Four Downs: NFC East
by Daniel Adler and David Lewin
Coaches, Coaches, Coaches!
As a player, Jason Garrett had one memorable game. Starting in place of an injured Troy Aikman on Thanksgiving Day in 1994, he threw for two touchdowns and more than 300 yards to lead the Cowboys to a second-half comeback over Green Bay and show Jay Fiedler that an Ivy League quarterback could make it in the NFL. That was about the extent of Garrett's impact during his seven years with the Cowboys as a player. However, during that time, owner Jerry Jones supposedly took a shine to him and tabbed him as a future head coach.
When Bill Parcells "retired" after the 2006 season, Jones made Garrett, with just two seasons as a quarterbacks coach in Miami, his first hire of the new staff. Fearing Garrett was not quite ready to be a head coach, Jones hired wily veteran (read: retread) Wade Phillips to be head coach and run the defense. As we all know, Dallas went on to have a remarkable season and Garrett became the "it" coaching candidate of the off-season. Jones gave Garrett about three million reasons and the title of assistant head coach/offensive coordinator to get his protÃ©gÃ© to stay. After a pay bump for Phillips to keep his salary slightly above that of his assistant, the Cowboys are faced with a bit of a coaching quandary. Other teams have dealt with high profile assistants before -- well, the Redskins have dealt with high profile assistants, at least: Marvin Lewis handled defense when Steve Spurrier tried to bring his fun-n-gun offense to the NFL in 2002; more recently, Gregg Williams controlled the defense while Joe Gibbs concentrated almost entirely on offense. What is unique and worrisome for the Cowboys is that unlike other instances of highly paid assistants, where the head coach is one of the highest paid in the league (i.e., most secure), Phillips is seen as a temporary solution. Phillips is in an unenviable position: He could win 12 or 13 games and be fired.
As if the Cowboys did not have enough coaching turmoil, Parcells decided to raid the lower rungs of their coaching staff, choosing Tony Sparano to head the Dolphins and promoting others holdovers from his Cowboys staff to higher positions with the Dolphins. Sparano should not be a giant loss; he called plays for the Cowboys in 2006, but was relegated to offensive line coach in 2007 upon Garrett's arrival. While the Cowboys staff loses a former University of New Haven head coach in Sparano, it gains a former Dallas Cowboys head coach in newly reacquired secondary coach, Dave Campo. Why did Phillips hire Campo? Theories abound:
- He wanted someone who certainly would not usurp him.
- He wanted someone to give him a fair match in a foot race.
- He knew Campo had not seen Phillips' daughter's belly-dancing in Charlie Wilson's War and would not taunt him about it.
- He wanted someone who knows what it is like to be fired as head coach of the Dallas Cowboys.
Who Could Leave?
Believe it or not, the Cowboys do have some non-coaches in their organization. Their 2004 second round pick, Julius Jones, is almost certainly gone as a free agent. As long as the team can keep restricted free agent Marion Barber, this could be a case of addition by subtraction. Barber was extremely good in 2007 with a 31.9 DPAR -- good for third among running backs. Despite not starting on his own team, Barber went to the Pro Bowl (along 12 of his teammates). He only carried the ball 204 times in 2007 and it will be interesting to see how he handles a larger load. Barber received the highest RFA tender ($2.562 million), so if a team wants to sign him to an offer sheet, they will have to give up first- and third-round picks. Despite Barber's great ability, this is too steep a price and it is highly unlikely any team would make that deal. However, the fact that the Cowboys have not yet locked up Barber to a long-term deal has made some speculate they are looking to trade him. In reality, this angle may not have much truth; there is no rush for the Cowboys to commit big money to Barber.
Outside of the running back position, the Cowboys secured the services of a pair of Pro Bowlers in re-signing tackle Flozell Adams and using the franchise tag on safety Ken Hamlin. Cornerback Jacques Reeves was snapped up by the Texans. Dime cornerback Nathan Jones is an unrestricted free agent and expected to leave. With two injury-prone corners left -- Terence Newman on one side and the aging Anthony Henry on the other -- the Dallas secondary looks very thin.
