Dallas Cowboys: Andy Reid

Blame falls on Jones -- not the system

February, 26, 2014
Feb 26
Chip KellyTommy Gilligan/USA TODAY Sports
PHILADELPHIA -- The best news from the NFL combine, at least as far as the Philadelphia Eagles are concerned, might have come from the mouth of Jerry Jones.

The owner/general manager of the Dallas Cowboys told reporters that NFL realities make it impossible for his franchise to make a major change in direction.

“You can't do what I did in 1989 because of the contracts and cap," Jones said Monday, according to ESPN.com’s Todd Archer. "The system automatically creates about a third turnover, but it also creates contractually for clubs a situation where you cannot just strip it. You couldn't even field a team with the hits against your cap by canceling the contracts."

If the chief decision-maker of their chief division rival feels constrained by the NFL system, that is very good news for the Eagles. Good because it means the Cowboys are more likely to remain trapped in a cycle of 8-8 finishes. News because the Eagles themselves just demonstrated that it is not only possible to tear things up and start over, but it is easier in the NFL than in any other major American sports league.

The Eagles went 4-12 in 2012 with Andy Reid as their head coach. It was Reid's 14th season, making the Eagles one of the most stable franchises in sports. While it was admittedly difficult for owner Jeffrey Lurie to pull the plug on Reid's tenure after working so closely together for so long, Lurie did just that.

Lurie hired Chip Kelly out of the University of Oregon. The Eagles went 10-6 in 2013, defeating the Cowboys in Week 17 to win the NFC East title.

If that isn't a quick turnaround, what is?

Across the parking lot from Lincoln Financial Field sits the Wells Fargo Center, where the Philadelphia 76ers are trying to turn their franchise around. The NBA's system -- fully guaranteed contracts and intricate trade rules that make salary dumping impossible -- all but forces teams to tank in order to have a shot at a superstar-caliber player.

The 76ers traded away most of the recognizable names from their already threadbare roster at the deadline. They were rewarded with a 20-point loss Monday night to the Milwaukee Bucks, the team with the worst record in the NBA.

A long 3-point basket away from the arena is Citizens Bank Park, where the Philadelphia Phillies reside. The 2008 World Series champions have spent massive amounts of payroll money to try to win another title while their core of Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley remains intact. But age, injuries and (again) those fully guaranteed contracts have the Phillies trapped in a cycle of ever diminishing returns.

Baseball and basketball present enormous challenges for a team trying to turn itself around quickly. The NFL? Sorry, Jerry, that excuse just doesn't fly.

It may have been easier when Jones bought the franchise 25 years ago, hired Jimmy Johnson and started amassing the talent that won three Super Bowls in four seasons. Things did change with the introduction of free agency and a salary cap, but that was 22 years ago. There has been time to adjust.

Since the Cowboys' last title in 1996, the Green Bay Packers have built two separate Super Bowl-winning programs -- one with Mike Holmgren and Brett Favre, one with Mike McCarthy and Aaron Rodgers. So have the Baltimore Ravens, who won it all in 2000 with Brian Billick and Trent Dilfer and in 2012 with John Harbaugh and Joe Flacco.

The New York Giants won a Super Bowl in 2007. When they won another four years later, there were only 14 players left from the 2007 team. New England, the team the Giants beat both times, had only seven players on the roster for both games.

Seattle just won the Super Bowl with a team that had exactly four players who were on the roster before 2010.

You get the point. It is very possible in the NFL to change cultures, turn over rosters and flip a losing franchise into a winner in a short period of time. It takes two things: the ability to recognize change is needed and smart decisions when making it.

The New Orleans Saints established themselves as one of the league’s elite teams and won a Super Bowl. The key was hiring Sean Payton, a coach who had spent the three previous seasons working as an assistant for Jones.

The Eagles have had three major reboots with Lurie as their owner. They hired Ray Rhodes in 1995 and cut their losses after a 3-13 season in 1998. Lurie hired the virtually unknown Reid in 1999. While Reid did not produce a championship, he was coach and eventually chief personnel man for a six-year stretch in which the Eagles were the class of the NFC East.

Lurie stuck with Reid a year or three too long, out of some combination of loyalty and finger-crossed hope things would improve. When he finally did make a change, Lurie admitted it was the toughest decision of his tenure as owner. Clearly, there was no guarantee he was going to find as good a coach as the one he fired.

For Jones, such a wrenching decision is even harder because the man whose work he's judging is one Jerry Jones. A clear-eyed owner wouldn't accept a GM's rationale that the team is stuck in mediocrity because of bad cap management, ill-advised contracts and misplaced loyalty.

It was hard for Lurie to reach that point with his friend Reid. Evidently, it's even harder to get there when the guy making excuses is yourself.

Cowboys vs. new coaches in 2014

January, 16, 2014
Jan 16
IRVING, Texas -- With the NFL's game of musical chairs involving head coaches just about over -- except for the uber-patient Cleveland Browns -- let's look at the effect the new names in new spots will have on the Dallas Cowboys.

The Cowboys will face three teams with new head coaches in 2014: Jay Gruden with the Washington Redskins, Bill O'Brien with the Houston Texans and Ken Whisenhunt with the Tennessee Titans.

In 2013, the Cowboys went 1-4 against teams with new coaches. The lone win was the October meeting against Chip Kelly's Philadelphia Eagles, but they returned the favor in the more-important Week 17 rematch that won the NFC East.

