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Friday, 31 August 2012

NFL 2012: NFC East Preview

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The NFC East. Arguably the most supported division in football, the history of its teams are storied, having produced some of the greatest players and sides in the history of the sport, the success of the divison perennially one of the most talked-about (and argued-over) topics every offseason. It has also not been a particularly good division for a while, with only one team having a winning record last season (albeit, they did go on to win a shiny stick with a football on top called "the Lombardi trophy). What to expect from a division where there is such a disparity between the mythic quality of the teams and the reality of their standards of play? Hit the jump to find out...

Dallas Cowboys

2011 Record: 8-8
Finished: 3rd

  • Dominant storyline for 2012: "The Window"
At an owners' meeting back in May, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones told the NFL Network that he felt the window was closing for the current crop of Cowboys to win a championship. He later retracted the comment, but the fact is that when an owner makes such a declaration, even (or especially) in an unguarded moment, then you can be assured the rest of the organisation heard him loud and clear.

You have to first address how accurate the statement is, and it is important to bear in mind that Jones wasn't necessarily talking about 2012 being a make-or-break year – just a recognition that some of his players are starting to reach the age where, typically, plays tend to tail off. Jones mentioned three players in particular who have a short window – Tony Romo, who is 32, and DeMarcus Ware and Jason Witten, both 30. Again, while none of those three are particularly old for their positions, they probably do only have another four or so seasons producing at a high level. So why would Jones bring up the 'window' now?

I see two answers. The first is suggested by the fact that Jones referred to his own window closing, too; perhaps it was Al Davis passing away last season, or maybe he's getting ready to let his son Stephen take over as the head of the Cowboy organisation, but it appears that Jones is aware that he will only be in charge of the team of so much longer, and so naturally he wants to win one more title before his sun sets over the Arlington skyline.

Don't cry Tony, you've still got
one season to prove you can do it
Yet there's a second reason, too. Of the three players Jones named, two of them are under contract for what will likely be the remainder of their peak years. (Ware is signed through the end of the 2015 season; Witten through 2017) Tony Romo, however is not, and is scheduled to hit free agency in 2014. But Jones (who, you must remember, is also the team's general manager) has a decision to make long before that. Tony Romo is scheduled to earn just $825,00 in 2012 (he received an additional $8.19 million last season); in 2013, Romo's salary jumps hugely to $11.5 million, which I believe is not guaranteed. In general, teams prefer to not let their starting QBs play out the final year of a contract if they intend to offer them an extension – the fact that Romo is scheduled to earn that much in 2013 is likely to make that even more true. For all his potential, the struggles of Tony Romo have been well documented. After the 2012 season, the team will have to choose between extending him long term, paying him $11.5 million for next season alone, or parting ways with him.

Jerry Jones knows his window is closing. If he doesn't believe Tony Romo will be the quarterback who brings him a championship before that window shuts, I believe Jones will not hesitate to find one who will. The window is closing on Jerry Jones; it may be closing even sooner for Tony Romo.

  • Strengths:

Big D's D

The NFC East is perhaps as wide-open a division as the league has, with three teams finishing within a game of each other last season. 2012 looks to have an equally balanced division this year, and the biggest part of Dallas's ability to stay in contention throughout will be their defense. They had a top-10 rushing defense last season, thanks to a front seven featuring key defensive lynchpins Ware, Jay Ratliff and Sean Lee. The defense should see a huge boost against the pass with the additions of free agent Brandon Carr and #6 draft pick Morris Claiborne on the outside, which will free Rob Ryan up to throw in some more exotic coverages and blitzes, all of which should serve to make the Cowboy defense better than it has been for a long time.

DeMarco rides again

Murray, doing his best Mo Farah
On the other side of the ball, Dallas have a considerable number of problems, but one player who they will be leaning on a lot is sophomore running back DeMarco Murray. Through thirteen games in 2011, starting seven of them, Murray racked up just shy of 900 yards on the ground at the very impressive clip of 5.5 yards a carry, with another 183 yards through the air. The offense has holes pretty much everywhere else, now that Witten has a messed up spleen, so Murray will be both literally and metaphorically carrying the load of this offense. The good news for Dallas is that he should be up to that task, especially if Felix Jones is healthy enough to spell him once in a while, so look for the Cowboys to be play the run game often, especially once the calendar turns to December (because we all know what that means for Romo).