Whom Should they Sign?
While Barber is a great back, the Cowboys need to find a quality running back to platoon with him. The speedy Tatum Bell is an interesting complement to the bruising Barber. Considering this year's strong draft class and the fact that the Cowboys have two first-round picks, it is quite possible the Cowboys draft a runner early. Keep an eye on Felix Jones, Arkansas' other first-round running back. Jerry Jones loves former Razorbacks and if he cannot swing a deal for Darren McFadden, Felix Jones may be the next best thing.
The Cowboys should be considered dark horse candidates for Javon Walker. Even with a premier receiver in Terrell Owens and a new contract for Patrick Crayton, the Cowboys have doubts about their receiving corps due to Terry Glenn's questionable health. The Cowboys would prefer to have two top flight starting wideouts and Crayton as the third receiver.
On the defensive side, the Cowboys look very thin at cornerback, especially if Anthony Henry cannot stay healthy. They have already brought in one former defensive superstar, Zach Thomas, and it is possible they could pursue a veteran like Ty Law; although Law is nowhere near the player he once was, perhaps he could help out in nickel coverage and provide leadership. Another former Patriots cornerback with a monosyllabic last name they may have considered was Randall Gay, but the Saints offered him too much money for a third cornerback.
New York Giants
Everybody Stay Calm
Pretty much everything there is to say about the Giants' remarkable run has been said. It was spectacular, unpredictable, and exactly why people love the NFL so much. However, in the aftermath of the greatest upset of all time, a strange myth has taken root: Eli Manning is a star quarterback.
Now, there are a ton of different ways to define "star," but for the sake of this argument, let's keep it simple and say that a star quarterback is one of the eight to ten best in the game, essentially Pro Bowl level. Using this criterion, Eli Manning is not even close.
Last season Eli Manning was 30th in DPAR (total value) and 35th in DVOA (value per play). By definition, an average DVOA is 0%; Eli was at -10.2%, which is to say significantly below average. Now, in Eli's defense he did have a bit of a down year. His DPAR and DVOA were the worst of his three years as a full-time starter. In fact, he has gotten worse with each passing season (his career-high DVOA is 1.1%). Some have argued that Manning became a different player during the Giants' late-season run. We don't buy it. Manning didn't play nearly as well down the stretch as people think he did -- particularly in the first 58 minutes of Super Bowl XLII -- and based on past returns, we would still label his good but not great performance as fluky.
That's not to say Eli can't take a step forward next season. Fifth-year quarterbacks usually improve significantly, and Eli did seem to make some progress with his decision-making and accuracy. However, it would be a shockingly huge improvement if Eli has as good a year in 2008 as several less-hyped young passers, like Philip Rivers (14.2% DVOA) and Jay Cutler (19.7%), had in 2007.
So, to any ESPN talking head who wants to say that Eli is better at this stage in his career than Peyton, or that he has emerged as an elite quarterback, we can only say, "Dude, what the f**k?"
Who Could Leave?
The biggest personnel issue facing the Giants this off-season seems to be the future of the running back position. Derrick Ward, who was having a very nice season (8.1% DVOA) before getting injured, is an unrestricted free agent. The team seemed quite comfortable with the two-headed monster of Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw in the playoffs, but if Ward can be retained at a reasonable price then that would add further flexibility to a fragile and unproven group.
Already gone are linebackers Kawika Mitchell (Bills) and Reggie Torbor (Dolphins), plus free safety Gibril Wilson (Raiders). All were somewhat overvalued just by virtue of being starters on the Super Bowl champions, and the Giants made the right move to let them go. The Giants did re-sign the kicking duo of Jeff Feagles and Lawrence Tynes, keeping their 20th ranked special teams intact at a moderate cost. Both restricted free agents -- starting strong safety James Butler and backup quarterback Jared Lorenzen -- were tendered and are expected to return.
Of course there is also the omnipresent Michael Strahan retirement saga and the persistent rumors that Jeremy Shockey is on the way out. I sincerely doubt Shockey is going anywhere because there don't seem to be any strong suitors for his services. Strahan, on the other hand, should walk away on top, but probably won't, especially if he is allowed to skip training camp again.
