By: Tim Van Blarcom, Feature Writer
Follow Tim on Twitter @Tim_VB
The former NFC Beast has fallen on hard times in recent years and is now more accurately nicknamed the NFC Least. The NFC East has had three different champions the past three years with records of 10-6 (Eagles), 10-6 (Redskins), and 9-7 (Giants). This rise in mediocrity has also created a rise in parity and competition within the division. Because of these issues, the NFC East is now one of the most difficult divisions to predict in the preseason.
To debate the merits of each team in the NFC East, I’ve invited a panel of writers to discuss why their team will emerge victorious in the NFC East in 2014. Fellow LockerReport writer Josh Shumaker will cover the Dallas Cowboys, one of New York’s finest fans Max Gold-Landzberg will cover the New York Giants, from a long dynasty of Philadelphia enthusiasts Daniel Nelson will cover the Philadelphia Eagles, and of course I will take on the Washington Redskins.
Dallas Cowboys (2013: 2nd NFC East 8-8)
By: Josh Shumaker, Feature Writer
Follow Josh on Twitter @shumakerjosh
This is not the best time to be a Dallas Cowboys fan. After three consecutive 8-8 seasons under Head Coach Jason Garrett, the 2014 Cowboys aren’t looking like they will ever return to their superior dynasty status that they carried in the nineties. In fact, they’ve only won a single playoff game since ’96. And with a fragile quarterback, an inconsistent run game, and an Owner/GM who throws money at his problems instead of systematically fixing them, the Cowboys look to be the laughing stock of the NFC East once again.
Now it’s not all fire and brimstone down in Big D. Over the past few off-seasons, the ‘Boys have made significant improvements adding young talent to their front line. With the addition of Notre Dame’s Zach Martin, Center Travis Frederick from Wisconsin, and the major contract extension of Tyron Smith worth nearly $110 million, the O-Line stands a chance to be one of the best in the league. But unfortunately, it takes an offense and defense to win games in this league, let alone championships.
With the departure of 7-time Pro-Bowler DeMarcus Ware to Denver, injury-prone middle minebacker and defensive captain Sean Lee recovering from an ACL injury, and first-year Defensive Coordinator Rod Marinelli who lead the Detroit Lions to a 0-16 season in 2008, the Cowboys defense is expected to be ranked in the bottom five in the NFL this 2014 season. This unit is about as dismal as the Cleveland Cavaliers once LeBron took his talents to South Beach.
If Tony Romo and the running back corps can stay healthy, and if the wide receivers can stay out of trouble off the field, then they just might be able to make it back to 8-8 this year. The team has added third year QB Brandon Weeden to back up Romo after getting cut by the Cleveland Browns. Let’s just hope that his success as a Cowboy at Oklahoma State carries over as a Cowboy in the big leagues.
Needless to say, it’s going to take a lot of positive mojo for the Cowboys to be successful in 2014. The silver lining is the fact that the rest of the NFC East, except for the Eagles, are looking to have similar issues which gives Dallas a fighting chance for at least four wins this year.
New York Giants (2013: 3rd NFC East 7-9)
By: Max Gold-Landzberg, Guest Writer
Email Max at: Maxlandzberg@gmail.com
The New York Giants started the 2014 season with the first win of the year over Buffalo in the Hall-of-Fame-Game. Unfortunately, preseason games count for nothing, even when you have to play 5 of them. Looking ahead to the regular season, it appears the Giants will have a daunting schedule, but what else is new? Out of division games include @Detroit, @Seattle, San Fran, Houston and Indianapolis with very few ‘easy wins’ on the schedule. Fortunately, the Eagles, Redskins and Cowboys have equally difficult schedules. Big Blue faithful are collectively wondering if the offseason signings, draft picks and new Offensive Coordinator will be enough to boost them into the playoffs.
Many fans were shocked to see the Giants select Odell Beckham Jr. with their first pick (12th overall) in the draft. Some clueless fans were excited believing Beckham Jr. was the most talented receiver left in the draft claiming value in the pick. Intelligent fans however, questioned the pick asking why use your first pick on anything other than a lineman or tight end, or why not take a tall wide receiver given Eli’s history and already having Victor Cruz? I digress.
The Giants selected Andre Williams from Boston College in the 4th Round with the 13th pick (113th overall). Rushing for 18 touchdowns and 2,177 yards in his senior year at BC, even in the ACC, is an impressive feat. Giants fans are looking forward to seeing him prove himself at the pro-level and working his way into the run game.
One unanimous bright spot for the Giants year over year was relieving Kevin “Kill-Drive” Gilbride from the Offensive Coordinator position and hiring Ben McAdoo from the Green Bay Packers. McAdoo probably picked up a thing or two during his 8 seasons in Green Bay witnessing the end of the Brett Favre era and the rise of Aaron Rodgers. After Eli Manning threw 18 touchdowns with a whopping 27 interceptions, the change in offensive coordinator can only be viewed as positive. Some concerns have arisen around the pressure on Eli after a disappointing year combined with having to learn a new system.
