NFL Nation: Tony Fiammetta

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- A black briefcase lying in front of him at the podium, Chicago Bears guard Kyle Long took a businesslike approach Monday in assessing the team's dismal performance in the run game during the club's triumph over the San Francisco 49ers.

"I was embarrassed," Long said.

Bears coach Marc Trestman worded his thoughts a tad more delicately, but the fact remains the offense -- after averaging 4.8 yards per rushing attempt in the season opener -- took a major step backward running the ball against the 49ers.

Obviously several factors played into the performance, most significantly, a 17-point deficit in the second quarter, which put the team into passing mode. Still, when Chicago ran against the 49ers, it averaged just 2.7 yards per attempt, with Matt Forte finishing with 21 yards on 12 attempts.

[+] EnlargeMatt Forte
AP Photo/Tony Avelar)The Bears struggled to run the ball against the 49ers, averaging just 2.7 yards per carry.
Jay Cutler led the way with 25 yards rushing, with all of that coming on one scramble.

"Very poor in our run game performance," Trestman said. "We're gonna throw that away, and try to work off where we got started in the Buffalo game, and try to continue progress and get better there. [San Francisco is a] very difficult defense to run against. But nonetheless, the tape has certainly shown us we have some work to do. It got our guys' attention, which is a good thing."

The club's rushing aspirations become more difficult Monday night on the road when the Bears face the New York Jets, which boast the league's to run defense. Jets opponents averaged 2.8 yards per attempt and 52.5 yards per game on the ground. New York's defense is one of just seven units in the NFL which still hasn't given up a rushing touchdown.

The longest run surrendered by the Jets this season was 12 yards.

"We need to run the ball," Long said. "I know we got the win on the road, and it was big. I'm sure everybody else in our room will echo that. So will Matt. You need to run the ball in the National Football League, and we'll be better at that."

Chicago certainly needs to be Monday night to prevent New York from making it one dimensional, which in turn would allow the Jets to pin back their ears and come after quarterback Jay Cutler. If the Bears can string together success on the ground against the Jets, the playbook opens up and allows them to attack with all the weapons at their disposal as opposed to relying solely on Jay Cutler and the receivers to make the offense go.

Long attributed the offense's problems running the ball to simply "techniques, different looks." But ultimately, Long said there's no excuse for Chicago's inability to run the ball effectively.

"You run the ball. You grab the guy in front of him. You move him, and the running back has an opening," Long said. "It's hard to break that down any simpler than that. [The Jets] pose another challenge for us. When you can break through walls like those, you become stronger as a unit. I feel like it's an opportunity for us. It's a mountain. We've got to climb it, and we've got to put our flag in the top of it. We're gonna figure out a way to run the ball against the Jets."

Balancing out the run-pass ration might help (83 passes to 35 runs so far this season), as well as bringing back fullback Tony Fiammetta. Fiammetta missed the opener due to a hamstring injury. Then the team -- reeling from injuries along the offensive line and receiver -- cut the fullback last week as it adjusted the roster to compensate. The Bears brought Fiammetta back on Monday, and Trestman is hopeful he can help spark the rushing attack as Forte's lead blocker.

"He certainly could [help]," Trestman said. "Tony Fiammetta is an excellent player, and we haven't had a chance to utilize him because of the hamstring injury. Very, very good as a lead back. I know Matt likes running with Tony leading the way."
CHICAGO -- A rash of injuries on the offensive line and at wide receiver prompted the Chicago Bears to make a handful of roster moves in advance of Sunday night’s road game against the San Francisco 49ers.

Sources confirmed the Bears waived quarterback David Fales and released veteran cornerback Kelvin Hayden and veteran fullback Tony Fiammetta.

The Bears announced following Friday’s practice that Fales (shoulder) and Fiammetta (hamstring) had been officially ruled out for Week 2.

Hayden was a healthy inactive in Chicago's 23-20 overtime loss to the Buffalo Bills in the season opener.

The expectation is the Bears will look to fill some of the open roster spots off the practice squad. With Brandon Marshall (ankle) and Alshon Jeffery (hamstring) questionable, and Josh Morgan (groin) doubtful, the Bears could choose to promote one, or more, of their current practice squad wide receivers: Josh Bellamy, Greg Herd, Chris Williams and Rashad Ross. Practice squad center/guard Taylor Boggs is a candidate to help with depth on the offensive line after starters Roberto Garza (high-ankle sprain) and Matt Slauson (high-ankle sprain) were both declared out for the 49ers game.

Will McClayAP Photo/James D SmithAssistant director of player personnel Will McClay, 47, will be an asset to the Cowboys in May's draft.
IRVING, Texas -- There is a Herm Edwards story that keeps coming back to Will McClay, especially now.

The story is from more than 10 years ago, when Edwards was coach of the New York Jets. As a boy, Edwards' father made him sweep the back patio of their house. When Edwards was done, his father went out back, saw the pile his son made and immediately went to the corners. They were untouched.

The message that stuck with McClay when he first heard the story was simple: Details matter.

In his current job as the Dallas Cowboys' assistant director of player personnel, McClay is sweeping the corners.

In this case, sweeping the corners is looking anywhere and everywhere for a player to help the Cowboys in next month's draft. This is McClay's first as the Cowboys' highest-ranked personnel chief not named Jones.

