Washington Redskins: NFC East
But a lot changed with one injury. With Cofield now headed for the short-term injured reserve list, and unable to play for eight games, the Redskins’ depth will be tested, as will their versatility.
Though Cofield did not have a strong second half last season -- certainly not as strong as his first half -- he remained a key part of what Washington did defensively. Also, he played well Sunday. With better depth, he would't be needed as much in their nickel packages, the way he had been in the past. They hoped to keep him fresh -- a necessity -- considering he had hernia surgery in the offseason and was dealing with a strained groin.
Players constantly point out how smart and intuitive he is, knowing offensive tendencies and reacting accordingly. It makes a difference and his penetration on two short-yardage situations was key. He had to learn how to be a nose tackle after never having seen the blocking schemes he did in his first season at the position in 2011.
Baker can handle the position, as it’s probably a more natural spot for him. He plays with excellent leverage and, when that’s the case, power. It’s a good time for him to take over because of his comfort level on defense, reading offenses and understanding his responsibilities up front. He’s developed into a solid player since joining the Redskins. But the Redskins were better off with Cofield in the middle and Baker on the edge. That gave them two quick players along the front to pair with Hatcher’s power.
They can use Kedric Golston at nose in a pinch, as they did Sunday. Even Jenkins played there for at least a snap Sunday. But it’s not the ideal situation.
It’s also another test for Washington’s defense. The Redskins are down one starter with safety Brandon Meriweather suspended for one more game. They have some age and, therefore, durability questions on that side of the ball as well. The defense got off to a good start with its showing Sunday, allowing only 10 points. They certainly can continue playing well without Cofield; it was a lot easier to do so with him.
Way played for Tulsa Union High School in Oklahoma whose nickname also happens to be the Redskins. They’ve received pressure to change their name but have resisted.
While Way didn’t want to discuss the team’s name, he did talk with excitement about one of his high school’s traditions. The topic arose because he was talking about what signing with Washington meant to him and those he played sports with in high school.
At football games, players ran onto the field through a teepee with smoke coming out, chanting, Way said, “All my life I want to be a Redskin.” Then they would chant, “Work, work, baby, work, work.” So, after signing with the Redskins last month, Way said he received 65 texts from high school buddies filled with the Redskin line.
“I had work, work, baby, work, work just copy and pasted to everybody,” Way said.
As for his high school, the National Congress of American Indians urged them last year to change their nickname, pointing out that 28 other high schools have done so. Tulsa Union declined.
According to the Oklahoman, Tulsa Union issued a statement in response, saying, “Union community members of all races tell us this is not an issue divided strictly on the lines of race. The debate appears to be between some people outside of this district who have a different opinion as to how people inside this school district should believe, feel, and identify themselves. It is those within the Union community that the district serves.
“Definitions need to be in context of time, place and usage. In this day and age, in the Union community, ‘Redskins' is not derogatory; rather it defines a diverse, yet close-knit community that exhibits great pride and spirit in its schools and programs as well as in its determination and traditions of success.”
And as a result, Griffin and coach Jay Gruden were both defending his progress after a 23-17 loss to Baltimore on Saturday night.
That wasn’t the case Saturday.
“He is further along than it appears he is,” Gruden said. “Based on his production [Saturday], a lot of people would say he’s not further along. He’s a lot further along than he gets credit for. All you have to look at is practice and game tape, and it wasn’t very good from anybody. But I’ve seen him practice, and I’ve seen him come a long way. [Saturday] didn’t show how much he’s come forward.”
On the game broadcast, former Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann was adamant in saying backup Kirk Cousins had outplayed Griffin in the preseason. The Redskins are committed to Griffin; Cousins has made his own mistakes, though he’s more comfortable in the pocket at this stage.
“There will be overreactions all over the place,” Griffin said. “It’s our job to make sure we stay cool, calm and collected and keep fighting on. ... I won’t judge Week 1 to Week 2 to Week 3 in the preseason as a regression on myself or on this team or the offense in general.”
Griffin finished the preseason completing 13 of 20 passes for 141 yards and two interceptions. The No. 1 offense did not score a touchdown in its 10 drives this preseason (though one was a kneel-down to end a half). Saturday, the Ravens generated too much pressure with four rushers, though sometimes they were helped by Griffin’s indecision.
Nor did it help that of the eight third downs they faced, five were for 8 yards or longer. Two of the eight third downs resulted in penalties, one by Washington negating a first down and one by the Ravens. On the third downs, Griffin was sacked twice and fumbled the shotgun snap another time. The Redskins continue to say it will take time for Griffin to improve in the pocket. Like the team’s fans, though, they get frustrated with the growing pains. But it wasn’t just a tough night for Griffin.
“Everybody is going to point at Robert, but it’s a total team thing,” Gruden said. “We had some chances to make plays, and we didn’t make them. Nobody played good enough in that first half to really talk about of note.”
Griffin was 0-for-3 on first-down passes with one interception. Another first-down pass resulted in a pass interference penalty.
“We have to do a better job of getting into a rhythm, get some completions early and get some first downs,” Gruden said. “We did a poor job of first and second down. It all starts with me the playcaller and on down to everybody else. We have to do a better job getting things going.”
Tackle Trent Williams, whose holding penalty wiped out a 29-yard catch-and-run, said of the game, “I don’t know if we can find a positive out of that.”
No, they could not. Not when the offense manages three points out of their first two drives despite getting the ball at the 50 and then the Ravens’ 42. But Gruden, with one preseason game left that will be devoted to backups, said he’s not going to let one game sully the preseason.
“They’ve done enough that I can take a lot of positives to draw from, not just the first half of a game,” he said. “We’re not going to panic and abort ship.”
One preseason game does not start a trend, but through training camp, it’s evident that Washington’s offensive identity must start with the running game.
They have the offensive weapons to be explosive and exciting in the passing game. But they also have a young quarterback, Robert Griffin III, who is still learning the passing system -- not to mention everyone else is learning it as well.
