2012 NFC East Season Preview
Jared Huntley is a staff writer for Rattle and Hum Sports covering the National Football League and Fantasy Football. Follow Jared on Twitter @jaredhuntley or reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
The NFC East was supposed to be a powerhouse division heading into 2011. The Philadelphia Eagles, the self-proclaimed “Dream Team”, seemed destined for a deep playoff run after splurging on big name free agents like Jason Babin and Nnamdi Asomugha. The Dallas Cowboys, annual subjects in preseason Super Bowl discussions, were pegged as a potential contender with Tony Romo leading a high powered passing attack and hopes that defensive coordinator Rob Ryan would, at the very least, make the Boys a top 10 stop unit in the NFL. Then there were the New York Giants, who ironically seemed to be an afterthought in all the hype surrounding the preseason least year. They, of course, went on to win the Super Bowl after heating up at the right time, but the regular season was nevertheless unimpressive as they managed just 9 wins. But with the Washington Redskins once again irrelevant and the Cowboys and Eagles both floundering in a season that could best be described as inconsistent, 9 wins proved to be enough to take the NFC East crown for the New York Giants.
Once again, the NFC East is expected to be one of the tougher divisions in football, but unlike 2011, this season football fans can expect this division to be much more competitive than they were last year. The Eagles are motivated, the Cowboys aggressively addressed their secondary in free agency and the draft, the Redskins finally matter with a new franchise quarterback in RG3, and the Giants are prepared to defend their Super Bowl title. The question is, who will come out on top?
New York Giants
Prediction: 11-5, 1st place, NFC East
2011 Record: 9-7
Key Additions: TE Martellus Bennett, NT Shaun Rogers, OLB Keith Rivers, RB David Wilson (draft), WR Rueben Randle (draft), CB Jayron Hosley (draft)
Key Departures: WR Mario Manningham, RB Brandon Jacobs, TE Jake Ballard, CB Aaron Ross, S Deon Grant, ILB Jonathan Goff
The New York Giants are the defending Super Bowl Champs. Not very many people saw that coming heading into last season, but the Giants found a way to prove the doubters wrong and they simply looked unstoppable in the playoffs. They decimated the Falcons, made the amazing Packers look pretty average, and handled the vaunted Patriots in their Super Bowl victory.
The Giants’ winning ways were spurred by two things: An aerial attack led by Eli Manning, Hakeem Nicks, and Victor Cruz that could not be contained and an opportunistic defense that seemed to make big play after big play in clutch situations. During their playoff run, the Giants suffocated Matt Ryan and the Falcons and made Aaron Rodgers, who was in the midst of one of the greatest seasons off all time for a quarterback, look like Joe Flacco.
The Giants did not, however, have a very good regular season. In fact, if not for the annual Dallas Cowboy collapse that seems to be expected nowadays, the Giants may not have ever made the playoffs. Giant fans can thank Tony Romo and his inept coach, Jason Garrett, for that gift.
The Giants finished 3-3 within the NFC East, including two inexcusable losses to the woeful Washington Redskins. While I don’t expect that to happen again this season, it still raises concerns about the consistency of this football team. Will they show up ready to play every game, or will they simply “turn it on” only when it matters? It seemed like this football team wasn’t all there at times during the regular season in 2011.
The Giants finished dead last in the NFL in rushing in 2011, averaging 89 yards per game on the ground. That was partly due to the fact that they threw the ball so often. Eli Manning finished with 4,933 yards passing and 29 TD’s. The Giants selected running back David Wilson in the 1st round of the NFL Draft to help reignite a rushing attack that looked downright pathetic for most of the regular season last year. The Giants did lose Mario Manningham in free agency, but the addition of Rueben Randle in the second round of the NFL draft should make Giants fans forget about him fairly soon. Oh, and then there’s those other two guys, Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz. They finished with 1,192 and 1,536 yards receiving, respectively. This passing offense is lethal and they should have no problem keeping that pace up in 2012.