"He's there night and day," said McClay's former Arena Football League assistant and confidante Terry Gray. "He's got a relentless passion to provide Mr. [Jerry] Jones and Stephen [Jones] the very best product available within the means and the parameters of what he's able to work with. He's nonstop. Nonstop. He doesn't sleep a whole lot."

There will be time to sleep after the draft. Maybe McClay, 47, can sneak in a little bit in June after the minicamp ends but before training camp in Oxnard, Calif., begins in late July.

For now, sleep can wait. McClay, whom the Cowboys declined to make available for this story, is in charge of putting the Cowboys' draft room together. It is a painstaking process that takes months to go through but picks up its pace in the final few weeks before the Cowboys pick No. 16 overall in the first round on May 8.

This week, nearly 30 players from across the country will visit Valley Ranch, wrapping up on Wednesday. On Thursday, the club will host its Dallas Day workouts for the local draft prospects. When it is all over, McClay and the scouting department will be back in the office grinding away, sweeping the corners.

McClay's rise to this current position has taken him through the Arena Football League as a player and coach, the defunct XFL and the Jacksonville Jaguars, where he was the assistant director of pro scouting. He joined the Cowboys organization in 2002 as defensive coordinator of the AFL's Dallas Desperados and became the head coach in 2004. He also served as a pro scout for the Cowboys, and in 2012 he was named the director of football research. Last spring he was promoted to his current title.

"Everything equates in looking at talent," Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones said. "He found some really unique guys in the arena league and then of course when he was back in scouting. He has had a passion for it, and it just seems like every step of the way he's done a good job for us. I commend him on the job he did finding guys like [George] Selvie and [Nick] Hayden, people like that. People that everybody had a shot at, but he brought them in."

Over the past few years, the Cowboys have found several prizes in street free agency in Laurent Robinson, Tony Fiammetta, Eric Frampton, Ernie Sims and Selvie, who had seven sacks last season. The Cowboys dressed 20 different defensive linemen in 2013.

McClay spent most of the season sweeping the corners for defensive linemen. And he was doing it long before he ever heard Edwards' tale. He did it at Houston Marian Christian, playing wide receiver as a freshman and quarterback as a senior to win Class 3A state titles in the Texas Christian Interscholastic League in 1981 and ‘84.

His high school coach, Mike Treybig, remembers walking into his office only to see McClay feeding the 16-millimeter film into the projector.

"

He found some really unique guys in the arena league and then of course when he was back in scouting. He has had a passion for it, and it just seems like every step of the way he's done a good job for us.

" -- Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones on assistant director of player personnel William McClay
"William liked watching tape," Treybig said. "I would imagine he would've loved it if we let him call his own plays. I know there were times we allowed him to do that. He was definitely a student of the game. We didn't have to worry about a lot of stuff when it came to William. We knew he did his homework and would take care of things to give us the best chance to win on that Friday."

McClay could have gone to Nebraska, but he chose Rice instead to stay close to home and played defensive back. He was recruited there by Mike Nolan, the current defensive coordinator of the Atlanta Falcons. Tyrone Willingham, the former head coach at Notre Dame and Stanford, was the receivers coach at the time.

He remembers questions from McClay about what receivers looked for, searching for ways to get better as a defender even if the wins did not come as much as the Owls would have liked. Willingham and McClay remain close to this day.

"I'm personally excited for the individual, but I'm more excited for the organization because they did not let talent, for one reason or another, slip through the cracks," Willingham said. "That, to me, is so important because when you have talent you want to let it rise to the top to better everyone else in the organization."

Clint Dolezel played two years at East Texas State, throwing for 3,152 yards and 22 touchdown passes. McClay was defensive coordinator with a hand in personnel for the Milwaukee Mustangs in 1995 when Dolezel was recommended and eventually signed.

By the time Dolezel retired in 2008 with the Desperados with McClay as his head coach, he threw for 44,563 yards and 931 touchdowns.

"So many scouts get caught up in the fact, ‘Well, we want him because he went to this big school,'" said Dolezel, now the head coach of the AFL's Philadelphia Soul. "And a lot of times they're right, but those are the no-brainers that no one is pointing a finger at if he doesn't pan out. Hey, he had the pedigree because he went to Texas or Oklahoma or Florida State or Alabama. The good ones find the ones at East Texas State and schools like that."

In his interview with the Jaguars, Tom Coughlin had McClay research a particular free-agent cornerback the team was high on and wanted to sign. McClay watched the tape and concluded that the player would not be worth the money or fit in the system. Coughlin briefly objected, but McClay held firm. He got the job, and the Jaguars did not sign the player.

"There is not a magic formula," Gray said. "It's just good, old-fashioned bust-your-ass hard work and lots and lots of tape. Lots of calls. Lots of research. Just looking at thousands of players until you find one you think fits for you. He's just got a very unique way knowing a football player when he sees one. That's commonly described by a lot of people, but he just knows it at a different level. It's more than just everybody saying, ‘He can't play.' It's Will finding guys that can play that no one considered.

"Will McClay is a machine. He's a film-watching, evaluating, researching machine. He just never stops and he will never stop."

There always will be corners to sweep.

Hester, Peppers unsure of futures

December, 29, 2013
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CHICAGO -- Three-time Pro Bowl return man Devin Hester wants clarity on his future with the Chicago Bears.

