2009 NFC East Preview: Eagles, Giants Create New Dichotomy

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2009 NFC East Preview: Eagles, Giants Create New Dichotomy
(Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

The NFC East was once the home of "smashmouth" football—Bill Parcells, Buddy Ryan, Tom Landry and Joe Gibbs.  Players such as Lawrence Taylor, Reggie White, Tony Dorsett and The Hogs became legends.

CBS and then FOX would dispatch their best announcing tandem—Pat Summerall and John Madden—to broadcast the key games with the same fervor used to cover political conventions.  Millions looked on from living rooms and taverns all across America. 

Football became America’s new pastime.

Those days are in the review mirror now, but the rivalries, the passion, and intense interest are greater than ever.  By 2010 all four franchises will be playing in state-of-the-art stadiums that will collectively host over 2.5 million fans annually.

2009 NFC East Analysis

All is right with the football world as this division is once again the cornerstone of the NFC, if not the NFL.  The Philadelphia Eagles, New York Giants, Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins have combined for a total of 19 Super Bowl appearances, winning 11.

Of the four clubs, only Philadelphia has yet to hoist the Vince Lombardi Trophy as NFL Champions.

That may be about to change.

Although the landscape has somewhat shifted, the NFC East still has its own brand of football.  That brand has a taste and a texture that is unmatched by any other division in sports. On any given Sunday (or Monday night) any one of the teams can beat any of the others regardless of record. They have not had a team finish with a losing record since 2006. They dominate the headlines and live in prime time.  

The current temperature of the division indicates that Philadelphia and New York will be battling for the top spot with Dallas and Washington hustling to keep up.  The Eagles and Giants are almost mirror images of one another, building through the draft and filling holes via free agency.  Both teams have stockpiled young talent over the past several years and now each club is enjoying the fruits of those efforts.  

The Cowboys and Redskins, meanwhile, have had shallow drafts and have made questionable personnel moves at the behest of their meddling owners. These clubs are still competitive, but they are feeling the downstream effects of those events.  That aside, Dallas and Washington rank 1-2 as the league’s most valuable franchises.

Philadelphia

Andy Reid is entering his 11th season as head coach.  The franchise has flourished under his stewardship, winning 97 games over the course of his tenure with five trips to the NFC Championship Game and a Super Bowl appearance.

Reid’s ride has not always been a smooth one. The ownership has volleyed more than one salvo in his direction over the years, but Reid has always managed to respond with winning seasons, although the heights continue to elude him.  His fortunes are directly tied to his talented, yet under equipped quarterback, Donovan McNabb.

As McNabb goes, so go the Eagles.  The front office has repeatedly asked him to do more with less, focusing their top picks on defense and trench warriors rather than skill players that can augment the passing game.  The proof in McNabb’s value is noticed when he is out of the lineup—the Eagles are a very ordinary team.

The past two seasons, that school of thought has changed.  GM Tom Heckert, along with Reid and other front office wheels realized they must give McNabb the proper tools in order for him to succeed.  Last season, they drafted Cal’s speedy wideout, DeSean Jackson. This season they traded up and grabbed Missouri’s Jeremy Maclin.  They also traded one of their first round draft picks to Buffalo in exchange for Pro Bowl tackle Jason Peters.

Jackson and Maclin will be in the mix with other solid receivers (WRs Jason Avant, Kevin Curtis and TE Brent Celek) plus rookie TE Cornelius Ingram from Florida.  The running game, which has been based on the sole efforts of Brian Westbrook in recent years, got a shot in the arm when the Eagles selected Pitt’s LeSean McCoy in the second round.

Bottom Line: There will be no excuses for offensive failures this season.

The Philadelphia defense suffered a key loss when Brian Dawkins left for Denver via free agency.  Dawkins is 36 now, but his leadership and passion will be what the Eagles will miss.  Other than that, defensive coordinator Jim Johnson is back with his pressure-based attack and plenty of young, quick, and able bodies to carry out the task.

The Eagles might be the league’s top team going into the 2009 season. They must overcome their fear of success and finally finish with a Super Bowl win. Lesser teams have done it.

Key Player: It has always been Westbrook, but now it becomes McNabb. He has the supporting cast to finally get it done.  It’s now or never.

Prediction: 13-3

New York

Tom Coughlin and Eli Manning arrived in 2004, and the New York Football Giants have made the playoffs every year after that—the only team in the NFL to have done so.  Since 2005, the Giants have a regular season record of 41-23 and a Super Bowl victory to speak of.

The past few years have seen the Giants lose key player after key player and still continue to forge on. Since Coughlin’s arrival Kerry Collins, Kurt Warner, Tiki Barber, Michael Strahan, Amani Toomer, Jeremy Shockey, Plaxico Burress, Gibril Wilson, Will Allen, Shaun Williams, Luke Petitgout, Derrick Ward, Ike Hilliard,  Reggie Torbor, Visanthe Shiancoe and Kawika Mitchell all left the club via free agency, retired or were dealt.

