1. Dallas Cowboys OTC Projected Record: 12-4
Calling Card: Balance
Franchise Player: Tony Romo
The Super Bowl is in Dallas this year and it has everyone thinking about the Boys playing for it in their own house. They have weapons all over the field on offense and monsters on the defensive side. Add Dez Bryant to the mix and another year under Miles Austin’s belt and all the hype certainly seems deserved. However, playoff shortcomings have been the bane of this team and they are hoping that this year will be the year to change all that to play the big one deep in the heart of Texas.
The talent is there. Tony Romo, despite being overrated for much of his career, is settling in as an excellent quarterback and he has more skill position guys around him than he could ever hope for. He has a stable full of outstanding running backs like Marion Barber, Felix Jones and Tashard Choice. He has wide threats in Miles Austin, Dez Bryant and Roy Williams. He even has an excellent TE in Jason Witten. The only thing he could ask for is a better offensive line, which is a substantial thing to ask for. They are huge up front, but not necessarily the most skilled and any failures can probably be pinned on them.
Last year, the Cowboys were a better team while running the ball, but they tended to want to throw the ball and got impatient with the run. That is exactly the way to get a big offensive line in trouble. Big guys specialize in run blocking (generally speaking) and going away from that run both hurts the line, and takes the bread and butter away from the offense as a whole. Fewer superstar numbers for Romo is a good thing as long as they are running the ball successfully. Keep that in mind while watching this outstanding offense this year.
The defense is probably this team’s x-factor. Everyone talks about Romo and the offense, but this unit was outstanding last year for much of the year.Jay Ratliff was quietly an absolute beast last year and even with Demarcus Ware’s injuries, he still played well. With Ware healthy, Ratliff returning to prove that he was not a fluke, and talent all over the field (noticing a theme here?), the defense is ready to put the big D back in Dallas. 2nd in points/game, playmakers everywhere, as long as they do the small stuff, they will be outstanding again.
As long as that enormous video screen stays out of the way, everything should be fine. Looks like they finally found a kicker too, and the return game is solid. All good on this front.
Everything is there on paper. Not everything is there in the mental toughness area. I think this team is primed for another playoff flop, and not just because it is easy to say it, but because I think they have just enough offensive line problems to keep them from fulfilling their potential, and in many’s eyes, their destiny of a Super Bowl won in the big D.
2. New York Giants OTC Projected Record: 10-6
Calling Card: Running Game
Franchise Player: Eli Manning
Oh the joy of the 3rd place schedule. Thanks to a favorable schedule and a few key additions to the secondary, the G-Men look poised to bounce back from a disappointing campaign in which the Big Blue defense was feeling blue more often than not. Tom Coughlin’s team looks to be on the up.
Eli Manning put up a career year last year for all the wrong reasons. He threw for 4,000 yards, but largely because the Giants were constantly behind and needed Eli’s arm to try and dig them out of the holes they put themselves in. Once upon a time, the running game was the key to the Giants’ success and if they can get Ahmad Bradshaw to be the main back so Brandon Jacobs can focus on short yardage, it would be huge. Jacobs is a fine back, but letting Bradshaw be the main back adds a new dimension to the offense, and he is just as good as Jacobs, just not quite as freakishly athletic.
However, the running game is only part of the equation. With a solid running game in place, last year’s breakout wide receiver Steve Smith and youngster Hakeem Nicks have a shot to give Eli consistent quality weapons outside. If they can get both aspects working, especially the running game, there is no reason why the offense shouldn’t be good.
This was the big issue last year. Every week they would come in and get shredded by any offense with a half-decent passing game. It stopped them from running the ball on offense, forced Eli to try and bail them out, and ultimately dragged the team to mediocrity. However, the Giants made some good moves to try and fix it. They got Osi Umenyiora back to help take some pressure off the secondary, but also drafted Jason Pierre-Paul out of USF to get pressure on the QB. He is far from polished, but he can be an athletic burst off the bench to get pressure on the quarterback on passing downs. The Giants also added Antrel Rolle at safety to hopefully close some of those gaping holes. I think it will work if they can avoid getting the injury bug too bad and Big Blue can return to defensive respectability.
Should be solid, but nothing too exciting. They had some kicker questions last year, but with the swirling winds at the Meadowlands, that is not too unexpected.
I am not sure if they will be as good as their record, but that schedule and a team that was not too far away last year just screams rebound. A playoff push for the G-Men.
3. Philadelphia Eagles OTC Projected Record: 8-8
Calling Card: Passing Game
Weakness: Running Game
Franchise Player: Kevin Kolb (the Eagles hope)
The Donovan McNabb Era is over. Eagles fans have clamored for it for ages, but now that he is gone, uncertainty looms over one of the winningest franchises of the last decade. Enter Kevin Kolb, the virtual rookie out of Houston who showed some promise last year, but not enough to put Philly completely at ease. Gone too is Brian Westbrook, though Philly got more practice than they would have liked over the past few years given Westbrook’s injuries. Throw in the death of Jim Johnson last year and things are very much in flux in Philly.
