The NFC East is a strange beast. It seems each season is a long race to find out who has the most guts and most depth. The Eagles trampled the opposition from in the early parts of the decade, then New York finally won it in 2005, then the Eagles in 2006, followed by the Cowboys in 2007.
The Giants steamrolled to victory in 2008, only to be steamrolled by Philly in the playoffs. Washington has had strong starts to their seasons the last couple of years, but will need to avoid those late collapses to ever get back to winning the East title.
It is hard to remember a season where at least two of the teams in this division did not go to the playoffs, and this year should not be any different.
Whoever comes out alive will either be too banged up to win it all, or have survived a worse beating than any AFC opponent can offer.
Lets start with the weakest link the last several years.
The Redskins have gone through several personnel changes the last few seasons, most of which have consisted of head coach, offensive coordinator, and quarterback. Washington now has the following established, at least for the next year:
- Jim Zorn is the head coach
- Sherman Smith is the offensive coordinator
- Jason Campbell is the quarterback
Jason Campbell spent his first three seasons as a starter in three different offensive systems. Now in his fourth year starting, Campbell can find comfort in the fact he has the same coach and playcaller he did last year, and that the west coast scheme he spent last offseason growing accustomed to is still in place.
He may not find comfort in the fact that he was nearly traded in favor of Jay Cutler, and only time will tell if his team’s brass likes him enough to give him a real shot.
Campbell can be injury prone, as he proved when he forced Todd Collins into the starting spot in 2007. He has improved his accuracy and decision making, but that hasn’t translated into wins thus far.
He still can be erratic, but that may also come with the territory of never knowing just what is over the horizon. He plays behind an above average offensive line, and has two very capable backs who do not seem to mind sharing the load.
Look for Ladell Betts to get more carries this year, as Clinton Portis has started to slow and has always been injury prone. Campbell has two very talented wideouts in Santana Moss and Antwan Randel El, but neither has proved to be a weekly game changer.
Chris Cooley is as safe a target as they come, but he rarely beats teams deep. He will at least not be slowed by the weight of his wild hairdo anymore, and that is a good thing.
The Redskins drafted two young wideouts last year in Devin Thomas and Malcolm Kelly, but neither has seen much playing time. A third option needs to step in if this offense is going to produce through the air.
The story on defense is lacking as well. The ‘Skins are still searching for Sean Taylor’s replacement, and until they find a true hard hitting safety a la Troy Palamalu, they will be short.
LaRon Landry, Carlos Rogers, and DeAngelo Hall help bolster a secondary in much need of improvement, and the addition of Albert Haynesworth on the D-Line should pressure the QB and take some pressure off of the defensive backfield.
The Redskins have no reason they can’t duplicate their .500 season of a year ago, but it might be hard to overcome much higher expectations than that. Look for them to finish at the bottom of the division, and miss the playoffs.
New York Giants
Eli Manning and the offense will need to be carried by the defense if they are to have any hopes of duplicating last years success. The 2008 Giants began their title defense with smash mouth football, thanks in large part to their three man running attack more commonly known as “Earth, Wind, and Fire”.
The wind is gone now, as Derrick Ward was allowed to leave via free agency. That makes a thunder and lightning tandem now, starring Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw. This two man show worked well for Tiki Barber and Jacobs in 2006, so it should work now.
The offense should be fine as far as running goes, as they still have one of the best O-lines in the league, even if their depth stinks. It’s the passing game that has me worried, as Eli was unable to find consistent playmakers once Plaxico shot himself in the foot (figuratively) and in the thigh (literally).
Plaxico is facing jail time now, and has been released from the team. Also cut was Amani Toomer, the only real other consistent target Eli had.
Now Steve Smith must move into the No. 1 role, and only he will know if he is ready. Hakeem Nicks is the heir apparent to Plaxico, but we will have to see if his numbers at UNC will translate into NFL TD’s.
The Giants made an unsuccessful move for Braylon Edwards prior to the draft, and that would have been a good thing. Apparently Cleveland wanted too much compensation, but can you really put a price on a championship? Without a proven veteran wideout, I don’t forsee this Giants team going very far on offense.
Defense is another story.
The Giants welcome back Osi Umenyiora from season long injury, and Justin Tuck has had another year to get comfortable. The Giants defense was very strong last year, and could be even tougher in years to come if the trio of Osi, Tuck, and Antonio Pierce can all be healthy for an entire season.
The secondary is still young, but full of passion and talent. Corey Webster is rapidly becoming one of the better cover corners in the league, and the loss of Sam Madison is probably one year too late.
This defense still consists of the primary playmakers that helped win the Super Bowl a year ago, and that should help out a fizzling offense.
If Eli can play the kind of mistake free ball he played in the regular season in 2008, this team should be ok. If Eli hurries himself like he did in the one playoff game the Giants made it to last year, well, then he may never measure up to Peyton.
Look for the Giants to make a strong push at both ends of the season, and probably just miss the playoffs, or squeak in on a wildcard berth.
The Eagles should be able to build on their success of 2008, and that will make it hard for the rest of the NFC to keep up. Donovan McNabb is starting to show signs of aging, but that is more in his legs than his arm. He continues to be able to impress with his deep throws, and now has some great targets to compliment possession receiver Hank Baskett.
DeSean Jackson showed no signs of being a rookie last year, and should be able to build on his production. The drafting of speedster Jeremy Maclin gives McNabb yet another deep threat, and Brian Westbrook continues to be as dangerous a double threat as ever.