Hester, who is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent after earning $2,107,523 in the final year of his contract, hopes to hear in the near future if he fits into the Bears’ plans beyond 2013.

Peppers
Hester
“I really want to know right away,” Hester said following the Bears’ 33-28 loss to the Green Bay Packers. “I am the type of guy, I don’t want to go through the whole offseason not knowing where I am going to be at. I want to retire as a Bear. I put in too much hard work here and did a lot of things around here. I am pretty sure the fans want me back, so who knows.”

One of the organization’s most popular players since he debuted in the league in 2006 as a second-round pick out of the University of Miami, Hester said he’s currently in the dark regarding the Bears’ offseason intentions.

“To be honest, I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Hester said. “It really hurts walking off the field knowing that this could be my last time wearing a Chicago Bears uniform. It’s the most hurtful feeling that I have right now. This is where I was born and raised (as an NFL player). It’s not like I played three years somewhere else or six years somewhere else, but I know this is a business.

Everything I had in me I left it all on the field tonight. We just came up short.”

Hester returned a punt 49 yards in Week 17 while also handling five kickoffs for 127 yards. In his first season of being exclusively a return man, Hester finished 2013 with a 27.7 yard average on kickoff returns and 14.2 yard average on punt returns, including an 81-yard touchdown.

He joins a long list of prominent Bears players with expiring contracts. Among the players on the list: quarterback Jay Cutler, cornerbacks Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings, defensive lineman Corey Wootton, safety Major Wright, center Roberto Garza, linebacker James Anderson and left guard Matt Slauson.

The future of veteran defensive end Julius Peppers is also in doubt. Although Peppers is under contract through 2015, he is currently projected to count $18,183,333 against the Bears’ salary cap next season. Peppers lead the Bears this year with 7.5 sacks, but he didn’t look nearly as dominant as he had in previous seasons.

“I’m not sure, I don’t know [what’s going to happen],” Peppers said. “I’m in a contract. You’ll need to talk to a decision-maker about that.”

The Bears failed to extend player contracts for almost the entire season until they re-signed kicker Robbie Gould and fullback Tony Fiammatta in the week leading up to the Packers game. General manager Phil Emery is expected to work quickly in the coming weeks to try to re-sign some of his own free agents that he views as long-term parts of the team.
OXNARD, Calif. -- Much was made last year of the performance of Dallas Cowboys fullback Tony Fiammetta in connection with the breakout performance of running back DeMarco Murray. But the Cowboys let Fiammetta go this offseason and replaced him with veteran fullback Lawrence Vickers, who blocked for Arian Foster and Ben Tate last year in Houston and for Peyton Hillis the year before that in Cleveland. Vickers is a remarkably fun guy to talk to -- enthusiastic and engaging -- and here's what he told me about Murray when I spoke with him after Cowboys practice Monday:

[+] EnlargeLawrence Vickers
AP Photo/Paul SpinelliFullback Lawrence Vickers will be paving the way for DeMarco Murray this season.
"First of all, he's ambitious. And he's coming in to work. He's got that hard-nosed mentality, but he loves the game. And when you want to be great and you have ambition and goals and dreams and all those things, there's only one way to get there -- work, work, work. And that's what he wants to do. When it's his time to go, he wants to get in there. Everything he's doing, he's trying to do it to the best of his ability."

Vickers said his most important jobs as the fullback in the Cowboys' offense are "to lead by example and to be the eyes of the running back." Then he tried to demonstrate by standing in front of me with his back turned and asking if I could see anything. I could not. I am 5-foot-9, 190 pounds. Vickers is 6-0, 250. More relevantly. Murray is 6-0, 215 and likely cannot see around Vickers, either.

"He has to trust in me in order to go where I'm going," Vickers said. "You have to trust in me that I'm going to go to the right place, because you're following me. We have to be able to trust each other, and that just comes from repetition."

Murray obviously trusted Fiammetta with a great deal of success, so it's not as though running behind a fullback is some kind of new concept for him. But to those who have asked me whether there's anything to fear about Murray switching from Fiammetta to Vickers my answer is: If you met Lawrence Vickers, you wouldn't have to ask.

"I've got no complaints there," Murray told me. "He's a great guy, a great blocker, a smart guy and he gets after it."

Talking to Vickers fired me up. I wanted to go try to run through a defensive line. Fortunately for me, the opportunity did not readily present itself. If it had, I'd have asked Vickers to block for me. He'd probably have done it. He's a different sort of guy. I mentioned to him that the fullback position wasn't really a glory position in the NFL, and he agreed. He just doesn't care.

"I love it," Vickers said. "Because it's a job everybody can't do. So when you're doing something everybody can't do, and you're making it look good, that says a lot about you as a person. I don't need the glory, because at the end of the day, when those guys get in that end zone, when those guys go over to Hawaii, when those guys get in that Hall of Fame ... Emmitt Smith said it best: 'Couldn't do nothing without my fullback.' Not that my guys have to say that about me, but knowing that I was a part of that is enough for me."
So I was sitting here on Twitter, trolling for news, answering your questions and getting a kick out of the fact that Justin Tuck was watching (and tweeting about) the same "Big Bang Theory" rerun when it occurred to me that it was almost time to turn in and get some sleep. Before I did that, I just wanted to ask one question.

