NFC East Midseason Checkup
[Editor’s note: This article was originally published on Oct 30th, but it doesn’t make the analysis any less awesome or accurate. You gotta read this.]
It was a late-Summer Sunday much like any other. Parents took their kids to the playground, dog owners slipped on their mom-leggings and light jackets and went to the dog park, the religious went to Church, the residents of the Mid-Atlantic were enjoying one of the twenty days of good weather per year, and I went to the cheapest grocery store in town looking for the cheapest groceries therein.
But, as I sifted through the 10-boxes-for-$10 knock-off Pop Tarts and the dairy products that may or may not have expired and been subsequently re-dated, I noticed that something about the store was different. Many, if not most, of the other shoppers in that wonderfully shady establishment were wearing comically large shirts made of curious fabric featuring very large numbers on both sides. The atmosphere had a strange quality that I can only liken to that of the biggest mall in town the weekend before Christmas. Everyone was light on their feet, seemingly happy and hopeful, buying an amount of junk food so excessive and unnecessary that it could only be described as American, and that’s when it hit me: this Sunday was not like any other. It was football Sunday, and not just any football Sunday. It was the morning of September 8, and it was the first football Sunday of the 2013 season.
NFL Upper Management figured in the offseason that the NFC East would be one of the League’s more interesting Divisions this year, and why not? The division features some of the League’s most intense rivalries, four football-crazy towns, three franchise quarterbacks (I’m not including Vick. Deal with it.), and NFL coaching’s shiniest new toy who was going to bring his unconventional, electric, fast-paced, shameless Heisman candidate garbage time stat-padding college offense to the professional ranks.
How intriguing did the NFC East figure to be this season? Intriguing enough for the NFL to schedule two NFC East divisional games in its first two weekend primetime slots of the year: New York-Dallas on Sunday night, Philadelphia-Washington on Monday Night Football. We would finally get some answers to all the important questions: Would Eli Manning rebound after a big regression in 2012? Will the Tony Romo Cowboys ever be better or worse than 8-8? Will the Chip Kelly offense work in the NFL? And, of course, what is the real status of Robert Griffin III’s knee? With dramatic stories everywhere and four teams that all figured to be decent at least, this was to be a banner year for the NFC East. It feels like it was yesterday.
Now we find ourselves at the midway point of the NFL Season and there’s only one question to be asked about the NFC East: … what happened? The once formidable division, touted preseason by Redskins’ GM George Allen as, “The SEC of the NFL” has been the worst division in the NFL by a substantial margin. Let’s recap the horror that has been the last eight weeks of football in the Mid-Atlantic … and Texas, team by team.
The Dallas Cowboys (4-4)
My favorite statistic about the Dallas Cowboys: Since the start of the 2011 season, the Cowboys are 16-1 against teams with losing records, and 4-19 against teams with winning records. That damning statistic ties into a topic that has been written about by countless sports journalists at length.
It’s been something of an up and down year for the Cowboys, highlighted by two heartbreaking losses against the Broncos and the Lions. After both of those games, the tried-and-true ratings titan “Can Tony Romo win the big game?” narrative emerged. The biggest development of the season for the Cowboys is that they now definitively know the answer to that question: of course he can. Bad sports talk show after bad sports talk show offered us the usual talking points; that this was the same old Tony Romo, choking when the lights are on the brightest. As fans, we all would have been better served by a talk show telling us the undeniable truth that Tony Romo was absolutely incredible in that game and outplayed arguably the best quarterback ever during arguably the best 8-game stretch of his career.
Romo’s line for that game: 25/36, 506 yards (14.1 yards per attempt. Wow.), 5 Touchdowns, and, of course, that 1 Interception.
Has Tony Romo performed poorly in big-game sitiuations before? Of course he has: see Week 17 of both of the last two seasons. Did that Interception come at an inopportune moment? Yes it did. Was it a terrible read and throw that no competent QB would ever make? No. It was a decent throw, and Danny Trevathan made a great play.
