Dallas Cowboys: Danny Watkins

Dallas Cowboys could use Eric Winston

March, 7, 2013
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So the Chiefs cut right tackle Eric Winston on Wednesday, probably because they've decided to take a tackle with the first pick in the draft. But this isn't a Chiefs blog. This is a Cowboys blog, peopled by fans of America's Team. So why are we talking about this?

Winston
Because whenever a player of whom fans have heard gets cut in the middle of his contract, one of the first questions fans immediately ask is, "Should [my team] try to sign [this player that was just cut in the middle of his contract]?" And if you cheer for the Cowboys, and the player in question is Winston, the answer is yes.

It amazes me sometimes, the similarities our four NFC East teams can share. They all need help in the secondary, for instance, and they all need help on the right side of the offensive line. So here's a quickie rundown of why the Cowboys should kick the tires on this 29-year-old offensive lineman who is allowed to sign any time.

Dallas Cowboys

Obviously, the Doug Free contract is a huge bust and the Cowboys need a right tackle. They need guard help, too, but a right tackle is a fine place to start. Sadly for the Cowboys, they're too tight up against the cap to really compete for a free agent if that free agent is going to draw interest from multiple teams. I still think they address this in the draft.

Eagles' offensive line is completely toast

November, 8, 2012
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The Philadelphia Eagles made it official Wednesday, putting right tackle Todd Herremans on season-ending injured reserve with the ankle injury he suffered in Monday night's loss to the Saints in New Orleans. That means the Eagles right now are without four of the five players they planned to use this year as starting offensive linemen. All-Pro left tackle Jason Peters tore his Achilles tendon twice in the offseason and is unlikely to play this year. Center Jason Kelce tore knee ligaments in Week 2 and is out for the season. Right guard Danny Watkins has missed the past two games and remains out with an ankle injury. And now Herremans is down for the season.

Left guard Evan Mathis is looking around wondering where everybody went.

In all seriousness, this is the kind of thing that really starts to convince you there's no chance for the Eagles to turn this season around. You can talk all you want about how Michael Vick needs to play better or they need to run the ball more with LeSean McCoy, but there's simply no way for an offense to work if the offensive line isn't right. And there's simply no way for any NFL team to lose four starting offensive linemen and not struggle offensively.

Part of the problem is that Demetress Bell, the talented but disappointing tackle they signed right after Peters got hurt, has been a total flop. But even if Bell had locked down left tackle, the entire right side of the line from center over would be on the shelf right now. King Dunlap, Dallas Reynolds and Dennis Kelly haven't been awful in and of themselves as replacements, but a line needs to play together in order to be effective, and if you watched the Eagles on Monday night you saw a line that can't handle its joint assignments in pass protection or really in the run game.

This was supposed to have been a strength for the Eagles this year, but it's now fallen completely apart to an extent they could not have possibly imagined. And it's the single greatest impediment to the miracle comeback they'll need to make in the second half of the season to save Andy Reid's job as head coach.

Eagles are a study in 'miscalculation'

November, 6, 2012
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Amid all of the perfectly justified rip jobs and sky-is-falling coverage of the Philadelphia Eagles' latest loss, this short item by Jeff McLane caught my eye. He's got someone with the Eagles telling him Andy Reid's bye-week firing of defensive coordinator Juan Castillo was a "miscalculation." This comes as neither news nor a surprise to anyone who's been tracking the Eagles over the past two seasons, during which it appears "miscalculation" has been the hallmark of the front office's game plan.