How was your day ...

Philadelphia Eagles?

"Surprising." You guys know I didn't think the Eagles intended to sign DeSean Jackson to a long-term contract, so when the news broke Wednesday afternoon that they had, I was stunned. It's a good deal for the Eagles, as almost all of the $15 million in guaranteed money is concentrated in the first two years and it saves them $6.6 million against this year's salary cap. And Jackson's happy because he's making a ton more than he did last season. The issue now is whether his production will rise along with his happiness. (And how long he'll stay happy, considering what other receivers are getting on the open market.) They signed Trent Cole to a four-year contract extension, and in the wake of the Jackson news the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that they were working on a new deal for running back LeSean McCoy.

The Eagles seem determined to take care of their own roster before dipping into the free-agent pool, so they're making little moves, too. Antonio Dixon signed his restricted free-agent tender, and Winston Justice got traded to the Colts in a deal that saw the teams swap sixth-round draft picks. That last was a salary dump, but it was one they needed to make. Guard Evan Mathis remains unsigned and is drawing interest elsewhere, but the Eagles still believe they have a good chance to bring him back.

One weird thing did happen. Late in the afternoon, Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive tackle Gerald McCoy sent out a tweet in which he apologized to Bucs fans for being unable to lure free-agent linebacker Curtis Lofton to Tampa and said Lofton was going to sign with the Eagles. The Eagles quickly denied any contact with Lofton, and McCoy retracted his tweet. So it's tough to say what's going on there, but it bears watching. The Eagles need linebacker help, but the linebacker market is slow, so they can wait it out.

Dallas Cowboys?

"Outstanding." They got their top-choice cornerback, agreeing with Brandon Carr on a five-year, $50.1 million contract. They got their veteran, starter-quality backup quarterback, agreeing on a three-year deal with Kyle Orton. They added guard Mackenzy Bernadeau to their interior offensive line mix, where they needed (and still could use more) help. And they signed fullback Lawrence Vickers to replace Tony Fiammetta, who seems to want to go see what he can get on the market. According to ESPNDallas.com, they have visits scheduled in the coming days with free-agent safety Brodney Pool and free-agent guard Nate Livings, so they're still hard at work trying to fill needs. The names may not be the splashiest, but the Cowboys have been down those roads before, and this measured, focused, need-based approach looks like the right way for them to go. A lot of money for Carr, yes, but they desperately needed a top free-agent cornerback, and that's what they're going for this year.

Many Cowboys fans were upset to lose wide receiver Laurent Robinson, who came out of nowhere to catch 11 touchdown passes from Tony Romo in 2011. But the Cowboys were never going to pay him anything close to what the Jaguars ended up paying him ($32.5 million for five years), and they shouldn't have paid their No. 3 wide receiver that much. They were prepared to go without Robinson last year. He was a bonus, a lottery ticket that hit. They'll be fine with what they have at receiver, and they can fill in Robinson's spot the same way they did last year, when they sifted through a bunch of decent-looking candidates and came up with Robinson. Don't sweat that loss, Cowboys fans. The team has bigger worries and bigger needs.

New York Giants?

"A success." They flew former Cowboys tight end Martellus Bennett in late Tuesday night, and they signed him Wednesday to a one-year, $2.5 million contract. They obviously see something they like in Bennett and believe that the coaching staff and quarterback Eli Manning can bring the best out of him, and they targeted and got him. They also got him on a very low-risk deal that will allow them to go in a different direction if he disappoints and their injured tight ends are healthy enough to return at the end of the season. Cowboys fans seem sure he will disappoint, and he very well may. But he's only 25 and he's got a ton of physical ability, so the Giants think maybe they're getting a guy right before he really takes off. The Giants also retained backup quarterback David Carr, which they wanted to do. What they'll do next I do not know. They need offensive line help and could use a veteran running back to replace Brandon Jacobs, but they'll be patient and target specific guys they like, because that's the way they operate. It seems to work for them.

Washington Redskins?

"Quieter." After racing out of the free-agent gates and signing two wide receivers before the sun went down on Tuesday, the Redskins made very little news Wednesday. Their trade with the Rams for the No. 2 pick in the draft became official, and we learned that they will host former Giants cornerback Aaron Ross for a free-agent visit Thursday in the hopes of adding him to their cornerback mix. They still haven't locked up Eddie Royal, who seemed poised to become their third free-agent wide receiver signing last night, and he's on his way to talk to the Chargers. And they have a visit set up with safety Brandon Meriweather. But the most-asked question about the Redskins is where they stand with free-agent linebacker London Fletcher, who was called a "top priority" in December by Mike Shanahan but remains unsigned. It's possible that this is where the salary cap sanctions hurt the Redskins. Having lost $18 million in cap room this year (and $18 million next year) for violating the other owners' sense of spending propriety during the uncapped 2010 season, the Redskins might find a Fletcher signing trickier than, say, a Pierre Garcon signing. Garcon is 25, and they can spread out his contract and the resulting cap hit over five years. Fletcher is 36, and any deal with him is much more likely to be front-loaded. That doesn't mean they can't bring him back, but it could make it a little more difficult. Just a theory I heard from someone I talked to today.

My day was excellent, and I enjoyed spending it here and on Twitter with you. Much more to come Thursday and beyond.