The Cowboys also lost to Kansas City's Andy Reid, San Diego's Mike McCoy and Chicago's Marc Trestman.

Gruden and O'Brien will be head coaches for the first time in the NFL. Whisenhunt had a six-year run with the Arizona Cardinals.

The Cowboys went 0-3 against Whisenhunt. Two of the losses came in overtime and the third was by a point. And they were three of the strangest losses. In 2008, they lost on a blocked punt for a touchdown in overtime. In 2010 they lost in part because David Buehler missed an extra point. In 2011 they lost in overtime in a game in which many believe Jason Garrett iced Dan Bailey at the end of regulation.

(Personal aside: I don't believe that was the case. The play clock was running down and Garrett called the timeout at the request of special-teams coaches Joe DeCamillis and Chris Boniol. Bailey's first miss of that season at San Francisco came with the operation rushed because of the play clock. Now back to your regularly scheduled programming.)

O'Brien was the New England Patriots' offensive coordinator in 2011 when Tom Brady beat the Cowboys on a final-minute touchdown pass 20-16. The Texans have the top pick in the draft and a team that could be in line for a quick turnaround.

Gruden was the Cincinnati Bengals' offensive coordinator when Bailey won the game on a last-second field goal after Andy Dalton was limited to 206 yards passing. The Redskins folded under Mike Shanahan and have a ton of needs, but the return of a healthy and motivated Robert Griffin III could change their fortunes quickly.

The Cowboys could have six more games against teams that will lose assistant coaches in 2014.

As of Thursday, the only assistant the Cowboys have lost is Boniol, who oversaw one of the best kickers in the NFL. Maybe that will change too. Maybe.
IRVING, Texas -- Maybe there is a different way to look at Jerry Jones' decision to keep Jason Garrett as the Dallas Cowboys' head coach for a fourth season.

Maybe the owner is aware the general manager has not delivered enough for the head coach to have more than an 8-8 record. Bill Parcells used to say the goal was to get his team to play to the level that he perceived it to be.

[+] EnlargeJason Garrett and Jerry Jones
AP Photo/Gus RuelasJerry Jones must allow Jason Garrett more control of his own fate.
Could Jones be conceding he has not done enough for Garrett, despite his statements that the Cowboys had a chance to not only make the playoffs but make a run to the Super Bowl as well? It requires you to believe Jones separates the owner job description from the general manager job description, but it is not that far-fetched.

Late in the season, Jones mentioned the team lacked the personnel in some key spots because of injuries. Of the 12 regulars -- including the nickel corner -- on defense, seven were in their projected spots when training camp began in the season finale against the Philadelphia Eagles. Orlando Scandrick and Morris Claiborne essentially flipped roles. George Selvie, Nick Hayden, DeVonte Holloman, Kyle Wilber and Jeff Heath were starters.

Perhaps Garrett maximized the 8-8 finish this year and last year because of injuries.

In his address to the media Monday, Garrett repeated the statement he made after the 2012 season ended in a Week 17 loss in an NFC East title game: it takes time to build a program. While he acknowledged wins and losses matter most, he failed to recognize the guy he lost to last week, Chip Kelly, was in his first year and took over a 4-12 team. Mike McCoy brought the San Diego Chargers to the playoffs in his first year. Andy Reid took the Kansas City Chiefs to the postseason after they had the No. 1 pick in the 2013 draft.

Jones has a lot invested in Garrett beyond money. He believes in how Garrett is building the team and how he prepares the team. Quibble about the execution, but players' effort has not been an issue with Garrett as coach. Jones wants Garrett to be his long-term coach. If Garrett finishes out 2014, only Jimmy Johnson will have coached the Cowboys longer under Jones.

Jones is right to bring back Garrett in 2014.

What he needs to do now is allow Garrett more control of his own fate. If Garrett wants to call plays, then let Garrett call plays. If Garrett wants to change the defensive coordinator, then let him, and if he doesn't want to replace Monte Kiffin, Garrett will only be hurting himself.

Jones made sure everybody was "uncomfortable" in 2013 and it produced the same 8-8 record. He wanted Bill Callahan to call plays. He wanted Kiffin. He wanted Tony Romo more involved in the offense. He wanted Garrett to become a walk-around head coach.

Much will be made of Garrett's lame-duck status in 2014 but if he doesn't win, then he shouldn't get an extension.

The pressure will be good.

It's time Jones is "uncomfortable." At least a little bit anyway.

In free agency, boring can be good

March, 13, 2013
The key to the NFL's success is not fan interest but rather excessive enthusiasm. The product has its merits, to be sure. But what has elevated the NFL from "very popular sports league" to "worldwide marketing monster" is not the quality of that product or its number of fans. It's the frothing excitement the NFL manages to instill in its fans over every single year-round aspect of football, no matter how minute. The draft. The schedule release. The start of preseason games. And of course, free agency, which began Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET.

Randy Galloway and Matt Mosley discuss the latest free-agency moves going on around the NFL.

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This is one of those weeks that proves the excessive-enthusiasm theory. Nothing anyone has written or said in prior weeks, months or years about how free agency isn't a franchise panacea matters anymore. Fans are monumentally worked up over the idea that their team might succeed at something, even in the middle of March, as temporally far from the start of the season as the calendar allows us to get.

