Since things are a bit quiet around the Eagles, I thought this would be a good time to look at some other teams. For now, I'll just venture around the NFC East.
The Cowboys won the division last year (sorry to bring up bad memories). They return most of their lineup and likely will be favorites to win the NFC East again this season. Quarterback Tony Romo has all of his receivers and returners back this year. Miles Austin emerged into a star wideout last year. Felix Jones has only started one game in his career, but he looks like a star in the making. He's averaged 6.5 yards per carry in his short career.
I'm interested to see how the chemistry of the skill players works out this year. Roy Williams has been an abysmal failure at wideout since Dallas traded for him in the middle of 2008. That hasn't stopped him from regularly running his mouth about something. He's now telling people that he and Romo have developed a connection that is equal to Jerry Rice and Joe Montana. Umm ... OK. I'll take your word for that Roy. Just let me know when you're done exploring whatever planet you're on and decide to return to Earth.
Dallas drafted receiver Dez Bryant in the first round. He is incredibly gifted and potentially gives them another weapon. There is a downside. The NFL still only uses one football at a time. Dallas couldn't keep everyone happy last year. Now you've got Williams trying to convince himself and anyone that will listen that he's ready for a big year. Patrick Crayton would like to see more passes come his way, assuming he's not cut this summer. Throw the rookie Bryant into the mix. You've got a situation that may sort itself out, but there is the possibility for some in-fighting. In the past, Dallas always had some issues that seemed to affect them late in the season or in the postseason. Last year, those issues went away and they played like a team. In that sense, adding Bryant may have not been such a wise decision. Jerry Jones and Wade Phillips did a great job of getting rid of malcontents after the 2008 season. Phillips got everyone on the same page for 2009. Was that an anomaly or have the Cowboys truly turned over a new leaf? Only time will tell, but I'm sure pulling for an anomaly.
The position that everyone is most focused on is left tackle. Longtime starter Flozell Adams is gone. I doubt anyone in America is happier than our own Trent Cole. Adams seemed to have his number. The Cowboys want backup tackle Doug Free to win the job, but traded for Alex Barron as an insurance policy. Free played very well at right tackle last year. I think Dallas made a mistake by benching him in the playoffs and giving Marc Colombo his job back. If you remember the loss to the Vikings, it was left defensive end Ray Edwards who played the game of his life. The guy he beat all game long was Colombo. I think Free has the potential to be a starting left tackle. Dallas isn't making a dumb gamble. Certainly, there is risk involved. Anytime you replace a veteran starter with an unknown player there is the possibility that the new guy won't work out. I actually have more faith in Free than I do Barron, who never was a consistently good left tackle for the Rams.
There isn't a whole lot to say about the Dallas defense. They have a really talented group of players coming back for 2010. I expect them to be one of the best defenses in the league. With disruptive forces like DeMarcus Ware and Jay Ratliff up front, the Cowboys can keep pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
One point that has been brought up by plenty of people is the fact that Dallas was lucky last year in regard to staying healthy. Think about what the loss of Stewart Bradley did to our defense. Think about what the loss of Kenny Phillips did to the Giants. Washington had a slew of key injuries. Dallas didn't. They stayed healthy for the majority of the season. That could happen again. Injuries are fluky and you never know who will get hurt or how it will happen. They are the unknown factor that all 32 teams fear.
The Washington Redskins are the most interesting team in the division. They have a new general manager in Bruce Allen, a new coach in Mike Shanahan, and a new quarterback. He is some guy named McNabb. That sounds pretty weird, huh? We'll get used to it soon enough. Change is nothing new for Washington. The question we ask every year at this time is whether they made the right ones. I think it was William Shakespeare who famously wrote, ""Oh what a tangled web we weave when we constantly sign big name free agents, change coaches and meddle in team affairs."" So true, gridiron bard, so true.
There is no question about Shanahan's credentials. He won a pair of Super Bowls in Denver and only had two losing seasons in 14 years. That's impressive when you look at the whole body of work. I'm actually one of the few people who think Shanahan is overrated. This isn't a reaction to him landing in D.C. I've argued with some buddies for years about this. Shanahan was 7-1 in the playoffs with John Elway as his quarterback. Shanahan was 1-4 without him. Those Denver teams of the late 1990s were loaded with elite talent. Once those players cycled out Shanahan continued to win, but only delivered one division title. He was more of a good coach than a Hall of Fame-type or legend.
Shanahan had a couple of key issues in that stretch. He had trouble maintaining a consistently good defense. In the post-Elway era (1999-2008), Denver was 11th or worse in points allowed six of the 10 years. They were 14th or worse five times in yards allowed during that span. Shanahan also made some highly questionable personnel moves. The worst moment for him was when he spent a third-round pick on troubled running back Maurice Clarett. That is one of the worst picks in the history of the draft as far as I'm concerned.
Is Shanahan the right man for the Redskins job? That really is the key question. He knows how to run a winning NFL team in the current era. Steve Spurrier was a college guy lost in the pros. Joe Gibbs never had to deal with free agency in his glory years. He was a good enough coach to still have some success, but simply wasn't the right guy the second time around. Jim Zorn was a great hire for his first eight games (6-2). Things went disastrously bad after that. He was a first-time head coach and it showed. Shanahan towers over those guys and that should give Washington fans some confidence.
