TFQ NFL 2012 Preview – NFC EAST

TFQ PREVIEW PREVIEW MENU – 2012 EDITION — NFC EAST

The start of the 2012 regular season is the thing NFL fans have been pining for since the end of Super Bowl forty-six in February.  To get our mouths watering, there was no fear of football being cancelled after last year’s new collective bargaining agreement.  Then, the new rookie wage scale that came with said CBA and emboldened teams to trade up in the 2012 Draft more than ever (a record 16 times in the first round alone) only whetted our collective appetite.  Now, after off-field mishaps, minicamps, trades, free agency, training camps and preseason – all of which are smattered with more media coverage and scrutiny each year – we can all practically smell the tailgate and/or home party spreads that fit into the bouquet of fall Sundays alongside smells like fresh grass, sweat, and leather. 

            At TFQ we’ve put together a preview spread with a dish for each NFL team.  Some cartes are mouth-watering (the Patriots still have their Angus-grade offense, but with added defensive parts), others look more like the Griswold’s Family Christmas Dinner (it might be easier to slice through the Cardinals’ O-Line than Catherine’s hollow turkey, though the defense shouldn’t be as turd-covered as the Jello).  But all the menus are worth perusing because as the last several years have shown, September’s roadkill could be February’s coup de grace.

 NEW YORK GIANTS

Hors D’Oeuvres/Key Changes:

ADD:

David Wilson RB (rookie)

Rueben Randle, WR (rookie)

Martellus Bennett, TE (free agent, via Dallas)

LOSS:

Brandon Jacobs, RB (free agent, to Niners)

Jake Ballard, TE (free agent, to Patriots)

The Spread/Team Overview:

Somehow the Giants have managed the rare paradox of being called “under the radar” by almost everyone.  A championship team and coaching staff that is full of people about as expressive as Stephen Wright will have that effect (overlooking the recent trash-talk between NY defenders and the Cowboys, that is).  Not only are the Giants lost in the media horniness over the other NFC East teams, but they’re second-fiddle in the Big Apple too, thanks to a certain fake messiah and his loquacious head coach dressed in green.

Make no mistake, the lack of attention suits the G-Men just fine.  Sure, there’s the typical “no respect” card they can play for motivation, but with such a confident unflappable veteran roster they won’t really even need it.  Eight key players have been with this team for seven years or more, the team has made all the right moves in this year’s draft, and changed little of its core group.  Why should it?

No one can take away from their spellbinding playoff run – one that was eerily reminiscent of another underdog march through the Patriots in the Super Bowl to end the ’07 season.  But somehow no one talks about New York’s regular season record last year.  Their 9-7 record.  Their -6 total point differential.  Their average time of possession of 29:29.  The worst rushing offense of any Super Bowl champ in history (LAST in the NFL – see: Main Ingredient).

But let’s not stop there.  Contrary to the chorus of sticky pants amongst the media after he won his second Super Bowl MVP award, QB Eli Manning has a lot to prove this year.  Even though he thinks so, and his supporters are growing in numbers, Eli is NOT elite.  Not yet, anyway.  His 2011 season – 4,933 yds, 29 TDs, 92.9 rating – is certainly a step in the right direction but one good regular season doesn’t earn you that distinction in a QB-driven league.  Manning has never surpassed a percentage of 62.9, and 2008 was the only season in which he managed to throw twice as many touchdowns as interceptions (21 to 10).  And for all of his clutch performances last season – a 121.7 rating with 8 TDs in 5 fourth quarter comebacks in 2011 alone – Eli threw 15 fourth quarter scores but that was more than half of his 2011 total of 29 (translation: bad in the first three quarters).

What’s more, the fact that it took five big comebacks to earn more than half of last year’s nine wins only serves to further indicate that the Giants need to improve on both sides of the ball in order to ensure a division title this season.