Holland injury could cost Cowboys

December, 26, 2011
12/26/11
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Todd Archer of ESPNDallas.com is reporting that Dallas Cowboys guard Montrae Holland has a torn biceps and could be done for the season. If that's the case, the chances of the Cowboys' season lasting beyond Sunday night get a bit slimmer.

Holland isn't anything close to a big name or a superstar. He was actually one of the Cowboys' final roster cuts at the end of training camp and wasn't picked up by anyone else. But the Cowboys re-signed him in October after rookie Bill Nagy suffered a season-ending injury, and Holland's insertion into the lineup coincided with a revival of the Dallas running game. In the five games they played without him, the Cowboys averaged 84.8 rush yards per game. In the 10 games they've played with him as their starting left guard, the Cowboys are averaging 133.4 rush yards per game.

Of course there are a number of other factors there. Holland's first game was also rookie DeMarco Murray's first as the Cowboys' feature running game, and Dallas ran for 294 yards against the Rams in that game alone, skewing the numbers. That game also saw the emergence of Tony Fiammetta as a blocking force at fullback, and Dallas' rushing numbers did dip back down to 83 yards per game during the three-game stretch Fiammetta missed in Weeks 11-13.

But Holland was helpful in stabilizing the run game, and more importantly, he was clearly better than their other options. Derrick Dockery or Kevin Kowalski are likely to fill in Sunday in the game against the Giants that will decide the NFC East title. So while this is an injury the Cowboys likely can survive better than they could one to Tony Romo or DeMarcus Ware, it's one that has the potential to hurt them, because it strikes at something they've been able to do much better over the second half of this season -- run the ball and control the game.
ARLINGTON, Texas -- DeMarco Murray, the dazzling rookie running back whose emergence brought the Dallas Cowboys' running game back to life this season, could be done for the year with a severe ankle injury. Murray got hurt on an eight-yard run in the first quarter of Sunday night's game against the New York Giants and left the game with help from the training staff. During the third quarter, the team announced that Murray had a right ankle fracture and a high ankle sprain.

The Cowboys made no announcement on Murray's long-term status, only that he would not return to Sunday night's game. But an ankle fracture in Week 14 doesn't sound like the sort of injury that would allow Murray to return before the end of this season -- even if Dallas got into the playoffs and made a deep run.

In the short term, the Cowboys would seem to be fine. Former starter Felix Jones stepped right in and rushed for 81 first-half yards on eight carries after Murray left the game. But Jones is not the same kind of back as Murray, which is why he lost the starter's job to him in the first place. Jones is injury-prone, and not likely to hold up under a 20-carry-per-game workload the rest of the way. He also had a sloppy fumble toward the end of the first half that reminded everybody that he's not the most reliable guy in that area either. Even if they manage to grind out a win tonight against the Giants, the Cowboys likely will need to adjust their offense for the final three games of the regular season and probably ask Tony Romo to throw more. With Philip Tanner on injured reserve and Tashard Choice having been released weeks ago, Jones is now the only healthy tailback on the active roster.

The running game did seem to get the expected boost from the return of fullback Tony Fiammetta, a blocking machine who'd missed the previous three games with an illness. Fiammetta even got a couple of carries and a catch after the Murray injury. But the Cowboys are now dangerously thin at running back and will have to find a way to overcome it the rest of the way.

Manningham active for Giants-Cowboys

December, 11, 2011
12/11/11
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ARLINGTON, Texas -- If it's to be a shootout here tonight between the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Giants, each team will have its full complement of receiver options. Giants wide receiver Mario Manningham, who has missed the last two games with a knee injury, is active for tonight's game. So is Cowboys wide receiver Miles Austin, who has missed the last four games with a hamstring injury, and Cowboys fullback Tony Fiammetta, who has missed the last three games due to illness.

The return of Fiammetta should help a Cowboys run game that's averaging 2.3 more yards per carry with Fiammetta in the lineup than without him. And the return of Austin to go with Dez Bryant, tight end Jason Witten and 2011 surprise standout Laurent Robinson, should help Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo pick apart a Giants secondary that's playing without its best player, safety Kenny Phillips.

But the Cowboys' secondary hasn't exactly been stopping anybody lately, and Giants quarterback Eli Manning will have Manningham back to help him attack it with Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz, who have been two of the best receivers in the entire league this season. Manning needs 295 yards for his third straight 4,000-yard passing season, and since the Giants are rushing for only 83.2 yards per game, it's possible he'll have to get that many tonight to keep the Giants in the game.

I'll be here all night with your updates, and we'll be live-chatting the game, so hang out here for all of your Giants-Cowboys needs as we chronicle this critical NFC East showdown.

How you feeling? Giants-Cowboys

December, 11, 2011
12/11/11
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As you get ready for the big Sunday night game in Dallas, here's one reason for New York Giants fans to feel good and one reason for Dallas Cowboys fans to feel good:

Giants feeling good: The Giants' offensive line, playing without left tackle Will Beatty for the last two weeks and without center David Baas last week, is actually coming off two of its better games of the year. The run-blocking in last week's loss to Green Bay was the best it's been all season, and with starting running back Ahmad Bradshaw healthy again, the Giants have a chance to get their worst-in-the-league run game on track. They definitely have enough in the passing game to score with the Cowboys and to come back in the fourth quarter if need be. But if they can run the ball effectively too, their offense could be downright dangerous.

