Friday, August 13, 2010

Walker Sports NFC East Preview


Baseball used to be this country's past time, but now it is football. And while college football is amazing with all of its pageantry, it is the NFL that is the king amongst American sports. With a new NFL season just around the corner, there is plenty to talk about and discuss. This is the first installment of our NFL preview series. Since Walker Sports is located in the Mid-Atlantic territory, we will kick things off by talking about the NFC East.

-Teams are listed by predicted finish.

Dallas Cowboys: The Dallas Cowboys are on everyone's radar going into this season, and there's plenty of reason for that. Last year, Dallas finally got over their 12 year playoff drought, and won a game in the Wild Card round against division rival Philadelphia. This season Tony Romo and company are looking to take the next step and play in the Super Bowl.

Tony Romo told Cowboy fans at a pre-season pep rally they were going to make the Super Bowl. If he wants to make good on that offer the Cowboys need to improve on their mental toughness. On the field Dallas has all the weapons. On offense Tony Romo has matured into the natural leader and on the field general. Surround Romo is a virtual Pro-Bowl list of talented running backs and receivers. One of the most interesting story lines coming out of Dallas this preseason is the competition between Felix Jones and Marion Barber. Jones has put on some muscle and is looking to take over as the primary back if he can prove durable enough. Marion Barber dropped a few pounds this off season and is looking faster and stronger than he ever has. Toss in the emergence of Tashard Choice and the Cowboys have three talented backs that can step in and be a feature player on any given down.

The Cowboys are also stacked at the wide out position. Roy Williams seems to have been motivated by the arrival of rookie Dez Bryant. Williams has looked sharper and faster during training camp than he ever has. Last year's breakout star Miles Austin is still cemented as the team's number one receiver, and now that he has dumped distraction Kim Kardashian, he is ready to play football. If Dez Bryant can overcome an early season ankle injury there is no doubt he will have an immediate impact and add a great deep threat.

On defense, the Cowboys finished the season ranked second and they have all the key players back. If the Cowboys want to improve on their mental toughness, they can look no further for help than Keith Brooking. The linebacker found a second life last year and became the emotional leader of the Cowboys. Brooking is a master of the 3-4 scheme and he is the ultimate pro, providing leadership for Ware and Spencer. If there is a question about the Cowboys it is in their secondary, and they continue to look for an answer at the safety position. Expect Wade Philips to dial up plenty of blitz packages, and rely on his front seven to create pressure, and protect a shaky secondary.

Philadelphia Eagles: Donovan McNabb is gone, and Kevin Kolb is calling the shots for the Eagles. There is no doubt the flow of the Eagles offense will be affected. However, the move is consistent with the youth movement Andy Reid has put in place. DeSean Jackson is the new play maker and the deep threat. LeSean McCoy has stepped in to become the new feature back and replace the departed Brian Westbrook. If all of these young players can mold the Eagles could become the sleeper team in a weak NFC.

On the defensive side of the ball, there is no doubt the Eagles suffered a setback with the lost of defensive coordinator Jim Johnson. While Philadelphia still blitzes a lot, and they try to apply pressure to opposing quarterbacks, it was evident that the defense did not carry the same bite in 09 as they had in previous years. The dirty little secret about the Eagles success over the last decade was their defense. When the Eagles are able to dial up effective blitz packages, they can shut down anyone. But, when those blitz’s fail to generate pressure and knock a quarterback off their rhythm, they just serve to create matchup problems in the secondary that end up hurting the Eagles. For an example of what an ineffective Philadelphia defense looks like, look no further than their final two games of last year against the Dallas Cowboys. Dallas was able to use their massive offensive line to create huge holes and they countered Philadelphia blitz’s by utilizing a wide variety of draw plays.

While I have the Eagles ranked second in the NFC East, I could easily see them falling behind the New York Giants, and maybe even the Washington Redskins. In the end, the 2010 Eagles are a 9-7 team if they can get everything to go their way.