The result is that fans whose teams are signing big-game players are more excited than they ought to be and fans whose teams aren't signing anyone are frustrated at the lack of action. Here in the NFC East, the past 24 hours have been about the latter. The Dallas Cowboys, Washington Redskins and New York Giants are all cap-strapped. The Philadelphia Eagles are judiciously signing unexciting players of whom fans have not been fantasizing.

Do not fret. Instead, read this from Grantland's Bill Barnwell, who throws cold water on the whole idea of the first day of the league year as anything more than an overhyped, irresponsible spending spree by teams that just don't ever seem to learn. Bill writes that it's all too much, and that the rush to sign players on the first day leads, historically, to bad deals. "Players who would have gotten a couple million dollars if they had signed next week got three or four times that figure in guaranteed money Tuesday," Bill writes. "Good for them and great work by their agents, but that sort of behavior in this marketplace simply beggars belief."

If you're wishing your team were more active, Bill's column will set your mind at ease. And if you're an Eagles fan, you'll particularly enjoy the ending, which seems to sum up the Eagles' Tuesday as intelligently dull. They signed five players -- tight end James Casey, cornerback Bradley Fletcher, safety Patrick Chung, defensive lineman Isaac Sopoaga and linebacker Jason Phillips. All to sensible deals. In spite of their excess of cap room:
The sort of logic that went into those moves — buying low on a low-risk, medium-reward player — seemed absurdly out of place on the dumbest day of the NFL year. Some of the teams that made headlines Tuesday by following a now-infamous Eagles plan that didn't work might have done well to follow the new Philadelphia brain trust's lead.

There is, of course, irony in the fact that Andy Reid and the Chiefs had one of the most active Tuesdays. But if you're an Eagles fan, that's not your problem. Take a deep breath and enjoy the idea that your team has a plan and is going to try to execute it with intelligence and sobriety. That may not make for a very fun March, but it could make December and January a lot more fun down the road.

NFC East free-agency primer

March, 12, 2013
» NFC Free Agency: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

Dallas Cowboys
HEAD COACH: Jason Garrett

Cap status: Some last-minute contract restructuring Monday got the Cowboys under the 2013 cap. They're not far enough under to operate very deftly in free agency, so don't expect any big splashes from them in the first wave, but they still have the ability to extend Tony Romo's deal or make some more cuts if they find someone they really want to fit into their budget.

Strategy: They should work on the offensive line, which was atrocious in 2012. But after signing two free-agent guards last year and giving center Phil Costa a two-year extension this year, the Cowboys may put off addressing that need until the draft. I'd expect them to be active on the veteran safety market, as they have question marks at that position, and there appears to be enough free-agent inventory that costs for safeties should be kept low. Depth on the defensive line and at running back will be important as well, as the defense is changing to a 4-3 alignment and DeMarco Murray's backup, Felix Jones, appears set to hit the market. Expect the Cowboys to bargain-hunt at positions that haven't traditionally cost too much.

New York Giants
HEAD COACH: Tom Coughlin

Cap status: After Sunday night's agreement with defensive lineman Cullen Jenkins, the Giants remain around $7 million under the cap. Enough to get them in compliance and work on deals for their own free agents but likely not enough to make them players for too much outside help.

Strategy: For the Giants, the focus is in house. They'd like to bring back guard Kevin Boothe, tight end Martellus Bennett and of course restricted free-agent wide receiver Victor Cruz. They can tender Cruz and keep him, but they'd prefer to get a long-term deal done soon if possible so the headache goes away. As for Boothe and Bennett, if they'll sign for the Giants' number, they'll be Giants. If they want to try to cash in on the market, the Giants likely will look in other directions. They appear set to let valuable safety Kenny Phillips depart after his injury-wrecked season, so they'll look to address that position as well as linebacker, running back and offensive line. Don't be surprised if Jenkins isn't their last defensive line move, either. They do like to have depth there.

Philadelphia Eagles
HEAD COACH: Chip Kelly

Cap status: The Eagles have about $34 million in salary-cap room and are likely to add $11 million more with the expected release of cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha on Tuesday. They will be able to get any player they want to get, most likely.

Strategy: The Eagles' management figures that whoever remains in place from two summers ago knows all about how badly the last big experiment with free agency went, so don't expect to see a frenzy like the one it created on the market in 2011. But the Eagles have many needs -- cornerback, safety, linebacker, nose tackle, a right guard or tackle, maybe a big wide receiver. They will be active because they must. As for strategy, though, I'd expect them to target younger free agents who can help them build the roster long term, not just help them contend in 2013. The moves the team has made since firing longtime coach Andy Reid and hiring Kelly indicate that Kelly plans to be in Philadelphia for a long time and is thinking about what can make his team competitive for years to come, not just right away.

Washington Redskins
HEAD COACH: Mike Shanahan

Cap status: Cutting veteran cornerback DeAngelo Hall saved the Redskins $8 million in cap room Monday. That and the contract restructure of defensive end Adam Carriker helps the Redskins address the significant cap problems they're still having as a result of the $36 million in penalties the league imposed on them a year ago. More cuts and restructures are likely on the way.

