Four Downs: NFC East

Four Downs: NFC East

by Bill Barnwell

Dallas Cowboys

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.

Worst Backup Quarterbacks In DVOA History
Player Year Team Difference Notes
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.

Philadelphia Eagles

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.

Washington Redskins

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:

Redskins Cornerbacks in 2008
Player Passes Yds/Pass Success Rate
Carlos Rogers 92 5.6 63%
DeAngelo Hall 24 3.2 67%
Shawn Springs 34 6.3 53%
Fred Smoot 56 8.7 38%

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.


30 comments, Last at 01 Mar 2009, 6:08am

1 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

I have to wonder how the upcoming presumed uncapped year would affect the money thrown at players this season. For one thing, I could see the Cowboys holding off on that D-Ware extension until next year, when they can frontload as much of the money as they want without real consequence.
Another point: I agree that Bradie James is not as good as he thinks he is, but middling? He led the team in tackles, was one of the few players on that team who looked at all interested, somehow racked up 8 sacks as an Inside linebacker in a 3-4. That's almost unparalleled. I know all too well he gets embarassed by receivers in coverage, but the man's a very solid player.

2 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

Dawkins might leave except that the team has already announced they expect to re-sign him, and word is they're negotiating with Thomas. Runyan is probably done. Stacy Andrews would be an interesting picky, but I'm leery about an OL recovering from an torn ACL. I also won't be heartbroken if they sign Ward to something reasonable.

What's the book on Austin? Has he been hampered by Jerruh's impatience and fetish for big names, or is "3rd WR" as good as he's going to get?

Hail Hydra!

21 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

Oh, yes. The Eagles will sign all of your hard-working, under-appreciated WRs while the Cowboys continue to flounder with Jerruh's "stars." It's all part of our nefarious plan. Moo-hoo-haa-haa-haaaa!

Hail Hydra!

23 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

Or it could be an attempt by the Eagles to sign someone to compete with DeSean Jackson and Quinton Demps for the punt returner role. Which would allow them to use Jackson more as a WR and Demps more as Safety/nickel defender.

He could be the next Wes Welker, as both of them played WR and PR at Texas Tech during thier time there.

3 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

You mean the final Four Downs of this first round, AFTER you finalize this first round with the AFC West, right?

10 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

Bill doesn't want to do the AFC West because that's where Chris Chambers plays.

He doesn't want to do the AFC East because that's where Chambers used to play

5 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

Miles Austin, Tony Curtis, Cory Procter, Steven Bowen, and Sam Hurd are Restricted Free Agents. Tank Johnson, Zach Thomas, Keith Davis, Chris Canty, Kevin Burnett, Brooks Bollinger, Joe Berger, and Carlos Polk are Unrestricted Free Agents.

Tony Proctor doesn't exist.

Polk was pretty good on special teams, as was Keith Davis. Both need to be kept.

Tank Johnson won't be back after his little outburst following loss at Philly.

Anthony Henry is very likely the new FS for next year unless they draft someone or sign someone. Mike Jenkins (whether deservedly so or not) will more than likely start opposite Newman next year. If Kevin Burnett is re-signed, there is no real hole at LB. Also, former 1st Round pick Bobby Carpenter could get a shot at the starting spot.

No mention of T.O. possibly leaving? I'm surprised. I thought he would be first on the list of possibilities.

DE also isn't a must-have because you can always switch Ratliff to DE and just get some mammoth NT (or put Spears in NT, but then you'd need a DE again).

Other than backup QB, the offense is pretty much set (aside from T.O. shenanigans). I would like to see the Cowboys draft the fastest WR available somewhere between Rounds 2-4 though. This offense is just way too slow (aside from Felix). Roy and T.O. are not burners, and Witten is a TE. Miles Austin is either hurt or inexplicably on the bench. Lack of speed/deep threat really hurt the Cowboys after Felix went down (almost all of the long plays during the season were Felix runs/returns).

The defense does have issues, but I don't think they're that big of a deal. Roy Williams could fill the LB hole OR the Safety hole, but it will take some great architecture by Phillips to keep Roy out of having to cover. Hence, I think LB is the best option for him at this point. Bulk up and just hit people. That's all he could ever do anyways. D-line is up in the air but can easily be worked out. Ratliff can play NT or DE and whichever is best you just need to have someone to do the other. If Roy cannot do anything, well you still have Henry and Hamlin at least for Safeties and you can have Ware, James, Ellis/Spencer, and Carpenter/Burnett (if resigned) at LB. Not the worst lineup in the world, but it could be better.

