NFC East: Matthew Stafford

IRVING, Texas -- When Scott Linehan walks out on to the practice fields at the Dallas Cowboys' Valley Ranch facility, he can still remember what it was like in 1987.

Part of what was then a state-of-the-art workout area remains today. The camera booths at either end of the field are still in place, too. There are more neighborhood houses in the background, but the feel remains.

[+] EnlargeScott Linehan
Tim Sharp/AP PhotoNew to the team himself, passing coordinator Scott Linehan assists the Cowboys' rookies during minicamp on Friday, May 16.
Linehan was an undrafted free agent out of Idaho in 1987. He was among the cast of thousands Tex Schramm and Gil Brandt brought in for a look. A shoulder injury, however, kept him from showing what he could do. The Cowboys flew him out to Thousand Oaks, California, for training camp and while he did put on a helmet he was cut before he could put on pads.

Twenty-seven years later, Linehan is now the Cowboys' passing game coordinator. He will not put on pads when the Cowboys go to California -- this time to Oxnard, not Thousand Oaks, but his importance to the success of the Cowboys in 2014 cannot be understated.

"Kind of nostalgic for me to be out here for this one," Linehan said after the first day of last week's rookie minicamp.

Unlike last year's playcaller, Bill Callahan, Linehan will have a free hand in running the offense. Callahan called plays for Jason Garrett's offense and the coach was involved in the playcalling process down the stretch last season, relaying the plays to the quarterback in the huddle.

Linehan will have no middle man. This is his offense. Most of the verbiage will remain the same, since he and Garrett ran similar systems, but there will be changes.

"It would be a disservice to not continue a lot of the great things that Jason and Bill and the guys have implemented here in the past few years," Linehan said. "Then as the timing fits for us ... we get through our OTAs to start to mesh some of the things that make sense."

Not surprisingly, Linehan did not agree with the assertion that the Cowboys have too many voices on offense with Garrett, Callahan and even quarterback Tony Romo, whose involvement in devising game plans will continue in 2014.

"That kind of expertise in one room?" Linehan said. "To have a staff with the qualifications I feel we have is truly a strength."

In 2005, Garrett's first coaching job came under Linehan with the Miami Dolphins. They remained tight over the years and their friendship played a big part in why Linehan came to the Cowboys.

Garrett said they share similar convictions in attacking defenses with the running game and passing game, getting the ball to their playmakers and playing to the players' strengths.

Linehan once directed one of the NFL's best running games with the Minnesota Vikings when Randy Moss was at the top of his game. Steven Jackson had a 1,500-yard season with the St. Louis Rams when Linehan was head coach.

But his most recent five-year run with the Detroit Lions has many convinced Linehan is a pass-happy coordinator, even moreso than Garrett. From 2011-13, Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, threw for 14,655 yards and 90 touchdowns with 52 interceptions and Calvin Johnson caught 302 passes for 5,137 yards and 33 touchdowns.

Before 2013, the Lions did not have a running game rank better than 23rd. With the addition of Reggie Bush, Detroit had the 17th-ranked rushing offense.

"Between our first and second back we had almost 1,700 yards rushing," Linehan said. "That was as good as they have done in 10 years. You just lean to your personnel."

The Cowboys will still lean to the pass with Romo, Dez Bryant and Jason Witten. But DeMarco Murray is coming off a 1,100-yard season and Zack Martin became the third offensive linemen to be picked in the first round by the Cowboys in the last four years two weeks ago.

"You start with running it effectively," Linehan said. "You achieve balance in the NFL by playing good football throughout three quarters, gaining that lead and then you've got a lead going into the fourth quarter. The teams that run the ball the best, that run the ball balanced, generally are getting a lot of their damage done in that late third, early fourth quarter. You get behind the score then you say you want to do (run the ball). You don't want to abandon it, but you're going to lean toward throwing the ball a little more. So that's to me, I think, the thing with the offensive line, that's a no-brainer. This is a great young front. Added a great piece to it. It was already an offensive line that was really meshing and playing well. We don't have to have this certain look to run the ball. We feel like we can line up and say hey, if they're going to drop guys into the box, we still feel like we've got the guys that can get it done. And then that helps everything. That opens everything on the outside of the field."

Rebuilding RG III's game

May, 1, 2014
Robert Griffin IIIHunter Martin/Getty ImagesRobert Griffin III believes offseason work on his mechanics will translate to the field this fall.
ASHBURN, Va. -- The changes should result, they hope, in improved mechanics and consistent throws and more success from the pocket. The science involved can explain how one aspect ties to another, helping Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III return to his pre-injury form.

There is also this: Griffin just feels better with the changes. For all the impact the alterations in his mechanics have physically, they are also about fixing the mental game. If Griffin feels better about his base, for example, it will result in a more relaxed passer -- and better throws. Just like a batter in baseball likes the subtleties of his stance. Certain parts must be the same through the ball, but the entire goal is to feel comfortable at the plate. The same is true in the pocket.

And it’s clear: Griffin feels more comfortable throwing the way he is now.

“Just fixing those little things so I can get back to playing the game and the brand of football I know how to play,” he said.

Griffin’s time to prove that he’s back to what he was -- and what everyone thought he would be -- will be this summer and fall. But now is the time to perfect areas he could not last offseason. That is why he spent six days working in Arizona with quarterback coach Terry Shea, with whom he worked before the 2012 draft. They narrowed his base. They altered how he stepped with his front foot.

Though Griffin said his play last season wasn’t as bad as he thought, he also saw the need to improve.