Strategy: The free-agent strategy since Allen and Shanahan came on the scene has been consistent. The Redskins like to target players in the 26-, 27-year-old range who have shown encouraging flashes but not necessarily yet proved all they have to prove in the league. They like hungry guys, and as they continue to build around second-year quarterback Robert Griffin III, they will continue to try to employ this strategy. Perhaps you heard reports this past weekend of the Redskins' interest in cornerbacks like Derek Cox (26, coming off injury) and Antoine Cason (also 26). As they did with Pierre Garcon at wide receiver last year, the Redskins will target guys who might not be at the top of the market but fit what they want to do both schematically and economically.

Different views on play calling in KC, SD

February, 21, 2013
INDIANAPOLIS – As Jason Garrett continues to weigh who will call plays for the Cowboys in 2013, two head coaches offered different views as to how they will get the job done.

Andy Reid will call plays in Kansas City after allowing Marty Mornhinweg to run the offense in Philadelphia the last six-plus seasons. The Eagles won their final six games in 2006 with Mornhinweg calling plays.

“It was hard (to give up),” Reid said. “I enjoyed doing that, but I was lucky enough to have Marty, who’s a phenomenal playcaller, but I wanted to get back in and do that … I’m getting older and it gives me an opportunity to do it before time passes.”

Mike McCoy, San Diego’s rookie head coach, will have Ken Whisenhunt call plays. Whisenhunt called plays at different times in his head coaching career in Arizona. McCoy was Denver’s playcaller in 2011-12 with Tim Tebow and Peyton Manning taking the Broncos to the playoffs.

“I’ll still be heavily involved in what we’re doing," McCoy said, "but in my position as head coach I wanted to overlook the entire team on gameday.”

Last week Garrett danced around the play-calling subject but intimated that the team was working toward having Bill Callahan call plays. Garrett said the final decision will be his, but that there is no rush to get it done.

The Cowboys have added Frank Pollack as their assistant offensive line coach, which is seen as a way to allow Callahan, who carried the offensive coordinator title in 2012, to coach the whole offense.

Garrett probably should give up playcalling

February, 14, 2013
Todd Archer joins Galloway & Company to discuss Tony Romo's contract situation and Anthony Spencer's role in the Cowboys' new defensive scheme.

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You guys have good ideas. I should listen to them more. On Twitter this morning, I got this from @wingram_71:
how come no one talks about if Garrett "should" give up pay calling? I hope he does. I think he'll be a better leader.

We are of course talking about Jason Garrett, the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys, who sounds as though he'll be relinquishing offensive playcalling duties this upcoming season, but can't seem to bring himself to admit it. This is a big issue because of past comments Garrett has made about wanting to keep that responsibility, and past comments team owner Jerry Jones has made about preferring that his head coach call offensive or defensive plays.

But my friend @wingram_71 raises an interesting point that you wonder if Garrett has even considered. Would giving up these playcalling duties help make him a better head coach? I think it just might.

[+] EnlargeJason Garrett
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsGiving up playcalling might give Jason Garrett a chance to polish his leadership skills.
Look first of all at the validity behind Jones' theory on this. Garrett is only the second head coach Jones has had who assumed the job without any prior head coaching experience in the NFL or in college. The other was Dave Campo, who went 15-33 in his three seasons running the show in Dallas. Dave Campo is not the bar Garrett or any other Cowboys coach is trying to clear.

After watching Garrett coach the Cowboys for two and a half years, I think we can make some conclusions about what he does well and what he does not. And the playcalling has, since he took over as head coach, been a problem. Whether it's the actual decisions about plays, or the speed with which he relays the calls to the quarterback, or any combination of those or any other factors, it's the Garrett playcalling that makes you cringe and scratch your head. I personally think he showed improvement in those areas as 2012 went on, but it's fair to say he still has a ways to go in terms of balancing his head coach responsibilities with his offensive coordinator ones.

On the flip side, I think Garrett has shown an excellent capacity for head coach leadership. The locker room is placid and under control. The off-field drunk driving incidents and such don't speak to coaching and leadership. Those are the acts of knucklehead players away from the facility. Within the confines of the Cowboys' building, you don't hear griping or backstabbing, even when things go wrong on the field. Garrett's players appear to buy into the idea of him as the leader of their program. If they didn't ... I mean, it's the Cowboys. We'd have heard about it, no?

Giving up playcalling duties in his third full season on the job might give Garrett a chance to continue to burnish his abilities as a leader, and there's value in that. Not every head coach in the league calls plays. Just look at our division. Tom Coughlin doesn't. Mike Shanahan doesn't. Andy Reid wasn't calling them in Philadelphia the past few years. Those are three pretty accomplished and decorated coaches whose contributions to their teams as non-playcalling leaders have been (and in some cases still are) patently obvious. Garrett appears to have plenty to contribute as a head coach even if he gives up playcalling. And who knows? If the Cowboys can succeed under him and he continues to get more comfortable in his role, at some point it might make sense to give that responsibility back to him.

The issue I have is that they don't appear to have an excellent candidate to take over this part of the job. I know Bill Callahan has some experience with it, but he seems like a guy who's got enough problems with his responsibilities with the offensive line and the running game. He doesn't jump out as an ideal solution.

But in a vacuum, the concept of Garrett giving up playcalling duties has some merit, and for reasons that I don't think he should necessarily perceive as insulting. In the end, it might be great for him and his career. It might be the thing that helps him reach his full potential as a head coach. And jeez, head coach jobs pay a lot better than offensive coordinator jobs, right?

