NFC East: Justin Smith

The Twitter mailbag has had a couple of weeks off, first due to vacation and then due last week to the fact of Hall of Fame and awards announcements. But it is back, and as ever I thank you for your submissions. Remember, you can always tweet a question for the Twitter mailbag just by using the hashtag #nfceastmail at any time during the week. I round them up on Fridays and post them and their answers on Saturdays. Like this.

@billycuth: Do you see the Eagles staying at 4 or trading down?

@ESPN_NFCEast: Anything's possible, but if I'm the Philadelphia Eagles, the only way I'm trading out of the No. 4 overall draft pick is if I decide I need to move up a spot or two to get the quarterback of my dreams. And since that guy doesn't appear to be in this draft, I stay put at No. 4. That No. 4 pick is a pretty good pick. A partial list of players who were picked fourth overall since the turn of the century includes Matt Kalil, A.J. Green, Trent Williams, Darren McFadden, Philip Rivers and Justin Smith. You can get a really good, franchise-altering player at No. 4, and that's what I think the Eagles should do. Whether it's a defensive lineman like Star Lotulelei, an offensive lineman like Luke Joeckel or even a quarterback like Geno Smith, I think the Eagles are in a spot to draft someone who will be a significant building block for their future.

@1calledsteve: what are the odds with the new cap space, the gmen will sign phillips, cruz and nicks?

@ESPN_NFCEast: The New York Giants' cuts this week of veterans Ahmad Bradshaw, Chris Canty and Michael Boley were designed to create salary-cap relief, and you are correct that they're thinking about free-agent safety Kenny Phillips and star wide receivers Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks, all of whom need new deals. Add to that offensive linemen Will Beatty and Kevin Boothe, who are free-agent eligible, and the Giants have a great deal of work to do just to keep the guys they want to keep. I think Phillips is 50-50. His injuries this past year could end up making him easier for the Giants to keep, as he could have a harder time getting the kind of deal he'd like to get on the open market, and could return to New York for something like the Giants' price. But he is a great player, and if someone out there is willing to look beyond the 2012 injuries, the Giants could get outbid. There's no rush yet on Nicks or Cruz, as Nicks has a year left on his deal and Cruz can be tendered as a restricted free agent, but the Giants would love to get those contracts done sooner rather than later if they can, to avoid ugliness. My guess is they get deals done with both receivers this offseason, but I can't handicap their chances of keeping Phillips at this point.

@MD_In_MD: could D. Hall really play safety? He would be responsible for a lot of open field plays which he doesn't excel at

@ESPN_NFCEast: This is an idea we've kicked around some in recent weeks -- the idea of the Washington Redskins moving DeAngelo Hall from cornerback to free safety and pursuing cornerback options on the offseason market instead of safety options. I do not know if it's something the Redskins would consider. I do not know if it's something to which Hall would agree. Whether they move him to safety or keep him at corner, the Redskins are likely going to ask Hall of take a pay cut, and I don't know if he's going to be okay with that, either. But in theory, I like the idea, and it's because I think Hall still does retain his open-field playmaking ability. I think it's in tight coverage where he struggles at times (although not in Week 17 against Dez Bryant, I'll grant you). If the Redskins' coaches can sell Hall on the idea of playing free safety, I believe they'd have an energized player who would operate at a high level and embrace the new challenge and the freedoms it offers in the Redskins' system. But that's an "if" at this point.

@A_Martinez4: what do you feel the biggest need for #dallas is? O line or d line? Or another position?

@ESPN_NFCEast: I think the Dallas Cowboys' needs on the offensive line are more significant than their needs on the defensive line. I think they need a center, at least one guard and a right tackle. Now, by necessity, some of those answers might have to come from within the current roster. But if I were the Cowboys, I'd make upgrading at least one of those spots my top priority in free agency or the draft. The problem, however, is this switch to a 4-3 defensive alignment under new coordinator Monte Kiffin. If salary-cap problems keep them from bringing back Anthony Spencer, their need on the defensive line becomes more significant, and they might have to alter their priorities. A classic pass-rushing defensive end might then become their first-round draft target. And if that's the case, then they'd better have found a top guard or tackle in free agency, or else the offense will face many of the same problems it faced last season. It's a complicated offseason ahead for the Cowboys, who don't have easy answers everywhere.

On this Giants-Sean Payton thing

December, 7, 2012
A bit of controversy this Friday about a comment by New York Giants punter Steve Weatherford in this New York Times story about the difficulty of trying to ensure that suspended New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton isn't communicating with his team. The story, by good, responsible journalist Sam Borden, is a thoughtful look at the nature of Payton's suspension and the complex issues surrounding the enforcement of it. It's worth reading, and timely in New York with the Saints coming to town for a game Sunday.