As for how the season will shake out in the NFC East, I expect the team with the best divisional record to get in likely at 9 wins and 7 losses. This makes it important to assess the matchups between the Giants, Eagles, Redskins and Cowboys.
Eagles fans have bought into the Nick Foles hype after impressive numbers following the Mike Vick exit earned him the starting spot at QB. Foles will likely have a lack luster year as teams begin to figure out the offense and having to rely on minimal talent at WR with almost no depth. The Eagles will likely try and run through and around teams with LeSean McCoy and Darren Sproles. The Eagles defense struggled last season and was minimally addressed with the draft and offseason signings and will likely continue to be a weakness resulting in high scoring games.
Redskin fans are optimistic about this season despite RGIII health concerns which make him less likely to run and forced to rely on his pocket passing. No crystal ball needed to see passing game struggles in their future. Alfred Morris should have a great year given his offensive ability on an otherwise ‘offensively challenged’ team. The Skins defense, commonly referred to as, Brian Orakpo, should be decent this year, but with added pressure from a weak offense it will be an area of concern.
Cowboy’s fans still believe in Tony Romo as their starting QB. Some people say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results. Romo will likely have another stat stuffing season resulting in missing a trip to the playoffs, shame for Cowboys fans and smiles and laughs for Giants fans. The 11 men stepping on the field when the Cowboys opponents are on offense, a unit I hesitate to refer to as a defense, will be a major obstacle for any wins this season.
My prediction is the Giants go 4-2 in the division and 9-7 overall getting the NFC East bid to the playoffs where any Giants fan knows they can be dangerous.
Philadelphia Eagles (2013: 1st NFC East 10-6)
By: Daniel Nelson, Guest Writer
Email Daniel at: eaglenut94@yahoo. com
A lot of people in Philadelphia are saying the time is now for Chip Kelly and company, especially after last year’s surprising run to the NFC East title. Despite the loss to the Saints in the Wild Card Round, optimism abounds in Philly. Fans have latched onto the bandwagon, believing that Kelly will deliver the first football championship to Philadelphia since Chuck Bednarik made that goal line stand to defeat Vince Lombardi’s Packers in the NFL Championship game back in 1960 (I might add that the Eagles are the only team to beat Lombardi in a Championship game, which is probably why they suffer from the Lombardi trophy jinx for all these years).
On the offensive side of the ball, Philadelphia have one of the best running backs in the game in LeSean McCoy, who despite a heavy workload last season (over 300 touches) has claimed to be “in the best shape of his life”. He won’t be alone in the backfield, as Philly brought in Darron Sproles from the Saints to help share the load with McCoy and to give defenses something else to worry about.
With DeSean Jackson off to Washington and veteran wide receiver Jason Avant in Carolina, replacing them will take effort. Luckily for Philly, Kelly has many players to choose from. Jeremy Maclin is returning from an ACL injury suffered in last year’s training camp. Sproles can play both WR and RB. Rookies Jordan Matthews and Josh Huff are looking to make an impact, though Huff will more likely play on special teams as a kick returner. TE Zach Ertz will look to have a breakout year as Kelly loves to utilize his tight ends as pass catchers and with veteran Brent Celek available as well, the offense is going to look amazing. Do Philly fans expect Nick Foles to have another 27-2 TD-INT ratio type season again? No, but with a full offseason as the #1 QB in Kelly’s system, I expect Foles to have another great year managing this explosive offense.
Everyone expects the offense will have a down year without Jackson, but what everyone fails to realize is that Jackson had more than 5 receptions only once after Nick Foles took over for good at starter. Aside from the Oakland and Minnesota games, Jackson averaged 52.4 ypg, and had only 5 TDs over the last 9 games (including playoffs). That’s not the production Philly needs from a supposed #1 WR.
Lastly, the O-line will suffer a little with the impending suspension of Lane Johnson, but overall the continuity the line maintained by suffering zero injuries last year (every lineman played in all 17 games) will no doubt aid in protecting Foles and opening holes for McCoy and Sproles
Expect the defensive side of the ball to be much improved. With veteran middle linebacker Demeco Ryans running the defense as well as pass rushers Trent Cole and Conner Barwin shoring up the front 7, Philly’s defense is going to be much improved. The addition of versatile safety Malcolm Jenkins is a vast improvement over the likes of free agent bust Patrick Chung and the struggling Nate Allen. Earl Wolff is coming along and will likely be the other starting safety. The addition of CB Nolan Carroll was quietly one of the better additions of the offseason, as Carroll had a career high of 4 INTs with Miami last year and will join Cary Williams and Brandon Boykin in a much improved secondary.
The bend but don’t break style ultimately worked out last season during the playoff run. Over the last 9 games of the season, the defense gave up only 20 ppg and forced 31 turnovers throughout the course of the season. Who cares how many yards you give up so long as the other team doesn’t score a touchdown? The Philadelphia defense isn’t going to be a juggernaut like Seattle, but it doesn’t have to be either.
