New York Giants: NFC East
"I think when Larry Donnell started to come to fruition, and catch the ball well and make some plays for us, I think that’s when things kind of shifted," Cruz said Friday on a conference call with reporters. "It was definitely something that we needed to happen -- someone to step up and make some big plays, and Larry’s done that for us."
Truth be told, Donnell has delivered all season long -- he had five receptions for 56 yards and a touchdown in the Giants' season-opening loss to the Detroit Lions, and seven for 81 in their Week 2 loss to the Arizona Cardinals.
But Donnell took things to another level Thursday night against the Washington Redskins, with three touchdown grabs -- the first Giants tight end to accomplish that feat in a single game since Joe Walton in 1962, according to Elias Sports.
Not bad for an undrafted free agent out of Grambling State, who had three career catches prior to this season.
A quarter of the way through 2014, Donnell has 25 receptions for 236 yards and four touchdowns. At that pace, he would finish the year with 100 catches for 944 yards and 16 scores.
To put that in perspective, last season the New Orleans Saints' Jimmy Graham led all NFL tight ends with 86 catches for 1,215 yards and 16 scores -- rather similar numbers.
Donnell still has a long way to go, but Cruz said he isn't surprised by the success his teammate is having.
"In practice each and every day, I see the types of plays that he makes. I knew that it was just a matter of him getting his opportunities and making the best of it," Cruz said. "The style of offense that we have, it definitely sets up well for an athletic tight end to do some positive things, and I think he’s filled that void for us."
The Giants hit the jackpot with Cruz, another undrafted free agent, a few years back. Perhaps they struck gold again with a late bloomer from Grambling?
Cruz has been an inspiration to underdogs on the Giants and around the league. Now the tables have turned, it seems.
"I’m inspired by him. It makes me play harder, it makes me want to get as many touchdowns as Larry, get as many catches," Cruz said. "He’s definitely inspiring me, and I know that he’s inspiring other teammates as well."
Now, who would have predicted that?
Bowman did not have one of the Giants' four interceptions Thursday, but Amukamara did, and it was something of a milestone for him. After collecting just one interception in each of his first three NFL seasons, Amukamara now has one in each of his last two games -- and a career-high two for the season.
"Zack's been staying with me after practice, catching balls off the JUGS machine, and he told me after last week, 'There's more to get,'" Amukamara said. "And tonight he came to me and said, 'You broke your record.' The knock on me has always been I have bad hands or I'm not a big playmaker or whatever. So it's definitely good to be able to show that part of my game."
It's vital for the team as well. The Giants had six takeaways in the game and only turned the ball over once. A plus-five turnover differential is a pretty good way to ensure a victory in the NFL. According to ESPN Stats & Information, since the start of the 2013 season, the Giants are 7-0 when they have a positive turnover differential, and 2-11 when they do not.
"It's Christmas, that's what it is," said safety Antrel Rolle, who had another of the interceptions. "You want games like that, where you're playing ahead and the other team is trying to play catch-up, and you know they have to force the ball. They're trying to make the long throws and complete long passes, and it gives the defense more opportunities to create turnovers."
Amukamara and safety Quintin Demps, who also had an interception in his first game replacing Stevie Brown as a starter, said Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins was staring down receivers Thursday night, and that helped the defensive backs jump routes and anticipate where the ball was going.
Good pressure by the defensive line and blitzing linebackers in the first half helped get Cousins off his game -- especially when Mathias Kiwanuka came unblocked for an early sack/fumble.
And Amukamara and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie held up their end in man coverage against star Washington receivers Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson, respectively. Strong defensive effort all around, but the Giants feel a lot better about those strong defensive efforts when they come with a big pile of turnovers.
"It's a mindset," said Bowman, who came over from the takeaway-happy Bears this offseason and has been preaching that since training camp. "Once you start getting them, it can snowball. It can get contagious. That's where we are right now."
Beckham stretched with the team before practice on Tuesday, something he hasn't done every day. When stretching ended, instead of going off to that back field, he went with running back Rashad Jennings and followed him through his normal pre-practice stretching and jogging routine. Beckham has recently been seeking guidance from Jennings, who has an extensive routine he calls "pre-hab" to keep himself healthy and in shape. The rookie has been shadowing the veteran running back before games and, now apparently, practices.
After his session with Jennings ended, when it was time for position groups to practice together, Beckham jogged over with the rest of the wide receivers and joined them for individual position drills, which was also new. And then, when it was time for the receivers and tight ends to line up and practice running their routes and catching passes from Eli Manning, he joined in there as well. We saw him catch two passes before practice was closed to the media.
This is tangible and significant progress for Beckham, and if the Giants' game this week was Sunday, I'd say it leaves open the slightest of chances he could play in it. But they'd be crazy to play him Thursday night in Washington after only one NFL practice, ever, and that's why I expect them to treat this as progress and build on it. We'll know more in an hour or so when we talk to coach Tom Coughlin and the players in the locker room, but for now I'd expect the Giants to list Beckham as a limited practice participant, which would be an upgrade over where he's been since the season started.
This, through two weeks, is the New York Giants' secondary. A unit that was supposed to be the strength of this team has instead been one of the main culprits for their 0-2 start.
