NFL Nation: NFC East

PHILADELPHIA -- For a team that leads the NFL in offensive yards and points scored, the Philadelphia Eagles certainly have a lot of players dissatisfied with their performances after two games.

Quarterback Nick Foles and running back LeSean McCoy expressed that dissatisfaction after Monday night’s 30-27 win in Indianapolis. Meanwhile, starting wide receivers Riley Cooper and Jeremy Maclin have not put up particularly big numbers yet.

For Chip Kelly, it’s all about the overall production, which has led to the Eagles’ 2-0 record.

“We're not trying to win rushing titles,” Kelly said, alluding to McCoy’s leading the NFL in rushing last season. “We're trying to win football games. I think he's always a very, very harsh critic of himself, which is an admirable quality. I think that's one thing that pushes him. That's why he trains so hard in the offseason. Our standard is trying to win every football game each week, and that's it.”

It’s all related. McCoy has gotten intense attention from Jacksonville and Indianapolis. Those teams seldom see him, so they were committed to bottling up the Eagles’ running game. But doing that leaves other areas vulnerable for the Eagles to exploit.

“Sometimes things are geared to take him away,” Kelly said. “If they're geared to take him away, then other guys have to make plays. We have enough weapons around LeSean where you have to pick your poison, so to speak, in terms of who you have to defend. People are honed in on him and rightfully so. Now it opens the field up for some of the other guys. So some of our big plays have all occurred on play-action passes. There’s a reason for that. If you're going to gang up on the run game, we need to have guys open in play-action pass.”

With defenses keying on McCoy, Darren Sproles has 15 carries for 97 yards and 11 catches for 166 yards. With secondaries trying to limit Foles' ability to go downfield to Maclin and Cooper, tight end Zach Ertz has seven catches for 163 yards.

“I just think there are a lot of matchup things when you have Zach,” Kelly said. “So if you do choose to play man (coverage), you have to man everybody. You can't just man the two outside receivers. So if you do, I think our inside receivers, himself and the running backs coming out of the backfield, become matchup problems, too. So the quarterback in man situations is always trying to find his best matchup.”

As guys like Sproles, Ertz and Jordan Matthews have success, defenses will have to adjust and focus on them more. That should free up McCoy, Maclin and Brent Celek a bit more. Kelly doesn’t care where the production comes from, just that it comes.

Giants' secondary a mess so far

September, 16, 2014
Sep 16
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Aggressive enough to be called for way too many penalties; not aggressive enough to force any turnovers.

This, through two weeks, is the New York Giants' secondary. A unit that was supposed to be the strength of this team has instead been one of the main culprits for their 0-2 start.

 You can't have both of these problems. If you're committing seven penalties on point-of-emphasis, downfield contact plays, five of which hand first downs to the opponent, then that aggressiveness needs to be paying off in the form of takeaways. The Giants are one of three teams in the league -- along with the Chiefs and Steelers -- who have yet to take the ball away from their opponent through the first two weeks of the season.

"The no takeaways is an issue now," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said Monday. "This is something that every team counts on in the NFL -- getting an extra field position, bona fide field position from some type of takeaway, whether it be special teams or defense. And we have not had that."

Coughlin lamented a couple of plays from Sunday's game that he believed safety Stevie Brown and cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie could have turned into interceptions, and he seemed to believe the issues were of technique and/or decision-making.

"You've got to be in the right position. Your eyes have got to be in the right spot. You've got to have a good feel for it," Coughlin said. I thought on a couple of occasions, the quarterback was actually staring the ball down where he was goingm and we still weren't influenced enough to go in that direction and be in position to make a play. We do have athletes. They are good athletes. A couple of years ago, we referred to Stevie Brown as kind of a ballhawking guy in center field when he had that opportunity. He's just not there yet. He's not back yet to where he was a couple of years ago, and let's hope he gets there."

In the meantime, the Giants' defensive backs need to keep their hands to themselves. They weren't called for many of those preseason-type downfield contact penalties in the opening-week loss in Detroit, but they had way too many of them on Sunday. And while fans and even some players and coaches may want to sit around and argue about the validity of the calls being made against defensive backs, they are being made, and defensive players have to adjust better than the Giants have done.

