then the Eagles won a must-win in the Meadowlands against the Giants, then they took care of business on Monday night against a woeful Cleveland Browns team, and though they took a small step back in Week 16 at Washington they would respond at home by murdering the Dallas Cowboys 44-6, propelling them to a Wild Card spot and knocking the Cowboys out.

The Eagles weren't done there, despite McNabb's struggles to hold onto the ball they were able to win in Minnesota against the Tarvaris Jackson-led Vikings. Then the Eagles won on the road against the Giants yet again thanks to a couple of key 4th and short stops and an awful game from Eli Manning, 23-11.

The road stopped the following week though, the Eagles offense caught fire in the 2nd half but it wasn't quite enough win a rematch against the Arizona in the NFC Championship Game, 32-25.


What Now?

The Eagles' big free agents include veteran Safety Brian Dawkins and veteran OTs Jon Runyan and Tra Thomas.

Expect the Eagles to do everything they can do bring Dawkins back to finish his career as an Eagle. Jon Runyan however is a major question mark, 35 years old and scheduled to have surgery on his right now pretty soon.

The Eagles need to get young with their offensive line. Notable guys that they could snag at the No. 23 pick in the draft include Eben Britton, William Beatty, or maybe even have Jason Smith fall to them.

Well, the talk about moving McNabb can end now. The Eagles would be nuts to trade him right now. As for his wide receivers, I think he has a receiving core that is better than given credit for but there isn't a No. 1 wideout. (Possibly DeSean Jackson but not yet at least.) Reports are that they like TJ Houshmandzadeh and that he likes them.

Eagles fans won't like this one, while they likely will bring him back I believe that Brian Dawkins Pro-Bowl this year was earned mostly on reputation. He can still put big hits on receivers but he's definitely lost it in coverage a little so I would also look to add a FS in the draft.

Also they should look at a fullback to help out Westbrook and to get some short yardage carries, possibly target at unrestricted free agent Leonard Weaver from the Seahawks.

For next year, this Philadelphia Eagles defense, if healthy, are the best in the NFC in my opinion. If they can keep Brian Westbrook healthy, acquire a short yardage back, and possibly add one more wide receiver and they should once again compete in the NFC East and possibly wind up playing for the NFC crown once again.


Dallas Cowboys: The Dallas Cowboys opened the year as the favorites to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.

They had a young QB in Tony Romo coming off a season where he shattered Troy Aikman's record for TD passes in a season, they drafted a rookie RB from Arkansas in Felix Jones, they had an elite TE in Jason Witten, three Pro-Bowlers on the offensive line, two OLB's in DeMarcus Ware and Greg Ellis expected to combine for 20+ sacks, Zack Thomas and Bradie James in the middle, a pretty good secondary led by CB Terrence Newman, and then there's that guy named Terrell Owens.

So what happened?

Well, Newman missed a good portion of the season followed by injuries to safety Roy Williams as well as his replacement, Patrick Watkins. They got a virtual zero out of Pacman Jones and not much out of Tank Johnson, who is probably better suited to be playing in a 4-3 defense like in Chicago.

We saw flashes from Felix Jones, but he also missed most of the year with injuries and Barber got hurt later in the year as well.

Oh, and about that Pro-Bowl filled offensive line, where did they go? Kozier couldn't stay healthy, Columbo stunk it up, and Flozell Adams went from nearly being just a false start machine to being completely useless as a human being. (Ok maybe a little harsh on Adams, but he was pretty awful.)

Of course a major turning point in the season came in Week Six: a tough loss in Arizona in OT, the loss of Tony Romo due to a broken pinkie, the loss of Felix Jones for the season, and the loss of a great punter in Mat McBriar for the season as well.

The Dallas Cowboys decided pretty quickly the year before after signing Brad Johnson that he just wouldn't cut it as a second string. After Richard Bartel was unable to get the back-up role, the Cowboys cut him and signed Brooks Bollinger.

It was too little too late though with Romo's injury they were forced to go with Brad Johnson for the three weeks Romo was out. If you heard people talking about how bad Johnson was...that's because he was that bad!

Granted Steven Jackson did shred the Cowboys defense the following week but Brad Johnson did single-handedly murder the Cowboys two weeks later at the Meadowlands with his seven drives going for 56 yards and two INT's. (Chalk on an Owen's fumble as well.)

The Giants converted the two INT's into scores and the Cowboys defense eventually wore out from being on the field too long late in the game.

It looked like things might turn for the Cowboys, the Cowboys won their first three games after Romo's return including a big win in Washington. After Thanksgiving though it all went down-hill.

The week that followed was at Pittsburgh where the Cowboys had a melt-down losing 20-13, they did beat the Giants on Sunday night but that was followed up by losing the final game in Texas Stadium against the Ravens and then the Eagles game already touched upon. (Worst loss since 1988)

A couple of positive notes on the season though: Jay Ratliff emerged as a monster at the nose-tackle position, DeMarcus Ware had an even better year than anticipated (20 sacks, the Cowboys also led the league in sacks), Tashard Choice emerged as a running back that can contribute on a weekly basis, giving the Cowboys a very strong running game with Felix Jones coming back next year, and I do feel that Brooks Bolling can be an adequate backup for Romo, provided he is re-signed.


What Now?

