NFC East: Leonard Davis
Every offseason is the same story. Fans get their hopes up that the Cowboys will spend a ton of money in free agency -- even if they don't have a ton to spend -- and go get insert-name-here because that guy has to be better than whatever the Cowboys have on the roster.
The needs are obvious: defensive line, secondary, linebacker and defensive line again. You could always add offensive line help and possibly wide receiver. On an 8-8 team, every position needs help.
But the price matters when it comes to free agency. The Cowboys will be able to get under the salary cap without an issue. They could even get far enough under the cap to be big spenders if they choose.
Here's a word to the wise: don't choose.
The last big-money player the Cowboys signed was cornerback Brandon Carr, who received $50 million over five years in 2012. Is there a smidge of buyer's remorse on that one?
Teams have to overpay in free agency. The Cowboys gave Carr what was the going rate for a cornerback in unrestricted free agency. He has been better than the other big-money corner that year, Cortland Finnegan, but he has not changed the fortunes of the defense. In 2005 the Cowboys gave Anthony Henry the going rate for a cornerback at $5 million a year. He played fairly well with 12 interceptions in four seasons before he was traded for Jon Kitna in 2009.
The Cowboys laid out a huge-free agent contract for Leonard Davis ($7 million a year) and Davis had some solid seasons but not enough of them. He was cut after the 2010 season.
The best way to attack free agency is with moderate priced players. One of the best free-agent signings the Cowboys ever had was La'Roi Glover and in part because of what they paid to get him.
Prime free agents have little chance to earn what their given. Carr slumped in 2013, especially at the end of the season. He will have to be Superman in some eyes to justify the $10 million a year price tag in 2014.
So when you go through the lists of available free-agent defensive ends, defensive tackles, outside linebackers, safeties, running backs, wide receivers and offensive linemen, do not get seduced by the names.
The Cowboys have paid names in the past and it has not worked. They have gambled on up-and-coming players as well, like Carr. It's not too late for him to turn things around. An offseason can be a great refresher.
The best bet for the Cowboys and Jones is to lie low when the market opens.
Smith was playing as well as any tackle in football late in the season. He allowed only one sack all season and the Cowboys averaged 5.3 yards per carry on 53 runs behind their left tackle, which was seventh-best in the NFL.
A first-round pick in 2011, Smith has missed only one game in his career. He is signed through 2014, however, the Cowboys have an option for 2015 they need to exercise by the spring. The Cowboys want to sign him to a long-term contract at some point.
The Cowboys have not had a first-team All-Pro offensive lineman since Leonard Davis and Flozell Adams in 2007.
Only 23 years old, Smith still has plenty of chances to make the first team.
We just pushed it back a day with the Dallas Cowboys playing on ESPN's “Monday Night Football.” And boy wasn't that an exciting contest?
Anyway, off we go ...
1. Jerry Jones said there will be changes on the defensive side of the ball after the debacle against the Chicago Bears. I wonder what they would be. And how big of a difference could they actually make? The scheme is the scheme. They can't become some blitz-happy team overnight. The personnel is the personnel. So does it make a difference if J.J. Wilcox starts over Jeff Heath at safety? Minimally. I'd look for Sterling Moore to be the nickel back if Morris Claiborne cannot return this week from a hamstring injury. Huge difference? Perhaps considering how lost B.W. Webb looks. Injuries could force a shakeup at linebacker. Does DeVonte Holloman get some time? He's not a weak-side linebacker by trade, but maybe it's time he plays instead of Ernie Sims or Cam Lawrence if Bruce Carter can't go. The defensive line does not have many options, but maybe Drake Nevis moves in for Nick Hayden. Again, we're not talking major changes.
