NFC East: Ray Lewis

Cowboys' leaders taking control

August, 15, 2013
OXNARD, Calif. -- You wouldn’t think a Sour Patch Kids commercial would have much to do with professional football, but Anthony Spencer went with it anyway.

Speaking in front of his Dallas Cowboys teammates earlier in training camp, Spencer showed the commercial in which a paintball-gun-wielding Sour Patch Kid repeatedly shot his friend, only to see their likeness appear on the wall at the end.

ESPN NFL Insider Ed Werder joins Fitzsimmons and Durrett for his weekly segment to discuss the latest on Tom Brady's injury and Cowboys training camp in Oxnard.

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“First they’re sour,” announced the voice-over. “Then they’re sweet.”

Sitting in the darkened room at the Cowboys’ River Ridge Residence Inn complex, cornerback Sterling Moore got Spencer’s message.

“That’s what training camp is all about,” Moore said. “You’re coming out, grinding every day. The coaches are yelling and take shots [at you], but they’re building you up to do something great.”

Since camp began, Jason Garrett has put the leaders in front of the full team to offer up a quote, a personal story, or even a Sour Patch Kids commercial.

“As coaches you try to promote those guys in some way, shape or form so that everybody sees that this is the right way to do it,” Garrett said. “Sean Lee, Jason Witten, Miles Austin, they do it the right way, and we’re going to try to give them every opportunity to lead this team -- giving them a chance to be in front of the whole group and talk to the team and highlight them in a lot of different ways, whether it’s on tape, in a meeting room or on the field. Make sure that they have a voice and that we’re not an obstacle to that voice.

Richard Durrett, Ian Fitzsimmons and Glenn "Stretch" Smith react to Dez Bryant sounding off yesterday after practice about Johnny Manziel and the shadiness of the NCAA.

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"Again, the best teams that I’ve been on, those guys grasp it. It’s their time. It’s their football team.”

Leadership issues have been more of an outside-the-locker-room issue than an inside-the-locker-room issue because of the lack of playoff success with the core of this team. Jason Hatcher wondered two years ago whether the Cowboys needed a Ray Lewis-type voice, as if that is the only leadership style that works.

Witten is a leader. Lee is a leader. Tony Romo is a leader. DeMarcus Ware is a leader. Hatcher has grown to become a leader.

Do they have to have the oration and dance skills of Lewis to be as effective? No.

But by putting these players in front of the full team, Garrett is establishing who they must follow.

“Witten had a heckuva story,” safety Barry Church said. “When he was young he was going through something where he wrecked his car and three horses pulled him out of a ditch. That one showed you need everybody.”

When Romo spoke to teammates, he mentioned that he has been every player sitting in that room.

“From just trying to make the team to the backup to the guy trying to become the starter to the starter, the whole process and the way that takes shape,” Romo said. “I was like, ‘The one thing we all have in common is that you’re just desperately trying to be that guy that can make the team, the guy that can get time to play, the guy that can be the starter.’ What you’re talking about is a feeling in your gut that you want so bad that you’ve got to attack it every day like that. If you do that, then you give yourself a great opportunity to be the player you want to be. That doesn’t change whether you’re a guy who’s been here 10 years or a guy in his first year. It’s all relative to your situation, but that thing in your stomach is still there.”

Brandon Carr is still waiting for his opportunity to speak. He has a couple of different stories in his mind and hopes one clicks as he walks to the front of the room.

“It allows us a chance to spread some of our knowledge to the younger players, and it allows us the players to get to know us a little bit,” Carr said. “It’s a little bit of an icebreaker.”

Or a Sour Patch Kid.

“I thought it was outstanding,” Garrett said. “That’s the great thing about it. I have a certain way of conveying something. Our coaches have a certain way of conveying something. Then you give all these different guys a chance to talk and what’s important to them, how they present and they present it differently, but oftentimes what you get is a reinforcement of the big message. Said a different way, whether it’s a story, a quote, a commercial or whatever, you’re always trying to kind of reinforce the same things. And I think that everything that every one of those guys has said to our team, I’m like, ‘Wow, that was really good. That’s something I really believe in. I’m glad he was able to stand up there and talk to the team like that.’ And the response of the rest of the team, teammates, coaches, everybody has been really positive.”
» NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

Welcome to Eight in the Box, an NFL Nation feature that will appear each Friday during the offseason. This week's topic: Who should be the primary target (including trades) for each team when free agency begins?

Dallas Cowboys: Louis Vasquez, G, Chargers. Cap-space problems likely price the Cowboys out of the top offensive line names available, but the line is their most desperate need and Vasquez is much more than a fallback option. Pro Football Focus ranked him as the eighth-best right guard in the league last year -- better than either of the midrange free-agent guards the Cowboys signed last year -- and he doesn't turn 26 for another month. He's the kind of free agent in whom it makes sense to invest -- a guy who's proven he can play in the league but is still hungry to prove more and young enough that they'd have him in his prime. I do still believe the Cowboys need to address the offensive line in the draft, but there's nothing wrong with a smart upgrade like this in the meantime to augment that plan.

New York Giants: Dannell Ellerbe, LB, Ravens. Yes, the Super Bowl champs will try to keep him. No, the Giants don't prioritize the linebacker position. If you're asking me if this is a player the Giants will sign, I'd have to say no. But what we're asking today is which player they should sign, and Ellerbe is a perfect fit. He's only 27 and has leadership experience and a championship ring earned while filling in for Ray Lewis this past year. The Giants' defense has drifted in and out too much the past few years in terms of focus and intensity, and Ellerbe would help with that from a position at which the Giants always seem to have a need.

