2013 NFL Previews: NFC East

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Dallas Cowboys

In what was a make-or-break season for the much maligned and extremely talented quarterback, of course Tony Romo would deliver mixed results. Despite having some of the advanced statistics in the league last season, Romo found a way to leave everybody with a sour taste in their mouths by throwing three interceptions in a week 17 loss to the Redskins, all but crushing Dallas’ post-season hopes. Such is the way that most of Romo’s career has gone. He’s given us tons of brilliant moments, put up the stats of an elite QB and even won a fair share of games in crunchtime, but just when you think he’s about to turn the corner for good, his next throw winds up in the hands of the opposition, often at the worst possible times for a relapse.

While 2012 was a failure for the Cowboys in that they didn’t make the playoffs, Jerry Jones didn’t react if that was the case. Though he did make a big decision to fire defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, he also remained steadfast in his commitment to Romo by handing him a rich six-year, $108 million extension ($55 million guaranteed). Despite his awful performance in the season finale, I find myself agreeing with the Cowboys decision to keep Romo around.

First of all, though $55 million is a lot of guaranteed money, even if Romo has a catastrophic breakdown that prevents him from being even a league average quarterback, Dallas can just cut ties with him in the same way that the Bills did with Ryan Fitzpatrick just two seasons after showering him with cash be it under the best shower head or in the pool. Second of all, stripping Jason Garrett of the responsibility of calling plays should greatly benefit Romo. I think Garrett has been way to conservative with the offense over the past few years, which leads to Romo forcing things in critical moments. Bill Callahan is not an incredibly forward thinking play-caller himself, but a new voice should make a difference for the Cowboys.

If Dallas decides to be a tad bit more aggressive offensively, and perhaps even speed things up, they could have one of the best offenses in the league this season. Oklahoma State product Dez Bryant became a superstar last season and his off-the-field maturity has mirrored his growth on the field. Coming into this season, Bryant has the potential to become one of the three best pass catchers in the league. His combination of breakaway speed, physicality and reliable hands (he was catching touchdown passes with a broken finger last season for god’s sake) make him one of the few wideouts in the league that can beat a defensive back every which way, and the Romo-to-Bryant tandem is going to put up video game numbers this season.

To support their passing attack, the Cowboys have put together an impressive Bedlam backfield with former Sooner DeMarco Murray and former Poke Joseph Randle. This is one of the most dynamic duos in the league on a talent basis, with each guy able to run by, through and over linebackers while making an impact in the passing game, but Murray can’t seem to stay on the field. Murray hasn’t had a fully healthy season since his senior year in high school. When he’s healthy, he’s a game-changing runner, but I wouldn’t bet on him playing 16 games this season.

After making a pair of big additions to the secondary last off-season, Dallas didn’t make any big personnel changes on the defensive side of the ball this summer. Instead, they used their money to lock-up Sean Lee to a hefty extension and hired a new defensive coordinator: 73-year old Monte Kiffin.

Now, when your own son doesn’t want to keep you around in any capacity at the college level, there’s a reason to doubt that Kiffin’s schemes, which are becoming outdated, will work in his return to the NFL. That said, Dallas has some pieces in place that theoretically fit well with Kiffin’s ideals. Kiffin is shifting the Cowboys to a 4-3 front, putting Anthony Spencer and DeMarcus Ware on the ends of the line with Jay Ratliff and Jason Hatcher in the middle, which could actually be an upgrade for Dallas.

Additionally, with Lee in the middle of that Tampa-2 look, the Cowboys will have one of the most instinctual and effective middle linebackers in the game playing the key role in their new system; the mike, or middle, linebacker in the Tampa-2 is responsible for reading pass or run at the snap and dropping into coverage if it’s a pass play, and few can make these reads and movements as well as Lee. On top of that, Bruce Carter should make for an awesome WILL (weakside) linebacker in Kiffin’s scheme (making him the primary run stopper if things run smoothly) and free-agent signing Justin Durant, who is coming over from the Lions, will slide in as the SAM (strongside) backer.

The glaring hole in Dallas roster in regards to Kiffin’s defense is their lack of any even league average safties. The “2” in Tampa-2 refers to the two safeties and they are responsible for covering their half of the field and being able to play near the line of scrimmage against the run. Barry Church, Matt Johnson or whoever else Dallas puts on the field at those spots, aren’t equipped for that kind of role and it’s going to be hard to cover up weaknesses at those two spots. Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne should improve after struggling to get accustomed to Ryan’s bi-polar coverage calls last season, but that may not mean much to Dallas overall performance against the pass.

