NFC East: Keith Brooking

IRVING, Texas -- The free-agent shopping starts today at 3 p.m. CT.

If the Dallas Cowboys have learned anything, it’s that they should use coupons.

From 2006-11, the Cowboys signed 12 players in unrestricted free agency. Only two players who signed multi-year deals reached the end of their contracts: Kyle Kosier signed a five-year, $15 million deal with the Cowboys in 2006 and was with the team through 2011. Keith Brooking signed a three-year, $6 million deal in 2009 and was a contributor through 2011.

Igor Olshansky (2009), Leonard Davis (2007) and Akin Ayodele (2006) are the only other players who made it more than one season on their original deals, and Olshansky and Ayodele made it only two seasons.

The Cowboys signed seven unrestricted free agents in 2012 and three lasted one season (Dan Connor, Nate Livings and Lawrence Vickers) on multi-year deals. Brodney Pool signed a one-year deal and barely made it to training camp.

Three members of the 2012 free-agent class remain: Brandon Carr (five years, $50 million), Mackenzy Bernadeau (four years, $11.5 million) and Kyle Orton (three years, $10.5 million). Carr is coming off a disappointing 2013 season, Bernadeau took a pay cut last week and Orton is not sure he wants to play.

Spending money in free agency is hardly ever the answer. The Cowboys will not have a ton of money available to them when the market opens until the DeMarcus Ware situation is resolved, and even then they will have to be wise with how they spend it and who they spend it on.

The needs are obvious: defense, defense and more defense. That’s what happens when a unit finishes last in the NFL in 2013. But the Cowboys could use a veteran presence at wide receiver (Robert Meachem, Jason Avant) and a backup quarterback if Orton walks away (Shaun Hill).

Finding defensive line help is a must, but the Cowboys will have to be budget conscious. They have had on and off talks with Jordan Woy, who represents free agents Jason Hatcher and Anthony Spencer, for most of the offseason. Both players could find better financial opportunities elsewhere.

Hatcher turns 32 in July and is coming off a career-high 11 sacks. He was added to the Pro Bowl. Spencer played in only one game in 2013 because of a knee injury that will not be healed enough for him to be 100 percent ready for training camp.

How much of a commitment can the Cowboys make and feel like they will get their money’s worth?

Ties to new defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli could help in the pursuit of Henry Melton, but he is coming off a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

Value is often the most overlooked part of free agency. The big-money signings lead to the biggest headlines, but do not correspond enough to wins and losses.

The Cowboys found value in Kosier, Brooking, Gerald Sensabaugh and Bernadeau but did not or have not received enough bang for the buck in Carr ($26.5 million guarantee) and Davis ($18.75 million guaranteed).

As the Cowboys look to clear this 8-8 bump that has turned into Mt. Everest, they need to spend wisely, but more importantly they need to choose wisely.
So this here is the Eric Edholm article about which you've likely heard, some time in the past 24 hours, if you're a Philadelphia Eagles fan. It's from 2009, when Billy Davis was the Cardinals' linebackers coach, and it features Davis explaining in detail the hybrid defensive alignment the Cardinals were running at the time. Something between a 3-4 and a 4-3 with "under" principles. Davis, who would soon thereafter become the Cardinals' defensive coordinator, has just landed a job as the Eagles' new defensive coordinator under Chip Kelly. And while it's no sure thing that he'll install the exact same defense he was using in Arizona, the story offers some potential clues about the way the Eagles will run their defense with Davis in charge.

The "under" front Davis employed in Arizona, which shifts toward the tight end side, looks like a 3-4. But it doesn't adhere strictly to 3-4 principles, and as you read the details in Eric's story you can start to believe the Eagles' current 4-3 personnel might fit the new defense better than initially thought:
But in the 4-3 'under' front, like the Cardinals use as their base defense which looks similar to the 3-4 to the naked eye, the biggest difference is in the outside linebackers. The strong-side linebacker is still outside the tight end. But the other outside guy -- the Cardinals call this player their "Predator" -- is almost always rushing the passer, although the Cards will occasionally drop him into covers to mix things up. Other differences: The nose tackle shades to the A-gap (in between the center and the guard) on the tight end side, and the end on that side moves between the tackle and tightend.

In this arrangement, the Eagles' "predator" could be either Trent Cole or Brandon Graham. Either one fits the mold as a pure pass-rusher with a great first step and, especially in Graham's case, a high motor. I'm not sure either of those guys translates to the strong-side linebacker role in this scheme, and Mychal Kendricks seems suited to the weak-side linebacker role. They may need to find a more traditional stand-up linebacker and either rotate or decide between Cole and Graham, since you have to think Cullen Jenkins and Fletcher Cox are the ends and the nose tackle is someone not yet on the roster.

Another interesting aspect has to do with veteran middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans, who would remain an extremely important player in a scheme such as this. It's true that one of the reasons the Texans traded Ryans to the Eagles was that he'd become an imperfect fit once they switched to a 3-4, but that had more to do with Ryans' salary and the emergence of fellow linebacker Brian Cushing as a superior three-down option than it did Ryans' ability to play the scheme. And if Davis runs a system similar to the one he ran in Arizona, Ryans takes on a vital dirty-work role:
The only player in the 4-3 'under' who is left uncovered is the "Mike," or the middle linebacker. In the Cardinals' scheme, that's usually Gerald Hayes. "That's my thumper, more of a thick guy," Davis said, circling the capital M on his piece of paper. "In the 'over' front, when I was in Atlanta [2001 to 2003], we put Keith Brooking -- we were actually playing an even scheme, too -- but we stacked Keith right behind the three [technique] and he got to run and make players and use his athleticism, and he made his first Pro Bowl playing behind the three."