Defensively, the talent that the Giants lack in the back seven of their defense is made up for by what is one of the most ferocious defensive lines in football. Jason Pierre-Paul, in my opinion, is the best defensive player in the National Football League, and he’s entering his third year. Pierre-Paul finished with 86 tackles, 16.5 sacks, 7 passes deflected, and a blocked kick for good measure. Yikes. It’s hard to believe he could get much better, but he will. Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora are both still Pro Bowl caliber defensive lineman, and together this trio is the most lethal pass rushing combo in the NFL.
The Giants are also hoping that rookie cornerback Jayron Hosley and 2nd year player Prince Amukamara can hold down the secondary. Amukamara was a 1st round pick in 2011 and has the potential to be a star cornerback. He missed almost all of last season due to injury, but if he can regain his form he could help the Giant’s defense become much more consistent.
The Giants do have a pretty brutal schedule, but the same goes for the rest of the NFC East as well. In a race this close between the Giants, Cowboys, and Eagles, often times the tiebreaker comes down to quarterback play. Eli Manning is a two-time Super Bowl champ and a Super Bowl MVP. Tony Romo is not. Neither is Michael Vick. For this reason, the Giants have the slight edge heading into the 2012 season as the frontrunners for the NFC East crown.
Prediction: 10-6, 2nd place, NFC East
2011 record: 8-8
Key Additions: ILB DeMeco Ryans, S O.J. Otogwe, OT Demetrus Bell, DE Fletcher Cox (draft), LB Mychal Kendricks (draft), DE/OLB Vinny Curry (draft), QB Nick Foles (draft), CB Brandon Boykin (draft)
Key Departures: QB Vince Young, CB Asante Samuel, WR Steve Smith, OT Winston Justice, FB Owen Scmitt
If you were locked inside a room with no outside contact and no knowledge of how the 2011 football season played out, and at the end of the season someone showed you the final statistics of how the Philadelphia Eagles performed in 2011, you probably would guess that they earned a Wild Card berth at worst. Unfortunately, you’d be wrong.
The Eagles finished 9th in passing yards and 5th in rushing yards in 2011. LeSean McCoy was an absolute beast, carrying the Eagles’ offense in the midst of an inconsistent year from QB Michael Vick and a letdown season from wide receiver DeSean Jackson. McCoy averaged 4.8 yards per carry and finished with 1,309 yards and 17 TD’s on the ground. The Eagles also went 5-1 within their own division, which was supposedly going to be one of the toughest one’s in the NFL. However, against their other 6 NFC opponents, the Eagles finished 1-5.
Defensively, the Eagles finished 8th overall and led the NFL in sacks with 50, thanks largely to the efforts of newcomer Jason Babin, who dominated opposing offensive lines with 18 sacks. Trent Cole continued to roll as well, racking up 11 sacks of his own. The rush defense was middle-of-the-pack, as they finished 16th in the NFL in that department, but one wouldn’t think that a mediocre run defense was the sole reason the Eagles had a disappointing year. So what gives? If the Eagles seemingly performed fairly efficiently, why did they finish at .500?
We could start with turnover differential. The Eagles finished at -14, with 24 takeaways and 38 giveaways. Michael Vick threw 14 interceptions and fumbled 3 times. Philadelphia also, quite frankly, had some major chemistry issues last season. Their 2011 campaign just proved that signing a team full of Pro Bowlers is not the sole ingredient to team success. The linebacker position was largely ignored, as well, with the likes of Casey Matthews, who should have never seen the field as a starter in 2011, starting at inside linebacker. So why will 2012 be any different?
It starts with the key additions on defense. DeMeco Ryans will bring leadership and a veteran presence to the middle of the Eagles’ defense that they haven’t seen in some time. The athletic Mychal Kendricks, who looked like a freak of nature at the NFL Combine, should also fit in well in the Eagles’ Wide 9 scheme. Kendricks played both inside and outside linebacker in Cal’s 3-4 defense, so he has plenty of experience playing all over the field.
