NFC East: Eagles should rule the roost
Team previews: Cowboys | Eagles | Giants | Redskins
By David Fischer
Special to NFL.com
(With the NFL regular season set to kick off on Thursday, Sept. 9, NFL.com has put together an eight-part series previewing each team division by division. Next up is the NFC East.)
As expected, the NFC East was a two-team race in 2003. What wasn't expected was that the Dallas Cowboys, not the New York Giants, would square off with the Philadelphia Eagles for divisional supremacy.
Philly withstood the challenge from Bill Parcells' upstart 'Boys, while the Giants lost their last eight games and finally pulled the plug on chronically endangered coach Jim Fassel. The Washington Redskins, last year's trendy pick for the sort of out-of-nowhere run Dallas mounted, sank back into the lower reaches of the division with a 5-11 record, prompting the club to replace flamboyant Steve Spurrier with legendary Joe Gibbs, who brings his three championship rings back to the team he led to glory in the '80s and '90s.
All four teams enter 2004 with a lot to prove: The Eagles still look to get over the hump of three straight NFC Championship Game losses, New York tries to leave last season's disaster in the rear-view mirror and quickly return to the playoffs, Parcells will try to elevate his Dallas team from "happy to be here" into legit Super Bowl contenders, and Washington finally looks to put up a record commensurate with its talent-laden roster.
With quarterback Donovan McNabb and all-purpose tailback Brian Westbrook joined on offense by receiver Terrell Owens, Philadelphia enters the year favored to notch its fourth straight division title, but all four clubs can legitimately entertain playoff hopes.
Movers and shakers
It's safe to say this was a reasonably eventful offseason in the NFC East.
Joe Gibbs is back roaming the sideline after 12 years away from the league.
The Eagles added arguably the two most sought-after players on the market, Owens and defensive end Jevon Kearse.
The Redskins brought back Gibbs, probably the greatest coach in their history and one of the best ever, as well as a sterling young running back in Clinton Portis and a rookie defensive back, Sean Taylor, who's already been compared to Hall of Famers.
The Giants added a well-credentialed coach of their own, Tom Coughlin, as well as a two-time MVP quarterback in Kurt Warner and another passer, Eli Manning, whose college success and Triple Crown-quality bloodlines have led New Yorkers to acclaim him as a franchise savior.
The Cowboys imported a new quarterback of their own, veteran gunslinger Vinny Testaverde, as well as potential Hall of Fame running back Eddie George and the always-entertaining receiver Keyshawn Johnson, who joins Testaverde and Parcells in bringing a little bit of New Jersey to Big D.
Eagles soar back up
Maybe those three trips Andy Reid took to Hawaii to coach the NFC Pro Bowl team will prove to be time well spent after all. Though the Eagles coach surely would have preferred to be game-planning for the Super Bowl rather than enjoying the consolations of Honolulu in late January, he did get to know T.O., and was more impressed with his work ethic than turned off by his 'tude.
After seeing his wide receivers get manhandled by the Carolina Panthers' secondary in last year's NFC title game, Reid brought in the perennial All-Pro to bolster the corps -- and make a gesture of faith with Philadelphia fans desperate for a winner after 21 years and counting since the town last claimed a championship. Owens finally gives star quarterback Donovan McNabb a target worthy of his talent, and the defensive attention he'll draw could free up scatback Brian Westbrook, tight end L.J. Smith and blossoming receiver Freddie Mitchell for big plays.
There's more transition on the offensive line than in past seasons, but Reid is high on mammoth rookie guard Shawn Andrews and tackles Tra Thomas and Jon Runyan are top shelf.
Actually, Owens represented the Eagles' second big-ticket acquisition of the winter: Philadelphia inked defensive end Jevon Kearse to the richest deal ever for a defensive lineman right at the beginning of the signing period. Reid is banking on a much better pass rush in 2004, and he'll probably need it: Longtime cornerbacks Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor departed through free agency, leaving relatively untested Lito Sheppard and Sheldon Brown to battle against Keyshawn Johnson, Amani Toomer, Laveranues Coles and the rest of the division's wideouts.
To relieve the pressure on his young corners, Reid and coordinator Jim Johnson plan to "throw fastballs" against opposing O-lines: Kearse, Derrick Burgess, second-year man Jerome McDougle and quality inside rushers Corey Simon and Darwin Walker will look to summon memories of the ferocious Buddy Ryan era pass rush led by Reggie White, Clyde Simmons and the late Jerome Brown.
The Eagles' sustained excellence seems to defy the usually unforgiving competitive gravity of the NFL, but this looks to be Reid's most talented club yet.
Redskins hail-worthy again
Ten years ago, news of Gibbs' return to head coaching after an absence of 12 seasons might have been met with much more skepticism. Sure, the 'Skins' straight-arrow coach was an offensive wizard in his day, but he's returning to a changed game and working with changed players. The success of Dick Vermeil, however, has made believers out of everyone from the pundits to the players -- and Gibbs' professionalism, commitment and most of all those three Super Bowl champion rings he wears all look especially good after the fiasco of Spurrier's two-year tenure in the football-crazed capital.
