Dallas Cowboys: Brandon Graham

NFC East wrap: The year of RG III

December, 29, 2012
12/29/12
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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.

ALL-DIVISION TEAM

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?

NFC East: State of the pass rushes

May, 18, 2012
5/18/12
12:29
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Jason Pierre-Paul, DeMarcus Ware and Jason BabinGetty Images, US PresswireJason Pierre-Paul, DeMarcus Ware and Jason Babin had 54 of the NFC East's 181 sacks in 2011.

The 2011 season was not the most, well, beastly season in NFC East history. It was the first time in a full, 16-game season that no team in the division won at least 10 games, and for much of the year the talk around the division was that it wasn't what it used to be.

Buncha baloney if you ask me. Even forgetting for a second that an NFC East team won the Super Bowl, this division still does one very important thing better than any other: rush the passer. The NFC East's 181 sacks led all NFL divisions in 2011, and by quite a bit. (The AFC North, which had three playoff teams, was second with 160). The Eagles tied for the league lead with 50. The Giants tied for third with 48. The Cowboys tied for seventh with 42, and the Redskins tied for 10th with 41.

SportsNation

Which team in the NFC East has the best pass rush?

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    47%
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    16%
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    24%
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    13%

Discuss (Total votes: 29,232)

Look deeper, into the film-based, number-crunching stats from Pro Football Focus -- stats that take into account more than just sacks when evaluating the extent to which teams rushed, hassled and affected opposing quarterbacks, and the division still rules. The Eagles rank No. 1 in PFF's 2011 team rankings, the Cowboys No. 3, the Giants No. 6 and the Redskins No. 9. No division prizes this critical aspect of the game more than the NFC East does, and it shows up in the numbers.

So, as we slug our way through a slow news month in the NFC East, I thought it'd be a good idea to check in on the pass rushes of our four teams and see how they're doing -- what they've done to get better or worse, what their 2012 prospects look like from this far out and yes, how they rank against each other. You guys asked for more polls, and I promised I'd listen, so there's one right here for you to vote on. After you finish reading, of course. I'm addressing them in order of how many sacks they got in 2011, in case you're wondering how I decided. Seemed fair.

Philadelphia Eagles

Key contributors: DE Trent Cole, DE Jason Babin, DT Cullen Jenkins. PFF ranked Cole the No. 1 overall 4-3 defensive end in the league last year. Babin ranked 10th overall and third in pass rush, finishing third in the league with 18 sacks. Jenkins ranked as the No. 4 pass-rushing defensive tackle, and Derek Landri was No. 10. Defensive line coach Jim Washburn and defensive coordinator Juan Castillo, each of whom is entering his second season in his current position with the Eagles, believe the front four is responsible for the pass rush. And while they got a lot of publicity for how wide they like to line up their defensive ends, they like to get pressure from the defensive tackles as well.

Newcomer: DT Fletcher Cox. The Eagles traded up in the first round to pick Cox because they believed he could be an impact pass-rusher from one of those interior spots right away. They need to toughen up against the run, and that will have to be part of Cox's game. But what appealed to them was his ability to get to the passer. Rookie linebacker Mychal Kendricks could conceivably factor in here too, but the Eagles don't ask their linebackers to rush very much in the new scheme.

Stock watch: UP. The addition of Cox, as well as the possible return to full health of Mike Patterson and 2010 first-round pick Brandon Graham, give the Eagles incredible depth at a position at which they were already very strong in 2011. It's possible they'll rush the passer even better in 2012.

New York Giants

Key contributors: DE Jason Pierre-Paul, DE Justin Tuck, DE Osi Umenyiora, DE/LB Mathias Kiwanuka. No one's roster goes as deep as the Giants' does in terms of star-caliber defensive ends. Pierre-Paul was fourth in the league with 16.5 sacks in just his second NFL season. Umenyiora had nine in just nine games. Tuck turned it on at the end and in the playoffs, and Kiwanuka is a defensive end playing linebacker. The Giants believe a strong pass rush is their heritage and their key to being an annual contender.

Newcomer: DT Marvin Austin. The Giants didn't really bring in anyone this offseason who looks like a 2012 pass-rush contributor, but their 2011 second-round pick missed all of last season due to injury, so we'll call him a newcomer. The Giants would like to get more help from inside. Linval Joseph was their best pass-rushing defensive tackle in 2011, according to PFF's rankings. A healthy Austin could be a difference-maker.

Stock watch: DOWN. Not by much, but a little, because of the loss of reliable, underrated reserve DE Dave Tollefson. If Tuck and Umenyiora have injury problems again, or if Umenyiora holds out, they could get kind of thin at defensive end pretty quickly without Tollefson there to fill in this time. Now, this is the Giants, and they'll probably figure it out. The addition of linebacker Keith Rivers could allow them to move Kiwanuka back to end in case of injury. But it's worth pointing out that they did lose a somewhat important piece of the pass rush and didn't replace him.

Dallas Cowboys

Key contributors: LB DeMarcus Ware, LB Anthony Spencer, DE Jason Hatcher, NT Jay Ratliff. There's no one like Ware, who rang up another 19.5 sacks in 2011. That's nearly half the team total, and the conventional wisdom says he needs more help. But PFF ranked Spencer its 11th-best 3-4 outside linebacker in the pass rush and Hatcher as its eighth-best 3-4 pass-rushing defensive end. Add in Ratliff, who can generate pressure up the middle, and the Cowboys look better in this area than we tend to think.

Newcomer: DE Tyrone Crawford. Dallas' third-round pick is looked at by many as a project, but as one that can eventually help with the pass rush whether he ends up as a 3-4 end or standing up as an outside linebacker. Whether he can help in 2012 remains a question, but the Cowboys didn't see a first-round or second-round pass-rusher they liked better than Spencer, so they focused on the secondary instead and picked up some down-the-road guys for the pass rush.

Stock watch: EVEN. They're bringing back basically the same group, and while there's a theory that the improvements at defensive back will help the pass rush by giving it extra time to get sacks, we have yet to see that in action. Spencer must play with more aggressiveness if this unit is to take a step forward into the upper tier with the Eagles and Giants.

Washington Redskins

Key contributors: LB Brian Orakpo, LB Ryan Kerrigan, DE Stephen Bowen. The Redskins' pass rush is all about those young outside linebackers, and they are fearsome. But with only 16.5 sacks between them in 2011, their numbers have a ways to go to get into the big-time stratosphere we're talking about in the NFC East. PFF did rank Orakpo fifth and Kerrigan ninth among pass-rushing 3-4 OLBs in 2011, so they do a lot of things well in that area. Bowen had six sacks and DE Adam Carriker came up with 5.5.

Newcomer: DE Jarvis Jenkins. Just as we did with the Giants, we'll go with a 2011 second-round pick who missed his rookie season due to injury. Jenkins may not be a pass-rusher, but adding him to the defensive line rotation could help free up more room for the linebackers and maybe help the other linemen get to the passer more often as well.

Stock watch: EVEN. This is really all about how much and how quickly Orakpo and especially Kerrigan continue to develop as elite pass-rushers. They've both shown flashes of incredible raw ability, and they have to continue to hone their craft so they can play at the level of the other pass-rushers in their division. Ware, Cole, Pierre-Paul and the rest of these guys are setting a high bar, and the Redskins know they have to have their own pass-rush monsters if they want to hang with them year in and year out.

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