Unfortunately, everything falls on the quarterback in the modern NFL media landscape, so the prevailing story on the Cowboys is that they’re a decent team that could take that next step to join the NFL’s legitimate contenders if only Tony Romo wasn’t a choke artist extraordinaire. For some, one of the League’s great quarterbacking performances ever confirmed that Tony Romo can’t win big games, but the Denver game confirmed something completely different that I thought I knew about the Cowboys: that they are a top-heavy roster with enough great football players to beat the bad teams and not nearly enough good players to beat the good ones. For the Cowboys to beat the NFL’s best, Tony Romo has to be absolutely perfect. We know exactly what they are. They are an 8-8 team halfway through another 8-8 season. The good news? 8-8 will almost certainly be good enough to win the NFC East and get a home playoff game this year.
And I just spent four paragraphs defending Tony Romo. I need a shower.
The Philadelphia Eagles (3-5)
Full disclosure for those of you who haven’t read my previous musings on the Cooler: I’m a diehard fan of the Washington football team whose mascot makes me increasingly uncomfortable the more that I think about it.
My theory on Chip Kelly before the NFL season was that he was either going to be some sort of football Jedi who was going to be ten years ahead of the rest of League and unleash an offensive revolution, or that this Head Coaching in the NFL thing was going to kick him square in the nuts. And for the first half of that Monday Night Football game, man did he look like the former. If Chip Kelly’s goal in that first half was to completely drain the entire Washington Redskins fanbase of any hope or joy they felt about the return of football season, he succeeded admirably. Even as a Redskins fan, I couldn’t help but get caught up in the way the Eagles offense operated. They ran at a ruthless pace with a staggering level of organization, and efficiency. Every play seemed to be executed precisely the way it was drawn up to be. The Cowboys evoke more hatred in me as a Redskins fan than any other franchise, but no team makes me more bitter or sad than Philadelphia. Fun fact: my two worst experiences as a football fan were both Monday Night Football games played in Washington against the Eagles.
For one week, the Eagles were the toast of the NFL. No one could talk about that offense enough and for good reason. That first half was unlike anything I had ever seen before, and the second half could be correctly written off as garbage time or insurmountable lead-induced complacency.
However, with half a season in the rearview mirror, it’s safe to say that Kelly and the Birds are past the honeymoon phase. The offense never showed that breakneck pace again, but it remained effective for several weeks thanks to strong play from Michael Vick and LeSean McCoy, who may just be the NFL’s best running back right now. But they’ve struggled mightily without Vick, with the exception of one standout performance from Nick Foles against Greg Schiano’s dreadful Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The Eagles have serious questions to answer going into the second half of the season. After averaging almost 28 points per game through the first six weeks, the Eagles have scored just 10 points and have not scored an offensive Touchdown in their last two games against Dallas and New York, neither of whom qualify as defensive juggernauts. Michael Vick will likely get back on the field at some point this season and Nick Foles, having cleared the NFL’s concussion recovery protocols, is certainly an upgrade over Matt Barkley. Barkley has a huge amount of talent (his decision to return to USC for a disappointing Senior season caused him to slide three Rounds in the Draft) and Eagles fans would be wrong to write him off completely at this point, but it is apparent that he isn’t ready yet and may not have the skill set to run the offense the way Chip Kelly would like to see it run. Good coaches adapt their schemes to fit their personnel, but wasn’t the decision to hire Chip Kelly all about jumping on the trend of unconventional offenses shaking up the League at a time when scoring points is easier than ever? It will be interesting to see how Kelly handles his quarterbacks going forward.
Despite their recent misfortune and losing record, there is plenty of hope for the Eagles as they still sit just one game back of the Cowboys for the Division lead. They will need either a healthy Michael Vick or the Nick Foles we saw against the Buccaneers to make a playoff run this year, because the defense has been every bit as bad as even the most skeptical fan may have predicted. The passing defense ranks 31st out of 32 teams, and the Eagles will not win this year without great offensive performances.
