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Walters: 2005 NFC East Preview

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Old 08-22-2005, 05:30 PM   #1
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Walters: 2005 NFC East Preview

2005 NFC East Preview
Having not won the division since Bill Clinton was romancing interns, the NFC East for the Redskins has almost become a goal seemingly too lofty to strive to achieve. If the Redskins are to truly regain their place among the annual contenders that they enjoyed for so many years during Joe Gibbs first term, they must first become a legitimate player in their own division.

Coinciding with the Redskins need to reestablish themselves in their own division is the rebirth of the division as a whole. The Philadelphia Eagles have been the class of the division for most of the new millennium, yet have not been able to parlay that success into a Super Bowl victory. From there, the play of the remaining three members of football’s former preeminent division, has been as iffy as those Clinton conquests. The Giants and Cowboys have both made the playoffs more recently than have the Redskins, and both should be improved squads from their 2004 counterparts. How much improvement they have made will go a long way in determining the order in which they will fall once the season comes to a close in early January.

Let’s take a look ahead at how the division should play out, hopefully shedding some light along the way on each team’s most critical elements and questions.

1. Philadelphia Eagles

(11-5). With or without Terrell Owens, the Eagles are going to be terribly thin at receiver. Owens, the man who has been forced by his circumstances to eek out a meager living on the veritable manna that he calls a salary, is a superb receiver, but has provided nearly as many headaches as he has touchdowns since his sanctimonious arrival in Philadelphia. The problem isn’t if Terrell Owens comes back to the Eagles - because he will - but will occur when he returns. His teammates may be saying all the right things in the media now about how they understand that his dispute is part of the business, but once the doors to the clubhouse are closed, the real emotions being experienced by Owens’ Eagle brethren may come into the light. Regardless of their receiving corps, the Eagles are still the best team in the division. They are good to great at every other position, and are led by Donovan McNabb, who is as solid on the field as he is overexposed off of it. Whether he’s slinging soup or touchdown passes, McNabb is in the prime of his career, but every year that the Eagles fail to win football’s ultimate prize is one year of McNabb’s career zenith that is gone forever.

While Andy Reid and Company made little attempt to be a player in free agency, they did so mainly because they didn’t really need to make any major moves. When the draft rolled around, as has become custom, the Eagles had a plethora of draft picks at their disposal. However their draft was spent, in large part, trying to provide insurance policies in the event that the other unhappy Birds, defensive tackle Corey Simon and tailback Brian Westbrook, were no-shows once their training camp began. While the latter begrudgingly reported for duty - lest he lose his year of accrued service - the former has yet to even sign his franchise tender, making him ineligible for camp.

The Eagles of 2005 will largely be a self-limiting entity. They’ll be just as good as their unrest allows them to be. They still have great coaching, they’ve still got possibly the best secondary in football, and they’ve still got the Soup Nazi’s favorite QB. They might’ve peaked last season, but they’re still the class of the division.

2t. Dallas Cowboys (9-7)

.The off-season that Bill Parcells has authored could aptly be titled, “Yeah, but…”. While they did replace the leather helmeted Vinny Testaverde with Drew Bledsoe, the former Patriot and Bill is no spring chicken himself. Bledsoe, who is statuesque in his mobility, is a 13-year veteran who will turn 34 at the end of the season. What this says more than anything is that Cowboy third baseman Drew Henson is not ready to take over the reigns. Bledsoe has long carried with him the mantle that if he is securely protected, he can be effective in the pocket. What this passes right over is that all NFL quarterbacks can be effective if given good protection. This doesn’t distinguish Bledsoe positively from any other signal caller in the NFL, despite the continual praise he earns for it. The Cowboys did make several good moves which will no doubt be at the heart of their improvement. Defensively, tackle Jason Ferguson and corner Aaron Glenn are solid veteran acquisitions, while former Cleveland Brown Anthony Henry remains a perplexing acquisition given the depth of corners available at the time of his signing, and the amount of money he was given. Offensively guard Marco Rivera, late of the Packers, should solidify a line that had finally shown signs of weakness after a generation of dominance. What you will notice about these key additions, save Henry, is that none has an extensive future ahead of him. To even the most casual observer, this would indicate that Bill Parcells wants to gear up for one last go-round. However this team, if last season is any indication, was not simply a few players away from contending for a championship. There are still big questions at safety opposite Roy Williams, and Julius Jones, while promising, is not the foregone conclusion for stardom that the media has classified him as being. Granted that Jones had an impressive stretch toward the end of the season, but one little stretch, or one good season, does not an elite back make. If that were the case, Ickey Woods would be in the Hall of Fame. He’s played eight games; let’s not dig out the Barry Sanders footage just yet.