There really isn't a ton to address in the offseason as far as personnel is concerned. I'd like to see Wade Phillips gone but that won't happen; I'd like to see Jerry Jones take much less of a hands-on approach but that certainly won't happen. It mostly comes down to just coming through in big-game situations, there are a few needs though.

Zach Thomas is probably gone along with Kevin Burnett, so a linebacker on the inside to be paired with Bradie James is desired. Ray Lewis' name keeps coming up and he would be a perfect addition. Also rumored but less likely is an Urlacher for TO trade.

Also, if this doesn't work out, safety Roy Williams has expressed that he would be willing to move to linebacker. I think this would work out pretty well, Roy has been exposed in a big way as being shaky in pass coverage.

Marc Columbo recently signed for a four-year extension and Leonard Davis has a fine year beside him. They need to address the left side of the line. (Though I think Flozell Adams has a better season if Kyle Kozier.)

This is where it would be really nice if we had those picks from the Roy Williams trade with Lions. Call it the reverse Herschel Walker...that's not fair, Walker at least did something with the Vikings...Ok I guess he didn't do much, whatever I'm still angry over the deal.

Oh and regarding Terrell Owens...KEEP HIM!

This whole thing is getting ridiculous. The guy has hardly done anything wrong in the past two seasons. He was part of a meeting along with Roy Williams, Patrick Crayton, and OC Jason Garrett where some of the details got leaked. (Owens and Patrick Crayton are adamant that the entire story reported by Ed Werder is virtually a lie.)

There were his comments after the Washington loss where he said he should have gotten the ball more, which was ridiculous but it was just a bad reaction to a tough divisional loss.

That's not nearly enough to think about dumping a guy who is easily a top 10 wide receiver in the league still. And by all accounts, his relationship with Tony Romo is very strong unlike with Garcia and McNabb.

Nearly all of the controversy regarding TO this season was just the media blowing everything up.


Washington: A strange season for Washington as well that didn't get as much attention. Santana Moss was healthy and had a big year, Portis came into training camp in shape and it showed as his numbers went up. Despite this the offense didn't feel any less explosive.

The Redskins also added Jason Taylor to an already very good defense and they proceeded to somehow finish with nine fewer sacks than the previous season.

They drafted two highly touted wide receivers in Devin Thomas and Malcolm Kelly who combined for a whopping 18 receptions on the season.

The Washington Redskins started the season somewhat under the radar despite making the playoffs the season before but going switching your head coach along with your offensive and defensive coordinator can do that.

The offense sure looked like they were learning a new system in Week One in a 16-7 loss on the road to the Giants. Things swung in the Redskins' favor pretty quickly though winning five of their next six including road wins against the Cowboys and Eagles.

It all went down-hill after that. The offensive line was exposed as a major weakness. Clinton Portis got hurt, they couldn't rush the Quarterback and they also played a tough schedule the next five weeks. (Pittsburgh, Dallas, at Seattle, Giants, at Baltimore.)

The Redskins would lose four of those five games and then a loss at Cincinnati buried them, after starting off 6-2, the Redskins would finish 8-8 and last in the NFC East.


What Now?

Offensive line should be at the top of the list for the Washington Redskins to address. Jon Jansen is on his last leg at RT, Pete Kendall is a free agent as well as being old and may not be back.

Obviously when you have only 24 collective stats as a team, you should look towards acquiring a pass rusher. Peppers is available but would rather play in a 3-4 defense.

In the draft they could look at DT Peria Jerry and possibly even trading down to get a monster of a DE in Michael Johnson, whose stock is falling due to a bad bowl game but he can definitely rush the passer.

Also, something that is not getting talked about a lot but Clinton Portis has a ton of carries under his belt. Portis will be 28 by the time next season starts and has had 340+ carries in each of the last five years.

If I were Washington, I would start to look for his replacement pretty soon or at least someone to split carries with.


Very early predictions: Washington will probably find themselves fourth again. I think Portis is going to be on the way down soon and it will take a couple of years probably to fix that offensive line. I do like Jason Campbell though, his development will continue with the improvement of the line.

Ray Lewis would do a lot of good for the Dallas Cowboys, a defense that despite so much scrutiny finished eighth in the league with Newman missing a little more than half of the season.

This may be a case of having too many weapons on offense, I would like Dallas to take advantage of having now three good running backs and run the ball a lot.

However, with a guy like Romo and the plays he can make with his feet along with Witten, Owens, and Roy Williams, it wouldn't be hard for the Cowboys to get sidetracked and abandon the run.

Is Jerry Jones interested in winning? Sure, but he's more interested in reality TV shows and style.

Can the Dallas Cowboys win a big game in the playoffs though? I'll believe it when I see it.

The Philadelphia Eagles are loaded, best defense in the NFC, one of the top running games and if they get a wide receiver like Boldin or Houshmandzadeh then watch out.

My gut feeling though is that they won't win the division because Westbrook has had a hard time staying healthy through the season the last couple of years and the offensive line is aging. Also, will we see more of Andy Reid abandoning the run in games like in the past couple years? I would imagine that we would


So, for my very early NFC East predictions:

1.New York Giants 13-3

2.Dallas Cowboys 11-5 (Wild Card)

3.Philadelphia Eagles 9-7

4.Washington Redskins 7-9


Obviously very premature on predictions, a lot of stuff may happen in free agency, the draft, and possible injuries in the preseason. If I had to say now though I think it would look like this. Only one thing is for sure though; it will be another interesting year in the NFC East.


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