Yeah, when you watch the Eagles play, it's easy to get caught up in the on-field, in-game issues. Why don't they run the ball more? Why can't Michael Vick make pre-snap reads? Have they quit on Andy Reid? Stuff like that. But I think if you look back over the past two years, it's easy to see that the flaws with this team are flaws of construction, and that the miscalculations are myriad and extensive. A partial list, in no particular order:

    [+] EnlargeMichael Vick
    AP Photo/Brian GarfinkelSigning QB Michael Vick to a $100 million contract appears to be a costly move for the Eagles.
  • Deciding on Vick as a $100 million franchise quarterback based on the spectacular aspect of the way he played in 2010, ignoring the likelihood that his issues reading the field, making audibles and adjusting on the fly were too ingrained to overcome in his 30s. And no, it's not that they should have kept Kevin Kolb or that they didn't get great value for him in the trade. It's just that tying so much of their 2011-12 success to Vick is going to set them back as they head into 2013 and beyond. And the bust potential that Vick came with at the time of the contract was high enough to make it a questionable decision at best.
  • Signing Nnamdi Asomugha on the presumption that he'd play like a top shutdown cornerback, then playing him in zone coverage for his first year because they didn't have the guts to move Asante Samuel. This resulted in their having to trade Samuel for nearly nothing a year later, and Asomugha has struggled at times this year in one-on-one coverage against speedy wideouts.
  • Drafting Danny Watkins in the first round after hiring Howard Mudd to run the offensive line. Mudd found Jason Kelce in the sixth round, identified him as the type of guy who could play his scheme and quickly molded him into a top NFL center. Surely, he could have found a guard in the fifth or seventh that fit his profile and done the same with him, and the Eagles could have used that first-rounder on something more immediately helpful. And no, the Eagles could not have imagined the extent to which injuries would ravage their offensive line this season, but it does seem as though they could have found backup players better suited to adapt quickly to Mudd's blocking schemes. Perhaps if they hadn't been so focused on bringing in high-profile, ultimately useless skill-position backups like Vince Young and Ronnie Brown last year, this could have been more of a point of emphasis.
  • Designing a defense predicated on the down linemen selling out for sacks, then failing in 2011 to support the defensive line with anything resembling adequate linebacker play.
  • In 2012, after bolstering the linebacker corps, failing to adjust anything about the defensive line scheme even though the whole league knew they'd be selling out for sacks on every play. The extent to which opposing offensive coordinators have appeared to be ahead of Castillo, Todd Bowles, Jim Washburn or whoever's been in charge of setting up the Eagles' defense on a given week this year is staggering.
  • Making Castillo the defensive coordinator in the first place, then of course firing him during the bye week just because they felt like they had to do something.

Look, I understand this is an exercise in second-guessing. I fell for it, as did a lot of the people who have been writing about this Eagles team for the past two years. Philadelphia's roster-construction efforts the past two springs and summers looked good as they were going on, and I for one failed to spot the number of flaws that have ultimately manifested themselves. The very good lesson, for those of us who write the NFL, is as usual about waiting for the games to be played before making broad conclusions about how they will go.

As we look back on it now, though, not much the Eagles have done in assembling their roster over the past couple of years has worked. There's the occasional DeMeco Ryans or Fletcher Cox, sure. The DeSean Jackson contract is a good one for them, and I don't think it was necessarily wrong for them to spend resources this past offseason locking up cornerstone pieces like Trent Cole, LeSean McCoy and Todd Herremans for the long-term. But in terms of building a Super Bowl contender in the short term, Reid and the rest of the people who run the Eagles have failed spectacularly. The product they've put on the field simply isn't as good as they believed it to be, and they are likely to pay for their run of miscalculations with their jobs.

Keeping an eye on Cowboys cornerbacks

June, 12, 2012
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With minicamps opening around the NFC East this week, teams are getting a chance to see all of their players on the field together. For the Dallas Cowboys, the position of greatest interest is likely their overhauled cornerback corps. So ESPNDallas.com is taking a look at pretty much everyone in that mix.

Tim MacMahon writes on Brandon Carr as a lunch-pail guy who's had to work his tail off for everything he's ever achieved. Herman Edwards, a former coach of Carr's, tells Tim that he's "not the stock market. He's not going to be up and down. He's one guy you don't have to worry about."

Calvin Watkins writes on Mike Jenkins, who wants out of Dallas but will report to mandatory minicamp this week and, apparently, learn how to play the slot corner position.

And Calvin also writes of the difficulty of making an impact at cornerback as a rookie, and the Cowboys' need for Morris Claiborne to do just that if they're going to have success.