  • Weaknesses

Oh, Line

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a blog called “The Pulling Linemen”, here at TPL we believe that football is won and lost in the trenches. If that holds true, then the Cowboys won't be doing much winning this season. Of the starting front five, only second-year tackle Tyron Smith really offers much encouragement; on the other side of the line, Doug Free is nothing more than an expensive mistake, Phil Costa had real struggles at center last season, and the guard duo of Nate Livings and Mackenzy Bernadeau are unlikely to strike fear at the hearts of DTs anywhere. As good as Murray appeared last season, he won't have much help up front outside of Smith, and the line's less-than-stellar play won't give Romo much assistance in making a case for being “the guy” in Dallas.

Who needs depth?

I've got WHO as my backup?!
The Dallas receiving corp does. In the worst possible way. Any receiving corp in today's NFL realistically needs to have at least three quality receivers to open up the playbook; the Cowboys have just two, Miles Austin and Dez Bryant. But it goes beyond not being able to run three-wide sets (at least, run them with competent components) – the Cowboys cannot even be guaranteed of having those two. Austin seemed to always be hampered by injury last season, and as he has been held out this preseason in order to make sure he's healthy enough for the Week 1, it suggests the Cowboys are expecting the same this season. Across from him, Dez Bryant is a loose cannon off the field, and while most of his indiscretions have taken place during the offseason, can anyone confidently say they can trust him to stay clean in the regular season? If either Austin or Bryant miss time, the Cowboys are in huge trouble to put it mildly; the #3 and #4 receivers are Kevin Ogletree (25 receptions in three seasons) and Dwayne Harris (0 receptions in his rookie campaign last season) – that should be all the proof you need for how thin this receiving corp is.

  • How's the schedule looking?

If that offensive line cannot give Romo protection, he is going to get hit a lot early, with games against the Giants, Seahawks (whose defense is better than you realise), Bears and Ravens within the early stretch of the season, with only a bye week between the Chicago and Baltimore contests to recuperate. Things may get easier between weeks 11 and 16, where Dallas have only one road game in six weeks, but with the NFC East being as wide open as it is, the Cowboys' season will probably come down to the six-game stretch between weeks 8 and 13, where they will see divisional opponents four times.

Prediction: 7-9

New York Giants

2011 Record: 9-7
Finished: 1st
Playoffs: No. 4 seed, won wild card round against the Atlanta Falcons 24-2, won divisional round against the Green Bay Packers 37-20, won NFC Championship against the San Francisco 49ers 20-17 (OT), won Super Bowl XLVI against the New England Patriots 21-17

  • Dominant storyline for 2012: “Hiding from the hangover”

The “Super Bowl hangover” is a curious phenomenon. Unless the reigning champions suddenly suffer a mass exodus of free agents, teams coming off of a Super Bowl victory should, in theory, be at roughly the same level of quality going into the next season. Yet, the have only been eight instances of back-to-back championships going back to the inaugural Super Bowl after the 1966 season. No doubt one significant reason why winning back-to-back Super Bowls is such a rarity is that winning does cause an extra boost of confidence in the winning team, while the media tend to overstate the reasons for the team's success at great length throughout the offseason. Football players are human; as humans, they will naturally, even if only to a lesser extent, believe at least some of the hype – resulting in the team taking their foot ever-so-slightly off of the gas pedal.

There may never have been a reigning championship team that this is less true of than the 2012 New York Giants.