Philadelphia Eagles: Kenny Phillips, S, Giants. So much uncertainty in the secondary, where the Eagles could be looking for four new starters. Phillips is as versatile a safety as there is on the market and would allow them to go in any number of directions with their cornerbacks or their other safety. He can cover. He can move up in the box and play the run. He's got Super Bowl experience. And if you're the Eagles or an Eagles fan, wouldn't it be fun to sign him away from the Giants and play him against them twice a year? Phillips has had some knee problems, which is his only red flag. If he checks out medically, then as a player who doesn't turn 27 until November he's a big-time answer for the Eagles at a position that has been driving them crazy since they let Brian Dawkins leave.

Washington Redskins: Ryan Harris, OT, Texans. Cap constraints will prevent the Redskins from dreaming big free-agent dreams, and I am fully aware that their greatest need is on defense in the secondary. But they need a right tackle as well, and Harris and Mike Shanahan know each other well from their days together in Denver in 2007 and 2008. Harris turns 28 on Monday and has zone-blocking, run-game experience. Best of all, he's not likely to cost much. If Shanahan liked Harris early in his career and still sees something, Harris could be an easy answer at an important position and allow the Texans to commit greater resources to the secondary and other needs.
Welcome to this week's edition of the Twitter mailbag, which can be accessed at any time simply by tweeting a question with the hashtag #nfceastmail. I go through them all at the end of the week, and the result looks a little something like this.

@mcintosh37: I know he is playing, but make a case for London Fletcher as a 1st Ballot HOFer?

@ESPN_NFCEast: This came up in the Washington Redskins' media room the other day in light of the retirement announcement of Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis. The specific question was why Fletcher, whose career résumé is quite similar to that of Lewis, isn't treated with the same kind of superstar respect. Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall said in interviews this week that he'd take Fletcher over Lewis, and I think most people who played with Fletcher do hold him in the same kind of regard as Lewis' teammates have for him. The big differences, as I see them, are in public personality and turnovers. Lewis is a much more outwardly visible and vocal leader than ... well, than anyone. Maybe ever. And I mean, like, in politics, too, not just football. Lewis has been an inescapable presence on TVs and video screens for more than a decade. I feel as though he's been "miked up" for every game of his career. Sometimes it looks as though he's performing, though those who know him insist it's all genuine. The end result, though, is that he gets a great deal more attention than a quieter leader such as Fletcher might get. But statistically, where Lewis outpaces Fletcher is in the category of big, game-changing turnovers. They're even or close to even in terms of years, games played, tackles, Super Bowl titles and even sacks. But Lewis has collected 50 turnovers in his career -- a stunning number at the linebacker position. Fletcher has 35, which is a more reasonable number. In the end, I'd say Fletcher probably should be a Hall of Famer, but he's not as obvious a Hall of Famer as Lewis is. Fletcher's underappreciated and Lewis is probably a bit overappreciated, but they're both great players who deserve that consideration.

@bomb_odnar: does Jerry cut Ratliff after this season? Could that possibly open up cap space like the Newman cut last year?

@ESPN_NFCEast: Cutting Jay Ratliff would certainly help the Dallas Cowboys against the cap, and after he and owner/GM Jerry Jones had it out in the locker room during the season, you wonder if it's more of a possibility. But recall this about the Terence Newman case from last year: Newman was cut because the Cowboys decided he was playing too poorly and they needed to upgrade at that position, which they did with their big free-agent signing as well as their first-round draft pick. Replacing Ratliff would be more difficult, and with Josh Brent's status in doubt as a result of the intoxication manslaughter charges he's facing, there's no ready replacement on the roster. Ratliff isn't super-safe, but if I had to guess I'd say he's back since they don't have better options available to them and they need help in other places on the defensive and offensive lines.

@DuaneWhittaker: What are the Eagles likely going for at #4 at the draft. Is Nnamdi there next year?

@ESPN_NFCEast. Ah, two questions in one! A lot of the Philadelphia Eagles can't be answered until we find out who the new head coach is going to be, as he'll be involved in many of the decisions. In a vacuum, though, I'd take an offensive tackle with that No. 4 pick. Someone like Texas A&M's Luke Joeckel, if he lasts that long. Don't rule out the possibility that one or more of these quarterbacks sees his draft stock rise between now and the draft, though, and if whoever the new coach is likes someone better than he likes Nick Foles, they could certainly take a quarterback with that pick. As for Nnamdi Asomugha, the disappointing cornerback, he'll have to restructure his deal if he wants to stay in Philadelphia. If he were willing to do that, I believe they might bring him back for another chance and work instead to beef up at safety.

@OilCountry10: Do you see The Giants drafting a corner to replace Webster ?