But in this scheme Hayes, listed at 249 pounds ("or a little less than that," he admits with a wink and smile), is the only uncovered linebacker. That means he often will be taking on 300-pound guards head on. On Sunday, it could be Steeler ORG Darnell Stapleton and his 305 pounds that will meet Hayes more than once. "You don't think about," Hayes says, "you just do it. You can't worry about taking those guys on. It comes with the territory."

Ryans is listed at 247 pounds and seems a natural for that role, which would answer one of the big questions about the Eagles' current personnel transitioning to a new alignment.

Again, we will learn more about all of this in the coming months, and the way the Eagles line up on defense this year could look different even from what Davis has run in the past. But this is an interesting look at the new guy and where he comes from philosophically, and I found it interesting. Hope you did, too.

NFC East training camp battles

July, 2, 2012
7/02/12
2:00
PM ET
AFC camp battles: West | North | South | East NFC: West | North | South | East

An early look at the biggest training camp position battles:

DALLAS COWBOYS

Inside linebacker: Dan Connor versus Bruce Carter.

Carter was the Cowboys' second-round pick in 2011. He was injured when they drafted him, so they didn't expect him to make much of an impact in 2011. Once recovered, he played in each of the team's final 10 games, but didn't play much. With Keith Brooking and Bradie James gone, the Cowboys need a starter at inside linebacker next to 2011 standout Sean Lee. Their hope is that Carter can be that for years to come, and they'd be perfectly thrilled if he could jump in at the start of this season. But they're not kidding themselves, and they know Carter might need some time to develop. That's why they signed Connor, the free agent from Carolina. Connor's the veteran, and a guy they can plug in next to Lee right away and feel good about. But Carter's the one with the upside, and he's getting first-team reps this offseason while Connor recovers from shoulder surgery. My sense is that Carter will either convince them he's ready and get the job or convince them he's not and leave the job to Connor with the chance that he usurps him later in the year. I don't think Connor's performance in the preseason matters to this competition as much as Carter's does. We could have picked No. 3 wide receiver for this exercise, or guard, or center. But the Cowboys' main issues are on defense, and this is a spot the coaches will have their eyes on later this month.

NEW YORK GIANTS

No. 3 wide receiver: Rueben Randle versus Domenik Hixon.

The Giants have two of the best wide receivers in the NFL in Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz, but the free-agent departure of Mario Manningham left that No. 3 spot open. They drafted Randle in the second round and think very highly of him, but that's not going to be what gets him the job. He'll need to outplay the other guys in training camp in order to earn it, and the other three names on this list have more experience in the league and the offense. My pick as the current favorite to open the season in that spot is Hixon, who was the favorite for it last year before re-injuring his knee. I think that, if he's healthy, he's got the best chance to land that position. But that's a huge "if" with Hixon, and Randle, Ramses Barden and Jerrel Jernigan all have the physical tools they need to impress coaches during this competition. It's probably Barden's last chance to show he can stay on the field and compete. And Jernigan has a shot to stick if he shows he can help in the return game. But my best prediction is a healthy Hixon wins the job and Randle gradually takes snaps away from him during the year as he continues to develop into the long-term answer.

PHILADELPHIA EAGLES

Strong safety: Kurt Coleman versus Jaiquawn Jarrett.

This one got even more interesting with the recent signing of veteran O.J. Atogwe. Given his recent injury history and how slow he looked when actually on the field with the Redskins last year, I still think Atogwe is more likely to be a backup and a veteran mentor than a threat to the starting spot opposite free safety Nate Allen. But it's possible that neither Coleman nor Jarrett will impress enough to win the job. Jarrett is the team's 2011 second-round pick, and they have high hopes for him. He didn't show much last year, and his main problem is that the thing for which he was best known in college -- hard hitting -- is not something he's able to demonstrate during an offseason program. If he can make strides in coverage and then lay some people out in preseason games, he might have a chance to grab the starting spot. But if Coleman beats him out and Atogwe is healthy enough to stick, people will justifiably start wondering whether Jarrett really has a future as a starter in Philadelphia.

WASHINGTON REDSKINS

Safety: Madieu Williams versus Tanard Jackson.

This one could have been wide receiver, where there's a jumble at the spot opposite Pierre Garcon. But the Redskins' safety situation is its own jumble, and it's one about which more fans probably should be worried. They're projecting Brandon Meriweather as one of the starting safeties. They think he fits their coverage schemes much better than he did those of the Bears last year, and they think the reason the Patriots cut him had more to do with personality conflict than performance issues. So they feel good about that spot. For the other, they like Williams, who has impressed them as an alert and intelligent leader on the field. It's possible he could get a challenge from Jackson, the talented-but-troubled former Buccaneer who's reunited with former coach Raheem Morris (now the Redskins' secondary coach), but they'll need to see Jackson play in the preseason -- and stay clean -- before deciding how much he can give them. They also like their depth here, with guys like DeJon Gomes, Reed Doughty and Jordan Bernstine, so it's possible a sleeper candidate could emerge. But as of now, keep an eye on Williams and Jackson fighting it out for that spot next to Meriweather.

Breakfast links: Home sweet home

March, 29, 2012
3/29/12
8:00
AM ET
Back home in New Jersey after four lovely days in Palm Beach at the NFL owners meetings. Man, they had some good links there at the Breakers. But for today, these will have to do.

Dallas Cowboys

Even with free-agent Dan Connor in the fold, the Cowboys might not be done adding to their inside linebacker corps. But Jason Garrett did not make it sound as though free agents Bradie James or Keith Brooking are likely to re-sign.

Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan will have a lap-band procedure to help him lose weight. Ryan's twin brother, New York Jets coach Rex Ryan, had the same procedure done in 2010.