"The no takeaways is an issue now," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said Monday. "This is something that every team counts on in the NFL -- getting an extra field position, bona fide field position from some type of takeaway, whether it be special teams or defense. And we have not had that."
Coughlin lamented a couple of plays from Sunday's game that he believed safety Stevie Brown and cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie could have turned into interceptions, and he seemed to believe the issues were of technique and/or decision-making.
"You've got to be in the right position. Your eyes have got to be in the right spot. You've got to have a good feel for it," Coughlin said. I thought on a couple of occasions, the quarterback was actually staring the ball down where he was goingm and we still weren't influenced enough to go in that direction and be in position to make a play. We do have athletes. They are good athletes. A couple of years ago, we referred to Stevie Brown as kind of a ballhawking guy in center field when he had that opportunity. He's just not there yet. He's not back yet to where he was a couple of years ago, and let's hope he gets there."
In the meantime, the Giants' defensive backs need to keep their hands to themselves. They weren't called for many of those preseason-type downfield contact penalties in the opening-week loss in Detroit, but they had way too many of them on Sunday. And while fans and even some players and coaches may want to sit around and argue about the validity of the calls being made against defensive backs, they are being made, and defensive players have to adjust better than the Giants have done.
"We need to be smarter," safety Antrel Rolle said. "You can't hold a guy. Illegal contact, things like that are going to take place throughout the course of the game. But there are certain things we saw on film. When you're jamming a guy, and you're holding and you're looking at the quarterback, they're going to call that 100 percent of the time. So we have to be smarter."
It would be one thing if the over-aggressive play were leading to interceptions, but they don't have one yet. And while it's still early, this is a unit that needs to be setting the tone for the rest of the team. It's not going to get any easier with nickel cornerback Walter Thurmond out for the year due to a pectoral muscle injury, but the players who remain are good enough to cut down on the penalties and make some plays. At this point, though, the Giants would take just one of those things.
"Obviously, we're not as good at it as we should be," Coughlin said. "So we've got to sharpen it up."
Coming off a season in which miscommunication contributed to the Giants' league-leading 40 turnovers, Pugh discussed the importance of getting players on the same page. "If we have 10 guys doing the right thing, and one guy is off by a foot or misses something -- misses a signal or doesn't block the right guy -- that could end the play, make it a negative play. It's all about getting 11 guys doing the same thing," he said.
With all of the issues the Giants have faced this preseason -- from injuries to learning a new offense -- Pugh believes the least of their concerns should be quarterback Eli Manning. He talked up Manning's ability to quickly forget bad plays and get back on the field.
"He never lets anything get him down," he said. "He'll always bounce back, and he's got two rings that he can just put on the table and let you see if you want that assurance that he can get it done in the big games."
While many analysts have tabbed Philadelphia to repeat as NFC East champs, Pugh urges caution, noting how unpredictable the division has been in recent years. In each of the past two years, the eventual champ recovered from .500 or sub-.500 starts with second-half surges. "I really think it's gonna come down to the second half of the season," Pugh said. "You gotta win those division games."
As for the Giants' naysayers, Pugh acknowledged they provide motivation. "If you ever go into the season, and people predict you to be in the bottom half of the league, you've gotta have a chip on your shoulder," he said. "We gotta go out there and start proving people wrong."
We had 64 people here at ESPN issue preseason predictions -- all 32 of our NFL Nation team reporters plus 32 national NFL writers/personalities. Of those 64, only five picked the Giants to reach the playoffs.
Four of those people picked the Giants to win the NFC East. Only ESPN Insider K.C. Joyner (who picked the Giants to win the division in 2011 when the Eagles were the popular pick) picked them to win an NFC wild card spot.
The four who picked the Giants to win their division are Bears reporter Michael C. Wright, Buccaneers reporter Pat Yasinskas, 49ers reporter Paul Gutierrez and Neil Payne of FiveThirtyEight.com.
Of the 64 ESPN experts issuing predictions, 53 picked the Philadelphia Eagles to win the NFC East. Seven picked Washington, and I was one of them. I think the Eagles are the division's best team on paper and a worthy favorite, but I just couldn't bring myself to pick a repeat champion in this wacky division. So I picked Washington because I think it is loaded at the offensive skill positions, and I think Robert Griffin III can bounce back. Not that I don't think Eli Manning can bounce back, but I think the group around Griffin looks better on paper than the group around Manning does.
Also, all 64 experts were asked to pick Coach of the Year, MVP and Offensive and Defensive Rookies of the Year. No one picked Tom Coughlin or any Giants player. As I said, expectations for this team are low.
Personally, I went with the Saints over the Patriots in the Super Bowl, picked Sean Payton for Coach of the Year, Drew Brees for MVP and Brandin Cooks for Offensive Rookie of the Year, so I'm kind of all-in on the Saints this year. I picked Baltimore's C.J. Mosley for Defensive Rookie of the Year.
The Saints are not an unpopular pick. Of our 64 experts, 13 of us picked New Orleans to win the Super Bowl. The only team that got more votes was the Denver Broncos, with 18.
The other Super Bowl picks are the 49ers (12 votes), the defending champion Seahawks (9), the Patriots (6), the Eagles (3) and the Packers (3).