3. With all of the talk about how well Tyron Smith has played this season, I wonder if the Cowboys will be more patient than normal in talking about an extension for Smith. Under the terms of the new collective bargaining agreement, the Cowboys have a fifth-year option on Smith in which they would pay him roughly the amount of the transition tag in 2015. They have to make their decision to use the option year in the spring and the money becomes guaranteed after the 2014 season. Maybe the Cowboys will wait because they will have to do something with Dez Bryant, who will be a free agent after next season. They could franchise Bryant and use the option year on Smith, but with salary-cap limitations I can see them being more willing to get a deal done with Bryant first. Because the option year is a new tool teams will have a difficult time navigating those negotiations on long-term deals. Bryant will be a more pressing deal to get done and the Cowboys will be able to keep Smith in their back pocket, so to speak.
4. I wonder how strongly the Cowboys attack the defensive line in the April draft. Marinelli played a big part in the team choosing to pass on Sharrif Floyd last April because they did not want to use a first-round pick on what they viewed was a two-down defensive lineman. A few years ago the Cowboys saw their offensive line grow old with Marc Colombo, Leonard Davis, Andre Gurode and Kyle Kosier. They cut Colombo, Davis and Gurode and bit the bullet. Jason Hatcher turns 32 next season and will be a free agent. Anthony Spencer turns 30 in December, is coming off microfracture surgery to his knee and is also a free agent. DeMarcus Ware turns 32 next July and has been slowed by nagging injuries this year. Their one building-block defensive lineman is Tyrone Crawford and he is coming off a torn Achilles. For as well as George Selvie has played this year, he is not a building-block player. He is solid, but you would feel better about him being a backup than a full-timer. The rest of the guys still have things to prove. If the last few years has been about rebuilding the offensive line, I wonder if it's time to start rebuilding the defensive line.
5. I wonder if assistant director of player personnel Will McClay becomes a sought after front-office personnel person. The NFL has tweaked its Rooney Rule and now teams will have to interview at least one minority candidate for their head coaching or general manager vacancy. Last year there were eight head coaching vacancies and seven general manager jobs and none went to a minority. McClay, who is African-American, was elevated to his current role in the offseason and has the run of the personnel department. He has yet to set up a draft board, but he has been responsible for a lot of the pro personnel work in recent years and has found players that have come off the street and contributed to the Cowboys' success. He was a former head coach with the Dallas Desperados and has also helped the coaches on game day. He has received interest from teams in the past, but the Cowboys have not let him leave. This time they may not have a choice.
The team was spurned by guard Brandon Moore on Wednesday morning after he agreed to a deal but then decided to retire.
Thursday morning before leaving for Oakland, the site of Friday's second preseason game, the Cowboys created a roster spot by releasing guard Jeff Olson, who recovered from a concussion.
Among some notable names available on the free-agent market are Deuce Lutui, Bobbie Williams, Cooper Carlisle, Leonard Davis, Reggie Wells, Derrick Dockery, Antoine Caldwell, Jamey Richard, Rex Hadnot and Montrae Holland.
Dockery, Holland and Davis are former Cowboys, but there are also players with ties to offensive coordinator Bill Callahan available for a potential deal. Moore played for Callahan with the New York Jets.
"The way Jason (Garrett) looks at this thing, we sign guys and they come in here and they compete," Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones said. "I don’t think anything is necessarily a given at those spots."
What also helps is finding an offensive linemen who is familiar to the zone blocking scheme Callahan uses.
"I don't think this scheme is anymore difficult than any other," Jones said. "The guys that are out there they will adjust and we'll play the guys accordingly."
When the Cowboys play the Raiders on Friday night the starting guards will be Ronald Leary on the left side and Mackenzy Bernadeau at right guard with Travis Frederick at center.
Money isn't an issue for the Cowboys because the team has nearly $10 million in salary-cap space. Jones, however, likes to have space available in case the Cowboys need to sign a free agent during the season.
"It's a work in progress. If we see opportunities, we'll look at them," Jones said. "We'll also be patient. We're not going to just push a panic button and say this has to be fixed tomorrow."
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.
The Cowboys' focus this offseason was going to be on defense, and in the end it will be. But these two offensive line moves were critical at the outset of free agency. Free was the big name everybody thought they had to keep, but Kosier makes a lot of the line calls from his spot on the left side and was a big help to Free last year in his transition from right tackle to left. With right guard Leonard Davis being cut and center Andre Gurode revealing that he had knee surgery last month, the Cowboys may still have some work to do on the interior of the line. But Free and Kosier were the two key moves, and each seems to have been pulled off without much difficulty.
