When the Redskins beat the Giants 20–14 on Sunday, it put Washington in a tie for first place with New York in the NFC East, with matching 5-6 records. Jay Gruden's team still hasn't won a game on the road all season, nor has it put two straight wins together yet, but no matter, as so far, that is still good enough for the top spot in a division the NFL would prefer wasn't a complete stinkbomb.
But here they are, and here we are, looking at four teams in the Redskins, Giants, Cowboys and Eagles who probably wouldn't sniff a postseason berth this year were it not for the league's insistence on rewarding division titles, no matter how weak they may be. At least there's room for drama, though — the Eagles, who have allowed 45 points in two straight games and have been the subject of rampant rumors regarding the future of head coach Chip Kelly, stand at 4–7. That's a monumental disappointment in any other division, but in the NFC East, it puts them a few clicks and a course correction or two away from an ascent and a title. And the Cowboys, who have now lost Tony Romo for the season and haven't won a single game in 2015 without him, are just two games behind at 3–8.
Is it possible that any of these teams could shake out of their funks and actually look like a presentable opponent before the playoffs come around? It's a tough sell, but here's one way each of the NFC Least entrants might be able to turn it around.
Redskins: Keep the playcalling diverse — and manage Kirk Cousins on the road.
Jay Gruden has a specific philosophy regarding his quarterbacks: he wants system guys who adhere to the plays and concepts he draws up. That's what he had in Andy Dalton when he was Cincinnati's offensive coordinator, and it's what he now has in Kirk Cousins. The fourth-round pick in 2012 out of Michigan State has a game-manager body with a mind that occasionally goes rogue. He's excelled at times in Gruden's system, which is more multi-dimensional than the results show at times, but he's also got some clear mechanical issues that he tries to play beyond. And when that happens, things fall apart.
Nowhere is that the case more than on the road. Cousins has completed nearly 75% of his passes at home, with 10 touchdowns and two picks. Away from FedEx Field, though, things aren't nearly as pretty. He's completing 62% of his passes with five touchdowns and eight interceptions.
Why is this so?
“When you play at home, it’s pretty common knowledge that you’re going to play better over the long haul because it’s home because you’re in a friendly environment, a familiar environment,” he said last week. “In addition to that, we’ve played some really good teams on the road. Carolina and New England. So when you’re not losing and then you go play them at home — you’re playing a tough team and the odds are stacked against you. I think that’s part of it as well. But certainly we expect to be better on the road and need to be better going forward to have the kind of year and the kind of years ahead that we want to have.”
It's a mindset in part, and it's Cousins trying to do too much when his team is down. Gruden must manage his quarterback more effectively, and Cousins must realize who he is and isn't in key situations. Throwing picks off your back foot because you think you have Jay Cutler's arm? Not a good plan.
Giants: Find a way to make the ground game work.
Despite what it may look like on some days, Eli Manning has actually played pretty well through most of the year. Manning had thrown 10 touchdowns to two interceptions in November before his three-pick debacle against the Redskins in Week 12. What has not worked for the Giants all season is the run game, and it's starting to take its toll on the quarterback. Manning isn't a scheme-transcendent quarterback—he needs a support system, and a strong ground game is part of that. It's been flummoxed through this season due to injuries along the offensive line and general personnel issues, but you can bet that Tom Coughlin isn't happy about coaching a team that hasn't had a 100-yard performance all season from any of its backs. Rashad Jennings leads the team with 417 yards on 111 carries, and the lack of that running game puts Manning in too many must-win situations.
“I thought we were fine running the ball early in the game,” Manning said Monday of the loss to the Redskins, in which his backs totaled 33 yards on 13 carries. “We were getting four yards a pop, and had some nice runs, and put in some good down and distance. We just kind of got into the second half, and got down, started hitting some big plays in the pass game, finally connected on some, and once you get to the midway towards the end of the third quarter and you’re down 17, it’s a little bit tougher to stay with the run.”
Manning was 4-of-14 with an interception when pressured against Washington, which brings another reason for a renewed commitment to the run game into focus: it tends to slow the blitz down.