New York Giants

Ohm ponders what the Giants will do to replace Brandon Jacobs now that the longtime Giants running back has signed with the 49ers. I agree with Ohm that someone on the level of Carolina's Jonathan Stewart is not a realistic option and that they'll probably sign a cheap veteran running back to throw into the mix with Ahmad Bradshaw and the young guys they have.

Tom Coughlin says he doesn't care if Tim Tebow and the Jets are dominating the New York tabloid headlines, because he and the Giants won the Super Bowl, and he figures the folks reading those papers still remember that.

Philadelphia Eagles

Andy Reid was asked whether old pal Donovan McNabb would be an option for the Eagles at backup quarterback. He did not make it sound as though he would. Some people have asked me about McNabb, but I have no reason to believe he'll play again. For the Eagles or anyone else.

There's a report out there that the Tennessee Titans, who lost Cortland Finnegan to the Rams in free agency, might be one of the teams interested in trading for Eagles cornerback Asante Samuel. And there's a report out there that they're not. So we'll see. Won't be the last team connected to Samuel in this kind of report.

Washington Redskins

Mike Shanahan isn't worried that the league might still penalize the Redskins over bounty programs that may or may not have been in place when Gregg Williams was their defensive coordinator. He's counting on Philip Daniels' recollection to carry the day.

Shanahan also said that left tackle Trent Williams and tight end Fred Davis would have to prove themselves to their teammates, in light of the drug suspensions that ended those players' seasons early.
Feels like spring. The NFL draft must be right around the corner, no? Man, we'd better load up on links.

New York Giants

The Giants have told longtime right tackle Kareem McKenzie to seek work elsewhere, according to The Record. Not a surprise that they're cutting ties with McKenzie, but it does show that the Giants are conscious of the need to keep overhauling their offensive line before it all gets too old together.

Giants coach Tom Coughlin joins Giants quarterback Eli Manning in condemning the idea of bounties in the NFL. My reaction to this is: "Mike Krzyzewski has a radio show? And he administers it this time of year?" Also, I'm with Tom and Eli.

Philadelphia Eagles

Jeff McLane thinks the Eagles should kick the tires on Peyton Manning, in part because Michael Vick has apparently given him "plenty of evidence that he doesn't have what it takes to win a Super Bowl." A) That seems a little harsh; B) people used to say the same thing about Manning; and C) don't the Eagles have bigger problems to work on?

Dallas Cowboys

Calvin Watkins doesn't think, after talking to people in the know, that Cortland Finnegan would be a great fit for the Cowboys, since he's a similar cornerback to Orlando Scandrick and they need someone who can cover on the outside. A fair point, and valid. I just think they need as many quality bodies back there as they can find, and signing Finnegan doesn't preclude them from going out and finding their outside cover guy too.

It's conceivable that one reason Keith Brooking is making noise about wanting to come back to the Cowboys is that he's being sued for nearly $2 million by Wells Fargo for unpaid loans, though Brooking denies the accusations.

Washington Redskins

Mike Jones lays out the pitch the Redskins are planning to make in their effort to lure Peyton Manning to Washington. The Redskins are a long shot to get Manning, and of course are still hoping they can trade up to the No. 2 pick in the draft and take Robert Griffin III. But in case they can't make that move up in the draft, it looks as though they're going to make an effort on ol' No. 18, who'd be a pretty incredible fallback plan if he turns out to be healthy.

Mike Wise says the Redskins need Manning more than he needs them. Which is certainly true. Never hurts to ask, though.
Mornin'. Nice day here in the East. Want to start off with some links?

New York Giants

Plaxico Burress is at it again, giving interviews in which he says he'd be happy to go back to the Giants. My first reaction was, "Come on. Not this again?" But the more I thought about it, the more I figured the one thing Burress has going for him here is that neither Tom Coughlin (whom Burress has ripped at nearly every turn since his release from prison) nor Jerry Reese (whom Burress blatantly used for leverage in contract negotiations with the Jets last summer) is the sort of man who holds a grudge. And they're going to need a receiver to replace Mario Manningham. The main thing Burress has going against him is that he doesn't appear to be very good anymore.

Victor Cruz, the guy who blew up like a firework after the Giants failed to sign Burress last summer, has a book deal and is buying his mother a house.

Philadelphia Eagles

Jonathan Tamari has an Eagles free-agency primer, which starts with linebacker and does in fact throw the name of London Fletcher into the mix. The kind of thing that ought to scare the Redskins into making sure Fletcher doesn't hit the market next Tuesday, I think.

Former Eagle Freddie Mitchell is apparently facing federal tax fraud charges for a scheme in which he allegedly recruited pro athletes to get false tax returns. I find these stories sad.

Dallas Cowboys

There's an issue now about maybe Keith Brooking returning to the Cowboys next year, which didn't seem likely a few weeks ago but may make some degree of sense considering their lack of depth and experience at the inside linebacker position. Jason Garrett talked about it to ESPNDallas.com but said nothing of substance. If I had to guess I'd say Brooking's on a list of possible veteran options at the position as they hedge against the chances that Bruce Carter is ready to start.

Garrett also said there is no bounty program on the Cowboys and that he expects a lot of teams to be hearing from the league in the coming days and weeks to ensure that they take steps to make sure there won't be.

Washington Redskins

Mike Jones reports that the franchise tag given to Fred Davis was of the non-exclusive variety, which is common and means another team could technically get him in exchange for two first-round picks. But the likelihood of that happening is ridiculously small, and given the low cost of the tight end franchise tag this year and the good use to which the Redskins could put two first-round draft picks make it a risk well worth taking. Davis will be a Redskin next season, and I doubt he'll get a long-term deal in the meantime, given the drug suspension thing. He's got to stay on the straight and narrow for a year to convince them.