Unfortunately, the part that's getting the attention is this part:
The Saints visit the Giants on Sunday, and in interviews this week, several Giants players questioned just how silent Payton has been this season. Punter Steve Weatherford expressed a common sentiment when he said, "Of course he will get his message to them somehow."

Weatherford added: "I'm not saying anything about Sean Payton as a person or anything, but I think any coach would do that. It's not like he's just going to sit at home and watch the games and not have any thoughts. His message will be heard."

Now, the reason this is even noteworthy in the first place is that the Giants have a real and well-documented habit of making pointed negative comments about their opponents in the weeks leading up to games. Offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride spoke during 49ers week about how San Franscisco's Justin Smith "gets away with murder" by grabbing hold of offensive linemen to clear room for the pass rush. And defensive end Justin Tuck has accused the offensive lines of the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Atlanta Falcons of dirty play in weeks before the Giants faced them. Those are two examples that jump to mind, but it happens frequently enough that it's fair to believe the Giants do it as a purposeful tactic, in an effort to call attention to an issue they want the officials to notice on game day. Nothing illegal or even necessarily wrong about it, but it's part of the way they like to do business.

This, however, is different. This from Weatherford strikes me as a guy just talking, off the top of his head, the way you and your buddies might speculate about the Payton situation while you're at the bar on the night before the game. Weatherford isn't alleging anything. He's just delivering a "come on, think about it" kind of speculation that almost anyone who's wondered about the Saints/Payton situation has thought to himself at some point. Same kind of natural skepticism that likely led Sam and/or his New York Times editors to come up with the idea for this story in the first place.

So in summary, while the Giants do love to stir up doubt about opponents' tactics, I don't think this falls in line with the Gilbride and Tuck stuff I cited earlier. I think this is an interesting question -- how do you ensure that a suspended coach isn't really finding a way to coach the team from afar? -- but I don't see it as a calculated effort to undermine the Saints on Sunday. Maybe I'm wrong, but this as a controversy feels like a stretch.

There the New York Giants go again...

November, 1, 2012
I guess, when something works, there's no reason to stop doing it. But I can't help but think that, for a group of people that likes to say "talk is cheap," the New York Giants sure do seem to enjoy a bargain.

In this week's episode of "Giants Needle Their Opponent," passive-aggressive antagonist Justin Tuck is accusing the Pittsburgh Steelers of playing dirty. Yes, of course the Giants host the Steelers on Sunday:
Tuck told ESPN's Rachel Nichols Thursday: "I hope we get some holding calls because they have gotten away with murder. They've done a very good job protecting Ben (Roethlisberger) -- they don't hold on every play. But we've seen a whole lot of it."

The funny thing about the Giants is that they don't even change up the program on this stuff. This is remarkably similar, as that story points out, to Tuck calling the Atlanta Falcons' offensive line "dirtbags" in advance of last season's playoff game and to offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride saying before last month's game in San Francisco that the 49ers' Justin Smith "gets away with murder." They don't even change their terminology.

Now, it may just be that the Giants are telling the truth. It certainly wouldn't be the first time the Steelers were accused of being dirty, and as we pointed out when we covered this last month, there was independent evidence to prove Gilbride's point about San Francisco's Smith. But what I know for sure is that every defensive lineman thinks every offensive lineman holds too much and that the Giants almost always seem to have something to say about that week's opponent, whether it's an accusation of dirty play or an admission that they don't like them.

No team gets its back up more quickly or angrily than the Giants do when they perceive someone is saying something negative about them. Yet, they seem to feel no compunction about giving as good as or better than they get. It's all part of the way they like to operate. They use external means of motivation ("Nobody respects us!") to fire themselves up, and they don't think it can hurt to make public comments about opponents' questionable techniques in advance of games. Hey, you never know if you might be able to plant something in the subconscious of that week's officiating crew, right?

The Giants' way of doing business tends to work out for them. They're a 6-2 defending Super Bowl champion for whom a lot has gone right over the past 11 months. I just get a chuckle out of the idea that a team that claims its motto is "Talk is cheap, play the game" talks as much as these Giants talk.
So this whole thing started Thursday, when New York Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride casually dropped into his weekly interview session the suggestion that San Francisco 49ers star defensive lineman Justin Smith "gets away with murder" by holding interior offensive linemen as a means of clearing room for the 49ers' pass rush.