The biggest improvement
should be special teams, especially on coverage. With Chris Maragos coming over from Seattle to lead a revitalized special teams unit, the types of returns that killed Philadelphia, especially that last return by none other than Darren Sproles in the playoff game, will be far less common. Alex Henery is a kicker looking to make some strides this year in improving on touchbacks, as he is one of the most accurate kickers under 45 yards in the league. Donnie Jones was a great punter last year; if he can maintain his great punting, then field position will rarely be a problem for the team.
There are so many intangibles that can make or break a season. It helps that the players have bought into Chip Kelly’s system. The Eagles have spent over a million dollars in nutritionists and equipment that helps the players train with maximum results. Everyone has had at least a year to get used to the new system and learn more about Chip Kelly’s play style. The team now has experience as a playoff team. Everyone is buying into the team concept.
It also helps that the rest of the NFC East is having a rough go of it. The only team I see that could dethrone the Eagles is Washington, and that’s if Washington’s defense can pull a miraculous turnaround from last season. New York is getting older and learning a new offense. Dallas is dealing with the mess that Jerry loves to create.
There are a few key questions the Eagles have going into the season that could also derail their season. Chip Kelly will have to devise some new tricks to prevent the rest of the NFL from “figuring him out”. The defense made some strides last season, but not everybody is sold on a defense that gave up 52 to Denver last year, even with the 2nd half improvement. Can this young team get used to being the “team to beat”? We saw what happened last year with Washington when they had a tougher schedule as well as higher expectations. Now it’s Philly’s turn to face a grueling schedule, replacing teams like Oakland and Minnesota with teams like Carolina and Green Bay. It’s impossible to accurately predict the future, but for now, Philly is the team to beat in the NFC East.
Washington Redskins (2013: 4th NFC East 3-13)
By: Tim Van Blarcom, Feature Writer
Follow Tim on Twitter @Tim_VB
The 2013 season was the hardest season to watch in a long time for Redskins fans and that includes the Zorn era. Political backstabbing, an obviously injured starting quarterback, and a historically terrible special teams unit led to a 3-13 finish. The season exposed a coaching staff unwilling to adapt and take chances, a lack of heart from the players, and evaporated any hope or inspiration from 2012.
The good news for 2014 is that a new chapter has clearly been started with the firing of Mike Shanahan and the hiring of first year head coach Jay Gruden. Gruden brings head coaching experience from the AFL and UFL, along with a honed offensive philosophy from his time spent with Cincinnati. His unconventional path to becoming a head coach in the NFL has left a chip on his shoulder and a desire to step out of his brother’s shadow. The most important part of Gruden’s philosophy for a NFC East title in 2014 is to adapt his scheme to the players he has and put them all in positions to showcase their strengths.
Robert Griffin III is of course the main key for the Redskins success in 2014. Fully recovered from his debilitating knee injury and spending the offseason working on his mechanics should bring back his accuracy and the tight spirals we expect from the franchise quarterback. His decision making and reading of the opposing defense is still the main question mark on his ability to lead this offense. Gruden had great success developing and catering Andy Dalton’s abilities in these areas and Griffin will be able to learn from one of the best.
The running back position remains a strength for Washington as Alfred Morris returns after topping 1200 yards for the second straight season. Veterans Roy Helu and Evan Royster are also proven back ups alongside of the promising Chris Thompson and rookie Lache Seastrunk. DeSean Jackson and Andre Roberts signed with the team to provide starting ability and depth to a wide receiver corps that has been exposed in the past. Jackson has been met with high expectations with his abilities to alter coverage and clear the box for the run game. Jordan Reed also showed his abilities as a receiving tight end last year and if he can remain healthy has a chance to be an elite receiving option. The offensive line is the weak spot for the offense but the return of zone blocking and Trent Williams should make a passable unit.
To everyone’s chagrin Jim Haslett remains the defensive coordinator and the team made minimal roster improvements from the 2013 unit. The hope is that new position coaches and a more aggressive pass rushing scheme will be enough of a change to spur improvement. The ever aging defensive line signed Jason Hatcher from Dallas and
switches to a pass-rushing one-gap system. London Fletcher has finally retired and Keenan Robinson will seek to take the reins in the middle of the field. Brian Orakpo faces another contract year and the increased emphasis on pass rush should revitalize the pass rush. The secondary signed Ryan Clark as a stop-gap free safety but failed to make any real progress on producing game changing talent on the back end.
The real chance to win the NFC East comes from the dilapidated state of the rest of the division. Dallas’s salary cap issues finally caught up to them and their defense looks to be historically terrible, and the Giants are still all in with Eli Manning with an aging defense. The Eagles were the surprise of the division last year but there’s now lots of tape on Chip Kelly’s NFL offense, Nick Foles can’t maintain the pace he’s at, and the Eagle’s defense is a mediocre unit, especially in the secondary. The Redskins will try to take advantage of having a new offense without much tape on them and a team eager to turn the page on last year’s disaster of a season. A first year head coach is never ideal but Gruden has more experience than typical first year coaches and he will be able to motivate his team unlike his predecessors. If the offense can be elite and the defense average, the Redskins will have more than enough to win the NFC East.