“It showed me what I have to do in my game to play an effective way,” he said. “Base. Quick release. Where I hold the ball. All those things I was able to work on with coach Shea. It was getting back to a lot of things I was doing before, to fix up some of the technique that I was being coached before.”

Here’s what Shea worked on with Griffin:

Start from the waist down

When Griffin was at Baylor, his base was typically more narrow and his weight transfer was stronger. His transfer was fine as a rookie, but this past season it was not. So Shea worked every morning with Griffin for 40 minutes, focusing in part on the lower body.

They worked on the angle of his plant foot. They worked on setting harder on his back foot, allowing him to drive through his throws. For whatever reason in 2013 -- his right knee of course being tops on the list -- Griffin did not do this.

“I didn’t believe he was planting that back foot in a position where he could transfer over the front and use his lower body,” Shea said. “We worked on making sure he was transferring through on his throws.”

Shea said this wasn’t an issue in the games he watched Griffin play as a rookie.

“It seemed like the second year when he missed, a lot of his passes were high and that’s a product of not coming down over the top well enough,” Shea said, “He really addressed that during our six days. He was back on track.”

Griffin wants to feel comfortable with how he plays. Reducing his base to shoulder width helps. For Shea it’s about comfort, yes, but also about accuracy. And when Griffin’s left foot is pointed where he wants to throw, he’s more accurate.

Griffin has a knack for being able to fling a pass in the pocket, useful in situations where he can’t get his feet turned towards the target. But there were too many times when Griffin failed to get his feet around in situations he could have done so, something Shea witnessed as well. They worked on making sure Griffin was aligned to the target, with his front foot and shoulder.

“[Last season] Robert was just not working his base quick enough,” Shea said. “Consequently he got into some back-foot throwing. Sometimes quarterbacks end up throwing all with their arm, and most of the time it’s inaccurate. It has to become second nature, but you have to drill it every day.”

Ball positioning

Griffin dismissed the idea that reading defenses was a problem. Or something that caused a slower release at times.

“It wasn’t an issue at all,” he said. “I know from rookie year to last year, ‘He’s not reading defenses. Defenses are doing different things.’ Defenses played us the same way last year. It wasn’t a lack of reading defenses. I read defenses my rookie year, I read defenses last year and I’m going to read defenses this year, too.”

Rather, he said his offseason focus was on where he held the ball. Shea wants him holding the ball at the numbers or letters. When it slips lower, as it would last season, it caused him to take a split second longer to throw -- he’d have to bring it back up, then back as opposed to just bringing it back.

Shea said he would have Griffin throw to stationary targets every morning, only focusing on arm speed and not accuracy. Then he would have Griffin cross over a line with his feet, waiting for Shea to shout, ‘Ball!’ before throwing.

“The game is so fast that arm speed better be there,” Shea said. “It starts with where he loads the ball up.”

Griffin needs more throws like one he made in 2012 against Philadelphia. He faked a bubble screen to Brandon Banks, then quickly flipped his feet around and hit Leonard Hankerson downfield for 21 yards. He couldn’t step into the throw as much because of pocket congestion. But he had a quick release -- the ball was up -- and it was accurate because of his feet.

“Of all the quarterbacks I ever worked with, Robert is one of the top two in terms of arm speed,” Shea said. “The other one was Matthew Stafford. That’s what makes the real special NFL quarterbacks.

“Robert is great to work with because I can give him one thing in an adjustment and it takes him one or two reps to get him corrected. He’s very good with translating the information.”

Griffin still needs to work on perfecting his fundamentals. But if nothing else he’s regained a comfort level he did not feel in 2013. But the tough part comes in the fall: making sure the offseason work translates into in-season success.
IRVING, Texas – From 2009-13, Scott Linehan was the offensive coordinator for the Detroit Lions and helped quarterback Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson put up some staggering numbers.

Linehan was hired this week as the Dallas Cowboys’ passing game coordinator and will call the plays in 2014. With the Cowboys, he will get to work with Tony Romo, Jason Witten, Dez Bryant and DeMarco Murray.

ESPN Cowboys reporter Todd Archer asked ESPN Lions reporter Michael Rothstein for a little insight on Linehan.

Todd Archer: What type of playcaller are the Cowboys getting in Linehan?

Michael Rothstein: Linehan has some creativity to what he is able to do. He was really able to get both Reggie Bush and Joique Bell in open spaces using a variety of screens and dumpoffs throughout the season. Evidence of this is a middle screen the Lions scored on multiple times last season. He was criticized most often for either going empty or throwing in third-and-short situations despite having Reggie Bush and Joique Bell at his disposal. Sometimes the routes he devised with some of his playcalls led to receivers being too bunched up at points. But he has the ability to really draw up some good plays and he has experience with a quarterback-receiver combination like Tony Romo and Dez Bryant in Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson.

Archer: Cowboys fans have screamed at Garrett for not running the ball enough and now he has a guy who ran it less in Linehan. Did he not run the ball much because of who he had before Reggie Bush showed up?

Rothstein: I wasn't around before Bush, either, but he often said having Bush legitimized and gave credibility to their running game. There is truth to that, because Bush had a 1,000-yard season -- the first for a Detroit running back since 2004. If I had to guess, you'll still see an offense predicated on passing since the Romo-to-Bryant combination is a strong one, but as long as Linehan believes he has the line and running backs to be successful, he'll run it. But he'll definitely be a passing guy first.

Archer: How would you describe his relationship with Matthew Stafford? Obviously Tony Romo will have a lot of say here and I’m curious how he and Stafford worked.

