by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Throughout the month of August, TGS will be previewing each of the NFL division races for 2014, as well as providing a QB depth chart for the preseason games that commence Thursday, August 7. First up for our previews will be the NFC East, presented in order of predicted finish, with 2013 straight-up, pointspread, and "over/under" records included...

We’ve seen a similar scenario unfold twice with the New York Giants (2013 SUR 7-9, PSR 7-9, O/U 7-9) in recent memory. Overlooked entering the season, while the media fawns over more flashy contenders in the NFC East. Back-and-forth efforts throughout the first half of the campaign. Then, the gears begin to mesh in December, QB Eli Manning begins to play with confidence, and the G-Men peak at just the right time to storm down the stretch and win the Super Bowl.

The above transpired in both the 2007 and 2001 seasons under HC Tom Coughlin, and, in truth, we don’t really expect lightning to strike the same way for a third time in 2014. But history suggests to us that this is the sort of situation in which Coughlin and Manning are often their most dangerous. And since we have reservations (in some cases severe reservations) about the other entries in the NFC East, we think this is the time to be on the lookout for another Giants revival this fall.

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We know the many questions surrounding the G-Men, who were far from contention a year ago and do not have the look of a serious contender entering the preseason. There is also considerable discussion about the future of Coughlin, now 67 and likely to consider retirement at some point in the near future. Moreover, there are legitimate questions about Eli, whose recent performances suggest he has begun on the downside of his career, now entering its 11th season. The 2013 version of Manning hardly suggested a repeat of the 2007 or 2011 Super Bowl runs would occur anytime soon.

Coughlin and GM Jerry Reese, however, hardly stood still after the disappointment of 2013, and were quick to authorize changes in the offseason. Reese proceeded to overhaul much of the roster with a $114 million face lift. Coughlin also made important changes in his staff, namely recruiting a bright, new, and young o.c., 37-year-old Ben McAdoo, who most recently served as the QB coach on Mike McCarthy’s Green Bay staff.

McAdoo has made sweeping changes on the offensive side of the ball, introducing a West Coast offense that many believe is a better fit for Eli. In theory, the Giants should no longer be as one-dimensional and predictable, with an improved infantry and emphasis on a short and intermediate passing game and a faster pace that Eli should be able to master. He’d better, because there is no room for a repeat of his subpar 2013 performance in which he tossed a league-high 27 picks, contributing the Giants’ ghastly 44 turnovers, which ranked worst in the league and a main factor in an 0-6 start that had the G-Men scrambling for answers a few weeks before Halloween.

Much of Reese’s offseason maneuvering involved getting upgraded pieces for the new McAdoo offense. The line was targeted in free agency, with projected starters J.D. Walton (via Redskins) at center and Geoff Schwartz (via Chiefs) at left guard among the recruits. Another key addition was ex-Raider RB Rashad Jennings, who gained 733 YR and caught 36 passes last year in Oakland and appears well suited for a feature-back role. Although former first-round pick David Wilson has been forced to retire due to recurring neck issues, NFC East sources believe backfield depth is still fine with promising Boston College rookie Andre Williams (who gained 2177 YR last year with the Eagles) and well-traveled Peyton Hillis, a perfect addition for short-yardage situations.

Even after the FA departure of Hakeem Nicks, Eli will have plenty of receiving targets at the ready, led by big-play Victor Cruz (another 73 catches LY) and emerging ex-LSU star Rueben Randle, whose progress made it easier to let Nicks walk after the season. A hero of the Super Bowl XVLI win over the Patriots, Mario Manningham, also returns to the fold and will provide Eli with another familiar weapon, while the Giants’ first-round draft pick, LSU WR Odell Beckham, Jr., adds another potential fear factor to the offense. Ex-Bronco Trindon Holliday, a lethal special teams threat who burned the G-Men for a punt return TD at Met Life Stadium last September, has also been inked to upgrade the return game.

Meanwhile, Perry Fewell’s defense mostly performed in a playoff-quality manner last season, but Reese was still busy at upgrades in the offseason, with CB Antonio Rodgers-Cromartie moving from Denver and the single biggest-ticket (five years at $35 million) FA addition by the G-Men. He fills a glaring need for a shutdown corner, while ex-Seahawk Walter Thurmond, who was the prime nickel back in Pete Carroll’s defense, now likely to slip into a the starting role on the right corner, opposite Rodgers-Cromartie. These secondary upgrades were critical in a division with as many big receiving targets as the NFC East.