The Cowboys' ideal situation appears to be that Carr and Claiborne are the Week 1 starters with Jenkins and Orlando Scandrick splitting time as the slot corner. But they have the ability to hedge. If Claiborne is slow coming back from his wrist injury, or slow to adjust to the speed of the pro game, they can start Jenkins and Carr on the outside while Claiborne gets ready. And if that happens, they can use Jenkins in the slot in practice while getting Claiborne the reps he needs to get on the outside. It's an imperfect comparison, obviously, but remember that Eagles 2011 first-round pick Danny Watkins didn't start at guard Week 1 last year but was the starter by the second half.

Personally, I think Claiborne will be fine. I'd expect growing pains, but nothing that isn't overcome by the immediate impact his raw talent will bring. The point, though, is that the Cowboys want and need to be deep at this position that cost them so much last year. With minicamp opening, we may start to get some sense of their plans. Claiborne won't be on the field this week, but he'll be there learning the defense with the rest of the guys. And we'll get a chance to find out just how much of a stink Jenkins plans to make about his contract status and reduced role. I'm still not sold on the idea that the revamped secondary will help the pass rush be better, and I think they should have addressed some issues up front. But assuming Claiborne does make it back on schedule and Jenkins shows up and plays, the Cowboys' plans to attack their biggest problem with depth appears to be on track.

Trader Jerry has not left Cowboys

February, 26, 2012
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INDIANAPOLIS – Last year marked the first time in Jerry Jones’ time as Cowboys owner and general manager that he did not make a trade during the draft.

But that doesn’t mean Jones has turned over a new leaf when it comes to draft strategy and will sit tight during this April’s three-day draft.

“There’s an old adage I have that your phone is ringing to ask you for the trade, then that’s when you ought to trade,” Jones said Sunday from the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis. “If you do the calling, then you’re in trouble. We just didn’t get the opportunities like we had in the past.”

There was one opportunity and it came in the first round when Jacksonville wanted the No. 9 overall pick to select quarterback Blaine Gabbert and offered the 16th and 49th picks. The Cowboys passed and Washington made the same trade a spot later.

The Cowboys took Tyron Smith instead. They attempted to trade back into the first round and eyed a number of players, like Mark Ingram, Danny Watkins and Cameron Heyward, without success.

“We certainly wouldn’t try to revisit that and do something different than taking Tyron,” Jones said.

Scout's Eye: Cowboys-Eagles preview

December, 23, 2011
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Scout's Eye
When Jason Garrett's Cowboys met at Valley Ranch this week, all they had to do to be reminded of what these Philadelphia Eagles did to them in Week 8 is sit down in their meeting rooms and study the tape of the total domination to understand what they will be up against this weekend.

The Cowboys have faced some quality opponents, but when you study the Eagles you see nothing like the other teams in the league with what you have to deal with from an offensive standpoint. There were days when I was in Green Bay and playing the '90s Cowboys when you went into a game against them trying to figure out how you were going to stop Emmitt Smith from running the ball or Jay Novacek on third downs or Michael Irvin on the slant. Just when you thought that you had one of those areas taken care of, the other players would find a way to take the game from you. This Eagles offense puts a lot of those same thoughts in my mind that I experienced against those Cowboys teams.

In the last meeting between these two teams, Rob Ryan and his staff made the decision to not allow these Eagles wide receivers to make any vertical plays down the field. Safeties Abram Elam and Gerald Sensabaugh, as Ryan put it, played "503 yards deep" from the line of scrimmage. The problem with this decision for Ryan was with his safeties so deep, he opened up the middle of the field.

Then to compound the problem, he lost Sean Lee in the game -- the only linebacker that was athletic enough to make a play in the middle of the field. This was a horrible situation for Ryan because it meant that he had to rely on Keith Brooking and Bradie James, who were exposed in coverage and in the running game. With the deep safeties, it allowed tight end Brent Celek and wide receivers Jeremy Maclin and DeSean Jackson to work crossing routes inside.

When I have studied Vick his last four games, the one area that he likes to attack is the middle of the field. Matter of fact, his best and worst throws come when he is working the middle of the field. Vick just looks more comfortable throwing to targets right in front of him, but like I mentioned he will make mistakes trying to fit ball down the middle against safeties.