If you'd like to check out all of the predictions, here are some links:
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RUNNING BACKS (4)
Hillis' sprained ankle could help Gaskins and Michael Cox make the team if it lingers, but if they're picking between Cox and Gaskins for that fourth spot, Gaskins looks like the better player so far in camp. Tom Coughlin also keeps saying that the fullbacks can play running back, and they have been using Henry Hynoski all over the formation in practice, so it's possible they could carry just three here, especially if they can get Gaskins on the practice squad.
It's a camp battle between Hynoski and John Conner, and I don't think the Giants will keep both. There was even some talk early in camp that they could go without a fullback, but the continued poor showing by the tight ends likely has put that to bed.
WIDE RECEIVERS (6)
Marcus Harris is ahead of both Washington and Parker, but he injured his shoulder Friday night and is likely to miss the start of the season, if not more. Parker sneaks onto the list this week because (a) with Beckham's hamstring injury continuing to be a problem, they may need to carry six wide receivers just to have five and (b) Parker is the primary punt returner right now with Beckham and Trindon Holliday laid up.
TIGHT ENDS (4)
Donnell, Davis and Robinson each got exactly 14 snaps in the first half Friday night, and Robinson was the only tight end in the game on the successful two-minute drill at the end of the first half. What's it all mean? Really just that no one has separated himself in this group. Davis was the starter ahead of Donnell for the first time Friday, but there's still no clarity on this situation.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN (9)
- J.D. Walton
- Weston Richburg
- Will Beatty
- Justin Pugh
- Charles Brown
- Brandon Mosley
- John Jerry
- James Brewer
- Dallas Reynolds
DEFENSIVE LINE (9)
- Jason Pierre-Paul
- Mathias Kiwanuka
- Robert Ayers
- Markus Kuhn
- Mike Patterson
- Johnathan Hankins
- Jay Bromley
- Damontre Moore
- Cullen Jenkins
Very few changes here, though if Kuhn's leg injury ends up costing him practice time, it could open up a spot for someone like defensive end Kerry Wynn to make the team. Bromley has looked surprisingly good in games so far and could slide in for Kuhn in the defensive tackle rotation for the short term.
Kennard has been so good so far that, if they only keep five, you wonder about Paysinger's spot a little bit. Williams is the starter at the weakside spot, even in the base defense, as long as he can stay healthy. And Kennard is a first-teamer right now on the strong side, with McClain manning the middle in place of the injured Beason. I wonder if Kennard could keep the spot ahead of McClain even once Beason comes back. Herzlich is on the squad for special teams, where he has great value.
It helps the numbers that Jayron Hosley will be suspended for the first four games of the regular season for a drug violation. If he does make the team, the Giants will have to clear a spot for him in Week 5. This group could also swell if the Giants decide they need to keep sixth-round pick Bennett Jackson and/or Charles James for special teams. It's going to be tough to make the Giants' roster as a corner this summer, though recent injuries to Amukamara and Bowman could result in a short-term spot opening.
Cooper Taylor's toe injury is serious enough to keep him out for a long time, possibly even the whole season. That's unfortunate for Taylor, but it helps Berhe and likely helps someone at another position, such as Charles James at cornerback or Adrien Robinson at tight end. The Giants like to have a balanced roster -- 25 offensive players, 25 defensive and three specialists -- but that's not a requirement.
Brown isn't home-free yet, as Brandon McManus is hitting bombs in practice and has shown well in games. But Brown hasn't done anything to lose his spot, and as long as he remains reliable, my bet is he keeps it.
Jennings showed the breadth of his value Friday night, when he delivered a couple of big blocks in pass protection during the Giants' two-minute drive at the end of the first half. The Giants signed him because they believed he could be a complete back -- run the ball, catch the ball and pick up the blitz -- and he has shown he has the ability to do all of those things.
"Being a student of the game is something every player has to do," Jennings said Sunday. "Studying tape and understanding the overall picture of the protection, the routes and where you fit into the triangle of it. In the pass protection, Eli always puts us in a good position. The line communicates well, and everyone is on the same page. But as far as coming across and going backside, that's just a part of playing football, and it comes from repetition."
Jennings should expect to get a lot of repetitions once the season begins. As a guy who's played in power run games throughout his NFL career, he still struggles at times to hit the right hole at the right time in all of the zone and stretch runs the Giants are installing this season, but he should develop better consistency along those lines without too much trouble. It's the first time a team has asked him to be the No. 1 guy for a full season, so until he does that, we don't really know whether he can. But there appears little doubt that he'll get the opportunity to do it if he can stay healthy. With David Wilson having retired due to neck injuries and Williams still a work in progress, Jennings is pretty much all they have. If he can, in fact, do it all, they will ask him to do just that.
They targeted Schwartz early and signed him as soon as free agency began. They viewed him not as a cure-all but as a foundation piece -- a reliable veteran whose presence at left guard would help make the rest of their line problems easier to solve.
So while injuries happen and you can't fault the Giants if Schwartz's toe injury keeps him out for a significant period of time, it is a major problem for them, and they may struggle more than you think to solve it.