But they don’t need to learn the running game. They need to use it to shape their mentality. They ran for 177 yards against the New England Patriots on 44 carries. Again, preseason is not always a predictor. In this case, it needs to be.
“We felt we could pound the ball down their throats,” Redskins tight end Logan Paulsen said of the Patriots. “We wanted to assert ourselves in a physical way, and I think we did. As we go, hopefully it will gain some momentum and keep it rolling throughout the year.”
There’s no way to know that of course. When the passing game starts to click, will they lean that way? No way to know right now; a knock on Jay Gruden in Cincinnati was that he abandoned the running game too fast. Then again, he did not have a running game as strong as what he inherited in Washington.
The Redskins’ left side did a terrific job (guard Shawn Lauvao does not play with as much strength as you’d like when he reaches the second level, but he can obstruct). Fullback Darrel Young is off to a good start and Paulsen is an excellent blocking tight end.
When you’re starting a new program and want to instill a mindset, it’s good to start with the physical aspect of the game on both sides of the ball. That’s why it’s good that Ryan Clark, if he can stay healthy, is at safety. And it’s good that they drafted tough-minded players such as corner Bashaud Breeland and linebacker Trent Murphy (and guard Spencer Long for that matter).
“There’s an element of physicality you bring,” Paulsen said. “You know the defense will try to stop you and you want to assert yourself in a way that says we know and you know, but we’re still gonna do it. It’s always something special when you get that done.”
Having a certain mindset carries you through tough times. You don’t get that just because you can run the ball, but it does help.
“You want to find the right guys who are very competitive and can handle it,” Gruden said. “You have to be mentally tough because there are so many ups and downs through the course of a season. Only time will tell when adversity strikes how they react.”
I always enjoyed watching Marty Schottenheimer’s teams because they adopted a certain mindset of tough, hard-nosed ball. It helped them recover from an 0-5 start way back when. I have no idea if Gruden can shape his team in that manner; there’s a ways to go. But he and the organization at least understood that they needed to be more physical on offense and defense. It’s not as if they’re killing each other in practice, but it has been more physical. The Redskins under Mike Shanahan also wanted to run the ball.
“With Mike, we knew we wanted to run the ball, but it got a little convoluted how we would run the ball,” Paulsen said. “For a while, we didn’t have the pieces in place to run it. Now everything is here and we’re established, and that’s something we’ve taken a lot of pride in.
“As we get in the season the [passing game] will become a bigger part. We have outstanding playmakers. But it will be nice if this carries us forward.”
With speedy playmaking receivers, the Redskins' running back understands he can benefit from them, especially since DeSean Jackson is one of the newcomers.
“I never looked at it as if I was going to get less touches having him,” said Morris, who has rushed for a combined 2,888 yards in his first two seasons combined. “I got excited having him because he’s going to take that extra defender off the box.”
Morris was tied for sixth in the NFL last season with 44 carries against eight-man fronts, averaging 3.55 yards per carry according to ESPN Stats & Information. Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson (108) and San Francisco’s Frank Gore (107) led the NFL with such carries. Two years ago, Morris was eighth in the NFL with 50 runs against eight-man fronts.
So it might not be that Morris will see a whole lot less eight-man fronts. However, there’s little doubt the Redskins will use a lot of three-receiver sets with Jackson, Pierre Garcon and Andre Roberts. That means more chances to spread the field, more weapons for a defense to worry about and better lanes, potentially, for Morris.
Since entering the NFL, Morris has the most carries against seven-man fronts (396) and averages 4.83 yards per carry against those looks. He's 22nd in the number of five- or six-man fronts (121) and averages 5.02 yards per carry. In comparison, Philadelphia's LeSean McCoy has 290 runs against such looks the past two years.
“It definitely takes one, two extra eyes off the backfield just for a split second which can just make the difference in any game, any play,” Morris said.
Earlier in the week, fullback Darrel Young caught a touchdown pass in the right flat because the defense lost him because it had other weapons to worry about. Young caught scoring passes like that two years ago when the offense lacked the same depth at receiver, but there were weapons in Morris, quarterback Robert Griffin III and receiver Garcon. Now they have Roberts, who has looked good in the slot, and Jackson as well as tight end Jordan Reed.
And Morris has maintained since his rookie season that he doesn’t care how many carries he receives.
“Just having [Jackson], they have to respect him,” Morris said. “I would love it if they stacked the box this year. We could just go deep every play. I would love that. The quicker we can get off the field, the better.”
Coach Jay Gruden half-joked Saturday that he was going to suspend Meriweather two practices for a hit. It’s another reminder to Meriweather to lower his target. The problem is, when instincts take over, it’s tough to know what’s going to happen. A hit deemed too violent might only be a few inches away from being a good one.
Ryan Clark is right; football players, especially those on defense, must play with “reckless abandon.” But the bottom line is there are rules in place, and Meriweather flirts with danger in this area all the time.
“When you don’t play it full speed, when you don’t play it as physical as you could possibly play it, you leave yourself at a disadvantage,” Clark said.
When Meriweather returned after his one-game suspension last season, he did not draw another fine for any of his hits. At times he seemed to go lower; not all the time, however. But he’s going to have to do it the right way every game in order to stay on the field.
The issue here, too, is that the Redskins lack proven depth behind him. They liked how Phillip Thomas started to develop in camp last summer, but he suffered a Lisfranc injury in the first preseason game and needed surgery. Though he’s in camp and has been praised by the coaches, he’s never played in a real game. There’s no way to really know how he’d do if anything happened to Meriweather.
With Meriweather, the Redskins like to run certain blitzes from the corners knowing he has the speed to get to their vacant area. He plays with passion and brings energy and plays physical. Yes, he also takes chances and that’s gotten him in trouble with other teams.
What the Redskins need is for Meriweather to find stay aggressive, but also smart. Every hit he makes will be scrutinized. They say Meriweather has learned his lesson, yet it’s a topic that still comes up. There’s really no way to know if he has, but they do know this: The Redskins need him on the field.