@ESPN_NFCEast: Corey Webster certainly had a disappointing season at cornerback for the New York Giants, a year after he was excellent as one of the cogs of their Super Bowl title team. So the question now is what the Giants think about him. Is he done? Did he just have a bad year? Will he bounce back? I doubt they've made that decision yet. I will say, though, that they used their first-round pick on cornerback Prince Amukamara in 2011 and their third-round pick on cornerback Jayron Hosley in 2012, so resource-wise they're pretty heavily committed there. They need help on the offensive line, and while they haven't used their first-round pick on an offensive lineman since Luke Petitgout in 1999, it may be time to think about a franchise-caliber piece at tackle. Even if Will Beatty is growing into the role, it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world to have bookends at that position. The most likely scenario for the Giants is always drafting a pass-rushing defensive lineman in the first round, and with Osi Umenyiora leaving and questions about Justin Tuck having surfaced this year, that's probably the way I'd bet. If I bet. Which I don't.

Thanks for the questions. Back with more this time next week.

How you feeling? Redskins-Ravens

December, 9, 2012
As the Washington Redskins prepare to host the Baltimore Ravens at 1 p.m. ET in a game critical to their newfound playoff hopes, here's one reason for Redskins fans to feel good about their team's chances and one reason for concern.

Feeling good: The game is at FedEx Field, which matters. The Ravens are 27-4 at home and 18-17 on the road the past four seasons. Even with key defensive players such as Ray Lewis, Lardarius Webb and probably Terrell Suggs out with injuries, the Ravens would seem a far more daunting opponent if the game were being held 33 miles up the road in Baltimore. The Ravens' defense isn't what it used to be. Baltimore allows 125.8 rushing yards per game, while the Redskins' rush offense is the best in the league at 167.2 yards per game. Most people expect the Redskins to confuse the Ravens' defense with their pistol formation and read-option plays behind fantastic rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III, and that's entirely possible. But they're also pretty good when they just line up and run it between the tackles with rookie running back Alfred Morris.

Cause for concern: I don't like the secondary matchups for the Redskins, particularly with cornerback Cedric Griffin starting a four-game suspension this week. The Ravens' receivers are either fast enough (Torrey Smith) or savvy enough (Anquan Boldin) to win consistently against what's left of the Washington defensive backs, and it's easy to see this being a nice rebound game for Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco after a tough game last week against the Steelers.

Breakfast links: RG3 meets Ed Reed

December, 6, 2012
New York Giants

Sean Locklear is officially out for the season. That means David Diehl returns to right tackle, where he caused many of my Giants readers angst earlier this season when he took the job back from a healthy Locklear. Diehl says this time he's feeling great and ready to handle the job. Recall that he played well enough at left tackle down the stretch last year to help the Giants win a Super Bowl.

How miserable did Robert Griffin III make the Giants? Jason Pierre-Paul says they're looking forward to trying to stop the more tradition passing attack of... Drew Brees and the Saints this Sunday.

Washington Redskins

And speaking of Griffin, one of the many impressive things about his rookie season has been his ability to avoid turning the ball over. Sunday, he faces a Baltimore Ravens defense that includes veteran safety Ed Reed, who has 61 career interceptions.

Mike Wise writes that Alfred Morris doesn't look or talk or carry himself like a big-time NFL running back, but he certainly does play like one.

Dallas Cowboys

When they spent a huge chunk of free-agent money and two high draft picks on new cornerbacks this offseason, the Cowboys were probably expecting to get some interceptions.

The Cowboys are going to have to manage running back DeMarco Murray the rest of the way. He missed practice Wednesday, for instance, but says he'll practice Thursday. They obviously want to avoid a recurrence of the foot injury that knocked out the middle of his season, and given how much better the offense looks when he's in it, whatever it takes to make sure he's ready to hit the field Sunday is worth it to them.

Philadelphia Eagles

Indications are that defensive line coach Jim Washburn was fired for personality reasons -- that he'd grown irritable, insubordinate and generally unpleasant to be around. But defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins is one guy who's sticking up for Washburn in the face of that narrative.

Bob Ford writes that the remainder of this season is all about the Eagles seeing what they have in rookie quarterback Nick Foles, so they can figure out which direction to go in the offseason.

RG3 makes Redskins' hopes very real

December, 1, 2012
Robert Griffin IIIAP Photo/Tim SharpRobert Griffin III has the Redskins believing they are contenders in his rookie season.

At the end of this interview with Robert Griffin III, he is asked to answer this question: The Washington Redskins are going to the Super Bowl in how many years?

Griffin, nonplussed, offers this answer:

"This year. I mean, it doesn't matter. Our season's not over. We're not out of the playoff hunt. If we win this game Monday, we control our own destiny. So it's every year, until we don't win it."

No pretense, no bluster, just the same, matter-of-fact tone he uses earlier in the interview when he honestly offers up John Elway, Michael Vick and Randall Cunningham among his influences and says Ray Lewis is the player whose autograph he would most like to get. Griffin doesn't suffer mundane convention or consensus protocol. He doesn't seek the sound bite. He gets a question, he rolls it over in his brain and offers his honest answer. Why wouldn't every player believe he could win this season's Super Bowl until his team is mathematically eliminated?

And so here stands Griffin, getting ready to play the first-place, defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants in the first "Monday Night Football" appearance of his career, with an understanding of the stakes. If the Redskins win the game -- and make no mistake, these Redskins fully believe they can beat these Giants -- they are one game out of first place and right in the thick of the wild-card race at 6-6. They would not, technically, be in control of their own destiny, as he claims, because they would still need teams in front of them to lose even if the Redskins won out. But they wouldn't need a ton of help, and the concept that a 10-6 record is likely to get them in is more than enough fuel for a December stretch run.