Like the offense, the Giants’ defense is in a misleading state.  The D is full of pass rushing monsters that strike fear into any offense.  They finished third in NFL in sacks last year, and that was with several injuries to the defense all season.  But sadly, the injury bug has already bitten the G-Men in the interior of the D-line, and key second-year corner Prince Amukamara is starting the season on the injury list again.  There’s no better team at coping with injuries to their D than Big Blue, but dealing with the emotional stress of regrouping on defence before opening day for three years in a row can be draining on even the most veteran clubs.  They’ll need to be just as resilient this season – if not more – in order to help get New York into the playoffs again.  As the last five years have shown, if they can get there, anything can happen.

Main Ingredient/Key Aspect:

The rushing game must improve, and it won’t be hard to pull that off – it was ranked dead last in the NFL in 2011 (over 100 yards less as a team than the Jaguar’s Maurice Jones-Drew had on his own).  That must have had Tom Coughlin red in the face and biting his tongue at family dinners with starting guard and son-in-law Chris Snee.  Losing Brandon Jacobs – the big, but soft back aptly nicknamed “The Tip-Toe Burglar” by Warren Sapp – isn’t a huge problem, but his touches must go to someone capable in order to restore confidence in the ground game.  Enter David Wilson.  The Virginia Tech product has burner-type speed with a tough edge to match.  He’s been raising a lot of eyebrows all preseason, and has set some serious standards for himself.  Six 100-yard games, no fumbles, no sacks allowed are among the goals the first-round pick has set for himself, according to NFL Network.  Primary back Ahmad Bradshaw has a history of missing time with injuries (he even had to have bone marrow taken from his hip and injected into his foot last year!).  There doesn’t seem to be any other decent contributors in the Giants’ backfield, so whether Bradshaw is healthy of not, Wilson will need to produce with that high skill level he’s been showing off all summer.

Garnish/Fun Fact:

18; 67: Pass plays of 40+ and 20+ yards completed by New York last season, respectively, good for first and fifth in the league.  Nine of those 40-plus home run plays belong to Victor Cruz, who was second in the league in that category.  That team stat can fluctuate from year to year like no other, so Big Blue will need more consistency and balance this season instead of relying on the big play so much.  To wit:

Back Page/What Few Others Are Interested In:

It was noted above that the productivity of the running game is important for the Giants in order to win.  That being said, the rushing attack doesn’t need to become top-notch, it just needs to be better than the shitshow it was while staking a claim to the basement of the league last year because New York might actually be in a transition phase towards a more aerial-oriented approach on offense.  Even if their amount of pass plays called doesn’t increase, expect them to line up in more 4-receiver sets this season.  The departure of WR (and Super Bowl hero) Mario Manningham to the Niners won’t affect the receiving corps at all, nor will the iffy status of Hakeem Nicks (foot) coming into the opener against Dallas.  All both things do is give their quietly deep group of pass catchers a chance to shine.

Seventh-year pro Domenik Hixon already has a relationship with Manning, but he’s actually in danger of getting lost in the shuffle because two younger wideouts are chomping at the bit.  Rueben Randle was taken in the second round of this year’s draft out of LSU.  He’s a big target (6’3”, 210 lbs.) and is considered one of the most talented receivers in this year’s deep rookie class.  Randle might not make an immediate impact, but should come on as the season progresses and he develops a better comfort level in the offense.  The most intriguing WR possibility is Ramses Barden.  Entering his fourth season as a pro, he’s a rare specimen at 6’6” 225 lbs, and he’s got the head coach in his corner.  Coughlin seldom exaggerates (especially in the positive) so I found these statements interesting (from SI.com):

“It’s time; It was time last year; It’s time,” coach Tom Coughlin said in camp.            “The guy is going to make a mark in the league. He’s smart; he’s been around long enough.”

Dessert/Player To Watch:

New York had high hopes when they took cornerback Prince Amukamara 19th overall in the 2011 draft.  The Nebraska standout had everything a team could want in a corner: good size, speed, feet and hands – with a ton of confidence to boot.  But Prince has looked purple thus far.  He missed all but seven games of he G-Men’s season last year.  Sure, he snared an interception on the first series of his career when he came back from a foot injury that delayed the start of his rookie season…but that pass was a Vince Young pass, and he never picked off another.