The Redskins' team site looks at three top wide receiver candidates and the connections they have to the team and/or the D.C. area, as the Redskins prepare to hunt for wide receiver help on the free-agent market.

Cowboys inside linebacker questions

February, 15, 2012
2/15/12
5:10
PM ET
Yes, I'm leaning hard on ESPNDallas.com's position-by-position series. It's there every day. It's good. It's got Bryan Broaddus. What's not to like? Today's installment is on inside linebackers, which for the Dallas Cowboys in 2012 looks like it could be Sean Lee, Bruce Carter and... just about anybody who wants to try out. Per Bryan, in Calvin Watkins' story:
The problem for the Cowboys will not be Carter and Lee, but who is behind them? Orie Lemon is a college free agent who spent the year on the practice squad but other than him, that is it. This front office can not afford to miss on picks like it did with players like Jason Williams. Look for them to be aggressive not only in the draft but in college free agency, which is an area where they usually find a player or two because depth here is beyond thin.

The Cowboys have to believe Lee is a long-term answer in the middle. He was a terror in 2011 before he got hurt, and he played very well even after he returned from the hand injury. Carter is a guy from whom we didn't see enough in 2011 to make any real conclusions, but it looks as though the starting job along with Lee is his for the taking. No one expects the Cowboys to bring back Bradie James or Keith Brooking, and inside linebacker isn't a high-priority area for the draft or free agency with all of the needs they have in the secondary, the pass rush and on the offensive line. Carter's going to have to play well, or they're going to have trouble patching this unit together.

Is the Cowboys' defense just not good?

December, 16, 2011
12/16/11
9:55
AM ET
Tim MacMahon of ESPNDallas.com has a column up, and it's about the Dallas Cowboys' defense. Specifically, it's about first-year defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, who Tim says is struggling to coach something out of the same cast of characters that helped get the previous coach and defensive coordinator, Wade Phillips, fired a little more than a year ago.

Tim's hypothesis is that maybe it's not the fault of the coach or the scheme in Dallas, but that maybe we've all been overrating the players the Cowboys have on the defensive side of the ball:
The truth is that this defense has three cornerstone players -- outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware, nose tackle Jay Ratliff and inside linebacker Sean Lee -- and a whole bunch of question marks. Throw a dart at the defensive depth chart and you're pretty much guaranteed to hit a draft need.

Cornerback Mike Jenkins has first-round talent and deserves credit for fighting through injuries all season, but he's on-again, off-again. Outside linebacker Anthony Spencer, another former first-round pick, has flashes of brilliance that are lost in long stretches of mediocrity.

Cornerback Terence Newman is way past his prime and looks like he's on his last legs after a few weeks of actually playing well enough to earn his massive contract earlier this season. Inside linebackers Bradie James and Keith Brooking are tough, old warriors whose glory days are long gone.

The rest of the defense is filled with JAGs, to borrow a term from Bill Parcells. The just-a-guy list includes safety Gerald Sensabaugh and [Orlando] Scandrick, even though they've been given five-year, $20-plus-million contract extensions this season.

It's an interesting point, for sure. Two years ago, when the Cowboys turned it on this time of year and won a division title, Spencer and Jenkins played like stars. They have not done so since, and as a result there are very few players on the Cowboys' defense who are. It's one thing when you have five or six guys playing like stars. It's quite another when you have only two or three.

The theory behind hiring Ryan was that the Cowboys underachieved on defense last season and needed a fresh voice to coax the talent out of all the talented players they already had in place. And while he's been able to get something out of Spencer and Jenkins (and, earlier in the season, Newman) that wasn't there a year ago, Tim's right that none of those guys is playing at a star-caliber level. Can they the rest of the way? Sure. We've seen it before for brief stretches with some of these same guys. But once this is all over, it seems the Cowboys are going to have to make some more serious and sober assessments of just what exactly they do have on defense.


ARLINGTON, Texas -- The Seattle Seahawks provided the perfect opponent to solve the Dallas Cowboys' woes. Well sort of. Dallas played a nice, but not great game Sunday afternoon on the day they inducted Drew Pearson, Larry Allen and Charles Haley into the Ring of Honor. The Cowboys should have played better, but they have next week to solve their issues. For the record, Dallas 23, Seattle 13.

Here's a recap:

What it means: Not really sure. The Cowboys beat up a Seattle team ranking next to last in total offense and rushing offense. Its defense ranked 13th overall but 18th against the pass. Seattle rushed for over 100 yards for the first time in two weeks and the Seahawks completed numerous big plays in the passing game. But the Cowboys won, and that's all that matters in the NFL sometimes.

DeMarco Murray needs to start: Nothing personal against Felix Jones, but did you see the rookie from Oklahoma on Sunday afternoon? He rushed 22 times for 139 yards. He's now rushed for over 100 yards in two of the last three games. Jones has rushed for over 100 yards just twice in the regular season during his career. It might be time to move on from Jones and give things to Murray.

Defense plays OK: The Cowboys defense pressured Seattle quarterback Tarvaris Jackson numerous times and picked up three interceptions. Terence Newman, Jason Hatcher and Gerald Sensabaugh were the men who did in Jackson. DeMarcus Ware didn't register a sack for the first time in three weeks. It seemed the Cowboys missed inside linebacker Sean Lee, who was out with a dislocated left wrist. Bradie James and Keith Brooking didn't do enough to slow the running game. It's clear the Cowboys need to clean up some things before taking on Buffalo next week. Anthony Spencer picked up his first sack since Week 3 vs. Washington, and now has three on the season.

