Four Downs: NFC East
by Bill Barnwell
How bad was Brad Johnson?
The 2008 Dallas Cowboys had one major flaw; unfortunately for them, it was a problem severe enough to keep them from making the playoffs. Backup quarterback Brad Johnson was a bad fit stylistically for the offense, and when Tony Romo went down with a broken finger, Johnson and the Cowboys offense could only muster 41 points in three games, including a 34-14 loss to the lowly Rams.
Just how bad was Johnson, though? Try one of the worst backup quarterbacks in the history of DVOA, which we've calculated going back through the 1995 season. Among backup quarterbacks who had 80 dropbacks and weren't rookies lying in wait (such as Alex Smith in 2005), Johnson experienced the third-biggest difference in DVOA between himself and his starting quarterback.
|Spergon Wynn||2001||MIN||75.1%||Averaged 4.3 yards per attempt after a year in Cleveland averaging 3.1 yards per attempt; almost definitely worst quarterback of the decade|
|Tommy Maddox||2005||PIT||69.3%||Dreadful performance in two starts forced Steelers to win three road games to make it to the Super Bowl|
|Brad Johnson||2008||DAL||69.2%||Cowboys averaged 13.6 points per game with him as starter, 24.7 with Tony Romo|
|Rick Mirer||1997||CHI||68.3%||Six picks and no TD's in 103 attempts; was sacked on 13.4 percent of dropbacks as opposed to starter Erik Kramer's five percent|
|Gus Frerotte||2002||CIN||58.5%||Bright side: His poor performance gave the Bengals the first pick and the chance to take Carson Palmer|
|Steve Stenstrom||1999||SF||47.1%||His four games as a 49er with more than 10 attempts yielded 22 points. Combined.|
|Kurt Kittner||2003||ATL||46.3%||Had games of 32, 65, 78, and 80 passing yards.|
|Billy Joe Hobert||1996||OAK||44.5%||Averaged 12.7 points per start against pass defenses ranked 15th, 21st, and 30th in the league|
|Jesse Palmer||2003||NYG||44.0%||Plateaued with one of the worst games imaginable: 18-of-43 for 110 yards and four picks against the Panthers.|
|Mike McMahon||2005||PHI||43.4%||Not having T.O. didn't help, but then again, Donovan McNabb didn't really have T.O. that year, either|
Who Could Leave?
Zach Thomas is gone, citing an inability to adjust to playing in the 3-4. He wasn't particularly effective and may very possibly retire. Greg Ellis could be cut, with Anthony Spencer usurping a good chunk of his playing time as the season went along. The safety Roy Williams is also likely to be released if he doesn't take Thomas' spot as a middle linebacker.
Chris Canty is an unrestricted free agent, with Jason Hatcher the obvious replacement. Backups available as UFAs include Tank Johnson, Miles Austin, Kevin Burnett, Keith Davis, Stephen Bowen, Anthony Curtis, and Tony Proctor.
Who Could They Sign?
The first name on everyone's lips is Ray Lewis, but I don't buy it or think it's a good idea. Lewis would be another chief in a tribe full of them, and his signing would immediately incense Bradie James, who is on a big no-respect kick after having a middling year and not making the Pro Bowl. The Cowboys also have holes to fill across the defense, and need to conserve cap space to resign DeMarcus Ware. Someone like former Jaguars middle linebacker Mike Peterson makes a lot more sense. They need to add depth at end if Canty leaves, which could lead to a bid for someone like veteran Renaldo Wynn.
They also need a safety to slot in next to Ken Hamlin, but there's a weak crop in free agency. Darren Sharper could be an option if Minnesota lets him go, while they could also chase former Patriots safety James Sanders.
New York Giants
What should the Giants do with Brandon Jacobs and Derrick Ward?
The biggest question facing the Giants this offseason has to do with their cadre of running backs. Both Brandon Jacobs and Derrick Ward are unrestricted free agents, leaving only Ahmad Bradshaw of the vaunted Giants trio of "Earth, Wind, and Fire" guaranteed to return to the team. The Giants placed the franchise tender on Jacobs last week, but could still let him go if they don't come to terms on a long-term contract or find an acceptable offer in trade.
Each of them have their own respective strengths and weaknesses. Jacobs is the power back, a mix of speed and size almost impossible to find elsewhere, but he gets banged up and has missed time each of the past three seasons. Ward is a patient runner who is brilliant at reading pulling guards Chris Snee and Rich Seubert on the Giants' toss and off-tackle plays, but his skill set is more easily replaced than that of Jacobs. Ward also broke his leg in 2007.
There are 32 instances since 1983 where a team whose starting running back averaged at least 4.5 yards per carry with at least 200 carries in a given season and had a new lead running back the following year. Those new backs, on average, saw their yards per carry fall by 0.63 yards in the subsequent season -- a huge fall. When the Giants replaced Tiki Barber with Jacobs as their lead back in 2007, he averaged .09 fewer yards per carry than Barber had the year before.
Of course, the common denominator in all of the success the Giants' backs have enjoyed is their great offensive line. The Giants' five starters on the offensive line have started every regular season game for the past two seasons, making them the healthiest line in football. That's simply not likely to continue thanks to the law of averages; in the long run, losing someone like Snee or center Shaun O'Hara could be far more painful than losing either Jacobs or Ward.
Who Could Leave?
As the Giants begin the process of locking up many of their younger players (most notably Eli Manning), many veterans will be on their way out; Reuben Droughns, Sammy Knight (a failure from last year's free agent period,) and Sam Madison are all gone, while 13-year Giant Amani Toomer is unlikely to be resigned. New York will also need to decide on the running back situation mentioned above.