Reese also made sure to re-sign MLB Jon Beason, who emerged as the team’s defensive MVP after an October trade with the Panthers. A key development in the front four will be a return to form of DE Jason Pierre-Paul, who as recently as 2011 recorded a whopping 16 ½ sacks but was reduced to just two last season in his comeback year from back surgery. Coughlin, Fewell and Reese expect Pierre-Paul back to top form, however, which was one of the reasons they were willing to let fellow DE Justin Tuck walk (to the Raiders) in free agency.

We don’t expect to see the Giants picked to win the East by too many others in the media, who often base such projections on results from last season...period. But history also tells us this is just the sort of situation where the Coughlin G-Men have to be feared.

Every year, there seems to be a team du jour that catches the fancy of the fans and media and is subject to intense overhype. Meet this year’s candidate, the Philadelphia Eagles (2013 SUR 10-7, PSR 8-8, O/U 9-8). Among other projections, none other than NBC’s Cris “Aw Shucks” Collinsworth has suggested that Birds fans ought to be readying to welcome the Lombardi Trophy next February.

Collinsworth, however, is only one of many media voices who have been touting the Eagles since the end of last season. All of which not lost on the many listeners of venerable 610 WIP and 97.5 FM The Fanatic in Philadelphia, where Birds talk began to dominate the airwaves even before the Phillies would fall out of the NL East race.

Andy Reid? Who’s he? Callers to WIP and The Fanatic would rarely mention the former coach after talking about nothing else for the preceding 13 years.

For us, however, we suggest that Eagles backers pump the brakes a little bit. We’re not yet convinced that Philly is a Super Bowl contender. Call it our lengthy exposure to various false alarms over the decades. While we do believe the Eagles are definitely on their way up for 2nd-year HC Chip Kelly, we’re simply suggesting some caution.

That’s partially because there's a bit suspicion on our part about some of the Eagles’ accomplishments last season, when they unexpectedly rallied down the stretch to win the NFC East. Which looked unlikely at midseason when Philly was sitting at a ho-hum 3-5. In retrospect, however, the Birds were helped by a variety of factors, among them collapses from division enemies Washington and the Giants. Philly also caught unexpected breaks in a handful of games last season when facing backup QBs, as was the case in road tests against Aaron Rodgers-less Green Bay and Tony Romo-less Dallas in the finale that decided the NFC East. The Birds were also getting whipped by the Lions when a blizzard hit the Linc last December and the Motown bunch suddenly forgot how to generate traction in the inclement conditions. Philly also beat Tampa Bay when the Bucs were still winless in the first half of the season, caught the Raiders when they were in the midst of collapse, and ran into Minnesota long after the season had slipped away from the Vikings. They were also fortunate to beat the Cardinals 24-21 in a late-season game at the Linc. Those sorts of schedule breaks are not likely to recur again this season.

Then, given the opportunity to host a playoff game, the Birds lost at home in the final seconds to the Saints. No shame in that effort, but an indicator that Philly still has some ground to make up if it wants to climb into the elite class in the NFC.

Of course, Kelly’s progressive offense generated lots of headlines a year ago, and QB Nick Foles deservedly won accolades with his shock performance that included 27 TD passes and only 2 picks despite starting only 10 games. The Birds also led the NFL in rushing. But the defense was hardly championship caliber, ranking 29th overall, which could potentially undermine any fireworks provided by the Kelly offense this fall. The stop unit was also one of many in the league to get torched by the Broncos, who scored a franchise-record 52 points in a Denver blowout early last season.

The pass rush remains a question mark after managing just 37 sacks last season, and Bill Davis’ stop unit could sorely use a dominant interior run-stuffer. The front three of Fletcher Cox,, Cedric Thornton, and Bennie Logan made progress last season, and Vinny Curry is in the process of emerging as a valued pass-rush specialist, but improvements must continue. Though Kelly and GM Howie Roseman believe the “D” has upgraded through free agency with the addition of ex-Saints FS Malcolm Jenkins, who could give the Birds their first lockdown safety since Brian Dawkins departed after the 2009 campaign. The Birds went defense with their first pick in the draft, tabbing Louisville OLB Marcus Smith, who could also provide pass-rush help. But this platoon still has a long way to go before it resembles a Super Bowl-caliber stop unit.

Perhaps the Birds can simply outscore everybody while the defense matures. The Kelly offense would figure to have a chance to do so with one of the best lines in the league and now adding ex-Saints RB Darren Sproles to spell LeSean McCoy, who gained 1607 YR last season. For those who believe the Kelly offense is simply pass-oriented, note those league-leading rush stats and the fact Philly ran the ball on more than 47% of its plays, the sixth-highest percentage in the league.