Amukamara is also set to miss the opener this year against Dallas with a bad ankle that is rumored to perhaps keep him out for about another month.  New York has been playing keep-up with injuries to their defensive backs for several years now.  They desperately need some continuity with a bevy of good QBs looming in their 2012 schedule.  The return – and subsequent play – of Amukamara could be key to shoring up the Giants’ DBs.

Breath Mint For The Roadstop/Bold Prediction:

If the Giants aren’t careful, they’ll be the next defending champ to miss the postseason.  If their injuries don’t dissipate or their rushing game doesn’t improve, their schedule will eat them alive.  Above and beyond playing in the ever-brutal NFC East, Big Blue is looking at road games at Carolina, San Francisco, Cincinnati, Atlanta and Baltimore.  If there’s a team to overcome a slew of potential mismatches, it’s the champs.  But it’s going to be tough.

 PHILADELPHIA

Hors D’Oeuvres/Key Changes:

ADD:

Mychal Kendricks, LB (rookie)

Fletcher Cox, DL (rookie)

Vinny Curry, DL (rookie)

DeMeco Ryans, LB (trade with Texans)

LOSS:

Assante Samuel (free agent, to Falcons)

The Spread/Team Overview:

Once again, it’s a pressure-packed season full of high expectations for the team from the inaccurately named City Of Brotherly Love.  (This is, after all, the city that had a courtroom put in the bowels of old Veterans Stadium in order to better expedite the copious amounts of illegal and/or violent behavior going on during football games there.)

Philly faces their first back-to-back non-playoff seasons since 1999, when oft-embattled – yet top-notch – head coach Andy Reid took over the Eagles.  It’s a heartless league, the NFL.  As such, despite having to bury his eldest son, Garrett, after he was found dead in his dorm room during the Eagles’ training camp, the annual whispers about Reid’s job security have already begun.  It’s merely old-hat for one of the best QB teachers the league has seen since Reid’s mentor – the late great Bill Walsh.

The pressure is on both sides of the ball, too.  The offense has set very high standards for itself, despite the injury prone nature of do-everything quarterback Michael Vick.  Should Vick stay healthy, this is the most explosive and versatile offense in the NFC East, if not the conference.  Elite tailback LeSean McCoy (arguably the league’s tailback most likely to score on any play) teams with Vick to form the core of the offensive production.  Beyond that the number of weapons is impressive to say the least.  Four players had 50-plus receptions last season (DeSean Jackson, Brent Celek, Jeremy Maclin and Jason Avant), and McCoy is more than capable of that production as well (40 catches last year, 78 in 2011).  Of those four pass catchers, only Avant finished with less than 800 yards receiving, with 679.  That is an equal-opportunity offense of staggering proportions.

Rumor has it that Vick is newly dedicated this season, appreciating his age, at 32.  The best way to protect him beyond the obvious duties of the offensive line is to run the ball and keep pass rushers guessing.  Behind McCoy is basically fodder: Dion Lewis (23 carries for 102 yards and one TD), and Bryce Brown (a quizzical 7th-round draft pick who had 16 yards on 3 rushes during his only year at Kansas State).  As good with his legs as he is, Vick shouldn’t be the second-leading rusher on the team.  Yet it’s tough to envision anything else happening in 2012….not the ideal way to protect an injury-prone pivot.

On the defensive side, there’s a lot of disappointment to overcome from last year.  The strong-willed Reid admirably amped up the pressure on his own job security by sticking with last year’s defensive coordinator, Juan Castillo, who was uniquely converted to the job after working as an O-line coach.  Clearly, Reid sought to maintain continuity within that squad and see how players handle Castillo’s scheme after a full offseason of practicing it (last year’s lockout prevented that).  Gone is riverboat gambling “cover” (?!?) corner Assante Samuel, allowing Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to move back to his usual position at starting CB, opposite former perennial All-Pro Nnamdi Asomugha who was by far the most disappointing Eagles defender in 2011.  Part of what exposed the secondary, though, was the glaring weakness in the amount of ground the linebacking corps could cover, and Philly went out and may have solved that problem in a big way  (see: Back Page).   Don’t read too much into the Eagles’ disparaging -14 turnover differential last season, either.   That was an aberration that should be reversed this year.