Rothstein: Stafford really liked him and appeared to be disappointed in Linehan's firing when it happened last month. One of the bigger criticisms of the Jim Schwartz and Linehan tenure was that they were not critical enough with Stafford and didn't push him enough. Of course, he was a younger quarterback where Romo is a veteran, so he might not need that. I'd say Romo will be in a position where he will definitely have a lot of say and there will be an absolute comfort level needed there. My guess is the relationship will be similar for Linehan and Romo in Dallas.
IRVING, Texas -- With sources saying Scott Linehan will take over as the Dallas Cowboys' playcaller, his track record suggests the offense will be Tony Romo friendly.

[+] EnlargeScott Linehan
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesScott Linehan has been the Lions' offensive coordinator for the past five years, but can he get the Dallas run game going?
For the past five years Linehan was the Detroit Lions offensive coordinator. In the last three seasons, Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford has thrown for 14,655 yards and 90 touchdowns with 52 interceptions.

From 2011-13, Calvin Johnson caught 302 passes for 5,137 yards and 33 touchdowns. So that would appear to be good news for Dez Bryant.

But what about the running game?

Linehan has been an offensive coordinator/head coach from 2002-2013, except for the final 12 games of the 2008 season when he was fired as head coach of the St. Louis Rams.

Using the 11 seasons as a backdrop, Linehan has had a top-10 ranked rush offense just twice and those were in his first two years with the Minnesota Vikings in 2002 and 2003. A Linehan-led running game has not finished better than 12th in the NFL since. With the Lions he had running games ranked Nos. 24, 23, 29, 23 and 17.

The Cowboys have been at their best offensively when DeMarco Murray has been involved.

Linehan is not averse to the run.

In 2002, Michael Bennett ran for 1,296 yards for the Vikings. A year later Minnesota had four different players with at least 400 yards rushing. In 2005 with the Miami Dolphins, where he worked with Jason Garrett for the first time, Ronnie Brown ran for 907 yards and Ricky Williams had 743 yards.

In his first year with the Rams, Steven Jackson, the runner so many Cowboys fans wanted them to take in 2004, ran for 1,528 yards. He had 1,002 yards in 2007.

With the Lions, he had to make due with Kevin Smith, Jahvid Best, whose career was cut short by injuries and Mikel Leshoure. Last season, Reggie Bush ran for 1,006 yards. Joique Bell ran for 650 yards.

In Murray, Linehan will inherit a back coming off the best year of his career and an offensive line that finished the year on a high note.

It's up to him to use the running game.

The way things have gone for the Philadelphia Eagles this season, you half expected to hear that Drew Brees fell down an elevator shaft or was hit by some space junk. But no, the New Orleans Saints' superb quarterback will not go the way of Aaron Rodgers, Adrian Peterson and Tony Romo the week before their teams played the Eagles.

Of course, that doesn't mean anyone knows which Brees will show up for the first-round playoff game Saturday night at Lincoln Financial Field. Will it be the Brees with the 8-0 record at home, or the Brees who has gone 3-5 on the road this season?

In search of the answer to this and other questions, reporters Mike Triplett in New Orleans and Phil Sheridan in Philadelphia exchanged insight and info.

Phil Sheridan: Let’s start with the obvious: the disparity between the Saints at home and on the road. Is it mostly Brees? The fast track at the Superdome versus grass fields elsewhere? Exposure to electromagnetic waves in the outdoors? Some combination?

Mike Triplett: Shoot, if I had the answer to that question, I’d probably be interviewing for some of these head-coaching vacancies around the league. It really is a mystery. Of course, the most obvious answer is that it’s harder for all teams to play on the road -- especially when weather conditions become a factor. And the Saints have had some road struggles in the past (including an 0-3 playoff record with Sean Payton and Drew Brees). But even in those playoff losses, their offense showed up. We've never seen a season quite like this, where they've had so much trouble scoring points on the road.

Honestly, it’s really come down to the football stuff: Early turnovers that put them in a hole, drive-killing penalties, an inability to stop the run. I expect their offense will still put up plenty of yards and points in this game, but I’m curious to see if they can avoid those costly turnovers -- and if they can find a way to contain LeSean McCoy. Those are the trends they must reverse from their previous road losses.

While we’re dwelling on the negative, what could be the Eagles’ fatal flaw? If something goes wrong for them in this game, what do you think it will be?

Sheridan: The Snowball Effect. While the Eagles' defense has done a remarkable job of keeping points low -- 11 of the past 12 opponents have scored 22 or fewer -- there is a persistent suspicion that the smoke could clear and the mirrors could crack. Matt Cassel hung 48 points on them two weeks ago, the most since Peyton Manning put up 52 in Week 4. Even Sunday night, Kyle Orton was only a couple of slightly better throws away from scoring another touchdown or two. Brees is obviously capable of making those throws. If the Saints can move the ball the way many teams have, plus translate the yards into points, it could force the Eagles to play catch-up. And we haven’t really seen Nick Foles in a shootout-type game yet. Jay Cutler didn't show up two weeks ago when the Bears came to town, and a freak snowfall took Detroit's Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson out of their game.

The stats say Rob Ryan has transformed the Saints' defense from a farce into a force. Does that align with what you see when you watch them? Does Ryan have the scheme and the personnel to be physical with the Eagles' receivers while getting pressure on Foles?

