Friday, August 29, 2014

Long And Suite Preview: The NFC East

The Cheerleaders might be the only appealing part of Dallas' season in 2014.
By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin) and Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

The NFC East. All the prestige. None of the results.

The failures of the blue bloods of the NFC North can at least be explained by injuries - Aaron Rodgers, the entire Chicago defense - the NFC East doesn't really have an excuse. They were just bad.

The Cowboys continued their annual tradition of entering Week 17 with an opportunity to win their division. But for the third straight year, against the third different opponent in three years, the Cowboys lost, awarding their opponent the NFC East title. So if you believe in destiny, the Redskins will be the 2014 NFC East champions - they're the ones with the fortune of playing the Cowboys (at home) in Week 17.

2013 was a weird year for the NFC East. If you had heard that a zone-read offense that led the league in rushing yards and yards per carry won the division, you probably would have picked Washington to repeat as division champions. It probably would have been an easier choice if you heard Michael Vick only started six games. But the Eagles found a dominant rushing attack and one of the most efficient passing games the league has ever seen that didn't include Peyton Manning or Tom Brady, and closed the season 8-2 with Nick Foles under center.

The Redskins and Giants just went belly-up. Robert Griffin III never got healthy, and when Washington couldn't create big plays, they couldn't keep up when their defense failed to get stops. With Griffin hurt, their running game couldn't salt away the clock and keep their defense off the field. It was a true double-edged sword that cut down Griffin, and the Redskins with him.

The Giants, meanwhile, just decided to turn the ball over like it was going out of style. They committed 44 turnovers in 16 games, 10 more than any other team in the league. The second-place Lions actually ended up closer to 19th than to 1st. 44 turnovers was the highest figure since the 2006 Raiders forked it over 46 times of their own (a staggering 22 of those came off fumbles, compared to just 15 for the Giants).

Here's how the division breaks down - separated into two groups. Teams better than you think they are, and teams not as good as you think they are:

(It should be noted here, and will be repeated, that how a team is classified here is not indicative of their relative quality within the division. For example, the Giants are listed as being better than advertised, and the Cowboys are listed as being worse. That doesn't necessarily mean that the Giants will be better than the Cowboys. It just means that one team is over-valued and one team is under-valued.)

These Teams Are Better Than You Think They Are

Philadelphia Eagles

2013 Result: 10-6, 1st in NFC East, Lost in Wild Card Round
Odds To Win Division: -110
Over/Under Wins: 9

With the 2014 Eagles, you have to decide which side of the coin you want to look on. On one side of the coin, there are some obvious clues for regression. DeSean Jackson, their best outside receiver, and the one guy capable of deflecting attention away from the ongoing chaos in the middle of the field (where the real magic happened for the Philadelphia offense), is gone. He's in Washington now. Nick Foles had a spectacular 2013 campaign - so spectacular that it would be virtually impossible for him to replicate it (unless you think a 27-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio is easy to re-produce).

But on the other hand, there are a number of reasons to think that the Eagles could be even better than last year. Jeremy Maclin, who missed all of 2013 with a torn ACL, returns to the lineup and will replace DeSean Jackson as the No. 1 receiver. They also drafted Jordan Matthews from Vanderbilt in the second round, and Josh Huff from Oregon in the third round, both of whom have experience in a spread offense, and Huff even played under Chip Kelly at Oregon. They don't have a receiver that can match what Jackson did, but cumulatively, as a unit, they're deeper at receiver than they were last year. And that doesn't even include Darren Sproles, who has been the best receiving running back in the league for pretty much the last half-decade. They lost their second-biggest weapon in Jackson, but top to bottom, they're better at the skill positions.

One of the (flawed) arguments for Philadelphia regressing is the idea that it's a "gimmick" offense. It's different and new, so there must be some "trick" to it that teams will eventually figure out and then squash. Well, this theory isn't supported by available evidence. In the first eight games of last season, the Eagles averaged exactly 22 points per game and 398 yards of total offense. In their last eight games of the season, they averaged 33.25 points per game and 437 yards of total offense. If it were a "gimmick" that teams could figure out, they would have. But they didn't.

The offense might not be as explosive as it was last year (simply because Jackson is gone and Foles posted an unsustainably low interception rate), but it will still be on an elite level, and the Eagles are still the favorite in the division.


New York Giants

2013 Result: 7-9, 3rd in NFC East, Missed Playoffs
Odds To Win Division: +350
Over/Under Wins: 8

Let's be honest, things can't go much worse than they did in 2013. They started 0-6, turned the ball over 44 times, and saw virtually every relevant player on both sides of the ball either get injured of suffer a disappointing stretch of poor play.

The rushing game should be better, although not by much. The Giants brought in Rashad Jennings to be their starting tailback, but he's 29 years old and has been in the league for five years, and hasn't really established himself. He spent last season in Oakland (and had a respectable year), but even though the Raiders were desperate for backfield help and/or depth, they opted not to bring him back. If Jennings were anything close to an elite running back, we would have seen it by now.