Now, about those safeties ...
So, how was your day...
"Efficient." Dallas needed to make some cuts to work on getting under the salary cap, and they trimmed Marion Barber, Leonard Davis, Roy Williams and Kris Brown from their roster. Marc Colombo's status remained up in the air at day's end, and the next order of business was likely the restructuring of some veteran contracts (Romo, Austin, etc.) to keep freeing up room for outside free-agent pursuits. Reports surfaced that they reached out to Abe Elam to talk about one of their openings at safety, and they are talking with guard Kyle Kosier, who along with Doug Free is an important re-sign for them. Knocking $16.6 million off their 2011 payroll represents a good first day for a team that needs to rebuild its defense within the next week.
New York Giants?
"Confusing." When the Giants decided not to make offensive line a priority in the draft, many people assumed it was because they felt they had enough depth at the position. But Tuesday brought news that veterans Shaun O'Hara, Rich Seubert and Shawn Andrews would be cut. Adam Schefter reported that Kevin Boothe would return on a two-year deal, but even if Will Beatty is ready to be the starting left tackle, the Giants will need reinforcements. They also needed to get under the cap, but such a drastic purge at one position suggests a recalibration of free-agent priorities for a team that has work to do to bring back several of its own free agents. Adam also reports that the Giants have been speaking with Plaxico Burress about a reunion, which is confusing in light of what Burress had to say about Tom Coughlin after his release from prison last month. Giants fans tend to trust their team's front office, but if there's a sound plan here, it has yet to reveal itself. The Giants did make a feel-good move in the morning, signing undrafted rookie and cancer survivor Mark Herzlich, who could be part of the solution at linebacker if he can return to the form that made him one of the best defensive players in college football in 2008. Jay Glazer of FoxSports.com reported on Twitter that potential linebacker target Paul Posluszny would sign with the Jaguars, but I still expect the Giants to find another linebacker in free agency. Herzlich has big upside but is no sure thing.
"Unsatisfying." We woke with the idea that the long-expected Kevin Kolb trade could happen as soon as the clock struck 10 am. It did not happen, and in fact the market for Kolb took a hit with the news that the Broncos were trying to trade Kyle Orton (thereby providing the Cardinals with another option) and that the Seahawks were going to sign Tarvaris Jackson (depriving the Eagles of the most viable other trade partner with which they could leverage Arizona). Kolb to Arizona still seems the most likely outcome here, but the longer it goes without the Eagles getting what they need to get in return, the more likely it is that he ends up staying in Philadelphia. Michael Vick hinted that DeSean Jackson could hold out of training camp due to dissatisfaction with his contract situation, which portends trouble on that front. The Philadelphia Inquirer also reported that the Eagles were planning to let go of all of their own free agents, including linebacker Stewart Bradley and backup running back Jerome Harrison -- news that led some (including me) to speculate that they were clearing the financial decks for a big signing such as Nnamdi Asomugha. One of those free agents, safety Quintin Mikell, agreed to a deal with the Rams, according to a report by Schefter. And the team announced the signing of undrafted running back Noel Devine of West Virginia, who could perhaps compete with Dion Lewis for that backup running back spot. Fair amount of business conducted, but none of the big moves we've been expecting from the Eagles ... yet.
"Encouraging." There were reports of discussions of a trade of Donovan McNabb to Minnesota, which was a mild surprise. If they can get anything -- even a fifth-round pick -- for McNabb, they'll have to call that a win. Schefter reported that Santana Moss had agreed to return on a three-year, $15 million deal, which is a move each side wanted to make sure happened and will help the Redskins' inexperienced quarterback and receivers. I don't think that move takes them out of the running for Santonio Holmes, but The Star-Ledger reported that the Jets are moving to re-sign Holmes, as was expected. So he remains a long shot, and potential offensive line target Marshal Yanda re-upped with the Ravens, taking him out of Washington's plans. But the re-signing of Moss and the serious McNabb talks have to count as a good first day for a team with a lot to do.