Triplett: That’s absolutely true, Phil. Ryan has been an outstanding fit for this team. I know Philly fans didn't see his best results with the Dallas Cowboys the past two years. But it must have been a perfect storm here, where the Saints' defense had just given up the most yards in NFL history under former coordinator Steve Spagnuolo in 2012. The players were ready for a change -- and Ryan is all about change. He constantly adapts his approach from week to week, building around his players’ strengths and tailoring game plans for certain opponents.

Several young players are having breakout years -- including pass-rushers Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette (12 sacks each this season) and cornerback Keenan Lewis, who is a true No. 1 corner. He’s physical with long arms and plays well in man coverage. I imagine he’ll be matched up a lot against DeSean Jackson.

From what I've read about Chip Kelly, it seems as though he’s a kindred spirit of both Ryan and Sean Payton -- trying to create confusion and mismatches. Is it possible for you to boil down his philosophy to one or two paragraphs?

Sheridan: Force the issue. That’s the underlying principle. It’s behind the no-huddle, up-tempo approach, and it drives many of the unusual things he does with formations and blocking schemes. Kelly wants to spread the field horizontally and vertically, forcing defenses to account for every offensive player and every square foot of grass. He’ll line right tackle Lane Johnson out like a wide receiver, or left tackle Jason Peters at tight end on the right, or DeSean Jackson in the backfield, just to see how the defense responds. If he sees a mismatch, he’ll exploit it until the defense corrects it.

It must be said that Kelly inherited a lot of offensive talent that was pretty darn good under Andy Reid. The line has been outstanding and, just as important, healthy. Jackson, McCoy and the other skill players are exceptional. The X factor has been the way Foles has mastered what Kelly wants to do. There are a lot of quick reads and decisions for the quarterback to make -- whether it’s a zone-read or a package play with run/pass options -- and Foles has translated Kelly’s dry-erase board to the field very well, leading the Eagles to a 7-1 record since they were 3-5 at the midway point.

Payton is a similar creative offensive mind with an NFL pedigree. The first time I met him, he was the Eagles' quarterback coach on Ray Rhodes' late 1990s teams, trying to win with Bobby Hoying and various Detmers. Is he any different or more driven since serving his one-year suspension? Is there a sense the Saints are back where they belong and determined to make a deep run?

Triplett: I think it’s a great comparison. Although the offenses don’t look identical, the philosophies are the same -- create, identify and exploit mismatches. The Saints will actually rotate in a ton of different personnel groupings early in games, as well as mix up their formations, to see how defenses react.

Payton hasn't changed drastically this season. One of the things that stood out to me most early in the season was his patience in games -- how he’d stick with a methodical attack, settling for a lot of check-down passes, etc., to win games against teams such as Chicago and San Francisco. Lately, Payton's been a little stumped in similar-style games on the road, though.

Overall, the idea with him is that he is hyperfocused on every detail that can help this team win. Brees keeps saying Payton’s leaving no stone unturned. It started with switching defensive coordinators on his second day back on the job, then things such as changing the team’s conditioning program, then recently switching out the left tackle and kicker heading into Week 16.

I’ll leave you with a quick question, Phil. Who are the one or two players we haven’t talked about much who could have a big impact on this game? From my end, the answer would probably be those young pass-rushers, Jordan and Galette.

Sheridan: I’m going to go with the Eagles’ key pass-rushers, too -- Fletcher Cox, Trent Cole and Connor Barwin. The Eagles didn't sack Orton at all Sunday night in Dallas. Orton is no Brees, but he does get the ball out quickly. So it might not result in many sacks against the Saints, but the defense has to disrupt Brees' rhythm as much as possible. Cole had eight sacks in the second half of the season. Cox has been outstanding at collapsing the pocket. Barwin is as likely to jam Jimmy Graham at the line of scrimmage as rush the passer.

But somebody from that group -- or maybe it will be Brandon Graham or Vinny Curry -- has to make Brees feel uncomfortable, or it’s going to be a long night for the Eagles. As you pointed out, the Saints have made more mistakes on the road than at home. Forcing some of those mistakes, preferably early, could make the air feel colder and the wind feel sharper.


Rapid Reaction: New York Giants

December, 22, 2013
DETROIT -- A few thoughts on the New York Giants' 23-20 overtime victory over the Detroit Lions on Sunday at Ford Field:

What it means: Anyone wondering whether the Giants have given up on their season or on their coaches has the answer. The Giants are outmanned and overmatched pretty much every week, and Sunday was no exception. But in spite of having their offense choked off after halftime, they pushed the game into overtime, where Josh Brown won it with a 45-yard field goal.

Stoch watch: Will Hill, up. After reportedly being arrested Friday night on charges related to child support, the Giants safety played in and changed Sunday's game. With five minutes left in the fourth quarter, Hill intercepted Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford and ran in from 38 yards for a touchdown. The ensuing extra point tied the game. The Giants were doing absolutely nothing on offense in the second half behind a shredded offensive line, and scoring on defense turned out to be their best option.

Tough Tuck: Defensive end Justin Tuck appeared to injure his neck in the third quarter but remained in the game in spite of being in clear discomfort. It's worth pointing out that Tuck, who is free-agent-eligible at the end of the season, wanted to tough it out in a game like this with the Giants already eliminated from postseason contention. It backs up his team-first talk. Tuck's big second half of the season has helped his chances of returning next year.

What's next: The Giants mercifully close out their season with a 1 p.m. ET home game Sunday against Kirk Cousins and the Washington Redskins at MetLife Stadium. They beat the Redskins 24-17 in Washington in Week 13.

