While Dallas showed they were the class of the division last seasn, the biggest story of the highly competitive NFC East was the trade of Donovan McNabb from Philadelphia to Washington. The Eagles, believing that Kevin Kolb is NFL ready, have moved on while McNabb will have plenty to prove with Washington. The Giants look to regain form after some defensive struggles as well. Who could come out of this division alive?
Dallas Cowboys [Last season: 11-5, 1st; lost to MIN in DIV RD]
When most people want to talk about the Cowboys, more often than not the first player mentioned is quarterback Tony Romo. It seems that Romo’s entire career in Dallas can be categorized into his really great starts that make people think that he’s ready to take over and dominate the league, and his really poor starts that make people wonder how he’s still a starting quarterback in the league. This inconsistency can be quite frustrating for Cowboys fans, especially considering that the passing game isn’t even the key to Dallas’ success.
What really sparks Dallas’ offense is their strong running game. Both Marion Barber and Felix Jones provide that spark, rushing for around 1500 yards combined, and Dallas must not forget to get these two involved in the offense like they did on occasion last year. Romo is most prone to mistake if he has to pass often and forcibly so, and without a running game that’s what will happen again this year. Although the receiving corps has gotten a boost from standout Miles Austin and new draftee Dez Bryant, Roy Williams was brought in for perhaps way too much and this is the year he must become the top receiver he was projected to be.
DeMarcus Ware is the main force behind Dallas’ defense, the run defense in particular was in the league’s top five a season ago. Their sack total was also very high but in general the passing defense was below average. Part of this was their inability to create turnovers, getting only 11 interceptions last season. Dallas’ secondary, which is by no means terrible or bad, must become more dynamic and opportunistic to help Dallas finally reach the next level they’ve been trying so hard to reach ever since the late 90s.
New York Giants [Last season: 8-8; 3rd]
After starting the season 5-0 last season, the Giants completely fell apart, losing their next four and then finishing the season 3-4 and looking at the playoffs from the outside. Their defense was a primary reason for this collapse, giving up scores of 48, 40, 45, 41, and 44 in five of their eight losses. For this and other reasons, the Giants decided to fire defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan after just one season. Perry Fewell will try to fix this defense which does have some talent. Justin Tuck anchors the defensive line, while Keith Bulluck and Antrel Rolle have been brought in to help bolster the linebacker and secondary units respectively. One would expect the Giants to improve defensively after the disaster last season, but time will tell.
Another reason for New York’s decline was with the running game. A dominant force in 2007 and 2008, this unit regressed to the middle of the pack in 2009. Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw are both capable of being powerful forces that push their way for yardage or goalline situation touchdowns, but were not able to maximize that potential last season. Perhaps as a result, the passing game behind Eli Manning and receivers Steve Smith and Mario Manningham did rather well though not without hiccups. However, the passing game is not what makes the New York Giants a dominant team. Moreso than other teams, New York must have a dominant running game to be a successful football team.
The Giants can be a very physically dominating team, which is something they were not for much of last season. With a new defensive coordinator along with some new key players in the defense, New York should be able to get back to playing their brand of rough football. This team was never meant to play in shootouts as last year clearly showed.
Philadelphia Eagles [Last season: 11-5, 2nd (WC); lost to DAL in WC RD]
The Eagles made a very controversial decision this offseason. Amidst joy from Eagle fans and confusion from everyone else, Philadelphia traded Donovan McNabb to division rival Washington, with the intention of making career backup Kevin Kolb their new starting quarterback. Whether Kolb will be able to get the job done is highly debatable, but McNabb himself is not nearly the quarterback that he once was and the Eagles believe that now was the time to turn the page.
