NFC East Over/Unders: Meeting the Washington Commanders
NFL Preseason Week 1 - Bryan: Welcome back to our preseason run through the league's over/unders! We schedule these to coincide with nationally televised preseason games, as a convenient hook for fans. But there are no nationally televised games this week, so we shall instead turn to a division that is regularly starved for any sort of national attention, that being the NFC East.
Cale: While it still dominates our national media schedules, it feels like it has been quite some time since the days where the NFC East was the division to beat in all of football. Now, every team in the division has some major question marks, none of them really flirting with the national NFC conversation dominated by the Packers, Buccaneers, and most of the NFC West.
Bryan: At the same time, I think the ceiling is higher for the teams in this division than the public generally accepts. For all of the Cowboys' postseason failures, they are still a regular fixture at the top of our tables and were last year's DVOA champs. Our projections love the Eagles, perhaps unreasonably so. Washington just got a shiny new quarterback and is poised to put up the best season ever in Commanders history.
And then the Giants, too, will be playing some football. At least, that's what I am told.
Dallas Cowboys (10)
Bryan: Is it premature to jump the gun and just ask which round of the playoffs the Cowboys will be eliminated in this year? Because they have most of the pieces you would expect from a contending team, but I find I have absolutely no faith in those pieces working together come January.
Cale: Honestly, my lack of faith in this Cowboys team begins with last January. The loss to the 49ers was rough, mainly because they couldn't get things rolling offensively. Tony Pollard got no traction on the ground, nor did Ezekiel Elliott. CeeDee Lamb got just one catch on five targets as Dak Prescott was pummeled by the San Francisco pass rush.
Now? That offense might be in a worse spot than they were last year. Zeke and Pollard both have another year of tread on them, and while I expect Prescott to return to form, he'll have his work cut out for him. Between offseason departures and preseason injuries, Lamb is basically the last high-quality receiver left on the offense.
Bryan: And let's pause for a moment to laugh at the Cowboys giving up Amari Cooper for a fifth-round pick just before the biggest offseason bonanza for wide receivers in NFL history. Misreading the market is one thing, but paying Cooper $20 million a year looks a little more reasonable now than it did last offseason. Whoops!
Cale: Just a little more than the Patriots got back for N'Keal Harry. Yikes.
Bryan: Between that and losing Randy Gregory over weird contract language, the Cowboys didn't exactly cover themselves with glory this offseason. It was kind of the contractual equivalent of, say, running a draw play with no timeouts remaining in the final seconds of a playoff game, just to pick an example of a poor decision entirely at random.
Cale: And the defense they're left with, while sprinkled with big-name starters, is going to be seriously impacted by missing guys such as Gregory. Adding Anthony Barr certainly helps with some of that, but I have a little bit of concern about just how much Dallas will rely on Micah Parsons to carry the load. An elite talent? Obviously. I think Parsons has already solidified himself as one of the best young linebackers in football, well on his way to dropping that "young" tag as a qualifier. But he has gotten reps as the Mike, an off-ball linebacker, and now Dan Quinn has talked about working him in more as an edge rusher. Positional versatility is one thing, but how many hats is Parsons going to have to wear this year just to keep this front seven afloat?
Bryan: Fortunately, most of the hats fit Parsons, even though I think he looks most dapper as an edge rusher. I suppose the question is whether it's an issue of Parsons trying to fill multiple holes or Quinn acknowledging that he has a unicorn of a talent here; a chess piece he can move almost anywhere in the front seven and get a positive matchup. And they still have Demarcus Lawrence, too, so Parsons isn't a solo act. I don't think the Cowboys will be as good defensively as they were last year, but I have no problems calling them a top-10 unit.
I'm a little more skeptical on offense, just because of the receiver situation. Cooper's gone and both Michael Gallup and James Washington are hurt and will miss time into the regular season. I like Dak Prescott a lot, but I'm not sure the Cowboys' weapons are up to par with what we consider a contending team, at least not as the year begins.