Halftime thoughts: Go figure this

December, 22, 2013
DETROIT -- They lost their top wide receiver to injury last week and are down to fourth-stringers on the offensive line. So of course, the New York Giants look as good as they've looked on offense at any point so far this year. They're showing good run/pass balance, using the run game and moving quarterback Eli Manning around to keep him away from pressure. They're moving the ball, they're 5-for-8 on third downs, they haven't turned it over and they didn't give up a sack until there were 27 seconds left in the half. They hold a 13-3 lead over the Lions at halftime.

Doesn't seem to make a lot of sense, considering they have been one of the worst offenses in the league and are playing this game severely shorthanded. When the inactives were announced 90 minutes prior to kickoff, right guard David Diehl was on the list. He was replaced in the starting lineup by untested 2012 fourth-round pick Brandon Mosley, who lasted only one series before breaking his hand and being replaced by Dallas Reynolds. So that's the third different starter they've had at right guard since Chris Snee's season-ending injury.

But somehow, the protection is holding up. Cruz's replacement, Jerrel Jernigan, is playing tough downfield against a depleted Detroit secondary and Manning is getting just enough time to find him and Hakeem Nicks. The Lions have turned the ball over twice on a Reggie Bush fumble and a Matthew Stafford interception. The Giants cashed in the first of those with a Manning-to-Jernigan touchdown pass, and cashed in the second with a 52-yard Josh Brown field goal.

The Lions obviously have a lot of problems right now. After a brutal home loss to the Ravens on "Monday Night Football," they have spent the first half of this game shooting themselves in the foot. They have squandered an opportunity to win the NFC North with division-rival quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler having missed significant time due to injuries. And while the Lions desperately need this game (and help) to keep their postseason hopes alive, New York is the team that looks as though it's playing for something. Detroit also is missing starting cornerbacks Rashean Mathis and Chris Houston and saw backup cornerback Bill Bentley and starting safety Louis Delmas head to the locker room with head and elbow injuries, respectively, that leave them questionable to return. So there's reason to believe the Giants can keep the offense coming in the second half if they can keep protecting Manning with their banged-up line. Detroit is also missing many of the playmakers who could generate turnovers in the secondary, so there remains a chance that the Giants could go turnover-free for the first time this season.
Justin Tuck and Matthew StaffordGetty ImagesJustin Tuck, left, and the Giants will be trying to end the playoff hopes of Matthew Stafford's Lions.
It is a battle of disappointments on Sunday at Ford Field: the New York Giants, who have been disappointing all season, against the Detroit Lions, who have been one of the more surprising teams over the second half of the season -- in a bad way.

The Giants have no playoff hopes. The Lions need to win their final two games and then hope for help (i.e., losses) from Green Bay and Chicago.

Taking you through Sunday’s matchup are NFL reporters Michael Rothstein (Lions) and Dan Graziano (Giants).

Rothstein: The Giants have struggled all season, and Eli Manning has been at the forefront of that. What has changed there?

Graziano: It's basically just a complete bottoming-out on all fronts, starting with the protection. A line that wasn't great to begin with is down two starters and has been playing a rookie at right tackle all season. The blocking help the line used to get from running backs and tight ends disappeared when the Giants let Ahmad Bradshaw and Martellus Bennett leave in the offseason. Hakeem Nicks has had a terrible year at receiver, playing like he is more worried about staying healthy in advance of free agency than trying his best to win. There has been no run game at all for long stretches. And Manning has failed to elevate above his miserable circumstances, missing too many throws and too often looking as though it has all been too much for him. It's been a total whitewash of a season for the Giants' offense. They are the only team in the league that has been shut out even once this season, and they've been shut out twice.

What is the deal out there in Detroit? To my eyes, the Lions should have put this division away by now with Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler having been out for so long. What is the main reason they seem to have squandered such a great opportunity?

Rothstein: I don't know whether there are enough words to describe all that has gone on, although the simplest way to put it would be consistent end-game meltdowns, either from turnovers, coaching decisions or a defense that suddenly faltered.

A lot of it has to do with Matthew Stafford, who has had accuracy issues in the second half of the season. Really, there have been issues everywhere but the lines, from turnovers to coverage breakdowns on defense.

This is a team that should be safely in the playoffs right now instead of needing to win out and get help.

That obviously leads to job-security questions for Jim Schwartz. Although that doesn't seem to be the case for Tom Coughlin, has this season given any indication as to how much longer he plans to be on the sideline?

Graziano: No, Coughlin is really a what-you-see-is-what-you-get sort of guy. He's completely believable when he insists he's focused on only this week's game and doesn't want to address anything beyond this season. People close to Coughlin insist he won't quit as long as he feels he can still do the job, and there is no indication he feels otherwise. He has as much passion and energy as anyone else in the building (and right now, more than most!). I don't think Giants ownership would fire him, and I'd be stunned if he got into the offseason and decided he was done. As one person close to him told me, "He has no hobbies. There's nothing for him to retire TO." At 67 years old, he understands why the questions get asked, but he doesn't view himself as near the end of a career, I don't think. As of now, he plans to be part of the solution here, and it would be a major upset if he wasn't back in 2014.

One of Coughlin's biggest immediate problems is keeping his quarterback from getting killed. How is that Detroit pass rush looking these days?

Rothstein: Eli, meet Ndamukong. He will be the guy tossing you to the ground today. In all seriousness, though, the Lions' pass rush has been interesting. The Lions have been great at applying pressure (other than against Pittsburgh) but don't have the actual numbers to show for it, which can be confusing.

What teams have done is bottle the middle on Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley, and have either a tight end or running back help on either Willie Young or Ziggy Ansah on the ends.