Kolb will have a lot of help beside him on offense. DeSean Jackson showed last year that he can be one of the most dynamic players in the league at receiver while fellow receiver Jeremy Maclin and running back LeSean McCoy also bring excitement to this Eagle offense although Brian Westbrook is no longer with the team. The role of now backup quarterback Michael Vick is not really known at this point. He could still pop in in wildcat-type plays though he rarely did so last season. Its more likely that he could replace Kolb as the starter should Kolb struggle after a few games. As Vick has had very little actual playtime since coming back from prison last season, its still hard to tell what kind of skillset Vick has left, but its very likely he will contribute much more to the offense than he did last season.
The Eagles’ pass defense was quite literally hit or miss. They caught a lot of interceptions, but they also gave up a lot of passing touchdowns as well. Just drafted, Brandon Graham will be added to the line to create more pressure while Nate Allen will attempt to solidify that secondary. In the middle, Ernie Sims is trying to recover from a terrible 2009 season with Detroit that saw him hurt as well. Being a complement in Philadelphia’s defense should be good for Sims. Should be.
A lot of people are predicting gloom and doom for the Eagles only because Kevin Kolb is the quarterback instead of Donovan McNabb. While the difference between the two could cost the Eagles a couple of games, it could also help the Eagles win a few games with perhaps a new focus on the running game. Nobody will know if the Eagles made the right move in going with Kolb until the season finally gets going, though I don’t think they necessarily made a wrong move in trading McNabb.
Washington Redskins [Last season: 4-12; 4th]
As for McNabb’s new team, it will be interested to see what new coach Mike Shanahan brings to a team in Washington that has seen decline in recent years. Of course, all the public really knows so far is that Shanahan sure knows how to give Albert Haynesworth a hard time, but Shanahan had constant success in Denver and its likely he’ll bring the same to Washington… eventually.
One of the things Shanahan became famous for in Denver was a consistent rushing attack that became so well constructed that any running back could get 1000 yards in a season (but then completely fall apart once they try to do the same anywhere else). It will take time for the same to happen in Washington, but in the meantime Washington has three capable running backs to try and become the primary back for the team. Clinton Portis is already familar with Shanahan’s schemes back from his days in Denver. Willie Parker has been brought over from Pittsburgh where he had decent success, while Larry Johnson still looks to recover from a bitter end in Kansas City. Any one of these three succeeding will be a great boost to a Washington offense that looked awful and downright embarrasing at times last season.
McNabb will have to get used to his new team quickly. While Santana Moss and Devin Thomas are quality receivers, they aren’t quite the same as DeSean Jackson, at least not for now. Chris Cooley had his 2009 campaign come to an early end, a 2010 rebound from him is very possible. Defensively, Washington has a lot of talent but will be switching to a 3-4 scheme, which the $100 million man Haynesworth had a problem with. His skipped workouts in protest then gave Shanahan a problem to deal with, which he did by forcing Haynesworth to complete a running drill that Albert couldn’t finish for a week. Now, he is going to be the backup nose tackle for awhile, just sitting in Shanahan’s doghouse until he finally caves in. While that drama will likely be ongoing, Washington does have some talent at linebacker with London Fletcher and Brian Orakpo while the secondary with DeAngelo Hall and LaRon Landry will look to recover following a terrible 2009 season.
If Washington succeeds, I fear Donovan McNabb will be given too much credit unless he throw 300 yards and 2-3 TDs in most games, which is unlikely. Washington’s main game will come from their rushing offense and a hopefully revamped defensive scheme. Many think Washington won’t succeed until next season once Shanahan gets more of “his guys” in. Others think they can succeed right away with McNabb. If you can tell, I’m leaning toward the former viewpoint.
Division Prediction: I like Dallas to win this division. Of the four, they have the least amount of transition to deal with, and have more pieces than the other three to make a deep playoff run. If you’ve noticed in my other NFC previews, I have Atlanta and Minnesota taking the two Wild Card spots. Its silly for some to believe that the NFC East will only produce one playoff team, but given New York’s shaky defense, Philadelphia’s shaky offense, and Washington’s shaky everything, that prediction isn’t too off-base. Those three will all finish within a game or two of one another, however, with the Eagles just missing out on a playoff spot.
3. New York