Miles Austin is out: Wide receiver Miles Austin injured his right hamstring in the first half and didn't return. It's the second time this season that Austin has battled hamstring injuries. He finished the game with two catches for 53 yards. But it was OK because Laurent Robinson, once again, is looking like a man who knows what he's doing on the field. Robinson had five catches for 32 yards with one touchdown. Dez Bryant also had a nice game, though he had zero catches in the second half, with four receptions for 76 yards. Defenses are jamming Bryant at the line of scrimmage and he continues to struggle to get off the line.

Red zone problems: The Cowboys went 1-3 in the red zone Sunday. For the season, the Cowboys have 26 possessions inside the red zone with just 10 touchdowns and 12 field goals on the season. This has been a problem area for the Cowboys in 2011 and moving forward things have to get fixed.

What's next: The Cowboys host Buffalo on Sunday afternoon. It's Chan Gailey's chance to beat the man who fired him, Jerry Jones. Jones said firing Gailey was one of his biggest mistakes.
Distressing news for Dallas Cowboys fans in the form of this report from ESPN's Adam Schefter, whose source tells him that "some doctors" believe Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee should have season-ending surgery on his dislocated wrist while "others believe he can cast the injury and play through it."
Lee has not made any decision yet. He and the Cowboys will continue consulting with doctors until they make a determination of what's best for the linebacker's future. The team hasn't officially ruled him out for Sunday's game.

It certainly sounds as though the Cowboys can't count on Lee this week, and it's possible he could miss many more weeks to come. If Lee does miss the remainder of the season, I believe that would be a serious enough loss to force a recalibration of every positive forecast for the Cowboys the rest of the way. The schedule favors them, and they played well enough in their first six games to make you think they could make a run. But Lee's performance in the middle of the defense was a critical element in its early success, and they looked lost without him against the Eagles.

Keith Brooking and Bradie James are the starting inside linebackers if Lee can't go, and it's possible they could find ways to start working rookie Bruce Carter into the mix. But Lee has been one of the best and most productive linebackers in the league this year, and his ball-hawking ways have allowed other elements of the Dallas defense to flourish around him. If he's out, they'll have to make a number of very serious adjustments to compensate for it, and they certainly weren't able to do so Sunday night.

Rapid Reaction: Eagles 34, Cowboys 7

October, 30, 2011
10/30/11
11:29
PM ET

PHILADELPHIA -- Some thoughts from the Philadelphia Eagles' 34-7 dismantling of the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday night at Lincoln Financial Field:

What it means: For the Eagles, it means they're now 13-0 under Andy Reid in games immediately following bye weeks. It also means they're in position to get on the kind of roll that could get them back into contention. It might have been easy for some to dismiss their previous victory, two weeks ago against Rex Grossman and the Redskins. But they were intense and focused and mistake-free as they built an insurmountable lead Sunday night against a hated division rival, and that's a lot tougher to dismiss. For the Cowboys, it means they're 3-4 and embarrassed. I don't think it means they're cooked, however. Their losses are to the Eagles, Jets, Patriots and Lions -- teams with a combined record of 18-11 -- and three of those losses were on the road. The combined record of the teams remaining on the Cowboys' schedule is 23-33.

Run, Eagles, run: The Cowboys went into the game as the top-ranked run defense in the league, allowing an average of 69.7 rush yards per game. But the Eagles wrecked that average in the first quarter, in which they ran for 115, and kept running and running all night. Running back LeSean McCoy had 185 yards on the ground. Quarterback Michael Vick had 50 more. And the Eagles, who were killing themselves with turnovers earlier this season, look as though they might have found a safe recipe for offensive success going forward. McCoy is one of the very best backs in the league and doesn't appear to mind a heavy workload. After getting 28 carries two weeks ago in Washington, he got 30 more Sunday night.

Out-muscled in the trenches: The Eagles' offensive line has taken a lot of criticism this season, but in truth, it is a very good run-blocking line that has struggled at times in pass protection. The Eagles look to be shoring things up, and aside from DeMarcus Ware's four sacks, they won all night against the Dallas front. The same could not be said for Dallas' offensive line, which is banged up and didn't appear to have enough overall strength to handle the Eagles' defensive line. The Cowboys hardly possessed the ball during the part of the game that could reasonably be described as competitive, but when they did, they were able to do almost nothing with it.

Soft in the middle: The Eagles were able to gain big chunks of yardage all night across the middle of the field, as Vick repeatedly found Jason Avant and heretofore forgotten tight end Brent Celek in critical spots. ESPN Stats & Information says Vick was 18-for-20 for 258 yards and a touchdown when throwing between the numbers. Celek led the team with seven catches, and Avant was second with five. Vick was making smart decisions and protecting the ball better than he had earlier in the season, but he also was hitting wide-open receivers, which makes anybody look good. The Cowboys' defense clearly suffered once inside linebacker Sean Lee went out with a wrist injury, and if Lee has to miss significant time, they should continue to struggle. It was clear, once Lee left the game, how much of the Cowboys' defensive success this season has been tied to his emergence. Veteran Keith Brooking had a horrible game.

Tighter coverage: Eagles cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha was the most trumpeted free-agent signing of the offseason, but he'd been a disappointment through the team's first six games. On Sunday night, the Eagles used him in tighter coverage than they had for most of the early part of the season, and he was able to limit several of the Cowboys' offensive weapons. Whether he was on Jason Witten, Dez Bryant or Miles Austin, Asomugha was all over the field and playing the part the Eagles hired him to play.

What's next: The Cowboys limp back to Texas, where they get a cushy home game Sunday afternoon against the 2-5 Seattle Seahawks. They should be able to work out some of their issues against a team that presents far fewer athletic challenges with its offense than do the Eagles. Philadelphia gets an extra day to rest and/or practice before taking on the Chicago Bears at home on "Monday Night Football" on Nov. 7.