Cowboys feeling good: It runs counter to everything today's star-obsessed sports landscape is about, but the return of the Cowboys' fullback, Tony Fiammetta, from the illness that kept him from playing the last three games, could re-ignite the Cowboys' offense. The Cowboys are 5-1 this year with Fiammetta in the lineup, and they rush for 5.6 yards per carry when it's in there as opposed to 3.3 when he's not. If rookie tailback DeMarco Murray has a huge game, you might be able to point to Fiammetta's return as a big reason why.

NFC East Stock Watch

December, 6, 2011
12/06/11
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NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

FALLING

[+] EnlargeJason Garrett
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesIn his first full season as the Cowboys' head coach, Jason Garrett is going through some growing pains.
1. Jason Garrett, Cowboys coach. Garrett is under fire this week after basically blowing the game against the Cardinals with poor clock management in the final minute. He should have called a timeout but didn't. Then he shouldn't have but did. And in the end his rookie kicker, who thought he'd made the game-winning kick, missed it and no one could stop LaRod Stephens-Howling in overtime and now everybody thinks Garrett's a clown who's in over his head. Fact is, Garrett's a young coach who's still finding his way and has done a very good job so far. But his Week 13 gaffe cost the Cowboys a chance to take a commanding two-game division lead into the final four weeks. He can of course make up for it by beating the Giants on Sunday.

2. Trent Williams and Fred Davis: Williams, the Washington Redskins' starting left tackle, and Davis, their breakout tight end, have seen their seasons go up in smoke, as they will miss the final four games while serving suspensions for repeated violations of the league's substance abuse policy. It's a tough blow for a Redskins offense that wasn't exactly lighting up the scoreboard to begin with. These two guys ignored repeated warnings about their behavior, and have left their team in a tough situation.

3. Juan Castillo, Eagles defensive coordinator: After the latest egg laid by the Philadelphia Eagles' defense, it's becoming increasingly clear that their first-year defensive coordinator can't return in the same role in 2012. Some have speculated Andy Reid would need to fire or at least demote Castillo in order to save his own job. And that's surely possible. But even if it weren't the case, it's hard to imagine bringing back Castillo as defensive coordinator and asking the players on the defense to buy in when they clearly haven't done so this year.

RISING

1. New York Giants' passing game. The Saints, Patriots and Packers are the only teams in the NFL this year with more passing yards than the Giants, whose air attack remains one of the more underrated units in the league because of persistent (and largely unjustified) negative perceptions of quarterback Eli Manning. Victor Cruz has emerged as a top wide receiver, and Hakeem Nicks showed several times Sunday why he's one of the elite wideouts in the league, dominating his matchups in the second half as the Giants hung in with the unbeaten Packers. Manning, Cruz and Nicks are good enough to keep the Giants in any game as long as the defense doesn't completely melt down the way it did against New Orleans in Week 12.

2. Michael Vick, Eagles quarterback. Well, it appears as though he'll be back this week, and not a moment too soon for the Eagles, who are surely sick of watching Vince Young throw the ball to the other team. As long as he stays healthy, Vick will be the Eagles' starting quarterback for the rest of the season. And whether they have a realistic chance or not, the way Vick plays over the final four games will have an effect on the way he's perceived by fans, teammates, coaches and the organization going into what looks like a critical 2012 season.

3. Cowboys offense. Fullback Tony Fiammetta appears set to return from his mystery illness and play Sunday against the Giants. This is great news for the Cowboys. Rookie tailback DeMarco Murray has held up fine in Fiammetta's absence, but the Dallas run game has lacked the explosiveness it had when Fiammetta was in there blocking for him. With Miles Austin also likely to return from his second hamstring injury of the year, the Cowboys should be at full strength on offense for Sunday's divisional showdown, and that could be trouble for a Giants team that had a hard time handling the wide array of weapons the Saints and Packers threw at it the past two weeks.

NFC East: The day in injuries

November, 25, 2011
11/25/11
5:04
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Still no practice for Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick, and personally I think it would be a complete shock if he played Sunday against the Patriots. That means at least one more week of Vince Young at starting quarterback while Vick's broken ribs continue to heal.

The most common question I'm getting on Vick is why the Dallas Cowboys' Tony Romo was able to play quarterback with broken ribs this year and Vick is not. Some seem to feel this reflects on Vick's toughness, his character or his leadership abilities. And hey, I'm not in the guy's head. All of those things could in fact be true. But I think it's a big jump to make, mainly because none of us are in the guy's body. We don't know how Vick's rib injury compares to Romo's. We don't know which ribs we're talking about, where they're located, how badly broken they are or how much the injury affects his ability to throw the ball. All we know is, by whatever standard Vick and the Eagles are applying, he's not able to play right now. And I've never personally been comfortable saying a player's not tough enough to play through injury because... well, it's not my injury. As for the Vick-Romo comparison, I guess I'd just say I have no reason to think their injuries were identical just because they were both classified as broken ribs.