Eagles: Lose a little faith in your defensive coordinator.
When Chip Kelly's Oregon offenses were lighting up the Pac-12, the team's unsung hero was defensive coordinator Nick Ailiotti, who understood how to counter Kelly's philosophy of furiously fast offense with a tremendously athletic defense. In his third season as the Eagles' defensive coordinator, Bill Davis has not shown the same results...and that's being kind. Davis has been the victim of Kelly's personnel decisions to a point: the decision to trade slot cornerback Brandon Boykin was questionable, and the high-dollar signing of former Seahawks cornerback Byron Maxwell has been, for the most part, a disaster. But Davis also has one of the best fronts in the game, led by the dynamic quartet of Fletcher Cox, Vinny Curry, Cedric Thornton and the underrated Bennie Logan, and linebackers who have the ability to keep things on lock in the middle of the field.
It hasn't been happening all season, though the last two games are extreme examples of the defensive issues Philly has had throughout 2015. This defense allowed five touchdown passes from Tampa Bay rookie Jameis Winston on Nov. 22, and followed that up with a Thanksgiving dud against the Lions in which Matthew Stafford matched Winston's touchdown total. This isn't just on the cornerbacks and safeties, though. Linebackers are tasked to cover areas where they don't look comfortable, defensive backs are on islands they don't appear to understand, and any level of pass pressure or run-stopping doesn't seem to matter — this defense is bleeding green all over the place. Putting rookie Eric Rowe on Calvin Johnson was perhaps the worst example to date of Davis's disconnect between his schemes and what his players can actually do.
Still, Kelly, whether he actually believes so or not, is all in on Davis and his concepts.
“I've got tremendous confidence in Billy Davis,” Kelly said after the Bucs debacle. “I think he's a hell of a football coach.”
Davis's quotes are more disconcerting. He doesn't seem to have any answers.
“Everything, everybody, we'll look at all of it,” Davis said after the Lions game. “There's not much to say here. I do believe in the group of men we have. I believe we'll get it—shoot, I said it last week—get it corrected, and we will. The guys are fighting. I have to put them in better position. It's going to take all of us to get out of the hole. All of us got into the hole, all of us will get out of the hole. We just have to keep fighting.”
Fighting? Not really. Davis must better adapt his schemes to his personnel, and he'd better do it soon.
Cowboys: Understand who your quarterback is (and isn't).
Now that Tony Romo is out for the rest of the season with yet another injury, it's up to Jerry Jones's team to find a way to win with backup Matt Cassel. The Brandon Weeden experiment ended mercifully quickly through Romo's absence from the field, and Cassel, unlike Weeden, at least resembles an NFL quarterback at times. A career backup from a talent perspective, Cassel was the first quarterback to really benefit from the Tom Brady Effect—when Brady went down in the first game of the 2008 season with a knee injury, the Patriots went 11-5 with Cassel as his replacement. That's had a lot of teams wondering if Cassel could fix what ailed their quarterback positions, and to date, the answers have been mostly mediocre. Cassel is a decent arm-thrower with limited mobility and a relative inability to reset in the pocket when he's pressured. He's best off getting the ball out quickly. That's how the Pats designed things around him in 2008, and it's how the Cowboys need to do it now.
Dez Bryant, Cassel's primary target, is dealing with his own injuries, which would lead one to believe that Dallas's offense should shut it down for the season and look to 2016. That's a distinct possibility, but if the ‘Boys want to make any kind of run this season, they'll need to scheme things more appropriately for the guy under center. Long iso routes won't get it done—they work better for quarterbacks like Romo, who can move around and make things happen out of improvisation. And given that Romo threw three picks against the Panthers on Thanksgiving day, it's not like flipping the script in Cassel's favor will hurt anything. Teams are stacking the box to stop the run, showing no fear of Cassel, and the best way to make them pay is to move the ball with quick outlet passes that allow yards after the catch in open areas.
Head coach Jason Garrett has said that he believed in the correlation between big plays in the passing game and winning, but with Cassel, it would be wise to move to a dink-and-dunk approach that sustains drives and gives the ground game room to breathe.