by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Throughout the month of August, TGS will be previewing each of the NFL division races for 2013, as well as providing a QB depth chart for the preseason games that commence Thursday, August 8. First up for our previews will be the NFC East, presented in order of predicted finish, with 2012 straight-up, pointspread, and “over/under” records included...

It’s not how a team starts the season, it’s how a team finishes it that counts. No better example can be found than the New York Giants (2012 SUR 9-7; PSR 8-8; O/U 5-11) , whose SU mark last season was no different than the year before when the G-Men rolled through the playoffs and all the way to a Super Bowl XLVI win over New England.

The sequencing of results, however, was altered, especially compared to 2011, when Tom Coughlin’s team roared through December to hit the postseason with a full head of steam, as it had also done back in 2007 when also advancing to, and winning, another Super Bowl over the Patriots. But the combination of losing three of the last five regular-season games, along with the emergence of the Redskins as a threat within the NFC East, forced the Giants to stay home from the playoffs last fall and prompt some not-so-subtle alterations leading into the 2013 campaign.

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In fact, considering that the late run in 2011 was also the G-Men’s only playoff appearance since 2008, it’s no wonder that GM Jerry Reese issued an “everybody’s on notice” warning prior to the commencement of training camp in late July.

The Giants’ problems in December last season mostly revolved around a defense that leaked alarmingly in crushing losses at Atlanta and Baltimore that effectively KO’d New York from the postseason race. Coordinator Perry Fewell’s platoon surrendered the second-most yards in the NFL last season, a shortcoming that eventually proved costly and outweighed some of the opportunism that resulted in 35 takeaways and, for most of the season, solid work in the red zone.

Thus, some personnel adjusting was expected in the offseason, when contributors such as DE Osi Umenyiora, DT Chris Canty, and LBs Michael Boley and Chase Blackburn all departed the scene. GM Reese focused upon the DL for reinforcements, adding high draft picks such as Ohio State DT Johnathan Hankins (2nd round) and Texas A&M DE Damontre Moore (3rd round) while enlisting ex-Eagle DT Cullen Jenkins as the highest profile offseason FA addition.

Fewell would thus seem to have plenty of beef up front, where another ex-Eagle DT, Michael Patterson, was also added via free agency to complement Jenkins and holdovers Linval Joseph and Shaun Rogers in the middle of the line. Although the biggest plus for the stop unit would probably be to simply keep DEs Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul healthy after nagging hurts have reduced sack totals the past two years.

A healthy Tuck, who has missed considerable action since 2011, would theoretically also reduce the number of double-teams that fellow DE Jason Pierre-Paul must endure; the latter’s sacks dropped from 16 ½ in 2011 to 6 ½ last season when Tuck was absent for large swaths of the campaign. Pierre-Paul, however, is on the mend from back surgery, and his early-season contributions are hard to project. In which case plenty of pressure will be heaped upon DE Mathias Kiwanuka, penciled into the lineup as long as Pierre-Paul might be sidelined. Can the once-feared Kiwanuka generate the sort of attention from opposing offenses as does Pierre-Paul? If not, Texas A&M rookie Moore might see more action than originally anticipated.

Another key battle defensively will be at the cornerbacks, were Corey Webster is coming off a down year. He and 2011 first-round pick Prince Amukamara will try to hold off former starter Aaron Ross, back with the G-Men after a year in Jacksonville, and Terrell Thomas, who missed the last two seasons due to knee injuries. Thomas began training camp on the PUP list but will hopefully get back into the mix by September.

Most questions defensively revolve around the LB corps, where three new starters could possibly figure into the equation. And the situation became a bit more muddled in early July when FA addition MLB Dan Connor (ex-Cowboys) was arrested at Philadelphia Airport for allegedly possessing a switchblade in his carry-on luggage. While word on any league punishment is pending, Fewell is also trying to fit another FA, one-time first-round Seahawks draftee Aaron Curry, into the mix. Expect preseason to feature plenty of experimentation by Fewell as he seeks the right combos in the second line of defense.

There are familiar faces on the attack end led by QB Eli Manning, who has started an NFL-high 135 straight games and can call upon familiar big-play receiving targets Victor Cruz (in good salsa spirits after inking a lucrative contract extension) and Hakeem Nicks, who combined for 139 catches and 13 TDs last fall. Ex-LSU deep ball threat Reuben Randle has impressed in early camp work and is likely to provide more dynamism to the wideout corps, while ex-Raiders TE Brandon Myers (79 catches LY) was added in free agency.