"Oh, no," Richburg said Sunday morning. "If you're content with how you're playing, I think you're cheating yourself. I always want to get better. I made some mistakes in the last game that I know I need to correct."
He may have no choice but to correct them on the fly. The Giants don't like to lean on rookies as starters, but they showed last season with right tackle Justin Pugh that they will if they have no other choice. Pugh played well enough as a 16-game rookie starter that it worked out. Problem is, there's no guarantee that it will work out again. Even if Richburg is an eventual Pro Bowler, no one can be sure he'll develop as quickly as Pugh did.
"What I'm doing best right now is having a short memory," Richburg said. "If I make a mistake, just clap it off and go on to the next play and not let it affect me. I think I'm doing a good job of forgetting about it and just playing fast and continuing."
Great, but the issue is that the understandable rookie mistakes are happening, and that mistakes on the offensive line are hazardous to the health and effectiveness of Giants quarterback Eli Manning. This wouldn't be as serious a concern if left guard were the only spot at which there was concern. But the Giants have had pass-protection issues with Walton, Mosley and left tackle Will Beatty this preseason as well. Adding a still-green Richburg to the starting mix leaves Pugh as the surest commodity, and even he is a second-year player whose growing pains likely aren't all the way behind him. There are still talent evaluators around the league who view Pugh as a guard playing out of position and think the Giants' line will be better once he's moved inside, but at this point they don't have any better options at tackle.
No, the issue here continues to be depth, and that's a failing of the organization's offseason. They brought in John Jerry on the premise that he'd be a quality veteran backup should something happen at guard, yet after Chris Snee retired and Schwartz got hurt Jerry remains in a backup role while Richburg and Mosley line up with the starters. Charles Brown, signed as the veteran depth at tackle, played terribly in relief of Beatty early and is now hurt, which has resulted in Pugh having to take some left tackle snaps in practice with Mosley moved out to right tackle. Reserve guard/center Eric Herman is suspended for four games, and reserve guard/tackle James Brewer is hurt.
It's thin, folks, and it's still very thin at the interior positions that were supposed to be upgraded this year. There's a lot of book from last year on how easy and effective it is to pressure Manning from the A-gap, and if the Giants don't get things figured out in there, defenses aren't going to need to alter last year's plan very much to beat them. After all the work that was done in the offseason, the Giants' biggest 2014 problem may end up being exactly the same as the one that sunk them in 2013.
He likes to practice and misses it when he can't be on the field. But the hamstring injury the New York Giants' first-round pick suffered in the first practice of camp on July 22 has kept him on the sideline. That is why Monday felt so good.
"You don't want to open it up too much on the first day, so that definitely wasn't full-speed," Beckham said before Tuesday's practice. "But it does feel good to get back out there and catch a ball from a quarterback and not a JUGS machine."
Beckham worked in the individual portion of practice and not the team portion Monday, but he said his schedule Tuesday called for "individuals-plus," and he speculated that he might get to work in 7-on-7 drills. His progress is steady, though slow and sensible. There's no way he plays in Saturday's preseason game in Indianapolis, but at this point it's not crazy to think he could appear in the Aug. 22 game against the Jets or the Aug. 28 game against the Patriots.
"It's just kind of one of those things where you can't really jump back in and go full-go," Beckham said. "You've got to ease back into it. It felt good to be able to get out there and do at least a little bit of something out there. You kind of feel like you've been caged, and you're just waiting to get out. So it's just about trying to get back out there but do it safely."
The Philadelphia Eagles won the division last year in Chip Kelly's first season, but do they have staying power?
Alfred Morris has eaten up yards on the ground in his first two years with the Washington Redskins, but can he do it without Mike Shanahan's system?
The New York Giants' offense grew stale under Kevin Gilbride. Can new coordinator Ben McAdoo get Eli Manning back to a top level?
The Dallas Cowboys' defense was bad in 2013 and have pinned their hopes of improvement on new coordinator Rod Marinelli. Just how much can Marinelli do?
John Keim, Kieran Darcy, Andy Jasner and Todd Archer look at what can be expected from the Redskins, Giants, Eagles and Cowboys with training camp just around the corner.
Will Rod Marinelli improve an already poor defense having lost DeMarcus Ware, Jason Hatcher and Sean Lee?
Todd Archer: I believe the Cowboys will be better with Marinelli serving as defensive coordinator instead of Monte Kiffin in part because it can't be worse. It can't be worse, right? Ware, Hatcher and Lee were part of last season's poor defense and missed time. Lee will be missed the most because of his playmaking ability. Ware's pass rush will be missed even if he had just six sacks in 2013. I believe the Cowboys have Hatcher's replacement in Henry Melton. He might not get 11 sacks, but he'll be fine. Marinelli does not have the talent he had to work with in Chicago, but he is a top coach. He can coax the ability out of these guys. Does that mean the Cowboys will be a top-10 or even top-15 defense? Not really. If they can get in the low to mid 20s, then that's improvement. He is more in-tune with today's game than Kiffin and will be more willing to adjust if necessary. The Cowboys had no answers last season. I think Marinelli will have more answers but not enough pupils to earn an A.