The most important addition will be Fletcher Cox on the line of scrimmage. Cox is a highly athletic, disruptive defensive lineman that should get the interior penetration that the Eagles lacked up the middle in 2011. Philly had no problem getting to the quarterback on the outside rush, but the interior of opponents’ offensive lines proved to be a tough nut to crack. Fletcher Cox will change all of that. A full offseason to figure out how best to use the talented Nnamdi Asomugha in coverage schemes should also benefit the Eagles’ secondary in 2012.
The Eagles’ offensive success will all hinge on the health and effectiveness of Michael Vick. If Vick can stay healthy, there’s no reason the Eagles should finish any lower than 10th in the NFL in total yards. LeSean McCoy is too talented and the Eagles have two explosive wide receivers in DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin. Make no mistake, though. This offensive starts and ends with LeSean McCoy. He is a front-runner candidate for the MVP award in 2012, and rightly so.
If the Eagles can match their success within the division from last season (5-1 in the NFC East), or at least come close to it, odds are they will be playing football in January. In the wake of the tragic death of Andy Reid’s oldest son, this team will come together with a purpose. Andy Reid is a player’s coach and these players want to win for him badly. So if you’re looking for another disappointing year from the Eagles, don’t hold your breath. This time, they’re for real.
Prediction: 9-7, 3rd place, NFC East
2011 Record: 8-8
Key Additions: CB Brandon Carr, S Brodney Pool, QB Kyle Orton, G Nate Livings, G Mackenzy Bernadeau, ILB Dan Connor, FB Lawrence Vickers, CB Morris Claiborne (draft), DE Tyrone Crawford (draft)
Key Departures: WR Laurent Robinson, TE Martellus Bennett, LB Bradie James, CB Alan Ball, S Abram Elam, P Mat McBriar, OG Kyle Kosier
The Dallas Cowboys, as stated earlier, seem to be in the Super Bowl contender conversation every offseason, and every season they find a way to disappoint Cowboys fans. So what did the Cowboys do this offseason to make things different? Did they do enough?
It was obvious to anyone who knows football that the Cowboys’ biggest weakness was their secondary. Terrance Newman completely collapsed as the season progressed, and despite a defense that registered 42 sacks featuring perhaps the best pass rusher in the game in DeMarcus Ware, they couldn’t stop opposing pass offenses if their lives depended on it. Eli Manning sliced and diced the Cowboys in a critical week 14 matchup with playoff implications to the tune of 400 yards through the air. In a do or die week 17 matchup three weeks later, with a division championship on the line, Manning once again showed who the better quarterback was between he and Tony Romo as he threw for 346 yards and 3 touchdowns against a helpless Cowboys’ secondary. The Giants went on to hoist the Lombardi Trophy while the Cowboys once again watched from the comfort of their living rooms.
Enter Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne. The Cowboys pushed all their chips in the middle this offseason, signing the best free agent cornerback on the market and trading a king’s ransom of draft picks to move up to #6 to take the best cornerback in the draft, Morris Claiborne of LSU. Suddenly, a position of weakness seems like it could be a very real strength for the Cowboys in 2012. In a division where they will have to battle Eli Manning and Michael Vick, it was critical that the Cowboys got better in the secondary, and they seem to have done so.
The rush defense should once again be solid in Dallas thanks to the emergence of linebacker Sean Lee, who busted onto the scene with some stellar play in 2011. Lee finished with 105 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, 7 passes deflected, and 4 interceptions in 2011. He proved to be a beast against the run and very effective against the pass, as well. He led the Cowboys to finish the season as the 7th ranked rush defense in the NFL, giving up just 4.1 yards per carry to opposing backs.
