NFC East preview: Eagles challenged to repeat in wide open division
Ever since the Giants won Super Bowl XLVI, the NFC East has been a hotbed of promise without much to show for it.
Washington emerged in surprising fashion during the 2012 season, following Robert Griffin III's lead into the playoffs only to crash out on wild-card weekend after Griffin suffered a serious injury. In 2013, the Eagles took up the upstart role with a high-flying Chip Kelly offense that turned them into must-see television.
For the second straight year, it was over almost as quickly as it began, as Philadelphia dropped its postseason opener to New Orleans.
If not for Kelly's squad, however, the NFC East may have earned the dubious honor of the league's worst division in 2013. Even now, with the 2014 season mere weeks away, there is Super Bowl chatter surrounding Seattle, San Francisco, Green Bay and New Orleans, but little respect tossed the East's direction.
Is that a fair assessment of where things stand for this division entering the year? Or were the flashes shown by Washington and Philadelphia hinting at brighter days ahead?
The favorite: Philadelphia Eagles
Let's be honest: Nick Foles probably is not going to throw 13.5 touchdowns for every interception as he did last year. Heck, he threw two picks in the Eagles' first preseason game, as many as he tossed during 10 starts in 2013. Foles fired a touchdown pass on 8.5 percent of his total passes during his first season in Chip Kelly's scheme; Peyton Manning finished at 8.3 percent, and no other quarterback topped 6.5.
So any expectations for Foles have to be tempered somewhat, at least in comparison to his 2013 debut. And yet ...
"I just think Nick is more comfortable with the situation," Kelly said of his starting quarterback. "And obviously being in his second year you would anticipate that, but I think now he's not wondering what's next. He knows what's expected during the offseason program ... so he can help the younger players. ... And what he did last year from a performance standpoint, people are going to listen to him."
A full summer as the unquestioned starter should work to Foles' benefit from a preparation standpoint. He will not be able to catch anyone off-guard, as he did last season, but the extra time locked into the No. 1 job could help offset any edge defenses feel they now have.
Being able to hand off to LeSean McCoy certainly gives Foles a boost, too. McCoy has solidified a spot alongside Adrian Peterson and Jamaal Charles in the discussion of the NFL's top running backs -- he rushed for 1,600-plus yards and topped 2,100 all-purpose yards while scoring 11 touchdowns during his first year in Kelly's offense. A repeat performance is not out of the question for 2014, even though ex-Saint Darren Sproles has arrived to take some pressure off McCoy on passing downs.
Sproles and rookie receiver Jordan Matthews will be asked to pick up some of the slack created by DeSean Jackson's release. Jackson, now with the Redskins, led the '13 Eagles with 82 receptions, 30 more than any other challenger. The Eagles also have to deal with a four-game suspension to starting right tackle Lane Johnson that will be served at the beginning of the season.
But while the offense will always be the focal point so long as Kelly roams the sidelines, the defense will make or break this team's chances. Despite winning 10 games and the division, Philadelphia finished dead last against the pass, allowing 300 or more yards on seven different occasions. Safety Malcolm Jenkins and cornerback Nolan Carroll plus a couple of mid-round draft picks arrived as reinforcements. Will that be enough to push the Eagles from an intriguing storyline to a legit Super Bowl contender?
Dark horse: Washington Redskins
With the Giants just a few years removed from a Super Bowl title and the Cowboys having a shot at the division title each of the past three Week 17s, the Redskins may be the lone team in this division that even fits the dark horse criteria. A 2012 wild-card round loss to the Seahawks still haunts Washington -- the knee injury suffered by Griffin in that game left him far shy of full potential in 2013, a season that resulted in a 3-13 record and an overhaul of the coaching staff.
The situation could be worse. On offense, Gruden's first task will be restoring RGIII to his rookie-year glory, aided by a plethora of weapons around him like running back Alfred Morris, receivers Jackson and Pierre Garcon and versatile tight end Jordan Reed. From a confidence standpoint, Griffin could use a fast start, if only to quiet the small faction of fans asking for Kirk Cousins to see more playing time.
Among Gruden's most notable early moves: retaining embattled defensive coordinator Jim Haslett. Washington's defense has not finished ranked higher than 21st in points allowed during Haslett's four-year stint, bottoming out at No. 30 in 2013.
"With another year coaching them up I think they’ll be fine," said Gruden, via ESPN.com. "I’ve gone against [Haslett's] defense. I know what he’s about, and I know the scheme he plays is very difficult. He’s done great against Dallas, and he did well against Philadelphia the second time around, and in the second half of the year they played well. They were put in a lot of difficult situations."
If Haslett cannot engineer a turnaround on defense, even a repeat of Griffin's spectacular 2012 showing may not be enough to get Washington back into the race.
Most important player: Tony Romo
Put down the torches and pitchforks. Romo is a popular (and often deserved) whipping boy, but at the present time he also could be the thing standing between the Cowboys and a plummet into No. 1 overall pick territory. The 34-year-old veteran threw for 31 touchdowns against 10 interceptions last season, while again sporting a top-10 completion percentage.
Of course, everyone will remember instead that he sat out a do-or-die Week 17 with an injury and that, playing right into his reputation, he tossed an egregious interception late in a loss to Denver. Whether anyone notices or not, Romo has far more good moments than bad ... but the bad moments tend to be of the devastating variety. That turnover against the Broncos is a perfect example. Romo hung 506 yards and five touchdowns on the board in that game, but his late miscue led directly to a 51-48 Denver win.
Still, it is in large part because of Romo that the Cowboys finished at .500 in 2013 despite allowing more than 6,600 yards on defense -- worst in the league. On paper, the now DeMarcus Ware-less defense might be even worse this year, meaning Romo's arm will have to keep the Cowboys in some games.
He's capable of doing so, regardless of what his critics will say.
Rookie to watch: Andre Williams, Giants
Rashad Jennings will head into Week 1 as the starting running back. But the Giants may have a hard time keeping Williams off the field.
Hugely productive at Boston College last season (2,177 yards rushing and 18 touchdowns), Williams will get upfield and keep the chains moving. With Tom Coughlin seeking more balance from his offense, those traits are critical.
What may make the difference in Williams' eventual playing time is his ability to pick up the passing game. Williams caught just 10 passes during his collegiate career -- none in 2013, against a staggering 355 rushing attempts -- and remains a work in progress, at best, as a pass-blocker. Jennings will keep Eli Manning upright, just as former Giants back Ahmad Bradshaw used to do with aplomb.
But Jennings cannot pull the cart alone. David Wilson's career came to a premature end due to injuries, leaving an opening behind Jennings on the depth chart. Peyton Hillis and Michael Cox are not very enticing choices there, so Williams may wind up serving a critical role.