So to answer your question, it has been OK, but not the consistently dominant force some were expecting.

That leads into my last question. The Lions' run defense, headed by that front, has been one of the best in the league this season. Have the Giants figured any way to solve their run woes?

Graziano: Andre Brown was hot for a while when he came back from his injury, and the offensive line was starting to block better for the run. But the past two weeks have seen a step backward, and the way the line is configured now, with starting left guard Kevin Boothe playing center and backups rotating in and out at left guard, has left it very vulnerable and one-dimensional. The Giants were able to take advantage of some good matchups with Brown running well, but against tougher fronts like the one they saw against Seattle last week, they struggle. I imagine they will struggle against the Lions' front in the run game as well.

Two straight disappointing games for Stafford and Calvin Johnson. Do you expect Megatron to blow up this week and victimize the Giants' secondary?

Rothstein: Kind of. As cornerback Rashean Mathis told me this week, if the Lions don’t find their urgency now, they’ll never find it this season. So I’d imagine you would see Johnson -- who is Detroit's best player -- at the forefront of that if the Lions have any shot over the next two weeks. Plus, those two drops he had against Baltimore will gnaw at him all week long. I expect he’ll have a big game.

Stafford, on the other hand, I’m not as sure about because he seems genuinely rattled this second half of the season. Detroit needs to find what was working for him at the start of the season and bring that back, otherwise its season is over.


Big Blue Morning: Cruz's season is over

December, 20, 2013
Your daily morning check-in on news and notes about and of interest to the New York Giants.

The news of the day: The Giants announced Thursday that wide receiver Victor Cruz had gone to see Dr. James Andrews to have his left knee checked out and that Andrews performed a surgical procedure on the knee. It was called an "arthroscopic debridement," which as I understand it means a cleaning up of loose cartilage or bone in the knee. So that's much better news for Cruz than if he'd had to have a ligament repaired, and there's no reason to think he won't be able to participate in the offseason program or be ready for the start of 2014. But obviously, since he just had his knee operated on 10 days before the final game, he's out for the rest of this season. Cruz was the only player on the Giants' offense having any kind of a respectable season, and there's good reason to believe that, as a result of this news, the final two games will be even more unwatchable than the first 14 were.

Behind enemy lines: It seems all we've been talking about with Giants defensive players this week is Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson. But they have a pretty good running back, too, in Reggie Bush, who's about to crack 1,000 rushing yards and is a serious threat in the passing game as well. The Giants have been good at limiting even the best running backs between the tackles, but they have been susceptible to running backs as receivers on the outside. But the Lions have their own problems. Bush himself says the team for which he plays lacks discipline. And Jeff Chadiha writes that it's time for Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford to show more in the big spots.

Around the division: If the Cowboys lose early Sunday, the Eagles could clinch the NFC East with a victory Sunday night against the Bears. If the Cowboys win Sunday, or if the Eagles lose Sunday night, then the NFC East will come down to one Week 17 game for the third year in a row -- Philadelphia at Dallas this time. Regardless, Eagles running back LeSean McCoy says he wants to carry the offense in this game. The way the Bears have defended the run this season, that sounds like a good plan.

Around the league: I think expanding the NFL playoffs is a terrible idea, because there are enough bad games as it is and not enough really good teams to fill a 12-team playoff field. But others disagree, and we asked around.

Nick Foles knows QB job is different

December, 18, 2013
PHILADELPHIA -- Nick Foles slid his right hand up under his left arm. A reporter had spotted the abrasion on the back and asked him about it.

“Football,” Foles said. “You get hit.”

As a quarterback, you get hit and hit and hit some more. But it's part of the job to jump back up as if nothing happened, as if nothing hurts, as if nobody on your offense whiffed on a block and almost got you swatted like a fly. It's part of the job to hide the banged-up hand from public view.

Foles spent six weeks as the Eagles' starting quarterback last year. He wore down over that stretch, finally sitting out the final game with a hand injury. In 2012, those games meant nothing in the standings. The Eagles were playing out a frazzled string and Foles went 1-5 in his six starts.

[+] EnlargeNick Foles
AP Photo/Andy KingNick Foles passed for a career-best 428 yards in a loss to Minnesota, but "we didn't win," he said. "I missed some throws that didn't give us an opportunity to win."
This year, the Eagles are playing for the NFC East title with two games to go.

“There's a lot of attention that comes along with it,” Foles said, “but yes, I'd much rather be in this situation than what we were in last year. Every game you're playing is a meaningful game. Last year, we were playing for each other because there was no way at the end of the season that we could have continued on into the playoffs.”

Foles threw for a career-high 428 yards and three touchdowns Sunday in Minnesota. On Monday, the civic conversation was about how inconsistent he was in a 48-30 loss.

“I agree with it,” Foles said. “We didn't win. I missed some throws that didn't give us an opportunity to win. It's part of playing quarterback. It's tough. I've learned to handle it. It does hurt, but that's why I keep fighting and I have a short memory when I'm out there. When that play happens, I have to forget about it. I learn from it and I move forward and hopefully it doesn't happen again.”

The Eagles lost more than a game in Minnesota. It seemed at times they'd lost their collective minds. Wide receiver DeSean Jackson got into a shouting match with his position coach, Bob Bicknell. Roc Carmichael got called for a taunting penalty when the Eagles were losing by 12. Cornerback Cary Williams got flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct and was benched by defensive coordinator Bill Davis.