"We need to be smarter," safety Antrel Rolle said. "You can't hold a guy. Illegal contact, things like that are going to take place throughout the course of the game. But there are certain things we saw on film. When you're jamming a guy, and you're holding and you're looking at the quarterback, they're going to call that 100 percent of the time. So we have to be smarter."

It would be one thing if the over-aggressive play were leading to interceptions, but they don't have one yet. And while it's still early, this is a unit that needs to be setting the tone for the rest of the team. It's not going to get any easier with nickel cornerback Walter Thurmond out for the year due to a pectoral muscle injury, but the players who remain are good enough to cut down on the penalties and make some plays. At this point, though, the Giants would take just one of those things.

"Obviously, we're not as good at it as we should be," Coughlin said. "So we've got to sharpen it up."

Foles, McCoy know they can be better

September, 16, 2014
Sep 16
INDIANAPOLIS -- Nick Foles had just won a game against Andrew Luck, the guy selected 87 spots ahead of him in the 2012 NFL draft. Foles' Eagles are off to a 2-0 start following a 30-27 win on "Monday Night Football" and have won nine of their past 10 regular-season games.

And yet, Foles and running back LeSean McCoy left the field at Lucas Oil Stadium feeling that they hadn't really played their best game.

"We didn't execute in the red zone," Foles said. "I need to do a better job of that. Especially on the road, you have to capitalize and get touchdowns in the red zone. … We need to play better football in the first half offensively. I missed some throws that could have really helped us out."

[+] EnlargeLeSean McCoy
AP Photo/Michael ConroyLeSean McCoy finished with 79 yards on 20 carries.
McCoy lost 4 yards on his first two carries. He finished the game with 79 yards on 20 carries. Those are respectable totals, but nothing like McCoy was doing as he led the NFL in rushing last season.

"I need to get my thing together," McCoy said. "I feel like I'm not playing to my level where I should be playing. Like tonight, I had an average, above-average game. I didn't have too many touches. Just enough to be effective."

McCoy and Foles certainly played key roles in the Eagles' second-half comeback. On a third-and-15 in the third quarter, coach Chip Kelly called for a running play. McCoy broke it for a 21-yard gain and a first down. Three plays later, Darren Sproles ran for a 19-yard touchdown.

Foles made some big throws in the fourth quarter, although they didn't all travel far. He flipped a screen to Sproles that traveled about 4 yards in the air. Sproles took it 51 yards to the Indianapolis 6-yard line. From there, Foles found Jeremy Maclin for the game-tying touchdown.

And after the Eagles' defense forced the Colts to punt, Foles found tight end Zach Ertz open for a 24-yard gain. That got the Eagles into Indianapolis territory. Another short throw to Sproles, which turned into a 19-yard gain, got the Eagles close enough for kicker Cody Parkey to make the winning field goal.

"When the offense came together knowing that we had that drive," Foles said, "it's a great offense to play for because guys just look at each other and say, 'Hey, let's go do this.' That's what I love about them. Everybody had that determined look in their eye and everybody was relaxed. Let's play the football we know how to."

The comeback wins felt great, but the Eagles can make things a lot easier on themselves by playing well in the first half, too.

INDIANAPOLIS -- LeSean McCoy has an ego. Most great athletes do. McCoy can’t resist taking little jabs at other great NFL running backs, because he believes he’s as good as any of them.

The flip side is that McCoy has appreciation for other elite players. And there’s no getting around it: For two games now, McCoy has been the second-best running back on the Philadelphia Eagles. The NFL’s 2013 rushing champion has been in awe of his new teammate, Darren Sproles.

On Monday night, Sproles took a short toss from Nick Foles 57 yards to set up the Eagles’ game-tying, fourth-quarter touchdown. In the third quarter, Sproles ran 19 yards for a touchdown, bouncing off several defenders, to keep the Eagles in the game. Last week against Jacksonville, Sproles’ 49-yard touchdown run lit the fuse on the Eagles’ 34-point, second-half surge.

“Without Sproles,” McCoy said, “we’d be in some trouble. We really would. That’s why we’re a team. When guys are struggling, he’s picking everybody up.”

Sproles was the primary offensive weapon in the Eagles’ last-second, 30-27 win over the Indianapolis Colts. His 152 receiving yards and 203 all-purpose yards helped erase another slow start and some inconsistent play from McCoy and quarterback Nick Foles.