Offensively, the Cowboys’ biggest issue in 2012 may be red zone efficiency. The Cowboys scored touchdowns on less than half of their red zone opportunities, finishing in the bottom third of the league. Worse yet, the Cowboys scored just five touchdowns on the ground in all of 2011. Only Cleveland had fewer rushing touchdowns with four. Who is the goal line back for the Cowboys? It’s certainly not Felix Jones, and while Demarco Murray is undoubtedly an explosive playmaker, he is by no means effective in the red zone, either. In fact, Murray averaged just 1.7 yards per carry in the red zone in 2011, one of the worst marks in the NFL. The Cowboys did bring in fullback Lawrence Vickers in free agency to help be a road grader, but they failed to acquire a goal line back who can pound the ball into the end zone. This could be an issue that comes back to haunt the Cowboys in what is sure to be a very, very tight divisional race.
With all that being said, there’s no doubt that everything ultimately falls on the shoulders of Tony Romo. He has been criticized and critiqued, at times unfairly, for his inability to make plays when it matters. Make no mistake, if not for Tony Romo, the Cowboys would have been terrible last season. He is the most important player on Dallas’ roster, but that still doesn’t answer the questions of whether or not he can lead his team to a Super Bowl. Until he does, the criticism and critiques will continue to come his way. Romo will once again put up numbers this year, as the Cowboys had the 7th ranked passing offense in the league in 2011. There’s been a lot of worried Cowboys fans fretting over the lack of an emerging 3rd wide receiver in Dallas, but keep in mind that Laurent Robinson sort of came out of nowhere in 2011. Additionally, Jason Witten is so good at tight end that it could be argued he is the Cowboys’ third wide receiver. The key will be whether or not Dez Bryant and Miles Austin can stay on the field. Bryant has off the field issues and Austin missed significant time due to injury in 2011. If they perform to their abilities, Cowboy fans will soon forget about the 3rd wide receiver issue. Just ask the Houston Texans; they don’t even have a 2nd wide receiver (Kevin Walter doesn’t count) and they’ve been able to manage.
As much as many Cowboys fans want to believe that their team will finally turn the corner this year, it’s hard to predict such an outcome. Jason Garrett has yet to prove himself as a head coach, as he seemingly wilts under pressure much like fans accuse Tony Romo of doing. Whether its icing their own kicker or failing to instill discipline by committing 114 penalties on the season (5th most in the NFL), it always seems to be something in Dallas. The Cowboys will be much better on defense in 2012 and if they were in any other division aside from the AFC North they would likely be a shoe-in for the playoffs. In the gauntlet that is the NFC East, though, I’m taking the “prove it” approach to my Dallas Cowboys prediction. You say your team has what it takes to make a Super Bowl run? Well, prove it. Then next season I might think about giving the preseason NFC East crown to the Dallas Cowboys.
Prediction: 7-9, 4th place, NFC East
2011 Record: 5-11
Key Additions: WR Pierre Garcon, WR Josh Morgan, ILB Jonathan Goff, CB Cedric Griffin, S Tanard Jackson, S Brandon Meriweather, K Neil Rackers, QB Robert Griffin III (draft), QB Kirk Cousins (draft), ILB Keenan Robinson (draft)
Key Departures: WR Jabar Gaffney, WR Donte’ Stallworth, OLB Rocky McIntosh, SS LaRon Landry, FS O.J. Atogwe.
The Washington Redskins absolutely had to go out and get a franchise quarterback this offseason. It simply wasn’t fair to Redskins fans to run out guys like John Beck and Rex Grossman at quarterback and expect them to buy into the product the team was putting on the field. It’s also not fair to the Redskins’ marketing department. “Come watch Santana Moss try to catch passes from inept journeymen quarterbacks as your Redskins battle for the 1st pick in the draft!” I’m sure they put a better spin on it than that, but you get the point.