The fact is, the Giants have been largely ignored for a large part of the offseason – if not for Eli Manning's Saturday Night Live appearance, a Mother's Day tweet to LeSean McCoy from Osi Umenyiora, and the leaked video of Jason Pierre-Paul dunking Prince Amukamara in a cold tub, the Giants would have barely been mentioned in the press since the Super Bowl. One reason is that the New York media have been incessant in their coverage of the Jets, over-analysing every single action undertaken by anyone involved with Jets organisation with all the obsessive intensity of a fourteen year old girl poring over One Direction's Twitter feed. Another is that Big Blue was not a great team by any stretch during the regular season – remember, the NFC East title wasn't decided until Week 17, and the Giants barely scraped a winning record. Of course, the Giants got 'hot' once they reached the postseason, but even then, if you listen to Clay Matthews or Donte Whitner, the Giants did not so much win in the playoffs as much as their opponents lost. Some cruel people have even suggested that Eli Manning should have handed his Super Bowl MVP trophy over to Wes Welker.

Barely sneaking into the playoffs,
the Giants fell ass-backwards into
a Super Bowl. Literally.
But some things are more conspicuous by their absence. When Matthews and Whitner were talking, the Giants will have been listening. When Eli Manning 'joked' that he was only the third most talked-about quarterback in New York, you can be assured that underneath the comment lay burning resentment. The Giants are, for the most part, keeping their heads down, content to keep their affairs to the themselves – they know they have plenty of work to do. While their starting lineup remains largely in tact, many key backups and rotation players are gone. After an offseason of ridicule in 2011 in the wake of his declaration that he was an elite quarterback, Manning had an very solid season, with some truly great quarterback play in the post season – but the QB coach who he credits for his season is gone. This was a 9-7 team who have become thinner in depth since; it is hard to claim they are a better team now than they were last year. They may have won their second Lombardi trophy in five years, but the Giants still have plenty to prove.

  • Strengths:

On the Edge

Is there a team in the NFL with a better rotation of pass rushers than the Giants? Justin Tuck, Umenyiora, Pierre-Paul and, in their sub packages, Mathias Kiwanuka; all four pose viable and fearsome threats coming off the edge that should worry any and every QB in the league. Both Pierre-Paul and Umenyiora averaged a sack a game or better, while Tuck fought through injuries that plagued his 2011 season to still contribute in both against both the run and the pass. I don't really need to extol the virtues of the Giants' depth at DE – they are the most stacked unit on this roster, and if the Giants have any hope to repeat as NFC East champions (let alone Super Bowl champions), this will be the position they will lean on most heavily.

The ManNiCruz Show

As mentioned above, Eli Manning was a figure of fun leading up to last season after he declared himself to be in the same class as Tom Brady, who was at that time the reigning MVP. While in the 2011 regular season he was solid throughout, albeit not spectacular, he played a blinder in the postseason, with a 9-1 TD/INT ratio and having a passer rating of over 100 for three of the four playoff games. Manning's strong season came down in part to the emergence of sophomore wideout Victor Cruz. Cruz in many ways is the prototypical slot receiver – someone who can take full advantage of the space cleared out by his fellow receivers with instinctive play and fantastic field vision, utilising elements of the old run-and-shoot concepts that OC Kevin Gilbride developed with the Hosuton Oilers, namely cutting off his routes wherever he finds open spaces in coverage in order to ensure that he is always open for his QB. When defences adjusted their scheme in the postseason to account for Cruz and what he brought to the slot position, it drew coverage away from
Victor Cruz:
Wide Receiver
Salsa Dancer
Sombrero Model
Hakeem Nicks; Eli responded by finding Nicks 28 times in the playoffs for 444 yards and 4 TDs. Conventional wisdom says that if an offense can find a set of “triplets” in the mould of Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin and Emmitt Smith, then it makes it incredibly hard for defences to stop; in today's NFL, it appears that the more devastating set of triplets is a quarterback with two receiving threats who are able to tear defences apart by forcing them to focus on one or the other, or sell out and cover just those two at the expense of leaving themselves wide open – and Mario Manningham showed in the Super Bowl what happens in that situation. As long as Manning, Nicks and Cruz are on the field, the Giants' O will be able give defenses fits.