It happens every day in practice. On Friday, it poured throughout practice, and Griffin threw poorly missing targets with throws that weren't close. The entire offense was sloppy, but so was he. It rained again Sunday -- it had mostly stopped by the time practice began but the field was soggy. Griffin, aside from a couple throws, was better than he was two days ago and more accurate. A great day? No. A better day? Yes.
Another example: Griffin misread a blitz Saturday leading to a pick-six by corner DeAngelo Hall. Afterwards Griffin described what happened. After watching the film later that afternoon, he learned something else -- something coach Jay Gruden pointed out after reviewing the play as well. Griffin needed to hit tight end Jordan Reed, his primary target.
Instead, he looked off him too fast and went to his secondary target DeSean Jackson. But Hall, in a trap, stepped in front for the pick.
“Watching on film, Jordan was there and all I’ve got to do is throw to him and we move on to the next play,” Griffin said. “Those are the things you see when they bring those fire zone blitzes and buzzing guys out. Sometimes you can misplace the guy. I’ll never make that mistake again.
“It’s something you get used to seeing them bring a fire zone and rolling to a cover 2. You know they’ll probably miss Jordan underneath even though they’re buzzing out there and he’s breaking in. He’ll be open so that’s what you go to next time.”
“It was beneficial to have another day like today,” Griffin said.
Early in camp Griffin took off running too many times on pass plays. It wasn’t always because of him, but he’s the one with the ball in his hands. It happened more frequently the first couple days and did so once in full-team work Sunday morning on a third-and-11.
“You go back and look at that and see what it was,” Griffin said. “See if it’s an opportunity to get the ball out or if I need to make a decision and run sooner. We’ve gotten better over the last three days in that aspect of everyone being on the same page knowing where guys need to be.”
These are a lot of the lessons Griffin could not learn last year without an offseason and with only a couple weeks of practice before the opener.
He’s started 28 regular-season games in his career, but he won’t turn 25 until the offseason.
“If you look at the quarterbacks in the league, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, they’re all still learning,” Griffin said. “That’s the beauty of the game. The more you play, the more you will learn. I’m only 24. They have some experiences I don’t, and I have some experiences they don’t. At the end of the day we’re all learning.”
The Philadelphia Eagles won the division last year in Chip Kelly's first season, but do they have staying power?
Alfred Morris has eaten up yards on the ground in his first two years with the Washington Redskins, but can he do it without Mike Shanahan's system?
The New York Giants' offense grew stale under Kevin Gilbride. Can new coordinator Ben McAdoo get Eli Manning back to a top level?
The Dallas Cowboys' defense was bad in 2013 and have pinned their hopes of improvement on new coordinator Rod Marinelli. Just how much can Marinelli do?
John Keim, Kieran Darcy, Andy Jasner and Todd Archer look at what can be expected from the Redskins, Giants, Eagles and Cowboys with training camp just around the corner.
Will Rod Marinelli improve an already poor defense having lost DeMarcus Ware, Jason Hatcher and Sean Lee?
Todd Archer: I believe the Cowboys will be better with Marinelli serving as defensive coordinator instead of Monte Kiffin in part because it can't be worse. It can't be worse, right? Ware, Hatcher and Lee were part of last season's poor defense and missed time. Lee will be missed the most because of his playmaking ability. Ware's pass rush will be missed even if he had just six sacks in 2013. I believe the Cowboys have Hatcher's replacement in Henry Melton. He might not get 11 sacks, but he'll be fine. Marinelli does not have the talent he had to work with in Chicago, but he is a top coach. He can coax the ability out of these guys. Does that mean the Cowboys will be a top-10 or even top-15 defense? Not really. If they can get in the low to mid 20s, then that's improvement. He is more in-tune with today's game than Kiffin and will be more willing to adjust if necessary. The Cowboys had no answers last season. I think Marinelli will have more answers but not enough pupils to earn an A.
Andy Jasner: It's hard to imagine the Cowboys' defense getting any worse. Well, anything is possible. Four different quarterbacks threw for 400 or more yards in a single game last season. The New Orleans Saints had 40 first downs against the Cowboys' defense in November. Even with some key pieces missing from the defense, they should be improved for one simple reason: work ethic. Marinelli has been part of some bad teams in the past but not because he didn't work hard. Marinelli will instill good habits in his defensive players and improvement throughout the unit will likely be visible. Four years ago in 2010, Marinelli was promoted to defensive coordinator with the Bears. That defense steadily got better as the season moved on. The Cowboys allowed 388 first downs last season, the second-most in NFL history. Even with Ware, Hatcher and Lee, the defense was awful. Good work habits should help across the board.
John Keim: Man, how bad will the Cowboys' defense be if he can't help them improve? Does that mean even more quarterbacks throwing for 400 yards after a record-setting four did a year ago? That was a defense in transition last year, going from a 3-4 to a 4-3 under coordinator Monte Kiffin, who had been out of the NFL since 2008. The problem is, they've lost their most productive players in the front seven. Losing Lee is a huge blow because he was the one of this group who was going to return. Marinelli has done good work as a coordinator in the past and was excellent as Dallas' defensive line coach in 2013, despite needing to use 20 players because of injuries. If the Cowboys stay healthy and their defensive backs respond to different coverages they'll improve. But they have such a long way to go.
@toddarcher the defense is going to be so bad that if they don't score 30 points they won't win! Another miserable year for us cowboys fans!— Chris Matteson (@chechespopp) July 8, 2014
Will the rest of the division figure out Eagles coach Chip Kelly and make him a one-hit wonder?
Archer: The second time around against the Redskins and Giants, the Eagles' offensive performance slipped in 2013. The numbers against the Cowboys were better in the rematch only because the Cowboys were so good in the first meeting. In what was their best showing of 2013, Dallas gave up only 3 points and 278 yards in the first meeting. In the de facto NFC East title game to close the season, the Eagles scored 24 points and put up 366 yards. That's still respectable for a defense, especially one that was as bad as the Cowboys' last season. Kelly is innovative and appears to know how to stay ahead of the curve. He did that at Oregon in the Pac-12. But it will come down to Nick Foles. If he is a franchise quarterback and not a one-hit wonder himself, then the Eagles will struggle. Having LeSean McCoy, Darren Sproles, Jeremy Maclin, Riley Cooper, Zach Ertz and Brent Celek will help Kelly and Foles. With everybody wanting to hand them the division in the offseason, I think it's best to tap the brakes a little.