49ers coach Jim Harbaugh responded Friday with a blistering attack on Gilbride and Gilbride's insinuation, calling it "outrageous, irrational and incendiary," and saying, "It's obvious that the Giants coaching staff's sole purpose is to use their high visibility to both criticize and influence officiating."

Glad we're not getting too emotional about this, huh? I mean, really? "Sole purpose?"

Especially once I learned that Harbaugh's response came in the form of a statement released by the team hours ahead of his regularly scheduled Friday news conference, my first thought was something along the lines of, "Methinks he doth protest too much." And a few minutes later, with the help of a retweet from USA Today's Mike Garafolo, I saw something that backed me up. It is this Sept. 6 piece from Football Outsiders, in which Item No. 3 uses clear film evidence to support FO's own conclusion that Smith is indeed coached to hold the jerseys of opposing guards and tackles:
San Francisco’s secret? Holding. They have a pair of top-tier defensive ends in Justin Smith, arguably the best 3-4 lineman in the league right now, and Ray McDonald, one of the game’s most underrated players. Those guys are taught to grab the left outside of the offensive guard’s jersey or the right inside of the tackle’s jersey. The umpire and referee, who are tasked with holding on the interior line, often can’t see this -- there is too much congestion in the middle of that action. They are standing in the backfield, and can’t see through the offensive linemen to get a look at the defensive end’s hands. The grabbing prevents the blockers from getting over quickly enough to pick up the stunting blitzer.

The camera doesn't lie, coach Harbaugh. And it seems as though it might have been wiser for the 49ers' coach to keep his mouth shut rather than inflame a controversy of which the officials scheduled to work Sunday's game at Candlestick might not otherwise have been aware. If it was Gilbride's intention to get the officials to pay closer attention to Smith's extracurricular work on the interior (and I actually think he might just have been offering an honest answer to a question), then Harbaugh's overly emotional response might have helped him accomplish just that.

Breakfast links: Flacco or Romo?

October, 12, 2012
Philadelphia Eagles

LeSean McCoy would like to be more involved in the passing game, since that was always fun back when he used to be. Of course, I think a lot of people would like to be more involved in the Eagles' passing game right about now. Couple of things, though, on McCoy. First, I think he's being asked to stay in and block a lot more this year, and second, the Eagles aren't running very many screen passes this year. I think this is where the Jason Peters absence really shows up.

Oh, and Michael Vick does have a dog now after all, so you can all stop wondering. Seriously, Vick released a statement saying he knows why this is going to bother some people but that it was important for him and for his kids to have a pet. As you know if you read me on this topic the other day, I think this is a man who's done his time, understands the significance of his crimes and should be allowed to live his life the way he wants to live it. But like Vick, I understand there are people who will never agree no matter what.

New York Giants

Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride says he thinks the 49ers' Justin Smith is a great player who "gets away with murder" by holding offensive linemen and not getting called for it. So, there's something you can now watch for Sunday.

Ahmad Bradshaw and the Giants' running game are confident after Bradshaw ran for 200 yards Sunday against the Cleveland Browns. But Bradshaw knows the sledding is going to be tougher against the 49ers on Sunday.

Dallas Cowboys

They say continuity is the most important thing for an offensive line -- all five players playing together for an extended period of time, getting to know each other's movements and tendencies. Well, the Cowboys' offensive line, which has been horrible all year, is changing centers again. Ryan Cook is injured and Phil Costa is back. Giddyap.

You know the scene in Airplane when the passengers are all lined up to beat up the hysterical passenger? And the camera keeps panning back and there's all kinds of people with various weapons, just waiting to get up there and deliver their own special brand of punishment? Sometimes it seems as though the same thing is happening to Tony Romo. Former Ravens coach Brian Billick is the latest in line, saying Joe Flacco's better than Romo. Hey, at least Tony's got Amani Toomer on his side, right?

Washington Redskins

Your daily Robert Griffin III update says everything looked fine Thursday in practice. You know the drill, though. Griffin has more concussion tests to pass before he's cleared to play again Sunday after getting knocked out of last week's game. We could know something for sure today, and if not, tomorrow.

One interesting sidelight to Sunday's Redskins-Vikings game is the return to FedEx Field of Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, who tore an ACL in the game there last December but has made a remarkable recovery and is running something very much like his old self as the Vikings have started the season 4-1.

Video: Conference title game picks

January, 20, 2012

Rough week last week. I liked the matchup for the Giants in Green Bay, but didn't have the guts to pick against a 15-1 Super Bowl champion. My bad. Though not as bad as the pick of Denver over New England. What was I thinking there? Anyway, can only lose two games this week. Click on the video to see who I pick to advance to Super Bowl XLVI.

Last week: 1-3
Season to date: 31-30