Concerns offensively revolve around keeping the OL healthy (vet T David Diehl claims he’s 100%) while making room for top draft choice Justin Pugh, a mountainous 307-pounder from Syracuse penciled in to start at the RT spot. More questions might exist with the running game, where Ahmad Bradshaw was released in the offseason in hopes that former No. 1 draftee David Wilson (358 YR and 5.0 ypc as a rookie in 2012) will be ready to take over feature-back duties. Wilson, however, still has shortcomings in pass blocking that will likely result in splitting snaps with the functional Andre Brown until further notice.

Speaking of Wilson, no one doubts his contributions as a kick returner, which included a franchise-record 227 return yards in a December win vs. the Saints. Elsewhere on special teams, we’ll see if the departure of PK Lawrence Tynes, who won a pair of NFC title games with OT field goals but signed by the Bucs in the offseason, proves a negative in close contests. FA addition and former Bengals PK Josh Brown has a stronger leg, but does not have the sort of clutch credentials as owned by Tynes.

While there are questions laced throughout the lineup, the potential answers are also likely on the roster. And let’s not forget that the combo of QB Eli and HC Coughlin has won a pair of Super Bowls in the past six seasons, something no NFC East contender can match.

That was sure an awkward way for the Washington Redskins (2012 SU 10-7; PRS 11-6; O/U 8-9) to end an otherwise uplifting 2012 campaign. We’re talking about star rookie QB Robert Griffin III’s buckling knee injury in the wild card round playoff loss to the Seahawks, which became a bigger topic of discussion in D.C. last January than President Obama’s second inauguration. Especially since the gimpy-legged Griffin hardly looked in any condition to be on the field vs. Seattle before getting KO’d.

Caught in the offseason crossfire were the Redskin medics who supposedly gave RG III the go-ahead to stay in the game, and HC Mike Shanahan for keeping his prized possession on the field despite the Heisman winner obviously at less than 100%. With that in mind, Griffin is not expected to be risked at all in the preseason, and we likely won’t see him take a snap until the Monday night opener against the Eagles on September 9.

Although another QB rookie from last year, Michigan State’s Kirk Cousins, proved an able reliever for Griffin and even stepped in to help lead the Skins to some crucial successes late last season when RG III was sidelined, let’s not kid ourselves about the Washington offense, which is designed to take advantage of Griffin’s legs and play-action potential. The Skins won their last seven regular-season games largely because of the Heisman winner’s contributions.

In other words, don’t expect the Skins to get back to the playoffs if RG III is sidelined for any extended period, or compromised by physical ailments, this fall.

The offensive scheme implemented by coordinator Kyle Shanahan is not overly complicated, instead taking advantage of Griffin’s playmaking tools. The play-action middle slant takes on a new dimension with the RG III threat, but it won’t be the same if Cousins is pulling the trigger.

The Skins did not do a lot of upgrading their skill position weaponry in the offseason, which means they are going to need TE Fred Davis to come back strong from the Achilles tendon injury that caused him to miss eight-plus games a year ago, and for WR Pierre Garcon to get beyond the toe injury that slowed him for much of 2012. The Shanahans are also intrigued by 3rd-round pick Jordan Reed, a receiving target from Florida whose potential on-field contributions as a hybrid TD/WR are similar another recent former Gator who played for the Patriots but ran into severe off-field issues in the offseason (we’re not going to even repeat his name).

Let’s also see if RB Alfred Morris avoids a sophomore slump after proving the most pleasant of surprises last fall when gaining a whopping 1613 YR as a rookie out of Florida Atlantic (why didn’t Howard Schnellenberger make better use of him, anyway?).

Offensively, as long as Griffin remains a threat to run in the zone-read scheme, the Skins will move the ball and score points. Anything to upset that dynamic, however, and the context of the season could change at FedEx Field.

Defensively, coordinator Jim Haslett mixed and matched the best he could in almost Houdini-like fashion with his front seven a year ago, when the Skins were minus LB Brian Orakpo and DE Adam Carriker for much of the season. Both are back and (for the moment) healthy entering the preseason, with Orakpo extra-motivated in his contract year. Another of last year’s infirmed, SS Brandon Merriweather, is making a very cautious recovery from 2012’s knee problems, which has allowed 6th-round pick Baccari Rambo (Georgia) to take snaps with the first team defense at FS in training camp while vet Reed Doughty has been getting reps at strong safety in Merriweather’s absence.

Pass defense remains a potential weak link in the defense after the Skins were mostly strafed a year ago, ranking a poor 30th in pass “D” when allowing 282 ypg. The only significant upgrade via free agency was ex-Tampa Bay CB E.J. Biggers, though he projects behind vet DeAngelo Hall at LCB in the depth chart.

