In the NFC East, it's always best to pay attention to the team that no one is paying attention to. And no team avoids attention, while still being a perennial contender, like the New York Giants. The Giants are back and same-r than ever, but that might not be enough to stop the RG3 tidal wave. The Eagles are in a hurry, but even Chip Kelly's warp drive won't make them contenders this year, while the humiliation of Jason Garrett continues unabated in Dallas. The NFC's strongest division for years, the East is now the conference's weakest. Whether that speeds RG3's ascendance to immortality or allows Tom Coughlin to slip unnoticed into another Super Bowl is yet to be determined.
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In a Tweet: ICYMI, RG3 MVP? IMHO, IDK, Smh. TTFN.
What's New: Robert Griffin has grown from a dynamic rookie into a cottage industry: a one-man wellspring of sports-talk topics, from the viability of the read-option to the dangers of being a one-man wellspring of sports-talk topics. Otherwise, Redskins changes are minimal. The Redskins quit the free agent market cold-turkey (next year, they will act like your chain smoking sister-in-law on Facebook: "One full day smoke free and I feel … NEWPORT LIGHHHHHHTS") and lacked a first round pick, so there are only a handful of new faces.
What's Old: Mike Shanahan's version of the read-option consists of Griffin-friendly fins grafted onto a 1990s Bronco. That's not a bad thing, of course: the Broncos won Super Bowls with Shanahan's stretches-and-rollouts system in the 1990s, and Griffin felt comfortable in them right up until he was forced to innovate the "read option gimpout" in the playoffs. Ageless London Fletcher still anchors the defense, but most of the Redskins key players are just entering their prime.
Football Outsiders Stat: The Redskins were among the most effective first-down offenses in the NFL: 5.1 yards per rushing play, 8.5 yards per passing play. First down success and zone-option-play action success feed off each other: the unpredictability of the neo-Shanahan offense makes it hard to stop on first down, and first down success keeps the Redskins out of third-and-long situations that make them predictable.
Best-Case Scenario: Griffin stays healthy. Offensive weapons like Alfred Morris and Pierre Garcon build on last year's success. Ryan Kerrigan and Brian Orakpo stay healthy for a full season and provide a pass rush that takes more of the burden off Griffin. The Redskins host some playoff games, and this time they won't let a rodeo, tractor pull, motocross and jam-band festival use Fed-Ex Field and turn it into an ACL killing field.
Worst-Case Scenario: Setting aside Griffin re-injury anxieties, the Redskins were 3-6 entering their bye last season. They have a makeshift secondary and a by-committee receiving corps that relied heavily on Santana Moss' guile and the element of surprise last year. The dreaded "defenses catch up all at once" read-optocalypse is unlikely, but a little more defensive preparedness could stall the Redskins around .500.
Bottom Line: Griffin will be an MVP candidate sooner than later, assuming Shanahan does not send him optioning through muddy gullies when he is already limping. Griffin, Morris, Shanny and Son, the pass rush, and a weakened division will get the Redskins to double-digit wins, and they should have a puncher's chance against the NFC powerhouses. The Redskins finally have a franchise quarterback, so they now have franchise quarterback problems: keeping him healthy, surrounding him with talent, managing expectations as he achieves Prince George fame-popularity levels. It's a happy set of problems to have after years of "someone please hide Dan Snyder's checkbook," but it will take another year to determine if the Redskins know how to solve them.
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New York Giants
In a Tweet: On pace to be the best 9-7 team ever, or at least since the 2011 Giants.
What's New: Um, the team practice facility has changed sponsors? Not much changes in East Rutherford.
What's Old: The whole gang is back, and they are doing things in the proud Giants tradition. Take Victor Cruz, who encapsulated the essence of a Giants offseason all by himself. Cruz wanted a contract extension. The team dragged its feet, even though Cruz is one of their most important players. Both sides struck a deal in July, just before it became a serious problem. Cruz made a highlight-reel catch in the first preseason game. Cruz injured his foot in the second preseason game and spent the rest of August on crutches. Now THAT'S a Giants offseason. Instead of acquiring new players, the Giants drag their old ones through the money hassle-injury scare process, which somehow works like a hot bath/ice bath spa treatment to keep them invigorated.
Football Outsiders Stat: The Giants have had a backloaded schedule for years. From 2006 through 2012, their average opponent in the first half of the season had a .446 winning percentage, while their second-half opponents had a .573 winning percentage. So the annual "what's wrong with the Giants" speculation in November and December has an easy answer: "they are facing better opponents." The problem could return this season, with the Seahawks, Packers and both Redskins games on the second half of the schedule. Though an early slate that features three road games and a visit from the Broncos is no picnic, either.
Best-Case Scenario: We have seen the Giants best-case scenario twice in the last six years. They slow-and-steady their way through the regular season, get all gritty in the playoffs, and win the Super Bowl as heavy underdogs.
Worst-Case Scenario: Roughly the same as the best-case scenario, except one or two balls bounce the wrong way, or the Wild Card tiebreakers line up unfavorably, and the Giants miss the playoffs.
Bottom Line: This version of the Giants is so similar to the last eight versions of the Giants that it is hard to imagine any variation in their performance, barring an Eli Manning injury or something. The Giants are sturdy from the owner's box to the bottom of the roster. Despite years of success, the roster is not particularly old, as youngsters are constantly sifting their way up the depth chart. The Giants never really look like Super Bowl contenders until the moment Tom Coughlin lifts the trophy, so while this team looks like an ordinary sedan in the showroom, it is only because the Giants hide all their engineering under the hood.
