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Lawlor: Tables Can Turn Quickly In NFL

Posted Dec 31, 2016

The Eagles wrap up the 2016 season on Sunday when they host the Dallas Cowboys. It is hard to judge this season with one word or even a single sentence because the expectations changed so much from September 1 to October 1.

Most fans and analysts thought the Eagles would struggle to make the playoffs and would likely finish below .500 when news of the Sam Bradford trade broke and it was announced that rookie Carson Wentz would take over as the starter. The team then got off to a 3-0 start and that changed everything. Everyone got visions of a magical season. Then came the worst-timed bye week in NFL history. Injuries, a suspension and just about anything else that could happen brought the Eagles crashing down to earth. The 2016 Eagles have been through a lot of ups and downs.

There is reason to be optimistic. In fact, the Eagles only have to look across the field on Sunday to see how quickly things can change in the NFL.

The Cowboys were 2-0 in 2015 before Tony Romo got hurt against the Eagles and they completely fell apart. Dallas won only two more games the rest of the year, which is just crazy. As much as I hate to do it, I have to give Jerry Jones some credit. He didn't panic. Dallas made smart moves and hit a couple of huge home runs in the draft. The team is playing lights out this year and is nothing like the 2015 group, which lost six games by seven points or fewer. Two of those losses, including one to the Eagles, came in overtime. That team battled, it just couldn't win. Jones could see he had a good core in place. Dallas was able to find a couple of key pieces that lifted the players around them and helped the team become a winner once again.

Dallas looked at what worked when it was 12-4 in 2014. The Cowboys ran the ball really well and that was the foundation of the team. It helped Romo to have one of his best years. It helped them control the ball and keep their defense on the sideline. That was hugely important because Dallas didn't have a strong group of defensive players. The Cowboys drafted Ezekiel Elliot to be their star running back and also signed Alfred Morris in free agency to offer them some insurance. Elliott turned out to be better than anyone could have imagined.

They drafted Dak Prescott to be a player to groom behind Romo. That plan fell apart when Romo got hurt and Prescott proved to be a perfect fit for the situation. He has a very strong supporting cast and uses it well. He makes a few plays a game, but the key is that he avoids making mistakes. That formula works when you have the kind of offensive firepower that Dallas does.

I think one of the most interesting lessons in looking at Dallas is the value of stability. It's insane to think that because of the way Jones used to run that organization, but that's changed. Look at the safety position. Dallas has one really good player, Byron Jones. The other three guys who play a lot are Barry Church, J.J. Wilcox and Jeff Heath. None of them is special in any way. Each of them has been there at least four years. They know the system. They know each other. They don't cost a lot of money. The coaches like them.

Cornerback Morris Claiborne was a top-10 pick, but has mostly been a disappointment. Something finally clicked this year and he was playing the best football of his career. Dallas could have cut him a year or two ago, but chose to stick with him and it paid off this year.

Dallas has benefited from coaching stability as well. It has run the same systems for years. That helps in a variety of ways. First, the players on the team know their jobs incredibly well. That helps them integrate rookies or new players in the system. If the guy on your right and your left are experts at what they do and can help teach you, there is huge value in that. It also helps players who stay there to really hone their craft. The worst thing for a player is to switch from system to system to system. He's then learning new playbooks and new techniques. You want players to know the system and then focus on the details that can help them go from average to good or from good to great.

Continuity also helps with scouting. Scouts and coaches know exactly the kind of prospects they are looking for. They have seen the systems run for several years. They know the types of players who are going to flourish and those who are more likely to struggle. That doesn't mean drafting still doesn't involve risk. The human factor will always mean a certain amount of picks are going to fail. It does help when you know what you are looking for.

Let's talk about Sunday's game. We don't know how the game is going to go. Dallas could play all three of their quarterbacks. They are going to rest some banged up players, but this is the NFL. There aren't enough bodies for you to sit everyone.

Both teams want to win. Dallas wants to go into the postseason on a hot streak and feeling great about itself. The Eagles want to go into the offseason on a winning streak and feeling good about themselves. This game may not mean anything in the standings, but it will matter to the two teams.

On offense, it will be good to see how Carson Wentz finishes his season out. He hasn't posted gaudy numbers recently, but has made some key plays and really good throws. He is running the ball very effectively and has made some Houdini-like escapes.

Nelson Agholor had a 40-yard touchdown catch against the Giants. You can bet he is desperate to build on that so he can finish the season with some confidence and positive momentum. It will be interesting to see if the coaches try to get him the ball down the field a time or two in the game.

Due to injuries, rookie Byron Marshall will get a lot of work at running back. This is a huge opportunity for him. He can show the organization that he is ready to be part of the roster in 2017. Or he might show that he has talent, but still needs more work. Doug Pederson said Marshall will get plenty of action.

The defensive line played really well last week. It would be great to see them build on that. Vinny Curry has had a disappointing season. You know he would love to finish on a high note. He was disruptive against the Giants and it would be great to see him in the backfield a lot on Sunday. Beau Allen had a strong showing last week as well. It is possible he could be in the mix for a starting position next year so I'm sure Allen wants to finish strong.

Nolan Carroll has been up and down this year. He was aggressive and confident last week. He will be going up against some really good receivers this week. Carroll is a free agent so he definitely has pressure to perform. A strong showing by him would help his case for sticking around, or getting a deal elsewhere.

Beating Dallas would be a great way to close out a wild 2016 season. The Eagles would finish on a two-game winning streak and have played well in the final month. Plus, beating Dallas is always a good thing.

If the coaches, scouts and executives take a long look at what Dallas did this past offseason and can learn from those moves, the Eagles might be the team next year that is trying to figure out if they should rest starters in the season finale.

Tommy Lawlor, goeagles99 on the Discussion Boards, is an amateur football scout and devoted Eagles fan. He is the Editor of IgglesBlitz.com.

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