Through the in door came Eli Manning, Brandon Jacobs, Chris Snee, Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora, Barry Cofield, Ahmad Bradshaw, Kareem McKenzie, Steve Smith, Kevin Boss, Mathais Kiwanuka, Corey Webster, David Diehl, Shaun O’Hara, Kenny Phillips, Terrell Thomas, Mario Manningham, Aaron Ross, Michael Johnson and Domenik Hixon.

The Giants, like the Eagles, have gotten younger but also have gotten better. Snee and Tuck have become first team All-Pros.  Manning, O’Hara and special teamer Zak DeOssie were also Pro Bowlers last year along with the geriatric kicking duo of K John Carney and P Jeff Feagles.

This offseason, the Giants’ crisis-du-jour was the Plaxico Burress fiasco.  Once learning that Burress’ legal proceedings would most likely result with him becoming a guest of the state, they released him. It was a move that was a long time coming.  Burress had been insubordinate for years and had become the proverbial albatross around the club’s neck.  

GM Jerry Reese did not panic, even though Burress proved to be the linchpin to the Giants’ offense.  He assured the masses that "there are other ways to win in this league" and went to work.  Reese has been almost flawless at the draft table. Since he took the reins from Ernie Accorsi in 2007, every player drafted by Reese is still on the team’s roster.

The Giants had five of the first 100 picks in this year’s NFL Draft.  They chose three receivers (Hakeem Nicks, Ramses Barden and Travis Beckum), a pass-rushing linebacker (Clint Sintum) and an athletic offensive tackle (William Beatty).  This, along with the free agent signings of LB Michael Boley, defensive linemen Chris Canty, and Rocky Bernard, have upgraded the teams’ overall talent base.  This is quite an accomplishment for a team that has won 22 regular season games and a Super Bowl since 2007.

Overall, the outlook is positive. The pass rush is back.  They have a rotation of eight-or-nine quality players that will keep pressure coming at teams for 60 minutes. They have depth at every position now and their power running game will wear teams down.

Key Player:  It’s simple. Manning. If he plays mistake-free and hits the open man, the Giants can beat anyone. If he doesn’t, they can lose to anyone.

Prediction: 12-4

Dallas

The Cowboys are the story of a talented team that just can’t seem to succeed.  

Bill Parcells rescued them from the depths of the league just a few short years ago.  In 2003, owner Jerry Jones needed a football czar/coach to rescue his franchise from further freefall.  Parcells agreed to come aboard and restored order to America’s team.

The Cowboys, who had won only 23 games the previous four seasons, made the playoffs in Parcells’ first year. But the Cowboys were old and needed a complete overhaul. Parcells began to build through the draft and Dallas missed the playoffs in 2004 and 2005.  Jones became impatient.

He signed Terrell Owens and forced Parcells to work with him.  It would prove to be a fatal move.  Owens was a franchise-wrecking entity that left massive collateral damage in his previous two stops—San Francisco and Philadelphia.  His antics drove Parcells out of Dallas. 

Since Parcells’ departure, Jones began bringing in other players of questionable character as if he were choosing players from a police blotter rather than a waiver wire. Dallas signed Tank Johnson and Adam “Pacman” Jones, two players with multiple arrests.  Jones was back running the day-to-day football operations, an exercise that almost sunk him once before.  The Cowboys, after a 13-3 season in 2007, failed to qualify for the playoffs in 2008.

Realizing the error of his ways, Jones shed himself of all three players this past winter.  Now he would go back to the drawing board and replenish his team with younger, hungrier athletes.  But this was not the season to start such an initiative.  Jones traded the club’s first, third, and sixth round selections last year to Detroit for WR Roy Williams.  They are also moving into a new stadium, a development that carries with it even higher expectations.

At this year’s draft, the Cowboys elected to go with a "quantity over quality" strategy in which they traded picks in high rounds for multiple lower round selections.  The Cowboys chose 12 players but they did not start drafting until Sunday with the fifth selection in the third round.  They missed out on a ton of top talent. Experts rated the Cowboys’ draft a C+.

Wade Phillips is one of the most well liked people in all of professional football. He is a real gentleman and a coach that players like to play for. He treats everyone with respect and expects the same in return.

Unfortunately for the Cowboys, head coaches need to be more than that in this day and age.  Phillips does have a winning record (22-10) since relieving Parcells in 2007, but the team has still not won a playoff game since 1996 and there appears to be no edge or fire to the club.