How was my day, you ask? Busy, but lots of fun. Looking forward to another busy/fun one tomorrow. Love that we have actual news to write about, at long last. And I hope you enjoyed your day here on the NFC East blog. Talk to you again in the morning.
ESPNDallas.com reports that the Cowboys have informed running back Marion Barber, guard Leonard Davis and receiver Roy Williams that they will be cut. After a phone conversation I just had with the one and only Calvin Watkins, I believe the total savings toward the 2011 salary cap represented by those three moves comes out to $15.7 millon -- $6 million for Davis, $5 million for Williams and $4.7 million for Barber.
None of the cuts qualifies as a huge surprise, though there was some thought that Williams might represent too big a cap hit. But as Calvin reported Monday, designating Williams as a June 1 cut makes him a $5 million savings this year instead of a $12.9 million hit as we had previously thought. The question, of course, is who replaces Williams, who's been the object of scorn in Dallas because he's underperformed so drastically after they gave up so much to get him? Regardless of his performance, he did appear to be a pretty good No. 3 receiver behind Miles Austin and Dez Bryant, and they may have to fill that spot in free agency now.
Barber appeared to be a goner once the Cowboys drafted running back DeMarco Murray in April. Murray will take Barber's place in the running back rotation with Felix Jones and Tashard Choice. And if they're not prepared to start Montrae Holland, they will need a guard to replace Davis. They still need to re-sign left guard Kyle Kosier as well.
We're hearing conflicting reports on Marc Colombo, who'd be a $2.4 million savings, so stay tuned on that. And the Cowboys also cut veteran kicker Kris Brown, whose only projected function was to put training-camp pressure on David Buehler.
The Cowboys had been projected to be about $17 million over the cap, so this brings them close to the number. Still some work to be done (most likely in the form of restructuring deals) to make room for them to sign the free-agent safeties and defensive linemen they need. But they're clearly working on it.
Dallas also announced that its preseason game against the Chargers, which had been scheduled for Saturday, Aug. 20, will instead be played Sunday, Aug. 21 at 8 p.m. ET.
Willow from Southside is, like a lot of Cowboys fans, worried about this cap number we're hearing and wondering who the Cowboys might cut in order to get under the cap.
Dan Graziano: Yes, Willow. They are going to have to make some cuts, and it'll be interesting to see who they drop. Marion Barber looks like a sure thing to be cut, and I'd imagine they're dropping Leonard Davis and some others. Terrence Newman may not be safe. Roy Williams' cap number could keep them from cutting him. Bradie James would be a cut that could save them money but might hurt the 2011 team too much.
Will Kelland from New York City wondered why Osi Umenyiora isn't getting the same amount of attention Vincent Jackson and Logan Mankins are getting today as a disgruntled plaintiff in the Brady antitrust case.
DG: Based on what's come out today, it sounds as if Osi isn't making the same kind of demands as those guys are. Plus, he wasn't franchised, as they were. So, different scenarios.
John from Philly wondered where Nnamdi Asomugha gets off asking for $18 million a year. Seems John doesn't think he's worth that or will get it.
DG: Well, Revis is making $16.25/year in the first two years of his deal, and I'm sure Nnamdi, being a free agent, is looking for more. I don't think he's better than Revis, but he is a free agent and that's how these things work. He's right to be starting in that ballpark, and I wouldn't be shocked if he gets it. Remember, the new rules will require teams to spend at least a certain percentage of the cap.
Brendan from DC, mindful of Dan Snyder's reckless free-agent history, says he'd rather see the Redskins sit out free agency and continue to build through the draft. Wants them to "do nothing" once the league year opens.
DG: They have too many holes to do nothing. And the new rules will require a certain level of spending. So I think you need to trust Shanahan and Allen to spend wisely and Snyder to stay out of it until we see that it doesn't work.