  • Weaknesses:

Who needs depth? (New York edition)

The Giants do. Everywhere. As mentioned above, the Giants return most of their starting lineup, except for those players they chose to release, but those players who did leave the Giants in free agency constituted some of truly key backups or rotation players. One such player was CB Aaron Ross, who, having been mostly a nickel corner for the past two seasons, stepped into the starting line up when Terrell Thomas tore his ACL in the preseason. The Giants felt that they had enough depth that they would not need to resign Ross; with a week until the season opener, Terrell Thomas aggravated his ACL and is in doubt to be ready for Week 1; Prince Amukamara suffered a high-ankle sprain in the preseason game against the Bears; rookie corner Jayron Hosley, who had impressed with a 77-yard pick-six against the Jets in the preseason, has turf toe. Without Ross, the Giants' corner depth is beginning to appear more and more questionable.
But it goes beyond the corner position. At DT, Chris Canty is starting the season on PUP, which guarantees he cannot be seen until the team's seventh game, while Shaun Rogers, brought in to bring depth and contribute in a rotation, may miss the entire season with a blood clot in his leg. At running back, Brandon Jacobs is gone, and while he wasn't more than a role player towards the end of his time with the Giants, he was still key insurance for the injury-prone Ahmad Bradshaw, and helped shoulder the load; the team will have to rely on rookie David Wilson if Bradshaw misses time this season. While I praised at length what the Manning-Nicks-Cruz trio brought to the passing game, they nonetheless needed that third receiver who could take advantage of those occasions when the defence sold out to cover the other two – with Mario Manningham now in San Francisco, the Giants will have to hope that a third receiving threat can emerge from a bunch of complete no-names. There won't be much help at receiver from the tight end position either, with Travis Beckum starting the season on PUP, Jake Ballard now on IR for the Patriots, leaving themselves with an vastly uninspiring Cowboys cast-off and a fullback who can take some snaps at TE. Quite frankly, there is no need to list another weakness for the Giants; the starting lineup may be mostly unchanged from the championship side of 2011, but they are only an injury or two away from falling apart at the seams.

  • How's the schedule looking?
The picture's not especially relevant,
I just love Eli's facial expression here

A late bye in Week 11 should give the team a minor opportunity to recuperate for the final stretch of the season, but it's one they'll need, with the Packers, Saints, Falcons and Ravens all coming in the final few weeks, as well as divisional games away at the Redskins, and the Eagles at home to close out the season. With their issues at depth, if they've lost two or three starters by that point, it's not out the realm of possibility that they lose all six of those games (bear in mind that they were swept by a Redskins team that was worse last year than they will be this year). With the five games leading up to the bye week all coming against top 15 defences from 2011 (including three from the top 10) and the Giants' desire to prove themselves may not be enough to overcome a tough schedule and bad depth. The Giants should win four of their first five games at least (the Cowboys, Bucs, Panthers and Browns should all be winnable for Big Blue), but after that, the Giants might find themselves too beat-up to compete.

Prediction: 7-9

Philadelphia Eagles

2011 Record: 8-8
Finished: 2nd

  • Dominant storyline for 2012: “Reid on the hotseat”

In a press conference given at the conclusion of the 2011 season, PhiladelphiaEagles owner Jeffrey Lurie summed up the 8-8 campaign in one word:“unacceptable”. He talked about his anger and frustration and said that 2011 was “the most disappointing season since I've owned the team”. Throughout the press conference, Lurie made repeated mentions as to why he wanted Andy Reid to continue as the Eagles' head coach, but the inference was clear: if there isn't a considerable turnaround in the Eagles' fortunes, Reid will not remain the head coach much longer.

The press conference is an interesting one to watch, as it does contain some hints as to how secure Reid's future is (i.e. not very). One thing Lurie mentions as something he looks at in his head coach is not just overall track record, but how he's fared over the previous “3, 4, 5 years”. And so, looking at the last five seasons alone, we can see that Reid took his team to the playoffs three times; but only in one season did he actually win in the postseason (getting to the NFC Championship in 2008). 2010 was the only year in the same span when he actually delivered and NFC East title. Reid had turned the Eagles into a consistent contender over his entire tenure, but it is easy to see where Lurie's concerns stem from; the last five years have not lived up the rest of his career with Philadelphia (while the team had missed out on the playoffs previously under Reid, they had never been 'one-and-done' in the postseason until 2009, something they repeated the following year while not making the playoffs at all last year). It's not necessarily something Reid's done 'wrong', but fatigue can set in after such a long time with the same regime, and that appears to be the case in Philly.

