Wednesday, August 29, 2007

NFL Preview: NFC East

Philadelphia Eagles: Ten games into the 2006 season, the Eagles looked to be repeating their disappointing 2005 campaign. When the Eagles lost their Week 11 match-up to the Titans, in which McNabb suffered a season-ending injury, the team dropped to 5-5. Jeff Garcia turned everything around. After dropping his first start to Indianapolis, he led the Eagles to five straight wins, netting them the NFC East crown. The Eagles beat the Giants in the first round of the playoffs before falling to the Saints.

Not only did last season lead the Eagles to believe they can win without McNabb, but it brought up serious questions about his future with the team. As a result, the Eagles selected Kevin Kolb in the second round of the draft. Kolb shouldn't see much playing time this season, with McNabb starting and A.J. Feeley as the primary backup, but it sent a message that the Eagles are running out of patience with McNabb. If the Eagles are going to have a great season, it won't be about McNabb. The Eagles can score, we know that already. When healthy, McNabb is an MVP candidate, but there is good talent around him. Brian Westbrook is one of the better running backs in the league, the offensive line is excellent, and the receiving corps is solid. Should McNabb go down again, Feeley knows the offense and should be capable of running the team.

The real issue will be how the defense performs. It struggled last year, particularly against the run. The defensive line was undersized, partly due to the injury to Jevon Kearse, and the linebackers were ineffective. Jeremiah Trotter, normally a great run-stopper, clearly lost a step and was released as a result. The linebacker positions will now be anchored down by newly acquired Takeo Spikes, Omar Gaither, and either Chris Gocong or Stewart Bradley. It's an inexperienced group, with the exception of Spikes, but there is a lot riding on them.

Dallas Cowboys: Last season turned out to be the last straw for Drew Bledsoe in Dallas. He did not fare particularly well, posting a 3-2 record before he was benched in favor of Tony Romo. Romo started out on a tear, winning 5 of his first 6, but sputtered down the stretch, losing 3 of 4, costing the Cowboys the division. We all know what happened in the first round of the playoffs against the Seahawks. Suffice it to say that Romo won't be holding for kicks again this year.

While Romo will be returning as the starting quarterback, 2006 did spell the end of Bill Parcells, who was replaced by Wade Phillips. With a 48-39 career head coaching record, Phillips cannot compare with Parcells' resume, nor does he have an impressive playoff record (0-3). He was brought in mainly because the Cowboys were frustrated with their defense, which was very talented but could not produce. The defense should improve, with young players such as Marcus Spears and DeMarcus Ware likely to improve and the team will also benefit from first-round pick Anthony Spencer, a speedy defensive end who should be a perfect fit in the Cowboys 3-4 defense.

The defense play a large role in the team's success, but all eyes will be on Romo. Can he recover from blowing his first playoff game? Also, which Romo will show up? The one who won five of his first six games, or the one who melted down in the end of the regular season and playoffs? If Romo plays well and the defense improves, the Cowboys could be among the best in the NFC, but it may not be enough to beat the Eagles.

New York Giants: The NFC East looked to belong to the Giants, who got off to a 6-2 start. Eli Manning was playing as well as he ever had and Tiki Barber was having a great year. Plaxico Burress, Amani Toomer, and Jeremy Shockey were helping Manning out, giving him a wide variety of options. Unfortunately for Giants fans, this success could not be maintained. The Giants lost six of their last eight and eked out a playoff spot, only to lose to the Eagles in the first round.

It couldn't have helped that Barber announced his retirement mid-way through the season, and he followed through at the end, joining NBC as an analyst. He's already made a splash in that role by criticizing Manning's leadership ability. While he may not be missed in the Giants locker room, in light of recent events, he will be sorely missed on the field. Brandon Jacobs now becomes the primary running back, with newly acquired Reuben Droughns as the backup.

While Jacobs has been effective as a third-down back, who could pound the ball for a few tough yards, he may not be ready to be an every-down back. Yes, he'll have Droughns to help him, but Droughns, a converted fullback, is a very similar runner. Both are pure power runners, though Jacobs has a little quickness. This should make life easier for the Giants' opposition, who probably won't have to worry about the outside run. It will take a great season from Jacobs for this team to be successful.

Washington Redskins: Once again Daniel Snyder's high-priced Redskins team fell on their faces, posting a 5-11 record. Mark Brunell was ousted as the starting quarterback, in favor of Jason Campbell, who was unable to improve the team much, though he did show some promise. Clinton Portis suffered several injuries and Ladell Betts got a lot of touches as a result. Betts was very effective and will see a lot of playing time this year, whether or not Portis is healthy. The wide receivers also looked very good, with Santana Moss leading the way.

The defense was not particularly effective and clearly showed signs of aging. That won't be any different this year, as the biggest addition was that of London Fletcher. One thing they do have going for them is two young, talented safeties in Sean Taylor and rookie Laron Landry. Taylor can be overaggressive at times, but he is one of the hardest hitters in the league, and Landry shows a great deal of promise.

It's hard to know what to expect from that defense, which has been very inconsistent the last few years, but the offense will be crucial. If the Redskins want to climb out of the NFC East cellar, they will need solid performances from Portis and Campbell. With Portis and Betts, the 'Skins may be able to get by with a strong rushing attack, but even so it will be very hard for them to keep up with the rest of the division.