Austin On Dallas: 5 Factors That Will Decide The NFC East Race

When making predictions on the brink of the NFL regular season, it’s easy to simply look at the starting players of each team and decide who has the better personnel at full strength.  The reality of the NFL is no team is at full starter strength for 16 games.  And unfortunately for the very unlucky, some teams lose a vital part of their core for the entire season.  It’s just the nature of the beast.

That being said, one still has to place a majority of importance on the starting rosters as they see them panning out at full strength.  It’s a difficult balancing act taking in many factors aside from a starting depth chart and realizing the unpredictable ‘what ifs’ do have an effect on predictions now and then.

With the regular season quickly approaching, let’s take a look at 5 factors that will influence the tight NFC East race for the 2012-13 season.  The competition within the division should be near a peak level.  The TEAM that best balances a multitude of factors certainly has a sizable advantage.

With each of these 5 influencing factors, I will break them into subcategories and give my opinion what team wins that specific area and the overall category.  At the end I will take all of the factors into consideration and give my final pick as to who wins the NFC East.

 

1)  STARTING QUARTERBACK HEALTH

  • A)  RISK OF INJURY  (Winner: New York Giants)

The QB likely to remain the healthiest has to be Eli Manning.  The combination of quick release pocket passing, solid 0-line blocking/continuity, and experienced receivers wins the day here.

Tony Romo is playing behind a questionable line with no regular season continuity on the inside. Both Vick and RGIII are more at risk as they will leave the pocket far more often than the rest.

  • B)  HISTORY OF INJURY  (Winner: New York Giants)

Manning has played in all 16 regular season games since his 2004 rookie year of (9 games played).  Romo missed 10 games in 2010.  Vick is highly injury-prone with his style of play.  And RGIII is newly absorbing NFL physicality.  He’ll also make common rookie mistakes such as holding the ball too long, or fleeing the pocket too soon…all rookie QBs do.

  • C)  CONTINGENCY PLAN  (Winner: Dallas Cowboys)

Kyle Orton is by far the best back-up of the bunch if replacing the starter is needed in spots or permanently. David Carr (NYG), Rex Grossman (Wash), and Mike Kafka (Phil) do not match up with the ability of Orton. Dallas has a solid chance to win the game at hand if Orton enters in relief.  The others can’t realistically expect the same fortune.

  • D)  OVERALL  (Winner: New York Giants)

Vick has a solid offense and decent blocking, yet the injury factor cannot be overlooked.  RGIII is a rookie and playing with slightly lesser talent around him, and Romo is relying on a questionable interior line to hold the fort.  Eli Manning is playing with roughly the same, talented offense as last year, has least risk of injury, and also an upgraded addition at TE to expand the options.

 

2)  OFFENSIVE SKILL POSITIONS

  • A)  BACKFIELD – RB/FB  (Winner:  Dallas Cowboys)

DeMarco Murray and Lawrence Vickers form a very solid, potent combination in the backfield for Dallas. Bradshaw and Hynoski are a close second with their continuity returning from 2011.

LeSean McCoy is likely the most dangerous running back in the division, but the Eagles are working in an inexperienced fullback with no NFL starts. Washington just doesn’t have the horses in the backfield to keep pace with the rest.

  • B)  WIDE RECEIVER – TOP 3  (Winner:  New York Giants)

With the consistent arm of Manning firing to a solid core of Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz, and Domenik Hixon, I’ll narrowly lean with the Giants here.  Dallas has concerns at the 3rd wide receiver which won’t be fully answered until in regular season action.

Philadelphia has a stout trifecta in DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, and Jason Avant yet they also have a QB that can be inconsistent throwing downfield.  Washington fields a strong bunch with Pierre Garcon, Santana Moss, and Josh Morgan but RGIII is a rookie and none of these guys have played together before now.

  • C)  TIGHT END  (Winner:  Dallas Cowboys)

Jason Witten is hands down the best TE in the division and one of the best in all of the NFL.  While Brent Celek (Phil) is very good, Fred David (Wash) is solid, and even Martellus Bennett (NYG) should flourish in his new offense…none are elite the likes of Witten.

  • D)  OVERALL  (Winner:  Dallas Cowboys)

The offensive line will be a real concern in Dallas, yet this section solely focuses on the complete package of skill players on each offense.  The Cowboys’ skill guys can match up equally or above in player to player comparisons with each team in the division, except possibly at 3rd wide receiver.