His impact even had Eagles coach Chip Kelly backpedaling. Since the Eagles acquired Sproles in a trade with the New Orleans Saints, Kelly has stressed that he sees Sproles as a very good running back. Sure, he can catch the ball and lined up all over the field for the New Orleans Saints, but he’s a good back. Period.

After Monday night’s win, Kelly had a little fun at his own expense.

“First and foremost, Darren’s a receiver,” Kelly said. “I’ve said that since Day 1, since we’ve had Darren. He’s just a special player. How many ways can we find to get him the football? He is just a dynamic football player. He can run it, he can catch it. He’s a complete running back.”

Sproles smiled slightly when asked about all this.

“I’m all-purpose,” Sproles said, summing it up.

He’s a soft-spoken guy, but that’s OK. His teammates couldn’t stop talking about him.

“He’s a very explosive player,” tight end Zach Ertz said. “We’re very happy to have him.”

Safety Malcolm Jenkins played with Sproles in New Orleans, so this is all familiar to him. Jenkins, who signed a free-agent deal with the Eagles, intercepted an Andrew Luck pass to set up Sproles’ 57-yard screen pass.

“You get him in space, in one-on-one matchups, no matter who you put on him, there’s going to be a mismatch,” Jenkins said. “The biggest attribute he has, he goes downhill. He gets on the second-level defenders very, very fast. He’s hard to get in the open field. He breaks tackles against people that are twice his size. He does some stuff, we don’t quite understand how he does it.”

Thanks to Sproles and a couple of big defensive plays, the Eagles were able to win a second game without getting off to a particularly good start. That begs the question of just how good this team could be if it played its A-game from the start.

After the Eagles tied it at 27-27, the stage seemed set for Luck to conduct one of his fourth-quarter drives to win it. Instead, the Eagles forced a three-and-out, then drove downfield and kicked the winning field goal as time expired.

"Some people were saying, 'This is just like Period 22 [practice] for us,'" Jenkins said. "We practice at such a pace that when we get into these fourth quarters, guys are fresh. Guys are still full speed. This is what we train for. When we got into those situations, I don’t think the moment was too big for anybody."

It certainly wasn’t too big for Sproles.

Eagles quite impressed with Sproles

September, 16, 2014
Sep 16
INDIANAPOLIS -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the Eagles’ 30-27 victory over the Colts:

Sproles redefined: Ever since acquiring Darren Sproles in a trade early in the offseason, Eagles coach Chip Kelly has been adamant that Sproles is a running back first. After Sproles caught seven passes for 152 yards against the Colts, here was Kelly: “First and foremost, Darren’s a receiver. I’ve said that since Day 1.” The coach’s tongue was firmly in cheek for that one. “He’s a complete running back,” Kelly said. It's hard to argue that.

Shady interpretation: The Eagles are 2-0, but were outscored in the first halves of their games by a combined score of 34-6. Running back LeSean McCoy knows the team is living dangerously. “Every game is not going to be great,” McCoy said. “We’re not going to do everything right. Championship teams have to fight to win. Every game shouldn’t be like that. We’ll have some blowouts. That’s waiting to happen. Maybe next week.” That should go over well in Washington.

Collision sport: Center Jason Kelce was running as fast as he could, lead blocking on a screen pass play. Sproles caught Kelce and ran into him from behind. “I knew he was right there,” Kelce said. “His hand was on my back. I knew I had to get going.” Kelce did just fine, as Sproles made it all the way to the Colts’ 6-yard line.

Marcus Smith inactive for Eagles

September, 15, 2014
Sep 15
INDIANAPOLIS -- Linebacker Marcus Smith, the Eagles’ first-round draft pick who didn’t play a snap in last week’s season opener, is inactive for tonight’s game against the Colts.

Running back Chris Polk, who missed the entire preseason and last week’s game with a hamstring injury, will be dressed tonight. So will both of the potential replacements for left guard Evan Mathis, Dennis Kelly and newly signed Wade Smith. It is unclear which of those will start.

Emmanuel Acho, who was signed off the practice squad last week, will dress. He will be one of eight linebackers in uniform. Smith is the odd man out.

