As the season draws near, "NFL on FOX" analyst Brian Billick gives his predictions for each division in 2012.
If coach Andy Reid cringed at backup quarterback Vince Young calling the Eagles’ 2011 squad the “Dream Team,” I can’t imagine what he thought when Michael Vick used the term “dynasty.” Before they become one, they probably need to at least make the playoffs.
That notwithstanding, this version of the “Dream Team” might be just that. With all the fanfare of last season behind them, the Eagles have a very real chance of settling in as the best team in the NFC. As usual, everything hinges on the health of the quarterback. Vick proved he is better in the pocket now than at any other time in his career. Still, his best plays come outside of the pocket and even outside the design of the offense. In 2008 and 2009, the Eagles were 22nd in the NFL in rushing, averaging 106 and 102 yards, respectively. Enter Vick, and in 2010 and 2011, the Eagles averaged better than 140 yards a game rushing.
LeSean McCoy and Vick might be the best running combo in the league. It’s no coincidence that the Eagles also had more than 80 plays of 20 yards or more, good for No. 2 in the league in 2010 and 2011. One has a lot to do with the other. If they can keep Vick healthy . . . if!
Last season, there were a great number of questions about new defensive coordinator Juan Castillo’s credentials. After a rough start, the defense rallied in the second half of the year to finish as a top-10 unit. The Eagles lost defensive back Asante Samuel but picked up linebacker DeMeco Ryans. They also drafted a big inside presence in defensive tackle Fletcher Cox. Combined with a healthy Cullen Jenkins at defensive tackle and the outside rush of Jason Babin and Trent Cole, this could be the ideal personnel for the “Wide 9” defense the Eagles employ.
The “Dynasty” gets tested early. The Eagles get winnable road games at Cleveland and Arizona, but those are countered by these games: Baltimore, New York Giants, at Pittsburgh, Detroit, Atlanta, at New Orleans and Dallas. On paper, the second half of the schedule looks better and they may need it to find their way into the playoffs and earn the “Dream Team” moniker.
Andy Reid is the dean of NFL coaches, and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg is entering his 10th season with the Eagles. Both have found a good rhythm and have the league’s most veteran offensive-line coach, Howard Mudd. Castillo and longtime veteran defensive-line coach Jim Washburn need to find that same ease together. Philly added Todd Bowles as its secondary coach, coming off his work as the defensive coordinator and interim head coach for the Dolphins. This should be a good pickup for the Eagles, and he will help find the right way to use cornerbacks Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.
Prediction: 11-5, first in NFC East
New York Giants
People aren’t quite sure what to make of a 9-7 Giants team that was 27th in the NFL on defense and last in the NFL in rushing but still won a Super Bowl. The Giants overcame a brutal preseason with regards to injuries and an even more brutal second half of a season schedule that saw them go 3-5 before getting hot and healthy in the playoffs. Still, the fact they can begin with a two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback in the “elite” Eli Manning is a good place to start. They lost key contributors in running back Brandon Jacobs and wide receiver Mario Manningham but drafted to fill those roles for now and in the future with their first-round pick of running back David Wilson and second-round selection of wide receiver Rueben Randle.
The strength of the Giants down the stretch, besides Manning, was their defense and, more specifically, their front four. They have depth and talent at all four positions and the emerging top rusher in the league, Jason Pierre-Paul. If the secondary stays healthy after an injury-plagued 2011, the addition of linebacker Keith Rivers from Cincinnati will dramatically help the back end. The Giants were the only team to ever make the Super Bowl with a negative scoring differential. It’s unlikely that will happen again this year.
Like last season, the Giants might get off to a good start, but the second half of the season schedule is brutal. Seven of their eight final games are against teams that made the playoffs in 2011. The last four games, when they will be making make a bid for the playoffs, is particularly demanding: They’ll be at home against the Saints, at the Falcons and Ravens, then at home against the Eagles in what will likely decide the NFC East title.
After winning a Super Bowl, people constantly question whether a team can stay focused and motivated for a repeat. That isn’t the case with the Giants and, more specifically, coach Tom Coughlin. After winning the Super Bowl in 2007, the Giants went 12-4 in 2008 and clinched the NFC East crown before losing in the divisional round to the Eagles. The Giants have a veteran coaching staff and will be helped by second-year defensive coordinator Perry Fewell having an entire offseason to fine-tune his system. Fewell will likely be one of the hot names for head coaching after the season if the Giants continue to play well.