 

3)  DEFENSIVE BALANCE

  • A)  RUN DEFENSE  (Winner:  Dallas Cowboys)

Dallas led all NFC East defenses against the run in 2011.  All key players return with the exception of upgrades at inside linebacker, safety, and cornerback.

The front 7 will be more dynamic, the secondary much more aggressive and physical, and the entire unit has had a full off-season to grasp the Ryan defense. Upgrading upon the returning top 10 run defense is a certainty.

  • B)  PASS RUSH  (Winner:  New York Giants)

Led by Justin Tuck, Jason Pierre-Paul, and Osi Uumenyiora the Giants wreak havoc on opposing offenses. All three rival NFC East teams have very solid pass rushing defenses, yet the Giants are unrivaled at applying pressure in combination with sacks.

  • C)  PASS COVERAGE (Winner:  Philadelphia Eagles)

Philadelphia led the NFC East in passing yards allowed and completion percentage against.  The secondary starters return intact which none of the other teams can claim.  With an improved front seven applying pressure, they will only get better.

  • D)  OVERALL  (Winner:  Philadelphia Eagles)

The Eagles have the most complete defense in the division.  The Cowboys, Giants, and Redskins all have the potential to match their success if the cards fall right.  However, each team has minor question marks, while Philadelphia upgraded their only weakness from 2011 and solidified the middle of the front 7.

 

4)  SPECIAL TEAMS

  • A)  KICKER  (Winner:  Dallas Cowboys)

Both Dallas and Philly return second year kickers who killed it during their inaugural season.  Alex Henery led the NFC East with 90% FG accuracy. Dan Bailey was close behind with 87% converted.

The difference here is Bailey made 8 more kicks in 10 more attempts.  Also, Bailey only missed 1 of his 5 misses within 40 yards, Henery missed 2 from that short of range.

Lawrence Tynes is back for the Giants yet he is only a career 81% kicker, 79% in 2011.  Billy Cundiff joins Washington after being cut by Baltimore who favored the talented rookie Justin Tucker (University of Texas) instead.

  • B)  PUNTER  (Winner:  Too Close to call)

Matt McBriar wasn’t offered to return to the Cowboys in 2012, as they chose not to match his contract demands, and the guaranteed $300k involved regardless of outcome.  Chris Jones, the new punter has looked like a gamer for Dallas in the pre-season with 13 punts for a 45 yard average (the same average McBriar punted for over his Dallas career).

Philly is now releasing McBriar and sticking with their 2011 punter, Chas Henry.  The decision to not sign McBriar is panning out nicely for the Boys.  Jones is 10 years younger, costs less, and apparently punting much better than McBriar nowadays.  Nice job.

The Giants return a solid punter in Steve Weatherford who’s fresh off a career year in 2011 with 46 yards average on 82 punts.  Sav Rocca in Washington is a respectable punter, yet may be slightly at the bottom of the pile in this pack.

  • C)  RETURN GAME – Punt / Kick  (Winner:  Dallas Cowboys)

The kick returners within the division are all very close, nobody sticking out enough to crown here. The division leader in the return game now must be decided on punt return superiority.  The tandem of Dez Bryant / Dwayne Harris should prove lethal.

Dez’s unique blend of size/speed is brutally difficult to halt in the open field. Harris was an electric, collegiate returner just two years ago at East Carolina.  With a solid, top 5 defense providing more opportunities than last year, look for these guys to light it up.

  • D)  OVERALL  (Winner:  Dallas Cowboys)

When considering all areas of special teams, the Dallas Cowboys can match up favorably against or surpass every NFC East team in each category.  Special teams is one area the Cowboys have very limited uncertainty in regards to solid, consistent production.  Not to mention special teams coach Joe DeCamillis is widely accepted as one of the best in the business.

 

5)  HEAD COACH PERFORMANCE

  • A)  ANDY REID

Andy Reid is an excellent coach and widely respected throughout the league.  Two possible negatives are he is known to fall short in the biggest post-season contests, and the very recent death of his son in the off-season has to create uncertainty of where his mindset is.  Could be a boost in motivation or could be a large burden of internal turbulence.

  • B)  JASON GARRETT

Garrett’s  novice head coaching blunders last year were very public and as embarrassing as damaging.  Questionable play calling in key situations and mismanagement of the clock were a serious area of criticism in Cowboys circles.