Shanahan believes in running the ball, first and foremost. The Redskins are built for that. He likes to throw the ball vertically and mix in lots of play-action passes and bootlegs. The addition of Donovan McNabb makes that a good fit as well. Shanahan doesn't have a great set of receivers in place. That is one area that will take some time to develop. Young players like Malcolm Kelly and Devin Thomas offer a lot of promise, but neither guy has played well to this point. Santana Moss lacks the size that Shanahan prefers, but is a weapon. Tight end Chris Cooley will be a very good fit for the new offense. Washington hasn't ranked in the top 10 in points or yards on offense since 1999. I don't know if that streak will end this year, but Shanahan will end it sooner or later. He's too good of an offensive mind for that to continue under his watch.
What do I make of McNabb as the Redskins quarterback? He's still a good player. He now has another gifted offensive mind to work under. I expect him to play pretty well. I think there are a few possible concerns. McNabb had great stability with the Eagles and at Syracuse. He's had only two head coaches in the last 16 years. That's pretty incredible in today's world where coaches come and go at a rapid rate. Shanahan does run a similar offensive system, but there will be some differences. McNabb will also have to adjust to Shanahan's style of coaching. These adjustments on their own aren't too big a deal, but factor in everything else. McNabb is on a new team and one in transition. He's in the final year of his contract and his future is uncertain. Washington isn't a good enough team for McNabb to just walk in and run the offense. He's going to have to be a leader in the locker room and a playmaker on the field. He's going to have flashbacks to 2000 when he did the same things for us.
The new environment could be a fountain of youth for McNabb or it could a giant burden that will weigh him down and bring out the worst in his play. I think McNabb will be pretty good, but I'm not sure if he's a guy that can carry a team like he used to. He will benefit from being in a run-oriented offense. Still, McNabb now has to face three attacking defenses in the division. He will have a rookie left tackle (Trent Williams) for the first time in his career. The offensive line overall isn't a polished, cohesive group. That's not good for a quarterback who likes to hold the ball and look downfield. There are legitimate concerns.
Washington was smart to trade for McNabb. He is a good risk. They've made some questionable moves in the last couple of years. They signed Albert Haynesworth to a mega-deal and then didn't use him the way he wanted to play. Now, Washington is switching to a 3-4 scheme and Haynesworth is really unhappy. He wants to be cut or traded. Running back Clinton Portis had a bad year in 2009. Injuries really hurt him. Shanahan went and added Larry Johnson and Willie Parker. Washington is talking to Brian Westbrook about him joining the team. That would be a tremendous backfield if you had a time machine, but I'm curious how good they could be in 2010. That's a lot of egos to have sharing the ball. Plus, those guys are older and each has lost time due to injuries at some point.
The Redskins have talent, but the overall infrastructure of the team isn't good right now. Adding Shanahan and McNabb should get the organization headed in the right direction, but I don't see this team having a good year in 2010.
The Giants are probably the hardest team to get a read on. There were times early in 2009 when they looked like arguably the best team in the NFL. That changed in a hurry and they struggled the rest of the year. Worst of all, the Giant defense was horrific at times. We scored 40 and 45 points against them. Carolina, Minnesota and New Orleans also scored 40 or more against them. Ouch. 2007 must seem like decades ago.
New York wisely signed free agent safety Antrel Rolle and drafted safety Chad Jones. The middle of the Giants secondary was like an interstate last year. They couldn't count on Kenny Phillips returning from his knee injury. They had to make other plans and then hope Phillips is able to get back to the field and play at his previous level. He was a player on the rise prior to the injury. You always hate to see young players hurt. Something like that can ruin a career. We Eagles fans have seen it far too many times with our own guys.
As bad as the secondary was, the lack of a pass rush really didn't help matters. Justin Tuck is still a force when he's healthy, but injuries have affected him the last two years. No one is quite sure what to make of Osi Umenyiora at this point. He missed 2008 with an ACL tear. He wasn't consistently effective last year and got benched. Umenyiora made a bunch of threats in the off-season, but now says things are hunky dory. That will be true until the first time he's benched or blamed for a problem. Then things will get interesting. In order to help the pass rush the Giants chose defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul in the first round of the draft. He's raw and may not help much in 2010, but has the potential to be a force off the edge if he takes well to pro coaching.
The offense didn't make any major changes. They finished eighth overall in yards and points in 2009 so there wasn't a need for much change. Eli Manning is a good quarterback. The question with him is whether he's hit his ceiling or can continue to get better. Eli Manning isn't in the top tier of quarterbacks (Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, etc.). He is a Super Bowl winner and good player. That's hardly a bad thing. His numbers have gone up in recent years. We just need to see whether he's at his peak or can take the next step and be an even better player.
We tend to think of the Giants as the team who won the Super Bowl in 2007 and then played so well for much of 2008. Those teams looked outstanding. The reality is that the team has faded down the stretch in each of the last two years. If they handed out trophies in mid-October the Giants might be a dynasty. That isn't how it works. I'm sure Giants fans won't deal well with another let down. There is probably a good amount of pressure on Tom Coughlin to get his team back to the postseason and to win at least one game. The Giants have good owners who won't make rash decisions. They will hold Coughlin and his players to a high standard, though. This team is too talented to be struggling in December.