10 Biggest NFC East Questions Raised During 2011 Preseason
Preseason is at its midway point, and the NFC East has let us indulge in quite a treat so far. We've seen old faces in new places, newly executed schemes and all with the intrigue of a lockout-shortened offseason.
Although we've gotten a long-awaited glimpse of the upcoming year, more questions seemingly arise with every answer we get.
So for now, we'll skip the small talk and delve into the 10 biggest questions the NFC East presents.
1) Will Michael Vick Keep the Momentum Going?
Michael Vick terrified defenses during all of 2010, that is, until defensive coordinators stumbled upon his secret.
Since the Houston Texans succeeded in sacking Vick via the zone blitz in Week 13, more teams followed in their footsteps. This was not a good thing for Vick and company.
The Minnesota Vikings, New York Giants and Green Bay Packers all leaned heavily on applying pressure with the zone-blitz scheme. As a result, Vick became a turnover machine, squandering possession five times in the three-game stretch.
His quarterback rating also dropped to a mortal 83.11, compared to the 104.3 rating he had posted coming into those games.
Vick still presents a very dangerous threat to opposing defenses, but it will be interesting to see how he responds now that coordinators have much more dirt on him.
2) Will Rob Ryan's Presence Improve the Dallas Cowboys' Defense?
I like Rob Ryan, and I'm a fan of what he draws up. He lives by the 3-4 and has a multitude of blitz packages that toy with offenses (wait, did I just hear an Eagle shudder?). He also adds a fiery presence to a Dallas Cowboys organization that needed one a season ago.
Wade Phillips definitely took his fair share of criticism in Big D over the years, but I'm not here to knock what he did. In fact, with the exception of last season's debacle, Phillips has been at the helm of a defense that ranked in the top 10 in every year he spent in Dallas.
So the problem I have is not necessarily with the scheme of Ryan or Phillips. It's with the players' execution.
In 2010, we saw an unmotivated, under-performing group in Dallas, and it perhaps was most apparent on defense. The Cowboys laid an egg, despite having most of their returning starters and implementing the same scheme from previously successful campaigns.
It's a big question whether or not the defense can be restored in Dallas, but what we do know is that it's up to the players to be the first to answer it.
3) What on Earth Can We Expect from John Beck?
There have been plenty of "expert" assessments coming from the bleachers in regard to John Beck. We've heard plenty of negativity regarding the fourth-drafted quarterback in 2007.
But the fact of the matter is, we just don't know much about him.
Here's what we do know: He has never had much of a stage to prove himself. His only real opportunity came in a mop-up role in four games for a Miami Dolphins team that went 1-15.
But it's not all we know. We also know that Mike and Kyle Shanahan have sung endless praises of the 30-year-old out of BYU. He had a very successful college career, and will be under center for an offense that has added many pieces to complement its signal caller.
Beck did not disappoint in his first start of the preseason, completing 14-of-17 passes for 140 yards. Though he was efficient, he wasn't greatly tested. Most of his completions were short passes, although he showcased a quick release and a propensity to make good decisions when the play broke down.
It will likely be another season of growing pains in Washington, but a team cannot rebuild properly without assessing what it has.
4) Will the Youngsters Step Up for the New York Giants?
Every offseason has its winners and losers, and when it comes to free agency, there’s no question the New York Giants were losers.
Though free agency is a major component in building a successful team, it is not the be-all-end-all. There's still a draft, and thus reason to be hopeful in New York.
General manager Jerry Reese put together one of the strongest drafts this offseason, obtaining almost every pick at a value. These rookies, as well as other young players, may see plenty of opportunities with the departure of seasoned veterans.
There's a huge Steve Smith-shaped hole in the slot receiver position that will need to be filled. Smith was a tremendously reliable third-down option for Eli Manning, and Tom Coughlin will likely turn to Victor Cruz or rookie Jerrel Jernigan. Veteran Domenik Hixon will likely get a chance to prove his worth in wake of a season-ending knee injury.
Other uncertainties lie in the offensive line and secondary. William Beatty has started just two games at tackle and has struggled so far. First-round pick Prince Amukamara broke his foot during training camp, and will not be able to provide a safety net for Corey Webster and Terrell Thomas right away. Though talented, the tandem was also inconsistent, allowing 13 combined touchdowns.
The Giants are coming off a season that ended too soon for a 10-win team. In order to take that next step, they must dominate the rest of the NFC East. Winning just three and not four division games last season was not a terrible performance, but it ultimately cost them a playoff spot.
If they want to get back to the Super Bowl, they will need their young players to provide depth.
5) Will 2011 Be Felix Jones' Breakout Season?
We've seen the flashes of brilliance from the speedy product of Arkansas, but we haven't seen it sustained for too long.
But now, with Jason Garrett ready to embark on his first full season at the helm, will Felix Jones emerge as the star of the Cowboys offense?
ESPN's Matthew Berry seems to think so. We noticed a huge spike in the workload that Jones received over the last eight games. We also saw a spike in the win column as well.
Maybe there is something to that.