“I was frustrated,” Foles said. “But as a quarterback, you just can't show it. Guys are looking at me to see how I respond. If I get frustrated, it's really going to impact the whole team. I've really got to stay on an even keel and just keep going and keep the guys together. My teammates are looking at me as a quarterback. They're trying to see how I react in those adverse situations. When everything's going wrong, when guys are going crazy, when composure is lost -- what's the quarterback doing? Is he going to lose composure or is he going to keep firing that ball? I'm going to keep firing that ball. We're going to be stronger because of this.”

Around the league, established franchise quarterbacks are delivering horrendous performances. Eli Manning has thrown 25 interceptions this season. Robert Griffin III has been benched. Tony Romo threw killer interceptions to cost the Cowboys a game against Green Bay Sunday. And that's just in the NFC East. Detroit's Matthew Stafford threw his game away against Baltimore. Even Drew Brees threw a couple of interceptions in an upset loss to St. Louis.

Foles has been better than most of them this season. He led the Eagles on a five-game winning streak to get to first place with an 8-5 record. Getting judged for a few bad throws in a loss is part of his job description. Fortunately, Foles understands that.

“For sure,” he said. “When you have success, people's expectations do grow. When they see you play consistently well, that's what they expect every week. And that's what I expect. I expect nothing different. But I can't let a game where I don't feel like I played well, and I don't help our team as much as I think I should have, affect me to where I can't play at that level. My goal every game is to go and play a perfect game.”
CHICAGO -- It's one thing to get torched by quarterbacks who are household names, such as Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, Peyton Manning, Matthew Stafford and Drew Brees.

But what about the sixth quarterback to pass for at least 300 yards against the Dallas Cowboys this season?

“Is that Luke McCown or Cade McCown?” Cowboys cornerback Orlando Scandrick asked after Monday night's 45-28 blowout loss to the Chicago Bears.

Um, actually it was Josh McCown, who is Luke's brother and not related to former Bears first-round bust Cade McNown.

Scandrick meant no disrespect -- “He's been playing great this year,” he added -- but his slip of the mind makes the point. The Dallas defense got dominated by a 34-year-old journeyman backup.

McCown has consistently performed well while filling in for an injured Jay Cutler, but this was a career night for a guy who couldn't keep a starting job at SMU. He completed 27 of 36 passes for 348 yards and a career-high four touchdowns, plus he ran for another score.

To be brutally honest, the numbers would have been much more impressive if the Bears weren't in clock-killing mode for most of the fourth quarter. Chicago never punted or committed a turnover.

All due respect to McCown, but he's not a guy who should account for five touchdowns against an NFL defense.

“If you were back there at quarterback and we played the way we played, you'd probably have five touchdowns,” defensive end DeMarcus Ware said in response to a question from a 40-something television reporter. “I mean, that's the way I feel. If you don't play a fundamentally sound game, a guy that can just get out there and play, he'll hurt you and that's what he did.”

In doing so, McCown added his name to a long list featuring a bunch of big-name quarterbacks.
PHILADELPHIA -- Cary Williams figured it was worth a shot.

The Eagles cornerback was having a rough time changing direction in the snow and staying with the Detroit Lions wide receivers. It stood to reason the Lions defensive backs were having the same issues.

So, early in the second half, Williams did something he’d never done before. He went over to his head coach, Chip Kelly, and suggested an offensive strategy.

“I just haven’t had that happen in my career where you could go up to a guy and tell him what’s the best thing to do,” Williams said. “I am just grateful that Chip listened. I really didn’t expect him to listen, but I am happy he did.”

Kelly called for a deep throw to Riley Cooper. Nick Foles hung a pass up that Cooper ran under. It wasn’t pretty, but Cooper caught the ball falling backward into the snow. That 44-yard gain set up the Eagles’ first score and really changed the energy in the game.

“It was a big play, a real tough catch,” Kelly said. “It was funny. Cary Williams was the one who came up to me and he was like, 'Coach, this is what you’ve got to do, because you can’t make up speed if the receiver makes a stick move on you just because of the footing.' It’s coming from a defensive guy saying, hey, if you have an opportunity to throw a post or throw a corner, it’s hard to make up. It’s almost like that catch kind of got us going.”

Williams found that out the hard way. He was covering Calvin Johnson when Matthew Stafford hit him for a 33-yard gain in the first half.

“It wasn’t the fact that I couldn’t run with Calvin,” Williams said. “It was the fact that when I tried to turn, I was sliding initially. I didn’t get the initial grab into the ground the way I wanted to. I saw a lot of times they were slipping, and they were having an issue with sliding.”

Williams said he was surprised the Lions didn’t throw the ball to Johnson more often, given the conditions.

“You practice backpedaling and turning on a level surface,” Williams said. “Out there, with the snow, it was completely different. It’s hard for us to stop and then turn and run.”
PHILADELPHIA -- Eagles quarterback Nick Foles lost a record but won a game. That's OK with him.

"I care about the wins," Foles said after leading the Eagles to a fifth consecutive win, a 34-20 snowball fight against the Detriot Lions. "I learn from it, it's an interception. I am going to move forward and I can't wait to get back on the field and throw a touchdown, make a big play, because that's what teammates look at."

Foles threw an interception to Lions cornerback Chris Houston. It was Foles' first interception of the season. He had thrown 19 touchdown passes, one shy of Peyton Manning's NFL record of 20 touchdowns before throwing an interception. Overall, Foles had not thrown an interception in 238 attempts.