Griffin's most essential achievement in his decorated rookie season is to have made this possibility realistic. No Redskins team with Rex Grossman or Jason Campbell or the 2010 version of Donovan McNabb as its quarterback would have been a convincing playoff contender at 5-6 in Week 13. But this one, with Griffin taking the snaps, has people talking. Has people playing around with the Playoff Machine to see what has to happen for it all to come true. Redskins fans see the teams in front of them in that wild-card race and know well that their team beat the Saints, Vikings and Buccaneers head-to-head. They know the Seahawks can't win on the road. Heck, they know the Giants' remaining schedule doesn't look easy, and their team holds all kinds of tiebreakers, and the facts of the case become very simple: If the Redskins win this big Monday night game, they are in the mix.

The Redskins approach Giants games with a high level of confidence. They beat the Giants twice, rather soundly, in 2011, and they believe they had them beaten in Week 7 before they decided not to cover Victor Cruz on that 77-yard touchdown throw in the final two minutes. They do not fear the Giants, and they wouldn't have even if Griffin weren't their quarterback this season. They believe they have coverage schemes and pressure packages that can rattle Eli Manning, and they've spent the week watching film of themselves having great success against him. None of that means they'll win, but they have no doubt whatsoever that they can.

What Griffin has done is to build on that -- to fortify that confidence for the broader stage and the bigger dreams. If the Redskins can beat the Giants, as they already know they can, they can start to think about being a playoff team. And if you're a playoff team -- doesn't matter which one, as those Giants showed last season -- then you have a right to think about the Super Bowl. Why keep it a down-the-road fantasy when it's still a potential present reality? Griffin, who gives the Redskins reason to believe they might have the better quarterback on any given day they play, is speaking the absolute truth of his team's situation and his own. The fact that he's the one saying it means you don't have to look far to figure out why the Redskins, their fans and even some of their opponents might be believing it.

Griffin has made the Redskins legitimate, instantly. And whether they win Monday or lose, whether they make a real run at this year's playoffs or fall short, that's a heck of a rookie accomplishment.
All-Division Team comes out today. Gotta get to work on that, so no time for idle chit-chat here. Just get to the links.

Philadelphia Eagles

Interesting perspective here from former Eagles running back Brian Westbrook, who thinks part of the problem with the offense is lackluster blocking by the Eagles' wide receivers. Hadn't heard that one yet. Worth keeping an eye on as we move forward here, no?

Sam Donnellon tries to put his finger on what's missing from the Eagles' defense. I'm not seeing this one. They've allowed 33 points the last two weeks and 19.8 points per game so far this season. What's missing from the Eagles is enough points from the Eagles offense.

New York Giants

Ahmad Bradshaw says he thinks, from talking to Hakeem Nicks, that Nicks will be back in the Giants' lineup this Sunday in San Francisco after missing the last three games with foot and knee injuries. That is entirely possible, of course, but it bears mentioning that neither Bradshaw nor Nicks will be the one to actually make that decision. Let's wait and see if Hakeem practices here in the next couple of days, huh?

Along those lines, Chris Canty (who also doesn't get to decide these things, because doctors and coaches do) says he'll be returning to practice next week when he's finally eligible. He's lost a bunch of weight and seems to believe he'll be able to play in Week 7. If he turns out to be correct, that could be a help to the lackluster pass rush.

Dallas Cowboys

Tim MacMahon writes that, while the Cowboys' defense has improved from awful to very good this year, the offense hasn't improved from last year's middle-of-the-pack showing, and that's what's holding the Cowboys back now. It's a solid point.

Sean Lee gets to play on the same field as one of his personal heroes, Ray Lewis, when the Cowboys visit Baltimore on Sunday. Lee is a considerably better player than Lewis at this particular point in NFL history, and is in a position to impress his idol with the way he's playing.

Washington Redskins

If he gets another chance to play because Robert Griffin III can't return in time from his concussion, backup Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins believes he'll be able to fix the problems he had in relief of Griffin on Sunday.

No matter who's behind center, the Redskins have to do a better job of converting third downs -- something at which their otherwise very good offense has been the worst in the league so far in 2012.
Ah, Wednesday. Let's get these links out of the way so we can get to work on that All-NFC East team!

Philadelphia Eagles

Through two games, the Eagles' defense is doing the job. It's a unit that's clearly more confident in itself than it was a year ago. And whether that's because of DeMeco Ryans or the super-fast rookies or Todd Bowles or Juan Castillo being in his second year as coordinator or all of that put together, you can't argue with the results to this point.

Part of the Eagles' plan Sunday was not to be bullied by the Ravens' defense, which they believe had a plan to try to bully them. DeSean Jackson came dangerously close to being thrown out of the game, at one point throwing a punch at a Ravens defender, but he had a message afterwards for Ray Lewis.

Dallas Cowboys

Tim MacMahon writes that a 1-1 record after two games is no surprise, because the Cowboys have established themselves over the past decade-plus as one of the NFL's most average teams.

As for this week and trying to beat the Buccaneers, they're in trouble at safety. It doesn't look as though Gerald Sensabaugh will play, it looks as though Barry Church will have to play hurt, and Matt Johnson's not ready to play yet. A lot falls once again on those good cover corners they have to lock down Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams, though the Bucs prefer to try to run the ball.