Prediction: 10-6, second in NFC East
Once again we come to the time of year when we ask, “How good are the Dallas Cowboys?” and, "Will they live up to the talent and hype that seems to forever surround this team?" On paper, they appear to have all they need to not only make the playoffs but to advance. Quarterback Tony Romo had one of his best statistical seasons, as his 102.5 passer rating was a career-best. Running back DeMarco Murray, inserted into the starting lineup when fellow back Felix Jones went down with an injury, had a great rookie campaign — rushing for a 2011 single-game-high 253 yards in Week 7. Hopefully, receivers Miles Austin and Dez Bryant can stay healthy, both mentally and physically, and tight end Jason Witten continues to be a go-to guy in critical situations. The offensive line should be better but will be vulnerable in the middle.
The defense boasts one of the best front fours, with Demarcus Ware, Marcus Spears, Jay Ratliff and Anthony Spencer offering depth and talent. The signing of cornerback Brandon Carr and the drafting of cornerback Morris Claiborne should turn what was a messy secondary in 2011 to an asset in 2012.
The Cowboys’ schedule is a fairly even distribution of games. Opening at the Super Bowl champion New York Giants is always tough, and losing that game could be difficult to overcome. They have a particularly rough run in October, when they have games at Baltimore and Carolina, then a rematch with the Giants before heading into November at the Falcons and at Philadelphia.
Team owner Jerry Jones said he thought the Cowboys’ window is closing, likely meaning that head coach Jason Garrett’s opportunity to turn the Cowboys around is closing. Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has held the job for eight years with three different teams and has had four head coaches fired while on staff. If Garrett is to hold his job, Ryan’s unit is going to have to step up in a division that now includes quarterbacks Eli Manning, Michael Vick and Robert Griffin III. The Cowboys have added offensive-line coach Bill Callahan to help protect their most valuable asset: Romo.
Prediction: 9-7, third in NFC East
The Redskins have yet to reach .500 under coach Mike Shanahan, and the faithful, not to mention owner Dan Snyder, are very anxious for that to happen. The trade up to draft quarterback Robert Griffin III was a bold move, and one I think the organization will appreciate for years to come. However, this maybe a tougher season for Redskins faithful than the enthusiasm surrounding RG3 might indicate. The natural comparisons to Cam Newton and his 21 TDs and 4,000-plus yards passing are understandable. But Newton also had 17 interceptions and completed only 60 percent of his passes. Pretty good for a rookie, but also a reason the team went 6-10. That same production, though it might bode well for Griffin, might prove to be problematic for the Shanahans, Mike and his son Kyle, the offensive coordinator. They made solid moves in the offseason, picking up receivers Pierre Garcon and Josh Morgan, but there are still a couple of missing pieces.
Defensively, the Redskins were in the top five and top 10 in 2008 and 2009, respectively. They dropped to No. 31 in 2010 and bounced back to No. 13 last season. They have the personnel to get even better. The back end is still suspect but the front four, with the combination of Brian Orakpo, Ryan Kerrigan and Adam Carriker can be very good. Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett may have to take few chances with his pressure packages after giving up the fifth-most explosive plays (20-plus yards) in each of the past two years.
Like all of the NFC East, the Redskins have a fairly even schedule. But they have a tough opener at New Orleans. They have a tough November and early December, facing the Panthers, Eagles, Cowboys, Giants and Ravens. The Redskins have to make the most of facing the Rams, Bucs and Vikings early in the season.
Andy Reid is acknowledge as the dean of NFL coaches, but only because he is entering his 14th season with the same team. Mike Shanahan has 18 years of head coaching experience, with only the past two coming in Washington. His resume includes two Super Bowl rings, but he is the poster child for the NFL’s “what have you done for me lately” perspective. He lost a little credibility when he told Redskins faithful they could win with either Rex Grossman or John Beck at quarterback. They couldn’t and have now mortgaged the farm by giving up first-round picks in 2012, 2013 and 2014, to move up and acquire RG3. Haslett is an experienced coach who will likely get the most out of the Redskins defense, but Mike Shanahan may face pushback on his offensive coordinator, son Kyle, if RG3 and the Redskins’ offense does not show immediate improvement. That should not be hard to do with the offense ranking near the bottom of the league in most meaningful categories.