Andy Jasner: It's hard to imagine the Cowboys' defense getting any worse. Well, anything is possible. Four different quarterbacks threw for 400 or more yards in a single game last season. The New Orleans Saints had 40 first downs against the Cowboys' defense in November. Even with some key pieces missing from the defense, they should be improved for one simple reason: work ethic. Marinelli has been part of some bad teams in the past but not because he didn't work hard. Marinelli will instill good habits in his defensive players and improvement throughout the unit will likely be visible. Four years ago in 2010, Marinelli was promoted to defensive coordinator with the Bears. That defense steadily got better as the season moved on. The Cowboys allowed 388 first downs last season, the second-most in NFL history. Even with Ware, Hatcher and Lee, the defense was awful. Good work habits should help across the board.
John Keim: Man, how bad will the Cowboys' defense be if he can't help them improve? Does that mean even more quarterbacks throwing for 400 yards after a record-setting four did a year ago? That was a defense in transition last year, going from a 3-4 to a 4-3 under coordinator Monte Kiffin, who had been out of the NFL since 2008. The problem is, they've lost their most productive players in the front seven. Losing Lee is a huge blow because he was the one of this group who was going to return. Marinelli has done good work as a coordinator in the past and was excellent as Dallas' defensive line coach in 2013, despite needing to use 20 players because of injuries. If the Cowboys stay healthy and their defensive backs respond to different coverages they'll improve. But they have such a long way to go.
@toddarcher the defense is going to be so bad that if they don't score 30 points they won't win! Another miserable year for us cowboys fans!— Chris Matteson (@chechespopp) July 8, 2014
Will the rest of the division figure out Eagles coach Chip Kelly and make him a one-hit wonder?
Archer: The second time around against the Redskins and Giants, the Eagles' offensive performance slipped in 2013. The numbers against the Cowboys were better in the rematch only because the Cowboys were so good in the first meeting. In what was their best showing of 2013, Dallas gave up only 3 points and 278 yards in the first meeting. In the de facto NFC East title game to close the season, the Eagles scored 24 points and put up 366 yards. That's still respectable for a defense, especially one that was as bad as the Cowboys' last season. Kelly is innovative and appears to know how to stay ahead of the curve. He did that at Oregon in the Pac-12. But it will come down to Nick Foles. If he is a franchise quarterback and not a one-hit wonder himself, then the Eagles will struggle. Having LeSean McCoy, Darren Sproles, Jeremy Maclin, Riley Cooper, Zach Ertz and Brent Celek will help Kelly and Foles. With everybody wanting to hand them the division in the offseason, I think it's best to tap the brakes a little.
Jasner: Everything seemed to click in Kelly's rookie season as running back LeSean McCoy rushed for a league-high 1,607 yards and quarterback Nick Foles threw 27 touchdowns against just two interceptions. Foles began the season as a backup to Michael Vick, who now plays for the New York Jets. Kelly took his high-powered offense from Oregon and made the seamless transition to the NFL. Kelly did a stellar job of adjusting to defenses last season and there's no reason to believe that won't happen again. The rest of the division has plenty of film on how to stop the Eagles' offense. Doing it is another thing altogether. Don't expect Kelly to be a one-hit wonder. However, repeating the feat is always more challenging with defenses keying in more closely. The Eagles may not put up the same huge numbers in Kelly's second season. With talent such as McCoy, Foles, Jeremy Maclin and Darren Sproles, the Eagles will still be able to score plenty of points.
Keim: I'm assuming Kelly will have some changes for defenses in order to build on what the Eagles accomplished last season. What he can't do is fall in love with his "system" and forget it's the talent that made it work. The tough part is expecting Nick Foles to post similar numbers as in 2013. And you can't minimize the loss of receiver DeSean Jackson, even in terms of his impact on others. That said, I still expect them to be a potent offense. They do a good job manipulating defenses and they still have one of the best all-around players in the NFL in running back LeSean McCoy -- not to mention a terrific line. So even if teams think they've figured out Kelly's offense, I'd expect the Eagles to keep doing well.
@SheridanScribe I don't think so, as a eagles fan I think that division is broken, and we have our full arsenal back minus DJacks— Chocolate Gladiator (@Willing2GoHamm) July 16, 2014
Was Alfred Morris just a product of Mike Shanahan's system and will his effectiveness decrease under Jay Gruden?
Archer: So is he Tatum Bell, Mike Anderson or Reuben Droughns? Is that the question? Those three guys combined for four 1,000-yard seasons under Shanahan and never really performed well again. There is definitely something about the Shanahan system that makes it seem like any back can rush for 1,000 yards. But I think Morris could be more Clinton Portis than those other three. Portis was outstanding in Denver before his trade to Washington. The question, however, with Jay Gruden isn't so much the system as it is his willingness to run the ball enough. The Bengals ran for nearly 1,800 yards last year but it seemed like Gruden went away from the running game in the big moments. When you have a guy like A.J. Green that can be understandable, but is Andy Dalton good enough to carry the show? Now the question is can Robert Griffin III carry the show? The best way to help Griffin is to make sure Morris is a big part of the plan. If Gruden is smart, then he makes Morris the centerpiece of the offense.