The Eagles officially listed Vick as questionable for Sunday's game after he missed practice again Friday. He has not practiced since the Nov. 13 game in which he suffered the injury. Cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, who injured his knee in Thursday's practice, also did not practice Friday. Neither did wide receiver Jeremy Maclin, who has hamstring and shoulder injuries, or offensive lineman King Dunlap, who's still dealing with the effects of a concussion. Dunlap is listed as out for Sunday's game, Maclin as doubtful and Asomugha as questionable. Eagles coach Andy Reid said in his address to reporters that Maclin's more serious problem was the hamstring. I'd be surprised if he played. Rueben Frank of CSN Philadelphia reports that the Asomugha injury isn't serious and that he might be able to play.

Wide receiver DeSean Jackson is listed as probable after limited participation in practice Friday. And cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie was a surprise limited participant in practice and is listed as questionable. I say "surprise," because I don't think most people expected him to practice Friday or have a chance to play Sunday.

New York Giants

Running back Ahmad Bradshaw and linebacker Michael Boley remained out of practice because of their respective foot and hamstring injuries. Wide receiver Mario Manningham, who has a knee injury, also missed practice. But defensive end Justin Tuck and right tackle Kareem McKenzie, who missed Thursday's practice, were both upgraded to limited participants Friday, and running back D.J. Ware was a full practice participant as he is now apparently recovered from his concussion. The Giants don't play until Monday, so all of these players have time yet. The only player they've ruled out is left tackle Will Beatty, who had surgery Thursday to repair the retina in his right eye and likely will be out for a while.

Washington Redskins

The injury news is basically all good for the Redskins, as tackles Trent Williams and Jammal Brown, wide receiver Santana Moss, linebacker London Fletcher, safety LaRon Landry and cornerback Josh Wilson are all listed as probable. The Redskins list no one as "out" or "doubtful" and only two players -- receivers Niles Paul and Donte' Stallworth -- as questionable. The Redskins head to Seattle at something resembling full strength, minus the out-for-the-year guys like Tim Hightower, Chris Cooley and Kory Lichtensteiger. The return of Moss is especially significant for the struggling Redskins offense.

Dallas Cowboys

The Cowboys' Week 12 game is already in the books, so there's no official injury report. But owner Jerry Jones went on the radio and said fullback Tony Fiammetta and backup quarterback Jon Kitna are already ruled out for the Dec. 4 game in Arizona. The Fiammetta thing is weird -- an illness that makes him nauseous when he exerts himself and of which the team has been unable to get to the bottom. Kitna's got a back injury, and it's serious enough that the Cowboys are looking around for a veteran backup to Romo, since they don't like to be without one of those.

Cowboys survive another scare

November, 24, 2011
11/24/11
10:17
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A couple of Thanksgiving night thoughts now that I've had a chance to digest the Dallas Cowboys' 20-19 victory over the Miami Dolphins, among other things:

[+] EnlargeTony Romo
Tom Pennington/Getty ImagesTony Romo threw for 226 yards and a pair of touchdowns in Thursday's win.
This is the Romo you read about: How many times have you been told that you have to deal with the bad Tony Romo because of how good the good one is? Well, I'm sure lots of Cowboys fans were rolling their eyes about the two first-quarter interceptions. But there was Romo at the end, dancing away from pressure and finding Jason Witten on that big 23-yard gain, finding DeMarco Murray for a big completion while getting drilled and expertly moving his team into field goal range without poor decisions or unnecessary risks. Romo made the plays he needed to make to win the game, and that's what we're supposed to use to judge quarterbacks, right? Wins?

Running tough: Murray has found the going tough the past two games, playing without fullback Tony Fiammetta and against defenses that are strong up front. But for the second week in a row, Murray was in there grinding out the tough, between-the-tackles yards the team needs him to be able to get if the offense is to work as well as it can. He had 87 yards on 22 carries, which is good, hard running back work, and it's got to encourage the Cowboys and their fans that their rookie running back is tough and willing enough to handle it.

Defense a mixed bag: The Cowboys were tough up front, cutting off the Dolphins' run game between the tackles. But Terence Newman needed to basically commit pass interference on every play in his effort to stop Brandon Marshall. Marshall's touchdown catch was completely amazing for the fact that Newman was strangling him with two arms while yanking him to the ground. With Mike Jenkins out, the Dallas secondary suffers, and opponents know they can take shots down the field. The good news is that there are few receivers in the league with Marshall's size and physicality. The bad news is that the Cowboys' next game is against Larry Fitzgerald and the Cardinals. They need to sort out some coverage issues.

Automatic Dan: Could any Cowboys fan have imagined how good you feel about Dan Bailey with the game on the line? That was the rookie place-kicker's fourth game-winning field goal this year in the final two minutes or overtime. And while it was only a 28-yarder, as soon as they were in field goal range all you were thinking as a Cowboys fan was, "Just don't turn it over." You knew Bailey would make the kick. And what a feeling that's got to be for the Cowboys. They're relying on rookies at kicker and running back, and the rookies are among the most reliable players on their roster.

Loving Laurent: For most of the game, I was wondering if Romo had forgotten there were other people to whom he could throw the ball besides Laurent Robinson. But when the Cowboys get near the end zone, Romo doesn't feel the need to go anywhere else. ESPN Stats & Information reports that Robinson has been targeted in the end zone five times this year and has caught all five of them. I imagine Dez Bryant will still get his in the coming weeks, and Romo did remember his old friend Witten on that final drive when he needed him. But Robinson has earned Romo's trust in key spots very quickly.