Long story short: If Vick stays out of the trainer’s room the offense will tear opposing defenses a new one.  The defense can get sacks in bunches (tied with the Vikings for most in the NFL with 50 last year) and the secondary is full of talent.  If ‘backers DeMeco Ryans and Mychal Kendricks can come through, then the Eagles will have solved a linebacking problem that has dogged then for years, and the NFC East will be their division to lose.

Main Ingredient/Key Aspect:

This is maybe the easiest such prognostication but Michael Vick is the most nerve-racking player in the pros in terms of getting injured often and how his involvement dictates the fortunes of his franchise.  The Eagles’ O-line only allowed 32 sacks last season, 23 of those on Vick.  That means Vick tied for the 25th-most sacked pivot in 2011.  It’s hard to blame the offensive line, then.  Logic would dictate, then, that the pundits are right when they criticize Vick for holding onto the ball and/or putting himself in harm’s way too often.  Time will tell, but if Vick hasn’t changed that habit by now (and didn’t seem to have in the preseason), he’s likely not going to.

Garnish/Fun Fact:

800: 3: Number of total touches LeSean McCoy has had in his three-year pro career to number of lost fumbles (0.04%; two other fumbles of his were recovered by Philly).  “Shady” isn’t so shady when it comes to taking care of the rock.

Back Page/What Few Others Are Interested In:

It’s already been mentioned in The Spread, but Philly has been haunted by bad linebacker play for years now – maybe even since the glory days in the early nineties with Seth Joyner and Byron Evans.   Getting DeMeco Ryans in a trade with Houston was huge.  The Texans’ alltime leading tackler finally looked like his old self in December after coming back from a 2010 Achilles injury.  But one man doth not make a turnaround at a position that must cover virtually the whole field in today’s NFL.  Enter Mychal Kendricks – a second round pick out of Cal this year – who showed great range in becoming the Pac-12 Defensive Player Of The Year in 2011.  The jury’s still out on Kendricks after a decent camp, but he’s going to be learning from one of the more consistent ‘backers in the league over the last 4-5 years, and though he could be taller he’s got the physical gifts to match the demands the coaching staff will put on him.  (5’11”, 239lbs, 4.47 40yd-dash).  Even on potential alone, Philadelphia has more reason to be optimistic about their linebackers – and thus their defense as a whole cohesive unit – than in a long time.

Dessert/Player To Watch:

Sneaky-fast tight end Brent Celek caught 62 balls last season – with a sports hernia and a torn labrum in his hip.  (Wait – we have labrums in our hips?  I’m confused…)  He’s Phily’s top red zone threat not named McCoy, and if he and Vick can stay healthy enough all year, he and Celek could connect a lot.

Breath Mint For The Roadstop/Bold Prediction:

As mentioned above with respect to Reid’s job security, the NFL is a cold, heartless world.  Each year another seemingly valuable player gets let go by a franchise and eyebrows rise.

Could it really be put up or shut up time for Mike Vick?  According to NFL Network analyst Michael Lombardi, next season Vick’s base salary balloons to $15.5 million.  $3 million of that is guaranteed – but only if he is still on the Eagles’ roster on the second day of the 2013 waiver period (normally that is two days after the Super Bowl).  If Vick either spends too much time hurt or plays well below expectations, it’s not a stretch to envision Philadelphia cutting Vick free and saving themselves both $15.5 million in straight up cash (, homies) and a reported $16.9 million against the cap next season.  After all, year in, year out, Reid has proven himself capable of grooming a new QB with little to no advance notice.