The bigger question is what to do with Plaxico Burress, who would cost the team around $4.4 million on their 2009 cap if he was released. The impact Burress' absence had on the team on the field was obvious, so if he does leave, the Giants will need to find a similar sort of player to replace him.
Who Could They Sign?
The Giants will get a boost with the return of Osi Umenyiora, which moves Mathias Kiwanuka back to linebacker. They also will have an extra $7 million on this year's cap thanks to the infamous "likely to be earned" incentive that Darcy Johnson somehow did not earn. Estimates of their salary cap space before the Eli extension seem to center around $21 million, which could allow them to go after one big player.
Who that player might be? Hard to say. Nnamdi Asomugha doesn't make sense; the Giants just extended Corey Webster on a long-term deal, and it's unlikely that the organization would give up on former first-round pick Aaron Ross after two seasons, especially considering how long it took Webster to develop. Albert Haynesworth would create terror amongst defenses with Tuck and Umenyiora around him, but he might be too expensive for the Giants, who have been hesitant to give a defensive tackle big money. T.J. Houshmandzadeh makes the most sense, but if he makes it onto the marketplace, the Giants could be outbid by a number of teams.
Expect the Giants to resign Manning and Jacobs, then pick up a couple of smaller free agents on offense.
Will the Eagles solve their short-yardage woes?
Philadelphia was oft-criticized this year for their inability to run the ball in short-yardage situations, thanks primarily to a key goal-line stand by the Bears in their 24-20 victory over the Eagles in Week 4. The frustration bled into a general concern that Andy Reid needed to run the ball more in order to find the proper balance for his pass-happy offense.
Running the ball in short-yardage situations tends to be a wiser move than throwing it. With two yards or less to go for a first down or a touchdown last year, run plays picked up the necessary yardage 69.8 percent of the time; pass plays were successful only 54.6 percent of the time.
Although the average NFL team threw the ball in these situations 34 percent of the time, the Eagles chose to throw the ball with two yards to go 46 percent of the time. They were successful in those pass plays 56 percent of the time; when they ran the ball, though, they were successful 62 percent of the time. They were better at passing the ball in short-yardage than the average team, but even though they were worse than the league average at running, they were still more successful running the ball in short-yardage than throwing it. While the possibility exists for a big play when you throw in a short-yardage situation, Philadelphia only had one pass play of more than 20 yards in those situations last year.
Who Could Leave?
The three notable free agents are Eagles mainstays Brian Dawkins, Tra Thomas, and Jon Runyan, the latter of which just had microfracture surgery on his right knee. Runyan will likely stay with the team and start the year on PUP; Thomas and Dawkins may very well be casualties, with plenty of depth available in the draft at both positions. "Franchise Player" L.J. Smith is also a free agent and likely to depart. Cornerback Lito Sheppard had a dismal year and is a likely salary cap casualty.
Who Could They Sign?
The Eagles are well-known for going after the cream of the crop in free agency, and they could very easily have $30 million or more to work with if so inclined. On the shopping list? Depth at tight end, which they'll likely find in the draft, for one. A tackle to replace Thomas and/or Runyan, which they could find in the draft or in free agency. Jordan Gross is a perfect fit as an elite pass protector, or they could opt to reunite the brothers Andrews and sign Stacy away from the Bengals. If unhappy with the work of Chris Gocong on the outside, they could also opt to make a splash for Terrell Suggs, who would add an elite pass rusher to the front seven. While T.J. Houshmandzadeh has gone on record as saying he'd like to be an Eagle, it's not a likely fit; the Eagles are likely committed to Kevin Curtis and DeSean Jackson as their starting wide receivers for next year, and have a financial commitment to Reggie Brown as well.
What is Carlos Rogers doing in Jim Zorn's doghouse?
Rumors persist that the Redskins are dangling cornerback Carlos Rogers, a former first-round pick, in trade talks to replace the pick sent to Miami in the Jason Taylor trade. The thinking in the Washington front office is that Rogers can be replaced by free agent acquisition DeAngelo Hall, who started to usurp Rogers' playing time as the season went along to the point.
Would it be a good move? We can answer that question with our Game Charting data, which is compiled by a group of volunteers who break down every play of the NFL season to analyze, among many things, who was in coverage and why a pass was complete or incomplete.
This yields some interesting data for comparing the performance of Hall and Rogers. Here are the metrics for all of the Washington corners this year:
Hall's numbers are fantastic, but they're also subject to a small sample size; Hall played only seven games as a Redskin. As a Raider, Hall was awful; he had 56 passes thrown at him, and he allowed 9.0 yards per attempt with a success rate of 43 percent. While the Redskins have a better pass rush than the Raiders, it didn't stop Nnamdi Asomugha from posting elite numbers across from Hall. Hall also failed to put up these sort of numbers throughout his career with the Falcons, implying that his short-season performance with the 'Skins was a bit of a fluke.
Rogers did get worse as the season went along, but he was still very passable. He had a success rate of 66 percent while allowing only 5.3 yards per pass before the Week 10 bye, with that falling to 57 percent and 6.2 yards per pass in the second half. Keeping him on the roster is the best plan for the Redskins heading into 2009.
Who Could Leave?
Guard Pete Kendall could leave after not being resigned to a new deal following his arrival from the Jets; the Redskins won't have very much in salary cap space, so it'll be hard to give Kendall more than the free market. They could choose to get rid of Rogers or cut Shawn Springs, with Jason Taylor another possibility for release. They'll also lose several linemen, including Demetric Evans, Kedric Golston, Phillip Daniels, and Anthony Montgomery.
Who Could They Sign?
Virtually nobody; even resigning Hall to a decent-money deal would be a small miracle. The Redskins will be picking for scraps in free agency with needs on both lines, which could possibly yield cheap players like Cowboys defensive end Stephen Bowen or former Jaguars guard Chris Naeole.