Last week, Smith was sidelined because defensive coordinator Bill Davis decided to have Brandon Graham play at both outside linebacker spots. With Smith active, the Eagles had only two reserve offensive linemen available. Both were pressed into service due to injuries.

The situation is the same tonight. Either Kelly or Smith will be one backup lineman. David Molk will back up center Jason Kelce.
PHILADELPHIA -- After a full season in the NFL, and after going 3-for-7 when challenging on-field officials' calls in 2013, Chip Kelly saw an area he could improve on.

Kelly hired Frank Kosman, a former ACC replay official, to help decide whether to throw the challenge flag this season.

"Just wanted to get better in every aspect," Kelly said. "I analyze everything after the season. How do we improve on what we did before? Just thought that was the right way to go."

In the past, his assistant coaches on the pressbox level would advise Kelly based on replays shown on television.

That is, if they even saw the replays.

"We don’t get the same feed all the time that the people on TV get," Kelly said. "When you get, 'Hey, you should have challenged that because on TV, they got that,' we’re governed by the feed that we get in the box. There's been some games where I ask, 'Should we challenge it?' and our guys in the box say, 'We haven’t seen a replay yet.' It always seems like it happens when we’re on the road."

The NFL has tweaked the replay rules, making some plays subject to automatic review. But it is still up to coaches to decide whether to challenge other calls. As a former official, Kosman should have a feel for what the on-field officials are seeing and an understanding of the applicable rules.

"We’re not going to challenge it -- because it is taking a timeout -- if they haven’t seen it," Kelly said. "We’re not going to guess on what they saw. That’s why we play eight games at home and eight games on the road. Everything evens out. I’m a positive-looking guy. Eight times a year, we get the best view in the world."

DeMarco Murray among NFL's best backs?

September, 12, 2014
Sep 12
IRVING, Texas -- Adrian Peterson and LeSean McCoy carried on a long-distance argument this summer over their claims as the NFL’s best running back.

 DeMarco Murray’s name doesn’t come up in those conversations. And he doesn’t care about where people think he falls on the pecking order of running backs in the league.

“I don’t worry about that stuff,” Murray said. “I never have, never will. I know what I can do. I have a lot of confidence in myself and those are some great running backs, but I definitely think I can handle a little bit of everything. So it’s something I don’t really get caught up in too much.”

Murray, who was selected for his first Pro Bowl after last season, doesn’t have enough of a track record to be considered elite at this point. But, if the past eight games are an indication, the 26-year-old Murray could be in that class soon.

In that span, Murray has rushed for 780 yards and seven touchdowns on 144 carries.

McCoy and San Diego’s Ryan Mathews are the only backs with more rushing yards after the midway point of last season. Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch is the only back with more rushing touchdowns. Kansas City’s Jamaal Charles and the Jets’ Chris Ivory are the only ones with a higher yards-per-carries average and at least 90 attempts.

Murray, who has had durability issues, must prove he can stay healthy and produce at that level consistently. But he’s beginning to build a case that he’s among the league’s best backs.
PHILADELPHIA – Nick Foles drew a lot of attention for the second half of his 2013 season. Foles went 7-1 as the Philadelphia Eagles’ starting quarterback, took the team to the playoffs and went on to be named MVP of the Pro Bowl.

Less attention was paid to the first half of Foles’ season, which included his best performance (that seven-touchdown game in Oakland) and his worst. That would be his start against the Dallas Cowboys. Foles completed 11 of 29 passes for 80 yards and was sacked three times before being knocked out just before halftime.

If he hadn’t been hurt, maybe Foles would have rallied the Eagles to a second-half victory against Dallas. As it was, his next performance was that record-tying game against the Raiders. Foles has shown that his poor performances can be pretty bad, but also that he rebounds nicely.

“I simply didn’t execute [Sunday],” Foles said Wednesday. “I wasn’t really doing a good job of stepping up in the pocket. The O-line was giving me a good pocket to step up into. It’s one of those things where you keep playing, you keep working. Once I started stepping into the pocket, getting some completions, we were running the ball well, we started getting things flowing.”

Foles cited one play in the first half. Wide receiver Jeremy Maclin was open. Foles saw him.

