Friday, August 16, 2013

Long and Suite Preview: The NFC East

Will RGIII be healthy enough to deliver more memorable moments in 2013?
By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin) and Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

Unlike the AFC East and its year-to-year domination by the New England Patriots, the NFC East is arguably the most volatile division in the league. In fact, the last four years have seen a different division winner each time (Washington in 2012, New York in 2011, Philadelphia in 2010, and Dallas in 2009). Every team has occupied every spot in the standings over the last four years except one - the Giants have never finished last.

At first glance, it would seem like the Giants have had a disproportionate amount of success in comparison to the rest of the division, and considering their 2012 Super Bowl win, that may actually be the case. But it's important to remember that the Giants have two seasons of missing the playoffs entirely sandwiching that Super Bowl year.

In other words, it's up for grabs.

Storylines to Watch:

Can the Skins Repeat?

Well, with all four teams winning the division in the last four years, it's become pretty evident that it isn't easy to repeat as champion in the East. Washington seems to have as good a chance as any recent NFC champ if Robert Griffin III is healthy, but that's an awfully big if.

Next to Griffin will be second-year sensation Alfred Morris, who made many a fantasy owner thrilled last season when he came out of Florida Atlantic to set the league on fire. But, how successful can Morris be without the threat of the zone read and Griffin running the ball backside? That remains to be seen.

If the Skins are to repeat, even with Griffin, they will have to defend the pass significantly better in 2013 than they did in 2012. Washington ranked 30th in the league in pass defense a year ago, and corners DeAngelo Hall and Josh Wilson will have to go from interception artists to solid coverage guys. Strong safety Reed Doughty is a "hustle guy," aka, a white DB, but the Skins think he's been solid since stepping into the starting lineup in 2011.

I would disagree and say he's a liability in downfield coverage, but hey, I don't run a pro football team.

The wild card in that secondary will be former Patriots safety/helmet swinger Brandon Merriweather, who was nicked up by injuries all of last season before tearing his ACL in mid-November. If Merriweather can just give a few quality snaps each game, it could be a huge boost to the Redskins' pass defense.

Oh, and that guy Orakpo coming back to rush the quarterback should help too.


New Playcaller In Dallas

After two consecutive seasons of missing the playoffs after losing the final game of the season, the Cowboys decided to take the offensive reigns away from Jason Garrett. After serving as primary playcaller for the last seven years (including his time as Offensive Coordinator under Wade Phillips), Garrett will now serve a more classic Head Coaches role, overseeing his coordinators and focusing purely on game management. Offensive playcalling will now be under the supervision of Offensive Coordinator Bill Callahan, a role he last held in the NFL in 2003 with the Raiders (he also was the offensive playcaller when he was the head coach at Nebraska).

The 2003 Raiders were pretty abysmal on offense - 25th in the league in total yards - but in the four years prior to that, they were a top-10 offense every year (including a #1 ranking in 2002, the year they reached the Super Bowl). Callahan is already introducing a lot of interesting formations and personnel groups, including a four-tight end-package that can line up in a variety of ways. Tony Romo is at his best with an improvisational offense, so a goofy package like that might be right up his alley.


Player(s) to Watch:

Michael Vick, Nick Foles, Matt Barkley, Dennis Dixon(?)

It's unlikely that the Eagles go into the season with four quarterbacks on their roster, but Dixon is an option-style quarterback who played in Chip Kelly's system at Oregon in 2007, so it's possible.

The basic idea here is that Philadelphia's success this season depends on having a quarterback that can effectively execute Kelly's offense against NFL defenses. In their first two preseason games, the Eagles have shown flashes of very creative play design, like inserting a wide receiver bubble screen as a third option on a zone-read play. Unfortunately, Nick Foles was playing quarterback at the time and looked hilariously awkward running it.

The common-sense solution to this problem would seem to be to start Michael Vick at quarterback, because he is the most mobile, the best downfield runner, and the most familiar with zone-read principles at the NFL level. On the other hand, Vick was really, really bad last season, ranking 28th in both DVOA and DYAR (the two most prominent Football Outsiders metrics) and 26th in Total QBR (the metric developed by ESPN's Stats & Info Group). But, to swing back the other way, Foles was just as bad (30th, 30th, and 28th in those three categories, respectively).

All in all, there isn't much to inspire confidence in Philadelphia's depth chart at quarterback. Both Joe and I have Philadelphia projected to finish last in the NFC East, but if Vick can return to his 2010 form or Nick Foles can drop a few tenths of his 40 and Shuttle times, they could be a surprise playoff team.


Eli Manning

Many have criticized Peyton Manning for not winning big games, and have even gone so far as to say that little brother Eli is a better quarterback based on simple math. You know, two Super Bowls is greater than one.

That's fine if you want to feel that way, but if Eli truly wants to be in the same conversation as his older brother, it's time for him to start winning more consistently. After delivering a Super Bowl in 2011, Manning regressed to the middle of the pack in terms of passer rating and yards per attempt in 2012, and Big Blue missed the playoffs for the third time in four years.

I get that the guy wins big games, but if you only get to the playoffs 25% of the time, he better win EVERY big game from here on out.

For Eli to take the next step, the time is now. The weapons are in place, as New York's receiving duo of Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks is among the league's best, and second-year talent Rueben Randle's size and physicality should give the Giants another dimension in the passing game.

While Ahmad Bradshaw's production must be replaced in the backfield by David Wilson and Andre Brown and the defense is dealing with injury issues already, make no mistake about it, the success or failure of this season is on Eli.


Jeremy's Picks:

Giants 10-6
Redskins 9-7
Cowboys 9-7
Eagles 6-10

Joe's Picks:

Redskins: 11-5
Giants: 9-7
Cowboys: 9-7
Eagles: 7-9

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