Washington Redskins

Mike Shanahan blames execution and focus -- not strategy -- for the Redskins having had two punts blocked so far this year. He believes the problem can be solved. I'd have to think so. It'd be a pretty big story if the Redskins had 16 punts blocked this year.

Cornerback Josh Wilson is playing very well, making him a standout in an otherwise poor performance by the Washington secondary Sunday. Rich Campbell's defensive game review discusses that and much more.

New York Giants

Cornerback Prince Amukamara says he's optimistic he'll play Thursday night against the Panthers. And while they won't rush him back, the Giants do need him. I know, Amukamara hasn't proven anything at the NFL level yet. But he's more talented and fundamentally sound than the guys they're using opposite Corey Webster right now, and they're getting lit up back there. Even just another body, proven or unproven, would be welcome.

Justin Tuck asserts that he would have refused to do what the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defensive players did on the final play of Sunday's game, even if ordered by his coach to do so.
And a fine good morning to you all. Sun's out this morning, which puts us ahead of where we were yesterday, at least to start. We will have our weekly chat today at noon ET, and we have some other goodies planned along the way. To prep for it all, I present you with your links.

New York Giants

Mike Pope, the Giants' tight end coach, let it slip last week that new tight end Martellus Bennett had weighed in at 291 pounds (up about 20 from last year) and that that was the reason he'd injured his hamstring. Bennett made sure to address reporters at Monday's OTA with his shirt off so they could see he was "not fat." Says he just added a whole bunch of muscle. Okay then.

Also, I failed to note late last week that running back Andre Brown had had his four-game drug suspension lifted. Evidently, he has a prescription for Adderall, which is the banned substance for which he was busted, and had failed to do the appropriate paperwork. So Brown is good to go for the first four games of this season and back in that running back mix as the Giants search for someone to take Brandon Jacobs' carries.

Philadelphia Eagles

Brian Rolle is not a prototypical NFL linebacker, but he remains the Eagles' projected starter on the weak side. Les Bowen checked in with Rolle to talk about what he learned in a trying first NFL season and how he's looking at things as he heads into his second.

Undrafted rookie Damaris Johnson is the little wide receiver turning heads in Eagles OTAs these days. Could he stick? Sure. If he shows more than Chad Hall does, and if he can help on special teams or as a return man, he could impress the coaches enough to make the roster. But as you can see in this Geoff Mosher story, he is really small, and he hasn't always been a paragon of good judgment. So it's no sure thing.

Washington Redskins

Rich Tandler picks sixth-round running back Alfred Morris as his "surprise player" with a chance to make the 53-man roster, citing his potential to serve as a backup fullback in addition to other roles. Rich also addresses the Aqib Talib rumors, which continue to strike me as barely worthy of acknowledgement, since there appears to be a pretty good chance the guy has to go to jail and a near 100 percent chance the commissioner will suspend him if he doesn't.

Mike Jones takes a look at the defensive line, fortified by the return of players who played on it in 2011 and by the return from injury of one who did not.

Dallas Cowboys

In order to emerge from what Jean-Jacques Taylor calls "the abyss of mediocrity," the Cowboys need Morris Claiborne and Tyron Smith to develop into the great players their draft slot says they should be. Based on last year, Smith appears to be on the way already.

Oh, and it appears Jason Hatcher has concluded his search for the leaders in the Cowboys' locker room. So everyone can rest easy now. Still no Ray Lewis, but I guess the guys they have will do, after all.
A little more than a month from now, on May 19, London Fletcher will celebrate his 37th birthday. This is a high number for an NFL linebacker. Indeed, according to ESPN's research department, there are only 14 players at any position who are older than Fletcher and currently occupy space on NFL rosters. Eight of those 14 are kickers, one is a punter, one (Charlie Batch) is a backup quarterback who almost never plays and one (Patrick Mannelly) is a long snapper. The only non-special teams players older than Fletcher who still get get regular playing time are Tampa Bay's Ronde Barber, Green Bay's Donald Driver and Baltimore's Ray Lewis.

If you knew nothing else besides Fletcher's age, he would seem an odd fit with a Washington Redskins team that's looking ahead, signing younger free agents on offense, about to entrust its next decade to a rookie quarterback.

But the Redskins know better. They know all of the reasons Fletcher is the worthy exception to their plan to get younger. They know this is a man who has finished in the top seven in the league in tackles for eight straight years, who's in better shape in his late 30s than anyone in the locker room, who has played in 224 games since entering the league without ever missing one.

They know Fletcher is a person and a player who sets the right kinds of examples on the field and off for teammates young and old. Who plays hard on every single play and, without barking or bellowing or calling attention to himself but simply by the mere and apparent fact of his own effort, encourages others to do the same. They know he's a leader to whom other players can go to seek counsel on matters related to football as well as matters related to non-football life.

The Redskins remember this time last year, when the players were locked out and Fletcher was calling teammates, organizing player workouts, scouting high school fields to see if they would hold up well enough or if he'd be putting his men at too great a risk of injury by practicing on them. They remember the stories of how he scribbled down a few of Jim Haslett's 3-4 defense plays on a piece of paper and stuffed it in his back pocket so he could call out specific formations and assignments during those loosely organized workouts.