Glad to hear T.J. is not a lock to Philly. The last thing I want to see is them actually get better than they already are. They're already an incredible pain in the rear. Hopefully next year we actually get one legit win over them (the first game was a crap win because the McNabb/Westbrook should've never had that fumble thing). And then the second was just utterly embarrassing (aside from the best play of the year, which was Romo to Witten to T.O. for like 30+ yards). When will McNabb ever leave? Until he does I don't think I'll ever feel safe playing the Eagles. As much as I hate and despise them, they are a very good team. Maybe I'll get lucky and Westbrook will miss both Cowboy games.

Redskins seem like they are on the verge of being in a major rut. Portis was good last year, but he dropped off near the end. Offense seems pretty weak other than him. Moss is good for a few good games per year, but also has a lot of duds. Defense has a pretty solid secondary (as long as Hall doesn't leave or revert to Raiders Hall), but they aren't dominant by any means. I think Campbell really needs to take a big step this year or he will just drag them down. He is really the only QB in the NFC East who doesn't really create plays and make big things happen. I think if the Redskins had a McNabb/Manning/Romo they would be a very good team.

Giants actually scare me a bit, but not too much. If Plax comes back (which I'm hoping he doesn't), then they could potentially field Manning/Their 5 good O-line guys/Jacobs/Bradshaw/Plax/T.J./Boss. That's a pretty sweet lineup if I do say so myself. I would hate to see it, but it would be very good. I think they'll lose at least 1 O-lineman for a large amount of time next year though (as you said, law of averages), so that will be big (potentially). Defense should also be good with Tuck/Osi/Pierce/Kiwanuka/Robbins.

In the end, I think it will be another great and entertaining year of NFC East football. For the sake of Divisonal superiority, I hope we can get back to having 3/4 make it into the Playoffs. Only 2/4 this year was a bit disheartening (especially for myself and my fellow Cowboys faithful). All that said, I would not shed a tear if the Eagles, Redskins, and Giants all went 0-12-4 and the Cowboys made the Playoffs.

6 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

I had to see Spermon Wynn play in Amsterdam, for the Admirals. Boy that guy was bad. He tried, and I think he tried hard, but he just sucked.

7 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

I, for one, doubt that Kiwanuka goes back to LBer. He was never better than "OK" at it, and it would leave the team without a competent 3rd DE. Maybe he'll line up there occasionally in special packages, but I suspect that he's putting on weight right now to go back to the DL in the "2007 Justin Tuck" role. This leaves the team with question marks at linebacker, with Pierce a year slower and nobody proven beside him, but the team likes some of their young guys (Bryan Kehl), and you can draft 4-3 OLBs.

I also suspect very strongly that the Giants are done with Burress. For now, they have to operate under the assumption that he's going to see some jail time and a likely suspension from the Commissioner. They're also suing him to get some of his bonus money returned, and (probably) quietly seeding the press with stories that paint him in a negative light. (Remember that one a few weeks ago about how many times he's been fined by the team, citing anonymous team sources? Remember when the same type of stories were circulating about Jeremy Shockey before he was traded last year?) Which makes a #1 WR the big glaring need for a team that otherwise looks like a strong contender. Their current WR corps makes a decent 2-5 (Smith, Hixon, Manningham, and Moss or Tyree), but moving each of those guys up a rung leaves the offense with nobody consistent enough to make defenses adjust.

And the market out there for a #1 guy is non-existent. Houshmandzadeh will be overpaid, and isn't the dangerous deep receiver they need anyway. They could pay a king's ransom and trade for someone like Braylon Edwards (remember that he's in the last year of his contract, has new management and coaching that wasn't in the room drafting him, and is not happy with the organization), or pay less and hope that someone like Torry Holt has a year left in his legs. Or grab some less-regarded stopgap (Devery Henderson?) and pray to strike gold in the draft. It's frustrating-- it looks like Plax's idiocy might well doom the team's chances for a second straight year.

8 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

The discussion of the Redskins is totally inaccurate. While they have little cap space, they can create enough to potentially sign every one of the linemen that Barnwell wrote "they will lose." Specifically, Golston and Montgomery are not going anywhere at the very least. I hope they re-sign Evans but for some reason they are letting him test the waters. The Skins also will have no trouble keeping Hall (unfortunately) despite the fact that they are going to pay him serious cash (also unfortunately). It's looking like they will keep Springs and cut J. Taylor.