It’s Foles, however, who needs to take the next step, which might seem a bit snarky on our part after the ex-Arizona Wildcat posted such gaudy numbers last season. Foles, however, was a bit too glad to take sacks, suffering 28 while throwing only 317 passes. The strategy of not forcing the ball worked out pretty well in 2013, as Foles finished with the third lowest interception percentage in league history. Offseason and summer camp work, however, has stressed a quicker release and getting the ball out of his hand earlier, avoiding so many sacks. "This year, I really want to not take as many sacks, get rid of the ball faster, dump it down to the back earlier," Foles recently said. "That's something I'll continue to work on the next few weeks (of training camp and the preseason)."

With Michael Vick finally out of the picture, Kelly and Roseman have brought in ex-Jet Mark Sanchez to battle another former USC Trojan, Matt Barkley, for backup duties. Safe to say that keeping Foles healthy will be crucial if the Birds want to get back to the playoffs this fall.

Roseman and Kelly also raised a few eyebrows when they decided to show WR DeSean Jackson the door in the offseason, and we applaud the braintrust for apparently responding to Jackson’s alleged ties to gangs back in his native L.A. area. It was a bold move, because Jackson led the team with 82 receptions last season and was their main deep threat. Jackson’s release is a calculated risk, because Kelly believes Jeremy Maclin, who missed last season with a torn ACL, can fill Jackson’s downfield role. Rookie WRs Jordan Matthews (Vanderbilt) and Josh Huff (Oregon) were the second and third-round draft picks, respectively, and will be expected to make immediate contributions.

The offense could also use PK Alex Henery converting with a bit more consistency from long distance; while near automatic inside of 40 yards, Henery was only 5 for 11 from 45 yards or beyond last season.

The Eagles should be good and are likely to get back to the playoffs. But we are much more skeptical of all of the Super Bowl talk that remains nonstop in the Delaware Valley, or at least as far as the WIP and 97.5 FM signals can travel.

A quick glimpse over the past 14 years of Washington Redskins (2013 SUR 3-13, PSR 5-11, O/U 8-8) football might as well recall the long ago destruction at the nearby Civil War battlefield of Manassas. One solitary playoff win (in 2005, during the wild card round over Tampa Bay) since 2000. And now nine head coaches after the offseason hire of former Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden.

All of which is part of the franchise lore of owner Daniel Snyder, under whose leadership the Redskins have become an irritant to a devoted local fan base that used to be able to view the Skins as a welcome diversion from the polarized politics that dominate Beltway conversation. Nowadays, however, we hardly believe Snyder’s approval numbers are any higher than those of Congress among an increasingly impatient fan base that became spoiled with successes under previous ownership regimes of Edward Bennett Williams and Jack Kent Cooke

News to Washington football fans...Snyder isn’t going anywhere for a long while, either. In fact, he’s still one of the youngest owners (just 49) in the league. It’s like a marriage without the possibility of divorce for Redskin backers.

For a moment, consider some of the very accomplished mentors who have failed in the Snyder era. Marty Schottenheimer, Steve Spurrier, Joe Gibbs, and Mike Shanahan had all been giants (not the New York variety) in the coaching business before working for Snyder. But only Gibbs and Shanahan have even had brief glimpses of success while employed by Dangerous Dan, who has been quick to shell out money on overpriced free agents while routinely involving himself in personnel matters of which he has no real expertise. Eventually, someone always gets blamed for Redskin failures, other than the owner, that is.

Which is why we hardly believe the hiring of Gruden, making his NFL head coaching debut, will end up any differently than the Spurrier or Shanahan regimes. Indeed, we suspect that at some point in the future, Gruden will begin to wish for the good old days when he was HC of the Arena League Orlando Predators. Though, on second thought, since coaches with credentials like Schottenheimer and Spurrier have not been able to win or co-exist with Snyder, maybe it takes a coach with Arena League background to win these days at FedEx Field. Gruden can also count upon tips from older brother Jon, who will not have to worry about the distractions of working on the ESPN Monday Night broadcast team and describing a game coached by his little brother. The Skins, for the one of the few times in memory, are not on the Monday schedule this season, another indicator of the low levels at which Washington is flying these days.

Gruden, however, does fit the profile the Skins (and Snyder) were seeking after Shanahan was dismissed. Specifically, a head coach with offensive expertise, which has been Gruden’s specialty and his duty in his most-recent stint as the o.c. with the Bengals. More specifically, trying to reignite the career of QB Robert Griffin III, whose relationship with Shanahan would become toxic but who also has to demonstrate that he is beyond the devastating knee injury suffered in the 2012 wild card loss to the Seahawks. RG III hardly looked the same player when he got back into action last season, his damaged knee removing much of the dynamism from his former game. It is very safe to say that RG III might never physically be the same player as he was before his latest knee woes, although reports from training camp suggest he is much closer to 100% than a year ago.