On the hot seat. I hope it's
wide enough.
There are other tell-tale signs that Reid may not be around for much longer. There was an unusual, public back-and-forth between Lurie's representatives and Reid's agent over how much of a commitment there was to Reid remaining head coach beyond 2012, with the owner being put into the position of denying Reid's agent's statement that he would remain head coach as long as Lurie owned the Eagles. Then, there is a potential clue to be had in the structure of Michael Vick's contract – in summary, he can be released after this season with only a minimal cost to the Eagles; but, if he is retained into 2013, the Eagles will then have a significant sum invested in him for the next three seasons. Head coaches often want to bring in “their guy” when taking over a new team, something that any potential replacement would not easily be able to do with the team owing much money to Vick; the fact that he can be released after this season is significant.

Make no mistake, Andy Reid will be given by Lurie everything he needs in 2012 to be able to succeed; but if he fails, he might not be given anything in 2013 – including a salary.

  • Strengths:

Dream Team Mk II

As an aside, regular readers will know that none of us at TPL are fans of Tebow; but I feel an obligation to point out that, despite how the media spun it, when he was traded to the Jets he was far from the first backup QB to have his own press conference; I mention this because it was at a backup QB's press conference the previous offseason, that the Eagles were anointed the “Dream Team” by Vince Young upon signing with the team. The label stuck to the Eagles, and for the most part was used pejoratively and sarcastically as Philadelphia struggled in the early part of the season.

Talent is one thing the team
doesn't lack
A year later, and Vince Young is now a quarterback on the street, looking for a team to give him a good home; but we must remember the reasons for Young's overly-optimistic declaration. Quite simply, the Eagles boast a phenomenally talented roster, bringing in significant talent last year in Nnamdi Asomugha, Jason Babin, Cullen Jenkins and the underrated Evan Mathis, as well as trading Kevin Kolb for Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. If anything, the 2012 roster might be even more talented thanks to a trade for DeMeco Ryans more than offsetting the trade away of an ageing Asante Samuel. The Eagles managed to find their groove as the season progressed, and now that this roster have actually had a full offseason to gel together, 2012 could easily be the year that they live up to the production all their talent promises.

Three times a Shady

Michael Vick cannot ever be trusted to stay healthy, and it looks like the backup QB will be rookie Nick Foles. A team in that predicament often has to lean heavily on their running back; luckily for the Eagles, they have a darn great one in LeSean McCoy. Entering his third season as the starter (hence the awful pun), he has been responsible for 29 TDs over the past two seasons, including leading the league in both rushing TDs (17) and TDs from scrimmage (20) in 2011. He's topped 1600 yards in each of his starting seasons on the ground and through the air combined, coming on 480 carries and 126 receptions. A versatile running back who can run between the tackles or breaking an outside run, can stay in to block or be a dangerous pass-catcher out of the backfield, McCoy is simply a weapon of the highest order.

  • Weaknesses:

Vick giveth, and Vick taketh away

Is there a more frustrating player than Michael Vick? The guy's impossible to get a handle on. One week he appears to be the old Falcons-era Vick, making plays with his legs and able to throw it deep, but wildly inaccurate from the pocket; the next week, he will stay put behind the line and throw timing routes with pinpoint accuracy; the next after that, he'll start off as the latter, then switch to the former, then get himself hurt and miss the next few games. While Vick has matured as a player since the Atlanta days, his inconsistency prevents him for ever being as great a player as he could be. With the team having to decide very soon whether or not to stay with Vick for the long haul, he will need to do two things in 2012 that have thus far eluded him his entire career: staying healthy and being consistent. If he can do neither of those things, then Vick will be as maddeningly frustrating as he's ever been, and could cost Andy Reid a job as a result.