Cale: With all that said, this is an easy schedule—third easiest in the league, per our projections. Playing in this division will help that, but getting the NFC North and AFC South makes this a cake walk. I have my concerns about this team, but I think just having CeeDee alone would be enough to run over the likes of the Bears and Texans. Over 10 feels like a really safe number for me, given this schedule. I just don't see this team going 9-8 or worse, even with the question marks.
Bryan: I hate the whole-number lines, as 10-7 seems like an entirely reasonable result for the 2022 Cowboys. But yeah, I'm with you on the over. Most of my questions about the Cowboys are more about how they're going to match up with the cream of the cream of the conference, where coaching errors and specific positional weaknesses can be the difference between winning a title or not. That will not be an issue against the Little Sisters of the Poor on Dallas' schedule, so 9-8 would be a frankly shocking result, and would presumably lead to Mike McCarthy's dismissal. More time to study analytics in the offseason, I guess!
New York Giants (7)
Cale: I think the John Mara press conference toward the end of the 2021 regular season really set the tone for this 2022 Giants team. It got its own section in the 2022 edition of Year in Quotes. Mara practically issued a public apology for how his last few coaching hires had gone, claiming the 2021 season was the most embarrassed he has ever been as Giants owner and officially putting the nail in the coffin of the Dave Gettleman era. When someone brings up your fourth-year, former No. 6 overall quarterback and you respond by saying "We have done everything possible to screw this kid up since he has been here," you know your team's due for a reset.
Bryan: There was a lot of detritus to clean up, and the Giants really didn't have the resources to do much about it this offseason. I don't think they'll be the worst team in football. I don't think they're the worst run team in football. But if I had to pick one team to miss the postseason this year, the team with the lowest chance of actually playing football past Week 18, I would pick the Giants. I just see almost no reason for optimism, even crazy optimism, for the squad this season.
If the draft class had been any deeper, I don't think we would be seeing Daniel Jones as starting quarterback; the Giants seemed ready to move on, but there was no one really worth moving on to. The rest of the roster wasn't good enough to really justify giving things up for a Baker Mayfield or a Jimmy Garoppolo; they would raise the potential floor for this team, but without a significant boost to their postseason odds. So they're just kind of sitting and waiting, hoping that Brian Daboll can work some magic and make Jones, or Saquon Barkley, or really any of the recent high-profile disappointments work out. Color me skeptical.
Cale: I mean, if there's one guy who can turn this around, it's Daboll. Look at the Year 3 magic he was able to work with Josh Allen. There are absolutely shortcomings in Jones' game that Allen doesn't have, but I feel like it's not a crazy distant comparison. And Daboll feels like the first real offensive coach Jones has had. He wouldn't even need the historic top-10 turnaround. I think people would be planning 2023 parade routs if Daboll got Jones to, like, 15th in DVOA among starting quarterbacks.
Bryan: Or look at the magic Daboll worked with, uh, Matt Cassel as coordinator in Kansas City. Or Matt Moore in Miami. Or Colt McCoy in Cleveland! Wait…
Alright, I'm being too hard on Daboll there. Those were over a decade ago and are not exactly a murderer's row of talented prospects. Jones would theoretically be better than that, even if I felt he was a significant reach when the Giants took him at No. 6 (never mind that I was instead pulling for them to draft Dwayne Haskins; drafting is hard). And Daboll crafted an offense to work around Allen's skills, and worked with the quarterback to help him fundamentally change his mechanics to help produce that unprecedented jump. So, no, I don't think Daboll is the worst choice at all to work with Jones. I'm just struggling to picture what an offense designed around Jones' strengths would look like, as he hasn't really shown anything that I would feel comfortable building upon yet.
Cale: I also think Daboll is under the least pressure of any new coach—maybe Mike McDaniel as a close second—to succeed in 2022. They both have the quarterback as their scapegoat. Daboll has the added benefit of being perfectly aligned with his buddy from Buffalo, Joe Schoen.