McCoy looms as multi-dimensional threat


The deep safeties also hurt Ryan in the running game dealing with LeSean McCoy.

There are three areas that McCoy can hurt your defense.

[+] EnlargeLeSean McCoy
AP Photo/Matt SlocumExpect LeSean McCoy to give Sean Lee and the Cowboys defense the most fits.
The first one is on the stretch play when you have the offensive line with full flow running with defenders and he takes the ball all the way to the edge and around the corner. The Cowboys got gashed in the last meeting by the down blocking by tackles Jason Peters and Todd Herremans, who were able to set the edge allowing the ball to get outside. Watch how Marcus Spears, Jason Hatcher and Kenyon Coleman play in this contest, because if the Eagles are running the ball well on the edges, it's probably because the defensive ends are not doing their jobs getting off blocks.

The second way that McCoy hurts you is with the sprint draw. Teams have various ways they run the draw, but the Eagles take full advantage of the ball-handling skill of Vick. Teams try so hard to get up the field and attack the Eagles before they get going that it leaves lanes in the defense. As the defense is coming up the field, Vick does an outstanding job of tucking the ball into McCoy and letting him use his vision and quickness to get the ball up the field past the oncoming defenders.

The final way that McCoy can hurt you is as a pass catcher, whether that is in the flat or more impressively in the screen game. The Eagles love to run screens and they will do them from anywhere on the field. The Eagles are the most dangerous when they get into the red zone and once again try to take advantage of defenders getting up the field. The Eagles will throw wide receiver screens to Jackson, they will use Celek in a delay screen where he blocks for two or three counts, then works his way to the outside in the open field, but the player that gives defenses the most trouble is McCoy. He catches the ball so well on the move and when he gets one-on-one, he can break anyone down. The problem for Ryan is that he doesn't really know when offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg is going to use these screens, but he knows they will.

The Eagles' struggles this season have been with their offensive line. Against the Cowboys in the last meeting, I felt like that they were better than the Dallas front seven. There were too many plays where the Cowboys didn't do a good enough job of getting off blocks allowing the Eagles to control the game upfront.

The best offensive lineman for the Eagles is Peters at left tackle. In the games I was able to study, Peters more than has held his own, whereas earlier in the season, he didn't appear to move all that well. I thought he moved way too slow with his feet, but that has changed.

Teams have taken advantage of the Eagles inside with guards Evan Mathis and Danny Watkins. Rookie center Jason Kelce will get overpowered at the point of attack. The mobility of Vick and the quickness of McCoy really assist this offensive line in overcoming a great deal of their shortcomings.

Smith handles Babin once more


The last time that these two clubs met, there was a great deal of pressure on Eagles defensive coordinator Juan Castillo because of the direction that the defense was going. Losses were mounting and the players that were brought in had yet to truly play as a collective unit.

[+] EnlargeTony Romo
AP Photo/Matt SlocumJason Babin will play wide on the outside shoulders of the tackles seeking to add to his league-leading sack total.
The buzzword that you will hear in all the pregame shows will be how the Eagles play this defensive alignment of a "Wide 9," which is simply, defensive ends Trent Cole and Jason Babin play wide on the outside shoulder of the tackles Doug Free and Tyron Smith. At times they will be a full man removed from the tackle. When you play this type of scheme, you are asking your ends to get up the field as quickly as possible to disrupt the running game but more importantly cause problems in the passing game. Pass rush is where the Eagles cause the most problems.

Usually your best pass rusher will rush from the offensive left hand side, but the Eagles' best rusher comes from the offensive right. The Green Bay Packers are the same way with Clay Matthews rushing from the offensive right.

Babin, who has a league-leading 18 sacks, is as explosive as any rusher Smith will face all season. As a matter of fact, Babin was the rusher who gave Smith the most trouble with his inside move. Talking to Smith, he now understands what he is up against and I think he is better for it.

Babin is unique with this move because he is able to do it at the depth and level of the quarterback's drop. He has a real feel for how to push up the field and get all of the weight of the tackle on his outside foot then quickly duck underneath. Smith really struggled when Babin used this technique on him.