In Summary: You may have wanted them to crush the Dolphins, and you may well be able to argue that they should. But this is a different Miami team than the one that began the season 0-7. Its defensive line is fearsome, and Romo will wake Friday morning with the aches and bruises to prove it. Matt Moore is playing very well at quarterback. Miami came in as one of the hottest teams in the league, and while a victory over a team that's now 3-8 doesn't stand out as one of the sparkling achievements of their season, the Cowboys can feel good, for the second week in a row, about a win that didn't come easily but came nonetheless.

Five things to watch: Cowboys-Dolphins

November, 23, 2011
11/23/11
4:00
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The Dallas Cowboys will host the Miami Dolphins in their annual Thanksgiving Day game on Thursday afternoon. Each team comes in having won three games in a row. The Cowboys edged the division-rival Redskins in overtime on Sunday to claim a share of first place in the NFC East. And the Dolphins have really turned it on after their 0-7 start, outscoring their last three opponents by a combined score of 86-20. Here's a look at some of the things to watch for as the Cowboys try to make it four in a row against one of the hottest teams in the league:

Air it out: The Dolphins' defense is allowing 251.1 passing yards per game this year, which is the eighth-highest average in the league. Now, during their current three-game winning streak, they're only allowing 206 passing yards per game. Their defense is playing better, especially up front. But they can still be exploited in the secondary, and none of the teams they've beaten -- Kansas City, Washington or Buffalo -- came equipped with the kind of downfield weapons the Cowboys and Tony Romo have at their disposal. While the Cowboys have shown, since rookie DeMarco Murray took over as the starting running back, a commitment to the run, I'd look for them to take some deep shots against a weak part of this Miami defense and see if they can build an early lead.

[+] EnlargeMatt Moore
Steve Mitchell/US PresswireDuring the Dolphins' three-game winning streak, Matt Moore has thrown six touchdown passes and just one interception.
Make Matt Moore uncomfortable: The Dolphins' quarterback has played very well in recent weeks, throwing six touchdown passes and one interception during the win streak. Miami has managed to get big production out of running back Reggie Bush to take some pressure off of Moore, and he's worked tight end Anthony Fasano into the receiving mix to complement the big, physical downfield presence of wide receiver Brandon Marshall. But Moore isn't likely to find the going so smooth if the Cowboys can get into the backfield and disrupt his timing. DeMarcus Ware should be moved around some in this game so he gets to attack the Marc Colombo side of the Dolphins' offensive line as well as the Jake Long side. It's on the Colombo side, Cowboys fans will not be surprised to learn, that they're most vulnerable.

The Fiammetta factor: With fullback Tony Fiammetta sidelined due to illness last week, Murray and the run game weren't as effective as they had been in the previous four games. That's not to say Murray wasn't good. His prior four games were a lot to live up to. But with Fiammetta out, there was a clear difference in Murray's effectiveness when running between the tackles. It looks as though Fiammetta will sit out again, so watch the Dolphins stack up eight-man fronts to try and take away Murray or at least dare him to try and run inside.

Is Sean Lee all the way back?: The Cowboys were the best defense in the league against the run in the early part of this season. Then, starting with the injury to middle linebacker Lee in the loss to the Eagles, they struggled against the run for a few weeks. Was their improvement in this department Sunday because the Redskins' run game is so poor, or because Lee is getting more comfortable playing in spite of his injured wrist? The Dolphins, with Bush and rookie Daniel Thomas leading their run game, will offer a more reliable test.

Home for the holiday: Romo is 4-0 in his career on Thanksgiving Day. He missed last year's game due to injury, but he and the Cowboys are thought to have an advantage here because they play a Thanksgiving game every year and are experienced in how to handle the short week. They're also at home, and playing with extreme confidence. While they can't take the suddenly red-hot Dolphins lightly, they have what they need to establish themselves as the better team early and control the game.

Cowboys' Tony Fiammetta out Sunday

November, 18, 2011
11/18/11
12:50
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The Dallas Cowboys have announced that fullback Tony Fiammetta will miss Sunday's game with an illness, though they haven't said what the illness is that has affected him all week.

Obviously, Fiammetta's health is the most important thing, but in the smaller context of Sunday's game against the Redskins, his absence is likely to be felt. As Tim MacMahon points out in that link up there, the Cowboys are averaging 61.2 more rushing yards per game this season when Fiammetta plays than when he doesn't, and his insertion into the lineup coincided with that of tailback DeMarco Murray, who has rushed for 601 yards over the past four games. Fiammetta has been a quiet but important part of what the Cowboys have been able to do on offense over the past month, and Murray certainly sounds as though he'll miss him:
"He's kinda like the cleanup guy," Murray said. "He makes his blocks. If there's any trash he’ll clean it up and get on to his block. He's a smart guy, he knows the game really well."

Murray has used a fullback in high school and in his last year at Oklahoma, so he likes having one lead for him because it gives him time to find holes.

"Huge, he’s been a very, very important factor in the running game," Murray said. "He's a great player, a great person and he’s definitely a vital part of our success."

Something to watch Sunday in a game the Cowboys certainly should win anyway against the depleted Redskins, but which could be tougher than expected if they're unable to run the ball the way they have been lately.

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