We've got new NFL mock drafts

February, 7, 2013
Both Todd McShay Insider and Mel Kiper Jr. Insider have new mock drafts out today, and here's a look at who they project for each NFC East team in the first round. (Remember, the Redskins don't have a first-round pick this year).

4. Philadelphia Eagles

McShay: Luke Joeckel, OT, Texas A&M

Kiper: Dee Milliner, CB, Alabama

In Mel's mock, Joeckel is gone at No. 1 to Andy Reid and the Chiefs. But if he's there at 4, I think he makes a ton of sense for the Eagles as a right-now right tackle (with Todd Herremans moving to guard) or a right-now left tackle (if Jason Peters can't make it all the way back from injury) or a critical building block for the future. With Joeckel and Star Lotulelei off the board in Mel's mock, Milliner makes sense as the Eagles look to rebuild the secondary. And I still think West Virginia QB Geno Smith gets heard from up here before this is all said and done.

18. Dallas Cowboys

McShay: Sheldon Richardson, DT, Missouri

Kiper: Chance Warmack, G, Alabama

Can't go wrong either way, can the Cowboys, picking offensive line or defensive line here. Warmack at 18 would be incredibly tempting for a team that has huge weaknesses on the interior of its offensive line.

19. New York Giants

McShay: Alec Ogletree, LB, Georgia

Kiper: Zach Ertz, TE, Stanford

All due respect to Todd, and while I agree with the assessment of need, I will believe the Giants are taking a linebacker in the first round when it is announced and not one second before. Mel's prediction of a potentially elite passing-game weapon at tight end feels more like Jerry Reese's speed.

Acting fast will help Cowboys' staff search

January, 9, 2013

IRVING, Texas -- With only two head coaching vacancies filled, the Cowboys are in position to pick who they want to be their next defensive coordinator -- or offensive coordinator, if they go that route -- so acting quickly is a must.

Andy Reid has been hired in Kansas City, and Doug Marrone was named the coach in Buffalo.

Philadelphia, San Diego, Arizona, Jacksonville and Cleveland are still searching for head coaches.

The Cowboys are looking for a defensive coordinator and running backs coach, and there is little doubt there will be more changes over the next few days.

Putting staffs together in the NFL is almost like a game of musical chairs. You don’t want to be the last one left to fill a job because the assistants you really want could be gone.

But let’s play the role of a prospective assistant coach for a moment. Let’s say you have a possible choice to join the Cowboys now or have a good feeling you will be able to join a staff with a new head coach.

I understand there is a prestige in joining the Cowboys, but Jason Garrett will be under a win-or-else shadow in 2013. A new coach in a new city will have at least a little more stability.

What job would you take?
IRVING, Texas – The Cowboys will play five games against teams with new coaches next season, but they might have to prepare for only three new faces, possibly two.

There are a lot of coaching openings in the NFL. The Chiefs filled their vacancy with Andy Reid. Where will Chip Kelly end up? Can his style work in the NFL? Coop & Nate discuss.

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Andy Reid is closing in on becoming Kansas City’s new head coach after a 14-year run in Philadelphia, and the Cowboys will visit Arrowhead Stadium in 2013. Reid had a 17-12 record against the Cowboys, including the playoffs, but he started strong with a 10-2 mark. The Cowboys swept the Eagles in 2012.

Chicago and San Diego also will have new head coaches in 2013. The Bears are scheduled to meet with Cowboys special-teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis on Saturday, so he could be another familiar face among the opposition if he lands the gig.

This doesn’t include New Orleans getting Sean Payton back on the sidelines in 2013 after his one-year suspension.

NFC East wrap: The year of RG III

December, 29, 2012
NFC Season Wraps: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five things to know and my 2012 all-division team:

Division MVP: Interesting word, "value." The Washington Redskins decided that fixing their problem at quarterback by drafting Robert Griffin III was worth three first-round picks and a second-round pick. That's the "value" they assigned to Griffin as their short-term and long-term solution at the game's most critical position -- willingly not having another first-round pick until 2015. The first-year result is the current six-game winning streak that has delivered the Redskins' first winning season since 2007 and a shot Sunday night at their first division title since 1999.

[+] EnlargeRobert Griffin III
Jonathan Newton/Getty ImagesThe Redskins paid a steep price to acquire Robert Griffin III, but the move has paid off handsomely.
A number of things have gone right to help the Redskins to this point, but at the center of it all has been Griffin, who has delivered big plays with his arm and his legs, has thrown just five interceptions and piloted a Redskins offense that has the most rushing yards and the fewest turnovers in the league through 16 weeks. In their wildest dreams, the Redskins couldn't have imagined Griffin performing at this level in his first year, but the fact that he has is the biggest reason they're where they are at this point. Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo is having a big year, as are Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant and Redskins rookie running back Alfred Morris. But the award is for the Most "Valuable" Player, and the upgrade Griffin has provided for the Redskins at the most important position on the field has a value that surpasses anything anyone else in the NFC East has provided this year.

Biggest disappointment: This one isn't hard. The 2011 Philadelphia Eagles were a disappointment. That word isn't strong enough to describe what the 2012 Eagles turned out to be. They went into training camp with Super Bowl expectations and a chip on their collective shoulder after last year's flop, and they out-flopped even themselves. There was promise in their 3-1 start, in spite of the turnovers and the fact that they were barely winning. The defense was playing well, Michael Vick was leading them from behind in the fourth quarter and it made some level of sense to believe that they would play better and start winning more comfortably.