DALLAS

Hors D’Oeuvres/Key Changes:

ADD:

Brandon Carr, CB (free agent, via Chiefs)

Morris Claiborne, CB (rookie)

Nate Livings, OL (free agent via Bengals)

Mackenzy Bernadeau, OL (free agent via Panthers)

LOSS:

Martellus Bennett, TE (free agent, to Giants)

Laurent Robinson, WR (free agent, to Jaguars)

Terence Newman, CB (released, signed by Bengals.  Good luck with that, Cincy)

The Spread/Team Overview:

I said this all last year, and nothing has changed: The Cowboys are a team FULL (with the exception of LB DeMarcus Ware) of “potential” players, aka guys that have spent their whole careers underachieving and being let off easy because they apparently have so much skill and success ahead on the horizon.  Let’s stop crediting that skill.  What good is skill if you don’t realize it?  It’s the same every season for this team, but this time it’s more serious that ever – these players have to realize their potential NOW.

No owner puts more pressure on his players than The Emperor, Jerry Jones.  After all, it can’t feel good watching your team stink and miss the postseason on a TV that big…

It will be interesting to see how Jones responds if America’s Team falters again in 2012, because for each change made to improve during the offseason, there are far more contentious aspects.

Let’s start at the top.  There is no more polarizing a QB among football nuts than Tony Romo.  North America is full of both Romosexuals and Romophobes.  I confess.  I’m a Romophobe.  (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)  He puts up big numbers because head coach (and former offensive coordinator) Jason Garrett favors a vertical passing style, but to many – myself included – those numbers overrate Romo’s talent both physically and mentally.  For all the talk about him being able to throw out of various arm slots like his idol, Brett Favre, the ‘Boys QB still hasn’t been able to consistently throw the proper trajectory for certain precision routes – namely intermediate sideline patterns.  He also hasn’t shown the football acumen to read checkdowns and/or underneath throws without making bad decisions.   Romo is inconsistent in the clutch (don’t be fooled by last years’ comebacks he had – see: Garnish), and it appears as though he never gets excited or worked up about anything, even losing his team games.  For his nemesis Eli Manning, that same unflappable demeanor seems like maturity and poise.  Romo, however, seems merely aloof.  Put all of these things together, and you have the least contemporarily-skilled quarterback among the top producers in the NFL.

Dallas’ offensive woes don’t stop there, though.  For a team with such high standards they have a brutally thin WR corps.  It was already so last year despite the timely emergence of Laurent Robinson (858 yds, 11 TD), but he’s gone to Jacksonville.  Kevin Ogletree shouldn’t be a starter in this league.  What’s worse, the Cowboys are one very conceivable injury to Miles Austin or Dez Bryant away from having Ogletree as the second receiver.  Romo can’t be excited about that.  Then again, he doesn’t get excited about anything.

The talent at running back is similarly thin.  What if “Don Juan” Demarco Murray gets hurt, or can’t live up to his breakout performance last year as a rookie (601 yards in the first four games he saw noticeable action – more than any other ‘Boys back has had in a 4-game span)?  Then the rushing duties fall to Man Made Of Glass, Felix Jones, who, even when healthy is a far cry from a primary tailback.

Add to those issues Jason Witten’s lacerated spleen, a patchwork and suspect offensive line (same old, same old in Big D), and the ever-hopeful and confident Cowboys are relying on a house of cards offensively.

At least the defensive side of the ball has seen some key changes, and cause for ACTUAL optimism.  Sean Lee looked promising at LB last year.  Time will tell if he can hold up against the run but he has ball-hawking instincts up the middle.   There’s no bigger beast of a 3-4 outside ‘backer than Ware.  Entering his eighth season as a pro, there isn’t a blocking scheme Ware hasn’t seen and/or outplayed.  He’s coming off of a 19.5-sack and could even surpass that total this season with the long-awaited improvements to Dallas’ secondary keeping receivers locked down.  Which brings us to…

Main Ingredient/Key Aspect:

It wont’ take long for the pressure to fall squarely on Jerry’s most prized new possessions: In the first NFL game of the year, Wednesday September 5th, free agent signee Brandon Carr and first-round pick Morris Claiborne should hopefully line up at cornerback for Big D against archrival Eli Manning and the Super Bowl champ Giants.  (Carr’s heel has been giving him issues, and his status for the game is uncertain.)