They know, from having watched it up close, that Fletcher believes in what the coaching staff is trying to do. They have seen him embrace the change from the 4-3 to the 3-4 -- thrive in it personally while he helped teach it and sell it to holdovers and newcomers alike. They believe the development of younger linebackers such as Perry Riley, Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan has something to do with the proximity those players have had to Fletcher in the locker room and on the practice field. Mike Shanahan views Fletcher as an extra coach -- someone who's so in tune with the program and so commands the respect of his teammates that he alleviates some of the responsibilities of the men on the coaching staff. He makes their job easier.

Fletcher matters to the Redskins. He wants to be a Redskin. He has become the captain, the leader and in a lot of ways the face of the franchise. He wants to be in Washington when it pays off -- when all of the lean years end and the Redskins contend again. The Redskins want him around their rookie quarterback -- be it Robert Griffin III or Andrew Luck -- and the young receivers they signed. They want him to help corral all of the new members of their secondary and get the best out of them.

Fletcher is going to be 37 years old next month, and if that's all you were looking at then a two-year deal doesn't make sense. But if you've been watching and experiencing his career with the Redskins, you'd know it was a no-brainer. That's how the Redskins felt, and it's a huge relief to them and their fans that he's back in the fold.
Tony Romo AP Photo/Julio CortezTony Romo has proven his toughness, but will the Dallas QB ever be considered a great leader?
Go back a year -- heck, go back three or four months and check out some of the stuff that was being written and asked about New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning. Not fiery enough, it was said. Bad body language. Doesn't look like the kind of guy who gets people energized and focused in the huddle. Needs to be more of a leader.

Well, something about throwing a football into a football-sized hole 38 yards down the sideline in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl changes the narrative, doesn't it? Giants fans aren't bothered by Eli's dopey-kid-brother demeanor anymore. Now it's all about Even-keeled Eli, who's so great in the clutch because he never gets rattled -- whose teammates would follow him through the gates of hell, so calm and convincing a leader is he.

Guess what? Nothing about Eli Manning changed over the past year except that he won his second Super Bowl. He's the same guy whose leadership style nobody liked when they missed the playoffs in 2009 and 2010. The difference is, this year, it all worked.

Which brings me to the Dallas Cowboys, Jason Hatcher and the question of locker-room leadership. Hatcher is a relatively non-controversial Cowboys defensive end who made some waves last week when he was asked on a radio show who the Cowboys' leaders were and he said he didn't know. Said he wished they had a Ray Lewis-type of leader in their locker room -- somebody to make fiery speeches and get the team pumped up.

Hatcher was surely speaking from the heart and not trying to stir up controversy, but the thing grew instant legs because what he said jives with the popular external opinion of what's wrong with the Cowboys -- that they're missing some key ethereal ingredient that makes winners, that they don't have the same kind of stuff beating in the center of their chest that Manning and his Giants do. The Cowboys underachieve, and should be better than they normally are, so we assume it's about heart or guts or leadership or whatever.

[+] EnlargeSean Lee
Zumapress/Icon SMIIs rugged LB Sean Lee the man the Cowboys turn to next season for leadership?
It's entirely possible that Hatcher and the public perception are correct. However, I believe that this is (a) a heavy charge to level against individuals who willingly put their bodies through the physical torture of NFL football on a week-to-week basis and (b) overblown, if not irrelevant. This is stuff that has only come up because the Cowboys lost four of their last five games. If they'd won one or two of those games -- if they'd held on against Arizona or beaten the Giants once in two tries -- the Cowboys would have been NFC East champions and talk radio hosts wouldn't be asking people like Hatcher who the leaders in the locker room were. The talk would be about how Tony Romo played through broken ribs and Sean Lee played with a cast on his hand, and how those guys inspired their teammates to do great things because of all of the heart and toughness they were showing.

In the NFL, it takes only a dropped pass here or a blocked kick there to change the entire narrative. What the Giants accomplished in January and February was stunning and tremendous, and there's certainly no guarantee the Cowboys would have made the same run if they'd been the NFC East champ instead of the Giants. But it goes to show that these storylines are all driven by who wins the games. If you win, you have effective leaders. If you don't, well, there must be something wrong.

"There's so many different styles of leadership," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett told reporters Thursday in Indianapolis at the NFL scouting combine. "There are guys who are more vocal guys, guys that lead by example, guys that pat a guy on the back, guys that ring guys by the neck. That's the way it is and the way it's always been. The best teams I've been on had a variety of styles of leadership from the players."

But one thing I'm sure they all have in common is that, regardless of style, they're genuine. You can't pretend to be a fiery-speech guy if you're not. People will see through it, and people don't respond to phonies. Lewis, for all of his bluster, is no phony. He believes the stuff he's screaming at his teammates before and after games, and they respond to it.

But Manning's teammates respond to his much calmer style, and that apparently works, too. Just because no one's in the Giants' locker room yelling and screaming all the time doesn't mean they lack leadership. And you know what? Just because no one's in the Cowboys' locker room yelling and screaming all the time doesn't mean they lack leadership. If Ray Lewis had been in the Cowboys' locker room on the evening of Jan. 1 and given some fiery speech, would only one Giants fullback have been able to hurdle Terence Newman that night instead of two?

The Cowboys' problem in 2011 was a defense that didn't have enough good players to hold up all season. They're embarking on the process now of trying to fix that. If some of the guys they bring in turn out to be Ray Lewis speechmaking types and they win some playoff games next year, you'll hear a lot about those new, fiery leaders. If the guys they bring in are all quiet types and they win some playoff games next year, you'll hear a lot about those new, cool, quiet leaders.