"When you have a streak like that, it means you are putting your team in a position to win games," Foles said. "But there are also times you are going to have a mistake happen and you have to have a shorter memory. Mistakes are going to happen, and they did today, but I'll get better for it and keep improving."

It should be easier to move on for Foles, considering the circumstances. With snow falling hard and swirling, he and Matthew Stafford both had tough days throwing the ball.

"You are seeing a lot of white, a lot of snow coming down, but you try to zone all of that out and focus on the team and what is going on," Foles said. "We got more and more comfortable as the game went on. We made some mistakes, but that is a football game."

On the interception, Foles overthrew wide receiver Riley Cooper. The ball found Houston, who returned the pick 30 yards to the Eagles 20. The Lions scored their only offensive touchdown five plays later.

"I think any mistake Nick makes is kind of surprising," Eagles coach Chip Kelly said. "But I understand what happened. The ball kind of sailed. Obviously, it's a weather deal. The biggest disappointment was where they got it in terms of, we put our defense on an extremely short field."

For Foles, the record would have been nice. But an interception was inevitable at some point. He can write this one off as weather-related and take comfort in the fact it didn't really hurt his team.

"They happen," Foles said. "You let one interception defeat you, you cannot play this game."

Foles completed just one pass beyond the line of scrimmage in the first half, according to ESPN Stats & Information. In the second half, he found Cooper for a 44-yard gain, then lobbed a 19-yard touchdown pass to DeSean Jackson to start the Eagles' comeback.

"You just have to make plays and just try to give them a chance," Foles said. "You cannot really zip balls. You just have to lob them up there and just say, 'Hey, one of you go up there and get it and make a play.' That was one of those plays."

Rapid Reaction: Philadelphia Eagles

December, 8, 2013

PHILADELPHIA -- Quick thoughts on the Philadelphia Eagles' 34-20 victory over the Detroit Lions in snowy Lincoln Financial Field on Sunday.

What it means: If LeSean McCoy isn’t the best all-around back in the NFL, he made a case for being the best all-weather back in the game. In a game changed immeasurably by the measurable snowfall, McCoy’s fourth-quarter touchdown runs of 40 and 57 yards turned what looked like a dispiriting loss into a win with major playoff implications. The Eagles (8-5) scored 28 fourth-quarter points for their fifth win in a row. They took a half-game lead in the NFC East over Dallas -- which plays Monday night in Chicago -- and gained a tiebreaker edge over another possible wild-card contender.

Snow job: The forecast for Philadelphia called for a “wintry mix” of rain and light snow. Instead, a driving snow started about 90 minutes before kickoff and rendered both teams’ game plans useless. Lions quarterback Matt Stafford fumbled his first snap, one of six Lions fumbles in the first half. Visibility was terrible. Footing was worse. Field goals and PAT attempts were impossible. It was fun, in the way crazy-weather events are fun, but it wasn’t exactly NFL football.

Stock watch: Falling: Eagles special teams. The snow obviously had an impact on the footing, but the Eagles allowed two return touchdowns by Jeremy Ross. He returned a punt 58 yards and a kickoff 98 yards to account for all of the Lions’ second-half scoring. Ross also returned a fourth-quarter kickoff to midfield to give the Lions excellent field position.

What’s next: The Eagles continue their tour through the NFC North with a game at Minnesota next week. They host the Bears on Dec. 22. Those two games will have a huge impact on their season-ending showdown at Dallas on Dec. 29. If the Eagles can be tied or ahead of the Cowboys, a win would give them the division title without tiebreakers coming into play.

Weather could affect Foles, Stafford

December, 6, 2013
PHILADELPHIA -- Weather shouldn't be a factor in a game between teams from gritty northern cities like Detroit and Philadelphia. Cold, wind and precipitation wouldn't favor either side in a game between the Bears and Packers or the Jets and Patriots.

But the Lions play indoors, and the Eagles have a young quarterback who has played most of his football in Texas and Arizona. So Sunday's forecast for temperatures in the mid-30s and a wintry mix of snow and icy rain could make an already interesting game even more so.

The two quarterbacks, Matthew Stafford and Nick Foles, have never won an NFL game started at 40 degrees or below. Sounds ominous, except we're talking about just three games each.

Stafford, who played college ball at Georgia, lost a 2009 game at Cincinnati (25 degrees, 19 wind chill) and two games in Green Bay -- in 2011 (31 degrees, 19 wind chill) and 2012 (33 degrees).

Qualifier: In that 2011 game in Green Bay, Stafford completed 36 of 59 passes for 520 yards, five touchdowns and two interceptions. So it's not like he can't throw the ball when it's cold out.

Foles lost three starts last year, all at Lincoln Financial Field: Carolina (36 degrees), Cincinnati (36) and Washington (40).

Qualifier: The 2012 Eagles were losing in all weather, in every stadium. In those three losses, Foles completed 64 of 102 passes for 644 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. (Yes, he used to throw the occasional pick..

Foles has talked about having to learn how to throw on windy days. The wind played a role in his lone poor performance of the season, that 17-3 loss to Dallas in October. He didn't seem concerned about the forecast for Sunday.

“I played in those conditions my junior year at Oregon,” Foles said. “I just play the game. The ball is going to feel different, but they're going to play in the same conditions. You can't make excuses because of the weather.”

Foles threw for 448 yards and three touchdowns in that game against Chip Kelly's Ducks.

“It's fun playing games in different weather,” Foles said. “You just have to go out and have fun and play like you're a kid again.”

Foles wears a glove on his left hand. He said he wouldn't wear a glove on his throwing hand because of rain. It would have to be extremely cold for that, he said.