Jasner: Everything seemed to click in Kelly's rookie season as running back LeSean McCoy rushed for a league-high 1,607 yards and quarterback Nick Foles threw 27 touchdowns against just two interceptions. Foles began the season as a backup to Michael Vick, who now plays for the New York Jets. Kelly took his high-powered offense from Oregon and made the seamless transition to the NFL. Kelly did a stellar job of adjusting to defenses last season and there's no reason to believe that won't happen again. The rest of the division has plenty of film on how to stop the Eagles' offense. Doing it is another thing altogether. Don't expect Kelly to be a one-hit wonder. However, repeating the feat is always more challenging with defenses keying in more closely. The Eagles may not put up the same huge numbers in Kelly's second season. With talent such as McCoy, Foles, Jeremy Maclin and Darren Sproles, the Eagles will still be able to score plenty of points.
Keim: I'm assuming Kelly will have some changes for defenses in order to build on what the Eagles accomplished last season. What he can't do is fall in love with his "system" and forget it's the talent that made it work. The tough part is expecting Nick Foles to post similar numbers as in 2013. And you can't minimize the loss of receiver DeSean Jackson, even in terms of his impact on others. That said, I still expect them to be a potent offense. They do a good job manipulating defenses and they still have one of the best all-around players in the NFL in running back LeSean McCoy -- not to mention a terrific line. So even if teams think they've figured out Kelly's offense, I'd expect the Eagles to keep doing well.
@SheridanScribe I don't think so, as a eagles fan I think that division is broken, and we have our full arsenal back minus DJacks— Chocolate Gladiator (@Willing2GoHamm) July 16, 2014
Was Alfred Morris just a product of Mike Shanahan's system and will his effectiveness decrease under Jay Gruden?
Archer: So is he Tatum Bell, Mike Anderson or Reuben Droughns? Is that the question? Those three guys combined for four 1,000-yard seasons under Shanahan and never really performed well again. There is definitely something about the Shanahan system that makes it seem like any back can rush for 1,000 yards. But I think Morris could be more Clinton Portis than those other three. Portis was outstanding in Denver before his trade to Washington. The question, however, with Jay Gruden isn't so much the system as it is his willingness to run the ball enough. The Bengals ran for nearly 1,800 yards last year but it seemed like Gruden went away from the running game in the big moments. When you have a guy like A.J. Green that can be understandable, but is Andy Dalton good enough to carry the show? Now the question is can Robert Griffin III carry the show? The best way to help Griffin is to make sure Morris is a big part of the plan. If Gruden is smart, then he makes Morris the centerpiece of the offense.
Jasner: It shouldn't. Morris racked up 1,275 yards rushing, 4.6 yards per carry, and 7 touchdowns last season. He was selected to the Pro Bowl for the first time and was arguably the Redskins' most consistent offensive player. Gruden will expect Morris to become a complete player with the ability to run block and pass block. Gruden is a meticulous coach whom expects his players to be all-around competitors. Gruden has always leaned heavily on running backs in his system and it would be foolish not to have Morris do the same thing in 2014. Morris has played all 32 games in two seasons, resulting in 2,888 yards rushing and 20 touchdowns. Morris' effectiveness should increase under Gruden as long as he's healthy. When there's an ultra-talented player such as Morris, you give him the football as often as possible.
Keim: I don't think so. Gruden used his backs differently than Washington has with Morris, but in Cincinnati he did not have a similar runner. Nor in Washington does he have a Giovani Bernard (at least not yet anyway; maybe Lache Seastrunk becomes that sort of player in 2014) to take a ton of work away from Morris. The Redskins will use other backs, especially in the pass game. But they kept the run game the same for a reason: They want to feature Morris. He makes the offense go. Last season, Bengals running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis carried the ball 278 times two years ago; that's two more than Morris had in 2013. If healthy, and if the Redskins want to win, then Morris will still be in that 280 carry, 1,300-yard area.
@john_keim Yes. Gruden is notorious in forgetting about the run game. Unless you are a young fast multi purpose back: (See Giovanni B)— Dan (@dautry88) July 14, 2014
Will Eli Manning revert to Pro Bowl form in Year 1 under new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo?
Archer: Having worked with Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay for two seasons, McAdoo should have the benefit of the doubt with Manning. There is no doubt Manning was bad last season and his 27 interceptions are proof of it. He took too many chances. He didn't get help from his receivers at times. His line didn't help him. His eyes were on the rush a lot. Rodgers has been sacked a lot in Green Bay, but some of that is because he won't take chances. He will eat the ball and move on to the next play. Can Manning do that? if he doesn't, then it will be another long season for the Giants. I believe Manning will have a bounce-back year, but I don't know if it will be Pro Bowl form. It will be good and solid form and that could get the Giants back into the playoffs.
Jasner: Maybe not Pro Bowl form, but it has to be better than last season's debacle with 27 interceptions. Yes, 27. To be fair, Manning had poor pass protection on a week-in and week-out basis. He was never able to locate his rhythm. McAdoo has a reputation of building a strong rapport with his players and that was evident when he was the quarterbacks coach and worked with Aaron Rodgers with the Green Bay Packers. Manning must keep his interception total down and the Giants can't give the ball away 44 times like they did last season. Manning will have more options on offense in 2014 and some early-season success will be a boost to his confidence. This team doesn't resemble the two Super Bowl-winning teams under Manning. Don't expect a Pro Bowl season from Manning, but it should be a whole lot better.
Keim: One thing that hurt Manning, against the Redskins at least, was the defense's familiarity with Kevin Gilbride's system -- and, more important, his tendencies. They had a strong handle on what to expect. My guess is other teams did as well. But it sounds as if McAdoo will focus more on shorter passes which, the Giants have to hope, will help Manning cut down on his interceptions. Yes, he's learning a new system, but Manning is a smart player so I don't think it will hold him back that much. I'm looking for a big bounce-back year from him, but whether he reaches the Pro Bowl will depend on how his line improves and how the questions at receiver are answered. I'm not ready to go that far just yet.