Since the Jimmy Johnson days, I don’t remember ever seeing the Cowboys War Room on draft day as jubilant as when Claiborne fell to them at sixth overall.  The LSU star is the real deal.  He has a rare combination of strength, great feet and the ability to change his hips and minimize separation from receivers that is reminiscent of Darrelle Revis if his skills can translate to the pros.  Also, playing for a perennial BCS Championship contender in the bayou means he’s no stranger to big games on big stages.

Claiborne also gets to be mentored by Carr, who has played some impressive games throughout his 4-year career – all in Kansas City – and he has started every game from day one of his pro career.  Carr is even bigger, and just as tenacious a defender as his rookie understudy, and the two of them together can finally give defensive coordinator Rob Ryan the ability to be aggressive with his blitzing.  Well, maybe it isn’t possible for Ryan to be MORE aggressive in this department, but at least he has less chance of being burned while doing it now that he might have the equivalent to his brother Rex’s Revis and Antonio Cromartie in New York.

As I’ve said, the test for this new CB tandem starts as early as possible – and it won’t let up because the pressure’s always on in Jerry Land.  What’s more, game one against New York represents a stressful and emotional rematch against not only the team that ended the ‘Boys’ season, but versus Eli Manning who embarrassed Ryan’s defense to the tune of 746 yards and 68 points in two crucial December division games.  After that?  More nationally televised games throughout the year against Jay Cutler, Matt Ryan, Robert Griffin III and Michael Vick.  Keep your hips low, boys.

Garnish/Fun Fact:

5: Fourth-quarter leads the Cowboys gave up en route to losses last season.  That’s a tough pill to swallow for a team that was one week 17 game away from winning the division.  It likely won’t happen, but maybe it’s time for Rob Ryan to learn the virtues of gambling less late in games.  Hold on – it definitely won’t happen.  No coach in the Ryan family has learned much since Mike Ditka told Daddy-Ryan, Buddy, that his I.Q. was zero.

Back Page/What Few Others Are Interested In:

Okay, so maybe everyone is talking about this now, but Tony Romo seems to be in serious danger of mind-fucking himself with the whole “closing window” media drama.  In May, owner Jones opined that the window of opportunity for this edition of the Cowboys to win it all was closing.  The media was all over it like Chad Johnson on public embarrassment, and Romo tried to calmly dispute his boss’ opinion, albeit indirectly during other separate interviews.

Cue the super-awkward Starter commercial in which super-awkward Romo tries to get all Michael Jordan-Nike on us by starting at us and telling us how it is.  Instead the Cowboys QB actually just looks out of his element, if not defensive about not living up to expectations.

http://kissingsuzykolber.uproxx.com/2012/08/we-are-focusing-on-the-wrong-tony-romo-things-you-guys.html

The last line: “People are focused on what we haven’t done.  That’s what I’m focused on too.”  Very confident Tony.  Do Mitt Romney’s speech writers work for Starter too?

Lastly, if there was any doubt about this topic getting into Romo’s boyish head, this happened during the week leading up to the opener against the Giants (via nfl.com):

“New York Post:”The Cowboys quarterback wouldn’t even let a Post reporter finish his question yesterday before slapping his knees, exclaiming, ‘That’s it!’ and walking out in a huff from his regular weekly media session after just seven minutes,’ Bart Hubbuch, aka ‘a Post reporter,’ wrote Monday.”

Dessert/Player To Watch:

Dez Bryant.  Unfortunately, the third-year wideout fits right in with this franchise at the moment because he is frustrating and suffers from discipline issues.  Just like Felix Jones, who has become so wise over his last four NFL seasons being plagued by injury that he came to training camp and promptly failed his conditioning test….clap….clap…clap.

Bryant’s lack of willpower off the field is already legend and has incurred the Dez Rules.  (Such directives as a ban from strip clubs, midnight curfew, counseling and mandatory chauffeurs.)  But what doesn’t get talked about enough is Bryant’s lack of preparation for games.  He has a severely limited route tree for a player of his talent, and as a result he has been easily taken out of games by opposing defenses.  He needs to tap into his potential ASAP, or Tony Romo is screwed. And let’s face it – Bryant’s already dug himself a mile-deep hole because it’s hard to root for a guy who hits his Mom.