Whom Should they Sign?
After last off-season yielded only one free agent signing and a Super Bowl victory, don't expect the Giants to be particularly active in free agency -- despite the rumors about a potential trade for DeAngelo Hall. It seems unlikely that such a deal will materialize, and the Giants seem fairly intent on maintaining the team chemistry that was integral to their playoff run. Some offensive line depth would be nice, and even better would be a tackle who would allow David Diehl to return to guard, strengthening two positions. However, it doesn't seem likely that they will be able to find that upgrade in free agency.
The Unheralded Superstar
The most valuable contribution to the Eagles during 2007 may have come from the media relations department. Miraculously, they made Andy Reid's "drug emporium" story all but disappear once the season got rolling.
However, the most valuable on-field contribution came from Brian Westbrook, who led all running backs in DPAR with 46.5. Like Tiki Barber before him, Westbrook appears to be an undersized back who is getting better with age; he turns 29 just before the start of the 2008 season. Whether Westbrook can remain as productive as Barber through age 31 remains to be seen, but the fact that he is relatively fresh in terms of career carries (1,014 in six seasons) and uses the same trainer as Barber suggests that he should not slow down during 2008. To put it in perspective, Jamal Lewis is four days older than Westbrook, but has more than twice as many pro carries.
With FO binky Kevin Kolb breathing down his neck and leaving nasty notes in his locker, Donovan McNabb went with the full head shave and staved off the grim reaper for the year. McNabb was the 14th rated passer with a DPAR of 52.5 in 14 games, deceptively maintaining his 2006 form (57.0 DPAR in 10 games). However, a closer look reveals a marked drop in DVOA: 25.7% in 2006, 9.9% in 2007. McNabb may hold up another year, and President Joe Banner has adamantly committed to him for the 2008 season, but it is clear their long term plan involves Kevin Kolb. The Kolb pick very much fits with the Eagles style of drafting at positions of strength, preparing players for a couple years, and then inserting them into the lineup when the original players get old. Cornerback Lito Sheppard started nine games in his second year and became a full-time starter in year three; considering Kolb is a quarterback, it's reasonable to push that timetable back a year for him.
Who Could Leave?
The Eagles have shockingly few potential losses this year, with only four unrestricted free agents on the team. Fullback Thomas Tapeh has already signed with Green Bay, and while he did an excellent job clearing space for Westbrook, the Eagles clearly don't think he will be particularly tough to replace. The other three -- William James, Kimo Von Oelhoffen, and Reno Mahe -- were bit players and don't seem to be at the top of the team's priority list.
Some have questioned the decision to put the franchise tag on L.J. Smith, seeing as he is hardly a franchise player (37th in DPAR). However, the tight end franchise number is quite low, only about $4.5 million, and the Eagles are clearly satisfied with L.J.'s performance as a run-blocker. The move may pay dividends by maintaining continuity on a veteran offense.
In other moves, the Eagles released Jevon Kearse, whose continued existence was news to many fans. They decided to keep both of their restricted free agents, agreeing to a one-year deal with safety/kick returner J.R. Reed and tendering a qualifying offer to cornerback Joselio Hanson.
Perhaps the biggest looming loss is the potential trade of Lito Sheppard -- that is, it is the biggest looming loss depending on which Sheppard is being traded. Sheppard is one of the more talented young corners in the league, but he's been horribly inconsistent over the past three years. (His Success Rate, according to FO game charting, has gone from 42 percent in 2005 to 60 percent in 2006 to 41 percent in 2007.) Sheppard's starting job has been given to new arrival Asante Samuel (see below) and the Eagles are said to be open to moving Sheppard if an agreeable contract extension cannot be reached, as Eagles prefer not to allow key players to enter the final years of their contracts unsigned.
Whom Should They Sign?