“I was trying to get the ball to him,” Foles said. “It was one of those things that, if instead of sliding right I had stepped up in the pocket, I think I deliver the ball down there and we get some points. It’s a learning opportunity right there. That’s one of those things you wished you hit, but we just have to learn from.”

Instead, Foles was sacked and fumbled the ball on that play. Instead of an Eagles touchdown, that led to a Jaguars touchdown.

“I know what it takes to fix those [things],” Foles said. “We’re going to work to improve every single day. I was definitely inaccurate on a few throws. When you watch that on film, it sort of excites me. It’s correctable. It’s not something you look at and there’s nothing you can do about it. All the stuff I saw on film, it’s correctable.”
IRVING, Texas -- This can’t be how Tyron Smith wanted to start after joining the NFL’s exclusive $100 million club.

 The Pro Bowl left tackle’s stat line from Sunday’s loss to the San Francisco 49ers: two sacks allowed, two penalties, no comment.

That’s not exactly a case of the Dallas Cowboys getting their money’s worth after giving Smith the biggest contract for an offensive lineman in NFL history, a deal worth about $109 million over the next 10 seasons.

In fairness to Smith, the first sack officially goes on his ledger but wasn’t his fault. Tony Romo, the $108 million quarterback, deserves the blame on that for foolishly opting not to hand the ball to DeMarco Murray on a packaged play on second-and-1 from the San Francisco 2 and not throwing the ball away when he saw the receiver double-covered.

A false start before the first snap of the season, a legitimate sack allowed and a personal foul for leg whipping still represent a disappointing performance for an elite left tackle, although head coach Jason Garrett gushed about Smith anyway.

“Tyron did some really good things in the game,” Garrett said. “He was a dominant blocker both in the run game and the pass game. He had a false start and he had a leg-whip penalty that we’re going to send into the league. I don’t think it was done intentionally by any means. So he had some of those negative plays. He gave up a sack. But for the most part, he did a really good job in this game.”

The standard should be higher for the highest-paid offensive lineman in NFL history.
IRVING, Texas -- Common sense dictates that the Dallas Cowboys want to get Dez Bryant the ball a bunch.

 Common sense also dictates that Tony Romo shouldn’t throw Bryant the ball when he has two or three defenders all over him.

That happened twice Sunday. Romo was picked off both times.

“I think it’s pretty clear -- you don’t force the ball to people,” head coach Jason Garrett said. “Dez is a great player, but [Jason Witten is] a great player too, Terrance Williams, Cole Beasley, Devin Street, Dwayne Harris, all those guys are really, really good football players, who, if given an opportunity, are going to come through for us.

“Tony understands that. Tony’s typically struck a really nice balance about trying to give these guys a chance and understanding how to read things out and throwing the ball to the right guy. In each of those cases, he probably was too aggressive throwing to Dez, and those plays hurt us, obviously.”

Romo targeted Bryant only four other times in the season-opening loss. The Pro Bowl receiver caught those four passes for 55 yards.

The 49ers clearly made containing Bryant one of the primary focuses of their defensive game plan. That’s not exactly a revolutionary concept.

Every team the Cowboys play will pay a ton of attention to Bryant. It’s on Romo and the Cowboys’ offensive coaching staff to figure out ways how to still get Bryant the ball without making ridiculously risky throws.

“It’s what happens every week in the NFL,” Garrett said. “Dez Bryant, if you look at his whole body of work throughout his career, he’s gotten doubled throughout most games every game he’s every play. The same thing with Jason Witten. These guys are really good players. Week in and week out they find ways, we’ve tried to find ways to give them opportunities.”

The Cowboys failed Sunday and paid heavily when Romo forced the issue.

Eagles never doubted a victory

September, 7, 2014
Sep 7
videoPHILADELPHIA -- The Philadelphia Eagles came into this season believing they were one of the up-and-coming teams in the NFL. One very bad half of football against the Jacksonville Jaguars did not shake their faith.

“We faced a lot of adversity the first half of this game,” linebacker DeMeco Ryans said. “But one thing about it, we came into this locker room at halftime and nobody booed. Everybody knew what we had to do. We knew we just had to go out and clean up our mistakes.”

Coach Chip Kelly was calm, tight end Zach Ertz said. “We know the potency of our offense and what we can do on any given play or series. That’s kind of who we are as a team and that’s kind of what we expect each and every series.”