All bets on the Skins are off at FedEx Field, however, if RG III isn’t at least a reasonable facsimile of his pre-injury self.

Has Jerry Jones mellowed with age? Most observers would have sworn that Jones was likely to have made sweeping changes after any one of the past three disappointing seasons in which his Dallas Cowboys (2012 SUR 8-8; PSR 6-10; O/U 8-8) failed to make the playoffs. Final-game road losses at both the Giants (in 2011) and Redskins (last season) in which QB Tony Romo failed to deliver in the clutch would have prompted some sort of reaction from the old Jerry, too, such as perhaps launching himself off of Reunion Tower.

Instead, Jones continues to ride with Romo and HC Jason Garrett, now beginning his third full season in charge and with no playoff appearances to his credit. Long-ago Garrett predecessors such as Dave Campo and Chan Gailey would have been likely to receive a public flogging by a younger Jones for such transgressions.

What is different these days, you ask? Perhaps Jones has simply mellowed with age. Some insiders also believe Jones is so heavily invested in his “discoveries” Garrett and Romo that he has given each a lot more rope than he would have to any of their underachieving predecessors earlier in his ownership career.

Sentimentality aside, most believe Garrett is nonetheless under a must-win edict this fall from Jones, whose ego is not likely to stand for another playoff miss without someone else taking the blame. As for Romo, many believe Jones viewed potential QB alternatives and simply decided that Tony was his best choice for the near future. Romo was thus rewarded with a nice contract extension in the offseason, although with a twist; his “cap” number was significantly reduced for 2013, giving Jones some added flexibility with roster additions this season, and going forward, only about half of Romo’s $108 million extension is guaranteed.

Others suggest that some of Dallas’ shortcomings this millennium (in which the Cowboys have notched only one playoff win, in the wild card round vs. the Eagles, in 2009) might have more to do with Jones’ role as his own GM. More than a bit of truth there, perhaps, although don’t expect ‘ol Jer to acknowledge as much.

As for Garrett, sources report that Jones did insist upon some changes in the coaching assignments entering this season, including a not-so-subtle suggestion that Garrett relinquish play-calling duties for the offense. Those now apparently rest with former Raiders and Nebraska HC Bill Callahan, who served as OL coach last season, although sources say Garrett remains involved in the process. Stay tuned for further developments.

Jones also ordered some changes defensively, where long-haired d.c. Rob Ryan and his 3-4 looks were replaced by the sage Monte Kiffin, once revered in gridiron circles but whose reputation took several hits the past few years when working for son Lane, first at Tennessee and then at Southern Cal. The Kiffin Trojan defenses were almost helpless to stop the many spread attacks in the Pac-12; either Jones didn’t bother watching SC games or simply believes Kiffin will flourish again with his 4-3 base alignment and “Tampa 2" cover schemes that were deployed with such success during a very productive run coordinating the NFL Buccaneer defenses that extended through Jon Gruden’s run at Tampa Bay. More on Kiffin and the “D” in a moment.

Meanwhile, much attention remains focused upon Romo, who to this point ranks in Cowboy lore alongside “can’t win the big one” types such as Don Meredith, Craig Morton, and Gary Hogeboom instead of the championship Dallas signal-callers such as Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman. Increasingly judged by his failure to win big games, Romo, contract extension or not, remains on the hot seat in Big D until he can get the Cowboys back to the postseason, much less win a playoff game, neither of which has happened since 2009.

Romo approaches the 2013 campaign after offseason back surgery for removal of a cyst that will likely limit his snaps in preseason (Romo didn’t play at all in the HOF game opener vs. Miami), although he is expected to be ready long before the Sunday night opener vs. the Giants on September 8. We’re surprised it wasn’t Romo’s arm instead that needed surgery after last season in which he threw a career-high 648 passes, 98 more than he had ever attempted previously, contributing to a career-high 19 picks. Finding a better pass/run balance was likely one of the motivators for Jones in altering the play-calling duties in his strike force.

More specifically, upgrades are needed on the OL and within a running game that ranked 31st in the NFL a year ago (a puny 79.1 ypg, the worst in team history) and was largely responsible for Romo’s 36 sacks, the highest number in his career. Hardly an endorsement for OL coach Callahan to take over the entire offense, we’d say. Injuries didn’t help last year’s forward wall, but it’s a must that Gs Nate Livings, Mackenzy Bernadeau and Ron Leary stay healthy, or else the Cowboys might have to move first-round pick Travis Frederick from center to guard and start the undersized Phil Costa at center.