- Washington Redskins offensive coordinator Sean McVay praised quarterback Robert Griffin III for how he handled the offseason – physically and mentally. “He did an excellent job above the neck,” McVay said, “as far as absorbing the new system, some of the terminology. … He’s done an excellent job translating his knowledge in the meeting room onto the field, recognizing some of those looks. Some of the audible situations we’ll give him the opportunity to call things at the line. He’s shown he’s fully capable of doing it and that’s what gives him a great chance to have success this year.”
- Griffin did not call audibles the first two seasons, but in talking to players the past two years, the Redskins had built-in rules in their offense so that if a bad look presented itself, there were automatic checks to another option.
- Cord Jefferson wrote an interesting piece on receiver DeSean Jackson in ESPN The Magazine. One thing that jumps out is his father’s involvement in his life. We already knew about this, but Jefferson wrote about Jackson’s father having an argument with his oldest son Byron after the latter told him he was giving up football after stints in the World League of American Football and the Canadian Football League. Jackson’s father eventually pulled a gun on him, leading to them being estranged. That was broken because Byron Jackson returned to help groom his younger brother.
- But it also illustrates the pressure put on DeSean Jackson to succeed in the NFL by his father. It wasn’t always easy, though in the end it sounds as if Jackson understood it better. And the heavy role his dad played is what Griffin gets. It’s why Griffin feels as if he understands Jackson’s motivation, which in turn helps him relate better.
- For what it’s worth, the Redskins obviously were pleased with what they saw of Jackson on the field this spring. As one coach texted last week, “He’s the real deal.” That’s not a surprise given his talent and background, of course, but they are excited about what he’ll do in Washington. Then again, I doubt they’d say otherwise right now.
- OK, in case you missed the last week of the Redskins’ nickname controversy: Here’s a story on a school board in the state of Washington that said they won’t force the local high school, in a heavily Native American district, to change its nickname; Senator John McCain said the name should change; a Redskins Pride Caucus was formed by Virginia politicians tired of the controversy.
- Here’s something I stumbled upon about Redskins running back Lache Seastrunk. Before last college season, he guaranteed that he’d win the Heisman Trophy. Don’t believe me? Here’s his quote to the Sporting News, “I’m going to win the Heisman. I’m going to win it in 2013. If I don’t, I’m going to get very close. I’m shooting for that goal. I will gladly say it.” Seastrunk also told the Sporting News, “I feel like there’s no back who can do what I do. I know I’m the fastest back in the country. I know I’m the best back in the country. Nobody’s going to work harder.” Have to say, I like guys who aren’t afraid to say how they feel. Don’t forget, Seastrunk said this spring, “I don’t have any weaknesses.” This kid could be a reporter’s dream.
- This story by Phil Sheridan surprised me as well: In the last 10 years, the Eagles have a home record of 44-36 and their road mark was 45-34-1. It’s mystifying how a team that has largely been a playoff contender during this stretch hasn’t been better at home. They were only 4-4 at home last season as well, though they won their last four (before losing a home playoff game). In the last 10 years, the Redskins have gone 5-5 in Philadelphia. Players get a kick out of pulling into the parking lot in their buses, seeing little kids flip them off and seeing eggs splatter on the windows. By the way, Philadelphia has added 1,600 seats to the Linc for this season.
- If the New York Giants want their passing attack to flourish again, it would help tremendously if third-year receiver Rueben Randle becomes a consistent target. He caught 41 passes for 611 yards and a team-leading six touchdown receptions, which our Dan Graziano likened to a “little like being the tallest dwarf.” Graz has a way with words. Anyway, Randle had three games of 75 or more yards but 10 with 40 or fewer. That has to change. And Giants receivers coach Sean Ryan said recently, “I've seen a difference in his seriousness towards his work. This spring, I thought he was locked in. I thought he did a good job learning the new offense. Like I said, he's got some football intelligence to him. Things come to him. He sees things pretty well. But I thought he really worked hard at being locked into the meetings and on the field as well. I noticed a difference in him." Receiver is a tough position for young players to learn; we’ll learn a lot more about Randle after this season and the direction he’s headed.
- For the first time in a while, Dallas lacks star power when it comes to its pass rush. Not that anyone else in the division will feel sorry for the Cowboys, entering life without DeMarcus Ware (not to mention Jason Hatcher and his 11 sacks from this past season). The problem is, where will their rush come from? The best options are a rookie second-round pick (DeMarcus Lawrence) and a defensive tackle coming off ACL surgery (Henry Melton). Calvin Watkins explored that situation here.
The NFC East is not what it once was, and there have been plenty of changes in the division.
Since 2010, the NFC East is the only division not to have a team post more than 10 wins in a season.
The Washington Redskins hired a new coach in Jay Gruden. The Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants have added new playcallers. The Philadelphia Eagles have added several key free-agent pieces while also saying goodbye to DeSean Jackson.
How will these changes impact what happens in the NFC East in 2014?
NFL Nation reporters Phil Sheridan (Eagles), Dan Graziano (Giants), John Keim (Redskins) and Todd Archer (Cowboys) take a look.
Can Jay Gruden and DeSean Jackson help Robert Griffin III regain his form and bring Washington back to the postseason?
Todd Archer: If Gruden can't, he was the wrong hire. Adding Jackson to Pierre Garcon will help. Jackson is a big-play receiver, and in Cincinnati, Gruden was unafraid to take shots down the field with A.J. Green or Marvin Jones. It has been a quiet offseason for RG III compared to last season, when there was so much focus surrounding his rehab from knee surgery, how much he would or would not do, whether he would or would not wear a knee brace, whether he liked Mike Shanahan or Shanahan liked him. For Griffin, it's good that the focus has been on football. This is a critical year for him. If he does not return to form, the Redskins won't return to the playoffs.