Lots more in the link, so go read it. You won't be disappointed. I promise. We do it every Tuesday at noon ET and would love to see you there.
NFC East teams in need
Giants: Yeah, we've gone round and round on this topic. And if everyone's healthy, the Giants are fine at guard with Chris Snee and Rich Seubert. But if center Shaun O'Hara falters, Seubert moves in there and they could stand to add some depth. They've discussed moving left tackle David Diehl back inside, which could answer some of these concerns.
Redskins: They like the progress Kory Lichtensteiger showed on the left side last year, but if they're not convinced Will Montgomery and/or Artis Hicks can handle the right guard spot, Washington could be looking for a more established starter there.
Top five potential unrestricted free-agent guards
1. Harvey Dahl. Most likely to stay in Atlanta, but he's a fearsome run blocker who would help in Dallas if they decided to commit to the run. Also a natural guard who could help the Redskins move Montgomery to center if Casey Rabach falters and they need to do that. The Falcons also have another solid guard, Justin Blalock, who would be unrestricted under the proposed new rules, so they may have to make a choice.
2. Davin Joseph. Loaded with talent and potential, but he's had some injury issues (including last season's broken foot) that could lead the Buccaneers to part ways with him and give other teams pause before signing him.
3. Daryn Colledge. He's got a Super Bowl ring, which will catch teams' attention if the Packers decide they have enough depth to let him go.
4. Kosier. Getting up there in years, but he's an important player for the Cowboys to re-sign because they like the way he worked with rising star Doug Free on the left side and would rather not break up that pairing.
5. Marshal Yanda. He played right tackle for most of 2010 in Baltimore in place of the injured Jared Gaither, but he's got experience at guard too. That kind of versatility -- the ability to play any spot along the line at a starter's level -- should have widespread appeal. He'd be a perfect guy for the Giants if they're looking to add reliable depth but don't feel they have a specific spot that needs filling.
Predictions that mean nothing: Cowboys re-sign Kosier but let go of Davis and pursue another free-agent option, such as Joseph. Redskins sign Yanda to play either right guard or right tackle. Giants do nothing.
Zack from NYC thinks not enough attention is being paid to the Redskins' youth movement: "Instead of Portis/Slow Willie/Larry Johnson we are going in with Helu/Torain/Royster/K Williams. On the WR side we replaced 55 year old Joey Galloway with a potential stud in rookie Hankerson. Kerrigan substiutes in for 30+ yr old Andre Carter. Not to mention adding OJ Atogwe to the back line. Am I delusional to start to feel good about the redskins for the first time in years?"
Dan Graziano: You're not 'delusional,' per se, and your assessment of the greening of the Redskins' roster is right on. But you have to remember that they're in the middle (actually, the early stages) of a rebuilding project there. And with their quarterback situation such a mess, it's hard to project real success for the Redskins in 2011.
Kujonicus, playing off Monday's highly charged Giants offensive line debate, asked which position on the Giants' O-line I'd pick to upgrade, if I had to choose one:
DG: I think Diehl is the guy who's slowed down the most, relative to what he was, and I think LT is where they'll need to upgrade the soonest. It's possible they think Will Beatty can do it, but I'm not sure he's shown that yet.
John from Tokyo and Craig from Boise asked similar questions about the Cowboys' plans for the interior offensive line positions. John was upset that they passed on Ben Ijalana in the draft, and Craig wanted to know if they had a plan for a replacement if they end up releasing Leonard Davis.
DG: The feeling seems to be that the Cowboys will bring back Kyle Kosier, possibly unload Davis and move Montrae Holland into a starting guard role. There is a lot of talent on the free-agent guard market, especially if the UFA rules go back to the way they used to be. But I'd be surprised if that's a place where Dallas allocated major resources. They might kick the tires, but the FA guards are going to be pricey, and the Cowboys have money to spend at safety and cornerback still.
Corey from D.C. asked if I "think the Eagles will be more patient this season on offense, at least early in the season, by using McCoy more both running and on screens, moving the chains more efficiently via small-ball, which in turn will not only drive defenses crazy but also (and much more importantly) preserve Vick's health as much as possible?"