Replacing the best.

Poor Jason Peters. The 2012
season will be poorer for not
featuring his dominant play.
Debates over the best player at any given position will always result in entirely subjective conclusions, but according to your favourite lineman-run blog, there was not only no better left tackle, but no better offensive lineman in football last season than Jason Peters. Unfortunately for the Eagles, Peters ruptured his Achilles' tendon in the offseason (twice, thanks to faulty mobility equipment he had to use after the first rupture). The Eagles scrambled to find a replacement, signing Demetrius Bell (who used the opportunity to reveal his name is actually Demetress) to man the left tackle spot. Bell, who did a decent job at the Bills. The same has not been true in Philadelphia, where he was beat out for the job by King Dunlap, who has seven starts to his name thus far in his career. The LT spot might not be considered to have as many responsibilities at Philadelphia due to Vick being left handed; but regardless, with a quarterback who gets himself in as many hittable situations as possible, a line who can protect him is vital. Losing the best in the game and replacing him with your third option does not make fertile grounds for success.

  • How's the schedule looking?

Despite my concerns about Vick's ability to stay both healthy and consistent, this team has the most talented roster in the division (I didn't even touch on their passing game, which is another strength), and they also have a pretty favourable schedule, with only two instances of “major” teams in back-to-back weeks outside the division, facing the Steelers and Lions in the lead up to their Week 7 bye, followed immediately by the Falcons (who I'm down on this year) and the Saints. They should be 2-1 (being matched up against the Browns, Ravens and Cardinals to start the year) going into their first division game of the year in week 4, but the stretch that should ultimately dictate this season's success begins in Week 10, carrying through until the end of the season, as they play five divisional games in those eight weeks. If Vick can stay healthy through that stretch, Reid should find himself with another NFC East title to strengthen his case for remaining at the helm.

Prediction: 10-6

Washington Redskins

2011 Record: 5-11
Finished: 4th

  • Dominant storyline for 2012: “Hail to the Future”

It's pretty simple: when you trade three first round picks and a second round pick for a single draft prospect, then merely 'hitting' on that prospect is not enough; he must not only be as good as advertised, but better; being a perennial All-Pro player will not alone justify the pick. He, and he alone, must be the difference between being in annual playoff contention and a top-10 pick; he must be the heart, soul and living embodiment of the franchise; he has to go down as the one of the greatest players in the history of his team, if not the league, before NFL historians can look back and say, “you know what? The Redskins paid the right price for RG3.”

The list of QBs taken early in the first round that have been complete busts is long – Ryan Leaf; Akili Smith; Tim Couch; JaMarcuss Russell; and that is not to mention those whose 'busting' may not have been as explosive, but are nonetheless busts, such as Vince Young and Matt Leinart. Yet, if the name “Robert Griffin III” is eventually added to this name, his team will have paid an even higher price than any of those other names, with the arguable exception of Ryan Leaf. If RG3 busts, the damage will extend long beyond the next three seasons. There is first those players who might have been taken with those picks, and the accumulative value they could have added – they may have been used on players who would have gone on to be pillars of the franchise for years to come, players whose leadership spurns the team onwards to achieve much more than the sum of its parts. It is not enough to say that they will be able to get an equally good player in the first round of 2015 – that puts the team two years away from addressing major needs, while forcing the team to wait further years to address less pressing needs, or else settle for lesser players in later rounds, hoping to hit on a late-round gem but more likely pinning starting-calibre expectations on players who should be no more than depth, rotation and special team players.
The future of the Redskins begins and ends with Griffin