We haven't even brought up that we project the Giants to boast the worst defense in football. You can talk about the struggles this offense will face, but at least there's something to work with there with Kenny Golladay, Darius Slayton, Kadarius Toney, et cetera. This defense is barren, especially in the secondary with James Bradberry and Logan Ryan skipping town.
The question is: is this team bad enough to fall below the dregs of the competition they'll be facing on their schedule? I'm taking the under, but honestly I think they'll cut it closer than we think.
Bryan: It's worth noting that the Giants have the hardest schedule in the division according to our projections. That is mostly because they do not get the benefit of playing the New York Giants. I'm with you on the under, but it's a more confident under from me. I think the Giants are more likely to be battling for the first pick in the draft than they are to be trying to avoid double-digit losses.
Philadelphia Eagles (9.5)
Bryan: I'm not sure there's a team where our numbers diverge from conventional wisdom as much as with the Eagles. Our projections have Philadelphia as the third-most likely team to make the postseason; betting odds have them 10th. We have them as the fifth-most likely team to win the Super Bowl; at +2500, the markets have them 14th. Mike Tanier has been messing with our projection computer again, hasn't he?
Cale: Hold on, maybe Mike's on to something here. I mean, I'm higher on Jalen Hurts than most, and this is inarguably the best situation he has been in offensively. The stable of running backs helped propel Philadelphia to the third-best offensive rushing DVOA last year. Now, not only does Hurts have the dynamic Devonta Smith and Dallas Goedert to throw to, but he has A.J. Freakin' Brown on the outside. It's a miracle that the Titans were the only team willing to give up their piece of the 2019 wide receiver class, but the Eagles are much better for it.
Also doesn't hurt that the Eagles were able to bring back Jason Kelce, with his hand-picked replacement Cam Jurgens waiting in the wings. The rest of the line is solid, but having Kelce back in the fold saved this team from a lot of unneeded headaches.
Bryan: I think the Eagles have improved a lot from last season, and they had already improved last season from where they were the year before. I like the direction the team is trending in, and while I'm not 100% sold on Hurts, I'm at least intrigued. The duo of Brown and Smith is a tremendous pair, and yes, the Eagles really lucked out that the Titans panicked at the market and dumped Brown for pennies on the dollar. I love the offensive line, with Kelce, Lane Johnson, and Jordan Mailata anchoring it.
And the defense is improved, too—James Bradberry is a significant add, and Jaquiski Tartt, despite possessing hands of stone, is an upgrade as well. They added Haason Reddick to the pass rush, they drafted well by adding Jordan Davis and Nakobe Dean—I absolutely see what our projections are latching on to.
I still think the Cowboys are better, but I suppose that's not the question we're being asked to answer today.
Cale: Yeah, and even still I think the Eagles have an outside shot at overtaking Dallas for the NFC East. I'm really excited for what this team has to offer in 2022, and even though there may not be the most security around Hurts' quarterback position, I don't think this is the year they move on from him.
With the talent on this roster, coupled with the easiest projected schedule in football, I like Philly enough to take the over. At worst, I see them as a 10-plus-win wild-card team, but again, I honestly don't hate them as a team to contend for the NFC East. That offense is just that exciting to me.
Bryan: To match our projections, Hurts has to take another step forward this year; I would argue that he's the weakest link on the team as things currently stand. And I'm always concerned when a weak link is the quarterback, as that has the potential to bring an otherwise well-constructed team to the ground. But Hurts is still young and growing, and it's entirely conceivable he makes that next step. I'd go under based on our projections, but I'm happy with the over at 9.5.
Washington Commanders (8)
Bryan: Freaking Madden auto-generated franchise, the Commanders. Terrible, disastrous uniforms. A name that is simultaneously generic and too reminiscent of "Washington Generals" for my liking; they have queued themselves up for endless jokes there. Two years of suffering through "Football Team," and this is the best rebrand Washington could come up with? What, does Dan Snyder have something more pressing on his time than this?