While I think the Kiffin hire could work out well, what troubles me is Kiffin’s inability to adapt to the new style of football that is trickling into the league. The last time Kiffin went up against Chip Kelly’s offense – Oregon’s 62-51 victory over USC last November – his defense gave up 730 total yards including 426 rushing yards (7.1 per game) and 304 passing yards (Marcus Mariota was 20-of-23). Now Kiffin will face Kelly’s offense twice per season in addition to two matchups against RGIII and Kyle Shanahan’s spread system (Oakland may also be using the read-option by the time they face the Cowboys if Terrelle Pryor gets the job). While Kiffin has better personnel in Dallas, the issue was schematic when the Ducks burned him over the past three years, and a failure to contain mobile quarterbacks could cost Dallas dearly in such a competitive division.

Best-case scenario: 11-5, Romo avoids the gut-wrenching turnovers and the defense adjusts quickly

Worst-case scenario: 6-10, Romo goes Ryan Fitzpatrick on the Cowboys and the defense struggles with the new scheme

Prediction: 9-7 and a playoff birth for the Cowboys.

New York Giants

Injuries have ravaged the Giants over the past couple of years, mostly targeting their secondary and defensive line. New York was playing fourth-string corners at times last season and enter this season nicked up on the outside again; in fact, just a week ago safety Stevie Brown, who was very good last season, tore his ACL. On the line, Jason Pierre-Paul is coming off of back surgery and may not be fully healthy until well into the season and Justin Tuck, whether it be nagging injuries or age-related regression, is not the dominant end he once was. To make matters worse, running back Andre Brown fractured his leg in a pre-season game last night, which is the same injury that he suffered last season. While the NFC East is an extremely competitive division, the Giants bout with injury bug may be just as difficult.

With underwhelming corners and their best safety out of the picture and a linebacking core that failed to assist against the run last season, the Giants desperately need to have their dominant passrush of two seasons ago to return, but the injury to Pierre-Paul and Tuck’s regression have made New York’s once dominant defensive line a bit of a question mark headed into the season.

Luckily for the Giants offense, second year running back David Wilson appears to have all of the talent to be a productive number one back and can at least carry the load until Brown returns and the timeshare between the two begins. Wilson is a dynamic back that can make plays in the passing game and burn defenses with his quick cuts out of the backfield. With Ahmad Bradshaw now playing for the Colts, the Giants will start the season with virtually no depth at the running back position, which means Wilson is going to have plenty of chances to prove himself after getting put in the doghouse last season because of a fumble in the season opener.

Though the Giants still have Eli Manning leading their offense, Hakeem Nicks appears to have lost a step over the past year and Victor Cruz, despite his massive contract extension, is actually coming off of an underwhelming season. It’s funny to think that the Giants could go 7-9 and have the worst record in the division, but this appears to be a down season for the Giants as they are relying on far too many rebound seasons and dealing with too many injuries to key players.

Best-case scenario: 10-6, David Wilson becomes a 1,000 yard back and that viscous pass rush returns

Worst-case scenario: 5-11, With no running game, Eli struggles and the injuries decimate the defense

Prediction: 7-9 and a trip to the playoffs for Eli, but only to watch Peyton

Philadelphia Eagles

While critics point to college coaches that have graduated to the NFL and fallen flat on their face in the past as reasons why Chip Kelly should be doubted, count me in on the former Oregon coach being successful at this level. Though he has a very unique and regimented style, we made it through training camp and the pre-season without a rebellion, which leads me to believe that the players aren’t viewing him as a dictator and thus won’t quit on him. And if you’re a player, it’s kind of hard to dislike the coach that wants to run as many plays as possible, spread the ball around a ton and play an up-tempo, exciting brand of football.

It also helps that the team’s quarterback, Michael Vick, and their best player, LeSean McCoy, are perfect fits for Kelly’s scheme. Bomani Jones had a great piece theorizing that Vick was born to run Kelly’s offense and that, had he and Kelly crossed paths a decade ago, just how much different his career would have unfolded. While Vick has had his ups-and-downs as a pro and is certainly on his last couple of legs, at least as dual-threat quarterback, he still has enough explosiveness in his gait to make an impact on the ground and his arm has never lost its fervor.

Contrary to popular belief, the foundation of Kelly’s offensive philosophy is the ability to run the ball. There are certainly some spread passing elements built into his scheme, but most of them are based off of the run, which is the opposite of the spread offense that Oklahoma State runs. While the spread offense entails certain universal principles, there is a lot of room for diversity underneath the spread umbrella. In Kelly’s case, the run game takes priority, followed by a short passing game that is analogous to running and then, once the linebackers and safeties start creeping in, the deep ball comes into play.

Of course, Kelly never had a quarterback that could sling it as far as Vick at Oregon, so he’ll have more chances to go deep. That said, you can be sure that McCoy will be the primary playmaker for this offense, and with a coach that is committed to getting him the ball out of the backfield (sorry, Andy Reid), he should have a monster season this year. McCoy is already one of the toughest players in the league to bring down and now consider what else will be going for him this year: 1) the offensive line will be healthy to start the season (most importantly: left tackle Jason Peters is back after missing all of last season with a torn ACL), 2) the read-option element will put him in better situations than draw plays and 3) as the playcount grows and grows and the defense tires out, McCoy will be able to turn on the afterburners and see defenders huffing-and-puffing in his rear-view mirror.