But suddenly, Redskin Nation is buzzing with excitement and hope is in the air in our nation’s capital. No, it’s not Barack Obama who’s bringing this hope and change; it’s RG3. With the addition of Robert Griffin III, everything has changed, and I mean everything. He gives the Redskins a legitimate shot at consistently scoring points and, for the first time in a long time, the Redskins have an explosive player on the offensive side of the ball. That’s not to say that there still aren’t holes to fill, because there are.
The Redskins, first and foremost, have to get better up front on the offensive line. Although they allowed just 27 sacks in 2011, that figure is misleading. They also allowed 43 quarterback hits, the most in the NFL. Grossman and Beck got the stuffing beat out of them on a consistent basis. Admittedly, saying that RG3 provides an upgrade in elusiveness at the position is an understatement. His speed and agility alone should cut down on those numbers. However, for RG3 to develop, Trent Williams needs to stay off the “substances” and stay on the field and Jamaal Brown needs to learn how to block again. The former surrendered 9 sacks in 2011 and was one of the major reasons why Grossman and Beck were picking themselves up off the deck. The O-line also struggled with their run blocking. Mike Shanahan is famous for milking running backs and offensive lines for all they’ve got to produce productive rush offenses, but the team averaged just 4 yards per carry on the ground in 2011 and finished 25th in rushing overall. Even worse, the Redskins had just 8 rushing TD’s as a team the entire season. Robert Griffin III will match that number this season by himself, so you can expect those numbers to improve dramatically. Roy Helu and Tim Hightower will likely receive the bulk of the reps at running back. Both backs were superior in pass blocking last season, an extremely important asset for a team with a rookie quarterback.
The Redskins also brought in some wide receiver help in Pierre Garcon and Josh Morgan. In typical Dan Snyder fashion, the Skins overpaid for Garcon, but at worst he will provide a deep threat for Griffin. Expecting him to be a #1 wide out is a bit much, though. This team will score more points this season than in 2011, but there will be some very frustrating days, as well. Inconsistency will be a theme on talk radio in D.C. in regards to this offense.
Defensively, the Redskins were solid in 2011, though not spectacular. The pass rush was very good, as they racked up 43 sacks on the season. They were led by Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan, two very good, young pass rushers. The rush defense could have been better, though. For as much praise as London Fletcher receives (he led the NFL in tackles with 166), he also seems to be slowing down a bit. Fletcher missed 14 tackles, a stat that has largely been overlooked. The Redskins could be soft up the middle this year, especially if Barry Cofield has another mediorcre year. Cofield was one of the least effective tackles in the NFL last season, racking up just 11 tackles despite significant playing time.
The primary area of concern for the Redskins defense is in the secondary, particularly at safety. This offseason, the Redskins chose to take the “throw a bunch of options against the wall and see what sticks” approach. Madieu Williams, Brandon Meriweather, Tanard Jackson, and Cedric Griffin were all brought in via free agency to help address the needs in the secondary. What do all of these players have in common? Their former teams were tired of watching them play terrible football. The Redskins are hoping that at least one of these formerly promising players can regain their form and be a viable option, but that’s a lot like signing 4 Terrell Owens’s and hoping one of them can behave and be an adequate option at wide receiver.
Overall, the Redskins are going to have a tough time reaching .500 this season. They have the talent to do it, but they will have to exceed expectations in some areas and Robert Griffin III will need to have a Cam Newton-type breakout campaign. Even if he does, there’s still no guarantees that this team can be better than mediocre. The Redskins will be heavy underdogs in all 6 of their divisional contests and they face the Saints, Bengals, Falcons, Steelers and Ravens in the regular season. That’s 11 expected losses right off the bat. Not to say they’ll lose all of those games. On the contrary, I expect them to steal several of them, much like they did this past season when they beat the eventual Super Bowl Champion New York Giants not once, but twice. With a rookie quarterback and a roster full of holes to fill, there are going to be some good times and some bad times in Washington D.C. I expect there to be a few more bad times than good this season, though.