DG: No, Corey. I do not. I think they live for the big play in Philly. I think they know they have the kinds of players who can consistently deliver the big play. And I think they'll lean heavily on Vick, Jackson, Maclin and McCoy to make as many of those big plays as possible.
And our old friend st8prop from Atlanta asked: "Which losing streak do you see ending this upcoming season? Giants' 6 game losing streak against the Eagles or Redskins' 6 game losing streak against the Giants?"
DG: I think the Giants are more likely to beat the Eagles than the Redskins are to beat the Giants, because I believe the Giants will be a good team and the Redskins will not.
But that's just tip-of-iceberg stuff, folks. You really need to hit that link and go read back the chat transcript for the full experience. We even took fantasy questions, and I'm not just talking about the guy who asked if the Redskins could get David Garrard for Albert Haynesworth!
Arrow indicates direction team is trending.
Final Power Ranking: 18
Preseason Power Ranking: 4
Biggest disappointment: The season was such a disaster that it's hard to pinpoint one player, but for clarity sake, let's go with cornerback Mike Jenkins. He appeared to be on the verge of stardom following a breakout season in 2009, but he was burned repeatedly in 2010 and then he shied away from contact on a Green Bay touchdown in a 45-7 loss on national TV. Jenkins was expected to become one of the Cowboys' best players on defense, but he had an awful season and probably deserved to be benched at one point.
Biggest need: The Cowboys need to overhaul the offensive line. Marc Colombo was exposed at right tackle by quick defensive ends and right guard Leonard Davis is no longer a dominant player. Left tackle Doug Free is the only offensive lineman who had a solid season. You could see the Cowboys attempting to change out as many as three spots along the line. Dallas needs to bring in talent via the draft or free agency. The Cowboys also need help at safety. There's no reason for Alan Ball to start in 2011 based on how he performed. And it's time to start figuring out who will replace Terence Newman at cornerback. Orlando Scandrick actually had a decent season, but I'm not sure he's ready to take over for Newman full-time.
Team MVP: Jason Witten. Once Tony Romo suffered a season-ending shoulder injury, tight end Witten stepped up his game and became a big-time weapon for Jon Kitna. DeMarcus Ware had a lot of sacks, but he disappeared in too many games. I think Witten was a huge part of the Cowboys finishing the second half of the season 5-3.
Worst moment: You have to go all the way back to the last play of the first half against the Washington Redskins in Week 1. The Cowboys simply needed to kneel and head to the locker room, but Garrett called a short passing play that fans will never forget. Tashard Choice caught the pass, but he fumbled while fighting for extra yardage. DeAngelo Hall raced the other direction to score a touchdown. On a night when Donovan McNabb and the Skins' offense couldn't do much, it was exactly what the Redskins needed.
Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 17:
Are the New York Giants playing for Tom Coughlin's job Sunday against the Washington Redskins? If the Giants somehow lose this game at FedEx, there will be immense pressure on co-owners John Mara and Steve Tisch to fire Coughlin. And even a win doesn't guarantee Coughlin will return. The Giants dominated the Redskins at the line of scrimmage in their last meeting and Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw both had big days running the ball. The Skins have shown a lot more pride on defense in recent weeks, though, so I don't expect another blowout. Coughlin has asked his players to show more intensity early in this game. He was embarrassed by how his team was physically whipped by Green Bay last Sunday. If that happens against the Redskins, we could be reporting about a coaching search next week.
Could this be Kevin Kolb's last start with the Eagles? We all thought Kolb was the heir apparent to Donovan McNabb, but that was before Michael Vick began his MVP campaign. Kolb will have an opportunity to put some more work on film for the teams that are desperate for quarterback help. I think Andy Reid and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg will keep things pretty vanilla with this game plan against the Cowboys, but Kolb will still take a couple of shots downfield against Dallas' cornerbacks. If the Eagles can get a first-round pick for Kolb, they'd have to think about moving him. And if you're the Cardinals or the Vikings, I think Kolb might be a better option than some of the rookies in this draft. And it's not like he'd break the bank since he's already earned the bulk of his money from the Eagles.