At the other end is Trent Cole against Free. There should be serious cause for concern here because of the struggles that Free has had with technique this season. Cole is a better run player than Babin.

The Eagles are at their best in run defense when the ball goes wide and they are able to handle the play. It is when teams have run the ball at them that they have had their struggles. I thought the Seahawks did a real nice job with this in the regard that they physically came off the ball, getting hats on hats and making the Eagles fight blocks then have to deal with Marshawn Lynch.

The Eagles' weakness on defense is at linebacker. In studying Akeem Jordan, Jamar Chaney, Brian Rolle and Casey Matthews, I didn't feel like they did a good enough job of taking on blocks. With the injury to Felix Jones, I would not be one bit surprised to see Jason Garrett try to attack this Eagles defense with fullback Tony Fiammetta, Jones and Sammy Morris going straight ahead.

Teams have had also had success running the ball with misdirection plays. By that, I mean starting flow one way and getting the defense to react then bringing the ball backside with an H-blocker or fullback. If Jones was healthy, this is something you might see more of.

In the secondary, Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie are the corners with Joselio Hanson as the nickel. Asomugha will play the slot. The last time that these two teams met, he covered Jason Witten when he was in line and in the slot.

Something else to watch for is that Castillo has gone back to some of the old exotic blitz schemes that former defensive coordinator Jim Johnson used. In the Jets and Dolphins games, Castillo used two down linemen and had Cole, Babin and Matthews standing up in the middle of the defense. The Cowboys have had their troubles with blitz pickups when teams put pressure in the middle of the pocket with twist stunts.

Two things must happen this week: the Cowboys receivers must find a way to win on the outside and the offensive line must be able to pick up blitzes in the middle of Eagles defense. If they struggle in either area, you will see sacks much like Mark Sanchez and Matt Moore suffered in their games against the Eagles.

NFC East Stock Watch

September, 13, 2011
9/13/11
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NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

FALLING

1. Fan patience with Tony Romo. Romo was outstanding against the New York Jets defense Sunday night until the fourth quarter, when a couple of bad decisions and turnovers by the star quarterback cost the Dallas Cowboys the game. This did not help combat the popular opinion that Romo is a talented guy who can't get it done in the clutch or show the leadership qualities the team needs to make a run at the Super Bowl. It's only one game, and he surely will have chances to undo the damage he did Sunday, but Romo starts the season in a hole of his own making.

2. The New York Giants' margin for error. The Justin Tuck injury wasn't the reason the Giants lost to the Washington Redskins, but it may well have been the final Jenga piece that came out before the tower fell down. The Giants are so beaten up, so thinned-out by injuries and free-agent defections, that they can't afford any more hits. Losing their best player to injury in the days before the season opener, on top of everything else that had already happened, was too much to overcome. And until they can get a little bit more whole, this is going to be their issue. Lack of depth shows up as the game goes along, and Sunday they got outplayed in the second half. The guys they do have are going to have to play something close to error-free football if they're to have chances to win. Fortunately for them, their next game is against the St. Louis Rams, who may be even more banged-up right now than they are.

3. Philadelphia Eagles' early-round draft picks. Not only did first-round pick Danny Watkins lose his job as the starting right guard last week -- he wasn't even active for the Eagles' season opener in St. Louis. Head coach Andy Reid keeps saying Watkins is taking "a step back to take a step forward," and he certainly may well be the starter at some point this season. But the Eagles are in win-now mode, and they're not going to allow Watkins to learn on the job if it's going to be a detriment to the team. Also inactive were second-round safety Jaiquawn Jarrett and third-round cornerback Curtis Marsh. But fourth-rounders Casey Matthews and Alex Henery are the starting middle linebacker and placekicker. Fifth-rounder Dion Lewis is the kick returner and a good-looking backup running back and sixth-rounder Jason Kelce is the starting center. So they got a little bit more immediate help in those later rounds.