Jasner: It shouldn't. Morris racked up 1,275 yards rushing, 4.6 yards per carry, and 7 touchdowns last season. He was selected to the Pro Bowl for the first time and was arguably the Redskins' most consistent offensive player. Gruden will expect Morris to become a complete player with the ability to run block and pass block. Gruden is a meticulous coach whom expects his players to be all-around competitors. Gruden has always leaned heavily on running backs in his system and it would be foolish not to have Morris do the same thing in 2014. Morris has played all 32 games in two seasons, resulting in 2,888 yards rushing and 20 touchdowns. Morris' effectiveness should increase under Gruden as long as he's healthy. When there's an ultra-talented player such as Morris, you give him the football as often as possible.
Keim: I don't think so. Gruden used his backs differently than Washington has with Morris, but in Cincinnati he did not have a similar runner. Nor in Washington does he have a Giovani Bernard (at least not yet anyway; maybe Lache Seastrunk becomes that sort of player in 2014) to take a ton of work away from Morris. The Redskins will use other backs, especially in the pass game. But they kept the run game the same for a reason: They want to feature Morris. He makes the offense go. Last season, Bengals running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis carried the ball 278 times two years ago; that's two more than Morris had in 2013. If healthy, and if the Redskins want to win, then Morris will still be in that 280 carry, 1,300-yard area.
@john_keim Yes. Gruden is notorious in forgetting about the run game. Unless you are a young fast multi purpose back: (See Giovanni B)— Dan (@dautry88) July 14, 2014
Will Eli Manning revert to Pro Bowl form in Year 1 under new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo?
Archer: Having worked with Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay for two seasons, McAdoo should have the benefit of the doubt with Manning. There is no doubt Manning was bad last season and his 27 interceptions are proof of it. He took too many chances. He didn't get help from his receivers at times. His line didn't help him. His eyes were on the rush a lot. Rodgers has been sacked a lot in Green Bay, but some of that is because he won't take chances. He will eat the ball and move on to the next play. Can Manning do that? if he doesn't, then it will be another long season for the Giants. I believe Manning will have a bounce-back year, but I don't know if it will be Pro Bowl form. It will be good and solid form and that could get the Giants back into the playoffs.
Jasner: Maybe not Pro Bowl form, but it has to be better than last season's debacle with 27 interceptions. Yes, 27. To be fair, Manning had poor pass protection on a week-in and week-out basis. He was never able to locate his rhythm. McAdoo has a reputation of building a strong rapport with his players and that was evident when he was the quarterbacks coach and worked with Aaron Rodgers with the Green Bay Packers. Manning must keep his interception total down and the Giants can't give the ball away 44 times like they did last season. Manning will have more options on offense in 2014 and some early-season success will be a boost to his confidence. This team doesn't resemble the two Super Bowl-winning teams under Manning. Don't expect a Pro Bowl season from Manning, but it should be a whole lot better.
Keim: One thing that hurt Manning, against the Redskins at least, was the defense's familiarity with Kevin Gilbride's system -- and, more important, his tendencies. They had a strong handle on what to expect. My guess is other teams did as well. But it sounds as if McAdoo will focus more on shorter passes which, the Giants have to hope, will help Manning cut down on his interceptions. Yes, he's learning a new system, but Manning is a smart player so I don't think it will hold him back that much. I'm looking for a big bounce-back year from him, but whether he reaches the Pro Bowl will depend on how his line improves and how the questions at receiver are answered. I'm not ready to go that far just yet.
This is one of three nominations for the most memorable play in New York Giants history. On Monday we looked at David Tyree's "helmet catch" from the Super Bowl XLII victory over the New England Patriots, and on Tuesday we looked at the Lawrence Taylor sack that broke Joe Theismann's leg in 1985. Please vote for your choice as the Giants' most memorable play.
Score: Eagles 19, Giants 17
Date: Nov. 19, 1978 Site: Giants Stadium
Instead, on third down, offensive coordinator Bob Gibson called another handoff to Csonka. But the exchange between Pisarcick and Csonka wasn't clean, and the ball came loose. Eagles defensive back Herman Edwards, who was blitzing on the play, picked it up and ran it back 26 yards for a stunning touchdown and an Eagles victory.
It was the fourth straight loss in what would be a six-game losing streak in the second half of a 6-10 Giants season. Gibson was fired the next day. The Eagles would go on to finish 9-7 and reach the playoffs, and since the winners write the history books, "Miracle at the Meadowlands" became the name by which the play would forever be called by everyone but Giants fans. They refer to it, simply and grumpily, as "The Fumble."
This is one of three nominations for the most memorable play in New York Giants history. On Monday we looked at David Tyree's "helmet catch" from the Super Bowl XLII victory over the New England Patriots. Wednesday, we will look at the Joe Pisarcik-Herman Edwards "Miracle at the Meadowlands" play from 1978. Please vote for your choice as the Giants' most memorable play.
Score: Redskins 23, Giants 21
Date: Nov. 18, 1985 Site: RFK Stadium
Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann.
Everyone remembers this one because they remember what it sounded like and, unfortunately, what it looked like. This was a "Monday Night Football" game being watched all around the country, and the gruesome details of the play stick in the memory of anyone who happened to be watching.
It was early in the second quarter with the game tied, and the Redskins called a flea flicker. Theismann handed the ball to running back John Riggins, who ran up toward the line before turning and flipping the ball back to Theismann. The Giants were not fooled. Harry Carson got there first, but Theismann wriggled away from him only to find Taylor waiting. Taylor brought him down, Gary Reasons jumped on the pile, everyone nearby heard a loud "crack" and, suddenly, Taylor was up and waving to the Redskins sideline for someone to come in and help Theismann.
The TV replays were horrendous, clearly showing the bone protruding through the skin of Theismann's leg. Theismann left the field on a stretcher, giving way to Jay Schroeder, who would lead the Redskins to a fourth-quarter comeback victory later that night. But the play stands among the most memorable in the history of both franchises. From the Giants' end, it has come to symbolize Taylor's ferocity as the best defensive player in NFL history. But, while both he and Theismann, who never played again, obviously remember the play, each has said in the intervening years that he has never watched the replay.
Taylor had greater moments as a Giant. For example, fans undoubtedly remember him ripping the ball out of Roger Craig's hands in the 1990 NFC Championship Game. And he helped deliver two Super Bowl titles. But there's little doubt that, if you're making a "most memorable plays" list, the devastating 1985 sack that wrecked Theismann's career meets the criteria.
The NFC East is not what it once was, and there have been plenty of changes in the division.
Since 2010, the NFC East is the only division not to have a team post more than 10 wins in a season.
The Washington Redskins hired a new coach in Jay Gruden. The Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants have added new playcallers. The Philadelphia Eagles have added several key free-agent pieces while also saying goodbye to DeSean Jackson.
How will these changes impact what happens in the NFC East in 2014?
NFL Nation reporters Phil Sheridan (Eagles), Dan Graziano (Giants), John Keim (Redskins) and Todd Archer (Cowboys) take a look.
Can Jay Gruden and DeSean Jackson help Robert Griffin III regain his form and bring Washington back to the postseason?
Todd Archer: If Gruden can't, he was the wrong hire. Adding Jackson to Pierre Garcon will help. Jackson is a big-play receiver, and in Cincinnati, Gruden was unafraid to take shots down the field with A.J. Green or Marvin Jones. It has been a quiet offseason for RG III compared to last season, when there was so much focus surrounding his rehab from knee surgery, how much he would or would not do, whether he would or would not wear a knee brace, whether he liked Mike Shanahan or Shanahan liked him. For Griffin, it's good that the focus has been on football. This is a critical year for him. If he does not return to form, the Redskins won't return to the playoffs.
John Keim: They can -- to a degree. But if he regains his form, it'll also be because he's had a full offseason, something he did not have last season, and he'll be playing without the brace on his right knee. He's used the offseason to tweak his mechanics, but he also needs to use it to read defenses quicker, which, in turn, will allow him to use all the new weapons around him. Jackson provides Griffin a consistent big-play target whose presence will make it tough for defenses to stop everyone. If the receivers and tight end Reed stay healthy, there will be mismatches. As for Gruden, his style of coaching might be a better fit for what Griffin wants and needs. He still understands a quarterback's mindset and has a good handle on what Griffin needs.
Phil Sheridan: They can't hurt. But really, this is about Griffin becoming the quarterback he's capable of being. We've all seen the signs that he can be special. It's hard to believe that Mike and Kyle Shanahan were entirely to blame for every hitch in Griffin's progression. That said, he now has a fresh start. He is Shanahan-free. There is an opportunity for him to redefine himself. Will Gruden and Jackson help? They really should. Jackson still has elite speed that puts pressure on every defense charged with covering him. It is up to Griffin to develop a strong connection to his new teammate. There is no reason to suspect that he can't. As for the postseason, the Eagles will not willingly give up the progress they made last season under Chip Kelly. But the NFC East is not exactly the most daunting challenge in the NFL. There will be space for Griffin in the playoffs if he earns it.
Who will be the best rookie in the division?
Archer: Best or most impactful? It's hard to say a guard will be the best rookie in the division, but I think the Cowboys' top pick, offensive tackle Zack Martin, will be the most impactful. He is the third first-round pick on the line and will be a day-one starter. If he plays well, Tony Romo will have more time, DeMarco Murray will have more room and indirectly the defense will be better because it will be on the field less. But if we're looking for the best, I'd go with Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. or Eagles wide receiver Josh Huff. They will get plenty of opportunities. If Eli Manning is to bounce back, Beckham will do things Hakeem Nicks didn't do. I think Huff will benefit from playing for Kelly at Oregon and will make a smooth transition into the offense. Why didn't I mention any Redskins? I was underwhelmed by their top three picks and they didn't have a first-rounder thanks to the Griffin trade.
Keim: I was all set to pick Matthews because I love the total package there: speed, size, smarts, work ethic. He'll be a good one, but the Eagles also have several weapons, and that could detract from his ability to make an impact. I really like linebacker Marcus Smith in Philadelphia; he and Washington's Trent Murphy will have opportunities, too, as pass-rushers. But the guy I'll go with is Martin. At No. 16, Martin should make the most impact. But his presence gives Dallas one of the best offensive lines in the NFL. Eventually he could shift outside, but Martin should be a solid player up front for many years, and he'll help immediately.