That's the way things work in this league -- results dictate the narrative, and the narrative must be molded to fit the results. The Cowboys don't need "leadership." They need defensive backs. And a pass rush. And some help on the offensive line. And if they get all of that stuff and it works in 2012, we're going to be told by people inside their locker room that they had plenty of leaders all along.

Breakfast links: The cornerback market

February, 21, 2012
I link, therefore I am.

New York Giants

Ohm Youngmisuk of is breaking down his postseason Giants grades and expanding on them position-by-position. His first one is on quarterback, and as you may have guessed, Eli Manning gets an extremely good grade.

Big Blue View is also going position-by-position as it looks ahead to free agency. This edition of "strut 'em or cut 'em" is on wide receivers, specifically Mario Manningham, Domenik Hixon and Devin Thomas.

Philadelphia Eagles

Nick Fierro breaks down the DeSean Jackson situation and presses the point that the Eagles never pay anyone a dollar more than they believe him to be worth. This would seem to indicate that, even if they franchise Jackson, they would look to trade him or (less likely) do a new deal that would allow them to pay him less than the franchise number in 2012.

With the NFL scouting combine looming later this week, Jonathan Tamari writes that the Eagles rely much more on a player's college game film than anything they see at the combine. GM Howie Roseman says the most important information the team learns about players in Indy is medical information.

Dallas Cowboys

In light of Jason Hatcher's comments last week about the Cowboys lacking leadership, Calvin Watkins outlines some examples from the past year in which several players on the Cowboys' roster showed plenty of leadership, albeit in ways more quiet than those for which Hatcher's example, Ray Lewis, is known.

The Cowboys had some interest in cornerback Stanford Routt, but not as much as some other teams did, and Routt signed Monday with the Chiefs. What this means, however, is that the Chiefs are likely to let talented 25-year-old cornerback Brandon Carr leave via free agency, and that adds Carr to the mix of available cornerbacks for the Cowboys to target. Carr is better than Routt, but with star wide receiver Dwayne Bowe still to worry about, the Chiefs appear to have decided to go with a cheaper option.

Washington Redskins

Redskins GM Bruce Allen says the team has "a game plan" for what to do about quarterback this offseason, which is good to know. He doesn't say what that game plan is, which is no fun at all, but he clearly indicates that the team is pursuing several different options and is poised to change the plan depending on outside circumstances, what other teams do, etc. This is kind of the point I've been trying to make. For example, say their top choice is to trade up to the No. 2 pick for Robert Griffin III but someone else beats them to it. They need to be exploring options such as Peyton Manning, Kyle Orton, etc. just in case. I know we're all supposed to be dealing in absolutes in sports these days, but intelligent people who run their franchises intelligently can't afford to operate like that.

Mike Jones looks at the decision the Redskins face on whether to franchise tight end Fred Davis or safety LaRon Landry. I don't bet, but if I did, I'd bet heavy on Davis here. Landry's health questions have become too significant to allow the Redskins to invest guaranteed money in him -- even for one more year. The tight end number is low, and they have reason to believe Davis will be on his best behavior in the wake of his drug suspension.

Hatcher wishes Ray Lewis was a Cowboy

February, 17, 2012
Sometimes, pro athletes say things that make you shake your head. Heck, who am I kidding? This happens every day. Today, though, we're looking at you, Dallas Cowboys defensive end Jason Hatcher.

Hatcher gave a radio interview on ESPN Dallas 103.3 in which he was asked, among other things, who the leaders on his team are:
"Dude. I gotta be honest with you: That's a good question. That's a good question. I really don't know. It's just another thing we really need ... like the Ravens, we don't have that. We've got the talent. We've got everything we need. I think we get like a Ray Lewis-type. Everybody buys into him. When Ray Lewis speaks, everybody listens to him. A guy like that. We really don't got that. I think we definitely need somebody like that."

Dude. I gotta be honest with you: If the position's open and you believe it needs to be filled, why not just fill it? I mean, if Hatcher feels comfortable enough with his role in the Cowboys' locker room to go on the radio and say the team has no leaders, why doesn't he feel comfortable enough to, you know, be a leader? Make a speech. Fire people up. Say whatever it is you think needs to be said but for some reason can only be said by Lewis. There are plenty of other NFL teams that don't have Lewis and they still manage to win games.

This seems to happen with the Cowboys every offseason now. Somebody comes forward and says the locker room has no leaders. I think it's a pile of baloney. Nobody was questioning locker-room leadership when they were 7-4. They lose four out of their last five and now there's some systemic leadership problem? If they'd won the regular-season finale and, hence, the division, would that have meant they had good leadership?

If these guys spent less time looking around the room for leaders and more time actually trying to be leaders, this wouldn't be an issue. You don't have to be Lewis to stand up and say something you feel needs to be said in a time of crisis. All you need is the guts to say it. Doesn't take any to say it in a radio interview.
San Francisco 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis, the final NFC West man standing in the race to grace the "Madden 12" cover, fell from consideration after Michael Vick rolled to a 61-39 percentage victory over him in the latest balloting.

While Vick won comfortably, Willis commanded a higher percentage than Drew Brees, who suffered a 62-38 percentage defeat to Adrian Peterson in the other quarterfinal.

The Vick-Peterson winner faces the Aaron Rodgers-Peyton Hillis winner for the right to suffer a significant injury in 2010, or something like that.

