NFL Season Preview: The NFC East

2012 Standings:

  • Washington Redskins (10-6)
  • New York Giants (9-7)
  • Dallas Cowboys (8-8)
  • Philadelphia Eagles (4-12)

Every season has its own point of emphasis that lasts throughout the years – 1970 was the merger of the AFL and the NFL, 1972 had the perfect Dolphins team, 1987 saw a strike wipe out the beginning of the season, and so forth.  When the history of 2012 is written, we'll remember two things.  First is the read option bursting onto the scene, and second is arguably the best rookie class we have ever seen in the long history of the NFL – at least, through their careers up to this point.

Both of these trends dovetailed in Washington, where rookies Robert Griffin III and Alfred Morris helped drive a new – to the NFL – offense all the way to the playoffs, and the Redskins' first division crown since Bill Clinton was in office.  The franchise got a shot of life in the arm, helping propel it back to the forefront of the NFL conversation in ways not seen since the glory days of the late '80s and early '90s.  And, because it was fueled by young talent, there's no signs of the train slowing down any time soon... what we'd be saying if the Redskins season had ended any way other than RGIII lying on the torn turn of FedEx field, clutching his destroyed leg and watching the Redskins season slip away from them.  There's no questioning RGIII's talent at this point; it's all about durability, and that's a fair point to bring up.  This wasn't a fluke injury – it's not even the first time he's torn his ACL, as he suffered the same injury to the other leg when he was at Baylor.  In his first season in the pros, he also suffered a nasty concussion on a designed run in Atlanta, though he was cleared to play the next week, and had an equally nasty LCL sprain in week 14, causing him to miss time and possibly contributing to his larger injury in the postseason.

When you add all of that up, and add to it the theory that the read option is another fad, one that will come plummeting back down to Earth once NFL defenses adapt to it, just like the Wildcat fad that seemed poised to conquer the world a few years ago, some people are led to believe that the Redskins success just isn't sustainable.

There is a key difference between the read option and the wildcat, however. In the wildcat, or any of the direct-snap plays that get erroneously grouped under that term, you're snapping the ball to a running back, and asking him to serve as your primary threat – you're removing the real threat of a pass, except as a surprise gimmick. While there are certainly benefits to the formation – being able to remove the useless quarterback, whose job is just to hand off the ball and get out of the way, and replace him with another blocker improves your run efficiency – it is, in the long run, a wrinkle at best – something to keep opposing teams guessing – and a gimmick at worst.

The read option, on the other hand, can be the basis of an NFL offense, because the ball is starting in the hands of an actual quarterback – someone who can be a threat throwing the ball. Yes, Robert Griffin and his read-option compatriots are huge threats in the run game with their blazing speed and field vision, that goes without saying. But if they couldn't throw the ball, they'd get shut down in no time flat – and make no mistake, Griffin can throw the ball as well as anyone. From under center – that is, not the pistol or shotgun formations that the read option used – the Redskins averaged 6.8 yards per play, which is actually more than they got out of any other formation. Football Outsiders reports that Griffin's passing-only DVOA from the pocket was 54.1% -- the highest for any quarterback in the league with more than 100 attempts.

NFL Season Preview: The NFC East
Jan 6, 2013; Landover, MD, USA; Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III (10) drops back to pass during the second half of the NFC Wild Card playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks at FedEx Field. The Seahawks won 24-14. The Aggies beat the Sooners 41-13. Photo Courtesy By Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports.

Yes, he's a weapon when he runs, but even if the NFL passed a rule tomorrow saying that the quarterback could never pass the line of scrimmage, Griffin showed enough chops to play as a traditional pocket quarterback. That's the difference between him and someone like Tim Tebow – both excelled in run-oriented offenses, but Griffin is a legitimate threat in the passing game, while Tebow is not. Because these read option quarterbacks can cause real damage just standing back and throwing, defenses can't simply lock down on the option play, which allows it to be successful. I'm not saying that a coordinator won't find a way to slow it down from the levels it worked at in 2012, but I think it's more or less here to stay.

The health factor is, however, a concern – we don't have a lot of data on how read option quarterbacks do over the long-term, health-wise, but we have seen rushing quarterbacks get hurt more often than their pocket counterparts – think Michael Vick or Steve Young, both of whom had trouble staying on the field at times. If Griffin misses significant time, they have a competent backup in Kirk Cousins, but they aren't a Super Bowl contender anymore. Then again, health works both ways – and the Redskins will be getting a couple players back this season that they sorely missed in 2012 on defense, in Brian Orakpo and Adam Carriker. The Redskins were only average on defense last season, but their front seven was missing two studs up front, which should help their pass rush this season.Of course, that leaves them vulnerable in the back four, but you can't be good everywhere.

Believe it or not, however, there are other teams in the division besides the Redskins, though you may never know it if you just go by the volume of media coverage – this isn't a Patriots in the AFC East situation.  For the sake of argument, let's look at two teams – we'll call them Team A and Team B.  Both finished 9-7, not bad, but not spectacular.  Team A, though, allowed 400 points – 56 more points than Team B did.  This means that while Team A was outscored by six points over the course of the season, Team B had a point differential of 85.  Team A was a bit streakier, starting hot but suffering a four-game losing streak in the middle of the season.