Breath Mint For The Roadstop/Bold Prediction:

The Cowboys will contend for the division title, but not because of the passing game that so many people focus on.  Dallas’ new cornerbacks will elevate the defense as a whole, causing nightmares for offensive coordinators and lots of “goddamn snacks” on QBs for Rob Ryan’s crew.  Murray and the running game will combine with the improved D to win time of possession and field position battles and though it won’t be as sexy as The Emperor would like, there will be at least nine wins to show for it.

 

WASHINGTON

Hors D’Oeuvres/Key Changes:

ADD:

Robert Griffin III, QB (rookie)

Pierre Garcon, WR (free agent from Colts)

Josh Morgan, WR (free agent from Niners)

Tannard Jackson, S (free agent, released by Bucs)

Madieu Williams, S (free agent signee)

LOSS:

Chris Cooley, TE (released)

Tim Hightower, RB (released)

The Spread/Team Overview:

Last season was another year of disappointment for a franchise and fan base straining under the weight of high NFC East expectations while failing to put together a truly competitive roster.  The ‘Skins went 5-11 in 2011 and missed the playoffs for the fourth year in a row.

Enter the Robert Griffin III show.  Washington traded a bevvy of draft picks for the rights to select Griffin second overall in this years’ draft and all eyes are on him.  In his last two years at Baylor, RG3 didn’t just throw for 7,794 yards, 59 touchdowns and run for 1,334 and 18, but the former track star also went deep into last year’s season throwing more TDs than incompletions (that’s not a typo).  Nevertheless, last year’s Heisman winner has a lot of tough reads to make in a Mike Shanahan offense.  Jay Cutler is the last best example in this situation.  His average over 5 rookie starts, 59%, 200 yds, 9 total TD, 5 total INT.  Cutler has his issues, and Griffin mans the pivot in a wholly different way.  But both are quick studies and if you factor in a porous O-line and a so-so receiving corps and it could be a slower development for RG3 than people expect.  (That being said, he could blow the NFL away with his talent.)

Either way, the legs of Griffin and the rest of the ground game will take on a big importance.  The scene in the backfield is no surprise with Shanahan: running back by committee.  Recently that committee has sucked more than the exec board at Enron, ranking 30th and 25th in 2010 and 2011, respectively.  All Roy Helu’s preseason performance did was muddy the waters.  Second-year back Even Royster (5.9 yards per carry in 6 rookie games in ’11) and a sixth-round pick this year, Alfred Morris could be the one-cut guy Shanahan covets in his zone-blocking scheme.

Griffin’s best receiving target might be free agent acquisition Pierre Garcon, who is a bit of an enigma.  He suffered from frequent mental lapses while on the receiving end of Peyton Manning passes in Indy two seasons ago, but had a career year with a parade of bums throwing to him in 2011.  Either way, he was given a fat contract ($42.5 million over 5 years) so it’s on him to come through for his first-year QB.  After Garcon waits Santana Moss, who, at 33 years of age is getting long in the tooth, but can still demand respect from defenses.  In fact, it isn’t a stretch to see him having the type of career resurgence that Steve Smith enjoyed last year with Cam Newton in Carolina.  Next in the running is tight end Fred Davis, who was en route to a huge breakout season before his four-game suspension (reportedly for marijuana use).  Again, though, this target is chimeric.  Sure, Davis looked great.  But do it for more than twelve games in order to be a proven target.  Wideout FA acquisition Josh Morgan is the typical Circus Hands guy – he can make the highlight catches, but often bungles the easy ones.

The crucial time for Griffin and the ‘Skins is late September and early October.  Washington plays the Rams, Bengals and Bucs to close out the first month of the regular season.  They need to capitalize on those matchups because after that RG3 has to deal with the Vikes’ Jared Alllen, the hydra-D-line of the Giants, and James Harrison & Co. of the Steelers in a fifteen-day span in October.