Instead, it went the other way. The eight-game losing streak that followed that 3-1 start doomed the Eagles to a sub-.500 season, and the 11 losses they already have with one game to go ties the most Andy Reid has ever had as a head coach. (He lost 11 in his first season there.) Injuries were a huge part of this, as 10 of the Eagles' Week 1 starters on offense have had to miss at least one game and the offensive line hasn't been together all year. But the problems go much deeper, and center on a poorly constructed roster that failed to adequately address holes at positions such as safety and a dysfunctional coaching staff mismanaged by the man in charge. Reid appears certain to pay with his job for failing to make good on his mulligan, and big changes are around the corner in Philadelphia.

No defense: The NFC East hasn't had a repeat champion since the Eagles won it back-to-back in 2003-04, and it won't have one this year either. The New York Giants opened November with three more wins than any other team in the division, but their collapse following a 6-2 start has eliminated them from the division race with a week to go. The winner of Sunday night's game between the Redskins and the Dallas Cowboys will be division champs. If it's Dallas, it'll be the team's second title in four years and would be the second year in a row (and ever) that the division didn't produce at least one 10-win team. If it's Washington, it'll be its first division title in 13 years and would mean four different division champs in four years. This may not be the dominant, monster, "Beast" division it's been in some years past, but the intensity of the rivalries and the closeness of the quality of the four teams keep it the league's most competitive and entertaining year in and year out.

Each NFC East team had a turn in the spotlight this year. The Cowboys flashed greatness in their nationally televised victory over the defending Super Bowl champion Giants in the season opener. The Eagles got out to that 3-1 start. The Giants at one point stood 6-2, and their victories over San Francisco and Green Bay had folks talking about them as the best team in the league. The Redskins are on a six-game winning streak right now and one of the hottest stories in sports. Say what you will about this division or any of its teams, but you can't say it's not fun.

Better "corner" the market: Looking ahead to the 2013 offseason, expect each of the NFC East's teams to make the secondary a high priority. The Cowboys like their corners, and they may be OK at safety if Barry Church comes back healthy, but they'll probably lose Mike Jenkins to free agency and could look to maintain their depth back there. The Giants need to figure out whether this is just a bad year for Corey Webster or if he's a player in decline, and at safety there are questions about Kenny Phillips' long-term status with the team after his injury-plagued season. The Redskins need all kinds of help in the secondary, where Josh Wilson has been fairly consistent but not great at corner, DeAngelo Hall is clearly in decline and they're getting by with backups at safety. And the Eagles have to figure out whether to keep one, both or neither of their veteran cornerbacks and whether it's time to cut bait with safety Nate Allen.

This division includes the No. 21, No. 28 and No. 30 pass defenses in the NFL, and the only NFC East team in the top half in the league in that category (Philadelphia, No. 11) has major question marks at cornerback and especially safety. Once known for its fearsome pass rushes, the NFC East learned this year that you can't always count on even that to be consistent, and it's time for this division's teams to prioritize their last lines of defense.

[+] EnlargeJason Garrett
AP Photo/Tom UhlmanJason Garrett's Cowboys, winners of five of their past seven, can win the NFC East with a victory over the archrival Redskins on Sunday.
The men in charge: You can expect wholesale coaching staff changes in Philadelphia, of course. But what of the division's other three teams, at least one and likely two of which won't make the playoffs? Head coaches Tom Coughlin and Mike Shanahan are clearly safe in New York and Washington, and Jason Garrett appears safe as well in Dallas after a year in which he's admirably led the Cowboys through injury and off-field tragedy into another Week 17 division title game. But that doesn't mean there can't or won't be changes at the coordinator level.

Dallas defensive coordinator Rob Ryan and Washington offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan are both whispered about when head-coaching jobs come up, and the success of Griffin and the Redskins' offensive system could make Kyle Shanahan an especially hot candidate this offseason. Would he jump ship, or stay to see things through and possibly succeed his father down the road in D.C.? Redskins fans clamor for the head of defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, and I guess you never know, but I think Haslett's got this Washington defense overachieving, and I've heard nothing to indicate that the team is dissatisfied with the job he's doing. As for the Giants' Kevin Gilbride and Perry Fewell ... Fewell's no longer the head-coaching candidate he used to be for some reason, so it's likely a matter of whether they want to keep those guys around. The Giants tend to value organizational stability, and Gilbride and Fewell were coaching in and winning a Super Bowl less than 11 months ago, so it's hard to imagine they're in trouble. But I think the Giants are surprised at the way the last couple of weeks have gone, and I doubt they've seriously considered yet whether changes on the staff are warranted or necessary.


We do this every week, so you're used to a lot of these names in a lot of these places. There are some close calls, including at quarterback, where the Cowboys' Romo is as hot as anyone in the league and has thrown just three interceptions in his past eight games after throwing 13 in his first seven. Romo is third in the league in passing yards, and his responsible play and leadership are central reasons for the Cowboys' second-half surge. And if he beats Griffin and Washington on Sunday night, you can make the argument that he deserves the spot. I think it's that close right now. But Griffin's had the more consistent season and, as detailed above, the more dramatic impact. So he holds the spot.

