Thursday, September 09, 2004

NFC East Predictions

Frank picks the NFC East:

Philadelphia: For yet another year, Philadelphia enters the season head and shoulders above their division foe. The Eagles are the Atlanta Braves of football. Last December, missing nine starters, they faced Dallas straight up for division supremacy- and beat them real bad- see “Die Hard 2” for a visual example. Even banged up, they were probably a touchdown-plus favorite over anyone in the division at the end of the season. And I cannot imagine that has changed all that much.

Andy Reid may not be the best game day coach in the NFL- but he is among the elite in managing his roster in the salary cap era. Year after year the Eagles are loaded for bear- and a nice crop of young players is eased into the rotation. Only three starters remain from the first 2001 division champion team. The Eagles are- by far- the youngest, deepest team in the division. Again, they lost nine starters (plus Westbrook) and never lost a beat.

Any time you finish at the top of your division, sacrifices are coming in terms of the salary cap. The Eagles came at running back and corner back. But the idea that Buckhalter and Staley are earth-shaking losses is comical. Did anyone watch these guys play last year? Both are below-average NFL players- and the idea that the “crucial” 400 or so yards rushing they provided is not easily replaceable by just about anyone is ridiculous. I understand Westbrook is not exactly durable- but did you know the Eagles did not have a RB average eight carries/game last year. Yeah, I think Westbrook can handle that kind of load.

Corner is a more peculiar question- but the fact is the two kids played a lot back there last year and played pretty well. Sure, they are not Vincent and Taylor in their prime- but Taylor and Vincent aren’t in their prime anymore. All of a sudden Johnson can’t evaluate corner talent anymore? Please. They probably still can’t consistently stop the run- but in today’s NFL it doesn’t really matter- except when you’re losing late.

Most importantly, as long as #5 is around to torture NFL East defenses, the Eagles are more than okay in this division. Bark! McNabb is the Big Dog. He might not be a top ten QB, he might not be a fantasy football darling, but he ought to be the league’s MVP year after year after year. He brings every intangible to the field: no turnovers, mobility, leadership, a knack for back-breaking big plays. And for the first time, he has a true top wide out to throw to- and sshhh… Freddie Mitchell is turning into a really, really good slot receiver.

Their health is all-important for a deep play-off run, but they will almost effortlessly dominate this mob again- and win the division by two-three games in the end. 12 wins.

Dallas: In the cap era of the NFL, everyone has problems- Dallas is no exception. But their outstanding defense is back- with reinforcements (Willey at DE for example). And don’t kid yourself, that defense is a talented, mobile, and hostile unit- that is much, much better than anything Washington or New York can throw out there. They'll miss Woodson- but safety and center are the most unimportant positions in the NFL.

The questions are on the offense. Okay, they were bad last year. But no matter what- aren’t Testeverde and Henson just better than Quincy Carter? Isn’t an older Eddie George better than anything they had last year? They almost have to be better on offense. Plus, with the new cast of skill players, they can take away about one hundred downright crippling turnovers. The offensive line ain’t too good- but again it is even or better than Washington or the Giants.

This team deservedly made the play-offs last year- and I don’t think they’ve regressed- so I think they get in again. Somewhere between 9-10 wins.

Washington: The ‘skins are hard to figure out- but for the first time in a long time, with a break or two, they could get in the tournament. So much of this is leveraged on Joe Gibbs- and the next two years (this team could be scary bad in 2006). But one could argue that you could do a lot worse than take a chance on Coach.

First, there is clearly more order and a plan. And there was always talent in Washington. But when you took an anarchic coach, a vapid owner and indolent fans, no one was surprised when the team itself was the most anarchic, vapid and indolent franchise in football year after year.

More so than any team in the division, the ‘skins must, must stay healthy. There is zero depth in lots of key places- part and parcel of having 30% of your cap tied up in one position. They are a pair of tackle, quarterback or Portis injuries away from 5-11. Joe Bugel aside, the OL just isn’t very good- and there is literally no one who can play behind the regulars. The defensive line is truly ghastly. I am not sure they can cover people either. I can think of no singular reason why they won’t be the worst pass defense, and not by a little bit, in the division. They gave up an astonishing 45 touchdowns last year. I can’t see that number falling much- if at all. It is emphatically hard to make the play-offs if week after week your offense has to score 24- just to be in it.

Conversely, if the OL can stay healthy, this team can clearly hurt people on offense. While I disagree with the idea that handing any RB the ball 25 times is the way to win in today’s NFL, perhaps they can make it work. As I wrote last year, if you are averaging 35 rushes a game, you are conclusively hurting your team. And that, frankly, is the only real problem I have with Gibb’s off-season. He appears determined to construct an offense established on creating 12-play, 65-yard drives. No one scores that way anymore; I don't think the Eagles have had a twelve play drive in five years. Most scoring drives in the NFL are seven plays or fewer- and most involve a big pass-play. Particularly with the new rules, the quarterback is even more important. No one cares anymore if your completion percentage is 55% vs. 59%- or if your yards per pass play is seven yards versus eight. You need quarterbacking that regularly creates 25 yards-plus plays, stays healthy and never turns it over.

That is not Brunell candidly. I am not sure the ‘skins grasp that yet- plus very few quarterbacks prosper their first year in a new system. In an open draft, Brunell would not be taken in the first fifteen QBs anymore. However, I suppose he is a professional- and he clearly has weapons he can utilize at the skill positions.

If Brunell and Portis make 28 starts between them, and the OL stays healthy, they’re in the play-off hunt. But I doubt they will. Frankly, I doubt Brunell will make it to Week Eight behind that line. 6-7 wins.

New York: Other than Gibbs magic presence, why are the Giants so much worse than the Redskins? I cannot figure it out.

Their lines are better. In fact, their defense is loaded with young guys who can run and should get better- particularly with Coughlin insisting they be. Is Warner (at $3 million) really that much worse than Brunell (at $10 million)? Is Portis, in today’s NFL, really a substantially more important player than Shockey?

The Giants made a lot of strides to fix the defense through the draft the past two years. The offense is no great shakes- but Shockey is back and the OL got reinforcements (Diehl and Snee might be the two best young OL in the division). I think they’ll be better than the four they won last year. No team lost more games stupidly last year- and Coughlin will fix that.

Young teams can flourish real quickly in today’s league- and they are a tough nut in the Meadowlands. Playing the last place schedule, would it really surprise anyone to see them go 5-3 at home? My guess is that they'll be favored in five home games. So I think six-seven wins total- and I think they really could surprise to the upside.