“Nobody, for one second, doubted that we would win this game,” wide receiver Jeremy Maclin said.

The Jaguars led 17-0 at the half. At the end of the game, the scoreboard showed Eagles 34, Jaguars 17. It was not the major statement the Eagles hoped to make in their season opener, but it was a victory that could have some other benefits.

“It was something I’m glad we went through,” safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “Because we could see what the response would be. We gave up 14 points. The offense turned the ball over. The defense got some huge stops in the first half to keep the game close. As a team, we slowly chipped our way back. Those are the type of wins that you can look back on, and these are the types of wins that build your team and define your team.”

Sproles helped turn the tide. The Eagles faced a fourth-and-1 on their first possession of the second half. Kelly decided to go for it, and the Eagles hurried to line up and snap the ball. Before the Jaguars' defense could get set, Sproles was well on his way to a 48-yard touchdown run.

“I think that was the turning point,” Sproles said. “That got us going.”

Quarterback Nick Foles played his worst football since the loss to Dallas at Lincoln Financial Field last October. Foles was knocked out of that game late in the first half with a concussion. Maybe he would have come back and led the Eagles to a similar comeback victory.

Foles lost two fumbles and threw an interception in the first half. In the second, he completed 15 of 21 passes for 183 yards and two touchdowns. The first touchdown was a 25-yard toss to Ertz. The second was a 68-yard throw to a wide-open Jeremy Maclin in the fourth quarter.

“After that touchdown, to me, he kind of settled down,” Ertz said.

Foles wasn’t the only one.

“It actually opened our eyes,” cornerback Cary Williams said. “Mine in particular. I didn’t play my best football. In the first quarter, I let my teammates down, the fans down. It was out of character. I didn’t handle my responsibility. I was trying to do too much and it came back and bit the team. It was a great win.”

Greatness is in the eyes of the beholder. For the Eagles, the mistakes and poor plays in the first half weren’t enough to make them question themselves. The second-half rally reinforced their beliefs that they are a good team.

“At the end of the day,” Ertz said, “very good teams have to find ways to win those games. That’s what we did today.”

If these Eagles do become a “very good team,” they can count Sunday’s win as one of the steps that got them there.

PHILADELPHIA -- A few thoughts on the Philadelphia Eagles' 34-17 win against the Jacksonville Jaguars at Lincoln Financial Field.

What it means: There will be legitimate questions about quarterback Nick Foles until he proves this game was an aberration. When you're playing against Chad Henne, it's important to be clearly the best quarterback in the game. Foles, who threw 27 touchdowns and just two interceptions last season, had three turnovers in the first half. His two fumbles turned into Jacksonville touchdowns. His first interception was a combination of a bad decision -- intending the pass for a well-covered Brent Celek in the back of the end zone -- and an underthrow. Foles appeared to have open receivers on many plays, but he held the ball too long and got into trouble. Even during the second-half comeback, Foles missed open receivers on several occasions. Puzzling.

Stock watch: Down. Foles is going to have to play a lot better than this if the Eagles are going to be back in the playoff picture this season. It was Foles' worst performance since the game against Dallas at Lincoln Financial Field last season. Foles was knocked out of that game before halftime with a concussion. He bounced back with his seven-touchdown game in Oakland two weeks later. Maybe he bounced back in the second half?

Luck turns: The Eagles' offensive line enjoyed remarkable health last season. All five linemen started all 17 games, including the playoff loss to New Orleans. That prompted discussion about whether that good health resulted from Chip Kelly's sports science-based approach or was mere good luck. The Eagles already were without right tackle Lane Johnson for four games because of a performance-enhancing drug suspension. They lost Pro Bowl left guard Evan Mathis (left knee) and right tackle Allen Barbre (right ankle) within a few plays in the second quarter.

Game ball: We'd give it to Foles, but he would have dropped it. Let's go with Darren Sproles, whose 49-yard touchdown run and two 22-yard punt returns got the Eagles back into the game in the third quarter.

What's next: The Eagles didn't get the coming-out party they were hoping for, but they are 1-0. That's big because next Monday night they have to play the Colts in Indianapolis. Instead of being desperate to avoid an 0-2 start, the Eagles bought themselves a little breathing room by coming back for the win.
IRVING, Texas -- With the NFL and NFL Players Association working on a revamped drug policy that could be put in place quickly, the Dallas Cowboys could benefit with the potential earlier-than-expected return of cornerback Orlando Scandrick if the penalties are changed.