Tony Romo is still more of a media star than he is an accomplished quarterback.  As far as QBs go, this writer believes Romo is a franchise one, a keeper.  He has excellent field sense and over the past few seasons he has proved to be a playmaker.  Owens’ presence smothered him more than helped him, but now that Owens is gone, expect Romo to realize the potential Parcells saw when he made him the starter. 

The running game is one football’s best. Marion Barber III and Felix Jones compliment each other perfectly.  Outside of All-Pro TE Jason Witten, Romo’s receiving options will have a lot to prove. That goes for Williams as well.

Defensively, Dallas has brought in some solutions at linebacker, and the pass rush is a good one.  Led by All-Pro DE DeMarcus Ware, the Cowboys’ racked up a league-leading 59 sacks in 2008.  The secondary is solid and the linebacker play should be improved with the signings of veteran free agents Keith Brooking and Igor Olshansky.  Dallas’ first selection in the draft was also a LB—Jason Williams of Texas Tech.

Overall, the Cowboys’ starters can hold their own with the league’s best. Their problem is depth and hopefully Jones’ massive import of collegians will satisfy that need.

Key Player: Williams.  This is a player that two franchises spent first round picks on.  He needs to be everything Owens was (on the field) and maybe more.  It's not his fault the Cowboys gave away the store for him, but he needs to put up Pro Bowl numbers to help the fans forget.

Prediction: 10-6

Washington

The history of the Redskins going back to the George Allen days has been one of sacrificing the future for success in the present.  A lot of that has still gone on under current owner Daniel Snyder, but to his credit he has also used the draft to his advantage.

The Redskins are the NFL’s most financially sound franchise. They fill the 90,000-plus seat Fed Ex Field every week and still have a 30-year waiting list for season tickets.  This allows Snyder the latitude to throw his hat in the ring for any free agent he feels can help the team. 

He has made bold moves with all of his personnel over the years from coaches to players.  The persuasive Snyder convinced the nation’s top college coach—Steve Spurrier—to come coach his team.  When that ended poorly, he lured Hall-of-Famer Joe Gibbs out of retirement.  

In 2004, he traded star cornerback Champ Bailey to Denver in exchange for RB Clinton Portis, a move that helped both clubs, but has helped Washington more.  He signed Lavernues Coles away from the Jets only to trade him back in exchange for WR Santana Moss, who has developed into a star.  More recently, Snyder brought in DE Jason Taylor—who stayed only a year—and then this winter signed DT Albert Haynesworth to the most lucrative contract ever given to a defensive player.

Jim Zorn is entering his second season as head coach. It is widely known that Zorn was not Snyder’s first choice at the time of his hiring. Zorn was hired as the offensive coordinator while Snyder conducted a search for a head coach, then elevated Zorn to the head job when the Giants’ Steve Spagnuolo withdrew his name from contention.  This offseason, it was rumored that Snyder had privately coveted deposed Denver Bronco coach Mike Shanahan.  These are difficult conditions for a coach to operate under.

Even with all the star power Snyder likes to employ, the Redskins have less overall talent than their three division rivals.  Portis and Moss are terrific. So is the reliable TE, Chris Cooley, but that is where it ends for them on the offense. 

Although QB Jason Campbell’s numbers are improving each year, he still only threw 13 TDs in 16 games in 2008.  Their offensive line, as usual, is amongst the leagues best, but there is no mystery to the Washington offense—they will run, run, run and pass only when forced to.

That’s not going to cut it in the NFC East.

The Redskins threw their iron in the fire when it was known that Jay Cutler was being shipped out of Denver.  They apparently did not have the pieces the Broncos wanted.  They also had a dalliance with USC QB Mark Sanchez, but the Jets muscled past everyone on draft day to grab him.  That means the Redskins will start Campbell again unless Zorn plays it safe with backup Todd Collins or takes a gamble on Hawaii star Colt Brennan.

Defensively, Washington has some sound players. Haynesworth will be expected to dominate in the middle like he did with Tennessee.  The only issue is that he is not an every down player.  For $100 million, that might change. 

First round pick, DE Brian Orakpo of Texas, was a steal at No. 13.  It would be great if Jason Taylor were coming back.  Instead of teaming Orakpo up with Taylor, this pick will serve to replace Taylor, leading one to ask how much was actually gained.  The signing of CB DeAngelo Hall for $55 million ($23 million of it guaranteed) has people questioning Snyder’s sanity.  

Overall, the Redskins are competitive outfit, but as one sportswriter coined it, “they are still fourth in a four-team division.”  If they get off to a slow start, heads could roll. But you already knew that.

Key Player – Campbell. He has to elevate his game, and fast. If he doesn’t, the fans will be calling for him to be benched. A QB controversy is never healthy; don’t ever believe that it is.  If Campbell breaks out, the Redskins will be a contender, but they still don’t have the defense right now to win a championship.

Prediction: 8-8

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