The presumptive favorites in Dallas are probably going to finish 8-8. With games against Oakland, Washington, Arizona, Minnesota, Chicago, and Dallas left on the Eagles’ schedule, 8-8 is a perfectly attainable goal. The defense may be a lost cause, so the key for the rest of the Eagles’ season is getting the offense back on track and figuring out why the Linc gives the Birds a home-field disadvantage. Of all the perplexing facts about the Eagles, this may be the most perplexing among them: the Philadelphia Eagles have lost 10 straight games at Lincoln Financial Field.
The Washington Stepin Fetchits (2-5)
RG3! RG3! RG3!
Man, those were great times. Robert Griffin III may have been the most electrifying player in the NFL last year, and his performance for the last 7 games of the season propelled the Redskins from a 3-6 cellar-dweller to 10-6 division Champions. Having a franchise quarterback felt so good. And then he sprained his LCL and came back too early. And then he re-aggravated his LCL sprain in the first quarter against the Seahawks and didn’t come off the field. And then, because the turf at FedEx Field last season resembled painted dirt more than grass, he tore his ACL and LCL in the fourth quarter of that game that he never should have played in. And now we’re here, with fans shouting for Kirk Cousins and blaming everything bad that has happened this season on the artist formerly known as RG3.
Three facts I am totally convinced of about the RGKnee debacle: Mike Shanahan, Bruce Allen, and Robert Griffin III decided that he was starting in Week 1 this season a maximum of 15 minutes after the Seahawks game ended, that Robert Griffin III still isn’t 100%, and that he probably won’t be 100% until next season.
But to get away from that, because it has frankly been talked to DEATH, nothing much has gone right for the Redskins this year. The defense has been among the worst in the League, showing complete ineptitude in just about all aspects of the game. Even the most fundamental of defensive tasks, tackling, has proven exceptionally difficult for this bunch. Both of the first two games, against the Eagles and Packers, were out of reach by halftime. The defense has gotten a bit better since then, with standout performances from Ryan Kerrigan and DeAngelo Hall, of all people. But even as the defense has mildly improved from abysmal to below average, the offense has remained middling.
The high point of the season has probably come and gone for the Skins. For one game, Robert Griffin III went back to being RG3 as the Redskins put up 45 points against the 4-2 Chicago Bears. They needed every damn last one of them to secure the win. That game taught me something about the Washington Redskins: they’re a poor man’s Dallas Cowboys. The team was 3-6 at one point last season, and they have the same problems then as they do now: horrible defense and special teams. If Robert Griffin III had done anything less than what he had managed to do against the Bears, they would not have won. And they only won 7 straight games to close the regular season last year because, for a 7-week stretch, Robert Griffin III was one of the NFL’s 5 best quarterbacks. Simply put, this is a bad team that needs transcendent play from the quarterback position to win games and they’re just not getting that this year; not from the artist formerly known as RG3 and not from Kirk Cousins.
Who knows when or if Robert Griffin III goes back to being the guy he was before the injury. I finally understand why Derrick Rose took last year off. There’s a difference between being medically cleared and being 100%. Derrick Rose didn’t want to come back as a shell of his former self, he wanted to come back as Derrick Fucking Rose. And one year later, by all indications, he is back to being Derrick Fucking Rose.
The only real bright spots for the Redskins this year have been the emergence of Jordan Reed as the new Number 1 Tight End and the play of DeAngelo Hall, who might be having the best season of his career. Reed has become a viable starter in both the NFL and the imaginary world of fantasy football, and Hall has done yeomen-like work containing arguably the NFL’s three best Wide Receivers (Calvin Johnson, Dez Bryant, Brandon Marshall) in a 4-week stretch. It will be interesting to monitor Reed’s development, as he is already producing well-above average numbers for a position he has only played for two and a half seasons, having switched positions twice at the University of Florida. And, as always, the question going forward for Hall is whether he can put together a season of solid performances instead of the occasional flash of brilliance followed by two weeks of sheer incompetence.
Their challenge now is to figure out how to use the $16 Million in Cap space they come into this offseason. They need to make smart upgrades in free agency without repeating their past mistakes by overpaying players either past or on the tail end of their primes. The Redskins can forget about the postseason this year. Stick a fork in ‘em. They’re done.