New York Giants: It’s hard to believe that it was only three seasons ago that the Giants went on a miracle run and knocked off the New England Patriots to win the Super Bowl, and seemingly were on their way to creating their own dynasty. How quickly the winds of change blow within the NFL, altering team’s fortunes. The biggest difference in the Giants is their offense, and the disappearance of their rushing attack. When New York is at their best, they feature a two or three headed rushing attack that can punish a defense however they want. In 2009 that attack went silent and so did the Giants. Brandon Jacobs was the epitome of a NFL power back when he broke out in 2007 and 2008. However, it appears that after receiving a contract extension the big back has lost some of his direction. In 2009 Jacobs only ran for 835 yards, and averaged a puny 3.7 yards a carry. All of this while weighing in at a hefty 270-280 pounds. Compounding the ineffectiveness of Brandon Jacobs in 2009 was the drop of in production from speed back Ahmad Bradshaw. After averaging 5.3 yards a carry in 2008 Bradshaw appeared ready to step into spotlight for the Giants, this is why they released running back Derrick Ward, but Bradshaw regressed in 2009. He was only able to compile 778 yards on 163 carries. Not bad, but nearly the production you want from a guy who was expected to transform into a feature back.

The Giants must find a way to run the ball, and take some pressure off of Eli Manning. While proving to be a good and reliable quarterback, he is not Peyton. The Giants cannot afford to put Eli in positions where he has to throw the ball 40 or more times a game and hope to make something happen. This is especially the case when his go to receiver is Steve Smith (not of the Panthers).

The offense was not the only unit to fail the Giants in 2009; the defense can take plenty of blame for New York missing the playoffs as well. What was once the best defensive line in football injuries and pure lack of production has left the Giants defensive line in shambles. Justin Tuck must play better in 2010. When he is at his best, he is nothing short of controlled chaos on the defensive line. Along with Osi, Tuck has to increase his production in 2010. Right now the Giants are also banking on the emergence of second year rush linebacker Clint Sintim to provide that extra spark they may have been missing in 2009.

Much like the Eagles, the 2010 season can go in either direction for the Giants. There is no doubt they will split one or two of their series in the NFC East and then hope for the best with the remainder of the schedule. What is in their favor is the NFC is weak overall and if the Giants can hover around the 8-8 or 9-7 mark they will keep themselves in the Wild Card mix.

Washington Redskins: It’s the beginning of a new era in Washington DC, and if you’re a Redskins fan that is the news you’ve been waiting for over the last ten years. For the first time since Marty ball left the district, the Redskins have a head coach who knows what he is doing, and has a plan to build on (sorry Joe Gibbs). Mike Shanahan has taken over as the Redskins head coach, and he wasted no time in putting his mark on the organization. Out is former first round draft pick Jason Campbell, in is Pro-Bowl quarterback Donovan McNabb. It’s pretty obvious that McNabb is an instant upgrade at quarterback. He is a grizzled veteran player who has seen just about everything there is to see in the NFL. He should also have a chip on his shoulder since the Eagles thought so little of him they traded him to a division rival. According to reports already emerging from Ashburn, the biggest obstacle for Donovan McNabb in 2010 will be adjusting to and learning the language of a new offense. Mike Shanahan has placed the over under at two years. Too bad, Donovan may not be around that long, but that is another story.

While the change on the offensive side of the ball is obvious in Washington, the changes on the defensive side of the ball could prove to be the game changer. Jim Haslet has stepped in as the new defensive coordinator for the Burgundy and Gold and he is bringing the 3-4 defense with him. This is a change in philosophy from the 4-3 that Washington has run forever. The interesting twist in all of this is Washington was a solid defensive team last season. They were simply left on the field too long because of an anemic offense. The advantage of the 3-4 is it should generate more pressure and in turn force more turnovers, something the Skins have lacked in recent years. The 3-4 also allows second year star Brian Orakpo to showcase his exceptional athletic ability by moving him to rush linebacker and allowing him to blitz up to 70% of the time.

There are a lot of question marks surrounding the Washington Redskins. One thing I do know is this is a better team than last year, simply because they will be more organized and they have leadership both on and off the field. That being said, there are a lot of moving pieces that the Burgundy and Gold are trying to fit together in a very short amount of time, and that does not always yield the best results. In addition, Mike Shanahan has employed some hard discipline tactics, see Albert Haynesworth, while that’s good for a new coach to establish himself, it can also create tension. The Redskins still have strong personalities in their locker room, many of whom are happy to fall in line during the pre-season, and when the team is winning. But if the team takes a nose dive, those same hard handed tactics could backfire.

The key thing to remember with the Redskins is they went 4-12 in 2009, a 7-9 season is a vast improvement and getting above .500 is damn near a miracle.

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