Owner Jerry Jones, who is now composed exclusively of a synthetic surgical polymer, partnered with Parcells on a peculiar draft strategy to say the least. The Cowboys drafted four defensive linemen - and six defensive players overall - to better facilitate their switch to the 3-4. They did all of this despite having a rather deep defensive line already on the roster. Veterans like Greg Ellis and La’Roi Glover have to wonder why they are being usurped, despite having been a couple of the lone bright spots on a porous defense.

Overall, the Cowboys have improved, but their window is closing rapidly given the age of their new key players. Whether or not all the veterans and acquisitions can maintain their current performance level while the team endures the growing pains that accompany a switch in defensive mindset remains to be seen, but in the short term, they, along with Bill Parcells, should be enough to show a marked improvement from 2004.

2t. Washington Redskins (9-7)

. Having discussed the Redskins ad nauseum, I’ll spare you the redundancy of repeating an overview. The important thing this season for the Redskins is to establish two key traits. First, Washington must reestablish legitimacy in the division, and second, FedEx Field must become a place that opposing teams dread coming to. Until the Redskins eliminate the nail-and-hammer relationship they have fallen into with the Cowboys, figure out some way to beat the Eagles, and beat these lesser Giants teams with some degree of consistency, they won’t advance to the Playoffs, plain and simple. The fact that FedEx has never been even a shadow of RFK also feeds this divisional inferiority. But it isn’t only divisional games. There is no tangible sense of an advantage over the opponent, despite the best efforts of a loyal fan base. FedEx is not going to transform itself from docile home away from home for visiting teams to Arrowhead Stadium East overnight, but establishing it as a place that teams don’t want to come to play can only fuel the Redskins resurgence.

This team will live and die based on Patrick Ramsey. Despite that, there is still a powerful defense in place that returns several key elements from injury. With that rock to lean on, and some offensive improvement likely, nine wins is not out of the realm of possibility.

4. New York Giants (6-10)

. Okay, everyone say it with me: The Giants aren’t that good! I said it last off-season and the volume of hate email I received could have filled the gap in Strahan’s teeth. But, ahem, I was right. If it is possible to overrate a team that should be considered the worst in its division, then the Giants are indeed overrated. Having only four selections in the draft, Head Coach Tom Coughlin did make the most of his limited choices, especially with tailback Brandon Jacobs of Southern Illinois. Jacobs, who is enormous (6’4”, 256 lbs.) for a runner, should provide a nice change of pace to starter Tiki Barber. Jacobs almost has to be more reliable carrying the ball than Barber, who in a good year in 2004, still fumbled five times. (As a sidebar, do you the quickest way to make a mess? Hey Tiki, pass the beets.)

To bolster a laughably weak offensive line, the Giants lavished a franchise left tackle’s contract on a mediocre right tackle, thereby swiping Kareem McKenzie from the Jets. McKenzie will comprise the other bookend with left tackle Luke Petitgout, whose French-sounding surname has been like a window to his blocking philosophy; Provide Little Resistance. Guard Chris Snee was decent in his rookie season, but the Giants will still be limited by their offensive line in 2005.

Of course the most notable Giants acquisition, at least in Redskins terms, is new middle linebacker Antonio Pierce, who defected to New York after his lone successful season in D.C. in 2004. Pierce owes his very career to his former coach, Gregg Williams, the way that Dr. Phil owes his inexplicable empire to Oprah Winfrey. After all, it was Williams who transformed Pierce from career special teamer to defensive anchor. Pierce is not the kind of playmaking force that other teams must plan around, but he is a solid linebacker who strengthen a weak Giants defense.

Former Steeler Plaxico Burress should provide a good target for Peyton’s brother, but the Giants will be, or at least should be, overmatched in each of their six divisional contests. As usual, this won’t stop them from winning a few of those games, but wins, like Strahan’s teeth, will be few and far between.

The Redskins improvements in 2005 will largely go toward keeping up with the improvements made by the Cowboys and Giants, not just catching up to the Eagles. While it is never good when any of the other three teams improve themselves, the Redskins need only to concern themselves with taking care of their own house. Until Washington establishes themselves as a player in their division, their success is highly limited.

As the season crawls nearer and nearer, keep checking back in for your Redskins football fix. Hail to the Redskins!

Questions and comments can be sent to Trevor Walters at skins.fan@comcast.net
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