NFC East Stock Watch

September, 13, 2011
9/13/11
1:00
PM ET
NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

FALLING

1. Fan patience with Tony Romo. Romo was outstanding against the New York Jets defense Sunday night until the fourth quarter, when a couple of bad decisions and turnovers by the star quarterback cost the Dallas Cowboys the game. This did not help combat the popular opinion that Romo is a talented guy who can't get it done in the clutch or show the leadership qualities the team needs to make a run at the Super Bowl. It's only one game, and he surely will have chances to undo the damage he did Sunday, but Romo starts the season in a hole of his own making.

2. The New York Giants' margin for error. The Justin Tuck injury wasn't the reason the Giants lost to the Washington Redskins, but it may well have been the final Jenga piece that came out before the tower fell down. The Giants are so beaten up, so thinned-out by injuries and free-agent defections, that they can't afford any more hits. Losing their best player to injury in the days before the season opener, on top of everything else that had already happened, was too much to overcome. And until they can get a little bit more whole, this is going to be their issue. Lack of depth shows up as the game goes along, and Sunday they got outplayed in the second half. The guys they do have are going to have to play something close to error-free football if they're to have chances to win. Fortunately for them, their next game is against the St. Louis Rams, who may be even more banged-up right now than they are.

3. Philadelphia Eagles' early-round draft picks. Not only did first-round pick Danny Watkins lose his job as the starting right guard last week -- he wasn't even active for the Eagles' season opener in St. Louis. Head coach Andy Reid keeps saying Watkins is taking "a step back to take a step forward," and he certainly may well be the starter at some point this season. But the Eagles are in win-now mode, and they're not going to allow Watkins to learn on the job if it's going to be a detriment to the team. Also inactive were second-round safety Jaiquawn Jarrett and third-round cornerback Curtis Marsh. But fourth-rounders Casey Matthews and Alex Henery are the starting middle linebacker and placekicker. Fifth-rounder Dion Lewis is the kick returner and a good-looking backup running back and sixth-rounder Jason Kelce is the starting center. So they got a little bit more immediate help in those later rounds.

RISING

[+] EnlargeRex Grossman
James Lang/US PresswireRex Grossman took advantage of a thinned-out Giants team and threw for 300 yards and two touchdowns.
1. Rex Grossman and the Redskins. Theirs was the feel-good win of the week in the division, with Grossman throwing for more than 300 yards against that depleted Giants defense and the Washington defense stifling the Giants' run game. I've been writing for weeks that I didn't think -- as many did -- that the Redskins would be one of the worst teams in the league. And I don't know that they should be printing Super Bowl tickets just yet. But they're going to be a tough team to play against, and with the way the schedule lays out, they wouldn't be a huge shock as a borderline playoff contender.

2. The Eagles' offensive versatility. I don't expect Michael Vick to pick up 98 rush yards every week, but he was running to beat the blitz, and he said after the game that he'd be happy to keep doing it if teams wanted to persist in sending extra rushers. Vick's ability to extend drives and turn broken plays into big gains isn't any big news, but it was one of many options the Eagles showcased Sunday, including DeSean Jackson as a downfield threat and LeSean McCoy as a fourth-quarter weapon. Vick's protection held up well when St. Louis wasn't blitzing more guys than they could account for, and once they get Jeremy Maclin and Brent Celek and Steve Smith into the mix, the Eagles are clearly going to be a very scary offensive team.

3. Sean Lee. Snagged the starting inside linebacker job away from veteran Keith Brooking and ran with it, having a great game against the Jets. Lee has long been viewed as the future for the Cowboys at that position, but the way he played Sunday night makes you think he might be the present as well. He was an asset against the run game and picked up an interception as well. Making plays the way he did Sunday, he's not about to give that job back anytime soon.

Breakfast links: Boys rally around Romo

September, 13, 2011
9/13/11
8:00
AM ET
Morning, all. Another Tuesday in the NFC East, and we wouldn't let you start it without your daily serving of links.

Dallas Cowboys

In the Cowboys' locker room, there was backlash Monday against the anti-Tony Romo backlash coming from all corners of the outside world. "I'll take that guy over anybody in the league," Keith Brooking said. "Y'all might thing I'm crazy, but he's going to have an all-time year. He's going to shatter every record." Could be bravado, but for me it's a reminder that the players on a pro sports team do not view the game or its players the same way we on the outside do. The Cowboys are going to watch a lot of film this week of Romo doing a lot of great things against one of the league's best defenses, and it's not myopic of them to focus on that instead of the fourth-quarter turnovers.

Drew Pearson isn't ready to start carving Dez Bryant's Hall of Fame bust just yet. Pearson had some strong words for the second-year receiver and his inability to make it through the entire game healthy Sunday. Bryant is clearly a monster talent, but questions do remain on a number of fronts -- most of them focused off the field rather than on. When he's on the field and healthy, he's pretty tough for the other team to handle.

New York Giants

Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPN New York says one of the most important things the Giants need to do is figure out their identity on offense. This has actually been a problem for the Giants, within games, over the past couple of years. Fundamentally, they want to run the ball and work the passing game off of that. But with Eli Manning flourishing as a passer and with options like Hakeem Nicks, Steve Smith and Mario Manningham having emerged over the past two seasons, they looked to pass more a more. Now, it seems as though they'd be better off trying to focus on the run with Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs, but they did not do that Sunday against the Redskins. Interested to see how they come out offensively Monday night against the Rams.

In case Giants fans haven't heard enough bad injury news, Nicks is apparently struggling with some type of knee injury. It doesn't sound as though it's serious, but the Giants' luck with this stuff obviously hasn't been good, and Nicks has been dinged up in each of his first two years in the league, so it bears watching.