The new Callahan-influenced offense is also likely to feature more double-TE alignments featuring All-Pro Jason Witten and promising San Diego State rookie Gavin Escobar, in line with the increased power emphasis. There are questions, however, regarding the durability of RB DeMarco Murray, who missed six games a year ago, prompting the selection of Oklahoma State RB Joseph Randle in the fifth round.

Romo will not be lacking for receiving targets, especially after WR Dez Bryant’s breakthrough campaign a year ago when catching 92 passes, and if Miles Austin (66 catches in 2012) can stay on the field and avoid the chronic hamstring woes that have slowed him in the past. Jones added Baylor deep-ball threat Terrance Williams (nation’s-best 1832 receiving yards in 2012) with a third-round draft pick to provide additional cover if Austin isn’t 100%.

Early reviews from Oxnard indicate that the transition to the Kiffin defense has been mostly smooth. The elder Kiffin, now 73, has another familiar face to help him in DL coach Rod Marinelli, who served the same role under d.c. Kiffin at Tampa Bay from 2002-05 (including the Super Bowl win that first season). The switch to the 4-3 now means that the bulked-up Demarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer are undersized DEs in the new alignment; Kiffin believes both can flourish in the updated looks, especially Ware, who will be rushing the quarterback all of the time and won’t be schemed into pass coverage. The 4-3 will also hopefully allow DT Jay Ratliff to assert himself better after suffering too much wear and tear the past few years at NT in the Ryan defense, especially a year ago when hampered by ankle and sports hernia injuries.

For the many supposed playmakers on this platoon, including Ware and CBs Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne, it was a bit of a surprise that Dallas forced only 16 turnovers a year ago, one of the reasons the team missed the playoffs and why Ryan was replaced. The secondary will also be implementing Kiffin’s aforementioned Tampa 2 schemes; Carr and Claiborne are considered ideal man-to-man CBs and expect Kiffin to allow them to do what they do best and lock up man-to-man at time, although they have the ability to play zone and will in the Cowboys' new defense.

Still, we have a few reservations about Kiffin and the possibility he might be past his sell-by date. Monte hasn’t coached in the NFL for five years, and offenses have changed considerably since. And he didn’t exactly adapt very well to the pass-happy attacks of the Pac-12 the past couple of years.

We’ve been wrong the past couple of years when predicting that Jones would be make big changes if the Cowboys didn’t make the playoffs, but we’ll at least maintain that ‘ol Jer will force Garrett to walk the plank if Dallas misses the postseason once more. Romo’s contract figures to anchor him in Arlington for a few more years, though if the Cowboys fail again as they have the past few years, how long Jones sticks with Romo is a fair question to ask.

It hasn’t been the best year in Philadelphia sports. The Eagles (2012 SUR 4-12, PSR 3-13, O/U 9-7) were so bad last season that Andy Reid’s seemingly endless run as head coach would finally end with a 4-12 face-plant that more reminded of the Joe Kuharich or Jerry Williams eras. Then the 76ers struggled, missed the playoffs, and HC Doug Collins resigned under pressure. The NHL lockout delayed the beginning of the Flyers’ season until mid-January, after which the team never caught stride and missed the Stanley Cup postseason festivities. Meanwhile, the bottom dropped out of the Phillies’ season after the All-Star break, as a debilitating losing streak dropped them to 4th in the NL East behind the Mets, with the lowly Miami Marlins looming not far behind, ready to push the Phils into the cellar.

However depressing, all of it has made for pretty brisk business on Philly sports talk stations while the venerable 610 WIP or the more-hip 97.5 FM, where hosts like Angelo Cataldi and Howard Eskin have had to wear dual hats as host and shrink for the masses of the Delaware Valley who are likely to need suicide watch when things go this pear-shaped for the teams.

Unfortunately for Birds fans, we’re not sure that the fall is going to bring any better news for new HC Chip Kelly, fresh off a fantastic run as coach of the Ducks but now trying to implement a version of the same sort of no-huddle spread that terrorized opponents in the Pac-12. That scenario is the only one in which the much-maligned Michael Vick might have returned to Philly after wearing out his welcome and appearing a spent force in the old Reid offense. But the Kelly style seems a better fit for Vick’s talents, and the coach quickly went about re-enlisting Vick in the offseason after former Arizona QB Nick Foles seemed to have a decent hold on the job following a somewhat promising (but by no means flawless) rookie campaign in 2012.