RISING

[+] EnlargeRex Grossman
James Lang/US PresswireRex Grossman took advantage of a thinned-out Giants team and threw for 300 yards and two touchdowns.
1. Rex Grossman and the Redskins. Theirs was the feel-good win of the week in the division, with Grossman throwing for more than 300 yards against that depleted Giants defense and the Washington defense stifling the Giants' run game. I've been writing for weeks that I didn't think -- as many did -- that the Redskins would be one of the worst teams in the league. And I don't know that they should be printing Super Bowl tickets just yet. But they're going to be a tough team to play against, and with the way the schedule lays out, they wouldn't be a huge shock as a borderline playoff contender.

2. The Eagles' offensive versatility. I don't expect Michael Vick to pick up 98 rush yards every week, but he was running to beat the blitz, and he said after the game that he'd be happy to keep doing it if teams wanted to persist in sending extra rushers. Vick's ability to extend drives and turn broken plays into big gains isn't any big news, but it was one of many options the Eagles showcased Sunday, including DeSean Jackson as a downfield threat and LeSean McCoy as a fourth-quarter weapon. Vick's protection held up well when St. Louis wasn't blitzing more guys than they could account for, and once they get Jeremy Maclin and Brent Celek and Steve Smith into the mix, the Eagles are clearly going to be a very scary offensive team.

3. Sean Lee. Snagged the starting inside linebacker job away from veteran Keith Brooking and ran with it, having a great game against the Jets. Lee has long been viewed as the future for the Cowboys at that position, but the way he played Sunday night makes you think he might be the present as well. He was an asset against the run game and picked up an interception as well. Making plays the way he did Sunday, he's not about to give that job back anytime soon.

Rabid Reaction: Beware the R-word peddlers

August, 31, 2011
8/31/11
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Rabid Reaction: Our series of knee-jerk-styled, emotional overreactions from Ben Rogers of 103.3 FM ESPN's Ben and Skin Show. He's known to get way too excited over even the slightest of developments with the teams he grew up with in the DFW. Proceed with caution ...

The word on the street is a horde of hoodwinked football souls are out peddling doom and gloom to an already beleaguered and vulnerable Dallas Cowboys fan base. Half-empty glass brokers are cornering susceptible co-workers at water coolers, pulling up barstools next to defenseless buddies at happy hour, and fashioning well-worded, panic-inducing crisis columns on world class websites.

Not only are these Debbie Downers breaking out their giant Paul Bunyan axes on your trees of hope, but they’re also using extremely rude langue in the process. They’re throwing around the “R-word” like it’s a Nerf football in your front yard on Thanksgiving Day.

“Rebuilding.”

Now that’s just plain reckless.

To classify a team as being in “rebuilding mode” is to say that they have zero chance for success in the present. Teams rebuild when they hit rock bottom, can longer compete, lose all remaining shreds of hope and have no choice but to tear everything down and start over.

August pigeonholing of an NFL team as such is a flat-out declaration that their upcoming season is entirely inconsequential.

The idea is that a rebuilding team sacrifices their short-term aspirations in an effort to invest in their future. Take a step back now in order to take two forward down the road. Play the youngest guys you can find in your locker room during a season that won’t matter in hopes that the experience will pay off for those players once games matter again some day.

People who think along these lines generally believe there are just two gears for a franchise engine: rebuild, and contend. They think you do your best to build a contender until it clearly runs out of gas, and then you tear it down and start over.

The reality is that the healthiest sports organizations simultaneously execute both gears. They are not mutually exclusive.

When the Cowboys added five-time Pro-Bowl center Andre Gurode to the parade of veterans being shown the door, local panic mongers leapt at the opportunity to scream “Shark!” on the football beach.

They alleged that by overhauling their offensive line with three young, new starters, the Cowboys have given clear indication that they are officially (gulp!) rebuilding. After all, how can they part ways with legends like Marc Colombo, Leonard Davis and Gurode? How can they replace them with two rookies (Tyron Smith and Bill Nagy) and a second-year player (Phil Costa)? How can they do that and expect to compete with the likes of the mighty Philadelphia Eagles in the treacherous NFC East?