I'll be watching the interior of the Cowboys' offensive line Sunday. There are several players -- Kyle Kosier, Leonard Davis, Marc Colombo -- who could be replaced up front this offseason. If the Eagles let defensive tackle Antonio Dixon play for at least the first half, he'll pose a great test for Kosier and center Andre Gurode. Dixon took over as the starter in Week 5 and Brodrick Bunkley's not been able to regain his spot. The Cowboys' interior linemen have had trouble moving their feet and creating any push in the running game this season. Dixon's tough to move and I could see him being a difficult matchup for Kosier.
This is an important game for Mike Shanahan because of the evaluation process. Shanahan loves the fact that New York is still fighting for a playoff spot. He wanted the chance to have one last true evaluation of quarterback Rex Grossman heading into the offseason. Giants coordinator Perry Fewell will bring pressure from a lot of different areas, so Shanahan will see how Grossman responds. It's hard to imagine the Skins heading into 2011 with Grossman as the starter, but for now, that's still a possibility. I also think this game will give the Redskins a chance to see how young players such as outside linebacker Rob Jackson and safety Kevin Barnes build on last week's game against the Jaguars. Starting outside linebacker Brian Orakpo will likely return to the lineup, but Jackson will receive plenty of reps. Barnes made a big play against the Jaguars in overtime, but Shanahan wants to see him improve in other areas. He has to do a better job of tackling in the open field.
Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 11.
The Giants will try to stop the hottest quarterback in the NFL. As New York Giants defensive end Justin Tuck told SI.com on Thursday, there's no easy answer for slowing down Michael Vick. But you can't do what the Redskins did against Vick, which was stay back and let him survey the field without a pass rush. I'm still shocked that Jim Haslett decided to take that approach. Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell is excited about his game plan, which will probably bring pressure from all over the field. Don't be surprised to see Deon Grant and Antrel Rolle coming on some safety blitzes. The Giants want to force the issue early in this game. But there's a good chance Vick will burn them if they get too aggressive.
Will Albert Haynesworth stay on his feet against his old team? Haynesworth is in the news again for remaining on the ground during one play in Monday's embarrassing loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. But he's returning home to see a lot of former teammates and friends in the Nashville area. I think Haynesworth will have an excellent game, which might serve as a further indictment for how he played against Vick and the Eagles. Titans coach Jeff Fisher has great respect for Haynesworth as a player, so the Titans are going to scheme for him this week. The Skins have to be disciplined Sunday because the Titans have been known to play past the whistle. If the Skins lose their cool early, it could be a long afternoon. Tennessee players are not opposed to paying a few fines.
The Giants' offensive line could be a mess against the Eagles. The good news for Giants fans is that coach Tom Coughlin said Friday that left tackle Shawn Andrews had made some progress with a back issue that has kept him out of practice for three consecutive days. If Andrews can't go, Will Beatty would have to step in to play left tackle next to either Mitch Petrus or Kevin Boothe at left guard. The Eagles love to play games at the line of scrimmage, so the Giants will have to communicate at all times up front. This could be a nightmare game for Eli Manning if Eagles defensive coordinator Sean McDermott blitzes as much as I think he will. Then again, Manning has been really good against the blitz this season.
Jon Kitna will continue to throw to his "violent" receiver. Kitna told reporters at Valley Ranch this week that Dez Bryant brings a violence to his game that he's not really used to seeing in receivers. He's obviously become Kitna's favorite target, in part because he doesn't have to be wide open to haul in passes. Here's that quote from Kitna per ESPNDallas.com's Tim MacMahon: "It’s almost as if people around him are irrelevant,” Kitna said. "His goal is to get to the goal line and if you just happen to be in the way, you’re in the way. He’s kind of like Adrian Peterson out there."
