Last season I wrote pretty extensively about the NFC East. This is a hard fact to swallow for a NFC North kind of guy, but the division had the most compelling storylines and it seemed every team in the division had at least a couple of weeks in which they appeared to be serious playoff contenders (even the Washington Redskins were once 2-2 in 2010). This season I am going to have to swallow that bitter pill again.
The Dallas Cowboys come into the season built like a Super Bowl-winning team in Madden, the New York Giants are counting on putting the 2007 Giants redux on the field, the Eagles return with a quarterback whose skills better suited for the offensive strategy, and the Redskins once again added a quick fix to the lineup.
Bill Simmons has remarked often enough in his podcasts that the NFL is more and more resembling Madden. This Dallas Cowboys team has those loose cannon at quarterback, that trio of running backs, that game-breaking wide receiver, that huge offensive line, and that star at every level in the defense to win, nay dominate, in a video game. Of course, Wade Phillips has had this kind of talent before and has failed to reach the NFC Championship.
This is what makes the Cowboys such a great story- they are a supremely talented team that somehow sabotages their own success. Dallas has its own soap opera on perhaps the grandest stage (Cowboys Stadium), with a leading man (Tony Romo) to put J.R. Ewing to shame.
New York Giants
The New York Giants tweaked the team that began the season 5-0 before melting down in the last 12 weeks of the season. The tweaks are pretty simple. The Giants began by returning to the 2007 Super Bowl-winning defensive philosophy. New defensive coordinator Perry Fewell is all about the Cover 2 and all about going after the quarterback at the first level. The major difference between this defense and the 2007 defense is the secondary will play zone instead of pressing.
I feel like this is a mistake, but I am not a defensive coordinator and may be off base when I think you should exert all the pressure possible if you are going to play a defense planning on taking off the quarterback’s head. The softer zone strategy may be a result of the less-talented personnel at corner so though this is not a consistent philosophy, it may be the best Fewell can do with the players he has.
The Philadelphia Eagles have always been torn between the West Coast offense and Donovan McNabb’s incredible arm strength. This season they will start Kevin Kolb at quarterback, a QB with far more accuracy but less of a deep ball. Last season McNabb led an offense capable of tripping over itself for the first 57 minutes of the game and then unloading for three straight touchdowns over the last three minutes. Kolb will not be leading that kind of a charge. Expect a much more methodical attack in 2010.
If the starting quarterback was the only significant change, then it would be very reasonable to expect a playoff berth, but this team has been changing in volume this past summer. Brian Westbrook is gone and LeSean McCoy will be starting at running back. McCoy is less injury prone and less versatile a player. Still, he is a good target out of the backfield and picked up 4.6 yards a carry in 2009.
The defense will have a new starting corner opposite Asante Samuel to start the season (three players are currently competing for the job). There is also some new blood in the secondary now with free safety Brian Dawkins gone. The defensive line is new but very talented and the linebackers are solid. This may simply be a growing season for the Eagles, only the team should walk away with eight wins, which is very good for a rebuilding year.
The Washington Redskins were able to do the impossible, trade for a starting quarterback within their own division. Does this mean McNabb is washed up or the Eagles are fools? My guess is this debate will go back and forth all season long. McNabb is working with Mike Shanahan, a modern offensive guru. However, he is also working with just one clear starter-caliber receiver in Santana Moss. Obviously, Chris Cooley is a terrific pass catching tight end as well, but this Redskins offense still lacks the playmakers to take advantage of McNabb’s arm strength.
This goes for the running game as well. Four years ago the trio of Clinton Portis, Willie Parker, and Larry Johnson might have been pretty formidable, but now the trio looks like a broken down machine.
The defense is making the transition to the 3-4 with an out of shape Albert Haynesworth set to anchor the nose tackle position. Why do this if a team wants to compete. It typically takes a season for a defense to make the switch, so expect a lot of high scoring games and a lot of McNabb deep bombs to keep the Redskins in games this season.
I fully expect the Cowboys and Giants to fight for first place. The Cowboys look better on paper, but paper is fickle and the Giants are returning the 2007 team for the first time to a new stadium.
I am not willing to discount the Eagles, even if they are retooling the offense and defense. They may not take first but they could steal the last wild card spot thanks to their incredibly talented compliment of receivers.
The Redskins fans are going to have a tough season. They may think McNabb is better than Jason Campbell because he is, even at the age of 33, but he does not have the personnel or the solid support from the defense to do much than last season’s 4-12 record.