Kendall is also not a prize these days, despite what many Four Downs articles would have you think. He's old and he had to skip practice every Wednesday because of his creaky knees. At best he will struggle to develop chemistry and there's a real risk that he'll get injured or be ineffective.

(Formerly "The McNabb Bowl Game Anomaly")

11 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

What a horrible experiment Jason Taylor was.

What a great experiment Pete Kendall was! Clinton Portis would not have been Clinton Portis without him.

17 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

I was impressed with Kendall's play this season. I saw a lot of him blocking down field where a linemen probably shouldn't be. No telling how he'd hold up another year though. They need to get younger on the line, replacing a 35 year old journeyman guard is obviously the place to start. With the linemen available in the draft they might even be able to replace him with a rookie.

9 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

any eagles fans able to explain what happened to lito shephard? he's still young and healthy, right? how did he go from very good to hidden on the bench in the span of one year?

20 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

It's all mental for Lito. As soon as he started sulking about his contract, he play on the field started to suffer. One feeds off the other, and he plays worse, sulks more, plays worse, etc. If Lito would take off the diapers, maybe he'd play better.

I actually think a change of scenery would be best for both parties. But that's what makes a trade so difficult.

Why would anybody pay a premium for him now? But why would Philly accept less then a premium for a player they believe will be a huge asset for whatever team acquires him? That catch-22, I figure, is a large part of why he's still on the team.

13 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

Ugh, why oh why do you insist on copy and pasting your lousy Carlos Rogers vs. Angelo Hall analysis every time you mention the skins.

Carlos Rogers is completely incapable of intercepting a pass. You simply cannot be topflight DB if you cannot catch anything. The opposing offense may not have a ton of "success" throwing at Carlos when he's playing at his peak (which was clearly the first half of last year), but they also have zero risk of a terrible outcome (INT) or a game changing outcome (Pick Six).

I think you miss the forest for the trees.

18 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

In reply to by Carlos (not ve… (not verified)

You simply cannot be topflight DB if you cannot catch anything

I'm not sure about that. Interceptions are important, but they're only part of the story. That's why Sheldon Brown is starting for the Eagles over Lito Sheppard.

19 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

i get the impression that like atari bigby, hall is a pass interference machine. i'm pretty sure those flags don't make up for interceptions.

14 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

By the way, this week the Giants' official site had a really nice article on the team's college scouts and the process they go through preparing their assessments of college prospects. It's a good read if you're at all interested in that aspect of how NFL teams operate.

There's a second part that focuses on what the Giants' scouts thought of a few current players for the team, but it was kinda skimpy compared with the first submission.

15 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

Ross isn't close to done with the Giants. Strangely, he was either really good or really bad in 2008. With Kevin Dockery given a second-round tenure, they're probably set at CB for 2009. Terrell Thomas also had a solid rookie season.

22 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

As a Giants fan living in Chapel Hill, all I have to say to the football gods is please allow Hakeem Nicks to fall to us and please allow the Giants the good sense to take him. He's smart, reliable, durable, and doesn't disappear in the big moment. Add to that the fact that he produced consistently under two coaches and 6 non-NFL caliber QBs and I'd say he's as good of a bet as any WR prospect. Reminds me of a young T.O. with his ability to get open and gain big yards after the catch.

24 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

What did the AFC West and AFC East ever do to you? Ran out of steam after 6 of the 8 divisions? I was all excited but now I wait until post draft?

25 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

FO has done all the Four Downs, but on ESPN Insider. I'm sure they will post the final 2 here in a day or so.

26 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

As a Redskins fan, I think FO should do a story on starting QBs who are worse than their backups.

27 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

This barnwell character's got a nice gig always being wrong about the giants. Kiwanuka will not be playing linebacker this year. Barnwell: do me a favor and pick the gmen to have the top pick in the draft next year so they can win the super bowl again; picking them to go 8-8 only got them the top seed in the conference.

28 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

Nice call on the Redskins "not being able to sign anybody". They just signed the #1 free agent in the league- for a whopping $100 million.

What were you doing when you wrote this article, watching The View at the same time?


29 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

Redskins need a quarterback.

Jason Campbell is a dunce and not NFL material.

30 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

You guys aren't very smart. You said the Redskins would be picking at scraps. They've signed three big time free agents already and they are hungry for more. When you write about something for a living, you should really try to know what you are talking about. Anymore posts like that and I'm going to start writing about yo mamma, which is something I know A LOT about. Yes!