But it also handcuffs the entire organisation for a long time. It's clear that Mike Shanahan's future at Washington is indissolubly intertwined with RG3's career. If RG3 busts, or at least is very slow to develop, then Shanahan will be fired; likely so too would be GM Bruce Allen. Yet how will Dan Snyder be able to entice a new coach when the team may still be without a first round pick? And again, it goes beyond having to wait for 2015 before a quality head coach will realistically even consider taking the job – what of those coaches who will be looking for a new head coaching job in 2013 or 2014? What if there are coaches with incredible pedigrees and resumes who the Redskins miss out on? There are no guarantees that such a head coach will be on the market in 2015, or who knows how many years beyond that. Because the team not only gambled the present (as all first round picks are), but mortgaged the future to bankroll the wager, there is more pressure on Griffin to succeed even than there is on Luck, whose team parted ways with one of the unquestionably greatest quarterbacks of all time specifically for him. To make clear: Griffin does not have to lead Washington to the postseason as a rookie, though it would help him out if he did; but he does need to give the fans and the franchise enough reason to hope that he can, in the near future, play to that most highest of levels that will justify his cost to the Redskins. He has all the physical tools and intangibles to be a truly special player in this league; while he might not have a true 'no. 1' receiver (a term I hate as a gross oversimplification), he has a solid supporting cast around him, both offensively to give him weapons and defensively to help keep games close; and he has a truly great mind developing him and helping him mature, the man responsible for developing probably the greatest of all time (yes, I'd take Elway over Montana). On paper, nearly (but not quite) everything is there for Griffin to succeed; yet, in football, the physical side of the game tells only half the story. Confidence; maturity; consistency; not a desire, but a necessity to be successful. These are the characteristics the quarterbacking mind must possess for a QB to become great. Griffin has an immense weight riding on his shoulders; he will either be crushed, or prove his strength and resilience to the world – but he doesn't have long before that choice is made for him. When he steps onto the field at the Mercedes Superdome on the 9th of September, it will start his rookie campaign; but for the Washington Redskins, it is the moment when the future begins.

  • Strengths:

The transition is complete

One of the most confusing initial aspects of the Shanahan regime was taking a 4-3 defense that had finished in the top 10 for three seasons straight, tearing it apart, and rebuilding it as a 3-4. The team did not have the personnel for such a transition, and it showed, landing them the 31st-ranked defense in the NFL in 2010. Last year was a different matter. The Redskins picked up in free agencies defensive linemen built to play the 3-4 – in particular nose tackle Barry Cofield and DE Stephen Bowen. They drafted a pass-rushing threat to play across from Brian Orakpo in Ryan Kerrigan, who brought 7.5 sacks and a pick-six from the 'Sam' (strongside) OLB position. London Fletcher played as well as he ever has, showing no signs of slowing down while racking up a league-leading 166 combined tackles and assists. Perry Riley emerged as someone who can man the other inside linebacking spot for years. The defense improved from 31st to 13th.

Fact: moments after this sack,
Orakpo resumed his game of Scrabble
against a neanderthal
And yet, this is a defense that should only be better in 2012. Last year's second round pick, DE Jarvis Jenkins (who spent his rookie year on IR after blowing away the coaching staff with his play in the preseason) will be back and should beat out Adam Carriker to really solidify the defensive line; the other ten players who were starting by the end of 2011 should all be back in the line up, with another year in the system under their belts. The Redskins defense was not widely acclaimed last season due to the 5-11 record, but that came down much more to problems on offense than on defense. After two seasons transitioning from a 4-3 to a 3-4 D, the transition in complete, and they are ready to take back their place in the top ten defenses year-in year-out.

Mike Shanahan's infinite running backs

It's a commonly-made observation of Mike Shanahan offenses, but it is one that repeatedly is shown to be true: he will find running backs out of nowhere and having major success with them. It was true in Denver and it remains true in Washington. In 2011, Shanahan began with three running backs who he could start and would get major success – 2010 holdover Ryan Torain, offseason trade acquisition Tim Hightower, and fourth-round rookie Roy Helu. When Torain wasn't producing, Shanahan just shrugged his shoulders, cut him, and called up another rookie, sixth-rounder Evan Royster, from the practice squad. All four started at least two games. All four had over 50 carries. In 2012, it look like it will be more of the same, with sixth-round rookie Alfred Morris having shone in the preseason to such an extent that he's now considered the favourite to be the starter on September 9th. What this means for Griffin III cannot be overstated; it's not unusual for teams with rookie QBs to rely more heavily on their running backs, but this often leads to greater wear & tear on the running back. In Washington, that wouldn't matter at all – if Morris goes down, there's three running backs behind him who could just as easily and seamlessly replace him in the starting line up without any drop in production. The position is stacked, deep, and with Shanahan at the helm, will always be successful.

