NFC East: Trying new things


A familiar sight for Dallas will force them to test Dak Prescott sooner than they would’ve liked.

The race for the NFC East was a sight for sore eyes last year. Sorry, I meant it was a sight that made my eyes sore.

It was a classic best-of-the-worst division battle and for the first time since 2012, the Washington Redskins came out on top. Washington’s 9-7 record marked just the second time since 1982 that the division was won with less than 10 wins (2011 Giants). The division race was largely shaped, however, by the team that placed last.

The Dallas Cowboys, coming off a 2014 NFC East title, looked poised to do something that hadn’t been done in over a decade: repeat as NFC East champs. They had a fantastic 12-4 campaign in 2014 that ended in heartbreaking fashion to the Lions in the divisional round of the playoffs. It was without a doubt the Cowboys’ most successful season since 2007 and had many feeling that something bigger was going to come soon. The Cowboys entered 2015 as a somewhat bold, but not unreasonable, Super Bowl pick.

Then, Tony Romo was sacked in Week 2.

Before Cowboys fans could even celebrate the 2-0 start, the team’s playoff hopes took a major hit. Romo was expected to miss 8-10 weeks due to a broken collarbone suffered as a result of the sack. You generally remember what happened next: Romo returned to action in Week 11, delivered a win, and then was injured yet again in Week 12. Dallas went 1-11 without Romo and finished the nightmare of a season at 4-12. All this after going into 2015 with Super Bowl aspirations.

Now here we are in 2016. A few things have changed. Recognizing the need for improvement in the backup/future QB department, Dallas used their 4th round pick on QB Dak Prescott. They also took RB Ezekiel Elliott with their first pick, hoping to return to the powerful ground game they used to have with DeMarco Murray and perhaps also take some pressure off Romo to drop back and risk injury so often. One huge thing has stayed the same, however: on paper, the Cowboys are the best team in the NFC East, but the health of Tony Romo will determine just how great they can be.

This year, it didn’t even take until Week 2 for Dallas’ season to be put in major jeopardy.

On just the third play in Dallas’ third preseason game, Romo was hit hard and suffered a broken bone in his back. Despite the optimism of head coach Jason Garrett (he hasn’t ruled him out for Week 1), Romo is expected to miss 6-10 weeks. It appears that we will find out if Dallas’ attempts to patch the backup QB problem will make a difference, just a lot sooner than we may have expected. Dallas lost Tony Romo, not the great team around him. With new pieces in place, can the Cowboys tread water until his return? That’s the question for now, despite a much darker question about Romo’s future looming. But I’ll save that for another post.


Kirk Cousins could be under more pressure than any player in the NFL.

If we look back to Washington, we’ll see the Redskins trying out their new QB of the future. Bring the Redskins to the playoffs once and you’re a hero. Bring them twice and you’re a god. Kirk Cousins officially took over the reigns of the Skins’ offense in 2015 and ascended to hero status, winning the NFC East and earning himself a 1-year shot to perform under the franchise tag. A long-term contract looks inevitable if he can repeat his success. But this is more important for Washington than it is for Cousins.

Forgive Redskins fans and the front office for not jumping at the chance to crown Cousins after a year, as they’ve been through this before. Robert Griffin III looked about as sure a thing as you can get, living up to huge expectations in his rookie year. Injuries and poor play followed, sending Washington right back to the cellar they worked so hard to crawl out of. Here we are again, but instead it’s Cousins with a chance to replicate greatness. After years of playing under RG3’s shadow, is Cousins actually the savior Washington has been looking for?

The New York Giants are as big an enigma as any in the NFL. Slipping in a couple of Super Bowl victories in between brief stretches of playoff-less seasons isn’t a bad way to keep the brutal New York media and fans at bay, but it’s now been four years since their last one and patience is at an all-time low. This latest period has been marked by a staggeringly poor production from draft picks, outside of obvious highlights such as Odell Beckham and Jason Pierre-Paul. Seeing Eli Manning’s years tick away like seconds, the NY front office decided to go a different route and spend more in free agency than we’ve seen in a while. Most notably, New York added DE Olivier Vernon, CB Janoris Jenkins, and DT Damon Harrison to help improve a defense that ranked dead last in the NFL last year. It’s hard not to improve after a performance like last season, but will it be enough to make a meaningful difference? Spending big in free agency has been shown to be a fool’s errand in the past, but the Giants are hoping that a stacked passing offense can carry an average defense to the NFC East title.

Last and maybe least, the Philadelphia Eagles are moving on from the failed Chip Kelly experiment. Despite two winning seasons in his first two years, Philly was sick of Kelly’s unorthodox tactics and personality, sending him on his way in 2015 after a 6-9 campaign. The Eagles will now turn to Doug Pederson, offensive coordinator of the Chiefs from 2013-15. They’ll pair him up with QB Sam Bradford and perhaps 2nd overall pick Carson Wentz, if things start to go south with Bradford. It’s an odd time for the Eagles, following a season of middling success and lukewarm attitudes toward the team’s stars. Is a new coach all they need to tap into the potential of this team? The defense still heads into 2016 with many questions and although it could be worse, the QB situation won’t excite anyone for the time being.

It’s a series of experiments for the NFC East, some voluntary and some not. While another poor showing for the division as a whole seems possible, the fun part will be waiting to see if one team actually got it right. In a division full of questions, one thing still remains certain after all these years: the NFC East is up for grabs.


5 Biggest Mystery Teams of 2014

A strong rebound year for New York starts with solid play from Eli Manning.

A strong rebound year for New York starts with solid play from Eli Manning.