During his introductory press conference, Asante Samuel commented, "The fans have always been supportive of the team ... that's why I picked the Philadelphia Eagles." Has he ever been to Philadelphia? Considering the fans are notoriously harsh, it sounds like he picked the Eagles for another reason: Money. Not that there's anything wrong with that. The Eagles seem to be feeling quite generous this off-season, shelling out the big dollars for Samuel (6 years, $57 million) and Chris Clemons (5 years, terms undisclosed).
With those two in the books, and relatively few potential losses, the Eagles don't have a lot of needs. Obviously a wide receiver would be nice, and the Eagles made a big last-day run at Randy Moss before he re-signed with New England. It was reported that they had interest in Javon Walker, but that does not seem likely to materialize. Most likely, the Eagles are hoping that the addition of Samuel and slight upgrades in other areas will be enough to get them back to the playoffs in 2008.
Quarterback of the Future?
So far the big news of the Redskins off-season has been the hiring of Seattle Seahawks quarterbacks coach Jim Zorn as head coach. Zorn is, by all accounts, a good guy and a good coach, although it remains to be seen whether he is capable of making the leap from position boss to top dog. The move went against Daniel Snyder's traditional philosophy of hiring the biggest name available, but that's no guarantee it's going to work out.
The biggest question raised by this move is how quarterback of the future (and present), Jason Campbell will fit in Zorn's West Coast offense. My guess -- and this is David Lewin writing this section -- is not well. I firmly believe that Campbell has the talent to be a Pro Bowl quarterback. He was 20th in DVOA last year (7.0%), far ahead of one Elisha Manning (-10.2%, 35th), and if you asked me which one I would take I'd say Campbell without hesitating. However, Zorn's hiring means it's not likely that Campbell will reach his potential with the Redskins.
Campbell's strength is his strong arm and ability to throw intermediate and deep passes with accuracy. Criticism of Campbell generally focuses on his slow delivery, and his imprecision on timing and underneath routes. Campbell rarely had to throw short in college because the presence of Ronnie Brown, Cadillac Williams, and Brandon Jacobs made it unnecessary, so it is understandable that he is somewhat underdeveloped in this area. Given these limitations, it seems unlikely that the West Coast offense will be a good fit.
Since his Auburn days, Campbell has been in a different offensive system virtually every year. He seems to have done OK picking them up, but some people have described him as a slow learner. The combination of a new system to which he is poorly suited, a new coach whose public statements about Campbell have been lukewarm at best, and the presence of a proven veteran backup on the bench could spell trouble for Campbell in 2008.
Who Could Leave?
Using creative cap maneuvers fueled by owner Dan Snyder's deep pockets, the 'Skins should have little trouble getting under the cap. Reworking the deals of Chris Samuels, Santana Moss, and others will guarantee them more money, but save on this year's cap. With Todd Collins already re-signed as a free agent, return man Rock Cartwright appears to be the only player the Redskins will have to fight to keep. High-profile bust Brandon Lloyd was cut last week and Mark Brunell, a Joe Gibbs favorite, will likely retire.
Whom Should They Sign?
In chronological order, here are Snyder's highest profile pickups since 2000: Bruce Smith, Deion Sanders, Laveranues Coles, Clinton Portis, Shawn Springs, Antwaan Randle El, Brandon Lloyd, Adam Archuleta, Fred Smoot. The names are becoming less impressive. Recent pickups have not had much greater success, but at least the cost of whiffing is lower. Snyder and Vinny Cerrato, newly promoted Executive VP of Football Operations, are always a threat to throw off the pay scale for the entire NFL when they decide to crack out Snyder's checkbook, but recently they have shown much more restraint. Expect that to continue this year as they have little cap space to work with and seem to finally understand that it is next to impossible to build the core of a team through free agency. The Redskins have publicly declared they will not make any splashy acquisitions, but from the guys who brought you the meteoric rise of Jim Zorn, do not totally rule out a high profile wide receiver signing such as Javon Walker. Their recent experiment in tiny wideouts has failed, and they may look for a big target for Jason Campbell.
Daniel Adler and David Lewin are an Ivy Leaguer and a quarterback, but when combined, they do not become Jason Garrett, Ivy League quarterback. We thank them for pitching in on the final Four Downs.