… oh. Well, fair enough.
Cale: I'll keep myself brief, but what a disaster the uniform/mascot rollout was for Washington. Every name on the list was better than "Commanders," there's no cohesion to the uniform set, the whole thing's a mess.
And yet, it almost feels fitting to unveil those uniforms and mascot the same year they trade for Carson Wentz to be their new quarterback. Showing up in a hot dog suit straight out of an I Think You Should Leave sketch is comedy in itself, but it fits the tone of what this team is. Madden auto-generated franchise couldn't be a better description. A few players here and there who would be household names if they played for any other team, but for the most part this is just a nothing-burger of a roster. Wentz fits in great as the face of a team like this.
Bryan: I understand that, as a 49ers supporter, I'm probably higher on Jimmy Garoppolo than the average NFL fan. And that I'm probably even a little higher on Baker Mayfield than the general populace as well. But how you pick Carson Wentz over either one of those guys as your big offseason acquisition is beyond me. It's not like this is the Steelers or Falcons, both of whom would have an upgrade with Garoppolo or Mayfield but instead are giving rookies chances behind moderately-paid veterans. The Commanders presumably grabbed Wentz because they thought he would give them the best chance to win, and that just seems wrong on its face.
Cale: I bought a Baker Mayfield riding the (inebriated) hype of his Monday Night Football win over the Jets his rookie year, so I feel like I have signed a blood oath to back Baker, but even without that, Wentz loses the kill-buff-marry of that trio of available offseason quarterbacks.
That being said … is this the best offense Wentz has had around him since, what, the Super Bowl season? I'd certainly take Terry McLaurin over Alshon Jeffery or Nelson Agholor. This is a very solid trio of receivers in McLaurin, Curtis Samuel, and Jahan Dotson, and I'm especially high on Brian Robinson playing alongside Antonio Gibson and J.D. McKissic. The offensive line leaves a lot to be desired, but the weapons here are good.
Bryan: Oh, I'd argue last year's Colts offense was better than this year's Commanders, with Jonathan Taylor and Michael Pittman and the offensive line and whathaveyou.
Cale: Don't know how I forgot Taylor existed. Best receiver corps, maybe? Is there a way to save this take?
Bryan: Lean in hard to running backs don't matter? I will spot you the receiver corps being strong, but can any of them catch left-handed passes? Because that's always a possibility when Wentz is forced to improvise.
Cale: True, and if I learned anything from last year's Any Given Sunday about the Colts' loss to the Raiders, it's that Wentz will miss wide-open receivers by 5 yards if he's in anything but a perfectly clean pocket.
Bryan: There's a little more room for optimism on the defensive side of the ball, where our projections have Washington rebounding from last year's 27th-place finish. But Chase Young is going to miss time at the beginning of the season, which will dampen the strength of that on-paper ferocious line a bit. I'm not a fan of their cornerbacks outside Kendall Fuller, and the less said about the linebacker corps, the better.
It feels a bit like Ron Rivera's last stand. Washington hasn't had a winning season since 2016—one coach, four quarterbacks, and two name changes ago. If that doesn't change this year, it's hard to imagine Washington not blowing everything up and starting again in 2023. And despite the second-easiest schedule in our projections, I just don't see the Commanders being able to compete. I'm going under—they may still end up better than the Giants, just on talent outside of quarterback, but at least it feels like the Giants have a plan going forward. The Commanders are floundering.
Cale: Wouldn't it be so Washington for this team to overachieve just enough for Snyder to justify running this whole thing back for another year, Wentz, Rivera, and all? I'd take the over almost off the comedy that would ensue from that, but eight wins is too steep. Under feels right. Another situation where the line feels sharp enough where the push almost feels like the most likely outcome, but I don't like this team enough to predict a winning record.
Bryan: Four agreements in a row. Yup, we're in classic form here! Maybe we'll find something more to disagree on later this week when we tackle the AFC East.