New York Giants: New York finished a game under .500 last year but it felt a lot worse after dropping six straight to start off the season. Besides depressed Giants fans with repressed memories, everyone remembers Eli Manning throwing 27 interceptions. What they might not remember is that New York had significant problems in the running game as well, with six different rushing leaders throughout the season. Changes needed to be made and they have. Kevin Gilbride is out as offensive coordinator (retired) and Ben McAdoo, quarterback coach of Green Bay, is in. Giants also picked up Rashad Jennings to lead the rushing attack, answering the question of many Giants fans, “Who is our running back again?” Jennings had a solid year in Oakland in 2013, picking up 4.5 yards per carry and 6 TDs. New York is also excited for rookie Andre Williams out of Boston College, the man backing up Jennings. In McAdoo’s new scheme, Manning hopes to throw for 70% completion. Even the most optimistic Giants fans don’t expect this to happen, but there is still major pressure on Eli to cut down on the mistakes.

The defense is a mystery as well, though they showed some late success in 2013. With Justin Tuck off to Oakland, defensive leaders like Antrel Rolle and Jason Pierre-Paul are expected to step up. They’ll have some more help in the secondary after picking up Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie from Denver in the offseason. If you still don’t know why this is a mystery team, just look at the logo on the helmet. It’s the New York Giants. Can you name a year they’ve ever been predictable? The new pieces are all in place. I can see these pieces clicking on the way to an NFC East title about as much as I can see it falling apart into a long losing streak. Early wins against Detroit, Arizona, and Houston would be a huge help for the chemistry of this new team.

Atlanta Falcons: The mystery of the Falcons is how in the heck did they go from four points away from a Super Bowl appearance to four total wins the next year? I don’t think anybody saw that coming and quite frankly, I don’t know what anybody see’s coming this year. Their passing offense actually ranked in the top 10 last year, as it should have. Matt Ryan is a perfectly capable QB with great weapons in Julio Jones and Roddy White. Their running game was the worst in the NFL, not even reaching 80 yards per game. They’re gonna give it another shot with Steven Jackson at RB and hope to see success from new faces in the O-line, like first-round draft pick Jake Matthews. Mike Nolan, in his second year as defensive coordinator, is expected to do a better job with his unit this year. A strong showing by the defense can take a lot of pressure off Ryan and Jackson to rely on their offensive production for wins. The tough part is they sit in a division with Carolina and New Orleans, two teams poised for another playoff birth. With the pieces clicking on defense, Atlanta’s offense will fly high and steal some wins from their rivals.

Arizona Cardinals: Much like the Falcons, the Cardinals find themselves in a tough spot. They were an impressive team last year, going 10-6 in Bruce Arians’ first year as head coach, a record good enough to win the NFC North or NFC East. Problem is, they are in the NFC West with Super Bowl champ Seattle and Super Bowl hopeful San Francisco, not to mention the Rams who took 1 of 2 in the season series. Their 10-win season was only the second since 1976. Can we really count on Arizona making it two straight years with double digit wins? If not, I don’t see any way they can make it to the playoffs otherwise. But this may be the start of a new era for Arizona. An era that ignores all the ones preceding it. They are finally starting to find a new identity after Kurt Warner retired in 2010.

Arizona won 10 games and still fell short of the playoffs. This year's path appears to be even tougher.

Arizona won 10 games and still fell short of the playoffs. This year’s path appears to be even tougher.

The Cards have a good mix of young and old. Carson Palmer is in his 12th season–2nd as a Cardinal–and showed he can be their guy for the foreseeable future. Although his interception numbers were high (22), he threw for the most yards of his entire career (4,274) in 2013. Sophomore Andre Ellington will be the primary running back after showing a lot of promise in his rookie year. Defensively, Arizona is really excited to shock the NFC. They had the best running defense in 2013 and only allowed about 20 points per game (7th in NFL). Watch out for this Arizona D to put on some impressive showings, like their 7-sack performance against Carolina. The only thing standing in the way of another great year for Arizona is their tough division, which accounted for four of their six losses in 2014. Finding those wins will be the key.

Baltimore Ravens: The Ravens are going through an interesting time. They surprised everyone and won a Super Bowl in 2012, then played average–literally 8-8–in 2013. They lost some pieces from that 2012 team (e.g. Anquan Boldin) and didn’t recover well. Their Super Bowl-winning rushing offense plummeted from the 11th best in the league to 30th. Ray Rice, suspended for two games for domestic violence, will be in danger of losing the starting job to Bernard Pierce if he has another disappointing year. Joe Flacco, keeping his interception numbers under 12 for every year of his career, threw an unprecedented 22 last year. Performances where Baltimore only rushes for 24 yards and Flacco throws five interceptions is something that just cannot happen in 2014 if they have any hope of getting back to the playoffs. They picked up Steve Smith from Carolina to help out the absence of Boldin. I can’t tell if this team can get their offense clicking like it did in 2012 and it will play a huge factor in their success in 2014.

Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery make up the best WR duo in the NFL. Can they do enough to send Chicago to the playoffs?

Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery make up the best WR duo in the NFL. Can they do enough to send Chicago to the playoffs?

Chicago Bears: Once known for their great defense, Chicago’s woes in 2013 stemmed from a terrible one. Many might point to Jay Cutler getting injured as the reason for their struggles but Cutler only went 5-5 and his backup Josh McCown went 3-3. What I see is a defense that allowed over 30 points a game seven times. To address this, Chicago took three defensive players in the first three rounds of their draft. Improving their running defense–ranked last in 2014–will be the primary job for a unit with some new faces (Jared Allen from Minnesota). The defense is the big question mark for Chicago and it will dictate the path they take this year. If the defense can perform well, Cutler will be free to tear up the NFC with Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery.