NFC East: Drew Brees
ESPN.com New York Giants reporter Dan Graziano makes his game-by-game picks for the 2014 season.
Week 1: at Detroit Lions
The Giants are coming off a mess of a preseason, undermanned and overwhelmed, with the offensive line still a mess and the new offense not clicking at all. No one will pick them to win this game. Except me. Prediction: Win
Week 2: Arizona Cardinals
This one's a comedown off the Week 1 surprise, as Arizona's banged-up defense still manages to flummox Eli Manning and collect a few interceptions. It's a bummer of a home opener as reality begins to set in. Prediction: Loss
Week 3: Houston Texans
Houston's defense is as liable as Arizona's to make life miserable for Manning and the offensive line. But Houston has bigger questions on offense than even the Giants, and this is a win for the New York defense against Ryan Fitzpatrick. Prediction: Win
Week 4: at Washington Redskins
Week 5: Atlanta Falcons
The pattern continues, and the Giants overcome two Osi Umenyiora sacks to outscore the Falcons with a furious Manning comeback in the final minutes. The Giants poke their heads over the .500 mark as they make the turn into the most brutal stretch of their schedule. Prediction: Win
Week 6: at Philadelphia Eagles
The Giants don't have Matt Barkley to kick around this time when they visit the City of Brotherly Love. Chip Kelly and the Eagles show them what a truly innovative offense looks like. Prediction: Loss
Week 7: at Dallas Cowboys
The season-long debate about what gives when an anemic Giants offense meets a pathetic Cowboys defense tilts in Dallas' favor in the first meeting. Tony Romo & Co. have more than enough weapons to outscore Manning and his bunch, and the Giants hit the bye with a 3-4 record. Prediction: Loss
Week 9: Indianapolis Colts
After a long break before the Monday night home game, the Giants get taken apart by Andrew Luck, Hakeem Nicks & Co. at MetLife Stadium for a third straight loss. The offense is starting to run more smoothly, but it still doesn't have enough playmakers to outscore one of the league's better offenses. Prediction: Loss
Week 10: at Seattle Seahawks
You're kidding, right? Prediction: Loss
Week 11: San Francisco 49ers
The Giants have obviously handled the Niners in recent years and in some high-profile situations. But by this point in the season, San Francisco's defense is back to full strength, and the 49ers can't afford to lose ground to the Seahawks by failing to beat the team Seattle just beat the week before. Prediction: Loss
Week 12: Dallas Cowboys
A sixth straight loss is by no means out of the question here, as Romo and his crew still have the potential to outscore anyone in a given week. But from this far out, I'll forecast that something goes wrong for Romo late in this game, and the Giants get a gift. Prediction: Win
Week 13: at Jacksonville Jaguars
This is where the schedule starts to soften up, when the Giants start playing teams that insist on not starting their best quarterback. It's unfortunate they're 4-7 at this point and just about out of the playoff hunt, but they will get it going against the bottom-feeders. Prediction: Win
Week 14: at Tennessee Titans
I think the Titans are going to be dreadful this year, and by December they won't be very difficult for anyone to beat, even at home. A third straight victory keeps the Giants' hopes alive. Prediction: Win
Week 15: Washington Redskins
Have to be honest: The NFC East is so unpredictable that, when doing these predictions, I just decided to give the Giants a 3-3 division record with victories in all three home games and losses in all three road games. It's as fair a way as any to do it, I believe. Prediction: Win
Week 16: at St. Louis Rams
After moving back to .500 with four straight wins, the season falls apart at the hands of the St. Louis pass rush. An offensive line that has once again been the Giants' biggest problem all year can't protect Manning in a must-win game. Prediction: Loss
Week 17: Philadelphia Eagles
Tom Coughlin's teams can always find a way to play for pride. The Giants' playoff hopes are extinguished, but they still manage to end the season on a high note and with a .500 record. Prediction: Win
Predicted Record: 8-8
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Look, I'm not saying he can and I'm not saying he can't. I have nothing but respect for Eli Manning's abilities and the things he can do. He can beat Tom Brady in the Super Bowl, and if you didn't believe that after the first time, he did it again for good measure. The New York Giants' quarterback is largely underrated and underappreciated, and he's perfectly capable of having a great season even though he's coming off his worst season.
If Manning completes 70 percent of his passes this year in Ben McAdoo's new offense, as quarterbacks coach Danny Langsdorf said Monday he'd challenged Manning to do, then McAdoo, Langsdorf and anyone else who had a hand in it should have their choice of NFL head-coaching jobs next January. And they can ride unicorns with Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny to the interviews.
Start with the very short list of quarterbacks who've ever hit that number in a full NFL season. It's basically Drew Brees (twice, in 2009 and 2011), Joe Montana (1989) and Steve Young (1994). Langsdorf said the list he gave Manning also included Sammy Baugh, Ken Anderson and Alex Smith. But Baugh played only eight games in the 1945 season in which he hit the mark (the league played a 10-game season that year). Anderson's 1982 season was only nine games long due to a players strike. And Smith put up his 70.2 mark in 10 games in 2012 before losing his job to Colin Kaepernick.
So if Manning is to hit this goal over a full season, he'll be doing something only three other players -- two of whom are in the Hall of Fame, and one of whom surely will be -- have done. The fact that it's a nearly impossible achievement is the first and best reason to doubt it. Manning's career completion percentage is 58.5, and his career high for a single season is 62.9, set in 2010. He would have had to complete an additional 69 passes in 2013 to get to 70 percent from the dismal 57.5 at which he finished. That's 4.3 more completions per game. Even in 2010, he would have needed 39 more completions, or 2.4 per game. May not sound like a lot, but it is when you think about what it means.
Secondly, as much as we've written about the Giants' new offensive scheme, there are still legitimate concerns about whether they have the personnel to run it effectively. The offensive line isn't set yet. Their wide receiver group is littered with question marks after Victor Cruz. They do not have a reliable pass-catching tight end on the roster. And as much as they want to stress high-percentage plays and completion percentage, it's tough to imagine they'll throw to the running backs all season.
Which kind of leads me to my final point: Eli Manning, risk-taker. Manning's calling card as a quarterback has always been, to me, his fearlessness. He has the confidence to try any throw, no matter how risky, because (a) he believes he can make it, and (b) he has an uncommon ability to put mistakes behind him and not let them affect his performance as the game goes along.
It's inconceivable to think that McAdoo and Langsdorf could change this about Manning even if they wanted to, and it's inconceivable to believe they would want to. Manning's ability to deliver an uncanny throw in a huge spot is one of the few things you can point to right now in this Giants offense that might have a chance to set it apart from others in the league. Their challenge is to install an offense that's more efficient and less turnover-prone while still making use of what Manning does best. So there's still going to be plenty of downfield stuff, and that stuff will come with more risk.
Now, OK. I understand about coaching and motivation. If Langsdorf sets a goal of 70 percent and Manning aims for it but falls 5 percent short, he'd still obliterate his career high and improve on last year by 7.5 percent. The Giants would surely take that. But hearing Langsdorf say this Monday brought home the ideas of (a) how much different this offense is going to be than it has been for the past decade, and (b) how hard it's going to be for the Giants to be proficient in their new offense in its first season.
Four players tied for the top spot in Sando’s rankings, using a 1 for the best at the position and a 5 for the worst. Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees shared the top spot. Andrew Luck was fifth.
Romo checked in after Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger and tied with Russell Wilson and Eli Manning in the second tier.
Here’s what Sando wrote and the insiders had to say about Romo:
T-8. Tony Romo, Dallas Cowboys (2.23 average rating)
A few evaluators questioned whether Romo had the mind-set to play at the highest level consistently. It's a familiar refrain in league circles, a feeling that Romo is an undisciplined QB playing for an undisciplined organization with a poorly constructed roster.
"People want to knock him," one GM responded, "but the guy has talent and is one of the top 10 starters in the league."
Romo is 34 years old and coming off back surgery, but he still could be in line for a "monster" season, one evaluator said. "But I absolutely believe they will not win big with him. As soon as he decides it's a clutch moment, his brain goes elsewhere. He loses focus and tries to create something."
What’s funny is that the GM and evaluator have the same thoughts of those who love Romo or loathe Romo who are not on the inside. Pete Prisco of CBS Sports went so far as to call Romo “underrated” in his yearly rankings, which drew the ire of some.
The “clutch” talk has been a big thing around Romo since the bobbled snap in 2006 against the Seattle Seahawks in the playoffs. That talk is always followed up with Romo having the best fourth-quarter passer rating in NFL history (102.4) and his 20 come-from-behind wins.
Those numbers aren’t hollow, although with one playoff win to his credit that’s what his detractors will say.
That’s why this debate is a good one. Both sides can declare victory with their points. If Romo were to ever win a Super Bowl -- or perhaps just get to one -- then the perception would change entirely.
NFL's top five cap hits
Eli Manning, New York Giants, $20,400,000
Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh, $18,895,000
Jay Cutler, Chicago, $18,500,000
Drew Brees, New Orleans, $18,400,000
Sam Bradford, St. Louis, $17,610,000
Redskins top cap hit
Summing it up: St. Louis is paying the price for a since-changed system when it comes to rookie contracts -- and the Redskins clearly have benefited. There’s little chance anyone would think Bradford is worth as much as his 2014 cap number. Manning has regressed the past two seasons, for whatever reason, and needed ankle surgery this offseason. Roethlisberger is excellent and Brees remains a top-five quarterback. But Cutler is an example of a guy who is being paid because of the position he plays. He's been a good quarterback, but it's tough to say he's been great. He's definitely not a top-five guy. The Redskins have Griffin at a lower cost the next two seasons and then, if he plays as they hope, his number will skyrocket.
NFL's top five cap hits
Mike Wallace, Miami, $17,250,000
Andre Johnson, Houston, $15,644,583
Percy Harvin, Seattle, $13,400,000
Calvin Johnson, Detroit, $13,058,000
Vincent Jackson, Tampa Bay, $12,432,000
Redskins top cap hit
Summing it up: The top two at this position certainly didn't outperform Garcon, who led the NFL with 113 catches. Garcon only caught five touchdown passes, but that matches what Wallace and Andre Johnson did as well. Harvin played just 19 snaps all season. Calvin Johnson caught 84 passes, but 12 went for touchdowns and he averaged 17.8 yards per catch. Jackson caught 78 passes, seven for scores, and averaged 15.7 yards per catch. The Redskins received good value from their top earner at this spot. They have even more invested here now after adding DeSean Jackson and Andre Roberts. The former will be a major bargain compared to the rest of this group if he puts up numbers similar to last year (82 catches, nine touchdowns, 1,332 yards. But keep in mind in his first five years Jackson averaged 54.8 catches, 4.6 touchdowns and 957 yards per season).
NFL's top five cap hits
Adrian Peterson, Minnesota, $14,400,000
LeSean McCoy, Philadelphia, $9,700,000
Ray Rice, Baltimore, $8,750,000
Arian Foster, Houston, $8,300,000
Matt Forte, Chicago, $7,900,000
Redskins top cap hit
Summing it up: Peterson and McCoy are two of the most dangerous offensive players in the NFL and are difference-makers. But what's also clear is why teams don't like to shell out huge money for running backs. Washington’s Alfred Morris, who is 93rd on the list of running backs when it comes to 2014 cap figures ($600,775), was as productive running the ball as Peterson. Morris ran for 1,275 yards and seven touchdowns, averaging 4.6 yards a carry. Peterson rushed for 1,266 yards and 10 touchdowns, averaging 4.5 yards per rush. Rice ran for 660 yards in 15 games, averaging 3.1 yards on 214 carries. Foster only played in eight games. Forte is an excellent all-around back and was productive. But the Redskins are fortunate they won’t have to shell out more money here for two more years.
NFL's top five cap hits
LT Joe Thomas, Cleveland, $12,300,000
LT D'Brickashaw Ferguson, New York Jets, $11,698,666
LT Russell Okung, Seattle, $11,240,000
G Jahri Evans, New Orleans, $11,000,000
LT Trent Williams, Washington, $10,980,393
Redskins top cap hit
Summing it up: Williams is one of the games best tackles so for him to be in this group makes sense. He could be more consistent and avoid the clunker game, but overall Williams has proven himself and earned two Pro Bowl trips. I'd have a hard time paying a guard as much as Evans, but at least he's an elite player with five consecutive All-Pro nods (in addition to five straight Pro Bowl berths). Okung, drafted one spot after Williams in 2010, has missed 19 games in his career and made one Pro Bowl team. Williams has played in every game the past two seasons. Because of his athleticism, the Redskins can use him differently than other teams use their tackles.
NFL's top five cap hits
Jason Witten, Dallas, $8,412,000
Marcedes Lewis, Jacksonville, $8,250,000
Greg Olsen, Carolina, $7,800,000
Antonio Gates, San Diego, $7,362,500
Vernon Davis, San Francisco, $7,342,916
Redskins top cap hit
Summing it up: Yet another position where the Redskins have a bargain for a few more seasons. This isn’t about how Paulsen stacks up, but really about Jordan Reed. If he can stay healthy, this will be the company he keeps statistically. I love watching Davis because of the matchup headaches he causes based on his athleticism. It’s the same with Reed. Marcedes Lewis has had a nice eight-year career and is an excellent blocker, but No. 2 on this list? He has 25 career touchdown catches, but 10 came in one season. The others are proven pass threats. Of course, this list will change once Jimmy Graham's situation is settled with New Orleans.
If anything, you could say this was a smart move in getting rid of a player to save money, in this case, $7.4 million.
Quarterback Tony Romo will reach that point someday.
If not for the restructure, Romo would have had the second-highest cap number in the NFL at his position behind Chicago’s Jay Cutler ($22.5 million).
Now Romo has the 16th highest cap hit at his position for this year.
But the future is almost now in the NFL, and the more the Cowboys keep pushing money around to create salary-cap space for the present, the more it will hurt them in the future.
Next year, Romo’s cap number is projected to be $27.7 million, the highest in the NFL. New Orleans' Drew Brees is projected to have the second-highest cap number for a quarterback at $26.4 million.
Romo’s base salary for 2015 is $17 million.
Team executive vice president Stephen Jones said a quarterback is going to take the biggest chunk of the cap on most NFL teams, and he’s right. Another example: the Giants' Eli Manning has a cap number of $20.4 million for 2014.
But at what point are you getting bang for your buck?
Romo turns 34 next month and is coming off his second type of back surgery, and if you see the same overall team result -- not making the postseason again -- regardless of how he plays, is it worth devoting a huge amount of cap space to him?
Yes, especially if you think he’s a good quarterback, which Romo is. Age and health are determining factors for players in the NFL. The fate of Romo, meanwhile might be decided in 2016.
Yeah, it’s a few years away, but if the Cowboys restructure Romo’s contract again next year to lower his cap number, it only increases it the following year. In 2016, Romo’s cap hit will be $17.6 million, pretty reasonable right?
Well before the restructure of 2014, the cap number for 2016 was $15.1 million. Now it has been increased. The Cowboys, like most NFL teams, expect the salary cap to grow each year, so they can absorb some of this money.
However, Romo, who is signed through 2019, will be 36 in 2016. Will he be the same at that age?
What happened to Ware this week could happen to Romo, and though it’s not easy to find a replacement for a defensive lineman, it’s harder to find a franchise quarterback.
2. That said, it doesn't take long to figure out he can still play. Just for kicks (well, for research, too), I watched some of his games last season. Sproles remains an effective back, able to make defenders miss in the open field with a hard juke or quick shake. He sets up blockers well in the open field because he can show inside, then quickly cut outside.
3. Also, and this is big: In two of the three games I watched, I saw the opposing defense (Miami, Philadephia) send two defenders his way on a route several times. And that left gaps in the defense that benefited, for example, tight end Jimmy Graham. It gave quarterback Drew Brees enough of a window to exploit, and it occurred simply because Sproles was sent to the flat. Also, Brees scrambled up the middle on occasion because linebackers vacated areas to double Sproles. They couldn't do that with a quarterback such as Robert Griffin III, who obviously looks to run more. Again, I'm not saying Sproles is the best and they must sign him. But am I interested because he could help them? Absolutely -- and for the right price, he's a good weapon. Sproles is a matchup headache capable of running good routes from multiple spots.
4. Yes, Jay Gruden had Giovani Bernard in Cincinnati as a big weapon. Sproles could fill that role here. But keep in mind that Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton's lack of arm strength -- especially compared to Griffin's -- almost required that the Bengals have a guy like Bernard, someone Dalton could easily dump the ball to. Sproles would be a good check-down guy for Griffin, but if they sign another receiver, the plan is to get the ball downfield more. That is likely the plan, anyway; I know the coaches think Jordan Reed will be an excellent target on deeper throws. That would lessen the desire for a guy like Sproles, though Sproles would still be a weapon. It’s not as if Brees was just a check-down guy.
5. If the Redskins somehow pursued Sproles -- and I don’t know that they will -- it should not mean the end of Roy Helu. As a running back, Sproles works best in a spread formation when he can hit gaps up the middle against, say, a five-man box. If something happened to starting running back Alfred Morris, I would not want Sproles as the full-time guy. Nor would the Redskins. The Saints were able to incorporate three backs into their offense, and I think the Redskins could as well. Sproles would replace a guy like Chris Thompson.
The Eagles were preparing to play the New Orleans Saints in the first round of the playoffs, and Kelly was asked about Sean Payton's offense.
“He's obviously got some talent and they're a really, really talented football team, but Sean does a great job of getting his playmakers in matchups that are favorable to him and he does it week in and week out,” Kelly said, before ticking off a list of players' names.
“There's a ton of them,” Kelly said. “That's what Sean and Drew (Brees) have -- a lot of toys.”
And that is why it wouldn't be shocking for the Eagles to allow both Jeremy Maclin and Riley Cooper to walk in free agency. If they also part with veteran Jason Avant, who is due $3 million, that could mean huge turnover at a vital position.
At the same time, Roseman has said he is open to bringing both Cooper and Maclin back at the right prices. The Philadelphia Inquirer, citing unnamed sources, reported over the weekend that Maclin was the team's first priority. That report followed a Pro Football Talk report last week that there is expected to be a robust market for Cooper.
Frankly, until March 11, nothing that is leaked out anonymously should be taken too seriously. It would benefit Cooper for someone in his camp to predict that he will draw a lot of interest from other teams. And it would benefit the Eagles to send the message that Cooper is not their No. 1 priority.
Meanwhile, Roseman's on-the-record remarks can be taken at face value -- and there is certainly reason to believe he is open to drafting wide receivers from this talent-rich draft -- and read as coded messages for the agents he will have to negotiate with. The Eagles have “walkaway” numbers for the players they'd like to sign, and it doesn't hurt for agents to know that, and to know Roseman has other attractive options.
While the Eagles are still looking to upgrade the talent on their defense, they remain very likely to draft and sign offensive talent. Kelly went into the 2013 season with almost no additions to the offensive personnel he inherited. Rookies Lane Johnson and Zach Ertz were the only notable exceptions.
Nick Foles, LeSean McCoy, DeSean Jackson, Brent Celek, Avant and Cooper produced the vast majority of the Eagles' yardage and points in 2013. Kelly has had a full season to learn their talents as well as their limitations. He knows where he had to cut corners while devising his weekly game plans and where a key addition or two could add octane to his schemes.
He may just want some new toys to play with, and the combine is like the world' biggest toy store.
For Angelo (writing on the scouting website Sidelineview.com), falling between a 6.5-6.9 means a quarterback “has strong traits, but hasn’t done it. Lack of experience, injuries, missing intangible may be the reason for his erratic play. Still a work in progress. He can move up or down.”
That about sums up Griffin after his second NFL season. Here’s what Angelo wrote on Griffin:
“Talented, but yet to define himself as an NFL quarterback. He won’t have a successful career by working outside the pocket. No one at his position did or will. Too many games and too many hits keep QB’s from having a career based on their feet, rather than their pocket accuracy.”
Right below Griffin: St. Louis’ Sam Bradford, a former top pick in the NFL draft (and a guy former Redskins coach Mike Shanahan loved). New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning was only rated a 7.0; Dallas' Tony Romo (7.9) and Philadelphia's Nick Foles (8.0) were the tops in the NFC East.
And here’s what he wrote about Cousins:
“Smart, hard working and well liked and respected. Lacks the arm talent to start and become a guy you can win with.”
Safe to say if Angelo were still employed in the NFL, he would not be among the teams willing to give up a high draft pick for Cousins.
Angelo listed seven quarterbacks as elite this past season (in order): Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Cam Newton, Drew Brees, Philip Rivers and Andrew Luck. Here’s the rest of the article.
Plus from a Dallas Cowboys’ perspective, they have already allocated their cornerback resources in Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne and Orlando Scandrick. So scratch that possible remodel.
Where the Cowboys can attempt to emulate the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks is with their defensive line.
Seattle’s defensive line accounted for 33.5 sacks from eight players. The Cowboys defensive line had 28 sacks from six players.
Michael Bennett led the Seahawks with 8.5 sacks. Fellow free-agent pickup, Cliff Avril, was second with eight. Clinton McDonald had 5.5, and Chris Clemons had 4.5
Jason Hatcher led the Cowboys with 11, followed by George Selvie with seven and DeMarcus Ware with six. Kyle Wilber had two sacks from his defensive end spot before he was switched to outside linebacker later in the season. Everette Brown and and Jarius Wynn each had one sack.
The Cowboys want to rotate defensive linemen as much as possible to keep them fresh. That is a great approach when you have players worthy of being in the rotation. In the Super Bowl win against the Denver Broncos, the Seahawks had four linemen take at least 41 of 69 snaps, led by Bennett, who played 47. In the NFC Championship Game against the San Francisco 49ers, they had four linemen take at least 31 of 55 snaps. In the divisional-round win against the New Orleans Saints, they had five linemen take at least 43 snaps.
That rotation kept opposing quarterbacks Peyton Manning, Colin Kaepernick and Drew Brees under pressure. The pressure could come from the inside or the outside. And it would come with mostly just four rushers, which allowed that back seven to be even more aggressive.
For far too long the Cowboys’ pass rush has been Ware and nobody else. This past season it was Hatcher, and sometimes Selvie and Ware. The Cowboys hope Tyrone Crawford can develop after missing last season with an Achilles injury, but the defensive line needs a ton of help.
For the Cowboys to make a jump in the defensive rankings -- forget being a top-five or 10 unit -- they need a better pass rush. For a better pass rush, they need better players. To get better players in free agency they need to hope the defensive line market is as slow as it was in 2013 when Bennett received a one-year, $5 million deal, and Avril received two years and $15 million from the Seahawks. That could allow Dallas to either keep Hatcher (unlikely), or get lucky with some other prove-it type deals. The easier way to get better players is the draft, but will the right players be available at the right time?
If the Cowboys get a better pass rush, their secondary will look a lot better.
Gruden made it clear the day he was hired that he liked the zone read-option, so obviously he wants Griffin to use his legs. And Gruden's agent, Bob LaMonte, stressed after Gruden was hired that a big reason for his excitement was Griffin’s ability to be dynamic. That doesn’t mean just throwing the ball. So there wasn’t much doubt how Gruden would want to use Griffin. Just in case, though, he went a little further in a story for Sports Illustrated’s Monday Morning Quarterback.
Griffin needs to be himself, but at times that conflicted with what the Redskins needed. Or with what he truly wanted to be, which was a pocket passer who could extend plays. That’s what the Redskins really need, for Griffin to extend and then make big plays downfield. Like he did as a rookie against the New York Giants on fourth down. Putting fear into defensive coordinators does not mean he has to scramble and run the ball. Rather, it's that ability to extend plays that scares anyone.
Griffin does need to develop as a pocket passer, but to limit him there at this point would be wrong. He has to grow more into that role, and the Redskins would love for that to happen. They always pointed to Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers as a guy whose game they would like him to emulate; he extends plays with his legs. Yes, when you do that there are more risks for hits. But when you can’t, that risk is there in the pocket. And when you’re in the red zone, the ability to extend a play is crucial. Look how many big plays were made by San Francisco and Seattle because of the quarterback's mobility.
And for Griffin to become a better pocket passer, he has work to do, developing more consistent fundamentals and progressing through reads a little faster. That's natural for a young quarterback who did not need to worry about either aspect in college. The problems weren’t all on him last year, but this is how he can help. A good offseason of work will help, as, perhaps, will greater trust in what he’s being told and by whom.
Griffin does not have to become Peyton Manning or Brees to win and be successful. Griffin won being himself as a rookie. He also was hurt twice being himself (the concussion and knee injury both occurred on scrambles). Defenses played him without as much fear this season, especially early in the year when he first returned from his knee surgery. They knew he couldn’t hurt them with his legs like he did in 2012.
Another year removed from surgery and, perhaps, without the brace, Griffin can get back to that point. But he can help himself in little ways, by keeping his eyes downfield as he runs, allowing potential big plays to develop; it’s what Seattle’s Russell Wilson has done in the playoffs. Wilson is still improving as a quarterback, and there are things he does that Griffin did this season as well -- missing open guys, throwing behind receivers on slants. It gets overshadowed because of the team Seattle built around him, allowing the Seahawks to still win. But Wilson is more focused on extending plays rather than taking off and running, and he can deliver strong passes from the pocket when necessary (as can Griffin).
I’m quite sure Gruden understands the risks of a quarterback who runs too much. Heck, in college and when he played professionally, Gruden was a quarterback who ran too much. His brother, Jon, hates the zone-read because he says it will shorten careers. It makes sense that the two have discussed this topic. So it’s safe to say Gruden wants Griffin to develop as a passer and get to a point where he doesn’t have to rely on his legs. Griffin wants that as well.
But it’s good that Gruden will focus on what Griffin does best, rather than force him into a style that doesn’t suit him. They just need to find the right balance.
Foles’ Philadelphia Eagles had just lost a playoff game to the New Orleans Saints on a last-second field goal. A season of promise and discovery was over. Players stood at their lockers trying to explain what happened to knots of reporters with notebooks and recorders and minicams.
“That was tough,” Foles said, “but I felt like we kept fighting throughout the game. I was proud of the team and all the guys in that locker room. They continued to fight ... on all sides of the ball. That’s what this team is about. We’re going to fight until the end.”
It was the kind of message a franchise quarterback takes care to deliver. And if anything became clear during the Eagles’ 2013 season, it is that Foles is the franchise quarterback now.
“I don’t want to comment on any player,” Eagles owner Jeff Lurie said, “but how can you not be impressed with Nick, with everything he has accomplished including tonight? He had no turnovers and led us back from 20-7 [down]. He is incredibly impressive.”
Foles hardly played a perfect game. Neither did the Saints’ Drew Brees, whose two first-half interceptions could have (and probably should have) buried his team. Foles didn’t make any killer mistakes, but he took a sack that pushed kicker Alex Henery to the limit of his range, leading to a missed 48-yard attempt.
“It was a bad decision by me,” Foles said. “I definitely should have thrown it away in that situation. I’m going to make mistakes. I made mistakes tonight, but I’m going to keep playing and keep fighting. You can’t let a mistake like that -- taking a sack or an intentional grounding -- defeat you on the next one.”
Foles did throw two touchdown passes, including a 3-yard pass to tight end Zach Ertz that gave the Eagles a 24-23 lead with just under five minutes to play. As postseason debuts go, it obviously would have been better to pull off the victory. But there was plenty to like and to build upon.
The same can be said for Foles’ entire season. He took the starting job after Michael Vick pulled a hamstring and never relinquished it. He threw 27 touchdown passes and just two interceptions. The Eagles were 8-2 in the 10 games he started. That kind of winning percentage will produce a lot more playoff appearances for Foles and the Eagles in the future.
Like every quarterback, playoff wins will ultimately define Foles. At 24, he has plenty of time to define himself. In a very real sense, he started doing that with his postgame message.
This is his team and this is how the quarterback responds to a tough loss.
“My guys are depending on me to go out there and make plays,” Foles said. “They’re going to look at me in those situations. I’m going to keep moving forward. That’s what the guys can count on from me. They know I’m going to keep fighting for them.”
PHILADELPHIA -- A few thoughts on the Philadelphia Eagles' 26-24 playoff loss to the New Orleans Saints Saturday night:
What it means. Chip Kelly's impressive first season as coach of the Eagles ends with an erratic performance in a playoff loss. Kelly's offense was thrown out of rhythm all game by the Saints' defense and was never able to gets its uptempo, aggressive approach into gear. Quarterback Nick Foles' dream regular season ended with an inconsistent performance. Foles wasn't to blame for the loss, but he didn't deliver the heroics necessary to beat Drew Brees and the Saints. The Eagles can feel good about their progress from a 4-12 record in 2012 to a 10-6 record and a division title, but they also know they let a winnable home playoff loss slip away.
Game changer. Foles threw an ill-advised pass to Jason Avant in the third quarter. Avant had to turn and jump and was an easy target for Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis. Lewis drilled Avant, knocking the ball loose. But Lewis also knocked himself out of the game with a head injury. Moments later, Foles threw a jump ball to DeSean Jackson, who had been held without a catch up until that point. The 40-yard gain kick-started the Eagles' comeback from a 20-7 deficit to a 24-23 lead. Corey White, the victim on that completion, committed a 40-yard pass interference penalty to set up the Eagles' go-ahead touchdown.
Happy returns. Big special teams plays made a huge difference in the fourth quarter. Jackson, frustrated on offense much of the game, danced down the left sideline for 29 yards to give the Eagles good field position. They turned it into a field goal, closing to within 20-17. After the Eagles scored a touchdown to take a 24-23 lead, Darren Sproles got outside on the kickoff return. He might have gone the distance, but Cary Williams dragged him down from behind. The 39-yard return and 15-yard horse-collar penalty gave the Saints the ball at the Eagles 48 for their game-winning drive.
Stock watch. Steady: Chip Kelly. Let's put it this way. Kelly coached a much better season than he coached in this particular game. There's no shame in getting outmaneuvered by a couple of veteran coaches like Sean Payton and Rob Ryan. But there's no denying that's what happened, either. The Saints couldn't get anything going in the first half. It took a field goal as time expired for them to get to six points. But they came out sharper and better prepared in the second half, building that 20-7 lead and then driving for the game-winning field goal in the final minute.
What's next. The Eagles will go into the offseason knowing they have a coach and quarterback they can win with, and that is a huge step. They also know where their biggest needs are. The future is bright, even if the Eagles missed an excellent opportunity to do something special in this postseason.
When it comes to head coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees -- two vital components to any team’s postseason success -- the Saints certainly have more experience than Eagles counterparts Chip Kelly and Nick Foles.
But only nine players on the Saints’ 53-man roster were on the team four years ago when New Orleans won the Super Bowl. The Saints have played in three playoff games since, winning one and losing two. They were not in the playoffs last season.
Cornerback Cary Williams has been in the postseason every year of his career, winning a Super Bowl last season with Baltimore.
“You’ve got to make sure you’re on your game,” Williams said. “Every possession counts. Every reception counts. Every deflection counts. Every play is a monumental play in a playoff game. It could be the very play that could win, it could be the very play that can lose.”
Linebackers Connor Barwin and DeMeco Ryans have playoff experience from their time in Houston. Linebacker Trent Cole has played in seven postseason games with the Eagles, including the 2008 NFC Championship Game.
And that’s just literal playoff experience. That game Sunday night in Dallas didn’t count, but it was every bit a playoff game in terms of the stakes and the intensity.
“It was an important game,” Williams said. “We win, we were in. We lost, we were tossed, and all that hard work we put in this season would be for naught. It would have been a great experience, but we handled our business. We made some big plays, and now we’re here.”
“It was essentially a playoff game,” Barwin said. “It helped us because we won, so it got us in the playoffs. So yes, we already played one playoff game, so I think guys understand. It’s going to be a battle, it’s going to be a close game.”
There is a feeling among the players that they are on the ground floor with Chip Kelly, and that things will only get better from here. And that might be. But Cole remembers thinking the playoffs were automatic every year when he was a young player under Andy Reid.
“This is a great feeling,” Cole said. “This is how it used to be. It’s been a long road. I told a lot of the younger guys that this is the opportunity of a lifetime. This might be the only chance in your NFL career to be this close to the Super Bowl. They have to know that every team that has made it to the playoffs is the best, and every game is going to be a hard-fought game.”
There is a fine line between embracing the moment and being overwhelmed by it. Cole and the other veterans have sent that message, too.
“It’s a playoff game, so it means a little bit more,” Williams said. “But you don’t want to go through a whole metamorphosis because it’s the playoffs. You want to stay the course and do what you’ve been doing.”
The Eagles will host the New Orleans Saints on Saturday night with temperatures projected to be in the 20s and a wind chill in the teens. That is cold, whether you’re used to playing in the Superdome or at Lincoln Financial Field.
“You prepare for their best,” Eagles linebacker Connor Barwin said. “The same challenges they face with the weather, we’re facing. It will be the same for (the Saints) and us.”
Eagles quarterback Nick Foles has a better record than the Saints’ Drew Brees in games played at or below 32 degrees. But 1-0, Foles’ record, isn’t much of a sample size. Neither, for that matter, is Brees’ 2-3 record.
All the talk about the Saints’ struggles this season on the road, especially in inclement weather, seems to miss the point that those games were against some pretty good teams. New Orleans lost to the Patriots in Foxborough, Mass., to the Panthers in Charlotte, and to the Seahawks in Seattle. They lost to the Jets in the rain and to the Rams in the Edward Jones Dome.
“We’ve all played in that kind of weather before,” Brees said. “Not on a consistent basis, but you kind of make preparations. You prepare as well as you can, at least mentally. Once you’re there, it’s football. It’s about execution.”
Brees no doubt prefers that climate-controlled Superdome, but then, so would Foles. They grew up in the same city -- Austin, Texas -- and went to the same high school. Foles played his college football in Arizona. His experience in bad weather is strictly limited, and not especially encouraging.
The Eagles won that snowy game against the Lions. Foles was 11-for-22 for179 yards. The story of that game was the way LeSean McCoy and the Eagles’ running game exploded for 299 yards and four touchdowns.
“It’s definitely different throwing in hot weather, in humidity, inside,” Foles said. “It’s just a different feel. The ball has a little bit different grip. Sometimes balls that feel good when it’s humid are very slick in this weather, in this climate. You just try to play the game. You adjust to the climate when you’re playing in it.”
The Eagles’ biggest edge might not be Foles over Brees, but their offensive balance. McCoy’s NFL-best 1,607 rushing yards were 134 more yards than the entire Saints team’s total of 1,473. Last Sunday, in a virtual playoff game in Dallas, the running game resuscitated the offense when the Cowboys were able to shut down Foles and the passing game.
In the cold, when the gusting wind plays havoc with the trajectory of the thrown football, a great running game can make all the difference.
It’s no wonder McCoy said, “We’re made for the playoffs.”
“He kind of reminds me of Kyle Orton, but he’s a little shorter,” Eagles outside linebacker Trent Cole said.
For context, it must be remembered that Cole and the Eagles had played against Orton and the Dallas Cowboys just a few days earlier. They couldn’t sack him because of his quick release. Orton threw for 358 yards and two touchdowns on 30-for-46 passing.
“He’s a rhythm quarterback and he gets the ball out,” Cole said. “The scouting report says they’ve taken more sacks than usual this year. It’s more us going out there and executing and being mistake-free. I think we can win this game.”
The scouting report is correct. Brees was sacked 37 times during the 2013 season, 11 more sacks than he took in any other season with the Saints. Brees was sacked 21 times in eight road games and 16 times at home.
That said, the pass rush can be effective even if it doesn’t result in sacks.
“You would love to get the sack,” linebacker Connor Barwin said. “But you don’t know how the game is going to go. We need to get pressure on him, that’s for sure. We can’t let him sit back there and play 7-on-7, because that’s what he wants to do.”
Defensive coordinator Bill Davis said that, despite the lack of sacks in Dallas, he thought the “pass rush has been pretty solid and I think it's a product of some of these turnovers that we're getting. It's not always sacks. I think we have our share of them and we are getting there. Looking at the tape from the other night, the ball coming out that quick, they say, 'Boy, the pass rush just wasn't on.' It's a different time set. It's a different time frame. It's much harder to get to those guys that the ball is out right away.
“And sometimes, if he had held on one more count, we would have had him, and that's why they get rid of it so quick.”
The other half of the equation is coverage. The Saints will have five players running routes much of the time. Brees is terrific at quickly going through his series of options and making a quick decision. That makes disrupting timing and knocking receivers off their routes even more important than simply running with them in coverage. If that first and second read are not precisely where they should be, even Brees has to wait an extra second or two for someone to get open.
“We talked about it as a line,” defensive end Fletcher Cox said. “Keep pressure in his face and try to make him scramble out of the pocket.”
It might also be a good idea to keep their arms up. Cox, Barwin and Cedric Thornton are 6-foot-4. Defensive end Clifton Geathers is 6-8. Brees is generously listed at 6-foot -- which is to say, shorter than Kyle Orton.