John Keim: They can -- to a degree. But if he regains his form, it'll also be because he's had a full offseason, something he did not have last season, and he'll be playing without the brace on his right knee. He's used the offseason to tweak his mechanics, but he also needs to use it to read defenses quicker, which, in turn, will allow him to use all the new weapons around him. Jackson provides Griffin a consistent big-play target whose presence will make it tough for defenses to stop everyone. If the receivers and tight end Reed stay healthy, there will be mismatches. As for Gruden, his style of coaching might be a better fit for what Griffin wants and needs. He still understands a quarterback's mindset and has a good handle on what Griffin needs.
Phil Sheridan: They can't hurt. But really, this is about Griffin becoming the quarterback he's capable of being. We've all seen the signs that he can be special. It's hard to believe that Mike and Kyle Shanahan were entirely to blame for every hitch in Griffin's progression. That said, he now has a fresh start. He is Shanahan-free. There is an opportunity for him to redefine himself. Will Gruden and Jackson help? They really should. Jackson still has elite speed that puts pressure on every defense charged with covering him. It is up to Griffin to develop a strong connection to his new teammate. There is no reason to suspect that he can't. As for the postseason, the Eagles will not willingly give up the progress they made last season under Chip Kelly. But the NFC East is not exactly the most daunting challenge in the NFL. There will be space for Griffin in the playoffs if he earns it.
Who will be the best rookie in the division?
Archer: Best or most impactful? It's hard to say a guard will be the best rookie in the division, but I think the Cowboys' top pick, offensive tackle Zack Martin, will be the most impactful. He is the third first-round pick on the line and will be a day-one starter. If he plays well, Tony Romo will have more time, DeMarco Murray will have more room and indirectly the defense will be better because it will be on the field less. But if we're looking for the best, I'd go with Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. or Eagles wide receiver Josh Huff. They will get plenty of opportunities. If Eli Manning is to bounce back, Beckham will do things Hakeem Nicks didn't do. I think Huff will benefit from playing for Kelly at Oregon and will make a smooth transition into the offense. Why didn't I mention any Redskins? I was underwhelmed by their top three picks and they didn't have a first-rounder thanks to the Griffin trade.
Keim: I was all set to pick Matthews because I love the total package there: speed, size, smarts, work ethic. He'll be a good one, but the Eagles also have several weapons, and that could detract from his ability to make an impact. I really like linebacker Marcus Smith in Philadelphia; he and Washington's Trent Murphy will have opportunities, too, as pass-rushers. But the guy I'll go with is Martin. At No. 16, Martin should make the most impact. But his presence gives Dallas one of the best offensive lines in the NFL. Eventually he could shift outside, but Martin should be a solid player up front for many years, and he'll help immediately.
Sheridan: The easy answer is Beckham. He is the only first-round pick in the division who is likely to make a major impact as a rookie. Even if Martin and Smith have good seasons, they won't show up on the stat sheet the way a wide receiver will. That's what makes the dark-horse candidate Matthews, the Eagles' second-round pick. A wide receiver from Vanderbilt, Matthews is likely to start out playing in the slot. The Eagles almost always had three receivers on the field under Kelly last season. If Matthews can earn the playing time, he'll get some exposure.
Odell Beckham! Will be playing in up-tempo offense. Already the best route runner in this draft and new O will surprise def's. #Fourdowns- Mike (@GiantsfaninTx) June 10, 2014
Will Scott Linehan help the Cowboys take advantage of all their weapons on offense?
Archer: On the surface, the Cowboys' offense was not a problem last year. Romo threw 31 touchdown passes in 15 games and was intercepted 10 times. Murray had his first 1,000-yard season and went to the Pro Bowl. Dez Bryant, Tyron Smith and Jason Witten also went to the Pro Bowl. But there were issues. The red zone offense was a lot better, but the third-down offense was awful. It couldn't stay on the field enough. It was too easy for teams to take away Bryant and Witten in the passing game. The Cowboys did not run the ball enough when they had leads in games, like against Green Bay. Linehan inherits a talented group, and he is known for his ability to adjust in-game. If there has been a criticism of this offense, it is that the only answers to double-teams were to throw it to the other guys. They did little to help Bryant and Witten break free. Linehan had to deal with double coverage with Calvin Johnson a ton when he worked in Detroit. Although he threw it a lot with the Lions, he has shown a willingness to run it in the past, be it in Minnesota or St. Louis or even last year with the Lions. Reggie Bush had more than 1,000 yards. Unlike last year's playcaller, Bill Callahan, this will truly be Linehan's show. That will help him break free from Jason Garrett's shadow.
Keim: Maybe, but the thing I worry about with Linehan is his tendency to become so pass-heavy. Dallas' offense already relied a lot on throwing the ball, and that seemed to be a problem. The Cowboys averaged only 94 rushing yards per game, but they gained 4.48 per run. That's pretty good. With the line they're building, I would think they'd want to run the ball a bit more, but that goes against Linehan's history. But what I like, possibly, is getting the backs more involved in the passing game (another Linehan staple from his past). That would enable Murray to stretch his game -- and give defenses more to worry about. The Cowboys have the ability to diversify their offense, but Linehan can't just fall in love with the pass.
Sheridan: You would certainly think so, but then you'd have thought all those weapons would have produced a bit more over the last few years. Indeed, you'd think the same of the Detroit Lions, whose offense Linehan was most recently running. The Cowboys did the right thing by drafting to rebuild their offensive line. That would go a long way toward giving Romo the time to do what he does. And that would go a long way toward helping Linehan succeed. The bigger question is whether all those weapons are really as dangerous as they appear. Romo is at the point where many quarterbacks have begun their decline. Witten is 31. Bryant is in his prime, but he needs another wide receiver to draw some of the attention from opposing defenses. Murray had a good 2013, but Linehan wasn't exactly devoted to the running game in Detroit. Until proven otherwise, the Cowboys continue to look like a lot of exciting elements in need of a coherent plan.
Who was the better secondary signing: Malcolm Jenkins or Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie?