The running game may take on a different look, as the Eagles brought in LeSean McCoy via the draft, and he should prove to be a capable backup to the oft-injured Westbrook. McCoy has many of the same talents that make Westbrook so valuable, something longtime 2nd stringer Correll Buckhalter could not duplicate.
McNabb will have more than enough offensive weapons, as he also retains the ever consistent Kevin Curtis as well as Jason Avant and Reggie Brown. Only Dallas and Green Bay might be able to match that level of depth on offense.
Defense should be the main worry for Eagles fans. Donovan and Co. have rarely missed an opportunity to put up crowd dazzling points, but the defense has always been there. That was thanks in large part to the zone blitzing schemes of Jim Johnson, the recently deceased D-Coordinator.
John Harbaugh was the secondary coach and next in line until he left to be head honcho in Baltimore in 2008, which leaves Sean McDermott to run the defense. McDermott is no newbie to the Eagles and their schemes, being an 11 year veteran having joined the Philly coaching ranks in 1998. He most recently coached the secondary, which was filled with talented playmakers.
The departures of Brian Dawkins and Lito Sheppard will make things difficult for a previously talented secondary, but remaining starters Asante Samuel and Sheldon Brown should be sufficient. The front seven will continue to confuse and frustrate opposing teams, and that should help whoever gets to start in the backfield.
All in all the Eagles wont necessarily be the team to beat in the NFC, let alone in their own division, but they should put up one hell of a fight. Look for a record in the 10-12 win stages, as well as a wild card berth.
This is going to be Tony Romo’s Year. There are only a handful of truly talented teams in the NFC, and Dallas has to be either near the top, or taking it for their own. The departure of Terrell Owens will not sting as bad as advertised, and may even help shore up an offense devoid of true leadership.
Tony Romo can now just lead and execute, without having to worry about what T.O. might say or not say. Roy Williams is more than capable as the new number one, and even if he struggles there is still the likes of Miles Austin, Sam Hurd, and Patrick Clayton. That is an awful lot of big, speedy receivers to compliment the big and semi-speedy Jason Witten at tight end.
Even if no one is open on a given play, Romo is known for his ability to scramble and make dead or broken plays into highlight reel material.
Should defenders somehow shutdown the passing game, the running game is just as chalk full of playmakers. Marion “the barbarian” Barber is a bruising back, known best for his ability to close games and toss aside would be tacklers. Felix Jones has world class speed, and could outrun most Olympians, let alone most secondaries and linebackers.
Tashard Choice is a great third option, mixing great speed and the ability to make tacklers miss to round out the backfield stable. This running attack also has the blessing of one of the best lines in the game, and they just happen to excel at run blocking.
Running behind a mammoth offensive line sure helps even the most pedestrian backs, but when the lanes are five yards wide, it opens up all kinds of possibilities, just ask Timmy Smith.
On defense is where it starts to get foggy. Last year at the midway point Wade Phillips took over playcalling because the out of this world offense was getting outscored. This year head coach Wade will continue that responsibility, but with a short leash. His contract expires at the end of the season, and with offensive Guru’s John Gruden and Mike Shanahan waiting by the phone, its Super Bowl or bust.
The defense is plenty young, but most of the playmakers that made it the defense of the Parcells era are either gone or aging. DeMarcus Ware is as good as ever, but may be on an island all alone. He rushes alongside Zach Thomas, whose best years where in Miami ten years ago.
Greg Ellis was cut and signed with Oakland, so wave goodbye to his 12 sacks last year. There is an overall lack of consistent playmakers, regardless of who calls the plays, but one has to question if letting a great run-assisting safety like Roy Williams was really worth it.
The starting corner slot is in check as Terrance Newman is still pro bowl caliber, but he may be the only one in the secondary. At safety you have Ken Hamlin who is past his prime, but can still lay out smaller receivers who are not paying attention and forget to duck.
Mike Jenkins showed promise as a rookie corner out of South Florida, but will need another year or two before he can play at Newman’s level. The trade of Aaron Henry was interesting to say the least, and all the team got was John Kitna, who is a poor imitation of Brett Favre.
Maybe they just wanted a poor man’s Brett to sit on the bench to keep Romo focused on whats to come, and stop treating the regular season like a formality.
Pickups like Igor Olshansky will keep bolstering a defense getting older and more devoid of playmakers, but as long as the gaps are shut and the secondary can keep the big plays in check, this team should more than win out.
All in all the offense will need to pour it on and apply pressure to their opponents to score quickly if they have a hope of disguising their flaws. New England used this strategy in 2007 and it worked.
That is until the playoffs came around and a tired team of mid thirty somethings looked exhausted. Then came the Giants and their fire zone blitzes, and you know how the rest worked out.
If the offense can practice patience and use the balance they severely lacked in 2008, keep Kitna from getting to take a single snap, and go full speed on defense, this team should really fly high.
Look for point averages in the mid thirties, a 12-14 number in the win column, and quite possibly a good Super Bowlmatchup with San Diego or New England.
This also depends on how well Wade can use schemes to help the defense. Quality schemes can disguise flaws, as Belichick, Parcells, and even Dungy proved for years. You can give up 100+ yards per game on the ground so long as your top corner or safety can pick off the opposing QB 1-2 times per game.
Final Analysis? The Cowboys will win their division and should rival the Arizona Cardinals as the team to beat in the NFC.
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