Hakeem Nicks is gone, but Victor Cruz and Rueben Randle are both back. Eli Manning is at his best in three-receiver, one-back, one-tight-end formations, so the Giants will need to find a third receiver to pair with Cruz and Randle. Randle is the big target for the Red Zone, and Cruz handles all of the in-between, short, and flat routes, so a deep threat would be a nice compliment. Either Odell Beckham Jr, the team's first-round pick this last spring, or Mario Manningham, who returns to the Meadowlands after a two-year sabbatical, could fit in nicely.

Plain and simple, it's highly doubtful that Manning throws 27 interceptions again. Yes, he's led the league in interceptions three times now, but he's bounced back the following year in each of the last two cases. Don't expect him to have a season of the caliber of his older brother, but he should regress (progress?) back towards the mean this year, possibly even past it. Depending on how far he goes, the Giants could find themselves back in the playoffs.


 Washington Redskins

2013 Result: 3-13, 4th in NFC East, Missed Playoffs
Odds To Win Division: +350
Over/Under Wins: 7.5

Washington's success in 2014 will depend on whether or not Robert Griffin III can become the RG3 we knew in 2012.

Injuries slowed the dual-threat dynamo last season, and bogus reports that he isn't grasping the playbook have fueled a fictional "quarterback controversy" in the nation's capital between he and backup Kirk Cousins.

While Cousins has played decently when called upon, Washington is going as far as RG3 can carry it, and despite a lackluster preseason, I'd look for a return to form for the 2011 Heisman Trophy winner.

Heck, Washington had a Top-10 offense last year (No. 9 with 370 YPG), and RG3 was clearly not fully healthy. Give him another season to heal, and throw new target DeSean Jackson into the mix with a stellar running game powered by Alfred Morris, and that offense should be among the league's best.

Defensively, Washington will miss the leadership of recently retired London Fletcher, but the unit should improve as long as the pass rushing duo of Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan stay healthy. The two outside linebackers combined for 18.5 sacks last year, with Orakpo piling up an additional 16 TFL and Kerrigan 15. That would rank the two of them 6th and 7th in the NFL, respectively, making them the most disruptive pair of outside linebackers in the league.

Despite that, Washington has struggled to bring consistent pressure from anywhere else. Enter free agent Jason Hatcher, a veteran defensive tackle coming off an 11-sack season with the Cowboys. Hatcher will likely serve as a 5-technique defensive end in Washington's 3-4, and will give the team a significant upgrade against both the run and the pass.

The addition of rookie Trent Murphy out of Stanford should help the pass rush as well, and the secondary could get a boost from free agent corners Tracy Porter and Akeem Jordan, who will each fight for a role in the team's Nickel package. Look for veteran Ryan Clark to fill the team's leadership void, and combine with Brandon Meriweather to form the NFL's dirtiest (I mean, hardest-hitting) safety duo.

All in all, Washington looks to be an improved team and, after dealing with injuries to key players, posting a -8 turnover margin and going just 2-6 in games decided by a touchdown or less (only Houston had worse luck in close games) during the 2013 season, you would expect that Washington couldn't possibly be that unlucky again in 2014.

With an upgraded roster and, perhaps, some better luck, look for Washington to contend for a title in the up-and-down NFC East.


These Teams Are Worse Than You Think They Are

Dallas Cowboys

2013 Result: 8-8, 2nd in NFC East, Missed Playoffs
Odds To Win Division: +500
Over/Under Wins: 7.5

There are only two ways this Cowboys season can end - either they can win the division by beating Washington in Week 17 (to break the three-year streak of losing the division title on the last day of the season), or they can be so far out of the division race by that point that the game is completely and totally irrelevant.

Based on the Dallas roster this season, the second outcome is far more likely.

For the past handful of years, the Cowboys have been hamstrung by the cap, an inconvenience caused by extending players for way too much money way too soon. As a result, the Cowboys' roster has included a handful of legitimate stars, and then garbage. Just straight garbage.

When you have no depth, you need your star players to perform as such, and you can't afford any injuries. Unfortunately for the 2013 Cowboys, their star players had down years (except Dez Bryant, who, to his credit, firmly established himself as a top-five receiver in the league), and a number of them got injured, including Sean Lee, DeMarcus Ware and Tony Romo.

Romo is back healthy this year, but Ware is no longer with the team, and Lee will miss the season with a torn ACL. With their two biggest defensive stars gone, their lack of depth on defense will be on full display.

If Tony Romo, at age 34, can finally break through and unequivocally cement himself as an elite quarterback who can single-handedly salvage a season, the Cowboys can make the playoffs. If he falls short, so will the Cowboys. If he has just another random Tony Romo season (splendid production but with two or three instances of falling apart at the worst possible time), the Cowboys could lose 10 games instead of winning 10.


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