A consolation prize for Willis: high praise from Ray Lewis.

What's in Mosley's Mailbag?

December, 12, 2009
Let's answer four questions on four teams. You guys have been as prolific as ever. Keep up the good work.

Omar from Oakland, Calif., has some concerns with my recent column suggesting the Cowboys should have hired Norv Turner instead of Wade Phillips: Listen, the Cowboys did not make the wrong decision with Phillips over Turner. Record comparison is comparable with Turner 28-16 and Phillips 30-14. Of course, Turner has won three playoff games to Wade's zero. But here's the thing. Tony Romo is a good quarterback and not a great one. Philips Rivers is the best quarterback in the leauge this side of Manning and Brees. Believe me, the Chargers are winning in spite of Turner. He is a great offensive coordinator and Wade is great defensive coordinator. Neither are great head coaches and never will be, although because of Rivers, Turner may get to a Super Bowl this year while the Cowboys are the fourth or fifth best team at best in the NFC. Bottom line, Turner has Rivers and Wade has Romo. Simply put, no comparison.

Mosley: Could we at least give Turner a little credit for his work with making Rivers one of the top quarterbacks in the league? Turner's recognized as one of the best quarterback gurus (Troy Aikman anyone?) in the game and I think he would've done an unbelievable job with Romo. When you simply talk about skill level, I don't think Rivers is far ahead of Romo -- if at all. But yes, Rivers has three more playoff wins than Romo. Turner has taken quarterbacks such as Brad Johnson and Alex Smith and led them to excellent seasons. Let's not act like he just lucked into a good quarterback. I think Turner's a huge part of Rivers' success and I can't help but think that he would've already helped Romo get at least one playoff win.

Yatin from Los Angeles has a question about Kevin Kolb: Hey Matt, I've tried asking this several times in the chats, but no luck. So I'm giving your mailbag a shot. What do you think Eagles management should do with Kevin Kolb? It's not too different from Favre-Rodgers in that there's a veteran quarterback in Donovan McNabb who is still playing at a high level, but a young talent in Kolb who is not going to be happy sitting forever. While I love Donovan and don't think we should release him, I'm worried we're going to lose our potential quarterback of the future in Kolb.

Mosley: The good thing for the Eagles is that they've now seen that Kolb can perform well in a regular-season game. It wasn't fair to judge the guy on the second half against the Ravens last year. In two games this season, Kolb put up solid numbers and proved that he's a capable backup. My thought is that McNabb will be the starter in 2010 for sure. After that, who knows what will happen? If there's a team out there that thinks of Kolb like the Texans thought of Matt Schaub when he played for the Falcons, then the Eagles will be all ears. But for now, I think Andy Reid still believes that Kolb is the heir apparent to McNabb.

Amari H. from Richmond, Va., doesn't think London Fletcher deserves your Pro Bowl vote: I'm sorry but I couldn't disagree with you more. Although London Fletcher is a really good player, he obviously hasn't stood out enough to be considered a Pro Bowl player. There is no way you can compare his numbers to Ray Lewis'. He may get a similar number of tackles, but if you want to go to the Pro Bowl then you have to be a dynamic linebacker. Ray Lewis, Brian Urlacher and Patrick Willis not only make tackles but they make interceptions, cause fumbles, get sacks, and score touchdowns. They make dynamic plays for their football team. Only two of these guys can get on the Pro Bowl squad and clearly Fletcher hasn't seperated from the pack enough to warrant consideration. This story comes up literally every year and yet still no results. Are you really asking for a handout on behalf of London Fletcher? Right now I got Willis, A.J. Hawk and Keith Brooking ahead of him. And if you can give me any reason to put him ahead of those guys, I am all ears. But can this please be the last time this story comes up. I know he won Super Bowl, I know he's started so many games and I know that he always makes a lot of tackles. But these Redskins players are whining about the Pro Bowl too much.

Mosley: I don't think Peter King would've placed London Fletcher on his all-decade team if he didn't have a little something. No one's looking for handouts, but it is a tremendous slap in the face that Fletcher's never made a Pro Bowl. You brought up forced fumbles and sacks. Well, he's right up there with Lewis in those categories over the past decade. He's also the ultimate leader. I've watched him completely take over football games, so I don't know how you can argue that he's not a dynamic player. He's having another brilliant season at linebacker. This is not some lifetime achievement award we're talking about. He's earned a Pro Bowl trip this season, just like he has for the past six or seven.

Jonathan from Boulder, Colo. has a question about the Giants' O-line: You keep saying in chats and columns that you expect the Giants to change up their O-line in the offseason. After all the success they had last year, what is the difference this year? Who's the weak link and who do you expect to be gone?

Mosley: Last year the offensive line did a nice job of protecting Eli Manning the first 12 or 13 games of the season. This year, the line has given up too many sacks and hasn't done a good job opening up holes in the running game. There are still good players up front -- right guard Chris Snee is one of the best in the league -- but I do think there are changes on the way. For starters, I think David Diehl's days at left tackle are numbered. I think he'd be more effective at left guard. I could also see third-round draft pick Will Beatty pushing Kareem McKenzie at right tackle. It would not surprise me at all to see some of those changes take place this offseason. The Giants' offensive line has had remarkable continuity dating back to the Super Bowl season, but I think changes are on the way.