RG III’s cause appears to have been helped in the offseason when the Skins and GM Bruce Allen added a much-needed deep threat, signing ex-Eagles WR DeSean Jackson. Third-year RB Alfred Morris, who has exceeded 1000 YR in each of his first two years in the league, would also figure to benefit by running against more seven-man boxes, given that play-action will be a key to the new Gruden offense.

Gruden recruited some extra help in the offseason for RG III, enlisting noted QB guru Terry Shea (a former San Jose State and Rutgers HC) to tutor Griffin, whose mechanics disintegrated last season as he spent much of the campaign throwing off of his back foot. Shea thus re-calibrated RG III’s footwork and release point during their one-week session in Arizona.

Gruden will also be incorporating more of a man-blocking scheme instead of Shanahan’s pet zone-blocking emphasis that collapsed a season ago, when RG III was often under siege as the Skins surrendered 43 sacks. The line has juggled positions since last season (C Will Montgomery allowed to walk in free agency, with former G Kory Lichtensteiger sliding to the center spot), and FA additions at the guard spots (Shawn Lauvan from the Browns and Mike McGlynn from the Colts) should be part of a restructured forward wall. The problem for Gruden is that even if his new-look OL performs better than the Shanahan line last season, it still might be inadequate.

Griffin and the offense were only part of a problem from 2013, considering the defense ranked among the league’s worst, allowing a whopping 30 ppg. No matter, d.c. Jim Haslett was asked by Gruden to stay on the job. But the platoon could sorely use depth, youth, and a few more playmakers.

It is hoped that the addition of FA DE Jason Hatcher from Dallas will provide a bit more push from the edge and not require Haslett to do as much blitzing out of his 3-4 scheme. The middle of the defense, however, could use some help, especially after longtime linchpin (and clubhouse leader) LB London Fletcher retired in the offseason. Last season’s safeties also struggled, prompting the recruitment of ex-Steelers FS Ryan Clark, brought back “home” by the Skins after letting him leave several years ago. Clark can help stop some of the leaks in the secondary, but not all.

Gruden is also said to be paying extra attention to the special teams that faltered in all areas last season. Expect ex-Eagle Jackson to be utilized as a return man, a role in which he was dangerous with Philly. The FA additions of several cost-effective LBs could help various ST units.

While the Redskins are just two years removed from a playoff berth in 2012, a lot has happened to the organization since, and not much of it has been good. Still, Washington should not have much trouble improving upon last year’s three wins, especially if RG III resembles his pre-injury form. But in August, projecting any contention for a postseason slot seems a bit of a reach.

What is up with Jerry Jones these days, anyway? Has he really mellowed with age? Earlier in his ownership era, he would have been more likely to take flying leap off of Reunion Tower than to sit and endure four straight disappointing campaigns and not make sweeping changes for his Dallas Cowboys (2013 SUR 8-8, PSR9-7; O/U 10-6), who have not qualified for the postseason since the 2009 campaign. Indeed, the wild card round win over the Eagles that season is also the only Dallas playoff win since the long-ago Barry Switzer days of 1996.

And that, folks, should be an absolute condemnation of Jones the GM. But if you expect anyone else to start calling the shots for the Cowboys in the near future, we’ve got some oceanfront property in Plano that we’d like to sell.

Jones does have football in his background, as a lineman for some of Frank Broyles’ great Arkansas teams in the early and mid ‘60s. But his subsequent training in his dad’s insurance business and the oil industry was not exactly graduate school preparation to become an NFL personnel guru. Which, as much as ‘ol Jer fancies himself one of those, he definitely is not.

Those close to the situation in Dallas believe that Jones’ ego became out of control after the Cowboys won their two Super Bowls under Jimmy Johnson in the early ‘90s. Johnson, not Jones, was the architect of that success, and had built such a powerhouse that even the aforementioned Switzer, out of coaching for six years when hired, could also win a Super Bowl with the inherited talent in 1995. Jones’ craving for the spotlight became insatiable in the early ‘90s, however, and it is has been a two-decade descent since in Big D, with Jones’ fingerprints increasingly over everything in the organization. Including the audacious idea to send out playoff tickets this summer to season-ticket holders. (Not to mention local TV commercials in the Metroplex, where Jones is very visible and has been featured on a series of Papa John's Pizza ads in recent years.)