Sheridan: The easy answer is Beckham. He is the only first-round pick in the division who is likely to make a major impact as a rookie. Even if Martin and Smith have good seasons, they won't show up on the stat sheet the way a wide receiver will. That's what makes the dark-horse candidate Matthews, the Eagles' second-round pick. A wide receiver from Vanderbilt, Matthews is likely to start out playing in the slot. The Eagles almost always had three receivers on the field under Kelly last season. If Matthews can earn the playing time, he'll get some exposure.
Odell Beckham! Will be playing in up-tempo offense. Already the best route runner in this draft and new O will surprise def's. #Fourdowns- Mike (@GiantsfaninTx) June 10, 2014
Will Scott Linehan help the Cowboys take advantage of all their weapons on offense?
Archer: On the surface, the Cowboys' offense was not a problem last year. Romo threw 31 touchdown passes in 15 games and was intercepted 10 times. Murray had his first 1,000-yard season and went to the Pro Bowl. Dez Bryant, Tyron Smith and Jason Witten also went to the Pro Bowl. But there were issues. The red zone offense was a lot better, but the third-down offense was awful. It couldn't stay on the field enough. It was too easy for teams to take away Bryant and Witten in the passing game. The Cowboys did not run the ball enough when they had leads in games, like against Green Bay. Linehan inherits a talented group, and he is known for his ability to adjust in-game. If there has been a criticism of this offense, it is that the only answers to double-teams were to throw it to the other guys. They did little to help Bryant and Witten break free. Linehan had to deal with double coverage with Calvin Johnson a ton when he worked in Detroit. Although he threw it a lot with the Lions, he has shown a willingness to run it in the past, be it in Minnesota or St. Louis or even last year with the Lions. Reggie Bush had more than 1,000 yards. Unlike last year's playcaller, Bill Callahan, this will truly be Linehan's show. That will help him break free from Jason Garrett's shadow.
Keim: Maybe, but the thing I worry about with Linehan is his tendency to become so pass-heavy. Dallas' offense already relied a lot on throwing the ball, and that seemed to be a problem. The Cowboys averaged only 94 rushing yards per game, but they gained 4.48 per run. That's pretty good. With the line they're building, I would think they'd want to run the ball a bit more, but that goes against Linehan's history. But what I like, possibly, is getting the backs more involved in the passing game (another Linehan staple from his past). That would enable Murray to stretch his game -- and give defenses more to worry about. The Cowboys have the ability to diversify their offense, but Linehan can't just fall in love with the pass.
Sheridan: You would certainly think so, but then you'd have thought all those weapons would have produced a bit more over the last few years. Indeed, you'd think the same of the Detroit Lions, whose offense Linehan was most recently running. The Cowboys did the right thing by drafting to rebuild their offensive line. That would go a long way toward giving Romo the time to do what he does. And that would go a long way toward helping Linehan succeed. The bigger question is whether all those weapons are really as dangerous as they appear. Romo is at the point where many quarterbacks have begun their decline. Witten is 31. Bryant is in his prime, but he needs another wide receiver to draw some of the attention from opposing defenses. Murray had a good 2013, but Linehan wasn't exactly devoted to the running game in Detroit. Until proven otherwise, the Cowboys continue to look like a lot of exciting elements in need of a coherent plan.
Who was the better secondary signing: Malcolm Jenkins or Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie?
Archer: In a division with Bryant, Jackson, Garcon, Jeremy Maclin and Riley Cooper, I'm going with Rodgers-Cromartie. I know safeties are the "it" deal now because of what Earl Thomas has done in Seattle, but cornerbacks are more important. Jenkins fills a need the Eagles haven't filled since losing Brian Dawkins. He will bring stability to the secondary, and that will help the front seven. But Rodgers-Cromartie can do more. Cornerback has been a problem for New York because of injury, poor play or both the past few seasons. Rodgers-Cromartie has good length and speed to handle different kinds of receivers. He will gamble, but he is an upgrade at an ultra-important position.
Keim: I have questions about both players, although Rodgers-Cromartie is more talented. Jenkins gives the Eagles a versatile safety, someone who can revert to his corner days and cover. He's coming off a solid season but has been inconsistent. As for DRC, he's also on his fourth team -- something few elite corners at age 28 have ever said. Double moves will get him, and he will be beaten deep. But his length and athleticism make him dangerous, and maybe he's found a permanent home. DRC's presence enables the Giants to use Rolle only at safety -- before now, he's played mostly man. They can now use Rolle better when it comes to disguising coverages. By a hair, I'll go with DRC.
Sheridan: As a member in good standing of the Philadelphia sports community, I'm going to have to say Malcolm Jenkins. Not because the safety from New Orleans signed as a free agent with the Eagles but because Rodgers-Cromartie spent two of the most mystifying seasons imaginable here. Jenkins appears to be a smart, tough safety who will help solidify the Eagles' secondary. We'll take that over Rodgers-Cromartie's skill set -- especially because he demonstrated to Eagles fans how useless a skill set can be when its owner is jogging after ball carriers and declining to do anything so demeaning as tackle an opponent.