The only other very tough call is at fullback, where Darrel Young and the Giants' Henry Hynoski are both excellent and worthy. Hynoski, for me, has been the slightly better blocker, but the Giants' recent struggles have hurt his case and Young, who actually touches the ball every now and then, takes the spot away from him. ... Kicker is a good race, as all four have had good seasons. And yes, I know Kai Forbath hasn't missed, but he's kicked barely half as many as Dan Bailey has. ... Philadelphia's Brandon Graham has made a strong case at defensive end with his second-half play, but Jason Hatcher's been a rock all season as a 3-4 end for Dallas. ... Dez Bryant and Alfred Morris are no-brainers as the division's best wide receiver and running back. What kind of odds could you have got on that in early September?

Final Word: NFC East

December, 23, 2012
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 16:

[+] EnlargePierre Garcon
AP Photo/Mark DuncanThe Redskins are 7-1 this season when receiver Pierre Garcon plays, and score 5.3 points more.
Difference-maker. How important has the post-bye return of wide receiver Pierre Garcon from a foot injury been for the Washington Redskins? When Garcon plays this season, Washington is 7-1, scores an average of 29.5 points per game and averages 9.7 yards per pass attempt and 286.4 passing yards per game. When Garcon has not played, Washington is 1-5 and averages 24.2 points per game, 6.7 yards per pass attempt and 209.8 passing yards per game. Garcon will be a significant challenge for a Philadelphia Eagles secondary that has not responded well to many challenges this year. He's averaging 7.6 yards after the catch this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information, which ranks fourth in the league among receivers with at least 30 catches.

Bookends. A loss to Washington would be the Eagles' 11th defeat of the season. They've not lost that many since 1999, which was Andy Reid's first year as their head coach. Reid is expected to lose his job at the end of this season, and that means Sunday would be his final home game as the Eagles' coach. Reid has had good success against the Redskins in recent years, having won five of his past seven against them. But the Redskins began their current five-game winning streak with a 31-6 victory over the Eagles at home in Week 11. If they beat them badly again Sunday, it would be the first time the Redskins beat the Eagles by double digits twice in the same season since 1973.

Bucking a trend? The Dallas Cowboys have lost six of their past seven games against the New Orleans Saints dating back to 1998. Their one victory in that stretch, however, was the Dec. 19, 2009, game in which the Cowboys went into New Orleans and beat a Saints team that was 13-0 at the time. This Saints team is ... not that Saints team. This year's Saints are 6-8 and have struggled all year on defense. Dallas is averaging 29.5 points per game over its past six games (of which it has won five) after averaging just 18.8 points per game in its first eight games of the year. The Cowboys should be able to put up points against a Saints defense that ranks 31st against the run, 31st against the pass and 32nd overall in the 32-team NFL this year.

Running it up. The return of running back DeMarco Murray from his foot injury four weeks ago has obviously helped the Cowboys' run game, but it has helped the offense overall as well. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo has a 72.7 completion percentage and averages 10.5 yards per pass attempt with six touchdowns and no interceptions on play-action passes with Murray in the lineup. When Murray does not play, Romo's completion percentage on play-action drops to 63.2, his yards per attempt to 3.9, and his TD-INT ratio to 1-2. Murray scares opposing defenses to an extent that backup Felix Jones does not, and the offense is able to do much more when he's on the field.

Who bounces back? The New York Giants lost 34-0 in Atlanta last week to fall out of first place in the NFC East. But in games following losses this year, the defending Super Bowl champs are 4-1 and averaging 37 points and 441.6 yards per game. The Baltimore Ravens, who fell to the Broncos last week, have lost three in a row following a 9-2 start. They have not lost four games in a row since the 2007 season, when they lost nine in a row. Baltimore also has lost its past two home games. Prior to that, it had enjoyed a 15-game winning streak at home. The Giants need the win more, since the Ravens have clinched a playoff spot and the Giants have not. But neither team is coming in particularly hot.

Final Word: NFC East

December, 1, 2012
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 13:

Tough times. The Philadelphia Eagles and the Dallas Cowboys haven't met in a game in which they both had losing records since ... well, since three weeks ago. But before that, the last time was Oct. 28, 1990. The 5-6 Cowboys host the 3-8 Eagles on Sunday night in Arlington, Texas, having beaten the Eagles 38-23 in Week 10 in Philadelphia. Eagles coach Andy Reid is 17-10 in his career against the Cowboys, which gives him the most victories against the Cowboys of any coach in NFL history, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. (Joe Gibbs has 15, Tom Coughlin 12.)

[+] EnlargeJason Garrett
Elsa/Getty ImagesCan Jason Garrett's Cowboys end their Sunday night skid with the struggling Eagles visiting Dallas?
Ready for prime time? The Cowboys have lost eight straight Sunday night games (defined as games that begin later than 5 p.m. local time on Sundays) since 2010. The streak is interesting enough, but it's also somewhat remarkable that this will be the Cowboys' ninth Sunday night game in the past three seasons. They were 10-2 in Sunday night games from 2006 to 2009, so this is a relatively new trend, in case you were looking for something else for which to blame Jason Garrett.

Third and wrong. The New York Giants, according to ESPN Stats & Information, have had just 12 plays this season in which they have faced third down and 11 or more yards. That's the lowest such figure in the league, and they are 4-for-12 on such plays. The Washington Redskins, by contrast, have had 34 third-down plays of 11 yards or longer and have converted just two of them. I imagine this is a better indicator of the job the Giants do on first and second downs to stay out of third-and-long situations than it is of these teams' relative ability to convert third-and-very-long plays. It's worth mentioning, however, that the Redskins' defense has allowed the third-highest opponents third-down conversion percentage in the league this year. Opponents convert 44.9 percent of third downs against the Redskins, including 59.4 percent on third downs of 5 yards or fewer.