As you can imagine, running a ton of plays can also tire out the offensive players too, although their rate of fatigue is often slower than the defense. If McCoy needs a breather, it’s not an issue for the Eagles. Bryce Brown came onto the scene last season as a strong running back and will back-up McCoy this season, Felix Jones is far from a feature back talent-wise, but he does have some speed and ability to work as the third string back for this interchangeable offense, and even fourth stringer Chris Polk has some potential. On the outside the Eagles have even more speed and play-making ability with DeSean Jackson and Damaris Johnson. Both standing short at under six feet tall, they resemble do-it-all Oregon star DeAnthony Thomas in more ways than one, and Kelly must be slobbering at the mouth to get them involved in this offense as much as possible.

As the icing on the cake, the Eagles have also built a stable of tightends. Incumbents Brent Celek and Clay Harbor are solid players and Philly has added James Casey, a former Texan that played allover the field (tightend, H-back, slot receiver), and Zach Ertz, a second round pick out of Stanford that helped put the final dagger in Chip Kelly’s national title hopes at Oregon.

Where the Eagles fall short is defensively. They have some talent but few sure things and Kelly is ushering in a new 3-4 scheme. Amongst the beneficiaries of the switch are middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans and defensive end Fletcher Cox. Ryans was one of the better run stoppers in the league as one of the middle linebackers in Houston’s 3-4 scheme before being traded to Philly and struggling mightily to cover the middle of the field in a 4-3 defense. Back in a 3-4, and playing alongside former Texans teammate Connor Barwin, Ryans should have a bounceback season. That won’t fix the issues the Eagles have in the secondary, though, as free agent acquisitions Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher rated out as average (or slightly worse) last season.

Best-case scenario: 10-6, Vick has a career year, McCoy puts up MVP numbers, the offense picks up the defense

Worst-case scenario: 5-11, Vick gets hurt again and the defense struggles

Prediction: 8-8 and a very good rookie season for Chip Kelly, although it will end without a post-season birth.

Washington Redskins

It will be tough for anyone to ever replicate the kind of season that Adrian Peterson had last year on the heels of tearing his ACL in 2011, but if anybody is going to, it may as well be Robert Griffin III. RGIII has had even less time to recover after tearing ligaments in his knee during the opening round of the post-season, but he has worked incessantly and put himself in a position to be on the field in week one. Griffin has now had two major knee injuries over the past four years, which will inevitably give him the injury prone label, and he certainly doesn’t do himself any favors with his reluctance to slide when he gets into the open field, but all signs point to him being 100% to kickoff his sophomore campaign.

Kyle Shanahan did as good a job as any offensive coordinator in the league last season at devising a scheme that best fit his personnel. He stole some elements from the offense that Griffin ran at Baylor and added a lot of the run principles that his father has held since his time in Denver. The combination of the read-option offense, spread concepts outside of the hashes and that famous zone-blocking scheme, the Redskins had a very complex attack with the most dynamic quarterback in football (it’s a close call between he and Kaepernick) and were able to make the post-season in what was supposed to be a transition year.

With Alfred Morris emerging as a great one-cut back that could thrive running the read-option behind a zone-blocking scheme, the Redskins had two lethal threats on the ground, forcing defenses to focus their attention in the backfield on virtually every play. By establishing the run, the Redskins opened up the field for their play-action game, which was as good as it gets last season. One of the most endearing images of last season was Griffin showcasing his rocket arm after setting up the Saints with multiple options reads and bubble screens. Safeties are put in an impossible situation regularly by Washington’s scheme and talent, and Griffin has the offense down to a point where he rarely makes mistakes.

If the Redskins are going to fall short of improvement this season, it will be because of their defense. Brian Orakpo and Adam Carriker are very good at their jobs, but little else about this defensive unit is very convincing. Josh Wilson gave the team a bump up at corner over DeAngelo Hall last season, but that’s not saying much, and their run defense may have been worse than their pass defense last season, and that is saying a lot. There’s a chance that Brandon Meriwether can make a difference at safety this season and that inside linebacker Perry Riley continues to grow as a player, which would help give their defense a boost, but this part of their team is still a weakness.

Best-case scenario: 12-4, RGIII enters the MVP conversation and the defense plays above it’s head

Worst-case scenario: 6-10, RGIII puts himself at risk too often and the defense regresses

Prediction: 11-5 and a monster season from RGIII

Mark Travis is a 22-year old sportswriter that is currently majoring in Sports Media at Oklahoma State University. He started his own website, But The Game Is On, in 2008 as an outlet for his praise of Michael Crabtree and has since been credentialed by major organizations like the NBA, NFL, MLB, Nike and Team USA Basketball. He also covered the past two NBA Finals for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times.

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