Philadelphia Eagles

DeSean Jackson has been playing the good soldier in the absence of the contract extension he wants, but Ashley Fox wonders how long the peace and harmony will last if the Eagles don't budge soon. Fox seems to suspect, as I do, that the Eagles and Jackson aren't very close on contract terms and that this isn't going to get solved soon. Many Eagles fans I hear from can't conceive of the team allowing Jackson to leave as a free agent, but the fact is he's no sure bet to play in Philadelphia long-term.

Eagles first-round pick Danny Watkins wants to play, of course, but he's a long-view guy who says he wouldn't want to play right guard if he's not sufficiently ready to help protect Michael Vick. The idea that Watkins can relax now that he doesn't have to worry about being ready to be the starter right away is a legitimate one, I think.

Washington Redskins

The Redskins were allowed to take Monday off following Sunday's victory, but they decided not to. Under the leadership of linebacker London Fletcher, they reported to team headquarters to watch film and get their treatment and workouts in. It's all part, they say, of a culture change they believe is going to pay huge benefits this year. It's also the latest in a burgeoning string of reasons for Redskins fans to feel good about their team.

Mike Shanahan is also hopeful that he'll have a full-strength secondary for Sunday's game against the Cardinals, as safety LaRon Landry could be nearing a return from his hamstring injury. Shanahan also doesn't expect the ankle injury Brian Orakpo suffered Sunday to keep him out of next week's game.

Lots more on the docket Tuesday, including the 2011 debut of Stock Watch and our weekly live chat at noon ET. Be there or you'll regret it. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of your life ...
You guys send in questions. Some are very good. Some are just rants directed at me for reasons I can't understand. Got one this week that just said, "Your a moron," which I thought was really funny. But like I said, a lot of the questions are good, and as such I like to take a little time and try and answer them. Thus is born the weekend mailbag.

Mike in Washington, D.C. wants to know where the Cowboys stand with linebacker Keith Brooking, given their obvious willingness this offseason to cut ties with veteran players who cost a lot of money and aren't what they used to be.

Dan Graziano: After Saturday's cuts, the Cowboys are left with only three active inside linebackers -- Brooking, Bradie James and Sean Lee. So a big part of the reason Brooking is still around is clearly because they don't feel they've replaced him yet, the way they did Andre Gurode or Leonard Davis or Marion Barber or I guess Roy Williams with younger guys. Even if Lee is ready to replace Brooking as a starter, they'd still need Brooking on the team as a backup at that position with Bruce Carter still injured. I wouldn't feel super-comfortable right now if I were Brooking, given the current climate, but for now he does not appear to be one of the veterans for which they feel they have an adequate replacement.


Bill in Gainesville, Fla., tells me I am wrong to think that John Beck is still the favorite to be the Redskins' starting quarterback. Bill thinks that the reason Rex Grossman rested Thursday and Beck played in the final preseason game is because the decision has already been made to go with Grossman, who he says is "more of a pure passer and has a better arm."

DG: Well, we'll see soon enough, won't we? But I don't think Grossman resting and Beck playing Thursday had anything to do with it. Remember, Grossman played and Beck didn't play in the Redskins' first preseason game because Beck had a groin injury, so they could have just been evening out the playing time. As I've said all along, they know what they have in Grossman and believe Beck offers more upside. They wanted to use the preseason to see if Beck could handle the pressure of the opportunity. What they decide about the way he did that will factor into the decision more than anything, and I believe Beck probably showed enough. But like I said, we'll know by this time next week.


Chris in Staten Island wants to know if the Giants would be smart to trade Osi Umenyiora for disgruntled Chicago Bears linebacker Lance Briggs.

DG: First, I'm going to say I don't think it's something that would interest the Giants. Remember, they don't want to trade Umenyiora just because he's unhappy. They believe he has more value to them as a player on the field this season than as a trade chip. They don't think his contract demand is reasonable, and at no point during the whole thing have they been inclined to solve a problem he created by simply giving him what he wants. They also value great pass-rushing defensive ends over linebackers, as the current construction of their roster indicates. I believe, given that they run a 4-3 defense, they're correct in doing this and that once Umenyiora is back healthy, he'll be of greater use to them than would a linebacker such as Briggs. I believe they're shaky at linebacker, but they kept four rookies as backups and seem determined to see what those guys have. As a result, if a starter goes down this season, they could struggle. But it's clear they don't prioritize the linebacker position, and so I don't think you'll see them make a major move to address it.


Larry from Philly but living in N.Y. thinks Michael Vick will retain his financial motivation to keep playing well even after getting his new contract, since his bankruptcy issues drop his take-home pay to about 11 percent of his salary. Larry isn't just pulling that figure out of thin air. He read it in a story Darren Rovell did on cnbc.com.

DG: Well, there's also Vick's endorsement money to consider, and I think the figures overall indicate that, if he were inclined to get complacent, he could financially afford to do so. But I'm not saying I expect him to do that. I see Vick as a guy who's been through a lot and understands the ways in which he needs to play and work and conduct himself in order to have success commensurate with his own expectations for himself. The question I have is whether he sees himself as a quarterback dedicated to honing his craft, or if he'll be content to lean on his tremendous athletic ability to carry him in tough spots. He's clearly established himself, in a short time in Philadelphia, as a very good player and leader. But the harder he works at improving as a quarterback, the better he and the Eagles will be in the long term. That, in my opinion, is the big question remaining with Vick -- not whether he retains sufficient financial motivation to play hard.

Keep em coming, folks. Mailbag out.
And a good morning to you all. Lovely one here in northern New Jersey as I head back to Giants camp for another day of interviews there. When I arrive, I expect to find the team ... looking pretty much the same as it did Wednesday.

