What to make of NFC East
Over the weekend on "SportsCenter," we examined concerns and key additions among the divisions. The struggle was coming up with key additions in the NFC East. For years, the NFC East has been perhaps the most competitive division in pro football. Rivalries go back far enough and are deep enough that it's hard for an NFC East team to win more than three division games per year.
But the salary cap hindered the offseason efforts of three of the NFC East's four teams. All the Dallas Cowboys were able to do in free agency was add safety Will Allen, LB Justin Durant and TE Dante Rosario. Those three deals cost around $4 million in combined salaries.
When asked about the Washington Redskins, the best I could do is offer tackle Jeremy Trueblood, who signed a one-year, $905,000 contract to be a backup or challenge for the right tackle job. E.J. Biggers could help in the secondary. He cost $1.5 million. Darryl Tapp could be a backup defensive end. He signed for the minimum.
With a change at head coach and major changes in the organization, the Philadelphia Eagles were able to spend, but they are trying to rebound from a 4-12 season. They have a long way to go to catch their three rivals.
The bottom line is it's hard to figure where the NFC East fits this year. The NFC West is the hottest division due to the rise of the 49ers and Seahawks and the possibility the St. Louis Rams could be improved. There are plenty of great quarterbacks and other talent in the NFC South and NFC North.
The problems in the NFC East are understandable. The Redskins have been operating for two seasons minus $18 million of cap room each year because they ran afoul of the NFL, which didn't like how the team handled the uncapped year of 2010. The Cowboys lost $5 million a year in cap room for two years for similar issues. Because the Giants have kept key players from two Super Bowl-winning teams, they are constantly up against the cap.
The guess here is that the winner of the NFC East will be a nine- or 10-win team and will not secure a first-round playoff bye. Because the top teams in the NFC East are so close in talent, it's likely that the winner of the division will be no better than 4-2 in divisional games and very likely 3-3. The Redskins were 5-1 in the division last season thanks to sweeps of the Eagles and Cowboys.
I don't see any NFC East team going 7-1 or 8-0 in nondivisional games, so I think it will be hard for any of them to secure the 11 or 12 wins that probably will be needed to secure a first-round playoff bye.
Nevertheless, don't discount the chances of these teams if they make the playoffs. The Giants won two recent Super Bowls even though no one considered them great teams. The Redskins have Robert Griffin III coming back at quarterback. If he's healthy, anything can happen.
From the inbox
Q: Do you agree that with everything that's gone on in the AFC East this offseason (Dolphins making a splash, Patriots taking some hits, Jets staying bad, Bills making improvements), the division is more wide open? If so, why can't the Bills contend? They are supposed to be rebuilding, but with better QB play, improved WR depth and more playmaking on defense, is it too much to suggest that the Bills could possibly win 9-10 games and sneak in as the AFC East champion or a wild card?
Shrey in Rochester, N.Y.
A: That's too much to ask. The quarterback position is in transition. The receivers are too raw. The defense is switching back to a 3-4. That could lead to a tough start. As the season goes on, EJ Manuel might take over at quarterback. As long as the team can finish the season respectably, the Bills could start building toward 2014.
Shane in Grand Rapids, Mich.
A: I hope not. The one difference is Johnson has Matthew Stafford at quarterback. Stafford has established himself as one of the better young quarterbacks in the league; he's better than the quarterbacks who worked with Sanders. In a quarterback-driven league, Stafford gives Johnson hope. The problem is being in a division with Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers. With Rodgers and coach Mike McCarthy, the Packers enter each year with the best chance to win the NFC North.
Q: If/when the league moves to an 18-game schedule, can you see it having just one bye week at the halfway point where no teams play that weekend? Nine games, open weekend for all, then nine games. That would put it around the end of October, early November when the World Series is wrapping up.
Michael in Kansas
A: That would never happen. The networks would never go for a dark week of no football. Fans wouldn't stand for that, either. The sport is too popular to do something like that. And with the networks doubling their rights fees, the last thing they want to do is get fans out of the habit of watching games.
Q: I think the NFL should restrict the use of the no-huddle. It is too gimmicky and places too unfair of a disadvantage on defenses. Restrict the use of it to the end of halves (less than 5 minutes left) and when a team is down by at least two scores. What do you say?
Steven in Rocky Mount, Va.
A: The no-huddle may be gimmicky, but it is effective. It makes games more exciting. Fans of defensive games might not like it, but the no-huddle increases the chances of getting more exciting, higher-scoring games. There will be more no-huddle this season, not less. It also allows quarterbacks to become more efficient at the end of games, which leads to great finishes.
Q: You mentioned Philly's defense potentially having trouble if Chip Kelly's up-tempo offense stalls. Along those lines, how are 300-pound O-linemen going to sustain a fast pace over 16 games? I wonder if the 300-pound club will be closer to 260 by Week 13. If that's the case, how will smaller, perhaps weakened linemen affect the game plan as a whole?
Alan in Lubbock, Texas
A: Great question. Any offensive lineman coming out of an up-tempo system in college will tell you how tough it is. The difference in college is there are more players on the roster who can be used if guys get tired. Does that mean Kelly might have to have nine offensive linemen on the active roster rather than the seven or eight most teams use? Possibly. The weight of each lineman won't drop that far down, but it will be tough for 330-pound road-graders to survive in this offense. You also wonder if the linemen will be completely worn out by the end of the season. Conditioning is going to be a key.
Q: Is the NFC North the best division? The NFC West is really just two elite teams, while all four NFC North teams have a shot at the playoffs.
Bob in Chicago
A: It depends on whether the Detroit Lions can bounce back to being a playoff-caliber team and if the Chicago Bears do well under Marc Trestman. There are a few too many ifs in the NFC North to give them the nod over the NFC West. The 49ers and Seahawks are considered two of the best teams in the conference, and the St. Louis Rams are on the rise. The Arizona Cardinals could improve to seven or eight wins with Carson Palmer at quarterback. But you might be right if Jay Cutler does well with Trestman, Vikings QB Christian Ponder gets better and the Lions bounce back. If that happens, you are talking four playoff-caliber teams.
Q: Why is it possible for NBA teams to trade for head coaches while it is not possible in the NFL? I don't know that I'm a fan of the concept, but do you see anything like that ever moving to the NFL? Could you imagine the outcry if the Cleveland Browns traded for somebody like Jim (or John) Harbaugh or Bill Belichick?
Scott in Gresham, Ore.
A: Coaches can be traded. The Oakland Raiders did that with Jon Gruden. The reason you don't see much of it is because it's hard to find a good coach. If a team trades a good coach, there is no guarantee the coach who replaces him is going to be as good. But let's say a team has a coach heading toward the end of his contract. The owner gets the feeling the coach won't re-sign. You can see a scenario in which the coach could be traded. If the owner and the coach don't get along, you can see a possible trade. Trades of coaches are rare, but they can happen.