Team B was a bit more consistent from week to week, but struggled as their schedule got harder late in the year – thus meaning both teams had to win in their last game just to make it to 9-7.  See much of a difference?  If anything, Team B is very slightly stronger, but when you apply context, a different picture emerges – team A is the 2011 Giants, who squeaked into the playoffs and then got hot, going on to win the Super Bowl.  Team B is the 2012 Giants, who, in the face of a tougher NFC, ended up watching the playoffs on TV.

That doesn't mean the 2011 team was better – in fact, I'd argue that they 'should have been' a couple games worse and, if they were to play tomorrow, I'd take last year's squad easily. The perception that last season was a bust hinges around the fact that they didn't have a chance at a tiebreaker this year, while they won one the year before. No, it's never good for a defending Super Bowl champ to miss the playoffs entirely, but the Giants actually got better last season, and only the rise of the Redskins and a 2000 yard season by Adrian Peterson kept them out of the playoffs.

Remember, they started 6-2 last season, but then had key losses in a loaded second half of the season, which included games against the Redskins, Falcons, Packers, Ravens, and Bengals – all playoff teams. They're also getting Jason Pierre-Paul back fully healthy, so their defensive numbers should go up, as well. This is a team that's going to have a winning record again, and if there's any faltering done in Washington, the Giants are posed to swoop in and claim the division. I'd still call them slight underdogs, but it's not by much.

The Cowboys, on the other hand, is much larger underdogs. It's not the quarterback – everyone blames Tony Romo for his lack of some sort of clutchiness gene that would allow him to singlehandedly will the team into the playoffs. It's not the head coach – Jason Garrett's on the hot seat with his playcalling duties revoked, and is decidedly below-average, but the problems go deeper than that. It may not even be the offensive line anymore, though that's been the Cowboys Achilles heel for years now – they did finally address it somewhat in this year's draft. No, the reason the Cowboys aren't in a position to challenge the Redskins or the Giants comes from a lack of talent throughout the roster, which means you have to point at the man buying the groceries, as Bill Parcells would put it.

The baffling trade down with the 49ers this offseason – getting only a third round pick to shoot halfway down the first round, and then picking a lineman given a second or third-round grade by most of the NFL – showed a complete lack of understanding of the relative value of picks and players. Take a look at the Cowboys recent draft history: nearly the entire 2009 class is out of the NFL, and are all out of Dallas; only Dez Bryant, Anthony Spencer and Sean Lee seem likely to make any impact on the Cowboys in 2013. That's not how you build a team in the modern NFL – and it's not like they've found a treasure trove of free agents or trades to make up for the lack of success in the draft. The Cowboys would be better off firing their current general manager, and bringing in someone new, as this regime has made consistently poor choices in personnel management.

The problem is that they don't have a current general manager – it's Jerry Jones' world, and we're all living in it.Jones has nicely taken over Al Davis' old role as the least in-touch owner in the NFL, and he, more than any coach or player, is the thing that is holding the Cowboys back from success. The Cowboys have finished 8-8 the last two seasons, and I think that number's soft, and I think they're bound to come crashing further down simply due to a lack of any sort of depth, caused by poor front office decisions.

That just leaves us with the Eagles, who are the biggest question mark in the division, and possibly all of football, as they try to import Chip Kelly's Oregon system. That leaves us with a ton of questions – we're not even sure who is going to play quarterback for this team, much less what sort of plays they'll be running. We know Kelly likes a run-oriented system – Oregon led the nation in yards per carry under Kelly, and ran for over 15,000 yards, third in Division I behind only Army and Air Force. That's a huge departure from Andy Reid's system, who occasionally seemed to forget that running backs even exist as a concept, and means that the Eagles fortunes probably depend more on LeSean McCoy having a bounce-back season than Michael Vick succeeding or Matt Barkley developing right away.

It turns out, though, that the Eagles are actually pretty well built for a run-first offense, assuming McCoy returns to form. In 2011, McCoy ran for 1300 yards for almost five yards a carry, and was a machine in the Red Zone, including 9 touchdowns on 22 carries inside the five. He plummeted under 900 yards rushing last year, though, and couldn't sniff the end zone, only scoring twice all season long. However, there were circumstances beyond his control. First of all, there was the concussion he suffered ending his season – obviously, not playing for a quarter of the year will limit your numbers. Secondly, there was the fact that the team was trailing fairly constantly, meaning that they had to throw more, limiting his possibilities. Most importantly, however, were the injuries to his offensive line.Jason Peters didn't play a snap last season, and he's an All-Pro left tackle.

He insists he's fully healthy now, and would be one of the largest upgrades a team could make. The line also saw injuries to Todd Herremans and Jason Kelce, which further damaged their hopes. All three are coming back, plus the Eagles spent their first round pick on Lane Johnson, who should clamp down the right tackle spot. That's actually a very good line – maybe even an excellent one – if it can stay healthy. Call me crazy, but that's the beginning of an offense, there. I think predicting them to go anywhere this season might be a bit wild and premature, but they won't look nearly as bad in 2013 as they did in 2012.

The NFC East is probably going to develop into a two team race between the Redskins and Giants at the top, which means we could, once again, have a de-facto NFC East Championship Game in week 17, as Washington travels to New York to end the season. Let's hope, for our sakes, that everyone stays healthy and we can have a good run down to the wire.

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