Archer: In a division with Bryant, Jackson, Garcon, Jeremy Maclin and Riley Cooper, I'm going with Rodgers-Cromartie. I know safeties are the "it" deal now because of what Earl Thomas has done in Seattle, but cornerbacks are more important. Jenkins fills a need the Eagles haven't filled since losing Brian Dawkins. He will bring stability to the secondary, and that will help the front seven. But Rodgers-Cromartie can do more. Cornerback has been a problem for New York because of injury, poor play or both the past few seasons. Rodgers-Cromartie has good length and speed to handle different kinds of receivers. He will gamble, but he is an upgrade at an ultra-important position.
Keim: I have questions about both players, although Rodgers-Cromartie is more talented. Jenkins gives the Eagles a versatile safety, someone who can revert to his corner days and cover. He's coming off a solid season but has been inconsistent. As for DRC, he's also on his fourth team -- something few elite corners at age 28 have ever said. Double moves will get him, and he will be beaten deep. But his length and athleticism make him dangerous, and maybe he's found a permanent home. DRC's presence enables the Giants to use Rolle only at safety -- before now, he's played mostly man. They can now use Rolle better when it comes to disguising coverages. By a hair, I'll go with DRC.
Sheridan: As a member in good standing of the Philadelphia sports community, I'm going to have to say Malcolm Jenkins. Not because the safety from New Orleans signed as a free agent with the Eagles but because Rodgers-Cromartie spent two of the most mystifying seasons imaginable here. Jenkins appears to be a smart, tough safety who will help solidify the Eagles' secondary. We'll take that over Rodgers-Cromartie's skill set -- especially because he demonstrated to Eagles fans how useless a skill set can be when its owner is jogging after ball carriers and declining to do anything so demeaning as tackle an opponent.
Jackson is too young and too good for his ugly release last week by the Philadelphia Eagles to end his career. Regardless of anything that came out publicly (or whatever the Eagles or other teams may know privately) about the off-field detriments that undermine Jackson's wondrous on-field benefits, someone was going to pick him up.
But what Jackson got to see was the manner in which the machine will spit him out if he lets it. A team can cut you, it turns out, without explaining why, and can let everyone assume it's because of the way you act and the friends you hang out with away from the field. A team can do this and have the wide NFL world nod in agreement at phrases like "doesn't fit" and "what's best for the football team."
So while the week's debate has been about whether this turn of events is good/bad for the Eagles, good/bad for the Redskins, good/bad for the Jets or any other team that may have been involved or interested, why not take a moment to debate whether this is good for the player? Is getting cut by the Eagles and signed by the Redskins going to benefit DeSean Jackson? Or is the machine determined to spit him out long before his desire and skill level dictate that it must?
I've been talking to people about Jackson for three years now, and here are a few things I believe I know:
Jackson is not an evil person. The Aaron Hernandez comparisons you may have heard or read are shameful and irresponsible. One guy is in jail on first-degree murder charges. The guy we're talking about here appears to have some childhood friends with shady connections. That's a pretty wide gulf, and it deserves to be treated as such in our analysis. We could sit here and say that someone of Jackson's fame and wealth is risking a lot if he refuses to cut ties with people who have nothing to lose. And if he's allegedly flashing gang signs after touchdowns, on his Instagram page or in his videos, as the police officers in the NJ.com story that hit last week minutes before his release say he has, then he's doing himself a disservice.
Jackson is a 27-year-old who's been famous for almost half his life, but he knows the right thing to do with his platform. He goes into schools to speak actively against bullying, talking to bullies, victims, teachers ... anyone who can help with the problem. He doesn't just throw money at his causes; he works actively to help.
But he also conveys an untethered element. He was incredibly close with his father, who died quickly and cruelly from pancreatic cancer in 2009, and people who have spent time around Jackson will tell you the past five years have been rough. I once asked a player in the Eagles' locker room about Jackson and was told, "Not a bad guy, but sometimes you shake your head." I have heard stories about him pouting in the locker room. He himself admitted to dealing poorly with his last contract year; he let it affect him on the field, and he was suspended for missed meetings. Eagles personnel have for years expressed concern about the extent to which Jackson liked to focus on making rap music, sometimes to the detriment of his football business, in their opinion.
And the NJ.com story got into his off-field associations in pretty strong detail. While the national takeaway was the uber-simplistic bit about alleged gang ties, the reasonable takeaway is that Jackson doesn't always make the best-looking choices. What I know about gang culture couldn't fill a shot glass, but I don't think DeSean Jackson is in a street gang.
The problem Jackson has now is that, right or wrong, some people who've been following this story for the past week do think he's in a gang. So the next time the NFL's fame and glory machine finds him caught in the works and tries to spit him out, there's going to be a chorus that thinks it's the right thing to do.
I wonder if he's in the right environment to succeed. The Redskins have a new, inexperienced head coach in Jay Gruden. They have a 28-year-old first-time offensive coordinator in Sean McVay. They have an attention-magnet quarterback in Robert Griffin III who's coming off a year that handed him a slate of his own problems to work out. The Redskins have lost locker-room leadership in recent years, most significantly with the retirement of London Fletcher. One of the top leaders on their offense is wide receiver Santana Moss, whose roster spot one would think is in jeopardy as a result of the Jackson signing. If Jackson is looking for another tether now that the Eagles' tether has been severed, it may be tough for him to find it in Washington.
Which makes it even more important for Jackson to realize what's happened here and work to make sure he's prepared the next time it happens. It's important for a lesson to be learned. Jackson doesn't have to change who he is or what he does away from the field if he doesn't want to. But his is now an at-risk career at the age of 27, and he needs to understand that. The next time the machine tries to spit him out, it's going to have a lot more impetus than it did this time around. Jackson's mission going forward is to fight that off -- to realize he's under a new and frightening kind of scrutiny, and to work to make sure he doesn't give anyone a reason to think he's something he's not.
Remember the Chip Kelly revolution? It was televised, on "Monday Night Football" no less, back in September. The first half of Kelly's first game as an NFL head coach looked more like the running of the bulls, and FedEx Field was Pamplona.