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In a Tweet: Chip Kelly doesn't use Twitter. It's not instantaneous enough for him.
What's New: A lot. Let's cover it Kelly style! Chip Kelly is the boss now. He's installing a read-option heavy offense. With no huddle. All up-tempo, all the time. The defense is a 3-4 now. Billy Davis is the coordinator. Lots of new defensive personnel. The 2011 dream teamers are long gone. There may be four new starters in the secondary. The Eagleswillruntheball more and pushtheenvelopeofemergentstrategies (gasp, gasp).
What's Old: Michael Vick won a quarterback battle that should have been a foregone conclusion. Most of the offensive starters are holdovers from the Andy Reid era.
Football Outsiders Stat: The Patriots executed the fastest offense in the NFL last year, averaging 24.53 seconds of game clock per offensive play. Kelly wants to go even faster, though he will face restrictions ranging from slow ball-spotting by officials to the limits of his own linemens' endurance. For all the talk of the read-option, up-tempo tactics are really the next frontier of NFL strategy, and Kelly appears determined to ride the razor's edge.
Best-Case Scenario: The innovations take hold, Vick stays healthy and happy, Nick Foles provides credible relief if-when Vick is unavailable, the defense comes together, and the Eagles become the NFL's most dangerous spoilers.
Worst-Case Scenario: The Kelly offense encounters all manner of early-adopter problems. Stalled drives and a gassed defense result in blowout losses, and some of the read-option doomsday prophecies (crushed quarterbacks! adapted defenses!) prove true. The Kelly method starts to look unappealing to the NFL, and the NFL starts to look unappealing to Kelly. Nick Saban and Steve Spurrier take him out for lunch one day, and …
Bottom Line: Kelly's offense could kick into efficient overdrive in Week 1, and the Eagles still will not be playoff contenders. There are too many new faces on defense, many of them journeymen acquired to glue the lineup together after the Eagles jettisoned the failed "Dream Team" gang. Beyond the win-loss record, this season will be a referendum on Kelly's tactics. The 2013 Eagles will be a fish that crawls onto land with foot-like fins. It won't build a Starbucks, but Kelly must make sure it lays eggs before it dies.
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In a Tweet: Jerry Jones has a 2007 roster and 1999 coaching staff. If he time-travels all the way to 1991, he's got something.
What's New: Offensive coordinator Bill Callahan will call the plays, with Tony Romo taking a more active hand in both game-planning and audibles. Monte Kiffin comes out of retirement to resurrect the Tampa-2 on defense. Stephen Jones has started to go all J.R. Ewing, stepping from the shadows to do daddy-like things: overruling the team's draft board to select Travis Frederick in the first round, wasting half of August coaxing veteran guards out of retirement, etc. Jason Garrett still gets to make sandwiches in the team commissary, but if he uses too much mayo, Jerry will call a press conference.
What's Old: Romo, Jason Witten, DeMarcus Ware and Jay Ratliff (who starts the season on the PUP list) are all Bill Parcells holdovers, yet they remain the Cowboys' most important players on offense and defense. Kiffin left the NFL in 2008 and was last seen resigning from the USC coaching staff so his son Lane would not have to fire him. (These guys really do put the Dallas in Dallas Cowboys.) Garrett has been a lame duck for so long that the cooks at Happy Chinese Buffet would refuse to serve him.
Football Outsiders Stat: Anthony Spencer was better than Ware in many ways last season. Their sack totals were similar (11.5 for Ware, 11 for Spencer), and Ware produced 22 hurries to Spencer's 12, but Spencer recorded 76 Stops to Ware's 46 and allowed just four broken tackles to Ware's seven. Spencer also took care of business when dropping into coverage, defensing three passes and making lots of plays on screens. Woo-hoo! Except … Spencer was hurt for much of camp (like Ratliff, he should be back soon), and he will move from linebacker to defensive end for Kiffin, limiting his mobility and versatility. D'oh!
Best-Case Scenario: Young players like Sean Lee, Tyron Smith, Dez Bryant and Morris Claiborne finally begin wresting the spotlight from the Romo generation. The Tampa-2 turns out to be an old solution to new read-option problems. The mix of old and new propels the Cowboys into the playoffs, where Romo silences all of the "not clutch" chatter.
Worst-Case Scenario: Handing playcalling to two old coaches whose careers were nose-diving, over-drafting players your own scouts weren't too high on, and expecting a nucleus that peaked in 2007-09 to suddenly get young again works exactly how most of us might expect.
Bottom Line: The Cowboys are the anti-Giants, a team assembled on whims and gut feelings instead of careful-to-a-fault roster management. They have avoided a 3-13 sinkhole season for years because a) Parcells cultivated such an abundance of talent a decade ago, and b) Jones is just savvy enough to acquire a high-end player or two per year. The Cowboys remain lost when it comes to assembling rank-and-file talent (the Giants' specialty), and at times they seem to resent the task. Jerry Jones' wheeler-dealer routine would work if he delegated real power to anyone with a different last name, but all of his fiddle-faddle about play-calling duties indicates that he is growing even more meddlesome as the years pass. The Cowboys are closing in on late-era Al Davis territory, and unless the Romo Generation has a now-or-never Renaissance in them, 2013 will be event horizon for the black hole.