Let me start by saying I am a big for of Kolb this year. I think he has all the tools to be successful in Andy Reid’s system, and has plenty of infrastructure around him so to speak. DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin are a nightmare to keep track of, LeSean McCoy is a running back on the rise, and Brent Celek is coming off a breakout year. Even his offensive line is solid, so any failure to produce is squarely on him, not his supporting cast. However, I feel that he is not going to come up short. Accuracy is important in the West Coast offense, and Kolb has plenty of that. Philly fans will be rough on him, and it will not all be great news for him, but Kevin Kolb has my endorsement going forward.
As always the running game will keep them from scoring touchdowns in the red zone, but what is new? This has been a problem forever so it is hardly something new worth worrying about.
Jim Johnson is gone but the urge to blitz remains. The Eagles have speed and tenacious tacklers, but it remains to be seen if they can keep up this high level of performance without their long-time coordinator calling the shots. I think that the Eagles will slip up a little defensively, not to a criminal level., but just not as the swarming menace we have gotten used to seeing over the years. That secondary wobbled a little last year (17th against the pass) and I am not sure if they got those issues sorted out in the draft with their selection of Brandon Graham out of Michigan. When they moved up to make the pick and Earl Thomas was still on the board, I was sure they were going to go for him, but they went another direction. Graham is very solid and fits the Eagles’ mold, but they needed secondary help and he is an outside linebacker (or will be in the NFL). I do not see them improving to the level they need to if they are to compete for the playoffs. A solid first year, but not what Eagles fans expected when they called for McNabb’s head.
David Akers is a staple. Sal Rocca is pretty good, and Maclin and Jackson are playmakers in the punt game. Excellent squad.
It will be a successful year for the Eagles, just not in the eyes of their fans. Kolb will grow, but not without pains here and there and the defense is still not fixed in this very difficult division.
4. Washington Redskins OTC Projected Record: 5-11
Calling Card: Running Game
Weakness: Pass Defense
Franchise Player: Donovan McNabb
Where to start? Do we start with the positives of Donovan McNabb and Mike Shanahan, or the Albert Haynesworth saga? It has been a very up-and-down offseason for the Redskins and that is really the last kind of offseason you want, almost even over it being all down instead of up and down. Hopes are riding high in the capital, but the team still has serious issues it needs to address. Pair these hopes and issues with a very difficult schedule, and you have a recipe for disaster for the Redskins. Not disaster in the sense of losing 13 or 14 games, but the enormous disappointment that comes with high expectations and a team not quite ready.
We know it will be better, but not by how much. Mike Shanahan has a history of a strong running game, so you can bet on Clinton Portis, Larry Johnson, and Willie Parker to get plenty of looks. However, it also looks like Shanahan tried to bring in as many washed up guys as possible at running back. I have no issues with Portis (except his injuries), but Johnson hasn’t been productive since he was exposed as the result of an excellent KC line, and Willie Parker couldn’t cut it in a franchise that loves to run the ball. Are these guys really what Shanahan had in mind as Portis’ backup plan? I know he has turned nobodies into studs before in Denver, but these guys are not exactly guys that inspire confidence. In the passing game, things look better, but may ultimately not be too different. Donovan McNabb is an excellent quarterback, who also has injury issues. However, after Santana Moss and Chris Cooley, the Redskins’ next option is Joey Galloway, followed by Devin Thomas. You think defenses will have a hard time figuring out who to cover there? They will key on Moss and make life very difficult on McNabb. So while he is an upgrade, there is plenty to fix around him.
The offensive line is yet another example of things that need fixing. You have a quarterback with injury problems. The last thing you want is to get him hit constantly, so first round pick Trent Williams to step in right away and protect McNabb. It is hard to say someone cannot have a steep learning curve when he is just starting his career, but failure to protect McNabb could hinder this franchise beyond this year.
And now we get to Haynesworth. The bottom line here is that it doesn’t matter who wins this little hate-fest between Shanahan and Haynesworth, because the team is already losing as a result. Having to get asked about this guy every day has got to be wearing on teh defense, and they aren’t sure if Albert will be on the field with them, regardless of if its the decision of Haynesworth or the coach. The real shame is that he is overshadowing real bright spots like Brian Orakpo and London Fletcher, both of whom put up outstanding numbers last year on a pretty dismal team. The defense can be alright, but their job gets harder every time Shanahan and Haynesworth go all passive-aggressive to the press. The secondary needs some work, but the Redskins are hoping that the new 3-4 defense will help pressure the quarterback to take some of the onus off the corners. It will not all be choppy seas for the Hogs, but it will certainly not be what the Skins were hoping for.
Remember Jim Zorn’s fake field goal? Video below.
Reminds me of the Seattle Mariners this year. Lots of new acquisitions. Lots of optimism. Not enough substance to really make a move, ending in huge disappointment.