Has he learned from his mistakes and will he make better decisions in crucial moments?  I say somewhat, yet also have to believe the past mistakes were so elementary that I have to question his understanding of a few aspects of play-calling and time strategy.

  • C)  MIKE SHANAHAN

Color me highly unimpressed with the demeanor and roster management the once revered coach has displayed in Washington.  He seems like a different guy than who he was in Denver.  Is RGIII his savior and the one who brings out the best in Shanahan?  Maybe in time, but a rookie QB and questionable offensive personnel will not provide a miracle resurrection in 2012.

  • D)  TOM COUGHLIN

The reigning Superbowl champion head coach is looking to solve the complex obstacles that make repeating so incredibly elusive in the modern day NFL.  In my opinion we observed the best possible version of Coughlin last season.  When the going gets real tough at some point in the season, and it will in this division, he won’t be able to locate the same effective motivation and answers he pulled out of his hat last year.

  • E)  OVERALL  (Winner:  Philadelphia Eagles)

Andy Reid is my solid choice in this category.  Coughlin will be in repeat mode and his coaching style doesn’t mesh well with that scenario.  Garrett and Shanahan still have large question marks when analyzing personnel, play-calling, and time management.  Neither is up there with Reid or Coughlin.

Even without the death of his son, Reid would be the pick.  However, this tragedy will be a strong bonding ingredient between the coach and his players.  What did the Eagles sorely miss from the early part of the season last year? Team unity, hands down.  The progress by the end of the season was impressive.  The Eagles’ off-season upgrades and Reid’s family tragedy will push them towards a closer bunch that finally gels as a team.

 

FINAL NFC EAST PREDICTIONS:

  1. Philadelphia Eagles (12-4)
  2. Dallas Cowboys (9-7)
  3. New York Giants (8-8)
  4. Washington Redskins (7-9)

 

When analyzing all aspects of this Eagles team, the only real weakness I see being a roadblock to a deep playoff run is the health of Michael Vick.  If Vick misses more than a few games, all bets are off.  And as we all know from the past, this possibility is certainly prominent.  Mike Kafka won’t get it done in relief, nor will the rookie Nick Foles.

However, the talented balance of their offense will allow for Vick to spread it out more if Reid wants him to tone down the risk-assuming plays.  The defense will be improved up the middle and will allow for the offense to control time of possession on most occasions.  To me, this team is the most complete in the division and will make a run at the NFC Conference Championship.

The Giants will complicate the division scene for most of the season yet I feel they will fall a tad short of the Boys.  The 2011 high motivation will be lacking and the secondary will cause them issues.  They will split the season series with Dallas, yet will also be a game behind with a brutal schedule as well…3rd place and no return to the post-season for NY.

Washington is just not ready to be a major player in the division.  RGIII will have to learn the ropes while also showing he is special.  The Redskins defense is solid.  There are still question marks with the o-line and at running back.  Also, the new receivers just aren’t as talented as being touted.

Last but not least, I just don’t feel Shanahan has it anymore.  Nothing he has done in Washington has made me take notice in a positive manner, quite the opposite.  While his horses may have gotten a little better, it won’t make that much of a difference with the level of play being so high in the division.

 

 

2012-13 DALLAS COWBOYS:

The Dallas Cowboys’ likely fate still remains a mystery at the moment.  There’s no doubt they will win a minimum of 8 games this season.  The talent is dripping all over the field.  Yet there are also a few key holes still looming very late in the summer.  If they are left as is, it will cost Dallas a serious playoff run.

The defense will be a force allowing Romo and the offense more opportunities to score and navigate shorter fields.   Third wide receiver is starting to be less of a concern and may have the potential to chip in 600 yards or so by committee.  Yet they will be a grade below Laurent Robinson, especially if needed to start.

The two areas that likely will keep the Cowboys from exploding onto the scene and turning the corner are the offensive line uncertainty, and a still inexperienced head coach with highly questionable decision making a year ago.  Also, the harsh schedule does the Boys no favors.   Depending on several factors, this team could finish as low as 8-8 or high as 11-5.

I’ll go with 9-7 and battling tooth and nail for the final wild card spot.  Interior offensive line uncertainty won’t allow me to predict over 9 wins and feel content.  If Dallas picks up a veteran upgrade at center following final cuts on Friday, then by all means add two more wins to that 9 and a definite playoff berth.  Center, Jerry, center…yes, it’s that important, promise.

 

 

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