  • Weaknesses:


One of the greatest offensive lines of all time played in the 1980s and early 1990s; they wore the burgundy and gold of the Redskins, and were called the “Hogs”; and they must feel sick when they watch the current Redskins offensive line play. The offensive line is simply the weakest unit on the team. The once-fourth over all pick, left tackle Trent Williams, has played relatively well, but has not yet developed into the true lock-down left tackle the team hoped they were drafting; he is still young, and could yet become a great tackle, but he's not there yet, and will never get there if he doesn't mature (see: four game suspension for failing a drug test). At right tackle, there is a massive hole; Jammal Brown seems to be perpetually hurt, and in those instances when he's actually been healthy enough to play, he has underwhelmed (and that's being generous). Will Montgomery has been a pretty good center, but there are questionmarks either side. Chris Chester was the only offensive lineman for the Redskins to start every game at the same position (Montgomery played a few games at left guard), but his play has been unspectacular. Kory Lichtensteiger played well at left guard, but is coming off a torn ACL. The line as a whole has some pieces, but they've never lived up to their potential (something that makes the success the running backs have had even more remarkable). If they don't come together, it may be a long season in Washington.

Hankerson could become solid, but
not until Griffin improves in the pocket
Wideout weapons?
The Redskins paid a lot of money for Pierre Garcon and Josh Morgan in free agency in an attempt to load up with weapons for their new QB. The problem with both of these receivers – indeed, almost every receiver on the Washington roster – is that, for all the potential they undeniably possess, they have not yet shown consistent production. Pierre Garcon has the speed to be a 'no. 1' receiver (there's that expression again), but his biggest issues has been his hands – in short, he's a dropper. Lining up across from Garcon is the only consistent receiver on the team, Santana Moss, but age is catching up with him. Sophomore wideout Leonard Hankerson, who is expected to see a lot of time in the team's three-wide sets, is another receiver who had a reputation for a dropper. Hands aside, he showed in college he can make good things happen after the catch, especially on quick slants and hitches, but as I explained when I analysed Hankerson for thefakefootball.com, those routes work better with pocket passers, an area of RG3's game that he certainly possesses but it will be a while before he develops that aspect of his skillset until it's at an NFL-level. Josh Morgan, meanwhile, is currently battling Anthony Armstrong for the fourth spot on the depth chart, although he has been hampered by injury. Still, without a proven, consistent receiving threat outside of Old Man Moss (I know 33 isn't necessarily that old for a receiver, but he's definitely on the downslide of his career), Griffin might have to rely on running backs to catch his passes as well as run the ball.

  • How's the schedule looking?

The Redskins season will rely heavily on the defense to keep games close. If they can do that, RG3 unquestionably has the natural talent to get the team enough points, especially backed up with that running game. The team face three playoff teams for 2011 in their first five weeks in the Saints, Bengals and Falcons, setting up a stiff test for Griffin early on, but if they come out of that five-game stretch 3-2 (the team should be able to win relatively comfortably over the Rams and, yes, my beloved Bucs), they should be set up to have a pretty successful season. In terms of non-divisional opponents, there is no occasion where they face very good teams back to back, and a Week 10 bye should set them up nicely to be at full strength for the final part of the season, which features five divisional games. The addition for Griffin alone makes the 2012 Redskins a better team than they were last season (which included a sweep of the Giants), so with the NFC East wide open, the Redskins have a great chance of having a winning record against divisional opponents. If the defense remains as solid as they were at their best in 2011, and Griffin can even hint at what his potential suggests he is capable of, the Redskins could be in with a real chance at a wildcard spot.

Prediction: 10-6

- Gur "Fred" Samuel (@FredTheGur)
- The Pulling Linemen

1 comment:

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