So it occurred to me during a recent sleepless evening that the Cowboys aren’t the only team in the NFC East. Jerry Jones commands most of the attention each offseason, but the other three teams have been dealing with their own issues.
In fact, I’m prepared to say that Dallas may enter training camp as the most stable team in the division. And now that we’ve solved the great play-caller mystery, the Cowboys seem to be in a relatively good place. That is, if you can get past this embarrassing situation with defensive tackle Josh Brent, who remains on the roster while sitting in jail.
The Cowboys have brought in legendary defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin to install his 4-3 scheme. Middle linebacker Sean Lee says players are moving a lot faster because they actually have a clue what’s going on. Well, most of those are my words, but you get the picture. Kiffin and defensive line coach Rod Marinelli have placed a huge emphasis on takeaways, something the Cowboys have struggled with dating back to the Wade Phillips era.
On the other side of the ball, Dez Bryant is poised to become the top receiving threat in the division. And he’ll be joined by Miles Austin and rookie Terrance Williams. Austin has never lived up to his big contract, but he could emerge as one of the best No. 2 wide receivers in the league (and the contract is no longer prohibitive since it was frontloaded). New wide receivers coach Derek Dooley, formerly the head coach at Tennessee, has developed a great relationship with Bryant. And perhaps having Bill Callahan call plays will help an offense that moves the ball well, but has trouble scoring.
The Cowboys also have a great opportunity this year because the Eagles are breaking in new head coach. Chip Kelly is in the process of remaking the organization. Michael Vick will likely win the starting job at quarterback, but that’s not a lock. Some insiders actually believe that Nick Foles outperformed Vick this offseason. Vick told one reporter that he felt like the team needed to announce a quarterback before training camp. That sounds like a man who’s worried about losing his job.
Hard as it is to believe, Kelly will have a grace period in Philadelphia. After last season’s 4-win debacle, fans are simply looking for signs of improvement. Kelly will be trying to install a fast-break offense with quarterbacks who aren’t necessarily suited for that style of play. If the Eagles are able to win six or seven games, most folks will be somewhat satisfied. Kelly simply needs to show signs that he’s moving in the right direction.
The Redskins are coming off a remarkable season, but no one truly knows whether quarterback Robert Griffin III will be ready for the first regular-season game. Head coach Mike Shanahan will be under more scrutiny than ever based on how he handled Griffin in a playoff loss to the Seahawks. Griffin will only play if he’s 100 percent, and that seems like somewhat of a longshot. I’ve heard folks bring up the way Adrian Peterson returned from his ACL injury, but that’s a lot of pressure to place on Griffin. And even if he’s healthy, he’ll go up against defensive coordinators who’ve spent the offseason preparing for him. There’s a belief across the league that the read-option will not be as effective for teams in 2013. If teams don’t have to fear Griffin taking off, the Redskins will be much more one-dimensional.
The Giants always seem to come roaring back after missing the playoffs, but they’ve had a tumultuous offseason. Starting receivers Hakeem Nicks and Cruz both skipped OTAs, although Nicks made it to the mandatory minicamp. Cruz, a restricted free agent, finally signed his one-year tender, but he’s clearly unhappy about his contract situation. And if you don’t think that can impact a player on the field, check out some of DeSean Jackson’s work in Philly. Giants coach Tom Coughlin made it clear he wasn’t pleased about his receivers missing practice sessions, and offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride took it to another level.
“They haven’t been working, listening or growing,” Gilbride told reporters of Cruz and Nicks. “They haven’t been developing. They haven’t been receiving the coaching that they need to get better. To be quite frank, both of them need it.”
The Giants still have a quarterback in Eli Manning who has led them to two Super Bowl titles. But they are thin at linebacker (Spencer Paysinger?) and in the secondary. Coughlin normally finds a way to rally his players after down seasons.
The Cowboys’ biggest questions are at safety and the offensive line. Rookie center Travis Frederick should solidify the middle of that O-line. And the Cowboys have at least created some competition for the guard spots (Ron Leary, anyone?) Like David Diehl of the Giants, Cowboys right tackle Doug Free had to take a pay cut to remain with the team. There’s no good explanation for why Free regressed so dramatically last season, but the Cowboys believe he will respond this season. The one thing you can bet on is that Callahan will make more of a commitment to the running game. And with the arrival of rookie Joseph Randle, the injury-prone DeMarco Murray won’t take as much of a pounding.
The NFC East should be as wide-open as ever in 2013. And as crazy as it sounds, the Cowboys appear to have more stability than the other three teams.
And it will stay that way…until at least the second week of training camp.