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Wednesday, September 18, 2013
NFC East no longer a beast

By John Clayton
ESPN.com

Reputation gets you only so far.

The NFC East is a legacy division. It draws the highest ratings. It has some of the highest-profile teams. It has two of the highest-paid quarterbacks in the NFL.

But the NFC East looked like an aging fighter during the opening two weeks of the season. Sunday was the ultimate embarrassment. The NFC East went 0-4, with three of those losses coming against the AFC West. In fact, the only reason NFC East teams have two wins in the first two weeks is because they played each other in the opening week of the season.

Sadly, the slow start was predictable.

Redskins QB Robert Griffin III wasn't going to be the same quarterback in the first month of the season coming off the second knee reconstruction of his young football life. He's temporarily without his value as a running threat, and his mechanics are off because he didn't have any preseason work.

But that's only part of the problem with the Redskins. Two years of $18 million-a-year cap penalties limited their ability to bring in competitive depth. A tight cap and a recovering quarterback would hinder most teams early in the season.

The Dallas Cowboys also have cap and depth problems. They were hit with a $10 million cap penalty over a two-year period. To keep a starting lineup together, Jerry Jones had to redo contracts that will eat up future cap room. That left little room for the Cowboys to upgrade the roster.

To make another run at the Super Bowl, the Giants had to do the same as far as restructuring contracts. They entered with an older offensive line that is injured, a linebacker corps patched together and a quarterback, Eli Manning, who is throwing too many interceptions.

Then there's the Philadelphia Eagles. No team in the NFL generated more excitement and mystery this offseason than the Eagles. Chip Kelly brought a fast-paced offense into the NFL that has created a buzz. His pace had the Redskins confused in the opener. The Eagles ran a staggering 53 plays in the first half against Washington, but over the past six quarters, opponents are getting more plays. Kelly is now trying to re-adjust his play calling to counter the league's adjustments to his schemes.

The next three weeks should be interesting for this division. The NFC East has six games against the AFC West, the division that was supposed to bulk up teams' records. If the NFC East can't take advantage of the interconference schedule, there is a decent chance that seven or eight wins might win this division. Ouch.

From the inbox

Tom Brady
Tom Brady is tough on his receivers, but his methods usually produce success.

Q: Tom Brady has every right to be upset, but I think he's going about it the wrong way. Tough love doesn't work for young receivers. These receivers know Brady's greatness, but they have to want to play for him first.

Chris in California

A: This could be one of the reasons the Patriots have failed to develop a drafted wide receiver since Deion Branch and have had to go outside the organization for dependable receivers. It's hard to fault Brady for being too hard on his receivers. His command is one of the reasons the Patriots keep winning the AFC East and put themselves in position to be Super Bowl candidates. Brady makes it pretty clear. Receivers have to run the routes the way he wants them to, and the receivers have to think his thoughts as they run them. If they don't do those things, he won't throw them the ball and they don't stay with the Patriots long. Brady is among the best in trying to coach up his receivers during the week, but he shows no patience in the games. That's his competitiveness. But you're right; it is hard for young receivers to handle that pressure. We'll see how these guys do.

Q: Peyton Manning is great, but why don't all the media "experts" talk about Manning's playoff failures? His next playoff loss will make him No. 1 among QBs in the history of the NFL in playoff losses and he is nowhere near the top in wins.

Doug in Cleveland

A: His playoff record is always a topic, and it never goes away. It's the main reason Brady is rated higher than Manning during this era because Brady has two more Super Bowl wins than Peyton and so many more playoff wins. Still, you can never take away his impact. He's carried franchises since he's come into the league. He has to be worth six or seven wins to his team. What if he wins a Super Bowl ring or two at the end of his career like John Elway did? Don't count him out yet, but your point is valid.

Q: Was David DeCastro's attempted block illegal? That attempted block that ended up injuring Maurkice Pouncey has re-ignited some debate about cut blocks, particularly in the Pittsburgh media, and whether that type of block should be allowed. However, I'm wondering if what DeCastro tried to do is already illegal. When I saw the replay I saw that Pouncey was already engaged high with the Titans' lineman and it seemed that DeCastro was trying to cut the lineman low as Pouncey was starting to disengage, but still blocking him to a degree. Isn't that type of block already illegal under current rules?

Kevin in Washington, D.C.

A: If DeCastro took out the defender while Pouncey was engaged, that would be a chop block, which would be illegal. Cut blocks are legal, and DeCastro is working in a zone-blocking scheme that requires cut blocks. Cut blocks are needed to clear out the backside of the run. Because cut blocks are aimed at the lower legs of the defenders, the defenders are always going to complain. They've been doing that for three decades. Remember how opponents always complained about the 49ers' cut blocks during the Bill Walsh days? I'm sure the competition committee will look at the cut blocks as it does every year, but taking them away would cause major changes in the running attacks.

Q: I have a Hall of Fame question for you. Do you see either Jason Taylor or Zach Thomas getting in? Zach is eligible this year.

Jordan in York, Pa.

A: Both are solid candidates. Taylor has the better chance because he has the sacks. Thomas could make it, but it will take some time. Thomas is more borderline, but he has a chance.

Q: Why is it considered unsportsmanlike for a defensive player to "fake" an injury when the whole idea of the offense is to prevent substitutions to make the mismatches work? Is it sportsmanlike to not let the defense get new personnel on the field? The NFL is about offense, but really, let's keep the field somewhat level at least.

Sam in Waterloo, Ontario

A: Faking an injury is a bad act, particularly at this time in the NFL. The league is concerned about the health of the players. It is worried about concussions and will stop the game to help an injured player. For a coach or a player to use this strategy just to stop the clock is cheating the game. Go to basketball. Do you like flopping to draw a foul? First, faking an injury slows down the game, and the NFL likes a fast-paced game. I don't see the logic in endorsing the ability to cheat. The problem facing officials is trying to determine if the injury was faked. That is difficult.

Q: There's a salary cap for players, but is there a cap for non-player expenses? If not, it seems to me a very rich owner -- e.g. Paul Allen -- could, if he wished, outspend nearly every other NFL owner on things like scouting, practice facilities, coaching, medical staff, etc. That would seem to be an advantage. For example, I was wondering if Seattle's recent draft successes might be because they simply have more paid scouts in play.

Gordon in Paris

A: Owners can spend as much as they are willing for nonplayer costs. As much as they might spend, this game still comes down to the players. The success of the Seahawks' recent drafts is because of good scouting, not expensive scouting. Pete Carroll knows the type of players he wants, and GM John Schneider goes out and finds them. They have a good staff that helps develop them. Ownership also has to make the right hires to run their teams. If not, they are wasting money. The one thing about the NFL is that you can't buy a championship. The salary cap is the equalizer.