Things settled down considerably after that. As Washington comes to Lincoln Financial Field for the rematch, both teams look different at quarterback. Robert Griffin III was tentative that night in his first game back after knee surgery. Nick Foles was on the sideline as Michael Vick ran Kelly's uptempo offense.
The teams meet again with much on the line. The Eagles are 5-5 and, with the 5-5 Dallas Cowboys on their bye, can slide into first place in the NFC East with a win. Washington is 3-6 and can get within one game of the division leaders. ESPN.com Eagles reporter Phil Sheridan and his D.C. counterpart, John Keim, dig a little deeper.
Phil Sheridan: The Eagles haven't seen RG III & Co. since the season opener. They were able to do a good job of disrupting the rusty Griffin and bottling up Alfred Morris. How far have those two and the rest of the offense come since? Is RG III all the way back?
John Keim: The offense has come a long way because Griffin's legs are once again a part of the equation. Without his legs he's an ordinary player and it's an ordinary offense. But with the threat of his legs and with Alfred Morris' running ability, the Redskins can use play action. When the Redskins can use play action their offense can be dynamic and explosive. When they can't? It's what you saw in the opener. Morris has had a terrific season and the only thing holding him back is more opportunities. I think Robert is back to being able to make plays and hurt teams in the pass game, except during times when you know they must throw the ball. Griffin isn't quite as explosive, but unlike in the opener he's now willing to run at any point and keep the ball on the zone read. He still has to develop as a passer, something that was true last season as well. He needs a full offseason.
The Eagles surprised the Redskins in that first game a little bit. How has the Eagles' offense changed or progressed since that game? And how much of that is because of the changes at quarterback?
Sheridan: The Eagles' offense has had major growing pains. That first half at Washington got everyone excited about how Chip Kelly could revolutionize the NFL. And it has been more evolution than revolution since. With Nick Foles at quarterback, obviously there is less threat of the quarterback running 40 yards as there was when Michael Vick was in there. At the same time, Foles seems to keep the tempo up where Chip Kelly wants it, makes quick, smart decisions and generally runs the offense as it is designed. Vick is great or terrible. With the still mysterious exception of the Dallas game, Foles is reliably good and, at times, better than that. He doesn't fire the imagination the way RG III does, but he's a smart quarterback.
This offense had the huge advantage of sucker punching Washington in the opener. No film, no tendencies. Now that defensive coordinator Jim Haslett has had weeks of film to analyze, how do you think he'll approach the Eagles this time?
Keim: I think the plan will be to stop running back LeSean McCoy and they felt good about how they played him in the second half of the opener, mainly by how they aligned their defensive linemen. They focused hard on stopping Adrian Peterson last week, but in doing so got hurt badly by play action, which the Eagles do well. I think more than anything the players will be less surprised by what they see. Those packaged plays destroyed the Redskins in the first half; you can talk all you want about keeping your eyes on your keys, but when you get in the game it's tough. They won't yet share their game plan with me (I hate that!). They went a lot off Oregon tape in the first game and a little off the preseason; now they have their own game against them and nine others. The problem they'll still encounter is trying to handle all those weapons.
So much talk about the offense, but how has the Eagles' defense progressed? Where have they struggled? What have they done well?
Sheridan: Progress is exactly the right word, John. The Eagles got humiliated in Denver by that Peyton Manning guy. The final score was 52-20, but Manning could have scored another 20 if he'd been inclined and remained in the game. Since then, no team has scored more than 21 points against the Eagles. They've gotten some breaks. No Aaron Rodgers or even Seneca Wallace for most of Sunday's win in Green Bay. Mike Glennon and Terrelle Pryor aren't striking fear into defenses, either. But they also acquitted themselves well against Eli Manning and Tony Romo. Mostly, they have focused on fundamentals and the run game, with solid success. They did well against Morris in the opener and feel like they can force Griffin to beat them. I guess the difference is that this time, he can.
Bigger picture this time: Is there still a sense Washington is on the rise under Mike Shanahan or has this season lit a fire under his chair? Put another way: Does Washington still feel like it's in the division race in the wretched NFC East and is that a firewall for the head coach?
Keim: I think they still feel they have a shot, which is probably different than saying they're in the race. To be in a race you have to win a couple of games and I think they understand that. Last year's streak is fresh on their minds, too, so they know it can be done. I think this season has to call into question more about Shanahan and the direction of the franchise. I think the offense is on the rise because they have excellent young talent. Some will point to the salary cap penalty and Griffin's injury to explain all their ills. Those do explain some problems and prevented them from addressing certain areas. (I think some people forget that free agency does not solve everything and never has in Washington.) But they clearly don't explain all of the issues. I also know in the summer the head coach was rather excited about what this team could do, knowing both the cap and Griffin's injury situation. Shanahan has one year remaining on his contract, so these next seven games could determine his future . I don't think he'll get fired, but will he be given an extra year? If they go, say, 5-11 can you give an extension? What helps Shanahan is that he has changed the culture at Redskins Park and I have a hard time seeing his players quitting on him. It gives them a chance to finish better than they started.
Because the NFC East is down and the Eagles are 5-5 they have to be viewed as contenders. But do you think they're a good team on the rise or do they have a ways to go?
Sheridan: Maybe a little bit of both. Some of the offensive numbers are ridiculously good. We take 450-yard games for granted with Kelly's offense. Foles has thrown 16 touchdowns and zero interceptions. McCoy leads the NFL in rushing. The defense is solid, which is more than half the league can say. And yet the Eagles haven't won a home game, went two weeks in a row without an offensive touchdown and have gotten wins against pretty suspect quarterbacks. So a good team? Probably close. On the rise? That's where it all gets interesting. They are young on defense but getting a little older on the offensive line. The offensive stars aren't that old -- McCoy is 25, DeSean Jackson 26 -- but they have wear on their treads. So much depends on Foles, I guess. If he's the real deal, then this team should continue to improve. If Kelly still feels he needs to find The Quarterback, then this season will feel more like a one-off than a stepping stone.