 Scandrick was suspended the first four games for violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing drug policy last month after testing positive for MDMA, according to sources. The drug was cut with an amphetamine, which moved Scandrick’s violation from the substance-abuse policy to the PED policy, requiring the four-game ban. He would not have been suspended under the substance-abuse policy.

If the drug policy is changed, the question is whether the sides would allow recently suspended players, like Scandrick and Denver Broncos wide receiver Wes Welker, to play immediately. When the league implemented a new domestic violence policy recently, the two-game suspension of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice was not increased to six.

The Cowboys would activate Scandrick to the roster if he is allowed to play Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers. His suspension started after the final cuts, and he is scheduled to return Sept. 29. The Cowboys are not allowed to have contact with Scandrick, per league rules, but he said he would work out twice a day on his own with a personal trainer in Los Angeles.

Scandrick has missed four days of practice, but the Cowboys started their game planning for the Niners in training camp.

Owner and general manager Jerry Jones said on 105.3 The Fan in Dallas Friday the possibility of Scandrick returning was news to him.

“I’m not planning on it, let’s put it like that,” Jones said. “Just on first blush, just from what you just said, the quicker we can get him back, the better our team would be because he arguably did have certainly defensively, and in the secondary, a great training camp. I really admired the way that he really kept competing and kept preparing himself for the season even though he knew he was going to be out for the four games. No individual, no person would deserve it more if he could get back early.”
IRVING, Texas -- Aldon Smith and NaVorro Bowman have instant name recognition with even casual NFL fans. They’ve been superstars on one of the NFL’s most dominant defenses the past few years.

Who the heck are Dan Skuta and Michael Wilhoite?

The short answer is that Skuta and Wilhoite are the guys expected to replace Smith (suspended) and Bowman (physically unable to perform list) in the San Francisco 49ers’ starting lineup for Sunday’s season opener at AT&T Stadium. But good luck finding anyone at Valley Ranch who will admit that the Dallas Cowboys find comfort in the drop-off from Pro Bowlers to backups.

“They’re good football players,” Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett said when asked what he knows about Skuta and Wilhoite. “Each of those guys you can tell loves to play football. They’re physical players, and they’ve stepped into those roles they’ve been asked to step into. It doesn’t seem like they’ve skipped a beat at all on defense.”

How could the San Francisco defense not skip a beat?

Smith, the talented but troubled outside linebacker who is suspended for the first nine games of the season, has a chance to be one of the premier pass rushers in NFL history. He has 42 sacks in 43 career games. Skuta, a five-year veteran, has a grand total of a half sack in his career.

Bowman, who is recovering from the serious knee injury he suffered in the NFC Championship Game, makes all kinds of plays. He’s racked up nine sacks, seven forced fumbles, five fumble recoveries and three interceptions while making the Pro Bowl the past three seasons. Wilhoite has zeroes across the board in each of those categories for his three-year career.

“Regardless of who is on the field for the 49ers, they are going to come to play,” receiver Dez Bryant said. “You can tell that they play with a mentality.”

It’s not as if San Francisco lacks talent on defense even with two Pro Bowlers watching from home. Garrett still says the 49ers might have the best front seven in the league.

Patrick Willis is as good as any inside linebacker in the league. Defensive end Justin Smith has made five straight Pro Bowls. Outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks played in the Pro Bowl last season.

Quarterback Tony Romo says the Cowboys might not have a better test all season, a statement he’ll surely revise before their trip to Seattle. The point is the Cowboys won’t be caught sleeping on a defense that has been dominant just because two of its best players won’t make the trip.

“Look, I got so much respect for them,” tight end Jason Witten said. “I mean obviously they got some really good players that are out, there’s no denying that, but they know what they are. They’re tough. They’re physical. They play downhill. They tackle well. They’re always in the right position, good technique.

“Just everything you want, they do it. Stop the run, they play good coverage. They get pressure on the quarterback. We’ve got to just match that intensity, and we know it’s going to be a tough physical game. We’ve got to take advantage of every opportunity that we have.”