As we approach the regular season, the common sentiment both locally and nationally is that the NFC East is among the worst divisions in football, with the Eagles being the odds on favorite to repeat as NFC East champs.
We'll take a look at each of the Eagles' divisional enemies, in detail. To note, we will not be talking about the positives of any of the Eagles' NFC East rivals, because, well, screw that. This will be 100% vitriolic. Also to note, this was originally published in the Eagles Almanac, which I can say without any hyperbole may be the best piece of literature in the history of mankind.
1) In 2013, the Cowboys’ defense finished 26th or worse in total yards, yards per play, first downs per game, third down percentage, passing yards, passing yards per attempt, passing TDs, 20+ yard plays, opposing QB rating, rushing yards, rushing yards per attempt, and rushing TDs allowed.
Is that bad?
Oh, and they lost their three best defensive players: DeMarcus Ware, who they had to cut as a salary cap casualty, Jason Hatcher, who they lost in free agency, and Sean Lee, who is on IR with a torn ACL. They also lost arguably their best remaining defender (CB Orlando Scandrick) to a four game suspension.
2) Tony Romo had a pair of back surgeries in April and December of 2013. Former Cowboys QB Troy Aikman had back surgery during his career, so he knows a thing or two about dealing with post-surgical back issues while trying to play quarterback in the NFL. “I came back in a relatively short period of time because of when I had my surgery, so he’s at least afforded more time to get ready,” Aikman said via Rowan Kavner of dallascowboys.com. “But having said that, two back surgeries in less than a year at his age, I would be a bit concerned.”
Romo is 34 years old. Of the NFL’s projected starting QBs in 2014, only Carson Palmer (34), Josh McCown (35), Drew Brees (35), Tom Brady (36) and Peyton Manning (38) are older than Romo.
3) If indeed Romo misses time this season, their backup is Brandon Weeden.
4) The Cowboys threw the ball far too often last season. They passed on 64.89% of their plays in 2013, which was good for 4th in the NFL. Typically, teams that have such a high pass:run ratio have to pass because they’re often trailing. For example, the Falcons, Browns, Dolphins, and Jaguars are the other four teams that were in the top 5 in pass:run ratio last season. Those teams had a combined record of 20-44.
The Cowboys, however, were not in a position last season where they often had to pass the entire game because they had large deficits. In fact, against the Packers last season, DeMarco Murray ran for 83 yards on 11 carries (7.5 ypc) in the first half, and the Cowboys racked up a 26-3 lead. In the second half, the Cowboys ran the ball just eight times. A few weeks before the Cowboys game, this was a Packers defense that knew the Eagles were going to run the ball in the 4th quarter, and could not stop them from holding onto the ball for 9:32 to seal to the win. And the Cowboys ran the ball just eight times with a big lead in the second half.
In 2013, Jerry Jones stripped Jason Garrett of play calling duties, in favor of Bill Callahan. In 2014, they hired Scott Linehan to call the plays. Who’s Scott Linehan, you might ask? He was the Lions’ offensive coordinator from 2009-2013, when the Lions finished 6th, 5th, 1st, 1st, and 14th in pass:run ratio.
5) DeMarco Murray is a good running back, when healthy. Unfortunately for the Cowboys, he has never played a full season. In 2011, he was lost for the last three games of the season with a broken ankle. He also missed six games in 2012 and two games in 2013.
6) The Cowboys’ offensive line is being regarded by many as one of the best in the NFL. I just don’t see it that way… yet. After ignoring their OL for years in the draft, the Cowboys finally made it a priority, drafting Tyron Smith (2011), Travis Frederick (2013), and Zack Martin (2014) in the first round. Because they’ve begun to invest in it heavily, the easy reaction is to say it’s a good line. However, if you look at each spot individually, it’s really not all that impressive:
• LT: Tyron Smith – The Cowboys are set here, both in the short term and long term at the most important position on the line. Smith could be a perennial Pro Bowl selection.
• LG: Mackenzy Bernadeau – Below average starter.
• C: Travis Frederick – Good as a run blocker in his rookie season, but struggled in pass protection.
• RG: Zack Martin – Rookie, but played the most career games in Notre Dame history. He was basically the only player at the Senior Bowl who could block Pitt DT Aaron Donald. Martin is a very promising young player, but still… he’s a rookie.
• RT: Doug Free – Free was probably the Cowboys’ best offensive lineman (on an awful OL) in 2010. Then he was terrible in 2011 and 2012. Then he was good again in 2013. Which is it, Doug? What are you? As observers, sometimes we tend to only look at the previous season, when past evidence shows that a player is certainly capable of being really bad. Free’s inconsistency from year to year has to be a concern, as does his whopping 44 penalties over the last four years.
If Martin is a good player his rookie year, and if Free plays like he did 2013 (and not 2012 or 2011), and if Frederick can improve his pass protection, and if Bernadeau can be a competent starter, then yes, this will be one of the best lines in the NFL. But as of right now, making that claim seems a bit "iffy."
7) Jason Witten was once a great player, but I can’t imagine why any defensive coordinator would fear him anymore at this stage in his career. Jonathan Bales of the NY Times, Dallas Morning News, NBC, CBS, b/r and a bunch of other media outlets wrote a piece called “Why Jason Witten Is No Longer an Elite Tight End.” It’s worth reading in its entirety, but his conclusions can really be summed up in the following three graphs. The dotted lines represent the average NFL tight end.
But he’s a great blocker!
8) DeMarcus Ware had 117 career sacks and 32 forced fumbles with the Cowboys in nine seasons. Using the four defensive linemen listed as starters on the Cowboys' team site depth chart, those players have a combined 47.5 sacks and 11 forced fumbles in 23 seasons in the NFL. There are going to be some clean pockets to throw from in Dallas this year.
9) The Cowboys’ secondary isn’t just bad. It’s using up an enormous amount of their resources.
• Brandon Carr: The Cowboys signed Carr to a 5 year deal worth $50.1 million. He has been a huge disappointment.
• Morris Claiborne: In the 2012 draft, the Cowboys traded up from 14 to 6 to select Claiborne. They had to give up their 2nd round pick (45th overall) to do so. The Cowboys had Claiborne rated as the best CB prospect since Deion Sanders. For his career, Claiborne has two interceptions, he might not even start in 2014.
• Orlando Scandrick: In August of 2011, with a year still remaining on his contract, Scandrick signed a five year extension worth $27 million. If you re-up a player early, you’re supposed to be able to get him at a more reasonable deal. The player knows that he’s “set for life financially,” which protects him against a career threatening injury, but the tradeoff is that you get less than what you probably would on the open market. Instead, the Cowboys often pay their own players as if they’re bidding against 31 other teams.
Scandrick is a very good slot corner. However, so is Walter Thurmond, who the Giants just signed this offseason on a one-year deal worth $3 million.
Cowboys corners will count for over $22 million against their cap this season, according to overthecap.com, which is the most in the NFL. The Cowboys were the 30th ranked pass defense last season. They gave up the most pass plays of 20+ yards in the league, and the second most passing TDs. And, again, their best corner (Scandrick) is suspended for the first four games.
10) Jerry Jones still owns them.
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