6) What Impact Will Juan Castillo Have on the Philadephia Eagles Defense?
This one is still a head-scratcher for me.
It's apparent that Philadelphia is still searching for someone to adequately fill the big shoes of Jim Johnson. Sean McDermott did well with what he had, but was inconvenienced by injuries and a short leash.
To compensate for the loss, Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie hired Juan Castillo, the team's longtime offensive line coach, to replace McDermott. How does Castillo's experience as an offensive line coach translate to doing well as a defensive coordinator?
I haven't the slightest idea. To be fair though, Castillo has been a defensive coordinator before.
But not since 1989.
And it was for Kingsville High School.
Either way, he certainly has plenty of talent to work with, most notably the surplus of All-Pro cornerbacks. There is a challenge that lies in how to properly utilize all three of them, but that's a challenge that many coordinators would love to face.
7) Can Eli Manning Back Up His Comments About Being in Tom Brady's Class?
I'll field this one:
No. No, he cannot. But his team will certainly need a leader this season with many of its veterans gone, as earlier stated.
A huge part of why the New York Giants missed the playoffs last season can be boiled down to one word: turnovers.
The Giants committed an NFL-worst 42 turnovers last year, highlighted by Eli Manning's career-high 25 interceptions.
I'm not usually quick to defend a quarterback that has thrown that many interceptions, but plenty of those were at the fault of receivers tipping passes into defenders' hands. Regardless, Manning didn't have a very Tom Brady-like season.
Either way, if half—or even a third—of those turnovers were erased, we wouldn't be having this discussion. Instead, we would probably be talking about what the Giants could do to repeat as NFC East champions.
If the Giants want to get back to the top, Eli Manning must put that weight on his shoulders. And it starts with doing a better job controlling the football.
8) Can the Redskins Defense Reclaim Its Top 10 Form?
Despite inadequate finishes in the standings for the better part of the past decade, the Redskins have often had capable defenses. How capable?
Between 2000 and 2009, the Washington Redskins finished in the top 10 in total defense for all but two seasons. They finished in the top five four times in that decade as well.
2010, however, was a complete disaster. Under the direction of Mike Shanahan, new defensive coordinator Jim Haslett did away with the previously dominant 4-3 scheme and implemented a 3-4. Much of the veteran roster from the previous 4-3 defense was still intact, and many failed to adjust. The Redskins finished 31st in total defense in 2010.
Now, the Redskins shifted their usual offseason focus of signing marquee names to acquiring proper 3-4 personnel. The acquisitions of Stephen Bowen, Ryan Kerrigan, Jarvis Jenkins and Barry Cofield have transformed a slow and aging defense into a younger, more athletic unit.
But youth is usually indicative of error in the short term. Expect another transitional season on the defensive side of the football in Washington. At the very least, it's a step in the right direction.
9) Who Will Make the Playoffs?
It will certainly be a competitive year in the NFC East. The Philadelphia Eagles have armed themselves with star-caliber players and seem to have their talons clutched around what will be another NFC East crown. The Washington Redskins are amidst a rebuilding phase and still have lots of work to do before they can pose a credible threat to the juggernauts in their division.
This leaves the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Giants to battle each other, as well as other NFC rivals for a wild card spot. The question is, can they emerge from the pack?
Dallas played to its perceived capability after Jason Garrett took over. The Cowboys' 5-3 record down the stretch provides a glimmer of hope for Cowboys fans to have something exciting to look forward to.
What isn't exciting, though, is the final stretch of their season. The last four games could be deadly, as they will face the Philadelphia Eagles, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the New York Giants twice.
The Giants have an extremely difficult stretch of games too, except theirs is even longer.
After a Week 7 bye, The G-Men will have to take on The Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys twice, and also have to deal with the likes of the New England Patriots, New Orleans Saints, New York Jets and Green Bay Packers.
It's a crippling part of their schedule and will be a true test. If the Giants can win five of those eight games, then the playoffs are likely in their future. But that is a tall order for any team to accomplish, no matter how good they are.
Things are shaping up for the Philadelphia Eagles to be the lone team in the NFC East to make the postseason.
10) Will the Lockout Force the "Dream Team" Philadelphia Eagles to Wake Up?
Big names have packed moving trucks heading for Philadelphia this offseason, and now there are Super Bowl expectations for a team trying to shake its reputation as the NFC's perennial bridesmaids.
We've seen some strange things happen in Philadelphia this offseason. A team that once boasted a youth movement has seemingly mortgaged its future with the acquisition of a surplus of veterans.
They're Pro Bowl veterans, but veterans nonetheless.
Now, the true test is on the horizon. There is no denying the individual talent brought into Philly, but football is not an individual sport. It is the quintessential team sport, and one has to wonder to what effect the limited practice time will have on the team's chemistry once the season begins.
That said, it would be a complete shock—and a story of underachievement for the ages—if Philadelphia did not win the NFC East this year. The Eagles may make it as far as the NFC Championship, or even the Super Bowl.
Either way, they will have a unique challenge that many have not anticipated a team of this caliber having to endure.