The Eagles, who just treated free agency like it was their own private superstar buffet, would never find themselves in the embarrassing and pitiful position that the Cowboys do with their offensive line. They wouldn’t hear of such a thing. Someone hand Jason Garrett a white towel, quickly. Stop the fight! Stop the fight!

Um, yeah ... about that.

Truth is, the Philadelphia World Champs of August find themselves in an extremely similar situation with their big uglies. As it stands now, it appears that they too will start two bright-eyed rookies (RG Danny Watkins and C Jason Kelce) on their offensive line. In addition, they’ve moved their left guard of the past several seasons, Todd Herremans, to right tackle and will be starting Evan Mathis at left guard. He joined their team a week into camp.

Maybe the incredibly average Winston Justice hobbles back to the rescue at tackle to save the day a few weeks into the season. Either way, the Eagles are still looking at two rookies and lots of chaos on the offensive line that protects their $100 million quarterback.

So with all of that youth and transition, are the Eagles rebuilding too?

No. Of course not. They signed most of their post-lockout free agent horses to one-year deals. They’re in go-for-it-now mode as much as anyone in the league, and you better believe they’re contenders.

By the way, last season the Eagles went to the playoffs as one of the youngest teams in the league, which ultimately proves that they were both rebuilding and contending simultaneously.

That’s not to say that the Cowboys are anywhere near as rosy-cheeked an organization as the Eagles, who seem to have more cap room hidden under their mattress than any team in the history of ever. But perhaps the Cowboys are learning a thing or two from their hated rival.

Working young players into the mix is merely a sign of a healthy franchise. It’s nothing to panic over. Jason Garrett has created a competitive environment where no job is secure based solely on contract commas. Fierce competition for jobs will bring the best out of a football team that has admittedly felt "entitled" in the past.

It’s a sizable leap to go from fueling the fires of competition to cowering under the umbrella of surrender.

Besides, why would a team with superstars in the prime of their prime like Tony Romo, Jason Witten, DeMarcus Ware and Jay Ratliff concede a season in a league drenched in parity sauce? Let’s not forget that the NFC featured a 7-9 team in the playoffs last year.

The Cowboys’ schedule doesn’t exactly breathe fire on tiny people. It’s hardly a scary monster. Nine of their first 12 opponents had sub-.500 records in 2010. Why in the world would they concede this upcoming season in order to rebuild?

Granted, they have holes. Their new offensive line will need to find continuity quickly in order to keep Romo off of a stretcher. And you get the feeling that this new defense will remain a work in progress as the mad silver-mulleted scientist Rob Ryan and his two-ton playbook will take some time for players to wrap their arms around. But once again, the schedule is more than willing to lend a helping hand as the Cowboys work out the kinks.

A bye in Week 5 is generally viewed as a potential disruption for early season momentum. Teams typically would rather have the bye in the back half of the season to give broken bodies an extra week to recover before the stretch run. However, in the Cowboys' case, considering that the lockout deprived them of critical installation time for Ryan’s mysterious blueprint, Week 5 will serve as an ideal opportunity to regroup, adjust and move forward with four games of valuable film to dissect.

This team is two years removed from being 11-5 with a playoff win. They rid themselves of a somewhat directionless head coach, replaced a stale defensive scheme and have run off a handful of generals from the entitlement brigade.

Uncontaminated competition at it’s purest is fueling a talent revolution at Valley Ranch. Suddenly, Cowboys draft picks can do more than grab Bill Parcells a cup of water and accompany Tony Romo to an exotic beach destination. A much-maligned football culture has been miraculously transformed.

Their schedule is friendly. Their quarterback is healthy. Their defense will soon learn the ways of the Ryan family swagger. Most importantly, their head coach is in charge.

This thing is finally headed in the right direction, and it isn’t backwards.

If anyone tries to tell you that the Cowboys are “rebuilding”, just smile and ask yourself if they truly understand the meaning of that big "R-word" that they’re so recklessly brandishing.