Yeah, Steve Smith left to sign with the Eagles. No, that's not a good thing for the Giants, who'd hoped to re-sign him. But they were already preparing for life without him, since they didn't expect him to return from his knee injury and contribute right away. It's a tough break for the Giants, who haven't had a very successful free-agency period. It's another score for the Eagles, who have had the most successful one of any team in the league. But I think it's easy to lose sight of the fact that not every team has to kill it in free agency in order to be a good team.

I get called out here very often for being only negative/never positive about the Giants. This criticism is unfair and inaccurate, of course, and I fully expect this missive to be forgotten the next time a Giants fan wants to get on me for writing something about the team that isn't 100 percent positive. But the Giants, remember, won 10 games last year. Their starting lineup is loaded with very good players on offense and defense. Eli Manning is a top-10 quarterback, Hakeem Nicks is emerging as a top young receiver and they remain stacked in the running game. The defensive line, led by Justin Tuck, is also deep and talented, and the starting secondary looks stellar in practice. If they keep their key guys healthy, the fact that they couldn't get anything done in free agency shouldn't stop them from being a playoff contender.

Are there concerns? Of course there are. There are unknowns at tight end, and No. 3 receiver, and left tackle and linebacker. There's little depth behind that starting secondary and in other key spots on the roster. It's entirely possible that the cap concerns that cost them Smith, Kevin Boss, Plaxico Burress and anyone else they were hoping to get rise up and hurt them at some point in the season.

But that's not what's guaranteed to happen. The Giants believe in grooming and developing their own players. And if they've done a good job of grooming William Beatty, Jason Pierre-Paul, Travis Beckum, Linval Joseph, Domenik Hixon and guys like that, then that'll mean they didn't have as much work to do in free agency in the first place. It's a lot to count on, but that's where the Giants are right now. Some of the young guys who've been working their way toward starter's roles have to be ready to take them on. If they're not, the Giants could have problems. But if they are, there are enough established good players on the team to shake off an unsuccessful summer and still have a successful autumn.

More Giants

Ralph Vacchiano continues to believe that Osi Umenyiora's visit to a knee specialist today portends an end to his contract dispute with the Giants. Ralph could be right, but as he points out, there's a chance the specialist backs up Umenyiora's claims of a knee injury, in which case the stalemate continues and things get uglier before they get better. Umenyiora is without a leg to stand on in this dispute, and it's possible he has come (or is coming) to the realization that it's time to let it go and get back on the field. But we'll see what the doctor says.

There is opportunity in the Giants' receiving corps right now, and Darius Reynaud had the best practice of anyone Wednesday. Mike Garafolo spoke with Reynaud about what drives him. (I mean what drives Reynaud, not Garafolo. It's rage that drives Garafolo. Pure rage. And coffee.)

Dallas Cowboys

The Cowboys have a game tonight! A preseason opener against the Broncos. Expect the rookies on the offensive line to get more snaps than the rest of the starters, and expect David Buehler and Dan Bailey to alternate kick attempts as Jason Garrett works to sort out that sticky-but-important issue.

And while several key players will miss the game with injuries, it sounds as if the Cowboys expect to get Jay Ratliff, Mike Jenkins, Andre Gurode, Keith Brooking, Tashard Choice and DeMarco Murray back when they resume practice Saturday in Dallas. Terence Newman is the only one of the critical injuries that seems long-term at the moment, as he's out through the preseason at the very least.

Philadelphia Eagles

The Eagles have a game tonight! That's right, after all of this they still have to play. All eyes will be on the starting cornerbacks, at least while the starters are in the game. Paul Domowitch writes that the Eagles would do best to keep all three of the trio of Nnamdi Asomugha, Asante Samuel and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and to use Asomugha in the slot while all three are on the field. Based on the conversations I had while in Eagles camp last week, it sounds as though Paul will get his wish.

As for the Philly side of the Steve Smith signing, Jeff McLane writes that it had nothing to do with the health of Jeremy Maclin, who still hasn't practiced or said why not. And I'm sure Jeff's sources are telling him the truth. But the fact is, whether it was part of their motivation or not, having Smith on the roster will, once he's healthy, give the team some coverage if Maclin does have any health issues. It also will give them some increased leverage in their contract talks with DeSean Jackson -- or coverage if they can't come to an agreement with him and he walks after the season. Depth is good and useful for many reasons, and the Eagles clearly have a great deal of depth right now -- at receiver and elsewhere.

Washington Redskins

One of the places where the Redskins have a little depth is at tight end, which is good, because this Chris Cooley knee injury is starting to sound like a serious concern. Cooley won't play Friday night, and it sounds as though quarterback John Beck's groin injury will keep that particular rocket from launching right away as well. So you'll see Rex Grossman throwing to Fred Davis. Among others.

I wrote about this a week or so ago and people were aghast, but yes, there is a chance that the Redskins don't start first-round pick Ryan Kerrigan at outside linebacker in the first week of the season. Why? Well, in case he's not ready, simple as that. They do still have Lorenzo Alexander, who played the position last year and can handle it while Kerrigan gets up to speed. They're deep at linebacker as well as tight end. So it would make more sense to take advantage of that, than to rush a kid who might not yet be ready, right?

Anyway, going to be a long day, folks. Final camp interviews at Giants include, I am told, some head-coach time with Tom Coughlin. Got a column running this afternoon on new Eagles defensive coordinator Juan Castillo and the nutty way he carries himself at practice. And I'll be up late watching the Eagles and Cowboys games and writing those up for you here. So right now I'm going to go for a run and get some coffee so we can get this thing started off the right way.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

Insider