Now there's a pretty nice compliment for a wide receiver. I think the Cowboys will pick on Lions cornerback Alphonso Smith in this game. He's simply not big enough to compete for balls with Bryant and Miles Austin. And maybe Roy Williams will do something special against his former team.
- I made the trip out to Valley Ranch Monday to make sure owner Jerry Jones didn't have a change of heart about firing his head coach. Jones has painted himself into a corner by saying he won't fire Wade Phillips during the season and he's not a man who often admits mistakes in public forums. But to hear how helpless Phillips sounded following Sunday's 35-17 loss, you wondered if Jones might be forced to make a move. Well, nothing has happened yet. Perhaps he is waiting for the Texas Rangers to finish up the World Series before making an announcement. But it's more likely that he'll allow this sham of a season to continue.
- Phillips still has the players' support, but then, what else are they supposed to say? I understand why they like the guy. He's intensely loyal to them and rarely, if ever, calls any of them out in public. We'd all like to report to a Wade-like boss, but that's not an option for most of us. I turned to Phillips' biggest defender, Keith Brooking, on Monday to see what was on his mind. He was playing for the Falcons when Phillips took over as the interim coach during the season, so he has an interesting vantage point on this issue. Here's just a portion of what Brooking said during his time with the media today:
"Everyone’s searching for answers," said Brooking before a throng of cameras rushed over to his locker. "What is going on? It’s very simple. This game is very simple. It’s not complex. As players, we are not going out there and executing the play that’s called. Bottom line. That’s it.
"Wherever [Phillips] has been, he’s been successful. I’ve had a lot of success under Wade Phillips as a defensive coordinator with different personnel, different players, different teams obviously. You think overnight his defense is not going to hold up and be successful? No, it’s on us to go out there and execute and make plays.
"There is a lack of execution on our part, and it’s a different guy on every play. I take the responsibility for that, because I’m a leader on this team. I’m a captain for the defense, and it’s unacceptable. It hurts like hell. The only thing I know to do is keep fighting, keep pressing."
- I also had a chat with right guard Leonard Davis about his head coach's status. Asked if a midseason coaching change would "hurt" this team, David said, "It probably would. Guys are used to playing with this one voice. [If you make the change], maybe some guys could go in the tank." Davis has a unique perspective because he played for some bad teams during his stay with the Cardinals. He remembers a lot of speculation about his head coaches, but he never had one fired during the season. Like the other players I spoke to, Davis voiced his support for Phillips. But you can almost tell that they realize there's no way Phillips can survive this awful season.
- Martellus Bennett walked in wearing a "I [heart] Haters" T-shirt before lounging on a leather couch in the middle of the locker room. He didn't have anything to offer regarding Phillips, but he's "baffled" by his lack of playing time. Bennett, who performed well early in the season, said he was only on the field for about "10 snaps" Sunday. He said he hasn't yet asked for an explanation from offensive coordiantor Jason Garrett.
- Mike Shanahan has brought controversy on himself and his team with Sunday's stunning decision. No matter how he's played, Donovan McNabb has won the respect of his teammates. You can hear it in the way they talk about him. They really believed that he was their leader. Now, Shanahan has given them something else to ponder. Here's what McNabb said about his benching Sunday: "When you get benched, you get benched," McNabb said. "Just have to learn from it and move on. I continue to focus as if I'm the starter," he added. "He said I'm still the starter."
- McNabb eventually forgave Andy Reid for benching him in 2008 because they had so much history. That's not the case with Shanahan, as I wrote about earlier Monday. This is a sign that Shanahan & Son have been doubting McNabb as a leader for a good while. If you have faith in the guy, you certainly don't undermine him at such a critical juncture.
- Brandon Banks is an enormous talent. I thought the rookie from Kansas State was a novelty item, but he showed Sunday in Detroit that he can be a huge weapon in the return game. With the offense struggling, you have to find ways to get this guy more touches. I'm not saying you make him a starting wide receiver like Devin Hester in Chicago. But come up with some gimmick plays to get this man the ball. What a remarkable talent. That's about the only positive thing I can say about Sunday's outcome.