Moreover, the offseason brought some extra unwanted distractions in the form of WR Riley Cooper, whose ill-advised racial slurs in Tweets from a Kenny Chesney concert have caused a different sort of media firestorm in Philly. Indeed, the last place that needed this sort of controversy was in what used to be The City of Brotherly Love, already dealing with a rapidly decaying social infrastructure. Worse, the Cooper story figures to last more than one media cycle unless he is drummed out of Philly, which many expect to occur (although he had returned to training camp as of August 6 after leaving the scene for a few days) before the beginning of the regular season.

But Cooper’s status has more practical implications after the receiving corps was thinned by Jeremy Maclin’s season-ending ACL injury. Cooper had figured into the starting lineup after Maclin went down; now, no one is quite sure. While Cooper was out of camp, slot receiver Jason Avant took snaps outside in both two- and three-wide receiver sets. But that takes away from Avant's strength as one of the league's better inside receivers. The torn ACL in early August suffered by another option at WR, ex-Buc FA addition Arrelious Benn, casts more doubts upn the wideout situation.

Speaking of “not quite sure” comments, those seem to apply to the entire situation at the Linc. On the field, nobody seems to know what quite to expect from the Birds other than the fact they will be hard-pressed to be any worse than a year ago, when, among other ignominies, Reid’s last Eagles team was also a horrific 3-13 vs. the pointspread.

Just how outlandish Kelly’s offensive schemes might be will be answered more fully in preseason, depending largely upon the progress of the QB race between Vick, Foles, rookie 4th-round pick Matt Barkley from Southern Cal, and perhaps journeyman Dennis Dixon (who ran the Kelly offense at Oregon when Chip was o.c. for Mike Bellotti). Though no starter was listed on the depth chart entering the preseason, sources say Vick seems to be Kelly’s preferred option after taking more of the snaps with the first-string as training camp has progressed.

Still, most do not expect to see a carbon-copy of the Kelly Oregon offense. Instead, expect elements of the Ducks’ uptempo style, but with more of a downfield passing element. Vick’s durability concerns would figure to limit a lot of the ultra-aggressive offensive schemes that Kelly employed with QBs such as Jeremiah Masoli, Darron Thomas, and Marcus Mariota the past few years in Eugene. Indeed, Vick’s days as anything other than a modest running threat are likely in the past.

Whoever is at QB will be expected to get the ball in the hands of playmakers such as RB LeSean McCoy (whose string of consecutive 1000-yard season was interrupted by an injury-marred 2012) and WR DeSean Jackson, who sources say has been consistently running under Vick’s deep balls in camp. In the offseason, the Birds added another couple of potentially-useful weapons for Kelly, first in free agency with versatile Texans TE James Casey, then in the draft with second-round pick TE Zach Ertz from Stanford, providing excellent depth at the TE spot that has featured the very capable Brett Celek for several years.

Kelly’s arrival has focused much of the attention on the offense but it’s on “D” where the Birds must improve if they want to get into the discussion for a playoff berth. That was mostly a fairy tale a year ago when the stop unit slumped in 2012, forcing the fewest TOs in the league and ranking 30th in points allowed.

No surprise, then, that most of the Eagles’ maneuvering in free agency was focused upon the stop unit, where new coordinator Billy Davis will be implementing new 3-4 looks this fall. The key addition was OLB Connor Barwin, an ex-Texan signed to a $36 million, 6-year deal. Barwin and another key FA addition, NT Isaac Sopoaga from the 49ers, have experience in 3-4 alignments, while 2nd-year DE Fletcher Cox has the frame to play in those schemes as well.

The Birds also restructured their secondary, letting CBs Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie walk in free agency while adding CBs Cary Williams (Ravens) and Bradley Fletcher (Rams), plus safeties Patrick Chung (Patriots) and Kenny Phillips (Giants) for an all-new look to the DB corps. Although early camp reports note that a holdover, 5'9 Brandon Boykin, who played in nickel looks last fall, has been more impressive than any and might bump Fletcher from the starting lineup.

It wasn’t long ago that the Birds thought they had the best CB rotation in the NFL with Asomugha, Rodgers-Cromartie, and Asante Samuel; now all have departed. It is also doubtful the “D” has to endure as much upheaval as a year ago when Reid dismissed d.c. Juan Castillo at midseason.

At the moment, the Birds rate as an intriguing X-factor in the NFC. But like Laraine Newman’s long-ago character on SNL skits would often say while reading poll results on Chevy Chase’s news set, “don’t know” is the most common answer given by Eagles fans when assessing their chances for 2013.

Which, if nothing else, will keep the phone lines humming on WIP and 97.5.


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