The New York Giants (2-6)
Two weeks ago, this section of the article would have been an exercise in finding the largest number of ways to express that the Giants are as bad as the Jaguars as possible. Unfortunately, two wins later; two pathetic, cringe-worthy wins later, the Giants are only two games out of first place with half the season left. Seriously, NFC East fans, how did we get to this point? It’s embarrassing.
It’s truly difficult to phrase just how unwatchable the Giants have been this season. The defense has been average (13th in Defensive DVOA), hurt by an ailing defensive line and a thin Linebacking corps. For more than a decade, the pass rush generated by the Giants’ front seven has been the one thing the franchise could fall back on. It was what they continued to prioritize above all else, to great success. The pass rush consistently made opposing quarterbacks uncomfortable, preventing offenses from executing a gameplan and dictating the flow of play. This season, however, the Giants have recorded just 10 sacks: good enough for 30th in the League. The pass rush successfully covered up a flawed secondary for many years, and this year’s slide to the NFL’s 18th-best pass defense illustrates the difference a clean pocket can make.
On offense, the Giants have been a nightmare. The Giants entered the season counting on David Wilson to hold down the Running Back position. Fumbling problems and a woeful 3.3 yards per carry number have instigated a move to a Running Back platoon of Brandon Jacobs and Peyton Hillis, which may or may not be the slowest, least athletic set of Running Backs in NFL history. Surely the offensive line bears some of the blame for the Giants’ complete absence of running game, but they were counting on better efforts from David Wilson and he let them (and countless fantasy owners who took him in the 2nd round) down. The run has always been a part of the Giants’ identity under Tom Coughlin, but through eight weeks, they’re managing just 3.2 yards per carry. Let’s look for a silver lining.
Eli! The Giants don’t really need a running game because they have one of those “elite” quarterbacks. He is going to pick up all of the running game’s slack and they’re going to be fine. Eli Manning has unquestionably taken the reins of the offense. He has no interest in dinking and dunking his offense down the field. He’s going for broke. He’s slinging the ball all over the field with reckless abandon. Every time Eli has dropped back this year, he looks like he’s said to himself, “Alright, this pass may or may not work … it probably won’t work, but the small chance that it will work is our only shot to advance the ball. Fuck it. I’m doing it.” The result has been a lot of big plays and a whole lot of bad ones. The Giants have three receivers who average more than 14.5 yards per reception, and five who average more than 10 yards per reception, but Eli has also thrown 15 Interceptions to just 10 Touchdowns. Turnovers have plagued the Giants all year.
Looking ahead to the season’s second half, New York should still be thought of as a non-factor in the playoff discussion. They have looked downright bad, and two completely unimpressive and uninspired wins against Minnesota and Philadelphia should not be enough to convince even the most optimistic of homers that this team has a 6-2 second half in its system. Even if the League is trending away from the narrative that the games are won in the trenches, you can’t be as bad as the Giants have been on both lines and expect to win. With games remaining against Green Bay, Dallas, San Diego, Seattle, and Detroit, a 5-11 finish seems the most likely outcome for this bunch. They’ll retool this offseason. They’re a competent organization. Don’t sleep on them as one of those 5-11 to 11-5 feel-good stories we get at least once a year in 2014.
For years, the NFC East has been well thought of around the League as a Division without any great teams but without any bad ones as well. The 2013 NFC East, though, features one average team (Dallas), one team that has looked good, average, and bad at various moments (Philly), and two bad teams (Washington, New York). It’s the NFL’s worst division and might be the worst division this side of the 2010 NFC West won by the 7-9, Charlie Whitehurst-led Seattle Seahawks. It may still be as competitive as ever, but this year that’s a slam, not a compliment.
Philadelphia sits one game back and is capable of making a run, but there is no reason, at this point, to think that the Cowboys won’t be good enough to win the East this year. Tell them what they’ve won! A first-round matchup in Jerry World against either the 49ers or the Seahawks. Have fun with that, Cowboys fans. How long until baseball season, again?