Keep him outside. In the Week 7 game against the Redskins in New Jersey, Giants quarterback Eli Manning was just 5-for-13 with no touchdowns and two interceptions on throws outside the numbers; he was 21-for-27 on throws over the middle (including his very memorable final one for a touchdown). The Redskins have given Manning fits in coverage the past two years. He has thrown just one touchdown pass and six interceptions while going 1-2 against them since the start of 2011.

Watch out for the fake. The Giants' pass rush will have to contend with Robert Griffin III's play-action passing game again. He has used a play-action fake on nearly 40 percent of his drop backs this year, according to ESPN Stats & Info, and he is averaging a league-best 12.2 yards per pass attempt when using play action. He was 7-for-10 for 107 yards using play action against the Giants in Week 7. The threat that Griffin himself will take off and run with the ball compounds the difficulty that defenses already have handling his play-action fakes, because even if they spot the ball still in his hand, he can still elude pass-rushers when the play breaks down.

Michael Vick says he's working to return

November, 30, 2012
Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick is out for the third game in a row Sunday as he continues his recovery from a concussion. Our man Ed Werder reported earlier Friday that Vick wants to return and that he's concerned the Eagles are "playing politics" with his concussion recovery so they can spend the remainder of their lost season evaluating rookie Nick Foles. Of course, Vick wants to play so he can look good for other teams that may want to sign him assuming the Eagles let him go after the season.

Well, the Eagles did a bunch of damage control after Werder's report hit the airwaves, and Vick himself issued this statement through the team:
"I want to thank my fans for the thousands of well wishes. I also appreciate the support of the entire Eagles organization. I feel strong and healthy. As a professional athlete, I want to play in every game but the NFL has a specific protocol to protect players. My focus is to complete this process successfully, so I can rejoin my team on the field."

Which doesn't tell you much except that Vick wants to play and the rules won't let him. The fact is, this is and will remain a murky gray area. Eagles coach Andy Reid continues to insist that Vick will return to the starting quarterback role once he's healthy, but there's no reason to assume Reid will ever have to make good on that pledge. Vick may need the remainder of the season to recover from his concussion, and of course it's possible the Eagles could drag his recover out on technicalities, since they're the ones testing his recovery.

I completely understand why Vick or people close to him might be suspicious, especially if he feels good and wants to play. But the way the concussion protocol is being administered and monitored by the league right now, I find it hard to believe a team would actually be playing fast and loose with these particular rules. So while I don't doubt Werder's report that Vick has concerns about the way the team is handling things, I'd be surprised to find out those concerns were justified. If the Eagles want to play Foles the rest of the year, they don't need to use Vick's concussions as an excuse to do so. It's not as though Vick was on his way to the Pro Bowl when he got hurt.

Brandt on Jerry Jones, Andy Reid, GM roles

November, 14, 2012

Very interesting look from our man Andrew Brandt at the pitfalls of serving as an NFL team's chief personnel guy while also filling another role. Andrew's two examples come from our division: Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who also serves as the team's general manager, and Philadelphia Eagles coach Andy Reid, who doesn't have the title of "general manager" but does have final say on all personnel decisions. Andrew argues that the GM position requires different traits than does the role of owner or head coach, and that Jones and Reid are struggling to play on both sides of the fence.

Of Jones, Andrew writes:
The same qualities that make Jones a formidable presence as an owner -- his bravado, charisma and emotional as well as financial investment -- are detrimental to his position of general manager. That role calls for a quiet, detached and surgical construction (and perhaps deconstruction) of a team's roster.

Jones delights in big transactions both in business and football, but in football that can sometimes be more risky than savvy. He has twice mortgaged future drafts to acquire veteran wide receivers, a low-value position. He traded two first-round draft choices in 2001 for Joey Galloway, and a first-, third- and sixth-round selection in 2009 for Roy Williams.

Which is fair, because Jones certainly did those things. But it also relies on what I believe is an outdated perception of a Jerry Jones who has in fact been acting far less impulsively on personnel matters over the past couple of years and has ceded much of the day-to-day control to son Stephen Jones and coach Jason Garrett.

Of Reid, Andrew writes that a coaching style that relies on strong personal relationships with players can be an impediment to success as a GM:
This is the major flaw of the coach/general manager model. Although Bill Belichick has been able to achieve sustained success, he has done so with cold and impersonal detachment, often not even responding to player discontent about roles or contracts, further infuriating players and agents. Reid, although a flat-liner with the media, cares deeply about his relationship with his players.

Another worthwhile point, and I think the decision to tie so much of the Eagles' fate to Michael Vick as quarterback likely stands as the most significant current example of this. In general, you can't argue with the success Reid has had over 14 years as Eagles coach. And the poor construction of the current roster doesn't seem to be the result of any inability by Reid to detach himself from personal loyalties -- it's just a matter of poor decision-making about players and schemes. But I think the Vick example does speak to what Andrew's talking about, and I wonder whether Reid, in his next stop, can expect (or will necessarily demand) the same dual role he's filled in Philadelphia for the past decade.