And therein, we believe, lies a bigger problem with Dallas than anything else. Jones’ runaway ego is the real impediment to a Cowboys return to glory. And we certainly don’t think the current version of Dallas is close to recalling the best of the Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman years, either.

The modern version of Jones has also displayed far more patience with HC Jason Garrett and QB Tony Romo than Jerry would have earlier in his career, though again, many observers believe it is again the massive Jones ego at work. The low-profile Garrett, like predecessor Wade Phillips, is glad to cede the Dallas limelight to Jones, who, sources say, has a special connection to Garrett, a Jones “discovery” of sorts. So, too, is Romo, Jones’ project all of the way since taking over for Drew Bledsoe back in 2006. Since Jones apparently views Garrett and Romo as extensions of himself, so the popular theory goes in Big D, he is giving each far more rope than many of their predecessors on Jones’ watch in Dallas would have ever received.

The “new” Jones or not, however, most NFC East sources believe ‘ol Jer is going to have to find a scapegoat or two (or three) if the Cowboys fail to make the playoffs again this season. We’re on the record right now as saying that Dallas might not even get close to the postseason this fall. And if so, and if Jones doesn’t change his head coach (and perhaps his QB) next season, then we’re going to start wondering if some aliens have taken residence inside of Jones instead.

Jones, pushed up against the salary cap, did not have as much maneuverability with free agents as usual in the offseasson, either, with the outflow eventually exceeding the inflow. One of the few defenders of note, DE DeMarcus Ware, left for Denver, along with DT/DE Jason Hatcher (now Redskins). Jones only made minor additions, with ex-Oklahoma State and Cleveland QB Brandon Weeden, out of favor with the Browns, probably the highest profile newcomer as an insurance policy in case Romo is slow to recover from back surgery.

Romo, certainly, is a storyline to follow in August, as he figures to keep a low profile throughout preseason. The plan is for Romo to see his first action in the August 16 game vs. the Ravens, and, tentatively, he is expected to be ready for the San Francisco opener on September 7. We’ll see. Remember, Romo is now 34 years old and off of serious surgery, and quickly running out of time to move above the Don Meredith, Craig Morton, and Danny White category of Cowboy QBs and still a long way into Staubach/Aikman territory, which is increasingly looking well beyond his reach...Jones’ support or not.

Jones did not completely sit on his hands in the offseason. Both coordinators (o.c. Bill Callahan and d.c. Monte Kiffin) have been demoted; Callahan technically retains his coordinator title, though former Rams HC and recent Lions o.c. Scott Linehan is the new play-caller. For what it’s worth, Jones believes this is his best offense since 2007. And Romo did pass for 3828 yards and 31 TDs in 2013 before missing the regular-season finale vs. the Eagles. But if he’s not 100%, Dallas’ chances figure to be even further reduced this fall.

With Kyle Orton recently released, the aforementioned Weeden and ex-Bear Caleb Hanie are the options behind Romo. Familiar weapons such as RB DeMarco Murray, WR Dez Bryant, and TE Jason Witten are still in the fold, but the Cowboys have not made the playoffs in recent years with all of these skill-position stars in place. What is to suggest anything changes this fall?

And we haven’t even bothered to talk about the defense, which ranked at the bottom of the NFL and was one of the worst in league history last year, the first to ever allow four different 400-yard passing games in a single season and now minus its best player (Ware) from that platoon. Subsequently, key MLB Sean Lee was also lost for the season with a knee injury suffered on the first day of OTAs.

Kiffin’s demotion paved the way for respected tactician Rod Marinelli, promoted from DL coach, to take over the “D” this fall, but Marinelli does not appear to be working with a full deck. A stagnant pass rush, even with Ware and Hatcher, put too much pressure on CBs Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr last season. A spate of summer injuries has already left the secondary with just three healthy corners heading into the preseason opener vs. the Chargers.

Second-round pick DE Demarcus Lawrence from Boise State is apparently going to get his chance to contribute right away, and several rookies will probably be counted upon for the “D” in the fall. But depth appears negligible at almost every defensive position. On paper, at least, the stop unit looks as if it could be worse than a year ago, though most NFC East observers expect mild improvement under the watch of Marinelli after Kiffin confirmed being beyond his sell-by date as a defensive strategist last season.

After Dallas has been in position to qualify for the playoffs until the end of the regular season in recent years, we at least expect the Cowboy fans to be spared any final-week agony in late December. And while we could have predicted how Jones might have reacted to such developments in years past, we’re not even sure about that anymore.


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