10-6.
Tyron Smith and Danny WatkinsIcon SMIThe Cowboys (with Tyron Smith) and the Eagles (with Danny Watkins) used the draft to address a need along the offensive line.
Our readers like to call this division "The Beast," but I'm not so sure. I mean, I get it -- it rhymes with "East," and it reflects the kind of toughness and meanness that fans like to attribute to their favorite teams. And not long ago, it fit nicely. The NFC East was the NFL's toughest division. Sent three teams to the playoffs in 2006 and 2007. Took out the undefeated Patriots in the Super Bowl. Very Beast-like stuff, no question.

But things change quickly in the NFL, and 2010 wasn't this division's most Beastly year. For the first time in six seasons, the NFC East last year came up with just one playoff team. The division had as many 10-loss teams as 10-win teams, and the only playoff game it has won in the past two seasons was Dallas' January 2010 intradivision victory over Philadelphia.

A fluke? Sure, it's possible. Most people expect the Cowboys to bounce back in 2011 (assuming there is a 2011). And John Clayton pointed out last week that a slate of 2011 games against NFC West opponents could help inflate NFC East teams' records the way that delicious bit of scheduling helped out NFC South teams in 2010. But if the teams in this division want to make sure this little downturn is nothing more than a blip on history's radar, they would all do well to take a look at their offensive lines.

All four teams in the NFC East had offensive line issues last year. The Giants couldn't keep theirs healthy. The Cowboys couldn't seal off the right side. The Eagles couldn't keep Michael Vick's uniform clean. The Redskins were rebuilding. Although most, if not all, of those issues are resolvable, the teams need to work to make sure they're resolved. If there's one area whose erosion can really affect the toughness, meanness and other Beast-like qualities of a team or group of teams, it's the offensive line.

To their credit, the Cowboys and Eagles at least seem to understand they need to do something. Dallas took USC tackle Tyron Smith in the first round in April and spent three of their eight total draft picks on offensive linemen -- snagging guard David Arkin in the fourth round and guard/center Bill Nagy in the seventh. Smith is the only one of the three expected to start in 2011, as he's slated to be the right tackle, but depth on the O-line is never a negative.

Philadelphia needed a right guard so badly that it drafted 26-year-old former hockey player and firefighter Danny Watkins in the first round. He'll surely start at right guard, and Philadelphia picked up two more interior offensive linemen later in the draft. The Eagles still need to figure out what's going on there on the right side with Winston Justice and King Dunlap, and that tackle spot might potentially be something they address in free agency. With a left-handed quarterback, right tackle is to the Eagles what left tackle is to most other teams -- the protector of the "blind side."

Washington used only one pick this year on an offensive lineman, and it was a seventh-rounder. But the Redskins spent the fourth overall pick in the 2010 draft on left tackle Trent Williams, who looks as if he'll be a star at that spot, and they're piecing things together across the middle. They will need to address right tackle if they lose both Jammal Brown and Stephon Heyer in free agency, but the Redskins are in rebuilding mode. At least they have the franchise left tackle in place.

The Giants ... sigh. The Giants could have used offensive line help in the draft. But these are stubborn people who don't believe in drafting for need. They used their first-rounder on a cornerback, even though they already had plenty of those. The "value" of Prince Amukamara that late in the round was too much for the Giants to pass up, so they didn't end up taking a lineman until the fourth round, and they didn't bother taking another one after that. Now, if healthy, the Giants' offensive line is the best one in the division. But the five projected starters have an average age of 31.6. Shaun O'Hara missed 10 games and David Diehl missed four last year as the fates practically screamed at the Giants about the value of depth on the O-line. Injury and age on the line didn't sink the Giants' season per se, but they reared their heads and offered a warning. So far the Giants have yet to show they heard it.

The success of the teams in the NFC East -- this year and in the years to come -- will depend largely on the ways in which the four teams address the issues bubbling up across their offensive lines. I believe the division could have three playoff-caliber teams in 2011. The Redskins are doing some nice things but still have a long way to go and, currently, no quarterback to take them there. The other three teams have skill-position talent spilling out of their ears, but holes along the line can keep even the most skilled players from making the highlight-reel plays for which they're paid. Offensive line play was one reason the NFC East looked a little meeker than usual in 2010. It may be the key to "The Beast" regaining its teeth.

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