Gibbs comes back to a talent-laden offense, and newly acquired running back Clinton Portis is a worthy successor to John Riggins, Earnest Byner and Gibbs' other workhorse backs of yesteryear. Not sold on young quarterback Patrick Ramsey, Gibbs brought in a skilled veteran quarterback with a pretty good resume of his own -- former Jacksonville Jaguars Pro Bowler Mark Brunell. He'll be charged with implementing the great short passing game Gibbs employed to such success with Joe Theisman, Doug Williams and Mark Rypien, throwing to talented receivers Laveranues Coles, Rod Gardner and newly re-acquired James Thrash.
The talent isn't quite as impressive on the defensive side of the ball, where the Redskins traded star cornerback Champ Bailey for Portis. Still, new coordinator Gregg Williams, most recently Buffalo's head coach, should have plenty to work with.
Shawn Springs comes in via free agency to replace Bailey, and LaVar Arrington returns to anchor the linebacker corps, joined by ex-Giant Micheal Barrow and Marcus Washington, late of the Indianapolis Colts. Another former Giant, Cornelius Griffin, comes aboard to bolster the defensive line, and safety Sean Taylor, Washington's top draft choice, is expected to be a playmaker from Day 1 in the secondary.
Last year, Parcells took over a moribund Cowboys team and practically willed it to 10 victories and a playoff berth; this year, with a much more talented roster, look for Gibbs to do the same.
Cowboys face rougher riding
So just how did Parcells take a Dallas team with no established quarterback or running back, a talented but disconsolate receiving corps, and instability on the lines, and lead them to the postseason for the first time since 1999? One word: defense.
The Cowboys ranked first against the run, first against the pass and first overall, and their 260 points allowed (16.3 per game) ranked second in the NFL to the Super Bowl champion Patriots. Incredibly, Dallas surrendered 30 percent of that total in two late-season losses, to Miami (40 points) and Philadelphia (36).
This year, they add defensive end Marcellus Wiley to the mix, though the Columbia grad has notched just nine quarterback sacks over the last two seasons; the ability of Wiley and returning DE Greg Ellis to generate a consistent pass rush could be a key to the Cowboys' season. Gone is cornerback Mario Edwards, who signed with Tampa Bay, leaving second-year corner Terence Newman as the top pass defender after a standout rookie year. Pete Hunter, a three-year vet, is the leading candidate to replace Edwards.
On the other side of the ball, Parcells turns to two of his former New York Jets charges to spark an offense that rarely transcended competence in 2003. Quarterback Vinny Testaverde might be 40 years old, but he's still got a strong arm and veteran savvy, and will try to keep Dallas competitive while tutoring young passers Drew Henson and Tony Romo.
Testaverde's receiving corps will be led by another ex-Jet, Keyshawn Johnson. Antonio Bryant has had his battles with Parcells, but the Tuna knows talent, and he sees it in abundance from the Pittsburgh grad. Departed RB Troy Hambrick was never going to follow in the tradition of O.J. Anderson and Curtis Martin, mainstays of Parcells' previous championship contenders with the Giants, Pats and Jets, so the team added former Notre Dame rusher Julius Jones with a second-round draft pick. He'll probably split time with Eddie George, the ex-Tennessee Titan who has lost a step in recent years but has been a model of durability and toughness.
Facing a markedly more difficult schedule and higher expectations in Parcells' second season, the Cowboys might take a small step back in 2004, but the future still looks bright in Big D.
They might be Giants, but probably not this year
Of all the phrases that bring a grimace to the faces of New Yorkers, few are more tangy than "rebuilding year." But with Kerry Collins out and Eli Manning in under center for Big Blue, that's probably what the Giants are looking at for their first year under new head coach Tom Coughlin.
After closing 2003 with eight straight losses, it's not hard to see why, and if one put GM Ernie Accorsi on truth serum he'd probably concede as much. For public consumption, though, the team is pointing to its other new quarterback, two-time MVP Kurt Warner. But Warner's meteoric rise from supermarket stock boy to Super Bowl champion has been mirrored by an almost equally dramatic fall: he hasn't quarterbacked a team to victory since 2002. In fact it was this same Giants team that laid him low in last season's opening game when Warner started for the St. Louis Rams. In the face of a ferocious pass rush, Warner fumbled six times in a 23-13 loss; it was later determined that he had played despite sustaining a concussion. He spent the next month out of action, and by the time he returned, Marc Bulger had claimed his job. The Rams' planned release of the popular passer was one of the worst kept secrets of this NFL offseason, and the Giants won a surprisingly tepid contest for his services.
Worse yet, whoever quarterbacks the Giants will operate behind an offensive line that's been radically revamped after allowing 44 sacks in 2003. Warner probably will get thrown to the wolves -- or rather the Eagles -- in the season opener, but unless the Mets and Yankees are headed for a second Subway Series, expect Big Apple talk radio to be inundated with calls for Manning by the time summer officially turns to fall.
Coughlin is no stranger to quarterback growing pains, having shepherded new Redskins QB Mark Brunell through the process with the then-expansion Jaguars, and the rookie's learning curve should be flattened somewhat by the presence of surrounding talent like RB Tiki Barber, receivers Ike Hilliard and Amani Toomer, and game-breaking tight end Jeremy Shockey.
On defense, Accorsi has started to turn over an aging unit, bidding farewell to LB Micheal Barrow and Cornelius Griffin, both gone to the Redskins, and effectively swapping linebackers with the Eagles ( Dhani Jones out, Carlos Emmons in). The questionable health of Emmons and 2003 top draft pick William Joseph, a defensive lineman, is another potential headache for Coughlin.