To talk about the Redskins without recognizing their defense would be remiss.  For all the talk about the offense in D.C., the heart of the team arguably lies with the linebackers.  London Fletcher is by far the most underrated defender in the NFL today – if not of all-time.  (All he’s done is play 224 straight games over 14 seasons and has not had less than 87 tackles in each of the last dozen years.)  Fletcher will man the middle, in the ‘Skins 3-4 defensive front, with Perry Riley beside him.  On the edges, Washington boasts perhaps the best young duo of outside ‘backers in the pros with Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan, who combined for 16.5 sacks, but are also adept at holding contain in the run game.

It’s good that the LB’s are rock-solid because the rest of the defense isn’t.  Tanard Jackson was a missed-tackle machine at safety in Tampa Bay.  He won’t help out the defensive backs much as a free agent signee.  DeAngelo Hall is their most talented corner, but suffers from Polamalu disease: He gets burned just as often as he makes plays because he watches for the ball too much.  Bottom line: This defense hasn’t been in the top 10 in the league for three years, and they’ll need to approach that to take the heat off of their first-year franchise QB.

Main Ingredient/Key Aspect:

Griffin will need time to throw, otherwise he’ll run too much and/or hold onto the ball too long to try for a big play, and thus risk a Vick-type injury.  The Redskins’ offensive line was plagued by injuries throughout training camp, and since the group was iffy at best to begin with, that’s not good news.  Tyler Polumbus was thrown into the fray when Jamaal Brown was put on the PUP list at right tackle, and when the same thing happened during the 2011 season Polumbus was little more than a caucasian pylon.  He needs to get his game together if Griffin is going to survive this season.

Garnish/Fun Fact:

0: 1,000-yard rushers Washington has had since Clinton Portis in 2008.  Not so coincidentally, ’08 was the last season legendary (and run-oriented) Joe Gibbs coached in D.C.  In Denver, Shanahan’s scheme once produced 4 different tailbacks to reach the milestone in a 5-season span from 1998 to 2002 (Terrell Davis, Olandis Gary, Mike Anderson and Portis) but the days when Mike Shanahan’s offense pumped out 1,000-yard rushers like a Pez dispenser are long gone.  Finding one this season (Roy Helu?) could be crucial for Griffin’s development.

Back Page/What Few Others Are Interested In:

The defensive backs are awful.  It’s so bad in D.C. that they started the offseason counting on the human piece of toast Brandon Merriweather to shore things up.  (Merriweather was cut by the Patriots.  I can’t for the life of me think of a player other than Lawyer Milloy who hasn’t wasted away after being cut by New England.  It’s like the kiss of death.)  When your best “cover” corner is DeAngelo Hall – who plays defense the way Allen Iverson did in the NBA, which means guarding spaces between players instead of players – there could be a lot of big plays sprung against this pass defense.  They’ve been able to avoid it thus far because the rest of their division has been inconsistent through the air during recent regular seasons.  That shouldn’t happen this year, so watch out, ‘Skins fans.

Dessert/Player To Watch:

As the starting left tackle it’s up to Trent Williams to protect RG3’s blind side.  The fourth overall pick by the Redskins in 2010, Williams started from day one, but had his captaincy last year thwarted by a suspension for repeatedly failing drug tests.  I’d take drugs too if I had to lead this offensive line, which is patchwork-at-best entering 2012.  Add to that the stress of having to block on the edge for a QB who loves to move around and Williams really needs to bear down and have a career year to keep Griffin safe.

Breath Mint For The Roadstop/Bold Prediction:

There’s been a lot of talk about the pressure on Griffin to elevate a franchise and a city.  So far he’s handled it well.  The one pressure people aren’t talking about is on Mike Shanahan to keep his job.  For such a revered offensive mind, he has bungled far too many QB personalities over his short tenure in D.C. to be given much leniency from uber-restless owner Dan Snyder.  Add that to the fact that the head coach seems to be awkwardly shoehorning his son, Kyle, into the spot daddy will someday leave, along with the brutal production from the running game – which is supposed to be a Shanahan staple – and things look grim.  If Griffin struggles noticeably this year, don’t be surprised if the whole Shanahan clan gets shown the door.

 

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